We embarked with the first group of passengers and it was the easiest process I have ever encountered. We were onboard by 12:30 and escorted to our cabin by a white-gloved steward who carried one of our bags. We were completely unpacked, with everything stowed, by 3:30. What a delight! We were able to eat a relaxed lunch, explore the ship, and become comfortable before we sailed at 7:00. The disappointment was that there was no band playing island music to welcome passengers. One of the best parts of a cruise is that first moment of realization that you're headed for sunny days in the tropics, with a fruity drink in your hand and steel drums in your ears. We missed that.
The ship was sparkling clean all the time and they had liberal opportunities for hand sanitizer use. It was provided when boarding from every port, at the beginning of the buffet lines, and other places. We booked a balcony cabin and it was worth every penny. We spent a lot of time there just watching the ocean and the flying fish or the ports as we came and left. The cabin was unbelievably roomy and even had a walk-in closet. There was more storage than we could use. Bath towels were large and thick, as were hand towels, but face cloths were thin and many seemed stained or discolored. There was a bathtub that was deep and quite narrow. I thought it might work well for soaking, but it was too small. MSC furnished shampoo, body wash, and bubble bath, but no lotion or hair conditioner. Two thick terry bathrobes were provided for us—how nice! One issue was that the beds and pillows were hard as bricks. I was unable to sleep and spent a couple nights on the small sofa before I finally bought a pillow in one of the ports.
This first day at sea found everyone on the deck soaking up sun, as you would expect. There were ample numbers of deck chairs, with at least a few available almost all the time. We were surprised that there were no wandering waiters carrying the drink of the day. That was a lost opportunity for revenue! There were three formal nights on this cruise; the first was the first day at sea. It was the usual captain's welcome with photo ops with him, cocktail party, and so on. There was no special menu in the dining room. The second formal night featured duck l'orange and the third had both lobster and prime rib. We had early seating and saw only a handful of men in tuxes. Many couples seemed to have forgone the formal dress completely.
Our second day was also at sea. We began with a honeymoon breakfast (champagne, fruit, and cookies) provided by my husband's company. The room steward (Odette) did a wonderful job setting it up the night before. One of the reasons for the balcony cabin was our intention to enjoy frequent leisurely breakfasts there. We were disappointed at the confusing room service menu, a situation complicated by the difficulty in finding anyone who spoke English well enough to explain it. There were few breakfast items, primarily coffee and pastries, and they were available only between 7:30 and 10:30 am. There was a more extensive but still limited "elite" menu available 24 hours, for which we could pay additional. None of these items seemed like breakfast fare. If there were other items available without charge, we were unable to locate information about them. We ended up not trying room service at all; in retrospect, perhaps a mistake.
The third day of the cruise was Valentine's Day and the ship was brightly decorated with balloons and hearts, one of the few whimsical touches throughout the cruise. The day also provided our first port, San Juan. We toured on our own there, including a ferry to a public bus to the free Bacardi rum plant tour. It was disappointing in that the tour was mostly history, not actually the distillery. But it included two free drinks and the rum prices at the company store are amazingly cheap. We returned to the ferry pier via taxi.
At other ports (St. Maarten, Grenada, Barbados, St. Lucia, Tortola, Cayo Levantado) we split between MSC shore excursions and our own wanderings. MSC does an outstanding job in handling the language differences for shore excursions. Each tour bus had a different language! This required a huge amount of coordination, which they handled deftly. We didn't learn when or where to meet for excursions until the night before, but the upside of that was that no time was wasted waiting endlessly in lounges. We departed promptly, usually within about 10 minutes of the meeting time. That was a wonderful change from the normal 30-60 minutes many cruise lines require. Shore excursion content was mediocre. Little specialized was offered: most seemed to be 75-80% bus (or boat or trolley) rides, with inadequate shopping and exploring time but always a snack and/or beverage.
This might be a good time to comment on the entertainment onboard. We found the shows to be boring and amateurish. What they billed as Broadway was more like Vaudeville. We saw a unicyclist, a woman performing with hula hoops, a knife thrower, a magician, etc. Their dancers were slim and attractive, but the choreography was boring and the costumes were straight out of a catalog, bearing little relationship to the theme of the numbers in which they were worn. The ship had a very good tenor who performed a few times, once with a pianist in a short classical concert. Hosts of all the shows presented the introduction and monologue in five languages. That was amazing and a nice touch, but it did get a bit long. Songs, what few there were, were sung in a variety of languages. My best estimate is that the passengers were about 35% American, with the remainder Canadian or European.We take pleasure in music and cocktails after dinner in the evening, and this ship had an unfathomable total absence of music anywhere on the ship from 8-9 pm. For that hour we were left to sit in silence, wander the shops (yet again), or I suppose, patronize the casino. (We did not visit that at all.) This diminished our experience considerably. Music, when it was offered, was strictly European in taste. The pool deck band was 3 pieces, including an accordion. We never heard them play island music, but we did hear polkas. The lounge dance band was also a trio, with a female singer who was quite good. Again, the choice of songs was not American taste. The other dance area had two different (1 male and 1 female) contemporary versions of a 1-man band: an elaborate keyboard arrangement sitting atop a grand piano. The music wasn't bad for coming from synthesizers. There was music in the smoking lounge, but we did not visit there. The piano lounge that was our favorite had a talented pianist who unfortunately played the same elevator music night after night. A greater variety would have been nice.
Food: This could absorb several pages all on its own. I'll try to keep it short. The food was okay, but no better than that. Most offerings were, again, European in nature. Hours that food was available at all were surprisingly limited, and exacerbated by the previously mentioned room service. The formal dining room was open for all three meals every day. Coffee was available at 6:00 am, buffet breakfast from 6:30-10:30. Buffet choices were the same every day and the only egg options were scrambled (powdered) or boiled. The first few days of the cruise offered small boxes of six or eight varieties of cold cereal, but they were soon replaced by four unlabelled varieties of cold cereal stored in large self-serve vending appliances. About day 5 we discovered a small unadvertised station that offered French toast, custom omelets, and pancakes. By the end of the cruise, the lines there were long, as it was small and had only one chef.
Lunch was usually not offered anywhere until 12:00 noon and was closed at 2:00. The only exception was the pizza station, open 10:30 to 8:00. Although we heard great things about the pizza, we found varieties limited and not well stocked. There was also a burger and hot dog station that offered one casserole each day. The lunch buffet, like breakfast, also had essentially the same offerings each day. Build-your-own-salad items were quite limited compared to US salad bars and included more onions than I ever want to see again. The odor was overwhelming.
Dinner was available only in the formal dining room, with the pizza and burger exceptions. Sometimes a late shore excursion left us not wanting to dress for dinner and the dining room did not allow shorts. The absence of a buffet at dinnertime was a real blow. The menu in the dining room seemed to have a nice variety, but we felt like we were eating the same thing each evening. Too much was the same; the preparation methods were too similar; something was just not what it should have been. We tired of braised endive and white fish with tomato sauce. After the fourth straight night of a naked whole boiled potato appearing on our plates in place of the menued potato, we told our waiter we never wanted to see another one. (That didn't help.) On the positive side, the ship offered a half-liter of very drinkable house red or white wine for only $8.
A few isolated details are worth noting: Water is free only in the dining areas. In the buffet, the glasses are tiny, perhaps 5-6 oz., and we grew weary of refilling. In the dining room, we had to constantly request water refills. After the second day, the waiter and assistant should have been aware. Happily, our room had a pitcher along with the ice bucket and glasses and we kept it filled with ice water.
That said, this is the only cruise on which I have not developed a warm relationship with the wait staff. On other cruises I would happily have taken home the waiter and assistant, but on this cruise they were professionally attendant and no more. The same was true of our cabin steward, Odette. We didn't meet her for three days and then only because we virtually stalked her in the hallway. Several times she and her assistant, who appeared to be a trainee, cleaned the room even though we left out the privacy sign. The trainee apparently was in charge of the bathroom, which was not always spotless, and sometimes our used towels were refolded and stacked as new. Ick!
One morning the automatic window cleaners moved through the deck above at 9 am. We were having coffee on the balcony and had to dive inside to avoid being drenched. About 15 minutes later it passed across our balcony, rendering it too wet to use for hours.
I went to the salon/fitness center only once; I booked a manicure (overpriced at $39). The salon was not at all busy, having only two haircut clients for the hour I was there, both of whom were crew members. I was disappointed with the experience. Although she muddled through it, I don't think my technician normally gave manicures. She didn't apply the hot towels I was told were part of the service, nor did she apply a top coat to the nail color. The next day I was left with several hangnails.
Overall, the primary element missing from this cruise was the Caribbean. There was nothing on the ship that would indicate where we were cruising. There was no island music, no island food (jerk chicken or pork, curry, fish with citrus or mango salsa, etc.), little fresh fruit except pineapple and melons (which is the "winter mix" in most restaurants), and no fresh flowers anywhere (artificial arrangements were barely maintained). Tropical cocktails were available at the bars and many of the pool deck staff wore the same blue and white tropical shirts every day, but the Caribbean ambiance simply was not there. That was a huge disappointment. If MSC wants to be successful in the Caribbean market, it must recognize how important that is.