I should start with a statement that I am not new to cruising and have been on many, many other cruises with various cruise lines. I normally cruise RCCL or one of the other major lines and I took a chance and tried the MSC Armonia (in March 2007) to attempt to expand my horizons. Unfortunately, I was not at all impressed. In fact, this was the first and last cruise that I will ever take on MSC's cruise lines. Details are provided in the requested categories below:
The ship layout is extremely poorly organized. Normally things like the infirmary or "crew only" areas are located in the bowels of the ship and the restaurants are located either in the front or back of the ship to avoid disruptions... This was not the case on the Armonia. I had a supposedly "upgraded" room on the 7th deck, which also housed the infirmary and other "Crew only" areas, which were blocked to passengers. This meant that in order to cross from one side of the deck to the other (where a lounge was), I had to go up or down a floor, across the middle of the ship, and up the stairs to the lounge. This is very inconvenient - especially for those folks who are unable to use stairs easily. Our restaurant was also located in the middle of the ship on the 5th deck, so the same issue above applied, where one was required to go and up down to go straight across. This is very annoying.
Furthermore, the room numbers are not consistently used amongst decks. When we boarded the boat, it took us several up and down tries before we got to the right room because room 7107 was in a different position on the ship than was 5107, 6107, or 8107.
I also found that while the ship was mostly kept in a cleanly fashion, the public ladies rooms were a major exception. During the multiple trips made, I found that they were often dirty or messy, often with undesirable "surprises" on the floor and toilet equipment.
As an English speaker, I was extremely surprised that English was not widely spoken amongst the ship's staff. Although the cruise line is supposedly an Italian one, not everyone speaks Italian. Those that don't often speak at minimum English; therefore, the staff (especially in key areas - cabin service, restaurants/bars, reception, excursions, and accounting) should have a good grasp of the English language. I did not find this the case and found myself often relying on another language to communicate.
I was also surprised at the lack of customer service skills by the staff at the reception, accounting, excursions, and bar staff... On most cruises, the staff bend over backwards to provide superb service because they know that their tips will increase when better service is provided. Because the ship has a one-tip-for-everyone policy, the service levels significantly suffer (tips are automatically shared to the credit bill and the ship divvies the monies amongst all of the staff). Even the usually very attentive wait staff and cabin attendants were forgetful and not so prompt because they had no extra incentive to do so.
Another particular sore point is that the "reception" staff collected all of the passports for non-EU citizens for immigration authorizations and did not return them until the boat returned to the dock in Venice. This is extremely uncomfortable and unusual. Other cruise lines arrange for immigration authorities to be present as you enter/exit a particular location and inspections/authorizations are done on an individual level and passports returned immediately. I think the confiscation of the passports was in fact dangerous because if a person were to require identification at any of the port locations, he/she would not be able to provide sufficient documentation to the local authorities (and could potential get into a great deal of trouble or be subject to stiff fines and penalties). This is also evidence of very insecure operations - if authorities are only stamping passports and viewing the person at the same time, there is a high risk of fraudulent behavior occurring.
Travel to Port of Embarkation, Embarkation, and Disembarkation
Two words - absolutely AWFUL!
At the airport, the shuttle service was rather disorganized and not timely. After collecting all appropriate passengers at the terminal exit, we were directed to a side area and asked to wait a few moments for the bus. A few moments turned into more than an hour because the bus had not yet arrived (or even left from the port).
Assuming that a noon arrival would leave us at least 3 hours to explore the beautiful city of Venice, we were very sorely disappointed and upset because the check process took more than 3 1/2 hours (other guests that arrived later complained of even longer wait times)! We arrived at the terminal, were assigned bag tags, and our luggage was hauled away for a security check and loading/delivery. We were then cattle-herded to the check-in area only to discover a mass of people crowded in what was supposed to be a line. As we progressed through the line, we were told that we first needed a number (which would be used for the security procedure) before we could proceed to the check-in counter. After waiting and finally passing through the checkout, we found out that the number that was supposed to help smooth out the security process was abandoned (because people were still in the check-in line when their number was called for the security one). Needless to say, by the time we actually boarded the ship, it was 3:30 PM, and we were starving. After having a quick lunch in the buffet restaurant, we no longer had enough time for visiting the Venice city center.
The disembarkation process was equally slow. Since we missed out on a pre-cruise visit, we wanted to go after the cruise. The cruise line would absolutely not let us leave the boat with the early departures, so we were forced to wait in a public lounge for 4 hours (until noontime) before being permitted to disembark. By the time I got my luggage situated, I only had 1 1/2 hours to explore the city before leaving for the airport.
The rooms were typical of that on a cruise. Always small with a miniscule bathroom unless in a suite. The same applies here.
As mentioned above, the service was a little slow, but I think that this is a reflection of the tipping policy. The cruise personnel have no incentive to provide extraordinary service.
The service was just OK. Nothing extraordinary (see notes on tipping policy). On other cruise lines, the wait staff usually figures out your personal quirks and caters toward them. This did not occur on this boat.
The food quality was "edible." Nothing spectacular. The same for the menu selection. I wasn't too impressed.
This cruise line differed from others in that not all food and non-alcoholic drinks (tea, juice, water, etc.) were free. At breakfast, tea, coffee, and watery juice were provided free of charge, but not at other times during the day. If you wanted a tea/coffee after 10AM, you had to order one from a bar and pay for it. At dinner, if you wanted water to drink, you had to buy a bottle of mineral water. Tap water was not available/offered or provided.
In addition, most cruise ships have food available 24/7 (either via public areas or room service). This was not the case for the Armonia. If you didn't visit a public restaurant/buffet during the published hours or order breakfast in your room the evening before, food was only available at the bars for a fee. There was also an ice cream station, which was a charge-able item (these are usually service-service and free on other cruise lines). Room service was not available at the spur of the moment and was not available for meals other than breakfast (ordered before 10PM the previous evening).
I was also a little shocked to see the previous day's leftovers blatantly served in the buffet for lunch and dinner. Sometimes, the dining room staff would create melees, which were often disgusting. One particular experience was regarding green beans cooked in mint herbs (which tasted like toothpaste coated beans-yuck!), which were combined with mixed vegetables flavored with garlic and a cream/mayo sauce - really disgusting!
I was surprised to see a great deal of children (all ages) on the boat; however, we don't have children and cannot comment on the facilities.
Activities & Entertainment
This was another very disappointing area. There were very few activities planned and never more than one at the same time. The activity listing and time schedule was never more than 5-7 lines long for the entire day. Oftentimes, an activity would be listed as "Games - 2:00-5:00 - Deck xyz."
The evening entertainment was even more disappointing - the shows lasted only 30 mins and were all nearly the same. On the first evening, we ordered a beer at the show and the beer lasted longer than the show! Furthermore, the entertainers were really lacking. Specifically, one of the female singers was like listening to an out-of-tune/off-pitch karaoke singer.
Very strange - ships generally make a great deal of money from the shops. The shops on board the Armonia were completely empty (nothing on the shelves) until the third day of the cruise. Even afterwards, the shop staff was stocking the shelves, so there was little to browse/buy. When they were open (during sea voyages), they weren't open very long, which is also odd.
For starters, there was not a very big selection of tours offered at the ports - 2-3 per port max. Moreover, because the selection was so small, people opted to go at the cities alone and then the tours were cancelled.
On another topic, with the exception of the Venice tours (which were cancelled due to not enough participants), a tour isn't really needed. In both Bari and Kotor, the boat docked within short walking distance to the "old city" or touristy areas, so a tour was not necessary. In Dubrovnik, the cruise offered an over-priced shuttle bus to the city-center, and casual browsing was then simple. Unless you are one of those people who need an explanation for every statue and wall sconce, tours in these cities would be a waste of money. A ship-provided map or good tour book and a comfortable pair of walking shoes are all that were needed to enjoy each of these cities.