A first-time contemporary cruise, we were not sure what to expect after having read the mixed reviews on many websites. After the cruise experience, I can tell you we were delighted!! Our trip was the 11 night Panama Canal cruise.
Embarkation and disembarkation: Somewhat impersonal and crowded, but the only time during the entire cruise we were even cognizant of crowds. Enjoyed watching those with no patience go nuclear -- mostly without cause -- and observed with mild bemusement.
Cabin: Small, but surprisingly did not feel cramped. Don't know if we would have felt the same without a balcony -- deemed a necessity. The usual complaint about the shower curtain and the small shower, and I have no idea how many of the passengers were able to fit. If a large person, guess the shower is a 2-step process.
Ship ambiance: Extremely clean, and very comfortable. If you opted for activities, there was always something going on, but even then, you could be far enough away to experience and still feel "private".
Food: As would be expected for food prepared for "the masses", it ranged from bland to outstanding. No meals were unpalatable, and some were outstanding. Dinner each night featured a cuisine from a different region of Italy, and is definitely worth exploring. Without fail, the soups, the appetizers, and the desserts were outstanding. We never really hit the buffet line (except for breakfast), as its cuisine was not as tempting. The Pizzas on the pool deck are among the best I've ever had.
Service: The service across the board was quite good. We openly engaged our support staff in conversation, and found that most were quite willing to share their views, recommendations, and genuinely "opened up" when you showed interest. Our dinner server -- Sergiu -- was one of the highlights, as he not only was personable and engaging, he took the time to learn our dining preferences. Every night he commented on what he thought would be our favorites, and he was always right. He went out of his way to customize dishes as much as he could, and the ritual of his dessert preparation was always a surprise. He made sure that our beverages were at our table (in many cases, just as we were seated), and although he was covering a large area, we always felt "special". Our cabin steward was outstanding as well, meeting our requests for extra robes and blankets, and each night the bed was turned down in a different creative manner.
Entertainment: I mirror the opinions of many in telling you that the shows were outstanding. Truly Vegas-quality, we went to almost every one. The theater was quite comfortable, and seating was never a problem or issue. The on-board entertainment team was always prevalent, and their enthusiasm and humor were contagious.
Excursions: We booked 2 through the cruise ship (Costa Maya and Panama), and they were acceptable. In Costa Rica and Colombia we "did our own thing", and this is what I would recommend. You get a much better feel of the country and its people, and at no time did we feel threatened or even mildly uncomfortable. I would highly suggest that you find another couple on the cruise and share a van or cab -- better price, more customization, and something memorable.
Ports: Costa Maya: What you would expect for a port built away from everything. Did the beach (not a great one, but we are used to Caribbean beaches)and the shopping was what you would expect.
Puerto Limon: Kind of depressing, as the town looks like it has seen better days. Shopping was OK, but we landed on Sunday and many things were closed. We wound up hiring a cab, and had a great tour of the area. Our cab and guide were very proud of their country, and the people we encountered were all happy to share their country's highlights.
Cristobal: The only rainy day, we did the tour of the Gatun Lock and Portobelo. The canal was amazing!! Portobelo is an old village on the coast with an old church and a couple of battlements. Did not really gain a feel for the country from the bus, but worthwhile.
Santa Marta: The biggest and most pleasant surprise. We negotiated with a cab-driver/tour guide, and customized our 4 hour excursion. The fishing village of Tacanga was delightful, and the tour of the city of Santa Marta and surrounding area was quite good. We walked among the shops in a suburban area, and toured the "new" resort area just to the West -- worth a return trip. A gorgeous and historical downtown area, and the people were all very proud of their country.
Curacao: Sad to say, we exhausted ourselves shopping, and did not take the time to explore. The shopping on the "side streets" was better than the front-line, and the people were personable. We passed on dinner on the ship, and had a grilled steak at El Toro next to the ship. Definitely worth it. Have also been told of a great French restaurant at the fort (near the "mega pier"). Will probably return.
Cayo Levantado: Very nice island, with beautiful beaches. The day was not extremely sunny, so we only stayed for a little while. Did not touch the "mainland", but have been to D.R. previously.
Passengers: Am going to guess that 60-70% were over the age of 70, and maybe 40-50% were from Europe. Made for interesting conversation and people-watching, but NOT the cruise for partiers. Very few children, which made for a relaxing cruise.
Overall, was impressed with the efforts of MSC and particularly its people. Although the seas were rough for much of the cruise, we NEVER felt it.
Highlights: Sergiu, balinese massage (worth the price, SottoVento Lounge (caiparinhas and cigarettes), hair salon, balcony, gymnasium, shows, overall experience.
Lowlights: Some of the impatient people (passengers), shower size