MSC Lirica Cruise, Feb 11-22 2007
As an American who is not afraid to try new things, I looked forward to cruising on a truly Italian cruise ship. Although open-minded, I do have certain expectations about cruising. Some of these MSC met and even exceeded, but many came up short of the mark. First, this was a cruise in the Caribbean. Virtually nothing about the cruise was Caribbean, no reggae or steel bands, no island décor or cuisine. The music was largely old Italian standards or familiar old standards from American-Italian music icons of the 50's. It was apparent MSC Mediterranean cruise ships were moved to the Caribbean with no attempt to adopt the spirit of the region. The beverage servers wore blue flower pattern shirts, and there was a minimally decorated "tropical" night, the only nods to the Caribbean theme.
Guests - I would guess that nearly ½ of the guests were European, for whom the cruise was most likely more familiar, if not more satisfying. Advice to MSC - market your cruises solely to Europeans and not the American market. Both Americans and Europeans would be better served.
Embarkation - my new bride and I were among the first arrivals at the Pier in Ft. Lauderdale, and embarkation was a breeze. We were personally escorted to our cabin, and had our luggage delivered and everything stowed by 3:30PM.
The cabin - we booked one of the 100+ balcony cabins on the Lirica. The room was wonderful, plenty of storage, a walk-in closet, tasteful decorations, well cleaned and maintained. There were only 2 complaints. The bed and pillow were hard by American standards, and the attractive shower/tub combination was annoying because it was so narrow and tricky to get in and out of, as it was quite deep. I was constantly engaged in intimate battles with the shower curtain. The cabin steward was too invisible, although the room was always tended well. This was the first cruise where we were not able to establish a relationship with the cabin attendant.
Entertainment - The showroom entertainment was just dreadful. We endured 3 evening performances but found the production, costuming and choreography to be of low-budget vaudeville quality. Think bad Benny Hill. Infrequent ship announcements in 5 languages were no bother, but the same during entertainment became painful.
Pool deck - There were 2 small pools, but plenty of lounge chairs with very cool sun shade covers. There were the usual staff-led activities, dancing, exercise, and horseplay.
Interior - The ship was attractively decorated, and easy to navigate. The deck plan was simple and efficient. Public rest rooms were scarce and hard to find.
Lounges - there were plenty of lounges, but music was very disappointing. Except for the disco (which we didn't explore), the music was nearly all European cabaret style, and the hours were brief, including a strange music blackout from 8PM - 9PM daily. Forget enjoying a couple of hours listening to jazz, pop or country, it just wasn't offered.
Shore excursions - Typical choices were available, and the costs were normally inflated cruise ship prices. It was rather frustrating that the times of the tours were not known until the night before; so much for planning. Finally, the itinerary attracted us to this cruise, but over ½ of the ports of call were either ½ days or time shifted (ex: noon to 8PM). This severely limited one's ability to explore a destination on one's own.
Dining - It was clear that MSC wants to improve their dining experience; there were company management types observing staff at work at nearly every meal, and a second-time cruising couple claims MSC fired their entire dining staff the previous winter. The problem is three-fold. Consistency, convenience and congeniality. With the exception of some of their South-Eastern Asian staff, hardly anyone smiled or engaged with their guests. Many were clearly just going through the motions and did not appear to enjoy their work. The staff was not trained well, and had no positive role models among the mostly Italian supervisory staff. Salvatore, the dining supervisor in our area, would occasionally greet us, but rarely with a smile. His only conversation with us was to encourage us to give the dining staff an excellent rating, and let him know if there were any problems that would prevent this.
Dining onboard was not convenient. There were just 2 seatings, 5:45PM and 8:00PM, and the dining room was always busy and noisy. The reason for the large crowds at dinner was simple and astonishing. There were no other evening dining options! The casual restaurant was open only for breakfast and lunch buffets. You could get a burger or pizza at many times of the day in the outdoor area, but that hardly passes as a meal. So, if you got back to the ship too late for your 5:45PM seating, or wished to opt-out of formal night (there were 3), you were out of luck. There was room service, but that offered an extremely limited menu unless you were willing to pay for 6 more options. Coffee and a croissant do not make a satisfying meal. Lunch hours varied each day, but were generally noon to 2PM at either the casual or formal seating restaurants. If you missed this time window, it was burgers, hot dogs or pizza. By the way, the pizza consisted of no more than 3 choices, none familiar to American pizza fans. There were other snack food choices around the ship, but they were not complimentary. Ice cream was not free nor were beverages at the non-alcoholic bar.
Having said that, unless you napped through the limited meal times, you got plenty to eat. The overall quality of food was good, but not what you'd get on other cruise lines, even Carnival. Consistency was a real problem. Among the MSC cruise reviews I have read, I have seen comments contending that there is a different dinner menu every day with plenty of choices, and other reviews complaining that the food was the same day after day. Oddly, both are correct. Indeed, everyday there were at least 3 unique entrée choices as well as the same number of everyday choices on the menu. There was a different seafood choice each day, but often prepared the same way. The difference between sole with tomato sauce and whitefish with tomato sauce is largely semantic. Each day's menu showed a different potato - home fries, country-style fried, parley potatoes, rosemary potatoes, etc. What was actually served? Especially if you ordered the seafood entrée, the exceedingly boring whole white boiled peeled plain potato (which we dubbed the WWBPPP). After 5 days of this, I informed the waiter that if another WWBPPP was delivered instead of the potato on the menu, I would take it to the kitchen and throw it at the head chef. After that, I began getting the menu potato, but later did have to send back a WWBPPP. If 5 people at the same table ordered the same entrée, it was unlikely that any 2 would look exactly alike. We often had missing side items or bizarre substitutions. One of us would get our salad in a small bowl and the other, the same salad on a large plate. The same dessert might be served in a sherbet glass or on a sauce dish.
Adding to the dining room chaos was the presence of table-side waiter stations where we were treated to the clatter of plates, lids, etc. and entertained by waiters playing musical food items in an attempt to have the course being presented to the customer resemble what was ordered. Course dishes were brought from the kitchen 12 at a time, and then the melee would begin. More than once we had to ask for water refills, and I was never offered fresh cracked pepper in 11 days, although I saw at least one pepper grinder go by.
Lunch at the casual buffet was dull at best. After 3 days, the octopus stew lost it's novelty with me. Casual breakfast was also the same every day, and English muffins, for instance, would be split, un-split, toasted or untoasted or missing entirely on any given day.
Perhaps Europeans can take this level of service in stride. We can't, especially knowing what is offered on other cruise lines. I could go on and on with examples, but let me end this review with this summation. We don't blame the staff, we blame management for a poor experience. The staff worked hard, but not smart. The food delivery systems and schedules don't work. And finally, we will never take MSC cruises again, and cannot recommend them.