This is a review from my cruise aboard the MSC Armonia in January 2005. We sailed seven days from Rio de Janeiro to Salvador and back. The Armonia continues to ply these So American waters so for anyone thinking about booking this line, my advice is to do some homework first. As detailed below, this was a horrible cruise, although in fairness to MSC I have heard that the Armonia experience outside of Brazil is not as bad. It could hardly be worse.
I have been on over 50 cruises, on just about all cruise lines. Given this extensive experience I consider myself knowledgeable. I had no axe to grind with MSC. This was by far the worst cruise I have been on. Although time has passed since I sailed this review will still be relevant especially to those in the southern hemisphere as the ship continues this So American run.
Since we sailed over the New Year, prices might have been somewhat higher than usual. An inside cabin cost about $300 per day per couple. I can usually get outside cabins on mass market lines like HAL, Carnival and RCCL for that or less. Per diem prices for cruises in Brazilian waters are uniformly higher than in most other areas of the world.
EMBARKATION - BAD FIRST IMPRESSION
Embarkation was special. Somehow we didn't make it on to the passenger list and were refused boarding. A person who I later learned was an MSC land agent tried to help us prove our entitlement to board. Things were frantic and when, out of curiosity (and concern for our bags which he had put aside out of our eyesight) I asked him who he was he told me to "f" myself. This was overheard by MSC staff at the boarding desk, but to my disbelief, no one seemed to care, much less apologize. Subsequently, I learned that it was the chief housekeeper, a senior officer, who had heard this exchange. He later bought me a bottle of wine for my troubles. At her request, I submitted a detailed memo of the outrageous incident to the Hotel Mgr demanding an apology from the MSC agent. When I wrote the home office for a status, it said my memo was lost and I was asked to resubmit it. I did and it went unanswered. DINING and SERVICE
Without regard to price, the food was horrendous. The only free breakfast available from room service was a continental one of bread and coffee. Other room service breakfast items came with a charge. There was also a charge for all other room service snacks. The breakfast buffet consisted mainly of scrambled and hard boiled eggs only -- no omelet station, no waffles or pancakes -- sometimes accompanied by reheated hot dogs, greasy bacon or unappetizing cold cuts. The majority of the fruit offerings were canned. Can you imagine that in Brasil where there are fabulous exotic fruits so widely available that they served mostly canned fruit? Unbelievable. Breads were not much better. Only white toast was served -- forget English muffins or bagels. The juice was like Kool-aid. There was a fresh juice (and ice cream) bar, but it was closed because, I was told, it was not profitable. There was no variety from one day to the next.
The lunch buffet was not much better. It seemed like the food was recycled. The desserts were bad. As Italians, they ought to be ashamed of what they tried to pass off as pizza. It was worse than any improperly cooked frozen pizza I ever tasted (and I was a bachelor for a long time). They served poor quality hot dogs and hamburgers at the poolside grill. There was no option for a cheeseburger or veggie-burger, nor was there any relish, pickles or a normal variety of condiments available. Food handlers often were not wearing gloves, so it didn't come as a total surprise when I got sick the last day of the cruise.
Curiously, in the buffet lines and at the grill there are no food trays, one is required to carry a single large plate and put everything on it, including utensils and drinks. This was quite challenging for even the most dexterous of passengers. The situation was exacerbated by the absence of any servers to assist carrying items. Forget about service. The waiters were there to clear the tables, nothing else. Talk about laid back European service. My wife and I played cards for four hours one afternoon at a poolside table on deck, and no one ever came by to ask if we wanted a drink.
Dinner in the main dining room was bad. Service vacillated between inept and surly. I attribute the poor service to dining room management. An incident that occurred right after embarkation provided a harbinger of things to come. Through no fault of our own, we were not provided with a dining room seating assignment. I called the Reception Desk to get one, but I was told (after some delay and a couple of follow-up calls) I would have to go to the dining room to get one. Consequently, I had to wait in line approximately one hour just to get a table assignment. Not to change one, but to get one. Though service was lackluster, it was nowhere near as bad as the food itself. In keeping with the ship's Italian origin pasta was served every day which is fine, but it was offered with only the same mundane tomato sauce each and every day. Bread sticks and rolls were ordinary - there was no bread tray. Soups all tasted the same no matter what they were called. The food was over-salted. On one occasion the meat was as tough as shoe leather. On another a fish offering came with some of the scales still clinging to the fish! Some dishes were downright inedible. My tablemates concurred.
The ship's cast of dancers (who doubled as the animation team) were OK as performers, but the production values of the shows were poor. The costumes, lighting, props and decor were all amateurish. Music in the lounges was very limited and ordinary at best. We like to dance and have a cocktail before dinner, and we couldn't find a decent spot to do so.
There was no functioning library or card room. On the last day, the library was open one hour. It had only a small selection of English paperbacks, probably left behind by passengers, and one Spanish-language Scrabble set.
The "animation" team had a field day because there were oodles of children on board. MSC must have been offering a special kids free type promotion. So the lounges were chock-a-block with kiddies screaming and running about. They and there parents may have enjoyed it, but there was little adult dancing, etc.
We ventured into the disco a couple of nights and I was shocked to hear the gross rap music lyrics that came out over the loud speakers. It was in bad taste, but the deejay was oblivious.
There were no port lectures or presentations of any kind in any language. We have grown accustomed to skipping almost all ship excursions as I find that they are overpriced and/or geared to a less active person. Those offered by the Armonia were no exception. Generally , one can arrange a better tour with a local cabbie at dockside. Which we did at Salvador, Ilheus and Buzios. We did not go shore in Santos ( Sao Paolo's port).
The Armonia is a compact 58,000 gt, but accommodates about 2100 passengers owing to the tiny cabins, compact dining and public rooms, a small casino, no library/card room to speak of and bizarrely spaced shops. All cabins and public rooms and furnishings appeared clean and well maintained though a bit spartan. The pool area with buffet restaurant was typical except for a large eyesore of a rock climbing wall that was sealed off. The gymnasium was adequate. There was a charge to use the saunas - a first in my experience.
The cabins were smallish at 144 sq. ft., but had adequate storage space, some of which would have been better devoted to making the uncomfortably tiny shower larger. There was a small refrigerator - good for keeping your own drinks cold, although the price of drinks aboard was reasonable. TV in the rooms advertised pay movies, but none ( pay or non-pay) were available at any time throughout the cruise. There was not much programming at any time, though we did get CNN for a while one day. The cabin attendant provided the best (in fact, the only) decent service. An oasis in a sea of incompetence.
The shops were only open limited hours, but that was no problem since they didn't have much to offer. I thought the layout of the shops was disorganized. The underutilized casino had a couple of roulette and blackjack tables and a modest number of slot machines. I don't remember a craps table although there was ample space to install one.
The pool was always crowded because on this South American run there were loads of kids...to whom I have no objection. It's just that it was noisy and crowded.
Unless this cruise was an aberration I advise against spending your money with MSC: Caveat emptor.