Precruise: We decided not to chance the winter weather in the Northeast, so we flew down the day before. We stayed at the Days Inn off I95, which has absolutely nothing to recommend it unless you like walking 3/4 mile (in a pretty scary neighborhood) to reach a Burger King. Stay somewhere else.
Embarkation: Hands down the easiest we've ever encountered. We arrived (the cruise terminal is minutes away from the airport; you do not need the cruise ship transfers as cabs are plentiful and half the price), got in the "US Citizens" line, and walked on to the ship. A staff member showed us to our cabin.
Ship: As mentioned in many other reviews, MSC Lirica is new-ish and sparkling clean. I think the ship was built just before the industry started emphasizing balcony cabins and specialty restaurants, as most cabins are window or inside and there are only the two main dining rooms and the buffet. However, the ship never felt cramped to us. Public rooms are understated but comfortable, and the theater is the nicest we've seen at sea...none of those annoying pillars that obscure sightlines. Our cabin was on deck 9, inside, and was fine for the two of us. The only areas that ever felt congested were the pool deck (crowded and noisy, especially on sea days) and the buffet, which we went to rarely anyway. The casino is small, smoky and awful, with not nearly enough low-limit slots. The gym and spa are adequate, with high spa prices and reasonable salon charges.
Passengers: True to previous reviews, it looked like the passengers were about 50% American and 50% European. We liked the multitude of languages, but I could see how some Americans wouldn't. This was the oldest crowd of fellow passengers we've encountered; there were very few younger people and almost no children. However, nearly everyone was friendly, tolerant and active. Either complainers were at a minimum, or we simply didn't understand whatever language it was they were complaining in! On this 10-night cruise there were three formal nights; the rest of the nights, dress was casual. Husband wore his tuxedo but was one of very few to do so; women tended toward sparkly pantsuits or dresses and comfortable shoes. It's true, you DO get wiser about footwear when you get older.
Crew: Dining room staff is Indonesian. Our regular dinner waiter and assistant were great, but the staff at breakfast and lunch was iffier. Because orders can be placed in any of five languages (English, Italian, German, French and Spanish), it's really easy to get a waiter who doesn't understand you. A lot of "I don't know" and "We don't have that"; passenger frustration ran high at these meals. Cabin attendants were efficient but tended toward early-morning noise, and housekeeping trolleys obstructed hallways most of the day. These are things MSC could work on for the future. The European cruise staff, most of whom spoke four or five languages, were responsive to passengers and very popular.
Food & Bar: When checking in, we discovered we'd been assigned the wrong seating. Reception told us to go see the maitre d' at 4 pm. This was wrong, and it was lucky we checked, because table changes started at 3 pm. There were so many messed-up reservations that they were giving out numbers to hold a place in line to get changes. There were some VERY angry people. After waiting about 45 minutes, it took only moments to get our table for two at the other seating. We like to eat alone. We got a booth at L'Ippocampo, the smaller dining room. We noticed that lots of the tables there, as well as in La Bussola, are very close together and noisy, so we were really lucky with the booth. The food was plentiful and adequate, Continental in style. As others have said, there was no effort made to include Caribbean or other local dishes. Out of ten days of menus, the one really outstanding dish was the fresh shrimp cocktail. Don't miss that one. All in all though we would give the food a C. The wine and bar list was good; lots of choices and reasonably priced. We tried some new wines and enjoyed them. The dining room bar waitress was particularly linguistically challenged, twice bringing the wrong drinks even after being shown their names on the menu. I'm sure she'll get better eventually. One thing about MSC is that they do NOT push drinks on you; there isn't even any bar service in the theater. Which brings us to...
Entertainment: As noted in other reviews, because of the multilingual nature of the ship, the entertainment is mostly singing, dancing, magic, acrobats, and juggling. Shows are short, at about 45 minutes each. The singers have great voices. The classical trio (Caffee Concerto Strauss) are terrific. We enjoyed the acrobats and gymnasts. The dancers were more problematic...while slender and attractive, they suffer from dated choreography, awful costumes, and a complete inability to dance in synch. Still, for 45 minutes you can stand anything. Husband enjoyed the magic and jugglers; wife did not. We heard from other passengers that the late-night entertainment in the disco and elsewhere was fun; we wouldn't know. Although we were among the youngest passengers, I think we went to bed the earliest! Therefore we cannot comment on any midnight buffets.
Ports: We chose this cruise for its itinerary. In COZUMEL, husband took the ship's tour to Tulum. He enjoyed the ruins, not so much the lunch stop or "mandatory" shopping stop. Unfortunately we were in Cozumel on a Sunday, so the ship's tour was about all that was offered for Tulum; otherwise he'd have booked it privately, as we did in COSTA RICA with George and Okeydokey Tours. With one other couple (hi Don & Dawn!) we drove around Puerto Limon, toured a farm, saw a sloth, saw the banana plantation (which is more interesting than it sounds), took an hour-long canal cruise (saw another sloth, lizards, crocodile, birds, bats....was amazing) and then had lunch on the beach. This tour cost half of what the ship's tour did and we saw more. Highly recommended. Civil unrest in PANAMA canceled all tours. We have been to Panama before, but really felt for people from far away for whom the canal was to have been their cruise highlight. Although we understood that it was not the ship's fault, it didn't seem like they went out of their way to console badly disappointed passengers. They refunded tour money but did nothing else. In CARTAGENA we took the ship's city tour because we were nervous about the safety of the city. Wow, were we wrong there. The ship's tour just skirted by lots of things we'd have liked to have seen (like the old fort) while including not one but TWO shopping stops. Waste of time! Cartagena is a beautiful and fascinating city (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) and we should have gotten a cab and driver and done it our own way. I hope we'll have a chance to visit it again someday. In CAYO LEVANTADO we arranged to go whale watching with Kim on the Victoria II. We found Kim online; she is a whale expert. We saw several whales, including one who surfaced right next to the boat as though to give everyone a good look. It was amazing, but be warned that iffy sailors will probably have some degree of mal-de-mer. Dramamine, soft drinks and crackers are provided, and in my opinion it's worth a bit of flippy tummy to see the whales.
Debarkation: You are asked to leave your cabin by 8 am. We had breakfast and then waited in the theater until our luggage color was called. A few minutes later we were at the airport. Perhaps because there are so many Europeans on board ship, MSC does not offer the option of carrying your own bags off the ship, which is too bad because it works great on NCL.
Summary: Would we cruise with MSC again? Yes, if the itinerary and price was right. MSC seems to really want to be in the Caribbean cruise market and I think they'll work on the few glitches we noticed. Our grade: B.