This was our first time cruising with MSC. We've previously cruised with Princess and Royal Caribbean, and had such a great time that when we found this Caribbean cruise with MSC for such a great price, we couldn't pass it up. We had decided earlier in the year that instead of gifts for Christmas, we would take our teenager daughter and son on an unforgettable Christmas cruise instead. We all had a great time. It was well worth it.
We arrived at our Ft. Lauderdale Marriott hotel the evening before departure, so we had a leisure morning, and taking a walk we discovered that we were close enough to the MSC Lirica dock that we could actually walk over to the check in station...let me state right up front that my family is the adventurous, do-it-yourself type, and we didn't consider it a big deal for us to walk a few blocks to the ship with our luggage. We had packed light and our luggage was on wheels. Others might want to get the cab or whatever, but this worked fine for us. The check in process was a breeze, which I was happy about since I had missed the Express Online check in deadline, but it turned out that it didn't matter. The regular check in line was just as fast. They took our credit card info and made each of us a cruise card and we were headed to the ship, where we were escorted by a crew member right to our cabin. That was a nice touch.
We had an inner cabin, which we chose because we figured that we would be spending a lot of time outside and not inside. Even though there were 4 of us, we found the cabin to be spacious enough for us with plenty of storage cabinets. The kids got the bunks, and we never had to mess with them...the cabin steward was very attentive to turning the beds up (back into the wall) for us when we left in the morning, and had them turned down for the kids when we came back at night. The cabin steward was excellent at keeping our room neat and organized for us.
The bathroom was pleasantly big enough for us as well. The shower stall was pretty small, but there was always soap, shampoo, body wash, and fresh towels. We never once had to ask the steward for towels. No matter what time of the day it was or how many showers we took, the towels were always picked up and replaced. There was also a hairdryer built into the wall, which I wish I had known about as it would have saved me space in my luggage. I didn't need to bring mine.
We found right away as we started checking out the ship that we could have saved our hotel lunch expense and eaten right on the ship, as there was a welcome buffet from 12:30 to 4:30 PM that we weren't aware of. We had been given confusing information prior to our cruise about mealtimes, what to wear, and we figured we would just find out when we got there. We found out that we had been given 2nd dinner seating, even though we had requested first. We went to talk to the Maitre'D about it right away when we got on board, but they just told us they would put us on a waiting list for 1st seating and let us know. They never did fix it for us. We didn't like eating late too much, but we had such an awesome waiter (Bambang from Indonesia) that it made it all worth it. He was the BEST! He had such a great attitude, smiling and laughing, joking with us and the kids all the time, that we looked forward to going to dinner and seeing Bambang. He really treated us and everyone at his tables well. He was a joy.
CLOTHING: We had been told that no jeans, shorts, flip flops, or T-shirts were allowed after 6 PM on deck or in the restaurant. Being American, that's mostly what my kids wear, so we went out and bought slacks for my son, and my husband packed an extra jacket and tie for dinner. It was all not necessary. We saw people in jeans and T-shirts in the restaurant every night, and even on Gala night, when you are supposed to dress up in formal attire, there were people in casual clothing. They definitely don't enforce their rules, and as a result, we had clothes that we brought and never wore. We enjoyed getting dressed up for formal night, even though when packing for the trip we thought it was a big bother. It was fun after all.
FOOD: Their food quality was all over the map! We had some really outstanding menus and awesome dishes that left us waddling out of the restaurant feeling like we had eaten a whale, but we also had some foods that were underwhelming. I used the salt and pepper shakers with a heavy hand, which was fine. The absolute worst was the scrambled eggs in the restaurant on the morning of disembarkation. Really, how do you mess up scrambled eggs? (Could NOT eat them. It was like they had stretched them out with flour or something and they were like paste, and tasted like cardboard. Awful.) Having said that, the menus for the 5 course dinner were different every night and there were excellent choices in these categories: Appetizer, soup, salad, pasta, and main entrEe. After that, of course, dessert. The portions were perfect...the appetizer, soup and salad were small enough that you didn't get too full for the main course, but by the time you ate the pasta, it was pushing it. Then the main course put you over the edge. There was always fresh fruit. My favorite new food was the chilled soups that they offered every night....Mmmm, they were truly excellent! We ate in the restaurant every night of our cruise, and of course, missed the midnight buffet because we were already too stuffed.
The only complaint I had about dinner was that the assistant waiter rarely kept our water glasses filled and we were always thirsty. Eventually I asked him to fill my wine glass with water as well so I would have two glasses available. We had intended on buying some type of coupon book for the Cokes, since we knew ahead of time that soda needed to be paid for, but since nobody ever told us how to buy them, we decided to just skip it and make it a soda-free cruise for the kids and they were okay with that. We just drank water at dinner, and the coffee, juice or milk provided at the other places. We never missed the soda after all. I think we bought one Coke the whole cruise.
For breakfast, we usually chose the buffet on Deck 11, since the breakfast times in the restaurant didn't always work for us. The buffet food could be generally described as adequate.... Nothing special, but there were always plenty of choices, from eggs and bacon to oatmeal, muesli, fruits, bagels and more. We decided to try the restaurant one morning for breakfast to see if there was anything different offered there, and they had eggs benedict, but pretty much everything else was the same.
We often missed lunch because we were out on excursions, and found that when we returned to the boat, we had very limited selections for food by about 4 PM. Lunch had a very short window in the restaurant, from about noon to 2:30 PM. By the time we got back from a day in port and no lunch (we did snorkeling trips) we were famished, but our selection was limited to pizza, or burgers and hot dogs every single day. No variation there. We usually had a little something from there to tide us over until our 8 PM dinner. There was always coffee available, so I drank lots of coffee.
We took advantage of a few of the shows in the Broadway theatre for entertainment, and they were pretty good for classical music. We actually wish we would have gone to more shows, but we ended up spending time with the kids watching movies, playing cards, working out in the gym, or just strolling on the decks. There was always music in the lounges, and various games and entertainment in the morning and afternoon. The ship was kept immaculate by the staff.
We bought all of our excursions on board the first day, having done our research ahead of time at home and knew what we wanted to do. Though everyone spoke with a foreign accent on the ship, they were generally very helpful. We had a great time in Cozumel, Grand Cayman and Cayo Levantado with our chosen excursions. We did the snorkeling, Sting Ray city (which was the kids favorite) and the El Limon Waterfall/horseback riding tour. We were sorry that we missed our chance to go to the private island with its white beaches, but we hadn't realized that it was an "either/or" choice. By choosing the waterfall, we chose not to go to the island. We went to Samana, Dominican Republic by boat, and from there took a bus ride into the interior of the jungle, where we got on the horses and were taken to the waterfall by Spanish speaking guides. It was raining and muddy and we got pretty dirty, but it was a great time. The horses looked like they could have used an extra bale of hay, and we were NOT told ahead of time that our Dominican guides who led us along that steep, rocky path do NOT GET PAID, but only survive on the tips we give them. I wouldn't have known, except for the fact that people started gossiping in our group about it. I confirmed with the tour guide, and it was true. I didn't have small bills, so I had to trust that the larger bill I handed out was going to be divided fairly amongst the youngsters that took care of us. So, here's a tip: Have some small bills handy for tipping at all times! Our excursion got back too late to make a separate trip to Cayo Levantado, so we could only view the white beaches from the deck of the ship, and we were sorry. It looked gorgeous.
Disembarkation was the only thing that I felt was not handled well. We were kept waiting for what seemed like an interminably long time in the L'Atmosphere lounge, until our color group was called.
Here's another tip: The ship can set you up with a taxi to the airport, but they charge $22 per person. We knew from our taxi ride when we first arrived in Ft. Lauderdale that the trip only costs about $13. We walked back to our hotel and called a cab from there, saving us about $75! Not only that, but when we were walking to the hotel, Bambang came walking up behind us and carried my luggage for me! What a guy!
All in all, our family had a great time, the ship was comfortable, the crew was kind and fun, the price was too good to pass up, the food was plentiful enough, and we have great memories that will last a lifetime thanks to MSC.