I have to admit this cruise was chosen based on itinerary, itinerary and itinerary. In fact there are very few cruise lines that would have turned me off based on a ship when looking at such a port intensive schedule of Katakolon-Olympia, Pireaus-Athens, Rhodes, Cyprus, Alexandria, Crete, Marmaris and Naples.
In any event, I was prepared for things to be different after reading so many negative reviews posted mostly by Americans, and was surprised it was not as different or problematic as I feared it might be. Then again, I have never had a truly "bad" cruise, so maybe my standards are flexible.
We traveled with my two older stepkids, both of whom have contributed to this review. One draw of this cruise in addition to the itinerary was that kids sail free, but the catch is that they have to be in a room with two paying passengers so you are in essence waiving the 3/4 fee.
We embarked in Genoa which has a beautiful cruise port building, but unfortunately was not the one we used. Just like many other companies, MSC offers online check-in.... and just like most of the lines that do this, it means nothing as far as being able to wait in some type of priority or express line. Actually, the checking in part only took about 15 minutes of waiting in line, but then you are assigned a number to be called while you sit in a large waiting area.
The convenient part about this is that while you wait you can book your excursions, beverage packages, spa treatments and kids club memberships. None of these things can be booked in advance online as with other cruise lines, so it was helpful although a bit hectic and loud. We booked excursions for Turkey, Egypt and Naples only... I am fluent in Greek so I prefer we navigate ourselves in the Greek-speaking ports. We did not buy any soda or wine packages because they all had limited amounts of beverages rather than the unlimited type soda cards you see on most lines. Also, because we were US citizens we were given a free bottled water package. I had heard about before because as was later confirmed, there is no ice water served at meals.
One thing I noticed which bugged me was that they print your room number on your key card. Apparently MSC is run by the same people who label their house keys with their home address in case they get lost.
I will start with languages.... more than half of the passengers spoke German, with about 20% Italian, 20% English and the rest spoke French. I must say that the crew, particularly for such a young staff, were excellent in their ability to communicate with most passengers. With the exception of one Ukrainian bartender who spoke no English, I did not have any trouble communicating on the ship. Because of my appearance most people started off assuming I was Italian, and my "Io no capisco l'Italiano" might have confused them further because I pronounced it too properly for someone who doesn't speak the language. Neither DH or the kids had problems either, but I think the kids really did learn how helpful it is to speak several languages.
As far as the actual nationalities of the passengers, I would say that nearly two thirds of the passengers were German, the rest being an even mix of Italians, British, French, American and Chinese. The crew was mostly Italian in the entertainment and managerial staff, and Southeast Asian in the dining room and housekeeping crew. The Poesia is a brand new ship, sailing only since this past April, so many of the crew had never worked on a ship before but it did not seem to show.
Not what you would expect.... from what I had heard about MSC I was afraid it would be over the top with Vegas-style glitz, however with the exception of the Zebra Lounge and the stairwell carpets, I found most of the decor in the public rooms to be understated.... neutral tones in the dining room, muted pastels in many of the lounges... one exception was the Carlos Felice Theater, where purple seats looked a bit like a Barney explosion, but for the most part it did not have the tacky feel I had feared..... which brings me to
We were in a balcony cabin on Deck 12, and an escort was assigned to help us find our room. The cabin was just big enough for the 4 of us but would not have held 4 adults comfortably. I would say bigger than NCL but smaller than Carnival.... probably most comparable to RCL. The love seat opened into a bed and there was a wall bunk that folded down at night for the 4th person. Matthew "called" the bunk which was just fine with Lizzie. The decor with its black and red bedspread was a little sharp, very Italian designer looking but not too over the top. The beds were comfortable and I did not wake up with any back pain as I often do when sleeping in cheaper beds.
In order to save energy, MSC has a system rigged into the rooms where if you don't have a card inside the power slot, the lights will shut off after 5 or 10 minutes. Each room also has 2 US (110) and 2 EUR (220) power outlets at the desk . I brought a plug adapter so we were able to use all of the outlets.
The bathroom was also on the small side, again comparable to RCL for those who are familiar with it. Very good water pressure and temperature in the shower. One minor annoyance was the shower curtain that stuck to you while showering and the fact that MSC doesn't provide washcloths for some reason. Also, the bathroom is not ventilated and has no fan which means it gets more wet than usual during a shower.
An odd regulation, smoking is not permitted on balconies but is allowed in cabins. We were only one deck below the smoking section on Lido and I am a "drinking-only" smoker so it wasn't much of an issue, but still a strange rule.
The room had a minibar fridge with some room for your own items where I kept some Baily's and small bottles of water. There is confusion about what you are and are not allowed to bring on the ship with respect to beverages... there may be a written rule about all beverages, alcoholic or not, but I did not see any enforcement of this, in fact any water bottles we bought in ports we were allowed to bring right in. There seems to be a major control issue on board with beverages, bringing me to the next category-
We had our first meal in what they call the Cafeteria, which was very convenient to our room being right up the stairs. Lunch time had a pizza section, grill, and hot buffet section with different types of pasta, meats, potatoes and vegetables.
There are NO self-serve beverages, and the only drinks which are included at lunch time are coffee, tea and water which are brought to you by the waitstaff. The water comes in tiny glasses of about 3-4 ounces... kind of like we had in elementary school. During breakfast you can have one of 5 or 6 different kinds of juice but again, they are served to you by the waitstaff in the little glasses. I can understand why there is some control on this because I have noticed on other lines that the greatest waste appears to be with beverages, but I think the small glasses OR no self-serve would have accomplished this goal well enough.
Anyway, we didn't eat many meals in the buffet except breakfasts and that was only because of the convenience. Lunches we mostly ate either in port or occasionally in the dining rooms where they had open-seating except at dinner time. One should note that there is NO buffet service at dinner time.... you eat in the dining room or you pay for alternate dining or room service. The room service menu is all cold options and the restaurants are a la carte rather than one price. We didn't use any of these choices except once in a while the evening pizza which is 6 Euros for an 18 inch pie.
On formal evenings there would be a late-night buffet which we didn't attend, and other nights there would be what the program listed as a "buffet" in the lounges but it was a lie... just a few waiters walking around serving hot hors d'oeuvres with drinks.
There is also free afternoon tea every day in the Buffet... you wait on line for your tea or coffee, and there are a few different types of sandwiches and desserts available self-serve style.
2. Dining Room-
As I mentioned earlier, there is no ice water served in the dining room, so all beverages except coffee must be purchased. We had our voucher for free bottled water which was really only enough for two people per meal, so we would end up buying a second bottle for the kids. They didn't like the Pellegrino that Peter and I ordered so we got them the non-carbonated equivalent.
There were many course choices for meals, both at lunch and dinner.... these included appetizers, soups, salads, pasta & rice and main courses. One of the major complaints I have seen in reviews are with the food quality, and while I must admit the meals were nothing to write home about, they certainly weren't inedible. Since even the QE2 Princess Grill occasionally disappointed me on the final transatlantic with frozen french fries and American cheese-food, I don't think I can criticize the Poesia in their European style of cuisine. I think the food preparation is just done in a way we are not used to.... for example, the lobster was served cut in half with marinara sauce over it. This is probably common in parts of continental Europe, so I think when booking MSC or any European based line you have to remember who their passenger base is. As I said earlier I knew going in that this cruise experience, especially the cuisine, would be different and of course I was not disappointed in that expectation.
We didn't take part in most of the entertainment except the trivia quizzes and we even won a couple, but from what people told me the live entertainment was very good. I had some issues with trivia, as those of you who have sailed with us before know, with the official answers being wrong (i.e. the Smithsonian, not the Louvre, is the world's largest museum) however I was again impressed with the crew and their ability to conduct these quizzes in several languages.
As far as activities are concerned, there is not a lot of information in the programs and some things are not listed at all. Some events have ambiguous names and you don't have any idea what they are talking about such as "Mime Mix" and "Coffee Game" with no descriptions.
The kids advise that the arcade is very expensive at one Euro or more per game, with each game lasting less than a minute. Also the pools and jacuzzi close at 7pm
The in-room television seems to incorporate some cultural stereotypes. The only thing in English are news stations.... movies are all in German and sitcoms are in Italian. It is a very nice flat-screen TV and has ports for a portable DVD, but not useful if you are the type who likes some down time in your room while waiting for dinner or for your kids to get ready. Additionally, there are local stations such as a webcam on the bow, another on the Lido deck so you can see how crowded it is, but for the most part we used the TV for the navigational channel to see where we were on the map. They also have a pay-per-view movie service but those are rather costly at 14 Euros each.
Internet service is available in your room with an Ethernet cable, or wireless in various public areas on the ship. I paid 80 Euros for 250 minutes which was plenty for 11 days, particularly with such a port-intensive itinerary. Some of the ports were only half-days though, so it was helpful to have the service.
I did not visit the Library, however Peter did and found it lacking.... no periodicals and all books were novels with no history books or reference books such as atlases or dictionaries.
Dining room service was excellent... polite, punctual and never any problems with orders or special requests. The room steward on the other hand, not so much. Ice was never brought to the room unless I chased him down, and our glasses kept disappearing. Each time I would use a glass it would get taken without being replaced with a clean one. This may have to do with their obsessive beverage control issues. Also, if on occasion one of the kids was still in the room when he came by, even for just five minutes, he would never come back to see if he could clean the room. To his credit, he did fold all of the kids' clothes when they left them around, and I feel bad he had to deal with their disorganized habits.
We were never given a list of expected attire prior to the cruise, other than that there are generally two formal nights on an 11-night cruise. In actuality there were 4 formal nights, 2 informal and the rest were casual. We only participated in two formal nights because we didn't bring enough to wear and didn't really feel up to dressing up after long intensive port days... on those nights we stayed in the room and ordered pizza.
Ports and Excursions-
This is where MSC shines.... hardly any lines getting on or off the ship and good quality excursions for the most part. We were early birds for the ports that we did free-style and sometimes the first ones out. The only complaint I had was the chaotic assembly for the Egypt excursions, but I think this was just because there were so many people who booked them.
Katakolon- we rented a car and drove to Olympia, spent about two hours at the ruins, then came back and spent the rest of the time in town shopping and having lunch on shore with a view of the ship. It was one of my favorite port visits this cruise and the kids enjoyed it as well. They loved taking pictures of the stray dogs and cats which are prevalent in little towns like this.
Athens- we took the Metro to the Acropolis where we spent about an hour or so, then walked to the 1896 Olympic Stadium, then took the Metro to Likavitos mountain where we climbed to the top. Yes, that is right, we climbed all the way because I couldn't remember where the blasted elevator was... oh well, it was good exercise and we really earned the overpriced meal we had in the restaurant. You want to leave the city about an hour before all aboard call, because of the time it takes to get back to Piraeus as well as the walk to the ship from the Metro station.
Rhodes- my favorite island, in fact my third time here and unfortunately it rained all day. Tried to rent a car but no one was open since we pulled into port at 7am, so Lindos was out. Instead we walked around the Old Town and had lunch at a gyro place, which is the Greek equivalent of fast food only much better. This is a very good shopping venue and the Old Town also houses a medieval castle which is worth seeing. If you ever do make it to Lindos, there is another Acropolis, smaller than the one in Athens but you can ride donkeys to the top. We didn't go there this trip but I have done it before.
Alexandria- we did an all day excursion which took us to the pyramids, sphinx, papyrus institute, mosque and ended with a Nile dinner cruise. Very good excursion except for the harsh wind and extremely pushy vendors at the pyramid site. I recommend bringing some spare change because the vendors will be very persistent. Also keeping your head down while you walk helps with both the sand and the soliciting. I see why the women wear veils, my hair was a horrible mess from the wind and sand by the time we got back to the ship. The Nile dinner cruise had excellent food and entertainment, a good way to end the tour.
Limassol- canceled due to weather, had a day at sea instead. As a result MSC added the port of Messina to what was supposed to be one of only two sea days later in the cruise.
Marmaris- we did a ship excursion where we took a boat trip and saw tombs carved into mountains, then went to the ancient city of Kaunos. Spent an hour or so there and our tour guide was very knowledgeable. Many of the guides in Turkey know several languages so there is never a communication problem. After seeing the ancient city we then came back and had a large lunch, ended with shopping downtown. I bought a couple of small handmade rugs and the kids bought some knick-knacks.
Crete- again tried to rent a car but no one was open so we hired a private taxi for 100 Euros. We went to the Palace at Knossos, Zorba's tomb, an olive oil factory and fields, Greek Orthodox Church, then he brought us to Lion Square where we ate what would be our last Greek meal. I lost it a little bit on the gypsies who kept coming to our table to beg for money, but I felt responsible as the designated Greek to tell them off. I swear I really am a good Christian otherwise, but we had just given all of our change to some little girl who played the accordion, and I thought that three panhandlers in less than a minute was ridiculous while trying to eat.
Messina- we chose the Mt. Etna tour which ended up being a bust, it rained the whole day so we spent about twenty minutes looking at some volcanic rock and a half hour in town shopping. About an hour drive each way for less than an hour of touring.
Naples- in spite of the rain, a very good tour of Pompeii... I had no idea how big this city was or how well preserved so much of it would be. Definitely worth seeing no matter what the weather is. We also had a pizza lunch in town... a little pricey at 55 Euros for four individual pizzas, two beers and two sodas, but the pizza as delicious so it was well worth it
Miscellaneous pros and cons-
In the spirit of being positive, the pros first.... for example in spite of the limit on free beverages, the drink costs are relatively cheap and don't charge an automatic 15% gratuity. In eleven days we spent an average of 7 Euros each day per person on drinks. Also, the auto-tipping was less than most lines at 66 Euros for adults and 33 Euros for children. There were some nice touches, like fresh fruit in your cabin every night, bathrobes, and a large assortment of board games and puzzles for the kids. Many of the stores were inexpensive, in fact Lizzie found a swimsuit for under 15 Euro.
Some of the negative things, many services were extremely disorganized, sparse or non-existent. No one was ever in the internet cafe to help, the photo gallery was closed 90% of the time so we never saw our pictures (probably a good thing if they are overpriced like most lines, but again we never could find out) and changing our dining time to late seating was a complete disaster. In this case I was assigned a number like they do at the deli, and after waiting a half hour my number was finally called. I got up there and was told that they were closing because the maitre-d had to be elsewhere.... meanwhile about 50 other passengers were pushing ahead of me and being really rude. Finally I spoke up and said "everyone is cutting ahead and I am getting upset." I was then taken inside and given my later seating, but after feeling like a heel for throwing a little bit of a fit.
There is no self-assist, but because US citizens had to wait for the return of our passports after we had handed them in a few days earlier, it was probably a moot issue. I didn't like handing in our passports but in the long run it gave us an advantage.... because we didn't have to wait in the dreaded Barney-splashed Carlos Felice Theater with hundreds of others. Those picking up passports got to wait in the much smaller, quieter and less crowded Moulin Rouge. Passing them out was a bit of a debacle, we sat back and watched while everyone waited in line for the staff to find their passports in one of several boxes. When almost everyone was gone I sent Peter up to get ours among what little was left. I would say we were off the ship by 10:30am. Finding a taxi was a little tricky and it was pretty cold for Italy. They had transfer buses to Genoa airport but they were not advertised at all so we didn't know about them until disembarkation day. Also, it would have been 15 Euros per person rather than the 28 we paid for the cab.
All in all I would take this cruise again... but would be better prepared next time. I would definitely pay the extra for a balcony when cruising along so many of the islands. In fact one of the most memorable moments for me was when we pulled out of Crete and the sun was shining on the balcony as the ship sailed along the north coast of the island... I sat out there feeling somewhat sad, knowing this was the last time I would see Greece for at least another year, maybe longer. Sure, I probably made it worse for myself listening to Greek music as we sailed but it is one thing I will never forget, bittersweet as it was. I think every cruise should have at least one of these moments that stands out from the rest, thereby making it a success.