Great Music with the Les DeMerle Big Band: MSC Lirica Cruise Review by NHBob
Overall Member Rating
Great Music with the Les DeMerle Big Band
Destination: Eastern Caribbean
Embarkation: Fort Lauderdale (Port Everglades)
This cruise was my first with MSC. I selected it for one reason, the Big Band Theme, even though previous Cruise Critic Member Reviews and message board posts have varied widely, from "best cruise ever" to "never again".
Pricing was attractive, under $200 per day, including single supplement, taxes, fuel surcharge, and insurance, for an outside cabin. At these prices I certainly did not expect a Crystal, Cunard, or even Holland America. I also neither expected nor wanted "Italian American" dining (a la Olive Garden, Uno or Pizza Hut), but I did expect genuine Italian cuisine, with which I am very familiar having spent a lot of time in Italy. Unfortunately, MSC only partially met these expectations.
First of all, something I need to get off my chest, the dress code and lack of adherence to it. MSC's published dress code is similar to other cruise lines: formal, informal, and casual. Sadly, this was ignored by a significant number, More perhaps even the majority of passengers and, as far as I could see, ship's staff made no enforcement effort. I saw many men on formal nights in attire that didn't even meet informal standards. Informal called for jacket and tie for men, but on informal nights I was probably one of only a few dozen men wearing jackets in the dining room.
To me, failure to dress appropriately for formal affairs such as the Captain's receptions is disrespectful to both the host and other guests. It says to me that these individuals are either totally ignorant of basic social graces or are so arrogant that they think rules are for other people.
Furthermore, many passengers rushed back to their cabins after dinner to change into something "more comfortable" (a gentlemen is not uncomfortable in a tux or suit). I may be in the minority, but I object to sharing the dance floor with a woman (not a lady!) in cut-off jeans and flip-flops on a formal night. If this makes me a snob, so be it!
ITINERARY: Ft. Lauderdale - San Juan - St. Maarten - St. Lucia - Antigua - Tortola - Dominican Republic - Ft. Lauderdale. There were three sea days, two between Ft. Lauderdale and San Juan, the third between Samana, Dominican Republic and Ft. Lauderdale. With the exception of half-days at Tortola and MSC's private island in the Dominican Republic, port calls were full-day, with early morning arrival and late afternoon departures.
PRE-CRUISE AND EMBARKATION
I booked the cruise though my local travel agent, had no booking problems, and received final cruise documents a month or so before departure. MSC had recently initiated "MSC Express" web check-in which I used to print out a form to show at check-in. It took me several tries to do this, and other CC posters reported similar problems, but I suspect that this may have been because the software was new.
Per my normal practice, I flew to Ft. Lauderdale a day early. My Delta departure from Albany, NY. (where I left my dog and my car with my daughter) was about 1-1/2 hours late leaving due to late arrival of the aircraft, leaving me only 15 minutes to make my connection in Atlanta. I made it, but my bag didn't. I wasn't particularly concerned since Delta and three more ATL-FLL flights that afternoon and, sure enough, my bag was delivered to my hotel that night.
I stayed at the Comfort Suites on South Federal Highway. This hotel offers free airport and cruise port shuttle service and is fairly reasonable by Ft. Lauderdale standards - about $120, including breakfast, low season. It is also conveniently located walking distance from several restaurants and a large shopping center for any last-minute needs.
I took the hotel's 11:00 am shuttle to the port (book it the night before to be sure of a seat). When I got to the terminal an MSC representative told me that cheek-in and embarkation wouldn't start until 1:00 pm (this was not indicated on cruise ticket), but we were able to clear security right away and then were seated in a large waiting room. My group number 3 was actually called at noon. There were two express check-in lines, but staff diverted many of us to the shorter general check-in lines. The usual formalities only took a few minutes and I was allowed to board immediately. A steward escorted me to my cabin, something that even high-end cruise lines seem to have cut back on. So, by 12:45 I was having lunch in Le Bistro.
Some afternoon-arriving fellow passengers I met later complained about long lines and delays at check-in, so I was glad I had arrived at the port early.
In a word, beautiful - absolutely spotless and not a sign of damaged paint, worn carpet or other normal wear and tear, although she is five years old and had just completed a transatlantic crossing. The only exception was the top-side miniature golf course, out of service with torn artificial turf flapping in the wind. No doubt this will be repaired.
I did also noted some minor corrosion on exterior door hardware, but all of this hardware was replaced midway through the cruise! At every port crew members were seen touching up the hull where it had been scarred by tugs or contact with the dock. All-in-all, the Lirica's condition was as good as or better than that of the luxury ships I normally cruise on. The ship actually looked better than the upscale Silver Shadow docked near us in St. Lucia.
Cleaning seemed to go on around the clock, with hand rails continually wiped down and carpets vacuumed frequently.
Teak decking is pretty much limited to areas around the swimming pools. Other exterior decking is a composition material, made to look like planking. It's not objectionable and certainly is more economical than teak to install and maintain. I also think it is preferable to the indoor-outdoor carpet that some ships use these days.
A couple of design features of the ship are less than ideal. First of all, there is no wrap-around promenade deck, just two fairly short port and starboard open decks, with no deck chairs, under the lifeboats on Deck 6. There is a jogging/walking track up on Deck 12, but it is too windy most of the time for strolling or jogging.
The second less-than-ideal design feature is that one cannot walk forward through Deck 7 to the Lirica Lounge because of location of crew quarters. Therefore, the lounge can only be accessed from the forward stair well/elevator lobby. This really wasn't a problem once you learned the ship's layout, but some passengers never do and I was asked many times, even late in the cruise, "How do I get to the Lirica Lounge?" Perhaps some improvements in signage would help, perhaps not.
PA announcements were kept to the bare minimum, which is good as most announcements were made in five languages.
I booked a Category 07 outside standard 2-berth cabin on the Scarlatti Deck (Deck 7). It was actually a triple with twin beds plus a pull-down upper berth. The cabin was aft of the lifeboats, so I had an unobstructed ocean view through a large picture window.
I noticed that some cabins in this category had been made up with beds pushed together to make a queen, but I hadn't requested this. Also, it may not have been practical because the upper berth limited headroom at one side of the cabin.
Storage space included a closet with approximately 3 feet of hanging space, 6 drawers and three shelves; 2 night stands with shelves; mini-bar: and a mirrored corner cabinet with the safe and a large shelf. The desk/dressing table had center drawer and two side cabinets with shelves. Only thing I missed was a tie rack, but with so few men wearing ties, probably not a problem.
Bathroom was basic with single sink and a very small corner shower. It was tight for me - I'm average height and weight - and I doubt that some of my heavier fellow passengers could have got into these showers. No fancy toiletries, just some shampoo, shower gel and small motel-size bars of soap. There was always plenty of hot water
Total storage space was more than adequate for this solo traveler and probably would be OK for a couple, but might be tight with three occupants. Like the rest of the ship, cabin finishes and furnishings were attractive and in excellent condition.
With a several exceptions, indoor public rooms, including the two restaurants, are located on the Verdi and Puccini decks (decks 5 & 6). In addition, the Lirica Lounge is forward on the Scarlatti Deck (7). Swimming pools, various bars and the informal dining areas are on Vivaldi Deck (11). And, the most underused room, at least on this cruise, is the Blue Club disco on Rossini Deck (12). More later about this room.
The Broadway Theater is an excellent facility, with Broadway-quality light and sound systems and excellent sight lines except for a few seats at the rear of the auditorium.
The biggest public room shortcoming, at least for a big band cruise that attracts many dancers, is the minimal amount of dance floor space. This was particularly annoying for the big band performances in the Lirica Lounge where the band played most nights. Not only is the dance floor small, but so is the stage, which meant that some dance floor area was occupied by the band's sax section. So, the dance floor was very crowded except, perhaps, for the band's last set each night.
There is also a small circular dance floor in Le Cabaret, but there was seldom any before-dinner dance music there, and after dinner it was often used for karaoke and games.
The Blue Club Disco has a good-sized circular dance floor, but I never saw anybody use it. It didn't open until 10 pm and the tuneless so-called music (more aptly described as noise) played by the disc jockey was hardly suitable for dancing. I was under the impression that disco died at least 30 years ago, but apparently cruise lines haven't got the word yet.
The Lord Nelson Pub is a pleasant room except for the fact that smoking is permitted throughout the room. I suppose we have to allow the smokers some space on the ship.
Public room decor is attractive throughout the ship.
STAFF AND SERVICE
Service is best described as erratic, sometimes excellent, other times poor to non existent. The problem does not appear to be with the staff itself as much as lack of training. Several fellow passengers told me that service had been excellent on previous MSC cruises but it appeared that a significant number of experienced employees had been transferred to MSC's new ships and replaced on Lirica by new hires.
Cabins are serviced by 2-person teams, and my team was excellent. The cabin was always made up very quickly morning and evening provided, of course, that I remembered to change the "do not disturb" sign to "please make up my cabin." Fruit bowl was replenished regularly and ice bucket filled every evening. Bed linens were changed frequently, as were towels. I heard no complaints about cabin service from fellow passengers. It seems obvious that the Chief Housekeeper is doing his or her job.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the restaurants, bars and lounges. Like Holland America Lines, a majority of service staff are Indonesian, although most seem to be from Bali, while the majority of HAL's Indonesian staff are from Java. In general they were cheerful and anxious to please, but could benefit from the type of on-shore training than HAL provides for new hires.
Our table was fortunate to have an experienced waiter from Bali, so dinner service was excellent. On the other hand, during open-seating breakfast and lunch I encountered many waiters totally devoid of even the most basic serving etiquette. Also, there was frequently much confusion about who, or even which table, ordered what.
The most useless dining room staff, in my opinion, were the red-jacketed assistant managers. I assume that they were responsible for specific sections of the dining rooms but not once did I see them make the rounds to see how things were going. I also cannot recall ever seeing one of them smile - they gave every appearance of hating their jobs. The only response I was able to elicit from a cheerful "buon giorno" or "buona sera" was a grunt or mumble. Definitely not typical of the Italians I have known.
Service in bars and lounges was consistently poor. I do not recall a server ever asking if I would like a drink - I had to get the server's attention, when I could find one. As an experiment, I sat in plain sight in one bar for the half hour before dinner for three consecutive nights, without being offered service. I thought this string might be broken when a waitress approached my table with a bar menu, but she just placed it on the table, turned her back, and quickly walked away! When I pointed this out to the bartender he said I should signal a server when I wanted something. I explained as politely as possible that it was not my responsibility to find a waiter, but the waiters' responsibility to offer service to customers and that they would sell a lot more drinks that way. I think it fell on deaf ears.
Similarly, when the big band broke between sets I would have expected to see Lirica Lounge staff to make the rounds offering drinks, as has been the case on all of my previous big band cruises on Holland America and Crystal. It never happened. I wonder how much additional revenue would be generated by paying a little more attention to customers.
On all of my previous cruises the Cruse Director has been one of the most visible staff members, regularly interacting with the passengers. This was not the case on Lirica, however, where the only time I recall seeing Cruise Director Sonia was at the Captain's receptions and when she introduced shows in the theater.
I had requested a table for 8, second seating, but was actually assigned to a table for six, which would have been OK. My table was in La Bussola (compass) restaurant, one of two restaurants. I haven't checked to see how restaurants were assigned, but I had heard that the food was somewhat better in the smaller Ippocampo. However, the menus appeared to be the same.
Only a German gentlemen, with limited English, and I showed up the first night. I spoke to the maitre d' about this and on the second night he brought two ladies to join us. He also told me that he was going to try to combine our table with a group of four solo ladies to make a table for eight, but this never came to pass. However, the two ladies were pleasant and interesting company and the German gentleman was able to join in conversations to a limited extent.
There have been many widely varying comments on Cruise Critic with regard to MSC's food. I can best describe it as inconsistent, ranging from very good to inedible.
Soups, pasta and risottos were consistently excellent, as was most of the seafood. Poultry was generally good. On the other hand, meat quality varied widely. I had some excellent veal, and some that was tough. If two people ordered medium steak, one might arrive very rare, the other overdone. A lady was served a pork chop that was literally impenetrable with a table knife. When she asked for a sharp knife, the waiter replied, if we understood him, that the only sharp knives they had were steak knives, and she hadn't ordered steak
I normally don't eat desserts, but the sherbets and ice cream I tried were very good. On the other hand, surprising for an Italian ship, the cheese platter consisted of only a few small pieces of an unidentifiable white cheese - Kraft slices, perhaps? The selection in Le Bistro was no better. Never saw traditional Italian cheeses like Gorgonzola.
Question: how do you make Jell-O tough?
There is an extensive international wine list, quite reasonably priced. Unfortunately there are no wine stewards and waiters can't be expected to know much about wines. So, those who like wine with their dinner had better know which wines they like and don't like. Servings of wine by the glass were generous.
I usually ate breakfast and lunch in the restaurant, so can't comment on Le Bistro food. I did learn early that they didn't have orange juice there. Drink machines dispensed apple juice and a sickeningly sweet concoction called ACE juice.
The ice cream bar on Deck 11 was supposedly open from 11 am to 5 pm, but I didn't see anybody serving the few times I passed it, and I certainly wasn't about to go looking for somebody to serve me a $2.50 cone.
ENTERTAINMENT AND ON-BOARD ACTIVITIES
The excellent big band, conducted by drummer Les DeMerle, played most evenings after dinner, usually from 9:00pm until after midnight. DeMerle is a real showman who played with the Harry James Orchestra for several years after Buddy Rich left the band. His wife, Bonnie Eisle, is perfect as the traditional big band "girl singer." She is also a very pleasant lady.
The band played lots of swing and foxtrots, the traditional music of the big-band era. However, they also played waltzes, cha-chas and rumbas when requested.
As on my other big band cruises, the ship did not publish a roster of the band (I have suggested this repeatedly on both HAL and Crystal, to no avail) but Les was kind enough to write one for me. If any big band fans out there would like it, e-mail me and I'll be happy to send a copy. This is a great group of musicians, some old timers and some young musicians, which is nice to see. After all, we old timers won't live forever.
I did not attend many of the evening Broadway Theater shows because they conflicted with big band performances, but the ones I did attend were excellent. The cabaret acts were high-quality and a step up from the usual cruise ship production numbers. There was no orchestra - music was all on pre-recorded "click tracks" with only the solo singers miked. Unfortunately the daily programs provided very little advance information about the shows and the performers, so you had to decide whether or not to go based solely on the title - "Theatre of Love," for example.
Big-band cruises normally attract many ballroom dancers, predominately seniors, but there were few opportunities for a before-dinner dance during the cocktail hour. The combo playing in Le Cabaret normally didn't start playing until 7:30 and the Latin group in Beverly Hills until 8:00. I'm fairly sure that given the opportunity a lot of people would have liked to dance before diner, as evidenced by the crowded dance floor at the Captain's receptions.
Daytime activities were pretty much limited to various poolside games which might be suitable for a spring break cruise, but not particularly interesting to us seniors. MSC needs to learn to adjust on-board activities to suit the audience.. There were also the inevitable Bingo and art auctions.
As far as I recall, there was only one lecture, Les DeMerle's on big bands. It was interesting and very well attended.
The only singles activity I remember was a "singles meeting" the evening of 12/10, SEVEN DAYS into a 10-day cruise. They played a silly game, which I'm embarrassed to say I won and was awarded a Xerox certificate naming me "Mr. Charming." I promised to have it framed, but my sarcasm was lost on the staff. I guess should be ashamed of myself. Refreshments consisted of a couple of bowls of chips and pretzels, I think. There were no drinks - nobody even tried to sell us any!
THE CRUISE The original cruise brochure indicated a sailing time of 5:00 pm, but was later rescheduled to 7:00 pm. We didn't actually sail until an hour or so later. I assumed that this was because they had to re-provision a ship that had just completed a transatlantic crossing, but later heard that they were awaiting a bus load of late arrivals. The late departure wasn't a problem, as there was plenty of opportunity to make up time during the two sea days between Ft Lauderdale and San Juan, where we arrived on schedule.
There was no sail-away party at either Ft. Lauderdale of other ports. However, a group of us Cruise Critic members had an informal get-together before life boat drill. I didn't see much of them later, as most of them had early dinner, I had late.
The boat drill was a little different from my previous cruises when the same individual went through all the instructions in five languages. I'm in awe of people who can do this. Also unlike drills on other lines, they did not take attendance.
The weather forecast every day of the cruise was "partly cloudy" except one "sunny", which was pretty accurate. We did have a few showers, but nothing major. Seas were generally slight to moderate, not enough to produce much movement in the ship, although some said it was rough. We did have some fairly stiff winds at times, resulting in the weather decks being closed from time to time.
The only weather-related curtailment of activities I know of was the cancellation of the planned Tropical Pool Party due to wind and rain after we left Antigua. Instead, the Les DeMerle band played an unscheduled gig in Lirica Lounge.
Since I was on this cruise for the big band, and since I had been to most of the ports before, I didn't do much in ports - just walked around a bit. A few random comments; - As usual I enjoyed walking around old San Juan. It is also a good place to mail postcards, which only require US postage. - St. John, Antigua, was much cleaner than I remembered - maybe the cruise lines made them clean it up. - We were in St. Maarten on a Sunday and were told that nothing would be open on the French side of the island. So, I stayed on the Dutch side and explored Philipsburgh. There must be 100 shops on the main street selling everything from t-shirts to diamonds - amazing that they can all survive. - St. Lucia : spent a little time exploring the large public market - I'm not a beach person, so stayed on board at private island Cayo Levantado. Choppy sea made this an interesting tender operation and at one point the ship recommended that people with physical limitations forgo the trip ashore.
We arrived in Ft. Lauderdale on time. Disembarkation was the usual "hurry up and wait" process, with nobody allowed ashore until all baggage had been unloaded. I was in a disembarkation group that left ample time to catch my 1:00 pm flight and once my group was called it only took me a few minutes to find my luggage and clear customs.
One of Princess's mega ships arrived before us and was docked at the next terminal. They had a steady stream of disembarking passengers for at least three hours, so I was a bit concerned about finding a taxi. However, port staff were directing airport passengers to a separate line, actually vans, so I was soon on my way.
There was the usual long line at Delta's check-in, but I still had plenty of time. Security was quick, and my flights from Ft. Lauderdale to Cincinnati and onward to Albany, NY, were both early.
I used to go through the Cincinnati airport quite often, but hadn't been there recently and was struck by the effect of Delta's flight cutbacks on the airport. One main terminal wing is virtually unused, and I was told that the separate commuter terminal, which is not that old, is to be closed and commuter flights moved to vacant gates in the main terminal.
The band was great, but the ship a little disappointing. Did the Les DeMerle Band make it worth it? I think so. Will I sail with MSC again? Probably not, even though they do offer more big band theme cruises than other lines. The only thing that might change my mind would be information from sources I trust is that they have got their act together. As always, comments or questions will be welcome. Less
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