I'm writing these first 2 paragraphs 2 weeks before our departure to lay down our expectations before they get clouded after the actual cruise. I think it important to understand who is writing a review, so a bit about us... We are a recently married professional couple ages 37 and 35. We don't consider ourselves cruisers; we are taking this cruise simply as an affordable option to see the cities in the Baltic. We see it as transportation and place to sleep, anything beyond that is considered a bonus in our minds. We aren't big on art museums (but we will go to the Hermitage), love an outdoor cafe and a glass of wine and usually try to hit the name sites in each city. We try to blend when we travel and not make a fuss about things that aren't like home. We weren't overly impressed with our previous cruises a 7 day Carnival Destiny and a 3 Day Disney both Caribbean (neither cruise had any sea days). The ports and excursions were repetitive and the food was just ok. Our best cruise experience was Disney's private island.
We booked a category 10 balcony, room 9156 located mid-ship, June 24 departure out of Copenhagen. The only excursion we have planned is a 2 day tour in St. Petersburg with either Alla or Denrus. The rest of the cities (Gdansk, Riga, Tallinn, Helsinki, Stockholm, and Visby) will be on our own. Kiel is our only question mark, as it is the last day of the cruise and depending on how we feel we may attempt a train trip to Hamburg.
On to the review, let's start with the negatives, if you can't get past these then don't go on MSC:
Nightlife/entertainment: We found nearly nothing to do in the evening. The pool closes at 6:00 and it was too cold anyway. The stage shows were mostly dry and not our cup of tea, however the specialty acts were ok (magician, contortionist, ladder dance guy). We sat through 3 and stuck our head in a few more times only to leave a few seconds later. I play poker but nobody was ever at the table; roulette and blackjack got used late night. The lounge acts (3 or 4 going all evening) catered to older people, lots of Latin and Italian classics (Girl from Ipanema, Juan ton amera, etc). There wasn't one lounge that played any pop music. The disco started playing music at 11:30, but from 11:30-1:00 there was a theme like "oldies" or "beach music" so real disco music didn't start until 1:00. Until 11:00 it was used as a lounge since it had the best windows, just people sitting quietly drinking watching the world go by (we had light until midnight some nights). We tried to wait for the younger people to show up, but it was just too late for us when we had an 8:00 am port call so if they did show up we didn't see it and we were normally up until midnight. The pub played no music at all which seemed like a perfect place to play some pop, the room was really under used, so we don't understand why they don't. We normally watched the one English movie played each day in our room and sat in the disco for an hour so watching the world go by. If you go with a group you can make your own fun but as a youngish (37/35 yo) English speaking couple we struggled. Given that 85% of the guests were retired Europeans, I don't knock MSCs overall direction, but they could throw younger people bone with one spot dedicated to us.
Food: Your only options after 6pm is your assigned dinner seating or room service (which offered sandwiches and salads for a 3 euro charge, we never tried it). Buffet, grill and gelato closed at 5, pizza at 6. It wasn't bad, just annoying and restrictive. The pizza was excellent and MSC would have no problem keeping the pizza maker busy until midnight. The mains were a let down at dinner, nothing wowed us. It was usually just a chuck of overcooked meat and some veg. Fish and chicken was a safer bet. Roast dishes weren't too bad, since they are hard to overcook. Pawns were rubbery. To compensate we ordered more apps, soups and pastas, which were all very good. Desserts were ok but not as rich and decadent as Americans prefer on vacation, my wife preferred ice cream to most of them. We never really saw the grill making things fresh, the cook just made a huge batch and let it sit and get cold (we did see him reheat a burger for himself on the grill). Buffet breakfast was ok, we only ate one breakfast in a dining room and it had the same selection as buffet but was warmer. We normally ate lunch on shore, but the one dining room lunch we had was better than any dinner main, probably because we were there early and they didn't have a chance to sit and overcook. The dinners were themed each night for a different region of Italy with select dishes from that region. There was also a list of safe dishes that didn't change each night: spaghetti, salmon, chicken, fries, etc.
Pool: Only open until 6, so we were only able to get in the hot tub once. We aren't pool people so it didn't bother us that much, but seemed kind of restrictive since that might give us an hour after coming back onboard for the day. If the tubs were busy you wouldn't have a chance to get in. Also they wrote down your room number when you checked out towels, but didn't mark your room off when you returned them...so what was the point? We still have not figured this out. We couldn't communicate with the guy to get an answer.
The good points Ship condition: The ship is kept spotless. The crew was always polishing something. Daily Boarding: Absolutely no problems getting off within minutes of docking in all ports, no waiting. Last year we had to deal with scrums on Carnival. MSC has the tours meet onboard as opposed to on the pier as Carnival did, this insured everything was orderly and let those of us not going on a tour get off quickly.
Drink prices: Wine was very fairly priced compared to the US and the cities in the Baltic. 0.5L carafe at dinner was 8 euro. 4 house wines were priced at 3 euro/glass. Bottles started under 20 euro bottle. In one deck 6 lounge they offered a 4 euro aperitif with hors d'oeuvres during dinner time. We also bought 14 large beers 40cL for 58 euros, not cheap but not bad. Sodas however were expensive...so we drank wine
Itinerary: I read the itineraries of every cruise I could find before booking this one. It offered the most ports, with the most time in port and least sea days that would fit our schedule. 2 days in St Pete was a minimum and I didn't want to start or end someplace outside the Baltic like Dover or Amsterdam. I'd rank ports in order as follows:
Stockholm - we'd move there in a heartbeat, ride through the archipelago was great
St Petersburg - a must see, but couple days are enough with the crowds, traffic and tourist unfriendly practices Copenhagen - expensive, tons to see and hardly any crowds Tallinn - off the beaten track pretty walled city, knows how to handle tourists Helsinki - we enjoyed the island fortress and the city was nice enough, just not many big attractions
Riga - can dock right downtown, cheap, old town is interesting, but still needs to work on handling tourists, up and coming. Visby - well preserved walled city with a beach resort vibe, laid back. If we lived in Sweden I could see long weekends here. But not as significant as Tallinn and you have to tender in.
Gdansk - I'm Polish and loved the food. Old town area has a nice Helseantic/Dutch feel, but I'd recommend Krakow on a non-cruise trip instead.
Kiel - there wasn't enough time to make a Hamburg or Lubeck trip worth it, nothing that exciting in Kiel. If I could design my own cruise knowing what I know now, I'd start in Copenhagen and end in Stockholm. Stopping 2 days in St Pete and one day each in Helsinki, Tallinn and Riga. The Visby and Gdansk could be added as time allows. Silversea offers something close to this. I'd only recommend Kiel if you were there for 10 hours like 8-6. Lubeck or Hamburg are 1.5 hour ride away, you usually waste hour waiting for trains and getting oriented and you want 45 minutes or better safety time for delays when travelling from that far returning to the ship. That leaves around 5 hours for either city. We got into Kiel a nearly full hour early (10:10am) and went directly to the train station and missed the 10:43 to Hamburg by 2 minutes (should have taken taxi if I knew departure time). Lubeck was at 11:21, got there at 12:53, but we would have had to catch 3:56 return (we had to be on ship at 6:30 and this got back to Kiel at 5:50ish). 3 hours just wasn't worth the trip.
No constant hounding for drinks No calls or bogus gift certificates for spa services No art auction Almost no ship-wide announcements Some free booze at captain's party and gala dinner Indifferent: Room: Balcony was great, especially for Stockholm. Transit of archipelago took 4 hours and was a highlight of the trip. Shower was tiny and I would touch the curtain, but water pressure and temp was good. Bed was rock hard and really bothered my wife. Room was kept clean, ice and fruit were provided and towels were always fresh. The TV only got 2 English news channels and the ship's English movie channel (the guide said channel 25 when it was actually 30). The movies were very recent and you got a new one each day. The beer in the bar/frig was the same price as elsewhere on the ship, so not horribly overpriced as I normally expect.
Organization: Sorry if this sounds like I'm stereo typing...but it was very Italian. Meaning apparent chaos with little information or direction. That said, if you just reject you Anglo instincts and go with flow everything always seemed to work out.
Excursions (see more details when I post in the Ports forum): We only did "Latvian Switzerland" tour and renting bikes in Visby so our experiences are limited. They gave us a time to meet but not much direction. The local guide in Latvia wasn't that good and I wouldn't recommend that tour as it was only 2 minor castle ruins and a quick look at city highlights, you are better off hanging in Riga since it is cheap and you dock right downtown. The bikes were a nice change of pace and well maintained, but Visby's streets are steep and don't lend themselves to biking. They were better for the beach and riding around the outskirts of the walled old town. If you do want to ride through town, go up the outside of the wall to the East gate, this will put you at the highest point then it is all downhill through town. We organized our St Petersburg tour through Alla-tour.com and had a very good tour of the big sites over 2 days. We had no problems getting off the ship and getting quickly through Russian immigration with the tickets Alla provided. This was a much better deal and covered more sites than any combination of tours that MSC offered, $285 (with cash discount). Tallinn, Gdansk, Kiel, Helsinki and Stockholm we did completely on our own with no problems. Free city maps are available from reception and they will point out where we dock if you ask. In Helsinki they offered a shuttle downtown for 10 euro roundtrip (we didn't use as the city buses 14b and 16 stop a block from the ship). Again more details will be posted in the ports forum as this is only a ship review.
Ships ride: The Baltic was glass smooth most of the time and we barely noticed the ship was even moving. The ship was going at a very relaxed pace most of the time. I would have traded some smoothness for a couple additional hours in port. I know that has more to do with fuel cost but I'd be willing to pay for them to push at night. Slow is cheap on fuel and smooth, fast amplifies roughness and costs much more fuel, so it is one big trade-off. With an 8:30-4:00 port time you can do one major attraction well and maybe skim through a 2nd, but with 8-6 you can cover 2 attractions well.
General customer friendliness: Americans had to get a swine flu test, so we had to wait for nearly an hour to get on the boat. Even though it wasn't their fault, MSC sent a bottle of Champaign to out room with their apologies. We ordered some Prosecco before dinner one night and so did another couple on the other side of the bar. We could see the other couple send theirs back (I believe for being flat as it was a previously opened bottle), even though ours was sitting on the bar already poured the sommelier without even looking at us told the bartender to throw ours out and open a new bottle.
Overall the service staff was friendly and helpful. While we didn't have issues we did see others struggle with the mainly Italian staff at reception, accounting and shore excursions. They were short with the guests and didn't always explain themselves. Not sure if it was a language issue or what...it wasn't an American issue since there were barely any of us on the boat. In conclusion, the cruise was about what we expected. A couple items a bit better and a couple a bit worse than expected. For our age bracket or foodies I'd give it 3 stars. For older folks looking for sedate, 4+ stars.