Having carried out extensive homework before boarding the MSC Fantasia, I must admit to a tiny niggle of reluctance about several aspects of what lay ahead for my wife and I and our two grandchildren (aged 13 and 11) knowing that a couple of negative reviews can colour expectations. I have to admit, however, that some of the negatives (I think I remember a complaint about no smoked salmon and grumbles that the cabin towels had not been twisted into shapes of animals) were easily dismissed as irrelevant - I've stayed at some of the best hotels in the world and have yet to experience the latter.
We'd chosen to board at Barcelona as the timing suited us. Our bags were whisked away as soon as we alighted from the taxi at the port to view the enormity of the vessel towering above us. We were shown to the check-in terminal. Having filled in MSC's priority boarding page and printed it off from their website, there was a special area for us to check in (complete with red carpet) where the whole procedure took no more than a few minutes. After being handed our boarding cards, we went aboard and were immediately escorted to our balcony cabin by a white-gloved steward. At this stage, one couldn't help be impressed by a). the service so far and b). the sheer opulence (and cleanliness) of the ship itself.
Our cabin was a delight, large and airy. The decor was classily muted; a king-size bed for us, a similar sized bed-settee for the children (made up later that evening while we were at dinner, and our bed turned down). A flat screen television, desk, table, chair, bathroom with shower (and handy drying line) - toiletries provided.
We'd actually arrived in time for a late lunch, so off to the Zanzibar on Deck 14. A wide variety of food here, crowded at one end (why is it that people seem to attract more people? Do they feel safe in numbers?). A quick perusal indicated there was far more room - and less noise - towards the rear of this massive restaurant which was where we headed from then on. Attentive waiters (a smile always evoked one in return), any amount of pasta, soups, a roast of the day, salads, you name it - and, yes, chips and burgers - also deserts galore and plenty of fresh fruit. Okay, so if you want a bottle of water, it's 2.30 euros, but there's an iced water machine were you can help yourself for free.
Next, a stroll around the ship to admire its splendour. Bars everywhere, from the sophisticated to the slightly brash and glitzy. Several coffee shops, a shopping mall leading to the 'piazza' where an afternoon dish of delicious Italian ice-cream went down a treat. An adults-only sunbathing area with pool was available on Deck 16. The view of Barcelona from our balcony was magnificent against the setting sun as we silently slid out of the port at 6pm. One of the features of this cruise we really came to appreciate was that the majority of the sailing was at night - so, to awake each day in a new destination was delightful (and the Fantasia is so well-balanced that it was often difficult to determine we were actually moving). Dinner in the Red Velvet dining room was a six-course affair (it wasn't Michelin-starred but, hey, did you seriously expect it to be?). Still, the fayre was plenty stylish and adequate - we had lobster on our first night and a ceremonious fanfare of chefs ferrying the flaming pavlovas in a grand entrance. I took a dark suit for our two formal nights which was fine (a few guests never bothered with other than shirt and casual slacks).
Then off to the show in the impressive 1600-seater theatre. The imaginative professional productions lasted around 45 minutes which we found just right...singers, dancers, a magician, cirque du soleil-type acrobats all set off by truly spectacular lighting. I found these shows far superior to others witnessed on a six-star cruise. One of the great attractions of MSC Cruising - especially in these credit-crunch days - is that the kids go free. Plus, of course, the Italian reputation for their general love of children which was clearly evident by all of the staff. On a couple of mornings we ordered continental breakfast in our cabin - no charge. Being independently-minded, we skipped the organised excursions and did our own thing - the 90 euro taxi (for four) to Pompei from the port of Naples was much appreciated and our friendly driver picked us up at the allotted time to return us to the ship (just in time for complimentary tea and cakes) at 4pm. I could go on here, but I hope that, by now, you've got the message. It was a most enjoyable cruise among an array of nationalities, fellow Brits, Americans, Japanese, French, Spanish, and, of course, Italian. It's a big ship carrying lots of people - but, surprisingly, it never felt crowded and, because of the Fantasia's itinerary, one could always find somewhere quiet during the day (some bars were completely devoid of people). Yes, you have to pay for coffee etc (except at breakfast) and, of course, alcohol, but MSC's lower cruise price structure surely allows for this contingency. Would I recommend the Fantasia? Yes. Would the children? Definitely. Enough said.