We are a couple in our mid forties from Australia who undertook this cruise at the end of a two month trip through Britain and Europe. We were originally looking for an alternative way home from Europe that didn't involve another long tedious flight. Unable to find a cruise from Europe to Australia that fitted in with our time frame we settled upon one that would get us as far as South America which would leave us with 'only' a fourteen hour flight home. Whilst researching this ship and company we did come across a lot of negative comments but as our first priority was the actual voyage we went ahead with the booking anyway. So here, dear readers are the results. The cruise commenced in Venice on the 15th of November at what is essentially the end of the Mediterranean cruise season. Therefore this ship was being repositioned to South America providing us with an interesting itinerary. The ports of call where Dudrovnik, Tunis, Malaga, Casablanca, Las Palmas, Recife, Buzious, Salvador de Bahia, Rio De Janeiro and finally, Buenos Aries. In all a total of twenty one nights with ten sea days.
Boarding went ahead with no real dramas so far as we could tell but as this is only our third cruise we don't have much to compare it with but the process was no better or worse than the other two cruise lines that we've travelled with.
The ship itself was launched in 2001 making it one of the oldest in MSC's fleet. However we heard that it had just spent a month in dock prior to this trip so had obviously undergone a great deal of work. Apart from the a complete repaint our cabin appeared to be brand new with not one bit of wear and tear on any fittings or fixtures....no scuff marks, scratches or anything! I do not know whether this applies to all cabins, it is hard after all to imagine a complete revamp in only four weeks, or whether this is part of a gradual overhaul. Anyway we were very pleased when we first set foot in our cabin which was located on the 10th deck on the port side near the stern and had a window. We did originally try to get a balcony cabin but as this is an older ship it doesn't have as many as the newer ones so subsequently they were booked out early on. The overall condition of everything else was very good and everything was spotlessly clean.
As I inferred before we had heard quite a few negative comments about MSC with one recurring thing being the rudeness and helpfulness of the staff. I also read recently that MSC had made a major effort to rectify this. That being the case well let me say that they did a good job as all our experiences with staff at all levels was nothing but good with happy smiles everywhere we ventured and all queries and requests dealt with without us feeling in the least bit as though we were just bothersome creatures interfering the the efficient running of the ship.
Where this ship did differ from our previous experiences, which were with Princess and Carnival, is that in being a European line, MSC obviously cater for a predominantly European clientèle. So if you expect everything to be run along the same lines as American ships then you might be disappointed. As we had just spent some time in Europe then we were already 'tuned in' to some of these differences. Firstly the meal times were rather late by our standards. The first sitting was at 7.00pm and the second not until 9.15pm! So if you don't like eating late then get in early. This is however the way they eat in Italy and it is after all their ship. Another thing was coffee and tea not being available at all hours unless you bought one (quiet inexpensive) at one of the cafes or bars on board. Coffee was available at breakfast and during afternoon tea but not even offered at the end of dinner. We did ask for it at the end of dinner on the first night and was brought one without so much as a funny look so can't really complain there. We did read in an earlier review that this situation depends on what part of the world the ship is sailing in and this situation does change according to the market being catered for. Water is the only thing free all day to drink. Again at dinner only expensive bottled water is on offer. We did, however, ask for tap water instead and were initially told by our waiter that he'd have to ask his boss. He did come back and say that this was no problem but would have to take the glasses away to fill them and couldn't leave a jug of water on the table....possibly so as not to let other passengers see what we were drinking. To their credit however they did put a glass of tap water on the table just for us each night without us having to ask for it again.
This is obviously a multilingual ship and as English speakers we were definitely in the minority. We were able to speak with most staff though and all the daily programs etc provided in our cabin were written in English only. All the announcements made on the ship were in five languages but mercifully most days none were made at all and rarely more than one or two. This was in contrast to carnival who seem to delight in providing constant and unwelcome announcements on everything possible making prolonged conversation impossible! Although the ship is Italian, the majority of the passengers where Argentinean with the second biggest group being German. When I said that being English speaking put us in the minority I wasn't joking with our group only numbering about 50-60 out of 1700 odd. Maybe a dozen fellow Australians, very few Americans and the rest from Britain that I know of. They did sit people at dinner according to language so don't let this worry you. The only problem this caused on our cruise was that many of the shore excursions were cancel due to lack of numbers but they did attempt to put you on an alternative tour with English commentary or as we did, join a tour with the Germans and have fun anyway. Just be sure to read about what you will be seeing beforehand. Remember also that you don't go to Europe expecting to be catered for at all times in your native tongue, yet we still go and have a great time and cruising like this is no different.
Now the thing on most peoples minds, the food. Well put simply we had no complaints here. We stuck with the buffet for breakfast and lunch. Of course there were the options of one of the restaurants for the same meals but we forwent the formalities. There were also other options for lunch such as pizza bars etc. One important point to make is that there was no alternative to the evening meals aside from your allotted restaurant sitting. No buffet or anything else. This was fine with us as we enjoyed the evening meals but if you don't have any formal wear for the gala evenings then there's no escaping unless you don't want to eat. The food itself was good and plentiful. Tremendous variety, many healthy options and the food was always hot enough. There was one night where three people at our table ordered roast beef which was too tough to cut, let alone eat but these meals were immediately taken away and replaced with no fuss what so ever.
Laundry on board was a bit of a problem however as there was no self service facilities available. The only options were the rather expensive ships laundry or to do your own in your cabin with obvious limitations. It's a bit hard to blame MSC for this as this ship was taken over by them from another now defunct cruise line and I guess it's a bit hard to add one later on. I've no idea whether the newer ships commissioned by MSC have these facilities or not. What could be provided but is not are ironing facilities. These are not provided except for by again an expensive service provided by the ship so unless you have deep pockets it's best to bring travel clothes that don't require ironing or even bring a small travel iron to use in your cabin.
The alcohol served on the ship was quite expensive and you are not allowed to bring any on board. A few passengers did smuggle some on though but if you are caught it's put in storage until you leave the ship. There were a number of drink packages available which brings the price down a bit but these don't suit everyone. The duty free alcohol available to buy on board is reasonably priced though so if you are happy to drink in your cabin then this is a much better option. A 900ml bottle of Baileys for instance was the same price as three 4cl glasses bought at a bar.
Most other services on board are also expensive such as the ridiculously overpriced spa facilities but this is always par for the course and we never bother anyway. We did get haircuts which was easily double what you would pay for a (mans) haircut ashore. Strangely, a plain womans cut was cheaper than a mans. Again easily avoided if you get one before the cruise.
The gym facilities are fine with good equipment. If you are into running you'll find the lack of a proper jogging track an issue and treadmills are only for guinea pigs anyway. The lifeboats decks are fine for walking along and good for avoiding the crowds. Another good way to get exercise is to always use the stairs as we do. This is great as everyone is so lazy that they only use the lifts so you mostly have the stairs to yourself.
Like most ships there's always a quiet bar or lounge area hidden away somewhere when you want some peace and quiet during the day and the Starlight Disco on deck 12 is good for this.
If you want lot's of entertainment put on for you then there was usually something happening somewhere. Plenty of live music around the ship and shows most evenings. We didn't go to many of these as In typical European style they were on quite late, well past our bedtime anyway. The disco for instance didn't kick off until 11.30pm as did a lot of other events such as Mr Armonia and that type of thing. The pool area was very crowded and noisy during the day but the various sun decks scattered around weren't too busy and nice and quiet. There is no movie theatre on board but movies (in English) were shown on your television continuously throughout the day. Maybe not current releases but not too old either.
There's one thing that I would advise against and that's the onboard wifi service. We signed up for one hours worth of access as we had our own notebook, This was not only very, very expensive at 20 Euros but was as good as useless. We used up almost our entire hour attempting to download 19 emails and only succeeded in downloading 8! If you want to try opening a webpage then you really need to have loads of patience and very deep pockets. MSC must be making buckets out of this service as you can order a daily newspaper from your home country which they obviously download each day and it only costs you a couple of euros and is nicely bound to boot. So the download cost for them must be minimal. This is a good service by the way. What we did do though was to sit on deck and try hooking up to an unsecure wifi signal in various ports and succeeded in Rio de Janeiro, managing in a fraction of the time to do more emailing for free than we managed in our paid hour on the ship!
The ever present threat of those self destructive people, yes the smokers, is not as bad as one might image it to be on a European ship. Smoking is confined to certain areas both within and around the ship and are easily avoided. It's odd though that smoking is discouraged in the cabins but not banned.
To sum up then, although we had quite a few reservations prior to this trip most of them were unfounded or of no real consequence. Would we travel with MSC again? Quite happily. Was it the best cruise that we've been on? No, we loved the Sapphire Princess most of all but then our experiences are limited and this wasn't too far behind. But we will always choose a cruise based on itinerary rather than cruise line or ship so if the MSC
Armonia is going somewhere that you want to go and you can accept that there are other ways of doing things other than the American way then jump on board.
You'll have fun!