Background I'm a single European woman in her forties who has travelled extensively in the last 30 years. This was my tenth cruise with MSC although my first on this ship. I normally travel alone and enjoy a laid back, relaxing cruise experience rather than an energetic 24/7 party atmosphere. My reason for choosing this particular cruise was the opportunity to have 3 weeks of relaxation, sunshine, lots of days at sea and the opportunity to visit South Africa. The great price, with the 100% single supplement waived was also a deciding factor.
Getting There I'd originally booked the fly/cruise package from MSC but changed to cruise only when I discovered that the flight was to Nice and coach transfer to Genoa and they were not flying us to Pisa to join at Livorno. I received a refund of £620 which more or less covered the costs of BA flights the day before from Edinburgh to Pisa (changing at Gatwick) and the return flight from Durban. On the recommendation of other people on cruise critic, I stayed in the Max Hotel in Livorno which was a nice modern hotel with a good restaurant and pleasant modern rooms which was only about ten minutes away from the port by taxi. It is on a business park outside the town centre so not very good for exploring the town on foot but ideal for a pre cruise stay.
Embarkation The ship docked at 9am from the previous cruise and they were expecting to embark passengers at Livorno and set sail by 11am before embarking more passengers later that day in Genoa, This was really too ambitious and although I arrived at the port to check in at 9am, passengers were still disembarking from the previous cruise so we had to wait just over an hour before they were able to start the boarding process. They attempted to save time by getting us all onboard and checking us in in theatre which was quite a good idea as it meant we had a comfortable seat and refreshments whilst we waited for our turn. Unfortunately we were still late in sailing which meant that the many more passengers embarking at Genoa had a very long wait. Many were very disgruntled when they finally got onboard and it had been made worse by the fact that port officials had been unable to provide any info. After checking in, in the theatre, I was escorted to my cabin by a cabin steward wearing white gloves, which I think a nice touch. In the following days there were further embarkations in Monte Carlo and Valencia. This is quite a common feature on MSC cruises
Ports of Call I don't do shore excursions. This is not a reflection on those provided by MSC but rather my aversion to getting up early whilst on holiday and being shepherded about in a group. I'm far too independent and I prefer being on my own or with a few friends to being in huge groups. I've also travelled fairly extensively in Europe over the past 30 years so my preference now is just to wander about for a few hours and feel the atmosphere of a place, rather than rush around trying to see every monument or tourist site listed in a guidebook. So anyone expecting lots of detailed information on any of these ports had best read someone else's review!
Monte Carlo - stayed onboard as I'd visited before and it was an early morning arrival - much preferred to sleep in after 2 days of travelling. Valencia - visited here several times before but accompanied another passenger in to town as I knew how to get there by bus and speak Spanish. Take the free port shuttle to the port entrance. Cross the road and catch the no19 bus in to the city centre. Takes about half an hour. They have a very nice cathedral and lots of lovely squares and old architecture.
Casablanca; Agadir & Dakar - stayed onboard as I did not consider these the safest of places to wander about on my own, particularly in Dakar where there were real security issues (tours had armed guards) and there was a yellow fever outbreak (we'd all had to be immunised to go on the cruise). Some of my dinner companions did the City Tour & Hassan II Mosque Tour (54 euros) in Casablanca and the Taroudant tour in Agadir (42 euros). They though the first one good and the second excellent - they were all raving about tree climbing goats! They also had good shopping opportunities on both tours and came back with a selection of beautifully embroidered kaftans (one lady wore a gold one to a formal night later in the cruise and it was gorgeous) and beautiful hand made slippers.
Walvis Bay - by this time I'd made good friends with 2 other solo passengers and we'd agreed that we'd do this one on our own. We weren't sure what to expect but we all absolutely loved this port and the people and places we saw. A few taxis (very few) are allowed inside the port gates. The drivers are pretty aggressive and their prices quite high (no doubt because they have to pay for being allowed in to the port). We decided that we did not want to go with them so walked to the port entrance. It is a very large commercial port and takes over 20 minutes to walk it, so not for those with mobility issues. We managed to find a lovely driver (Jacob) who had a nice car and agreed to drive us around for 3 hours for Namibian $300 (equiv 300 rand or about £25). He took us to the delightful city of Swakopmund whack took about half an hour to reach. Enroute we had the coast on one side with some very attractive new developments, gorgeous ocean views and the endless deep ochre coloured sand dunes on the other side. Jacob drove us around the city showing us the main sights. He also stopped and accompanied us to a few shops that we wanted to visit. We were very impressed by how spotlessly clean the town was and how polite, courteous and friendly the locals were. There was no one begging or trying to take advantage of tourists. We got some lovely children's clothes at bargain process and some really nice locally made handcrafts at a great shop called Kirikara (definitely recommend a visit) After that he took us to the beach and we walked along the esplanade for a bit and admired the view before heading back to Walvis Bay. On the way back we were teasing Jacob about his girlfriend and quizzing him about his marriage plans, he offered to let us meet her and before we knew it we were heading in to a Township near Walvis Bay. We were slightly apprehensive but need not have worried at all. When we arrived at her home, it was tiny but spotlessly clean. There were 4 adults and 5 children living in what appeared to only have 2 rooms. The coffee table appeared to be a crate but had a beautiful hand made lace tablecloth on it and fresh flowers in an old jar. The children were all dressed in their best clothes as it was Sunday and so polite. They spoke very little English (amazing they understood any at all) and all politely shook our hands and smiled at us all the time. I had been expecting degradation, danger and rubbish everywhere like I'd experience in a deprived area in my own country but instead we found a proud people with manners and dignity and self respect who made the best of what they had and took pride in keeping what little they had clean and tidy. They weren't looking for hand outs, didn't think they were entitled to be taken care of by the state or anyone else. I found this a wonderful and thought provoking day. It certainly made me realise that whilst we have so much more wealth and possessions in the West, the people of Namibia have so much more than we do. I shall never forget meeting the lovely Joseph and his beautiful family.( We ended up paying Joseph double what he asked for (about £50 between the 3 of us) - a 2.5 hour ship's excursion to Swakopmund was 49 euros each)
Cape Town- V&A waterfront and another in the city centre. We did not buy tickets for this as we felt that it would only be a very short walk to the V&A hop on hop off bus stop. We were right it took just over 5 minutes so definitely not worth buying a ticket if you were getting off at the first stop. We bought tickets for both the blue and red routes. (R200 appx £15) We took the route that took us through the city centre and then up to Table Mountain first. Unfortunately we could not get the cable car because it was too windy. We then continued on to camp's bay where we had a lovely lunch in a seafood bistro on the waterfront. Also had a glass of bubbly and the meal was only about £12 each. We then went on to finish that route and swapped over to the next route where we went to Kirstenbosch gardens, Hoit Bay before ending up at Seapoint in the early evening. We went to the bar which is on the 26th floor of the Ritz hotels and provided fantastic views of the sun setting over the city. We had a few glasses of bubbly each (for about£1 a glass!) before grabbing a taxi back to the ship (about £5), All in we spent 11 hours ashore and had a great time despite rather cool and windy weather. MSC's 4 hour City Tour & Table Mountain tour was 55 euros and 2 hour Sundowners Tour to Signal hill (including one glass of wine & canapEs) 49 Euros. Total 104 x 3 = 312 euros versus our equivalent which lasted 5 hours more and included lunch and lots of bubbly was R1200 about a third of the price Durban - we disembarked here. Most of the passengers who had MSC provide their flights had afternoon flights back to the UK connecting in Johannesburg. I'd arranged my own flights and had decided to stay a couple of days in the Beverley Hills Hotel at Umlanga Rocks. This was a fantastic hotel right on the Indian Ocean which I would not hesitate to recommend to anyone. They had a restaurant, continental cafe and a good room service menu. Service and friendliness of the staff was second to none. Had lots of nice little touches too like hand written weather forecast for the next day with a nice hand made chocolate at turndown service, welcome pack of fruit, Lindt chocolates and a nice bottle of Pinotage.
Cabin I booked a suite as these are the only cabins to have a balcony. It was located starboard at the front of the ship on deck 12. The balcony has 2 chairs and a table and is fine for 2 people but would be a bit of a squeeze if there were more than that. Unlike some suites it doesn't have a separate bedroom from the living area, just one long room (about the same width as a standard cabin but double the length) There is a sofa (which I think converts to a sofa bed), coffee table, mini bar with cupboards either side and the TV. The bed is queen size (although can convert to 2 twins). It has a bedside cabinet either side. The wardrobe is much larger than the standard cabins and is the walk in type. There is also a dressing table that is fitted with 2 European and 2 US power sockets. The mirror opens out to reveal yet another cupboard and the mini safe. Along side the wardrobe are 2 further full height shelved cupboards with a large mirror and glass shelf unit in between. The bathroom is the same width as a standard cabin but longer, so has an additional cupboard in the vanity unit below the sink and has a bath rather than just a shower. The bath is not huge but at 5'7" was absolutely fine for me. I certainly appreciated it the days we had extremely rough seas, as I don't think I'd have managed to stay standing up having a shower! In addition to lots more space, other extras in the suite are a real hairdryer with diffuser attachment (rather than the horrible wall mounted variety with the bendy hose) and robes. I found the bed extremely comfortable and whilst I would have preferred a duvet rather than sheets and blanket, the bedlinen was of a good quality. The cabin was well maintained and my cabin steward kept it spotless. I liked having a fresh fruit bowl too which was regularly replenished. Bathrobes are provided but they are not that big. Ladies if you are bigger than a size 18 you'll need to bring your own.
Bars and Lounges There are a number to choose from both day and night.
. They serve a range of soft drinks, beers, virgin cocktails, cocktails and spirits and coffees. Le Baroque (Coffee shop) - deck 6 aft above the reception area. Wide range of teas and coffees (including hot, cold and liquor). Also serves full bar menus of soft drinks, spirits and cocktails. It's a nice meeting point and a great place to people watch I strongly recommend the Amaretto cappuccino. Sometimes has live music in the evening. It's open 6.30am-12.00 midnight and is completely non smoking Shelagh's House (Irish Pub) - deck 5, stern below the theatre. It closely resembles an Irish pub but I would not recommend it, unless you are a smoker as it is the smoking bar. Opens 10.00am - 2.00am The Manhattan bar - very pleasant lounge that has a programme of live music and other entertainment (musical quizzes, art auctions etc) (many of the shops run alongside it). It has a small dance floor and opens from 07.00am until 1.30am. Non smoking Buddha - martini Bar (piano bar) - midship deck 6 handy for the smaller Il Covo dining room and directly above the entrance to the main dining room Il Galeone, It specialises in Martinis and has live music all evening (but just to listen to as there is no dance floor). Open 5.00pm-1.00am. This was my favourite as I loved the atmosphere and the live music particularly the classical duo of flautist and pianist although Alberto the pianist who sang easy listening and mainly well known Italian and English songs was quite good too. Non smoking. Sinfonia bar & Lounge - the main show lounge directly above the theatre. Has live music and dancing every evening as well as a variety of other entertainment hosted by the young and energetic Entertainment team (cabarets, competitions, games, talent shows etc). The captain's cocktail parties are also held here. The live band Corazon Latino was very good. The Entertainment team were invariably present and frequently got passengers up to dance especially those travelling solo or with a partner not inclined to dance. Opens 8.00pm-1.00am. Non smoking Casino Bar - opens 4.00pm until the last gambler leaves! Smoking bar Pasha Disco - aft deck 12. Opens from 11pm until late (after 1am depending on when passengers leave). This is quite a nice relaxing place to chill out and read during the day as it has great views. On our particular cruise it was a Bridge themed one and some of the competitions were held here during the day. There are 3 bars on deck 11 (pool deck). Capri Bar top end of the pool 08.00am -11.00pm. Bolero Bar, bottom end of the pool and beside the open air Grill and pizza bar - 10am -8.00pm, Caffe Del Mar (Buffet Bar) aft in the buffet itself - 6.30am-08.00pm Drink packages Soft Drinks - 28 euros - 14 drinks Small beers - 35 euros - 14 beers Large beers - 59 euros for 14 Cocktails - 69 euros- 12 drinks Water - 20 euros - 14 still or sparkling 75cl bottles There are also wine packages available but I did not note the prices.
Restaurants and Food Breakfast - You can choose from continental served in your cabin 7.30-10am but needs to be ordered before 3am), buffet in La Terrazza on deck 11 (7.00-10am)or a la carte breakfast in the main dining room (7.30-9.30am). If you can't wait for your caffeine intake there is early birds coffee served from 6.30 -7.00am' These times were for At sea days and were occasionally earlier when we were early in to Port. I didn't use the buffet at all on this cruise as I prefer waiter service of the dining room. The choice there was reasonably extensive with a variety of fruit juices (carton variety rather than fresh squeezed), fruits, cereals, variety of bread, rolls and pastries (I particularly recommend the pain au chocolat - avoid toast as they don't make it like you'd expect - stick to the fresh bread, rolls etc). You can have eggs pretty much anyway (the omelettes are very nice as is the scrambled eggs), bacon (bit on the crispy side for British tastes0, ham, sausages, potatoes of the day 9usually sautEed), grilled tomato. They also have smoked salmon which you can have on its own or with cream cheese and a bagel. You can have pancakes too and they also have yogurts. Lunch - if you want to dine in the open air on the pool deck, then your choice is the pizzeria which makes a variety of excellent pizzas or the grill serving hamburgers, hot dogs, and salads both open from 12.00-2.30pm. There is also the buffet on deck 11 from 12.00-2.30pm or the main dining room 12-2.00pm. (again these are the At Sea times and sometimes changed when in port) Lunch in the dining room has a selection of 6 courses available - appetizers; salad; soup; pasta and rice: main; dessert. Meals at lunch time tend to be more international than in the evening. I particularly liked the variety of soups especially the chilled consommEs and fruit soups (very varied and absolutely delicious). Appetizers were invariably good and very varied. Pasta was always good too, although the rice dish which was usually some kind of rice salad, which could be a bit bland or dry on occasion. Main courses would always include eggs (e.g. omelette. Eggs Benedict; a fish dish; meat and a sandwich (which could be on ciabatta, foccacio or just bread) they always have hamburgers, cheese burgers etc available too. Desserts always include the ice cream of the day as well as sugar free alternatives and fruit is also available. On the whole I enjoyed most meals. Sometimes the food was warm instead of hot. I was less keen on the chicken dishes, simply because they do not use boned pieces and I can't be bothered trying to get the meat off the bones, especially when it is smothered in a sauce. Afternoon tea - is served 4-5pm. They have a selection of teas (Prince of Wales; Assam; English; camomile; peppermint and a few other herbal & fruit infusions) Coffee is also available. The cakes, and biscuits are Italian and may not be what Americans or the British are used too, but very nice. They also served dainty little sandwiches and filled rolls. Dinner is served in the dining rooms at allocated tables. There are 2 sittings; I chose the second at 8.45pm as the first at 6.30pm was too early for me. Dinner also has 6 courses available which are less international, usually with the food from a different region of Italy each night (although on a longer repositioning cruise of 18 nights earlier this year, they did do themed dinners from other countries e.g. Middle East, orient, Greek etc) they also have grilled salmon, chicken or steak available every evening and spaghetti Bolognese, if you don't fancy the main courses available. We had 4 gala dinners in the 20 nights we were onboard. I was seated with 7 other British people, 1 couple and the rest solos like me. We mostly got on well together and had good conversation each night. We had a really good assistant waiter but our main waiter whilst competent was clearly disinterested in his job and just wanted to be back home with his family. This was my tenth cruise with MSC and I found that overall the quality of the food was the best on this particular sailing. I heard almost no complaints from other English speaking passengers about it either. Like lunch my favourite courses were the appetizers, soups and pasta although I also enjoyed the risotto too. Most main courses were either good or excellent. I rarely had a dessert but when I did, usually the ice cream or something lighter like mousse or crème brulee, I enjoyed them. Unlike on European sailings, free iced tap water was available in the dining room. Midnight buffet /snacks- there was only one Midnight buffet - the Buffet Magnifique on the evening of the last Gala night. Every other night snacks were served just outside the Buddha Bar on deck 6 served from 11.30pm and had a different theme. Can't comment on this as having just finished 4 or 5 courses an hour earlier, could not contemplate eating again.
Crew For me the real stars (as always on MSC) were the dining room, bar and cabin crew. Gilbert my cabin steward was an absolute delight and kept my cabin immaculate. He always had a smile and a few words of welcome every time I saw him. When I didn't go down to dinner one night because I was feeling a bit ill with a sore throat, he came to check that I was ok. Many of the dining room staff were Balinese and absolutely charming. They always had a welcoming smile and soon got to know and recognise passengers. The bar staff were friendly too and happy to chat to passengers. From previous cruises with MSC I knew that the Italian Officers and Reception staff were usually aloof and often unhelpful. However on this sailing that had improved too. I found all the reception staff to be very pleasant and efficient I also had to see one of the officers about my account and he was absolutely charming. If you passed any of the officers, the majority would greet you with a smile and a few words of greeting. "Buon Giorno or Buona Sera" goes down a treat with them and guarantees you a smile!
Entertainment There were 2 showings of the main show in the Broadway theatre each evening to coincide with the end of each dinner sitting. The theatre itself is beautiful and has good sight lines regardless of where you sit. Unlike other MSC ships, there were tables in here and waiter service before the show, but personally I prefer the other more usual style of theatre they have with no drinks or food. The shows had to cater for 5 languages so tended to be either visual acts (such as cirque oleil style acts; magicians; dancers; or musical. There were 3 opera singers onboard (2 tenors and a soprano) and 5 classical musicians. 8 of the 18 shows were classical concerts. These were extremely popular as they were incredibly talented musicians. One of the tenors in particular could easily have graced the stage at La Scala or Covent Garden, he was that good. Many of us were of the opinion that we would have gladly bought tickets to see them and were disappointed that they did not have any CDs we could buy. They got standing ovations every night and frequently either moved me to tears or had the hairs standing up on the back of my neck. They also did a Michael Jackson Tribute one night which was amazing and I don't think there was a dry eye in the theatre. There was usually some kind of entertainment hosted by the very energetic group of young Italians forming the Entertainment team going on day and night. Day time tended to be dance lessons, quizzes and bingo (in 5 or 6 languages); competitions and games on days at sea there were also Italian lessons, arts and crafts and other demos and talks). As this was a Bridge themed cruise there were daily lessons as well as competitions.
Gym, Spa and other facilities The gym had recently been kitted out with new equipment and there was never a problem getting a treadmill or a bike (the ship was at less than 50% max occupancy though). They had a good range of free weights and weight machines. The gym is situated right at the front of deck 11 beside the spa and you got great views from up there. It did however mean it also felt the motion of the ship the worst when the sea was rough... The thermal area was situated here too and it was absolutely beautiful. I really loved the dEcor in the large Turkish bath and the showers were great with, overhead, side and rain effects. They also had huge ceramic loungers that were heated. I could happily have spent hours in this area, relaxing and staring out to sea. The normal price was expensive at 16 euros for an hour but they also introduced a number of specials (2 for 16 euros or unlimited use throughout the cruise for 99euros) I used the spa a lot as I'd bought 2 spa packages pre cruise. This included (total cost £308 for 9 treatments that included a number of different Balinese massages, a pedicure, manicure and a few others. It was supposed to be a saving of £172 on the onboard price but with the pound having fallen dramatically against the euro, I saved much more than this). Not many passengers were using the spa either, so there were always offers to be had where you could get free treatments if you bought products or discounts if you bought more than one treatment. I'd certainly recommend the Balinese massages with hot lava stones - it was bliss. They have a hairdresser too,
The outdoor pool is salt water and not heated, so is fine when in hot weather but can get a bit chilly. The pool area itself and deck above have lots of sun loungers available (which are all fitted with an adjustable face shield). Even on sea days, there was never a problem finding a lounger (but then the ship was not full). At certain times of the day there are activities by the pool - quizzes, games, dance lessons etc which can be a bit noisy sometimes so if you fancy some peace and quiet then head for the small deck areas aft from deck 8 upwards to 12. There is also a small library which I did not use but from previous experience of MSC ships would expect it to have only a small selection of books in English. There is a well equipped medical centre (with extremely proficient and friendly staff), A casino; slot machine area; cyber cafe; photo shop and a variety of other shops (clothing;; duty free; perfumery; electronics and a limited range of toiletries) There is also a children's club on deck 11 but as I don't have children, can't tell you anything about it. There is no self service laundry onboard, but they do have a laundry service which is quick and good. MSC Club members get 10 items of laundry done free of charge.
Disembarkation We were supposed to vacate our cabins by 8am and be ready for our "colours" to be called by 9am. (They call passengers off in groups depending on the colour of the luggage labels you've been given. Those with early flights get allocated colours for the first group, likewise any doing a disembarkation tour). I was in about the 3rd or 4th group to be called at about 9.15am, however as I'd arranged with my hotel that they'd send a driver to pick me up at 10am, I waited until just before 10 and left with another group. .
Overall Opinion The Good The food, my cabin, the shows especially the operatic singers and the great relaxed laid back atmosphere and the lovely people I met onboard. With this being a relatively small ship by today's standard and being just under half full, it was easy to get to know the other passengers and there were a significant number English speaking (Lots of Brits and South Africans and a few Americans, Canadians and Aussies)
The Bad The weather was fine and sunny until the day before we reached the equator but then it turned chilled and windy for about 6 or 7 days and we had some rough seas. We'd been informed that the onboard currency would be the US$ but we were all rather annoyed to discover that it was still in Euros and did not change to dollars until the cruise after ours. This made the onboard prices more expensive especially as the pound had fallen more against the euro than it had against the dollar. The 3 flight, 20 hour marathon return home. With hindsight, I think it would have been better to have done the Northbound sailing in April that way I would not have had some of the benefits of 3 weeks of relaxation undone by the overnight cramped flight home, before going straight back to work.
The Ugly A hardcore of passengers (about 20) who were so incensed about the "currency issue" that they made it the entire focus of their cruise. They were organising petitions, organising meetings with officers, harassing other passengers to take part in a sit in at disembarkation, protest by not spending any money onboard etc. I may not have been over the moon about the prices being in euros but overall I'd had a great price for a suite and had had the usual 100% supplement waived, so ending up spending an extra £100 or more onboard was no big deal and certainly not one important enough to ruin my cruise or let the "protest group" ruin it. Fortunately you could usually hear them before they saw you, so you could take evasive action and take another route to where you were heading!
So in Summary this was a great cruise despite the sometimes uncooperative weather. Had exactly what I wanted a very relaxing time, being waited on hand and foot by fantastic friendly staff who could not do enough for me. Met some great people and visited some unique places.
Postscript After returning home, I wrote to the MSC UK office to complain about having been misinformed about the currency and also the issues at embarkation. I was extremely pleased with their response which included a full apology, percentage refund of my onboard spend, an onboard credit for my next cruise and a discount on the cruise price of any cruise booked up until the end of 2011.