We cruised from Ft. Lauderdale on the March 20, 2010, Caribbean sailing. Overall the experience was a pleasant one, but passengers choosing MSC should be aware of several very important differences between it and other, more mainstream cruise lines. MSC is currently trying very hard to break into the American market, but it has yet to alter its service to American tastes. For the record, we are a married couple that have cruised over 20 times, on lines ranging from Carnival to Cunard.
1. FOOD: Service in the dining room was friendly, but not efficient. The maitre 'd granted our request for a 2 person table, but only grudgingly and as though conferring an enormous favor.
Dishes are prepared for European tastes, which means they can seem undercooked and underseasoned. The pasta dishes were uniformly good; the meat dishes hit or miss; the desserts, awful. This last is inexcusable for an Italian cruise line, but there it is. A grand midnight buffet is scheduled once per cruise, but the offerings looked a great deal better than they tasted. One small but welcome plus is free soft serve ice cream on deck during the day.
The buffet was indifferent food indifferently prepared; lunches were monotonous. It is very clear that the line underestimated demand here; lines were horrendous. The bread, however, was very good.
2. CABIN & PUBLIC ROOMS: The ship is magnificent, and laid out intelligently with a minimum of fuss. One minor gripe is the absence of a water fountain in the gym; they instead have (for reasons beyond comprehension) a fully-stocked bar, in case you feel the need to get liquored up before mounting the treadmill.
Ours was a balcony cabin, attractively furnished in dark wood & midnight blue accents. The only problem was an adjoining door and a VERY noisy family next door. We knew a great deal about them--including marital problems and bowel movements--by the end of the week.
3. ENTERTAINMENT: The dancers were passable, but the highlight of the evenings (and arguably the cruise as a whole) were the acrobats. This was a first for us, and they rivaled anything in Cirque de Soleil.
4. SERVICE STAFF: Our cabin steward was friendly, competent, and unobtrusive. The cabin was always cleaned within an hour of our leaving it. Remember to leave your room card in the slot provided; it tells the stewards when you are inside and they will not bother you.
5. THE LANGUAGE BARRIER: Americans in Europe expect to be treated as foreigners; Americans on a Caribbean cruise from Ft. Lauderdale do not. I suspect that this accounts for many complaints in earlier reviews regard rudeness. We encountered surliness only twice: the aforementioned maitre d', and the accounting staff. Overall the staff are Southeast Asian (as they are on virtually every cruise line) and very friendly.
On the other hand, if you choose MSC, be prepared to be in the minority. Every announcement, from lifeboat drills to bingo, is made in five languages consecutively. This can be charming or grating, depending on your point of view. The line also seems somewhat bemused by the expectations of the American tourist; complaints are endemic on cruises, but MSC cruise staff tended to respond to them with indifference or, in some cases, hostility. This creates a sour mood among the passengers, which we noticed numerous times.
OVERALL: MSC offers a sleek, Continental cruise that is worlds away from the go-go style of Costa or Carnival. The tragedy of the line is that has a fantastic and quite unique product that it does not yet know how to market. Most of this comes down to details: better food, more approachable cruise staff, more choices (especially for mealtimes). It is still a good value for the money, and worth trying.
San Juan is a great walking city, so unless you want to see the El Yunque rainforest don't bother with excursions. For the rest, however, the ship docks either in a prefab cruise port far away from the central town (Phillipsburg, St. Maarten) or in industrial facilities with few conveniences (Tortola). If you want to reach the beach in Tortola, do not waste money on an excursion: shuttle buses will take you to Cane Garden Bay for 6$ pp each way. On the other hand, excursions are necessary at St. Maarten and (especially) Nassau, which are otherwise unremarkable ports.