We travelled from Dublin to Copenhagen on the day before the cruise and overnighted in that lovely city. It was the day the College student finished and the whole town was buzzing, up to the not so early hours of the morning.
As there were 20 of us in the group, staying in two hotels, we arrived by taxi at Langelinie just after midday. The 'Orchestra' was sharing the dock with the beautiful 'Jewel of the Seas', which is my favourite ship and during the cruise I found myself frequently comparing the two.
MSC check in is a fairly painless procedure, albeit split into two. Initially your tickets and passport are quite extensivly examined on the Quayside, before you are directed to a lounge on deck 5 where the actual check in takes place. The process finishes here if paying your bill by Credit card, but continues in the Pursers Office if paying cash, as the check in staff cannot accept it. There was no reference made to how you wished to pay the gratuities and it seems that unless you say otherwise, then €7 per day is added to your account. Whether this sum is justified or not, I will deal with later.
We were on the Copenhagen-Kiel-Stockholm-Talinn-St Petersburg-Copenhagen sailng. It seems that Kiel is included primarily to drop off/pick up around 1,000 German passengers per sailing. Germany is closed on a Sunday and we were lucky that the annual Kiel regatta was on when we were there, with its colourful ships and a few of us headed of to Laboe, near Kiel to see U995, the last surviving Uboat. It was a lovely, warm Sunday and the locals were getting in the mood for the World Cup match with England. Needless to say, the 4-1 win for Germany went down very well with the German passengers on board, many of whom were watching on the huge screen over the pool deck.
Monday was a sea day, and we arrived in Stockholm early on Tuesday. The 'Hop on Hop off water taxi is close to the Cruise port and we made good use of it. Stockholm is a wonderful city, with beautiful buildings and well worth a longer visit in its own right. The highlight was a visit to the Vasa Museum, where the wonderfully preserved warship that sank on its maiden voyage in 1628 is on view in all its glory. Remarkable.
Talinn was next and this a lovely, quaint old town, with a mixture of Russian and western influences. We used the Hop on Hop off bus for €10 per day, and it leaves from beside the cruise port. Talinn is really compact and easily negotiated on foot, but watch out for the cobblestones and wear strong footwear.
A short hop across the bay had us in St Petersburg at about 6am on Thursday. This is rightly the highlght of the cruise for many and it is a shame that the Orchestra only stays about 12 hours. Note to MSC, overnight in St Petersburg like many other cruise lines. One day is not nearly long enough to do this wonderful city justice. Our group prebooked a day long Tour with Red October, and it was really excellent. Despite MSC's unsuccessful attempts to keep us from disembarking until all their own Tours had got away , we were passing through the newly built Cruise Terminal at St Petersburg within minutes of the ship being cleared by the local authorities. Our guide. Helen, was waiting for us and we had a full 50 seater coach for the 20 in the group. After a short drive around the city centre , we took off fo Peterhof, which is about an hour outside the city. This is a really stunning Summer Palace, and the famous Fountain Park, which starts at 11 each morning is a real spectacle. There are 150 different fountains , and all are naturall y powered, no electricity used at all. I've been to Pushkin on a previous visit, but preferred Peterhof. We took the hydofoil back to the city,this takes 30 minutes and is really enjoyable. The boat docked right outside our next port of call, the amazing Hermitage Museum. Do not miss the Hermitage when in St P. But try and arrive, like we did, between 12 and 1. The morning tours have ended and the afternoon ones haven't arrived. we spent 2 hours there and when we were finished there were literally thousands of people waiting to get in. It was very hot and uncomfortable for those waiting to get in. After the Hermitage, we went to the Spilled Blood cathedral, with its 7000 sq mtrs of mosaic work. This is a lovely church, which like most attractions, can get very crowded. After this we went to the Peter and Paul Fortress, where the Czars and their families are buried. As time was pressing, we had time for some shopping and then it was back to the ship by 6p.m.
I really can't praise Red October enough. They organised the itinerary as we requested it, and ensured that we were never caught up in the crowds that builld up at the main attractions. The guide, Helen, had perfect English, and was so knowledgeable. The tour cost about €20 per person more than the bi-lingual MSC Tours, but for the first class service we received, it was well worth it.
Friday was another sea day before arriving back in Copenhagen early Saturday morning.
Unfortunately, this is where the comparisons with RCL etc kick in. I have done about a dozen cruises, mostly RCL and Celebrity. The heads at MSC should take a long hard look at what they class as entertainment. One word describes it. Poor. What is the point of having a 1300 seat theatre, only to put on second rate cabaret shows ?. That is what we were offered every night by a Cruise Director who was as prominent as the Invisible Man. The only music of any quality on a ship called the Orchestra was an all girl string quartet who were easy on both the eye and the ear.Other than that there was a dreadful 'pop band' who seemed to be straight out of Eurovision and a band specifically for the large German contingent who were even worse. All the entertainment was focussed on the German/Italian market. As they formed the majority on board, thats fair enough, but NONE of the above would have made it past an RCL audition. The daily activities were very limited and bland, carried out by a staff who were collectively tired and uninspired. The Casino was busy in spots and features the usual slots, poker, blackjack and roulette. All the slots were 25cent machines and it seems the biggest win of the week was €175 !!!
I had read with concern some earlier reviews about this aspect of the Orchestra. Unfortunately, they proved to be remarkably accurate. Now, again its probably not fair to compare the Orchestra, with say The Jewel of the Seas or indeed any other RCL/Celebrity ship, but I'm going to, because when you pay a lot of money for a cruise you are I believe, entitled to a certain level of food and service. It started rather badly for our group. We had requested the main sitting and when I rang MSC prior to the Cruise, I was assured this was indeed the case, despite it stating Second sitting on our tickets. When we checked in, our room card confirmed second seating and when I approached the rather surly MD, was met with a shrug of the shoulders and only when I persisted did he relent and switched us to the Main sitting, but not until the second day. We had two tables for 8, and one for 4, adjacent which was fine. The two 8's had a really great waiter but we had the server from hell. He didn't speak, he was surly and literally banged the plates down in front of us.In all my previous cruises, I have always build up a rapport wih the waiters. Not this guy.
The food. I found it bland, unimaginative, poorly presented and with extremely small portions. This was greasy spoon stuff compared to RCL, and I can totally agree with some American comments about it. If MSC want to break into the US market, they require a radical review of all matters relating to their food service. It is just not good enough in all repects.
This was even worse. Poorly designed food stations which leave you lining up for too long. Very limited choice of food and at breakfast, its nearly impossible to get a table. This is due mainly to people seemingly not prepared to share a table. MSC treat coffee like its the next item to become extinct.No self service here, you wait in line to be served. And after breakfast, you have to pay for your coffee. They would be better putting the staff to use cooking eggs you can eat. Every day, without fail the fried eggs could be best described by one word...mush, broken and overcooked. Unlike RCL etc, the buffet does NOT open in the evenings, another big mistake. ome of our group went to the Shanghai Chinese Restaurant and were not impressed. Bland food and poor service. The best experience we had was the seated lunch in Villa Borghese. It was very pleasant.
Bar prices are rather high, although the service was generally good
From what I saw, pretty good. We had an ocean view on Deck 5. It was adequate, but I have to say that our attendant did not do his job to an acceptable level. Apart from making the beds.
€4 for 10 minutes. If you stay on for 1 minute, its still €4. I went 2 seconds over the 10 minutes and was charged €4.50. Speed was o/k, but the Internet cafe is one of the least used parts of the ship. It shouldn't take a genius in MSC to work out why. They need incentive packages here and quick..
Our group had a minor problem that took two days to sort out. Four different staff were involved and all gave conflicting information. These people have a difficult job to do, but I felt they just fobbed me off, hoping would go away.
The Orchestra is in pretty good shape. The pool area gets very crowded and there is little or no poolside entertainment. Didn't try the spa.
Having become used to the maybe overbearing cheerfulness of RCL/Celebrity staff, it was rather surprising that MSC staff, with a few exceptions that we came across, were rather unfriendly. No one says 'hello' when you meet in the corridors, and it looked to me as if the Staff manager has a rather demotivated team here. There was something about the body language of many of the crew that wasn't quite right.
GETTING OFF AT THE END.
No better or worse than any other ship. Our group had 3 or 4 different coloured tags and when I insisted we all be allowed leave at the same time, this seemed to beyond the comprehension of the staff member. Eventually, he realised what I was saying and let us go.. There are very few taxis available at Copenhagen Port by the way.
MSC have a lot of work to do before they can even claim to be on the same level as RCL/Celebrity. Maybe they are trying to grow too quickly, I don't know what the underlying reason for their shortcomings are. Despite what you might think, I am not hard to please. MSC did not reach an acceptable level on several counts. Would I cruise with them again ? I have no choice. My wife and I (she wasn't on this trip) are booked on the new Magnifica from Venice in September. This trip was work, the next one is a holiday, so hopefully I will be able to report great improvements then.