MSC Poesia - Not For the American Market?
We cruised the maiden New England voyage for Poesia September 22-Oct 2, 2010, choosing it based on a one-day fantastic price offered on the internet for a balcony (Category 8)... at less than eight hundred dollars, before tax. As we soon found out ... you only get what you pay for ... and there are striking differences between American-based cruises lines and European ones such as MSC (an Italian line). Knowing that we wanted to do a New England/Canada cruise, we booked first and read the Poesia reviews on Cruisecritic.com later .... finding out that the ship had its share of flaws ... and then some. Hits were ship's dEcor, certain, selected types of foods, and destinations. Misses were a good portion of the food served, cabins, shows, billing (mandatory donation to UNICEF), and "monopolization of" tourist/public transportation at ports. For people who have cruised on other domestic/ competitive cruise lines, this cruise would be a disappointment and viewed, at best, as a "budget type of cruise". Read on ...
Ship design and layout:
Poesia (pronounced PO-Z-A), circa 2008, is an attractive ship with some very nicely decorated common areas that compare favorably to other 90K+ton ships. This ship makes generous use of marble in the common areas. Cabins however, are very small. Our 161 sq. ft balcony was very tight, offering only a 31 sq. balcony and less than needed storage. Had we not packed our clothes on wire hangers (temporarily removing the ship's bulky plastic hangers), we would have had to store some clothes in our suitcases. The bathroom too is small with a ridiculously tight shower. Where the ship did have a design advantage .... lots of elevators ... more than on any other ship we have sailed, and these too were fitted with beautiful marble. The formal dining rooms (stacked over each other on decks 5 and 6) did not have the high ceilings that other ships have, giving them a less than grand appearance. Villa Pompeiana (buffet area on deck 13) while very striking, was laid out cafeteria style (very few stations) requiring cruisers to wait on long lines. The design of the line area in front of the food was so tight that it was very difficult to pass through, if one wanted to skip the line. Many used this tight area to walk from one area to the end of the buffet causing people to constantly bump into each other. This ship did have an extra seating area at the back of the ship, which had a more limited buffet. However, this "secret" area became well known to all aboard only three days into the cruise. Since it was at the back of the ship, it had a beautiful panorama of the sea. Overall, the crew did a great job of cleaning up the plates, which helped with the crowds and table availability. The multi-story theatre was set up just like a regular theatre and had no blocked views. Seats however were uncomfortable, being tight and short. Acoustics and stage areas were fine. That was not the case with the quality of the shows (reviewed below). This was the first cruise ship we have been on that did not serve drinks in the theatre since its layout prohibited that. Deck 13 pool area is fitted with two small rectangular pools and saunas above each pool. On the only good sea day during the very stormy weather that dogged the whole cruise, decks chairs were only partially filled due to the cooler outside temperature. The deck chairs, were very uncomfortable, with a fixed setting, but had a separate screen that fit over the head to avoid the sun. This ship had an enormous amount of lounges and bars scattered throughout. Some intimate and some very large like the deck 6 "Zebra" bar which become a popular venue and the main hub for people to gather. Deck 13 gym was on the small side, and had mostly stair step, treadmill, and bicycle machines with very few weight bearing machines. Unlike other ships, there was no one in the gym to help out guests. It looked like the gym staff really worked in the adjacent spa. MSC has a policy of making everyone using the gym to sign a release form and getting a clearance sticker posted on their cruise cards. They were also picky about the type of shoes that exercisers wore. If they didn't like the shoes, you could not get in, even if your shoes had rubber soles. Guess they didn't want the fake wood floors to get marked up.
The food was one of the major flaws of this ship, although there were occasional pleasant surprises. Being of Italian-American heritage, I found that most things Italian were pretty good. The pastas and risotto were very good, although the chef had a passion for red sauce made out of cherry tomatoes. White (Alfedo and Asiago cheese sauces), Pesto were also very good. Pasta cooked al dente. The buffet had some Italian specialties like soppressata salami and an occasionally prosciutto (ham). After a few dismal served breakfast and lunch meals in the main dining room, we faithfully went to the buffet for all these meals thereafter. This is the first time that we experienced poor cooking and service in a ship's main dining room for breakfast and lunch meals. Breakfast buffet had the standard items, but too little fresh fruit. More canned fruit than fresh. Among the better items were great hash brown cakes, good small link sausage, grilled tomatoes, rolls, croissants, scrambled, boiled and on occasion, fried eggs. Bacon had a funny taste. Sliced salami and cheese as well as ricotta cheese was always present. Coffee was hit or miss ... all out strong one day, weak the next. You couldn't recognize the diluted "orange drink" as OJ and the pineapple juice was a better choice. Juice must be a primo expensive item in Italy as you were not allowed to pour your own, but had to take the small glasses of filled juice from the trays. Lunch buffet was filled with all types of seafood, vegetable, and meat salads as well as a decent lettuce bar with all types of fixings to make on your own. There were always several meat dishes (including a carved to order), good pasta dishes and the star of the lunch buffet .... several types of pizza .... REALLY GOOD PIZZA... hot and fresh. Desserts at the buffet were dismal. Thank god that was not always the case with the dinner (served) meal. We took our Dinner in the Le Fontaine Room, deck five, aft. We had a table of eight people ... really nice couples from CA (LA), PA, and NJ who hit it off and had great conversations each evening. Our servers, ADI and TunTun did a great job and could not have been more accommodating to every request. Unfortunately the dinners were hit or miss, and towards the end more miss. In general, the quality of the meats, particularly steak (strip, fillet, flank steak) were the worst that we have every experienced on any ship (tough and stringy). Other meat selections were mostly overcooked and dried out (as was usually the case in the upstairs lunch buffet). If you like good cuts of meat, cooked rare, this is not the ship for you. We did manage to have a good veal Osso bucco, the first night, and my other half had pretty good fish on most nights, but towards the end of the trip, the fish came out overcooked. Rack of lamb, a table favorite had a strong mutton taste. Rolls and other bread goods were of ok quality, but not as good as on other ships. Salad-wise, they offered a great Caesar salad with sliced parmesan every night. It was a staple for me. Soups were good, but too much emphasis on bean and lentil ... heavier soups. Except for excellent cheesecakes, and very good gelato, the desserts in the dining rooms did somehow disappoint. Only on one night (out of ten) was shrimp cocktail offered. On our second to last night the ship finally brought out the lobster. This was a very well kept, guarded secret by our Asst. maitre d' DILO who refused to admit that the ship would serve lobster, right up until and including the evening before. What's the big deal letting people know that lobster would be served the next night??? Any of the 13 other ships we have been on always told you a day in advance that lobster would be served. We were served a half of a small whole Mediterranean lobster ... without the claw. It was well prepared, offered with drawn butter. Overall, I would say that only three out of the 10 dinner meals we had were acceptable. A poor batting average. Towards the end of the cruise there was one Midnight Buffet that was a beautiful sight to behold. Lavish salads, cold cuts, shrimp, desserts too numerous to list were presented along with beautiful carvings of food (not ice). The unfortunate thing about this buffet is that too few people knew about it and only a small fraction of the ship showed up. Only if you read the very cramped newsletter that day would you have seen the obscure one-liner about the 12 am buffet. The Cruise director failed to mention it that night at the theatre show, and hence it was very empty. What a shame. I am sure that many guests would have come if they had known. Alternative dining: We tried the Japanese restaurant for Udon/tempura soup which was good and reasonable. The other alternative restaurant (on deck 13 ... during the day was the end part of the buffet for breakfast and lunch) was empty and closed down night after night. Maybe the menu seemed too similar to that of the main dining rooms or the fact that it was the buffet room each day was turn off. We didn't bother with it or the $25 pp surcharge.
Entertainment on this ship, ranging from the nightly shows in the main Theatre, to the lounge music, to the disco ... was a major let down, with minor exceptions here and there. The shows in the main theatre were a major disappointment. The worst we have seen on any ship in 14 cruises. We are used to seeing "Broadway type" of professional productions on ships, with live bands. Per se, the ship has no major band, as other ships do. There were some two and three piece combo's that played in the theatre (and other areas), but mostly the music that accompanied many of the shows is taped. The theme shows had dancers who mostly walked around and flailed their arms. While the dancers had nice costumes and the shows some decent sets, overall they had very poor dancing skills ... this was a shock. These dancers really needed the skills of a good choreographer. What saved the shows were acts interspersed during the main shows--- wonderful acrobatics, aerialists, a great tenor (Aurelio Gabaldon), a soprano (Rosita Tassi), bicyclist, a lariat specialist, etc. and a great pop singer, Ms. Massa who also was accompanied and sometimes drowned out by loud, canned music. Dancing music in a number of lounges was pretty good, but the disco music played on the night we were there was dismal. The place was empty. We could not believe that there were no comedians aboard, but maybe that had to do with the fact that the main market has until the recent transatlantic voyage right before ours had Europeans passengers. While the cruise director Anna was certainly lovely, we only saw her in the theatre each night when she introduced each show. She was one of those directors that was not seen around the ship at other times. Finally a word about ship's activities. Since we had four sea days, a generous amount, activities were important. Unfortunately, unlike other ships, there usually was only one (sometimes two activities per hour). A lack of things to do was very apparent. The ships daily newspaper was also pretty poor, not well laid out and had mostly boilerplate items (e.g. times each restaurant opened and closed). We also felt deprived of world news. The TV in the rooms mostly was older movies, ESPN and dozens of stations saying "no signal". On the few occasions that CNN played, it was in a foreign language and only for a few hours. Unlike other ships there were no printed excerpts from the NY Times or any other forms of news.
For both embarkation and debarkation, Poesia had problems, preventing smooth entry to and exit from the ship. We arrived for embarkation at 11:30 am, only to find out that MSC had computer problems requiring customers to wait up to two hours in the entry hall. We finally got on board at 1:30 pm. At least they offered bottles of water and some fruit drinks to help pass the time. For debarkation, we chose to carry off our own bags to make our 10:50 am train from Penn Station. For some reason MSC required all people doing a carry off of their own bags to meet in the Zebra Room at 7:00 am . This room is in the front of the ship. The exit turned out to be in the very back of the ship. So for what took over 45 minutes, waiting in long lines, etc., there was a parade of guests walking through the entire 6th floor with their bags. Wouldn't it have been better to let individuals go directly from their cabins to the exit? It was probably a ploy to get the many guests who chose this option out of their rooms by 7 am.
MSC offered several excursions for Sydney, Halifax, Charlottetown (P.E.I.) as well as Quebec and Newport. All excursions offered were much higher price than on-land options offered by companies not under control by the ship. As it turned out in both Halifax and Charlottetown, MSC "monopolized" most forms of transportation including the double decker buses, trolleys and amphibious vehicles such that these were not available to the public or ship guests who walked off looking to use them ( at the much less published rate on the internet). Even worse, while you could book these excursions at the ports, off the ship, you had to pay the ship's higher price. For example the ship charged $49 for the "hop on/hop off" bus in Halifax. You could book it outside of the terminal for the same $49, but this bus normally charges $29 for the same service to the public, as posted on the internet. (Review of ports below).
Billing --- Mandatory Donation to UNICEF:
Halfway through the trip, MSC sent all guests a bill for the entire cruise that included the $12/day service charge (p.s. competitive cruise lines charge $10/day). Since their computer could not show future post dates, everyone's bill showed $12/day for 9/27, five times. The bill also included for each passenger a $1.50 charge for a donation to UNICEF. Apparently, MSC donates to this organization and automatically charges ... without passengers' knowledge or approval ... this donation and then passes it off as a donation from MSC. The lines for billing adjustments were humongous and there were many passengers engaged in heated disputes with the accounting department. Further, due to weather problems the afternoon tours for Rhode Island were cancelled, and passengers were online even at the last few hours of the last morning on the ship to get refunds. We got dinged for an extra beverage charge we did not make, but had to let it go because we would have never made our train connection if we had to wait on the line to get it corrected. When we did have the time to wait on line days prior to correct mistakes, the accounting department tried to blow customers off by saying they would take care of the mistakes. Savvy customers demanded a copy of the corrected bill before they walked away.
Sydney - Nova Scotia: We did not book any excursions, on the ship or off and just walked around the town. A local church was offering $20 (cold) lobster dinners. On the second to last night the Captain Giacomo Romano spoke before the show and indicated that he was not sure why the line visited Sydney, as there was nothing to see. On this we agreed with him. That was not the case for the other, much more interesting ports.
Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island: We really wanted to do the Hippo (Amphibious) Boat, but this was completely tied up by MSC until 4:30 pm, the time we were due on board. So we walked to the visitor's center and met up with another couple and rented a taxi for a four hour tour of the island. The taxi's rent for $50/hour in PEI. This turned out to be great option and for each person it came to $62.50 (tip included). The ship's comparable tour, which covered fewer sights, was $119/person. We traveled to Green Gables (site inspired by Lucy Maud Montgomery's famous novel), the Dalvey Mansion (home to one of Kentucky's richest oil men and two his two daughters who were considered the richest two women in the world at the turn of the century), ancient churches, and a full tour of the town, boardwalk area. Etc. Great tour by Doreen, our cab driver!
Quebec: Docked in old town, directly beneath the Chateau Frontenac, we took the ($2) funicular up to the upper town and booked a two hour bus tour at the visitor center directly next to the Chateau. This cost $37.50 pp. We saw many of the city's sites, before returning to the lower section and walking the cobblestone streets lined with shops and restaurants. To do it right, cruisers really need an overnight in this port and two days of sightseeing. This is a stunning city, reminiscent of Europe in architecture. Worth coming back to see. Halifax: This is a great cosmopolitan city that had equally great sights to see. Outside of the terminal we gathered a group of five and booked another four hour tour (costing $45/hour). In addition to an extensive city tour showing us the major universities, beautiful parks and homes, we visited two major places, the Citadel (underground fortification) and Peggy's Cove. The latter is a good 30 minute drive out of town and offers a spectacular ( do not miss) site to view huge granite formations on the ground and the light house perched on the treacherous shore, where four hundred years earlier, a ship ran aground and all perished, except a child, Peggy, for whom the site is named. We also saw, less than a mile away, the memorial site to the Swissair 111 plane crash of September 1998. For only $37.50 pp with tip, we got a terrific tour with a tremendously knowledgeable tour guide (Mr. McGee). We beat the $79 price charged by the ship.
Newport Rhode Island: For the first time in nine days we woke up to glorious sun and decided again to do our own tour. Our research showed that there was a public bus ( "RIPTA") leaving from the visitor center, close to where the tender boats dropped us. This public bus tours a good part of the island, passing by all the famous mansions, open to the public. We decided to go to the MARBLE House, at the very end of Bellevue Street, where most of the Mansions reside. It was built as a summer house for Alvah Vanderbilt in the late 1800's by her husband, whom she later divorced. Alvah, a famous suffragette, spent $11 million decorating the house over the next 20 years. Like its name, the house is made of marble on the outside and has lavish marble fixtures on the inside. We made it to the tea house at the back of the property, where we could view the famous "cliff walk" that encircles all the mansions, just as the skies opened up and it began to rain heavily. Unfortunately the rain and rough seas caused the ship to cancel all afternoon tours. We made it back; glad we got to see at least one of Newport's grand mansions. Our cost for this self tour was $6 pp for the bus and $14 pp for the Mansion (with an excellent recorded anthology on a tape machine which allowed us to do the self tour, easily). Again this was much cheaper than the ship's tour of one mansion.
All in all, we did manage to have a good time, enjoyed the ports and the four sea days that were interspersed. Because this ship is below the standards of others we have traveled on, we just kept reminding ourselves just how little the cruise cost, always remembering ... "you get what you pay for". We were pleased that we did all the tours on our own, saw a lot and saved beacoup bucks over the ship's excursions. Finally, I don't think we were alone in our opinions of this ship. On the second to last night at the show, the ship's Captain decided to appear again with his senior staff and engaged the audience with some questions. When he asked the Italians how they liked the ship, there was a roar of clapping. When he asked the Americans, very little clapping was apparent. In quite an Italian manner, the captain raised his arm up and said ehhh! shaking his head as if he already knew the ship was not a big hit!