We have been back for a week and I have been formulating thoughts of our cruise. First off, we did meet with a group of Cruise Critics while on board and had a great time, especially meeting Musicus who is on-board for an entire year. A true gentleman and quite entertaining-make sure to hear him play the piano!
I will try to do a break-down of different aspects. Remember, these are MY thoughts...even my husband disagrees with me as he saw some things differently than I did.
TRAVEL TO PORT: We took a red-eye on JetBlue out of Long Beach CA airport two days before our cruise to give us time to see the city. We much prefer sight-seeing before a cruise rather than after. We like this Long Beach airport as we love flying JetBlue plus it is easy to get to and maneuver around. The only issue is that you board the planes from the tarmac, rain or shine. The red-eye was my first...don't know if I would like to do it again. It put us into NYC at 6:00 AM. We had pre-paid a private car service, "1-800-LimoRes" for pick-up and got great service. Right on time and picked us up at the curb right outside baggage claim - ask for "Yogi" - you will not go wrong. Tell him he was recommended by the crazy group of four on their private tour that wanted to go have NYC style pizza and Red Velvet Cake.
HOTEL: We elected to stay at the Fort Lee Double-Tree in New Jersey, right across the George Washington Bridge. Great price, great rooms. They had a special that included breakfast every morning plus shuttle service into Manhattan both days we were there. We had to walk just two blocks to catch GreyLine tour and to see Times Square.
EMBARKATION: Took place at terminal 88 at the Manhattan pier. Easy access, no problems. We were there early around 11:30ish. Cabins were ready for us. No one greeting you with Champagne at that point, nor directing you to your cabin but no problem for us.
SHIP OVERALL: The ship is beautiful!! Very classy, sleek and modern. Loved it. The lobby has a three story waterfall with a "floating" piano on the stage over the pool at the bottom. The Library was very nice, beautiful leather chairs although I couldn't ever seem to get there when a person was on duty. Game/Card Room was lovely and almost always filled. Zebra Lounge was wonderfully decorated. Lots and lots of marble everywhere...stairs etc. Did make for some slippery moments when the ship was in rougher seas. I know of at least two people with broken limbs resulting from falls on our trip. Pool area was lovely but as we actually has some snow flurries on this trip I did not utilize it myself. The pool area has a HUGE big screen monitor on the 14th deck...very cool.
CABINS: We were traveling with friends and had adjoining balcony cabins 12132 & 12134 Leopardi Deck. Cabins were spacious and we felt they had good storage, although I heard one complaint in that area. Beautifully decorated (loved the large floor-to-ceiling mirror on the wall opposite bed-opened up the space and, well, use your imagination..wink..wink. Enough room under the bed to put suitcases. Lots of drawers. The closet was a bit tight as it opened into the bathroom door but we made it work. Cabin was located at mid-section VERY near elevators. Unfortunately we were also located near a crew door for pulling luggage in and out and also under the Cafeteria which has wooden floors. Heard a LOT of heavy banging from the kitchen and the scrape of chairs early in the morning when Cafeteria opened. This was definitely an issue for our light sleeping friends. Balcony and windows were washed almost every other "at Dock" so were kept very clean. NOTE: The hairdryers are in the drawer at the desk with a large mirror - very convenient. There are two settings - Min & Max. I have very curly hair and need a high setting to straighten my hair and keep it from frizzing. This blow dryer did not do the trick for me...I had a bad hair day most of the trip and had to use lots of product.
WIFI/INTERNET: FAST!! My have-to-work-all-the-time husband LOVED it! An advantage of being on a newer ship. Had a connection right in the room. Be aware that it is right under the flat-screened TV so you need a longer cord than normal to run out to the desk area or balcony. Also, be aware that if you are on a B2B cruise as we were, you purchase time credits for each LEG...this was not disclosed and created a bit of a problem until it was figured out. Tech people were very helpful with any issues that arose. The pricing was expensive as always.
ENTERTAINMENT/ACTIVITIES: We love shows. Did NOT love the first night show on this cruise. Most of it was hokey and almost embarrassing to watch. Had some sort of Animation Team that was just plain silly. Because of this we never went back...we did hear from some folks that it got better?? The other entertainment in the lounges was hit and miss. The first week they had a classical Trio that was wonderful and their lounge was always crowded. The second week they had a Big Band theme and had the Grammy-nominated Les DeMerle Orchestra...fantastic! Went several nights and danced. Some of the other lounges were just okay for me. Not bad..just ok. A highlight of the first week for us was the talent show. Great...better than the theater show...only problem it was HEAVILY attended. Should have been in the theater but wasn't. Held in the Pigalle (pronounced Pig-AHL) lounge and there were people standing...too bad. One issue...by Canadian law only one bar on a deck is to be opened while in their waters. This created a problem; when we tried to sit in one lounge we were actually herded into another. We moved and found no place to sit so came back in what could only be called defiance on our part...and we were not alone. We did not attend any activities save for an Italian lesson class. There weren't many...a few dance classes and Bingo.
PICTURES: This too was hit or miss. Some took their time to get a good picture while others were so obviously irritated at having to spend any time it was apparent on their faces. Look for the photographers with special lighting and backgrounds. YOU tell them what pose works best for you. The ones on the staircases look like they would be great but the lighting is harsh. Ladies, you won't like it. Take your own camera there. The gangplank pics and such were taken so fast most of mine were taken with closed eyes.
ANNOUNCEMENTS: Yes, they were in four languages...did not bother us. The announcements were not intrusive and we did not mind. My husband speaks a bit of Italian and it was fun for him to see what he knew. He even went to the Italian lessons offered on board.
SERVICE OVERALL: For the most part liked it. They are unobtrusive, not in your face pushing drinks. They walk around so that you can easily order but are not hovering. Our room steward was very nice and friendly...room was always clean and neat. I tipped him extra when we got to our cabin at embarkation and had my requested extra pillows waiting that evening when we returned. Had one towel animal the entire cruise...cute but not important. No candies on the pillow. Ice in the buckets every day. Of the 13 night cruise we only saw him about 5-6 times but was always available when we needed him.
Service in the spa was nice...more on that later.
Dining Room staff was attentive but not overly so. Had to ask for water more than they saw I needed it. More on Dining Room service later.
ITINERARY/SHORE EXCURSIONS: Wonderful. We were on B2B cruises..left NYC and went to Halifax, Sydney (twice) Boston, Charlottestown (PEI), Quebec City overnight and were supposed to go to Newport but the fog rolled in very heavy and could not tender in. Wished we had Bar Harbor the second week instead of the "double" Sydney. They are contracted with an outside service. The tours with lunches scheduled are not the best. They get you in and out fast and the food can be hit or miss. We were told that the ship sent people on ahead before choosing a route and set up the dining choices; if the line can't get the on-board dining room food right I'm not sure how they pick the offerings on land. NOTE: If you book your excursions on the Internet BEFORE the cruise, please realize that you will not get a refund on the ship should they be cancelled. You have to make a claim and receive a refund several weeks later. Since this happened to us twice (one a cancellation because the tour was not filled and once because of fog)we are still waiting for our refund. Shore excursions were expensive BUT we did get back an hour late on one of them and the ship had to wait. So there is the lesson on that....
DINING ROOM: Ahhh, here is what you've been waiting for isn't it? There are two Dining Rooms, one on the 6th deck (Ill Paladio) where we dined and the Fontane on the 5th deck...very pretty with comfortable seating. Now the food is where my husband and I differ..even our traveling companions had different opinions. I found the food to be just plain boring. No surprises, no special gourmet-type offerings..and, in some instances, just not good. I will admit I am a picky eater. Now, I didn't starve, far from it...lots of food but not what Americans have come to expect of cruising here.
The menu was quite ingenious though...they had sections listed for the American palate with their conception of what good ole' American food would be. Then they had an Italian fare section and a standard, every night sort of offering...you could mix and match however so could get the best of all worlds. While my husband enjoyed the food, he did admit that it wasn't what he would expect of a cruise. Their meat offerings were Flat-Iron steaks or some other cut that was typically chewy. When you read that info on some of the other posts...believe it.
One night in the Dining Room I ordered a langostino lobster and a shrimp dish and that is what I got. They were served the true Mediterranean way..the ENTIRE carcass (antennae and all) laid out. I spent 15 minutes carving up these critters just to get a stringy piece of a lobster "thread" of meat. Our friends accused me of ordering bugs for dinner...but that wasn't the issue..the taste and lack of offering was. Another night I ordered the chicken. NO KIDDING...I was served a Denny's-like broiled boneless chicken thigh with no spices or dressings of any kind, along with overcooked cubed carrots with a smattering of peas mixed in and four roasted potato pieces. Not even parsley to dress it! It literally looked like I was getting a frozen dinner laid out on a plate and it tasted about the same.
Suffice it to say, we stayed out of the Dining Room for most of the second part of the cruise. It just wasn't good enough to make the effort. The one bright spot was the "compulsory" Flaming Baked Alaska...it was probably the best I have ever had and I am not a fan of this dish. I did have Salmon one night and it was good but had bones. They did offer a lovely fresh salad of arugula and cabbage with fresh Parmesan cheese..quite tasty..I had it almost every time we were in the Dining Room. One thing also that you should know..I am not a stranger to Mediterranean food. I grew up in a Middle Eastern household so am familiar with this type of cooking...it is good, fresh food. This was not it. Consequently, because we did not frequent the dining room as much, I cannot tell you if Lobster was ever served. They did not have Fillet Mignon that I ever saw. I tended to stay away from the pasta dishes because I have a problem with garlic. My husband (who actually has spent a month in Italy staying in real Italian homes) said they were good but were cooked "al dente" which he likes very much..not the mushy pasta that we tend to like here in the states. The desserts were okay..not the rich desserts that we have here but were light and fluffy. There was not ever one good piece of chocolate "Milk Cake" if you know what I mean...I missed that. Their version of Creme Brulee was more like custard with some maple sauce poured on top...no crusty top. The service as stated was good. For some mysterious reason, after the second night where I asked our server to fill both the wine glass and the water glass with water because I could not get them to come back to fill them in a timely matter, my glasses were both "downgraded" to smaller ones. When I asked why, I got two different answers...one: "We broke them and that is all we were given" (I kid you not) and the second; "another table stole ours". Whatever..at least I had water. It was just funky...but as we are pretty-easy going it was not a huge thing. Some people though had major problems and we heard a LOT of complaining. We were second seating so did not ever go to the Midnight Buffet.
CAFETERIA: We found that cafeteria more to our liking. There was the obligatory roasted rosemary potatoes-quite good (although only once did they have mashed potatoes), salads, pizza, rolls and their "mystery" salads made from the previous evenings offerings, mixed together and given a name-weird. Breakfast consisted of the normal eggs and bacon (eggs runny and bacon barely cooked but that was my issue) pancakes, french toast, waffles, potatoes, cereal, oatmeal, etc. Like I said, we didn't starve..it just wasn't what we have come to expect on a cruise. Coffee was excellent and was very consistent. Tea was harder to come by...you had to comb through the offerings to get what you wanted and if you are a caffeine-free tea drinker bring your own...you can't find it. One bright spot were the hamburgers...very good and tasty..tasted home made. Pizza was quite good. I had an eggplant lasagna that was to die for..very, very good. Desserts were the same here...nothing to sink your teeth around but it kept me from gaining a huge amount of weight so maybe it was a blessing!
The Cafeteria was open every night EXCEPT on Gala nights when they served only pizza until later in the evening. One note: The non-Americans are not really worried about standing in a buffet line...do the same..jump in and out and go around. Acceptable and don't get upset about it. This ship is marketed to the French, Italian and Germans...when in Rome...
Moving around the buffet can be challenging. Some spots are tight and when people get into a large crowd their IQ's tend to drop ten points. They tend to linger in the aisles and you have to watch or you will get pushed around. Finding eating space is difficult especially at prime hours. Do yourself a favor and move just past the cafeteria dining room to the back of the ship in the area of the L'Obelisque dining room. The air-conditioning works better there and no crowds..you just have to walk a bit to the restroom.
SPECIALTY RESTAURANTS: Since the food was not up to what I would consider gourmet in the Main Dining Room, I just couldn't see spending more for the specialty restaurants serving bland food.
SPA: They offer Balinese type massages and facials. I am a facial gal so love them and as I have never had a Balinese facial before decided to try one. This was like none I have ever experienced. It was rougher and harder...but I really liked it. Felt good and I have seen results from it just this week. Be aware that it is not gentle but was pleasing in an odd way. They do not try to up sell you any products. I did not have a massage but the staff were pleasant and they offer specials on the "at dock" days so I got a 60% discount that night. ALSO, be aware that they will not charge tips to your card...you must bring cash to tip. I had to go back the next day to tip my facial lady...I wish they disclosed it. Their reasoning was that they didn't want you to feel obligated, so....
TIPPING POLICY: They do make you feel obligated. MSC tipping is high...$12 per day per person...on a 13 night cruise that was almost $300. I heard it took an act of Congress to get it changed which you MUST do before they charge your card..after that, all financials go to Italy and it is a mess. I talked with one Australian man on board who was on for three weeks. He went in to change the tip amount to $50 a week and said he was rudely treated and told..."you Australians are all alike" ... whether this was true or not I could not tell you..it what was told to me by the person involved, but he did get the tip lowered.
EMBARKATION: Easy-set your bags out before 1 AM and you pick them up on the dock OR you can get a choice of taking your own luggage off BUT you are sternly warned there will be no help to you if you choose the do-it-yourself route. If you set your bags out, you are given tags with a color code. We took our sweet time getting off after they called our color. Once we decided to leave, we didn't have to hunt around a bazillion bags. For the NYC port, be forewarned that if you decide NOT to use the NYC porters you are rudely directed to a LONG, winding trail to the customs window rather than their fastrack.
Our same driver from LimoRes again picked us up and gave us a leisurely tour of other NYC city highlights, where we stopped for NY pizza and a Bronx delight - Red Velvet cake before heading back to JFK and our JetBlue flight back to Long Beach.
ONE MORE THING...If Americans are thought of badly throughout the world..there may be a reason..we can be quite rude and ignorant. Some of us can be thoughtless and downright stupid and I saw instances of it on this trip with behavior that was quite unbecoming. It made me sad for the people on the receiving end that are trying to do a very hard job, separated from their families for months at a time. This is an example of an actual episode that I personally witnessed:
The morning that we were to tender in at Newport Rhode Island, the fog was so think you could not see off the end of our balcony. We were blowing the fog horn every minute and when we finally stopped and dropped anchor an announcement was made that we were waiting for the fog to lift so tendering could begin (it never did). An American lady with a midwest accent stopped one of the cruise assistants (Italian) who was handling the tender assignments and began to berate her loudly for "trying to drive the boat in the fog when the captain can't see anything." This American lady could not understand "how the Captain could see where he was going and that she knew last night we should not have been going anywhere because we might bump into something in the fog" She would not let up. The poor crew member was gracious and apologized, while saying the Captain knew best. I wanted to take the lady aside and explain sonar and radar and how submarines get around but it would have been in vain. It was unbelievable but sadly, it was just one of the stupid things I heard on that cruise.
Well, thanks for letting me run on with this. Like I said, these are MY opinions..others have different ones and that's ok...that is what makes the world go around. Would I ever go on MSC again?? You betcha..the price was great, I have foreknowledge about what I'm getting into and I would have a big lobster dinner on shore before heading back to the ship!
We made two stops in Sydney..the first time through we went on a walking tour of the city on our own - pretty unexceptional although there are some pretty homes close by the terminal. The terminal itself has a lot of shops, with internet service and fax machines available. There is also a large auditorium where the locals sell their hand-made products. Get a picture with the three-story violin at the terminal. Everybody seemed to head for the nearest pharmacy as a lot of people had colds...and it was crowded. A few blocks down is another one...take an extra minute and go there..much less crowded. Also there is a "dollar" type of store there. I was so cold that I ended up buying a pair of thermal underwear...best buy of the cruise for me! The second time through we had a tour of the Bras D'Or lakes on Cape Breton Island...home to the Alexander Graham Bell museum. The museum was interesting but the scenery will take your breath away-the Fall colors were spectacular. You will understand why he choose to make this area his home for 37 years - which you will NOT see as it is still owned by his descendants. The lunch was a little thin here but overall a nice tour. This is the tour that was an hour late getting back to the ship. I wish that we had been able to stop in Bar Harbor on this cruise instead of two Sydney trips.