We had read a lot of negative reviews here, but decided that we would go and just make the best of our time on the ship and spend as much time as possible in the ports. We are frequent travelers to Europe, so were mentally prepared for cultural differences and language barriers ....
Finding the cruise port was pretty straightforward -- we boarded in Venice by took a water taxi from our hotel to the bus terminal where we caught a shuttle to the ship. The boarding process was actually quite simple and seemed well organized. There were tables set up in the waiting area where you could purchase excursions, drink or spa packages etc .... Once on board, we found our cabin easily and had lunch at the buffet.
The Ship: Our cabin and the general look/feel of the ship far exceeded our expectations. It is a lovely ship and extremely clean. It was beautifully decorated for Christmas, as well. We were amazed at their ability to make all announcements in 5 languages - English was always 1st or 2nd - and it was a nice touch to have an English 'newsletter' on our bed each evening listing the next days activities.
The Food: This area took a lot of hits from people in reviews - but i just don't agree. My husband is in the restaurant business and we have eaten in superb places all over the US and Europe. We are not easily impressed -- and no, i would not say the food on this cruise was 'impressive.' But - we found the dining-room dinners to be comparable to ANY cruise we've ever been on. Luxury quality? No, but that is not what we paid for, so it met or surpassed our expectations. We only ate breakfast in the dining room once and were not as impressed - very limited menu. We had room service breakfast a few days, which was simple but adequate and on the mornings we ate in the buffet, there were plenty of delicious, hot & cold items.
We chose late seating so we could enjoy full days in port and we were also moved from a 10 person table to a table for 2, at our request. We were pleased with that accommodation and also with the level of service we received. It wasn't particularly 'fast' - but, we were there to enjoy leisurely dinners and we did!
Beverage: Again, we read lots of complaints about this, but i don't agree -- at least i don't look at their policy as SUCH a negative. Evidently MSC has heard the complaints about having to purchase water, because, as one recent reviewer noted, they now give each cabin a bottle of water per day. We did purchase a wine package -- and this included a few bottles of water as well. We did buy a few extra bottles during the week, but with the water we were 'given' and the 'free water' at the buffet, felt it was sufficient.
Alcoholic beverages were certainly comparable to any other ship we've been on. We felt the wine package we bought was fairly priced and the wine was of adequate quality for what we paid. We ordered champagne in our cabin one night and it was also priced reasonably.
I have read a few comments suggesting that people feel 'nickel and dimed' and i think i understand that. Perhaps it is a differing cultural mind-set. Perhaps MSC would do well to simply add a few euros to the overall price of the cruise and include a few amenities that 'English speakers' (and perhaps others) seem to expect in the 'all-inclusive' price.
Entertainment: Pretty good - some better than others. In the lounge each night they had a 'classic trio' that was absolutely fantastic. the other group, 'los paraguayans' were also really fun to listen to - perfect back-drop for having a pre or post-dinner drink. The nightly shows offered a pretty good mix for all ages and all languages. Dancers were fine, the 2 'pop singers' were VERY average. The Opera singers were wonderful ... and the 'novelty acts' that were mixed in were all very entertaining. We were skeptical and on the first night said 'if it's no good, we'll leave and not return tomorrow' -- we only missed one night and it was because we spent too much time in the spa and needed to get ready for dinner.
*They did a lot of special things for Christmas and we really appreciated that. The singers and classic trio both performed Christmas music in the theatre and in the main lounge ... it was a lovely way to enhance the holiday experience.
Spa: We took advantage of a special they offered -- 6 spa services (so, 3 for each of us) gave you full access to the spa for the duration of the cruise. This was a bargain -- if you used the spa w/out a service, you paid 16.00E per hour. We booked 2 different 45-minute massages (each on a day at-sea) and a 45-min facial for another day. The services were reasonably priced and EVERY day we got back on the ship following an excursion, we relaxed in the 'not-so-hot' tub and steam rooms. (yes, they should turn up the heat)
Excursions: We found something fun in every port, even though Alexandria and Dubrovnik were really the only ones we were particularly interested in. Bari was charming, as was Rhodes. We did not take any tours in either of these towns and did just fine.
In Alexandria, there were several tour options provided by the ship, but we did NOT want our day in Egypt to be on their agenda, so in advance, I booked a private tour with 'Memphis Tours' out of Cairo. I am SO glad we did that. I could write all day about how frightening the highways are, but if you are bound to see the pyramids, then you just have to pray you'll stay alive to get there!
Our driver and VERY knowledgeable guide met us at the pier and on our tour we were able to spend quality time at the pyramids/sphynx. We did not feel rushed and we did not have to visit anything that was not on our agenda (like a 'papyrus institute', which we heard from others was a complete waste of time).
Because we did not hop off a tour bus at each site or have an MSC sticker on, we were not targeted by vendors. Evidently, this was a HUGE issue for people from our ship - we heard about it from EVERYone we spoke to about their MSC tour. They also felt very rushed at the pyramids and were really only able to see one up close. So, i would NOT recommend an MSC excursion to Cairo - for the same price or less you can hire a private agency - look on Trip Advisor to find several options.
We did use MSC excursions for Olympia as we wanted to see the birthplace of the Olympics (which was 45 min. away), rather than stay in the port town of Katakolon. It was Christmas day so the Olympic park was closed - but - we got to walk all around from the hillside road above and could pretty much see it all from our vantage point. The excursion included lunch and we spent an hour or so shopping in the town before getting back on the ship.
The other MSC excursion we chose was in Dubrovnik. The port is 15 minutes from the city center and there was a charge to take the shuttle into town (which probably should have been included in the overall price of the cruise), so we added a few more euros to take a walking tour. It was delightful - we saw and learned a lot that we may have missed on our own. there was plenty of time to walk the old city walls, catch the local choir singing at the Christmas market and have lunch in an outdoor cafe. Dubrovnik was a highlight for us.
Kids/Families: Since it was the holidays, there were lots of families traveling with kids. We wondered if that would bug us, being there as a 'couple' ... but it turned out to be a non-issue for us. This is one of the reasons we chose late seating and in retrospect, are glad we did, as it was mostly adults or families with teens. It is also one of the reasons we chose to spend so much of our 'on ship' time in the spa area - no kids allowed. I suspect that if we had been at the atrium pool (the outdoor pool was no doubt too cold most days), our experience would have been VERY different.
Service Charge: One of MSC's policies is to add service charges in lieu of tipping your service staff. To be honest, i don't have a strong opinion on that. it is a bit disconcerting to see the number of 'service charges' added onto your final invoice, but, we never compared the total to what we would have tipped everyone like you do on most cruise lines, so I cannot say if it is better or worse.
We disembarked in Venice and the process was just like any we've ever experienced.
All in all, we were very pleased with MSC. We would recommend it -- AND -- we hope to take another cruise with them in the future!