My wife wanted to go to Rio de Janeiro for our anniversary. I always wanted to go to Buenos Aires. Only one cruiseline gave us both with significant time in Rio on the dates near our anniversary plus a stop at Punta del Este, Uruguay - MSC. So, I researched MSC very thoroughly both on this board and elsewhere. Thanks to everyone who provided information like boardmember woodofpine (see his helpful review here: http://boards.cruisecritic.com/showthread.php?p=24572068&highlight=#post24572068) and many others. This is my full review of THIS cruise. I say this one specifically because I don't know if this experience is completely reflective of MSC in all other cruises, but I'd suspect so from the many comments I have read. Here is a quick summary, using the A - F grading system, of how we viewed the cruise:
Cleanliness and Condition of Room: A
Condition & Layout of Ship: A
Customer Service from Crew: C
Pricing of Cruise and Drinks Onboard: A
Embarkation/Disembarkation Process: F
Now, from the grading you can see we didn't hate our time on the cruise, but there were several very low marks and we probably will not cruise MSC again. First, about the issue of MSC not providing complimentary water and coffee, to me it was a non-issue at the buffet because coffee is provided at breakfast and water is provided at all times. Plus, you can buy a water package (21 bottles of 16 oz. of mineral water) for about $31 USD which we did. It was a little annoying when in the main dining room not being brought water automatically, but we have experienced that in Europe before and we knew about it heading into the cruise.
What was much more disconcerting is the service levels of most of the employees we encountered at the bars and restaurants. On more than one occasion, we waited in the buffet for over 10 minutes before any employee came towards our table for beverage service. Also on more than one occasion, when an employee did approach us they said they weren't the waiter and our waiter would be by shortly only to wait even longer. Never have I been in a restaurant, resort or cruise ship where an employee in that situation neither a) called my waiter over or b) just took the order her/himself. I also remember asking for additional ice for Cokes we ordered and the waiter said "the ice machine is over there"; I wouldn't have minded this at all except for the ice machine to which the public had access was on the fritz for almost the entire cruise. I have traveled to many places in Europe and in Latin America and this is not the standard sort of service I've come to expect; this isn't a "European problem" or "American problem", it's a service problem.
Speaking of the restaurants, we had a couple of dishes that were "ok", but I was never wowed or even satisfied with any total meal. The traditional Brazilian feijoada was good, but not great. The desserts were bad except at the Gala Buffet. The meals in the main dining room included some very overcooked beef tenderloin (think a dry washcloth), very underseasoned fish, fatty beef stew and spoiled prawns delivered to my wife and the second to last night. On the spoiled prawns, I literally didn't believe her and I tasted it myself and promptly spat it out. I guess I figured no matter how bad the food was, serving spoiled crustacean was impossible for a competent kitchen staff.
We also thought the embarkation and disembarkation was a nightmarish process. We arrived to our last cruise with NCL after 2:30pm in Barcelona. We had a balcony and were shown to a shorter line because we paid more and got onboard by 3:30pm (maybe earlier). We arrived to the port in Rio at 12:30pm. We got onboard the ship at 4:20pm. Why? Not only were balcony and suite passengers not given preferential boarding, everyone got what seemed to be a number based on their deck level regardless of when they arrived at the port. That number determined when you boarded the ship. Boarding didn't seem to start until after 1:30pm when the first number was called. We had a similarly hellish experience leaving the ship. We didn't pick up passports on the night before; instead we picked them up the morning of disembarkation but weren't told where. So I hobbled about the ship (with a bad foot... that's another story ) and got ours from reception just as a madhouse began by lots of angry and pushy passengers fighting for their passports.
There were definitely some great things we experienced. Irene, our cabin steward, was fantastic. She gave us a few special favors we needed. She helped me out when I was put down by the forementioned foot problem. She was flat out the best service person on the ship. Our main waiter at the dinner restaurant, Gregorio, was great as well. He learned our preferences and had bottled water and ice waiting for us at our dinner time. We also had some pretty good bar staff.
As for the ship, it's beautiful with good shops and has reasonable prices for things. Overall I'd say we had a good experience being together and seeing great cities, but MSC isn't really for us I would say. Not because it isn't "American" enough, but because they still have significant operational and service "kinks" that we can avoid by using other lines like NCL. My advice is make your own determination through thorough research if you are considering MSC, but unless they have a "once in a lifetime" itinerary, I'd counsel you to choose another line.
As for the destinations, they are excellent. Rio de Janeiro is a city I fell in love with years ago and it's even better now. We got into town a day before the cruise and stayed one night at the Acapulco Copacabana hotel which is 2 blocks from the beach and only 2 blocks from nightlife. The hotel is a boutique property that had a large room and kingsize bed in its superior room for $169 per night in high season. The service was good and the staff were very nice. In Rio, we used private guide, Martha Vasconcellos for a small group tour of the Rocinha favela and a private tour of Corcovado (Christ statue). She was fabulous and I would wholeheartedly recommend her. Buenos Aires was great as well. Pedro Werberg provided private guide services for us there. We did a full city tour viewing some of the old mansions, the Pink Palace for the lowering of the flag ceremony, the Recoleta cemetery, a coffee shop and a great steakhouse (El Establo). I also would highly recommend Pedro. Also, if you love hot beaches and can stand cold water, Punta del Este's beaches were some of the best I have been to and because of the currents it had some of the coldest water I've experienced. Let's hope some other lines pick up this itinerary.