As a first time cruiser, it may be seen as full hardy to have jumped in with both feet and opted for an 18 day Trans - Atlantic crossing, but with nothing to compare, I still thought it valid to give a measured and balanced view of the MSC Sinfonia, Livorno to Cape Town, repositioning cruise, given some of the damning and dated reviews posted.
A very competitively priced package, as many repositioning cruises are, but the onboard costs are high, and while drinks packages etc are available, be prepared. If cost is a major factor, consider the reverse trip at the end of the Sinfonia's South African season, as all charges are in US Dollars and the outbound Euro unit costs are not adjusted.
Again, in view of the reviews posted we were not sure what to expect, but our concerns were unfounded. The ship, of medium size, by today's standards, is impeccable, given its age, with very little sign of "wear & tear".
The style is elegant & understated and reminiscent of an earlier era, with a distinctly Italian influence - Quite a lot marble and shiny laminate. Don't expect climbing walls, wave machines, constant music or too much "fun & games" on this cruise. Multilingual announcements were the norm, but kept to a minimum and therefore not intrusive.
We had an inside cabin on deck 10, which was perfectly adequate, but with hindsight we would have paid the premium and opted for an outside with balcony. 18 days with no daylight is too much! Again, the finish and quality of furnishings were very good, and the use of space well thought out. The shower, though small, was adequate.
Really couldn't fault it, given the cruise price, but seasoned cruisers said the service was not up to scratch.
Mainly Phillipino, Balinese, South American, Eastern European & Italian, helpful & friendly though some waiting staff failed to engage and looked as though they didn't want to be there. The officers, all Italian, were slightly distant and the captain had the same failing as some of the waiting staff!
We arrived 3.5 hours before the embarkation time and there was already several hundred people waiting to embark. There is currently no online embarkation at Livorno. Despite this, the queue moved quickly and the embarkation process was seamless and hassle free, taking about 1.5hours.
The Israeli security was efficient, visible, but not overbearing. They should however, learn to smile! A grim, humourless expression doesn't make them any more macho.
There are two dining rooms, with 2 sittings each, both serving the same food. There is also a terrace buffet restaurant, again serving the similar food. This restaurant is also used for breakfast. In addition there is a lunchtime, early evening grill, pasta bar, and pizza servery. So while adequate, the dining options are limited.
The dining room menus were slightly pretentious, and, on the whole failed to deliver, with the themed "Nationality" nights missing the mark. The gala evenings were more about dress code, with the dining similar to all other evenings. Breakfast was the usual European option with the "cooked" selection of poor choice and quality.
The menus also became a bit predictable, but I guess that is to be expected on a cruise this length. The Italian wine list was fair but overpriced, and the house wine was below par.
The ship has an excellent multiple-level theatre with good acoustics and unrestricted views.
The shows however were of variable quality; from excellent to fair, but some one was rank awful. Crew talent shows, fair enough, but only if they've got talent! Plenty of classical music & opera for purist.
The daytime and evening entertainment on deck and in the salons was mixed. Generally the professional musicians were good, but the entertainment crews' offering was in the main childish and cheesy - reminiscent of 3rd rate Italian TV game shows! - Or have I just had a humour bypass?
Plenty of loungers, promenade deck, 2 small, cold, seawater pools and jacuzzi, eateries and bars. Note, as the majority of passengers were German, or German speaking and despite the ship having a policy of not reserving loungers, you'll have to be quick if you want to secure a prime position lounger, as the Germans are on the starting grid by 08.00am! There is also a well equipped gym, therapy spa, crazy golf, the usual deck games, a casino and a disco, both of which remained empty throughout the voyage.
The ship was at 80% capacity of which the majority was German speaking (750), South African (320) British (130) & Italian (30). The average age of passengers was a guestimate of 70. There were very few children on board, so little use was made of the available children's supervised play area.
Generally the excursions were expensive, but the general response from participants was positive. We only participated in one - the Casablanca city tour, which was informative and worthwhile, lasting 4.5 hours.
Villefrance - Tenders are used straight to the centre of this small town, so forget the tours and chill out in the habour cafes or explore the back streets, but a cafe with a view costs -â‚¬11.50 for a large beer!
Valencia - Quite a long walk to the city centre, so take a taxi if traveling independently (â‚¬10 from the centre of town to the port inc tip)
Casablanca - A small red taxi (2 persons) will cost about â‚¬50 for a day's city hire, while a similar tour would last 4.5 hours and cost â‚¬49 per person.
Agadir - Again opted for a 2 person private hire taxi. On disembarkation the taxis queue up at the ship, the pickup/drop off is pretty slick and the cost preset. The 2 hour city tour cost â‚¬25, but actually lasted 3.5 hours, with the driver paying the coffees and parking, who seemed delighted with the â‚¬40 paid.
Dakar - A shock to all the senses, filthy, abject poverty, and constant, sometimes aggressive, harassment. No good comments about the tours and those who took taxis to travel independently complained of drivers, who hassled them at journeys end, over the previously agreed price, demanding more money.
If your going ashore, go to Goree Island independently, it's worth a visit. Don't leave the port; turn right behind the containers at the railway line, past the weighbridge. Exit the port and re-enter through gate 50yds on right hand side. You will see the blue & white Goree terminal building. The cost is about â‚¬2 and if you leave the ship before the excursionists and walk briskly, you'll be there before the coaches. You'll have plenty of time to visit the island and for the return ferry, even on a half day port visit. MSC price â‚¬50!
Warning, be very vigilant for pickpockets etc. Several passengers were "dipped" in town and others were relieved of their watches and wallets before even leaving the quayside!
Walvis Bay - Seemingly Swakopmund is worth a visit. We opted to walk into town from the quayside - about 3/4 mile to the port gate. There was a shuttle bus to the port gate but it was erratic. We took a taxi tour to the Lagoon and Dune 7, which was a disappointment. However the cost of â‚¬40 was half the cost of an organised tour for 2. Not much to see or do in Walvis Bay. The highlight was finding the "Sportsman's Bar" where the beer was 1 Namibian Dollar (â‚¬1) a pint and the water â‚¬1.3 for 30 cl.
Cape Town - Disembarked here to continue our extended stay.
Gripes: Despite having contacted our travel agent, MSC and checking online with HMFO no requirement for Yellow Fever vaccination requirement was flagged up for the African ports of call. We were therefore surprised to learn on embarkation at Livorno that a yellow fever inoculation was required for Senegal and, more importantly, proof of inoculation, for Namibia and South Africa. MSC staff advised that an inoculation could be given, on board, before entering Namibia for â‚¬40 each, or the ships doctor could issue an exemption certificate for â‚¬22 each. We opted for the exemption certificate, as we did not relish a bad reaction to the inoculation mid -cruise. With hindsight, I now question the ethics of the MSC medical practitioner issuing spurious certificates to non-qualifying passengers. Could this cynically just be viewed as another revenue stream?
In the final event the certificates were neither asked for, nor examined on disembarking in South Africa.
More gripes...... Passengers with little conversation apart from a total recall of every cruise and every port they've ever taken or ever visited!
.........Passengers whose dinner conversation is aimed at establishing who's "top dog" and "bragging rights"
.........Passengers who opt for a "Table for two" half way through a cruise -â€" upsetting to some table guests, but funnily, the table worked better without them!
.........Passengers who complain about costs all the time.
The "obligatory" daily gratuity charge maybe high, but MSC are upfront about it, and if you are prepared to create a stink, as some passengers do, they will modify it or write it off completely, allowing you to pay deserving staff direct.
On 3 occasions minors skirmishes broke out between, German, Dutch and Afrikaans over sun beds, rail positions, and theatre seats. Each nation was as bad as the other - I'd have been happy to see them all end up with bloody noses!
You get what you pay for in life. This was a low cost re-positioning cruise with high cost fixed charges, tours and refreshments, but all in all, it still represented reasonable value for money. If, bridge, reading, sunbathing, or sleeping is your thing and you're over 70, this could be the cruise for you. Personally we found 10 full days out of 18 at sea too much and a tummy bug laid low a significant number of passengers and front of house staff during the continuous 6 days at sea, including my wife. We went with no preconceptions, but left feeling the cruise length was too long for a novice. Would we do this cruise again - no. Would we cruise with MSC again - maybe. Would we cruise again - maybe. We meet some charming and interesting people but also some arrogant, pompous and downright rude passengers. At least on land you can get away from them! Most seasoned cruisers didn't rate the cruise, food, service, or entertainment, which I think is harsh, but can they all be wrong or do they just like moaning?