This is a difficult cruise to review, in that MSC is very different from the usual moderately-priced cruise line. In some ways, the cruise is better and more interesting than your usual cruise, but in many ways MSC is not a good first cruise for Americans. Only if you are looking for something new and different, along with the chance to meet passengers from other countries, then you may love MSC.
We have been on over 20 cruises with all of the well-known cruise lines, and all on different ships.
Embarkation and Ship Design: The cruise starts off well. Embarkation was very efficient and well organized and, like Celebrity, white glove service was offered to guide you to your room. This is a nice feature. Though MSC tells you that embarkation does not begin until 2 pm, everyone has said that it is possible to arrive as early as 12:30 pm and board that ship without delay. The bulk of folks seem to arrive between 2:30 and 3:30, so it is best to come earlier or later. The ship is not well designed for over 3000 people and certain areas would become very congested with constant gridlock. For example to get to the main theatre, 1500 people have to squeeze through one narrow corridor in the Zebra lounge, wide enough for barely one to two people. This was exacerbated by the shops insisting on setting up tables in the narrowest parts of every hallway.
Nevertheless, the ship is beautiful, with tasteful Italian design, much more striking than most ships, but not as gaudy as Carnival.
For only $100 per person, we were offered the opportunity to upgrade from an inside room to a much larger balcony stateroom, and that turned out to be an excellent value.
Rooms: The rooms are very nice, modern and tastefully pleasant, with good lighting and slightly larger than average bathrooms and showers. Toilets are unusually quiet. Our steward was kind and very helpful, though they clearly have been trained to stay out of the way. A light system (activated by placing your key in a slot; otherwise the A/C and lights will not work) notifies the steward when you are in the room and they will never bother you when you are there. The entry to our balcony room included 3 nicely sized closets, but it is located across from the bathroom door and you cannot get into the bathroom or out the door if anyone is using the closets. The bathroom is well designed with a good sized sink and (nicely) placed under-sink storage cabinets and shelves. Lighting was only present at the sink, so the shower was slightly dark.
The bed was very bad and the pillows were lumpy. As many reviewers have reported one of our mattresses in 3 of our 5 rooms had springs practically poking through the material and they were so worn that they practically rolled you to the floor. I have had better mattresses in Italian youth hostels than were present on this ship. There is no excuse for this; all of the mattresses clearly need to be replaced and this probably should have been done years ago.
The balcony was large and pleasant with nice rattan furniture and a good light. Two 110 volt and two 220 volt outlets were present in the room. All rooms had wired internet, but strangely the electrical outlet was 15 feet from the wired internet, making it impossible to plug in your computer to electricity and internet at the same time. I suggest you bring your own 20 foot LAN cable for your laptop; this will allow you to use your laptop on the balcony. The purser's desk will loan you a 4 foot LAN cable for a $15 deposit, but it is not long enough to be of any use. However, the internet is the cheapest of any cruise we have ever been on; at 14 cents/minute, it is 1/6th the price of most cruise lines. During busy times, it can be very slow, but was reasonably fast late at night.
Service: We were generally satisfied with the service, but it is not what Americans are used to. Because as many as 50% of the passengers are non-English speaking (including lots of Italians, Germans, French Canadians, and South Americans, along with a smattering of Scandinavians and Israelis), many of the staff speaks languages other than English and it is difficult to make yourself understood. In addition, service is not tweaked to what Americans are used to. As in restaurants in Europe, tap water is not offered unless asked for and your glass will not be refilled. The Italian head waiters and matre 'ds have done a poor job of training the 95% Indonesian staff in what would usually be considered good service by American standards and most of them speak little English. Constant announcements are also given in 5 languages, which can become very annoying when each announcement stretches to 10-15 minutes four times a day.
The steward service was better, but uneven. Our cabin was cleaned meticulously two times a day and our steward was always present for anything we needed, approaching the service of a butler. But in our party of eleven people in 5 cabins, one other cabin was never vacuumed and the sheets were never changed the entire cruise. Clearly, this is an error that points to very poor management, oversight and standards.
The ship staff was very accommodating to the needs of our extended family group of 11 persons celebrating a 60th wedding anniversary. The purser's desk was extremely well-staffed with very friendly and efficient persons, who were well above average in helpfulness and availability. This was probably the best run purser's desk of any ship we have been on.
Food: Food could be excellent but again was often uneven. The kitchen staff does not seem to be trained to handle over 3000 guests. Some things were truly great, approaching the quality of the finest restaurants; other dishes were barely palatable. We were served raw chicken or pork on two occasions, which could be dangerous. The wait staff never asked how you wanted your meat prepared and at times it would come out well done; at other times very rare. A dish called Chicken Francesca was world-class, as was the lobster and many of the pasta dishes (this is an Italian ship). The wine list was interesting and very reasonable. The coffee was truly excellent. The ship serves free soft serve ice cream from noon to 6 pm every day on the pool deck, but the machines were not kept up and often were empty.
If you are used to European food, you will find some excellent dishes. If your taste runs more toward steak, hamburgers and other American staples, you find the food not to your liking.
Ports of Call: Leaving and re-entering the ship at ports of call was extremely efficient due to the use of 6 exits (well-done!) along with extremely fast card readers and X-ray machines. The ports of call were excellent and the shore excursions reasonable and reportedly well organized (personally, we only did independent non-ship excursions).
Among our tours, I highly recommend visiting the Rockland Bird Sanctuary in Jamaica, where you can hand feed wild hummingbirds that will land on your index finger. Also not be missed is peaceful bamboo rafting on the Martha Brae River. We used Courtney Tours, who took our group wherever we wanted for a full day for about $28 per person with a driver and interesting tour guide.
In Roatan, we highly recommend the services of Victor Bodden Tours who will custom design a tour for you at Â½ the price of the cruise ship. His monkey farm tour (only $5) is not to be missed, nor is the Iguana Farm.
In Cozumel we had an excellent private tour of the little-seen back side of the island, using Eduardo, often recommended on the cruise critic boards.
Entertainment and Cruise Director Staff: The entertainment was truly fantastic and was a highlight of this cruise. Again, I caution that the entertainment is not tailored to American taste. Think Opera, Broadway and Cirque du Soleil; if you love these you will be in heaven. If not, you will be bored. There is no comedy (jokes don't translate well in 5 languages) and no glitzy Las Vegas style entertainment. Unusual for cruise ships there is no big band. But the ship offered two Italian opera singers (tenor and mezzo-soprano) who were near-Met quality, along with 2 (again, Italian) Broadway style singers that sounded like they could have won Tony's. The same could be said for the marvelous Eastern European dancers. All of the shows were world class European extravaganzas that often left us breathless. Outside of the theater, there was a fantastic Moldavian string trio that performed every night in the atrium, often joining forces for an "unplugged" session with the two opera singers. Each of the 4 lounges also had two alternating bands including a folk singer, jazz duo, pop duo, dance duo, and 2 reggae/rock bands. The cruise staff was very good at getting people dancing and hosted wonderful Karaoke and other fun parties.
Summary: Overall, I highly recommend the cruise to those who have European tastes or have already tried multiple cruises on Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, HAL and Norwegian. Don't come on this cruise expecting American service, entertainment, or hamburgers. This ship also offers excellent value, with some paying as little as $349pp for an inside room (we paid $599 for near-suite quality balconies for one week) and kids under 12 are free. The ship would get my highest rating if the restaurant and bedding were improved.