I was prepared for the worst - Butlins-on-Sea? - having read some of the reviews on this site, but we had such a fantastic time we have booked a second cruise with MSC for later this year (Eastern Med on MSC Divina). Maybe as I was sceptical it exceeded my expectations; maybe if I had super high expectations I would have been disappointed?
I think most of these reviews have been written by people who have a bee in their bonnet and who want an audience. I am quite a laid back person and go on holiday to relax and enjoy myself. I actively choose to see the good in things and let minor annoyances go. If you go on holiday looking for a fight, if you're the kind of person who likes to complain, there is so much to do on these ships you will definitely find something to complain about. Below is my honest opinion on different parts of the cruise. I hope you find my impressions as a first-time cruiser helpful.
Our cabin and bathroom were spotlessly clean and were maintained that way all week but the fantastic attendant, Manoj. Our cabin was on the port side so for the majority of the time we had the view of the land we were sailing along side: a very nice view from our balcony. One thing I heard lots of people complaining about was that on the last night, once you have packed and your suitcases have been taken for disembarkation, the hangers in the wardrobe rattle around VERY loudly. I ended up getting up and taking them all down.
There was space under the bed to put your empty suitcases. A wardrobe with hangers, six or seven narrow/tall drawers, 2 bedside tables, a desk (with hairdryer), a small table and chairs, a safe...anyway, you can see the pictures of the cabins, there is plenty of space to unpack everything. My parents' cabin was a disabled-access cabin and was cavernous (9137).
FOOD & DRINK
You are allocated a table in either of 2 main restaurants, which carry the same menu each night. La Villa Verde is green and La Reggia is a carbon copy in salmon. At lunch there is free seating but in the evening you are assigned a table. You can dine in the self-service canteen or pay to go to the speciality restaurant, but we mostly ate in these restaurants, which were very civilised. The buffet restaurants had a tendency to be a bit manic with people making a mad dash to each food station as if the food was in short supply (it really wasn't) or maybe they were having some kind of race, I don't know.
The lunch and dinner menu in the civilised menus went like this:
Appetiser (choice of 2)
Soup (choice of 2)
Pasta/Risotto (choice of 2)
Main course (choice of 3 or 4 I think)
And just when you think you't eat any more, there's a cheese course and dessert menu (plenty of choice), ice cream or sorbet and sugar-free options.
The menu varied every lunch and dinner, each one being themed on a different Italian region. There was also a standard menu (eg bolognaise) that was available everyday in case the options weren't appealing to you.
The wine list was extensive and ranged from EUR7 for a 50cl carafe of house wine to $$$!!! Prosecco was priced at EUR20 which I thought was reasonable, and we drank some good wines that were about EUR18-28. We did not get the drinks package and I think overall we spent about the same amount but were not restricted in our choice. The drinks were not as expensive as I thought they would be, but then I live and work in London so maybe I am just used to higher prices.
Drinks packages -- we decided to get the all inclusive drinks package but it was too late to add it to our reservation as it needs to be booked a minimum of 21 days before you go. We decided to drink freely whatever we wanted; plenty of mineral water (EUR2.30 for 75cl), fruit smoothies in the spa, fine wine, sparkling wine, gelaterie ice creams, jumbo martinis, gin and tonic...you get the picture!!! Despite this we still did not spend as much as if we had bought the drinks package. I took some photos of the menus so give an indication of onboard prices, as before I went this was the one thing I couldn't find much information on. I will try and attach them to this review.
In the wine bar you get complimentary tapas with any alcoholic drink ordered and in the other bars you get a bowl of crisps and a bowl of pretzels when you order alcoholic drinks.
In the embarkation terminal there are stalls where everyone is trying to flog you their onboard products. We did decide to buy a spa package. This cost us EUR196 and included 4x30minute Balinese massages and access to the spa for the duration of the week for my husband and me. I am so glad we did this! The massages were ok, relaxing but nothing to write home about by any means. We really enjoyed spending time while we were sailing in the relaxation room, reading on the loungers and looking out the floor-to-ceiling windows and going for a sauna and steam. This for me was the unwinding I really had hoped to do on the cruise but away from the crowds around the pools on deck 14.
In the restaurants, cabin, bars and reception we received good service. I somehow managed to leave my passport in the embarkation terminal, which is totally unlike me. I was a bit stressed, and the European staff at the reception desk were a bit aloof, but in the end they found my passport and kept it for me in the terminal and I was reunited with it on disembarkation. Onboard there is a real mix of nationalities working, the restaurant staff were mainly Indonesian, the cabin attendants seemed to be from India and across Africa but there were all faultlessly polite and helpful. The Italian staff were a bit snobbier but everyone was helpful and smiley in general.
To be honest, these bits weren't that fun, but I don't think there is any good way to get 3,500 people through one door, pretty much in single file, without feeling a bit like cattle. The terminal (holding pen) was pretty bland; there was complimentary water/juice but nowhere to get anything to eat and we had only been given some nuts on our BA flight so we were feeling pretty hungry/impatient to get onboard (where lunch was being served), which didn't exactly help us feel patient. Take some snacks in your hand luggage if, like me, you get grump when you get hungry!
There are stalls in the embarkation terminal where the crew try and sell you drinks packages, spa treatments, speciality menus etc. We did buy the spa package and thought it was worth every penny. The attitude with the other things was that we would buy it when we wanted it rather than pre-buy anything. I am glad we decided to do this as it meant I didn't have anything to keep track of and could just relax.
The night before you disembark you have to leave your luggage outside your cabin and you are reunited with it in the terminal land side (it is a bit of a free-for-all but seems to work). We had to leave our cabin ridiculously early (7am) and had to be at the rendezvous point for disembarkation (in our case the theatre) for 8.45. Even on this morning when every single passenger wanted breakfast at the same time, the waiters in La Reggia were still composed and offered a fantastic service as they served up our pastries, muesli, coffee, fruit juice, perfectly poached eggs, smoked salmon, cheese and ham....
These are a total waste of money. All of the towns visited on this cruise (Barcelona, Casablanca, Gibraltar, Valencia, Marseille) were accessible independently. In Casablanca, the only non-European city, you have to fight your way out of the port through a hundred local taxi drivers all promising to show you around Casablanca. Haggle, but if you want an excursion, go with a local taxi driver not on the MSC excursion. Put your money in the pocket of someone who genuinely needs it and who lives in that area. We walked from the port to Hassan II mosque (about 30-45 minute stroll) and picked up a lovely guide at the mosque (Ahmed) with a minivan who for EUR10 each drove us around for 2.5hours, to the Corniche, Cathedral, Old Town, shopping areas etc and gave good insight into the history and politics of Morocco.
The dancing was good but other shows were good quality but so annoying as everything is repeated in English, Italian, French, German and Spanish. This was so tedious we only went to one show and left the multi-lingual ventriloquist after one joke and ten minutes...fortunately the musicians in the Jazz bars and other bars just played great music and this was much more enjoyable!