"And now for something completely different..."
The lead-in from the old "Monty Python's Flying Circus" television show kept repeating itself in my head as the shuttle made its way from the airport to Port Everglades and Opera, a new ship from MSC, the Italian company just breaking into the North American market. I knew that there would be differences from the usual cruise experience, but I didn't know exactly what they were -- or how they would affect my week onboard.
Certainly, the walk from the gangway to my cabin produced no surprises; the mid-sized ship, which holds 1,750 passengers, was obviously new, with an Italian-moderne-meets-Art-Deco styling that is both elegant and appealing. And my cabin, while small, was efficient and cheerfully decorated, with all of the accoutrements one expects in a modern ship's stateroom.
No, the differences were not in the physical aspects of the ship at all but they became apparent to me as the week progressed.
The major difference? There is a spirit that pervades Opera, an unmistakable Italian bonhomie that is fostered at every turn by its officers, crew and incredible Animation Team -- the equivalent of a cruise director's staff. Good cheer, good food and good company are the order of the day. Entertainment starts in the morning and lasts through the night. Mealtimes are festivals of hearty food and, while a few concessions have been made for the North American palate and dining styles, reflect the Italian kitchen as well as its culture.
The ship, the second of the fleet to venture into Caribbean waters (MSC Lirica debuted in 2003), sails alternating Eastern and Western Caribbean itineraries in the winter months and the Mediterranean in the summer.
For the most part, North Americans choosing a European itinerary on MSC Opera will be able to experience Italian-style cruising at its purest.
Ultimately, the multiple languages spoken (and the announcements, blessedly rare, are offered in five of them) make this a genuinely multinational experience. In the Mediterranean, of course, the ship reverts back to its Italian roots and North American guests have to adapt to the ship's style rather than the other way around.