By Jana Jones, Cruise Critic contributor
"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.
MSC Opera Fellow Passengers
In the Caribbean, Opera's demographic is predominantly North American, with about 30 percent of passengers hailing from Europe. Expect the reverse in Europe. The cultural differences are fascinating and fun. You never know what response your "good morning" will get ... it might be a Texas "Howdy!" or a "Guten tag" or "Buenos Dias," "Buon Giorno" or "Bonjour." That's one of the things that make this ship special.
Ages range from families with young kids to seniors with walkers.
MSC Opera Dress Code
There are two formal nights on a seven-night cruise; otherwise, dress during the day is casual and, at night, is country club casual.
MSC Opera Gratuity
MSC Cruises' oft-confusing tipping policy stipulates that gratuities are not necessary (though passengers are encouraged to leave additional amounts for exceptional service). In general, plan on leaving the industry average $10 per person, per day.
An automatic 10 percent gratuity is added to bar bills.
We cruised with our 9-year old daughter, who is disabled. Our embarkation in Genoa was very smooth, with no queues and a relaxed atmosphere. We embarked at about 2.30pm and went straight up to our cabin - a balcony suite on deck 12. We were ...continue
We started our cruise in Marseille and stayed the first night at Mercure Marseille Centre-a very nice hotel.
Embarcation was fast, as most people boarded in Genoa or Barcelona. Our cabin was nice-small, of course, but with the balcony and ...continue
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Previous reviewers made me wonder if we'd made a mistake booking this cruise again (we'd enjoyed it so much 2 years ago on the Melody) but we need not have worried. Also having paid a very low price we expected that there may have been lots of cuts ...continue