No question, MSC Fantasia is a big cruise ship. You can almost forget you are onboard a vessel -- and not in some sort of sprawling resort. The ship is nearly 1,093 feet long. (Only Royal Caribbean's Freedom Class ships and Cunard's Queen Mary 2 stretch further, and not by much.) My husband Teijo tells me the length is good news because it means the ship will be more stable that way.
It was definitely stable throughout last night, even as the wind howled, yelped, shrieked and screamed, depending on how fast we were traveling. (At daybreak, anticipating that passengers would wake up and start moving around, the captain slowed down, and all was quiet.) Contrary to the reaction one would expect (Fear? Irritation?), the effect, while we were tucked in bed under crisp sheets and a snowy blanket, was ultimately quite cozy.
The weather since has been mercurial through the morning, gloomy and forbidding, with occasional sunbursts, and the most colorful and joyful place onboard is I Tropici, the ship's magrodome-covered pool.
I've visited Barcelona enough times to lose count, but it occurred to me this morning that I've only ever seen the city in sunshine, during spring, summer or fall. And it looked, at first, as if the luck would hold as we slowly crept into Barcelona's port area. Warm sunlight bore down on us and chased the clouds away. I considered grabbing a bathing suit and heading up to the outdoor whirlpool at the Gaudi adults-only area. But, once MSC Fantasia was securely docked, and shore excursion tours began departing, the weather changed again.
Suddenly, it was raining so hard it looked like snow. Wait. It was snow! Then it became sleet, as ice particles were jumping off the table on the balcony. I offered a silent thank-you to the universe for whatever impulse it was last night that instructed me not to book the cycling excursion around Barcelona that would be starting … just about now.
It was warm and comfy in my cabin, and it was very pleasant to curl up on the big yellow couch, considering the possibilities of the day ahead. A nap sounded good, and there were also the two novels I picked up in the library. And, a new massage treatment in the Aurea spa, which uses candle wax in the oil, sounded intriguing.
Cruising in the Mediterranean in winter may be unpredictable, but who says it's not fun?
One of the big surprises on MSC Fantasia is the restaurant scene onboard. Beyond the traditional main dining venues -- which include the set-table, set-time Red Velvet (in the center of the ship) and Il Cerchio d'Oro (the better one because it's located aft, with walls of windows on three sides) -- there are a range of other alternative options. Africana and Zanzibar, the buffet eateries, are on offer during breakfast and lunch but are usually closed at dinnertime.
Unlike most cruise lines that market to Americans and Canadians, the specialty eateries here -- including L'Etoile, for elegant French dining; La Cantina Toscana, the Italian wine bar; and El Sombrero, with its Tex-Mex quesadilla and burrito offerings -- don't levy alternative restaurant surcharges, which can range from $5 to $30 on other lines. That's good, but here's the difference: On Fantasia, the restaurants all operate on an a la carte basis. Instead of a blanket service fee, you pay for every menu item you order.
Prices, for the most part, are extremely reasonable and are, to some degree, subsidized by your cruise fare, so you're not paying full retail. At El Sombrero, a huge burrito with freshly grilled chicken, which could comfortably feed two hungry adults and a couple of kids, was about 5 euros. Grilled red snapper was 6.80 euros, a quesadilla starter cost 3 euros, and orange flan was 4.90 euros. Note: as of late February 2009, 1.26 euros equaled $1 US, but that does fluctuate.
At lunchtime, when the queues were piling up in the L'Africana and Zanzibar cafeterias, El Sombrero, also open, was absolutely deserted. I was the only diner of the day.
Most Europeans, as my European husband told me, won't pay extra to dine on a cruise ship. Indeed. Last night, anxious about getting a last-minute reservation for L'Etoile -- where a foie gras starter (also delicious) was 15 euros, an escargot starter was 6 euros, a delicious rack of lamb (whose crust tasted succulently and delicately of mint) was 9.20 euros, and puddings, including profiteroles and creme brulee, were in the 5.40-euro range -- I was shocked to see that we were the restaurant's only customers, at least for an hour or so. For food costs that, if you skipped the foie gras, would ring up no more of a tab than a service fee for two at Cunard's Todd English restaurant, we had an amazing experience -- excellent food, superb service and great wines (wines, of course, do cost extra).
Europeans' loss -- as it relates to a lack of interest in the ship's alternative restaurants -- is our gain if that means we can sample the fare more often. I've been on too many cruises where the alternative restaurants book up completely before the first day is over, and your options and experiences are limited as a result. Indeed, on Celebrity Cruises, Royal Caribbean, Cunard, Carnival Cruise Line and Princess Cruises -- all lines that have terrific alternative eateries and charge handsomely for the experience -- we'd have been lucky to get in.
Tomorrow, we spend the day at sea. A gathering of Cruise Critic members (take a look at our roll call forum to see if fellow members are aboard your next cruise) at Il Cappuccino Coffee Bar is the only commitment on my schedule. I'm planning to check out that spa, for sure, and want to hit the shops onboard. Stay tuned....