On the surface, a sea day on MSC Fantasia is not a whole lot different than sea days on other cruise ships. There's bingo, art auctions, line-dancing classes, shop sales, cocktail workshops and more. But there is, undoubtedly, a European flavor to it all. When a fitness instructor, leading a stretching class at the Liquid Disco, directs participants to hold a count, he does so in any number of languages -- Eins! Zwei! Drei! or Uno! Dos! Tres!
What makes the cruise onboard MSC Fantasia so different for me is that multinational flavor. Sure, it can occasionally be annoying to hear everything in five languages. (The safety drill's a trial; I was grateful that our muster station was in the sports bar -- there was EuroSport coverage of swimming and diving championships being broadcast on flat-screen televisions!) At the captain's welcome party last night, I could only listen in awe and with envy as the man in charge smoothly (and without notes) gave his speech -- first in German, then English, Spanish, French and Italian.
This being my first "five languages" experience, it was a bit of a relief to find that, except for these types of situations, Fantasia really limited the voluminous announcements. Onboard, there are hostesses who are assigned by language to the appropriate groups. Ours was a lovely young woman from Capetown, South Africa; she made sure our daily programs were properly translated, held gatherings so we could ask questions and, generally, just made us feel welcome.
If there are hiccups onboard -- and I've seen a few -- it's due more to clashing cultures and language challenges than it is to ineptness. So far, that seems to affect English-speaking passengers more than the others, and in my experience, most issues can be resolved easily if one is patient (and speaks slowly and distinctly, which is a lesson I'm struggling to learn). It's also important to note that the service culture on this ship (and others in fleets like MSC Cruises and Costa Cruises) is really different from that on American-based cruise lines. Cruise Critic member Heinbloed, who's onboard, told me that the difference could be summed up thusly: "On Holland America, if you ask 'where's the restroom?' a crewmember will, literally, take you by the hand and guide you to it. On MSC, they'll basically point to some spot far beyond and move on to the next passenger."
If you expect HAL-style service here, you're going to get cranky. The service onboard Fantasia is efficient, if not warm, as is generally the case in most places in Europe. It works just fine.
Speaking of Cruise Critic members, we had an informal gathering this morning at the Cappuccino Bar; there were six of us: two from Germany, two from Bosnia, one from Finland and one American. The regional diversities were symbolic of what I'm really loving about the MSC experience.
My first experience at the Aurea Spa, where I tried a funky massage that used candle-butter instead of oils, was jarring, though it ultimately wound up being quite satisfactory.
Again, comparing to previous cruise experiences (a serial habit for most of us), the typical procedure with most lines is to book a treatment, show up for it, spend a few minutes in some kind of relaxation room, have the treatment, get a hard-sell from the therapist to buy overpriced beauty products, pay the bill and a gratuity (often added for you) and depart.
Here, when I booked my massage (billed as serenity-inspiring, with use of candles for ambience) -- no problem finding availability on the first sea day, by the way, a pleasant surprise -- I paid upfront at the time of booking. If prices seem rather higher than the norm it's because tips are included. There's no relaxation room component; you just sit in the spa's "lobby," also known as the spa cafe. It's a sprawling space, bordered on one side by the gym's glass walls and treatment areas -- not terribly serene. (There is a relaxation room in Aurea, but, unlike some ship spas, you don't automatically get to use it with the purchase of a spa treatment).
The treatment was outstanding, despite the fact that using candles (for ambience) to light the room is quite a waste. (How much can you really see when you're lying face down with your head in a hole?) I loved the fact that, when it was over, there was no product sell, no bill to sign, no gratuity to worry about. Indeed, the sense of harmony that engulfed me during the treatment lasted long afterward.
Prices at the Aurea Spa are rather bizarre (unlike the standardized fees in most cruise line spas, almost all of which are run by U.K.-based vendors Steiner Leisure and Harding Bros.). Some treatments, like my 50-minute massage, which cost 110 euros, are right in line, cost-wise; others, such as a pedicure that was 78 euros, were way overpriced.
Another difference here is that yoga is offered, but there are no classes, unless you can put a group together. (A staff member will lead ten passengers in a workout for 20 euros apiece -- that's pretty pricey.) But daily aerobics and stretching classes -- not to mention a terrific range of dance lessons that are great exercise -- are complimentary and are actually held in the Liquid Disco, rather than the spa.
This is the first day of two we'll spend at sea, before we begin a heavy dose of port calls (Madeira's Funchal, Tenerife's Santa Cruz and Lanzarote's Arrecife). It's not necessarily a school holiday period, so it's surprising to see how many kids (a lot of teens) are onboard. The children's program is in full swing, and kids are generally quite well-behaved and engaged.
This morning, our second sea day, we're cruising to the southwest, just off the coast of Portugal, with no other ships in sight. The Mediterranean feels so much more vast than it looks on maps; all we've seen since we left Barcelona are occasional cargo ships and passenger/car ferries that go between islands and the mainland.
The sun sets at around 6 p.m. -- what a difference from the long winter evenings I left at home -- but, oddly, doesn't rise until about 8:30 a.m.
The first thing I noticed today: There's a balminess to the temperatures that, for sure, wasn't there during our turns in Genoa and Barcelona.
It's not tropically hot by any means, but it sure is pleasant. Passenger garb outside varies wildly, from one woman in a fur coat to another in a bikini. The outdoor pool area, with its gorgeous blue-green tiles and fanciful curved pools and railings, is abuzz for the first time, and passengers are energetically walking around the deck like a parade of ants. But, there is an absence of something on which I just can't put my finger.
Ultimately, what's missing onboard is any sense of urgency. Lounge chairs are being set out on upper decks, and there's no mad dash to snare one. (Nor have passengers left beaten-up paperbacks or well-worn flip-flops on deck chairs to claim them.) Aerobics class doesn't start until 9:30 a.m. Indoor activities don't really gear up until 10 a.m. or later. Passengers saunter through the shops at the Piazza San'Georgio and in the Atrium, play games of Clue or Taboo in the sports bar or languidly play cards at round tables on outer decks.
That lack of urgency -- the "let's grab every moment" energy that definitely has permeated many sea days on American and Brit ships -- means that the vibe is incredibly relaxing. There's time for long lunches. (All specialty restaurants are open and are just as lightly attended as dinner was on the first few days.) There are movies on the television, naps to take and hot and toasty whirlpools to soak in. Life is very good.
Tomorrow, we dock at Funchal.
--Top photo is courtesy of Heinbloed.