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MSC Fantasia in the Mediterranean
Day 1: Introducing … Genoa!
Day 2: Navigating a New Ship; Winter in Barcelona
Day 3: Multinational Sea Day; Aurea Spa Experience
Day 4: Madeira and a Bit of Italy on Fantasia
Day 5: Tenerife, Canary Islands
Day 6: Lanzarote, Canary Islands
Day 7: MSC Yacht Club, Family Cruising
Day 8: The Cruise Is Over, Reflections
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Day 8: Tuesday, The Cruise Is Over, Reflections
The Cruise Is Over, ReflectionsCruising the Mediterranean during winter is a relatively new itinerary option. A decade ago, ships that did stay in Europe during the cold season were typically older, pokier vessels with few modern amenities. But lately, cruise lines have embraced the region -- most notably MSC Cruises and Costa Cruises, MSC's closest competitor -- and both offer its newest, most contemporary ships on this route. They're designing their ships with features like magrodomes, the glass roofs that cover pool areas, which can be opened in warm weather and closed in cold.

And so winter cruising in the Mediterranean is becoming more popular.

However, I suspect that life onboard MSC Fantasia has a completely different vibe to it, depending on which season you cruise. In our case, the I Tropici indoor pool was the center of activity for everything from daily Aquagym pool aerobics workouts to playtime for kids. The main outdoor pool was genuinely lovely with its festive nautical color scheme and aqua park, but I never saw a soul in it the whole trip. Stacks and stacks of outdoor chaises were never even set up.

Our itinerary was 11 nights long and headed primarily toward the west -- Barcelona, Malaga, Madeira and the Canaries. There were four sea days tucked into the plan, which meant we spent a lot of time onboard. But come spring and summer, MSC Fantasia's schedule changes. At that time, the focus shifts to ports such as Naples, Palmero, Tunis, Palma de Mallorca, Barcelona and Marseilles; these seven-night cruises will feature a port a day. There won't be nearly as much time spent on the ship (save for sleeping) as off.

MSC Fantasia Kids Program Il Polo Nord And its important to remember that MSC Fantasia is marketing itself very strongly as a family-friendly experience, with "kids sail free" promotions that will definitely change the ambience during school holiday times, including summer. While there were kids onboard our January voyage -- not a mainstream break time for schools -- there weren't enough to materially change the tempo of the trip. During holiday periods ... expect that there will be.

One MSC Cruises policy that's relatively unheard of for American and British cruise lines is to permit passengers to choose where they embark/debark. We got on, with the majority of the others (most of whom hailed from Germany and Italy) in Genoa; it was a fairly easy drive-to port for these travelers. On the other hand, we also met a London couple who'd boarded in Barcelona -- it was an easier and cheaper flight for them. As we arrived in just about every port, you'd see suitcases lined up on the gangway.

We elected to debark in Rome, a day short of our final day, and it was relatively painless; just 300 of us were getting off. I'd suggest that if you hate the whole ritual of that last morning on a cruise ship, consider debarking at one of the alternative ports....

MSC Fantasia Oceanview Cabin When it comes to accommodations, we're told that MSC Fantasia's cabins are slightly smaller than the norm (a standard balcony stateroom measures 194 square ft., not including verandah), but that's actually not entirely true. On Royal Caribbean's Independence of the Seas, you can get a "superior" balcony cabin that measures 217 square ft. or a standard one that, at 177 square ft., is even smaller than those on Fantasia. But by and large, even the bigger suites on Fantasia are smaller than those on other lines.

Does it matter? Actually, yes. One of the innovations of Fantasia is its very high number of cabins with balconies. That's attributed to the fact that the actual super structure (in essence, the foundation) of the ship is fairly narrow, which eliminates many inside cabins.

Few passengers will ever choose a cabin with absolutely no natural light if it's not a budgeting issue. Because of the design of the ship, Fantasia has six full decks of balcony cabins (compare that with Costa's new Costa Serena, which has just three decks of verandah staterooms).

As well, squeezing out a few square ft. of space in each standard stateroom -- a move that's frankly indiscernible -- means that Fantasia can work in more cabins with balconies. The more such staterooms exist, the better the chance of booking them at a moderate price point.

In reflection, the following is a quick summary of our take on the MSC Fantasia experience. Stay tuned for a full on review to be launched in late winter.

MSC Fantasia Restaurant Dining: The ship's two main dining rooms, which offer the standard set-seating evening experience, provide a brisk, efficient experience. Food quality ranged pretty widely; consistently the best dishes involved pasta (the lasagna is not to be missed and the spaghetti bolognaise, on the "every night" menu, was perfectly satisfying). Where the chefs missed most often were when they tried to get fancy. Breads and desserts were excellent. There's a light fare option on every menu and choices for vegetarians.

The Alternative Restaurants: Ambience was typically poor (please, turn the lights down some!), but the food was generally quite delicious. One tip: In almost every place, from the El Sombrero Tex-Mex restaurant to the Sports Bar, which served terrific burgers and shepherd's pie, the portions are huge. You can easily share....

Service: Brisk and efficient again describes service. Crewmembers, especially bar servers and cabin stewards (saw no stewardesses) work on salary rather than the wage structure common in the U.S., where earnings are nearly entirely dependent on tips. That means that servers aren't going to hustle you to buy drinks or overpriced spa products. It also means that you might have to wait for two bar servers to finish a conversation before you can order a beer. I occasionally missed the lively banter I've found on British and U.S. ship experiences, but I think it's more that servers struggle with English or that they're simply more reserved than it is that they're being rude. One told me that he could make $600 more a month if he worked for a line like Princess and Carnival, but he didn't think he could be a "salesman."

Where service was rather consistently poor was at the ship's information desk and its shore tours office (where staffers don't know much about tours and frankly could care less). These trouble spots, alas, plague almost all big-ship lines I've cruised on.

Accommodations: The rich color schemes (gold, burgundy, forest green), and a sleek, contemporary and un-fussy styling, made cabins quite pleasant. All had flat-screen televisions and private bathrooms with showers.

Shore Excursions: I meant to take a ship-organised tour, but aside from a tapas outing in Barcelona (and a bike riding trip there, as well), nothing appealed. There was little effort made to go beyond the standard tour of main tourist attractions. Prices seemed reasonable enough for a cruise ship, but frankly, booking your own private tour ahead of time (check Cruise Critic's ports forums for more information) will likely offer a better quality experience at a cheaper price.

Lanzarote Family Programs: They're not ultra-fancy (with huge science labs or sports facilities like rock-climbing walls), but the kids onboard seemed engaged and didn't spend a whole lot of time pulling pranks or dominating stairwells.

Itinerary: I especially loved the Canary island calls at Tenerife and Lanzarote, and the stop at Madeira. All three were new experiences with enough going on that you could go back, time and time again, and find something new to explore. Barring the mercurial weather, however, I also enjoyed Barcelona and Malaga in January; like the ship itself, the mood in the cities was so much more relaxed than when I've visited during the summer high season.

Fellow Passengers: Because passengers hailed from different European countries (with a sprinkling of those from Britain and Ireland) and spoke a variety of languages, there wasn't an easy, social ambience. People pretty much stuck with the friends they were travelling with. But I sometimes find the forced sociality on more traditional ships to be exhausting, and so it was actually lovely to spend more time with Teijo and less on small talk.

I'll finish by answering a question posed by Teijo on the way to Rome's airport as our taxi pulled away from the ship in Civitavecchia: "What would you tell people who normally book on luxury lines about the Yacht Club experience?"

I'd tell them that if all you really want is an ultra-pampering, small-ship cruise with ultra-sophisticated fellow passengers and personal service, and an extremely upscale dining experience, you should stay on a traditional luxury line.

If, however, you're traveling with kids for whom meeting other kids, and a good children's program, is important -- but you don't want to compromise on superb service and some luxe retreats (like the private pool area and the superb Topsail lounge), Fantasia's a great bet. As well, the Yacht Club is a good compromise for couples who prefer different styles of cruising. Teijo loves the big ships, really wants a huge variety of dining options and an active disco (typically an oxymoron on luxury lines), not to mention lots of different kinds of bars. I prefer a smaller ship and lazier pace, with more personal service, less nickel and diming over a myriad of a la carte-priced stuff, and exceptional quality of dining over options.

On Fantasia, we each got the cruise we wanted.
Day 7: MSC Yacht Club, Family Cruising red arrow  

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