When MSC Cruises' private island -- Ocean Cay Marine Reserve -- originally opened to visitors in December 2019, no one had any idea that a multi-year pandemic lay ahead.
As it turns out, Investing in a private island so close to Florida homeports ended up being an excellent decision. Ocean Cay MSC Marine Reserve is now essential and convenient for the cruise line to have on its itineraries. Where other destinations like the Virgin Islands or Jamaica can and may change their entry requirements as the pandemic unfolds, MSC Cruises has more power and say over enjoyment of their own island (although as part of The Bahamas, Ocean Cay is subject to the same COVID-19 regulations as the regular islands).
I arrived at Ocean Cay on MSC Meraviglia, which has been sailing from Miami since August 2nd, 2021. Current itineraries are for three or four nights out of Miami with stops in Nassau and Ocean Cay Marine Reserve. Starting on September 18, the ship will resume its popular weeklong night itineraries with stops in destinations like Ocho Rios, Jamaica and Costa Maya, Mexico.
Meanwhile, fleetmate MSC Divina will begin sailing three, four, and seven-night itineraries out of Port Canaveral on September 16, and MSC Seashore will begin sailing out of Miami beginning November 20, 2021. MSC Armonia, a smaller and more intimate vessel, return to offer shorter 3-night and 4-night sailings starting on November 1.
Before the pandemic, MSC Meraviglia stood out for its family-friendly amenities and sheer physical size. An on-site waterpark, a climbing center for kids, a supervised children's club and a range of room options make this ship a stand-out choice for nearly anyone planning an epic family trip.
However, there is still plenty for adults-only cruisers to enjoy onboard, including a nearly endless array of bars and restaurants and a grand promenade topped with an LED dome reminiscent of Fremont St. in Las Vegas. Shopping, casino games and relaxation in the MSC Aurea Spa can easily fill your days.
But how has cruising with MSC changed since the pandemic? Obviously, safety protocols and cleanliness standards have improved to accommodate our "new normal." As I sit on this ship right now, however, I feel confident saying that cruising hasn't changed all that much. In some ways, it may be even better.
Big Changes on the Safety Front
Beginning September 3, 2021 and including sailings of October 31, 2021 departing from Miami and Port Canaveral, MSC Cruises is requiring all passengers ages 12 and older to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19. This policy brings MSC in line with other major cruise lines that have been requiring passengers and crew to be fully vaccinated in order to protect the safety and wellbeing of everyone on board. Those embarking an MSC cruise from Florida must also present a negative COVID-19 test result taken within 72 hours of embarkation.
Masks are required for passengers only while indoors and outside of personal staterooms, which is not a big deal considering many places on land are still requiring the use of masks. I personally brought a mask with a neck strap so I could mask as needed, which is not that often considering the vast expanse of the outdoor areas onboard.
Food service has changed on MSC Meraviglia, but in ways germaphobes will probably love. The casual buffet is still alive and well on MSC ships, yet food is displayed behind glass and only served by staff. With this dining format, you get the convenience and variety of a buffet meal, yet in a more hygienic environment than ever before.
In the main dining rooms, digital QR codes replace regular paper menus, although the staff will happily give you a disposable paper menu upon request. In all dining areas, as well as bars and entertainment venues, you'll see tables spaced to allow for more physical distancing.
Temperature checks are also common in dining rooms, and hand washing stations can be found at the entry to dining rooms and buffets. While the hand washing stations were there before the pandemic, now the staff actually makes sure they are used by each guest before dining can commence.
New cleaning methods with hospital-grade disinfectants and electrostatic sprayers are also being used on MSC ships, which were notorious for being spotless long before the pandemic. Someone is always cleaning, painting or sanitizing something everywhere you look, which helps keep the ship in great shape while providing guests with peace of mind.
Lower Capacity Brings Benefits
On my current sailing, MSC Meraviglia has roughly 700 passengers on board; a fraction of the ship's usual double occupancy capacity of 4,488. This has made my time here interesting if not strange. There have been instances where I have been the only guest on a pool deck or in a lounge. This is definitely not a complaint by any means, especially since I have received incredibly attentive service as a result.
It also helps that the normal entertainment and amenities are up and running despite the reduced passenger count. Live music was on display, and I didn't mind being the only person sipping a cocktail in the Champagne Bar while enjoying the work of an accomplished pianist. It's been easier than ever to get an elevator and ride alone as well, which goes a long way to encouraging physical distancing.
That being said, MSC is seeing much higher occupancy rates for its weeklong cruises aboard MSC Meraviglia. I was also told the highly anticipated addition of MSC Seashore in November is expected to bring many more guests into the MSC Cruises fold.
A Day At Ocean Cay MSC Marine Reserve
For our stop in Nassau, I got off the ship for a visit to Baha Bay, the waterpark associated with the Baha Mar Resort complex. This is something anyone can do on an MSC cruise since day passes for the park are easily purchased online. I walked throughout the incredibly beautiful Grand Hyatt Baha Mar property, which boasts the largest casino in all of the Caribbean. At the water park, I floated along in a lazy river and spent time by the pool.
When MSC Meraviglia called on Ocean Cay MSC Marine Reserve, , I did almost nothing other than float in the water, eat and drink. The water surrounding the island is clear and clean, making it easy to see the sea floor without bothering with a snorkel mask. I looked for shells while keeping an eye out for fish and other wildlife.
Ocean Cay is also the perfect place for physical distancing, with a generous expanse of sandy beaches, seating and amenities that are almost entirely outdoors. Passengers can dine with their toes in the sand at Seakers Food Court, or pony up to the outdoor Springer's Bar for a pina colada or refreshing aperol spritz. Those passengers fortunate enough to be travelling in MSC's exclusive Yacht Club suites can dine outdoors at the Ocean House, which features upscale cuisine options like fresh mahi mahi and crab ceviche, among other delicacies.
At Ocean Cay MSC Marine Reserve, I floated the day away and reached a level of relaxation I haven't seen in quite a while. Being in such an idyllic place made the worries of the past year seem to just disappear.