Have you ever wondered what it takes to prepare thousands of meals each day, launder countless sheets and towels or create a glittering stage production at sea? Passengers on MSC Splendida can get the lowdown and find out what makes a ship tick on a behind-the-scenes tour.
Up to twice per sailing MSC Cruises offers passengers the chance to get a first-hand look at the back of house operations with a tour that takes in the Strand Theatre, laundry, galley and -- back on the passenger decks -- the exclusive "ship within a ship" Yacht Club.
At 8:30 a.m. we congregate in Splendida's Strand Theatre and are put into groups according to our language. After a short introduction, providing an overview of the areas we're going to see, we set off with our respective hosts.
The first stop is the theatre, and we get our moment of fame as we take to the stage and look out over the two-tier auditorium, wondering what it must feel like when the curtain goes up to reveal 1,603 audience members waiting expectantly. There is a demonstration of the impressive split-level stage, where sections rise and fall, before we congregate in the communal dressing room filled with colourful costumes, accessories and makeup. We hear that the 90-strong entertainment department sign up for contracts of up to 11 months. Next is the technical room where one passenger is invited to flick a switch and turn on the stage lights, which cost €250,000.
We then descend steep iron staircases into the bowels of the ship to reach the crew area on Decks 2, 3 and 4, which are normally out of bounds to passengers. On Deck 2 we enter the vast laundry, which is thankfully not as hot or steamy as you might imagine. A team of 31 staff work round the clock on two shifts, loading giant washing machines with a 200kg (440lb) capacity and feeding bed linen and towels into industrial pressing equipment, where it emerges to be folded neatly the other side. In another area is the crew laundry along with passengers' clothes waiting to be delivered back to their cabins.
Back on the passenger decks we head to the exclusive 71-suite Yacht Club -- a separate "ship-within-a ship" -- to see how the other half live. Perks for passengers in this quiet enclave include priority boarding, 24-butler service, a concierge desk, private lounge and pool area. If any standard passengers want a taste of the high life they can buy day passes to the Yacht Club for €80.
Next on the tour is the part most of us are keenest to see -- the ship's galley. In fact, Splendida has a total of nine galleys divided over two decks to prepare meals and snacks that are available 20 hours a day for the 3,959 passengers. There is a separate galley for the 1,332 crew members who have their own food and, contrary to what some people think, never eat passengers' leftovers.
First of all, we have to dress up in the equivalent of surgeons' sanitary clothing, which raises quite a few giggles. Suitably kitted out in hats, face masks, full-length plastic coats and shoe covers, we are met by the executive chef and enter one of the cavernous kitchens.
Fun facts come thick and fast as we watch members of the 185-strong army of chefs variously chop, mix, whisk and cook on long stainless steel work stations. Soup simmers in 220 gallon pans as we learn that passengers chomp their way through 38,000kg (83,775lbs) of meat per week, 10,000 desserts each day, and 950kg (2,094lbs) of flour is used daily in the 24-hour bakery. Afterwards, we walk through vast store rooms, piled high with industrial-sized cans of provisions, crates of fresh vegetables and other produce, pausing to take a very quick look into the chilly cool room resembling an Arctic cave.
It's no wonder we're starting to feel peckish. After shedding our "scrubs" we're suitably rewarded as we head to the speciality Sante Fe Tex Mex restaurant where one of the chefs demonstrates how to make cheese empanadas. Afterwards, waiters bring one to every passenger and we enjoy it with a complimentary glass of wine. On the way out we're given an MSC apron as a souvenir of the tour.
Yes. Admit it, everyone is nosey about what goes on behind the scenes on a cruise ship and this tour satisfies passengers' curiosity with a peek at various "off-limits" areas (albeit omitting the parts that many might want to see such as the bridge and crew quarters). It is a fascinating tour that throws up lots of information. It's also very good value, and much less expensive and longer in duration than tours we've tried on other ships -- plus you get a nice treat and memento at the end.
The tour costs €39.90 per person and is limited to up to 40 passengers, with a minimum age of 16. With a maximum of two tours per sailing you should book early to avoid disappointment. English-speaking guests will be shown around by a bi-lingual host who might combine groups, depending on numbers, and speak in two different languages, such as English and German. Participants must be relatively fit to take part as the tour lasts two and a half hours and involves various flights of stairs -- some steep and some in dimly lit backstage areas -- as well as extended periods of walking and standing.