I have taken more than 50 cruises on nine different cruise lines, but this was my first cruise with MSC, and the new Meraviglia was a very pleasant surprise. It is an absolutely gorgeous ship with a very polite and helpful crew. I had seen all the western Mediterranean ports on our itinerary before, but they are some of my favorites. I will give you ideas on what to expect on your cruise and how to enjoy each port on your own, at minimal expense. Because this review is so long, I will divide it into sections so you can skip to the parts that interest you.
THE SHIP: The MSC Meraviglia is enormous, one of the largest cruise ships in the world at 171k tons, with more than 4,500 passengers and 1,500 crew. The interiors are stunning, mostly white and shades of gray in the public areas and muted colors in the cabins, with none of the cheesy decor that one often sees on low priced cruise ships. There is a good online video from MSC that will give you a look at the Meraviglia's elegant (contemporary Italian design) interiors.
The deck plans are standard for the industry, with a few exceptions. Long hallways are zig-zagged into shorter segments, and the two elevator silos (forward and midship) are in alcoves, which can be confusing as one exits them. The open deck was too cold and windy to be enjoyed midwinter, so I cannot comment on how well the pools, sundecks, and jogging track might function in a tropical environment.
The spa and gym are separated, and the gym is relatively small for such a large ship. As a result, the usual complimentary stretch and exercise programs had to be given among the chairs in the public lounges since there is no aerobics area in the gym. There is a large indoor basketball/soccer court separate from the gym, a court that was rarely used on this cruise but is probably busy during school vacations. I did not use the spa so I cannot comment on its services or prices.
As on other ships, most dining, entertainment, bars, and lounges are clustered on decks 6 and 7. The central promenade between these two decks is open and its ceiling is covered with an enormous LCD screen that provides glamour in the daytime and entertaining sound and light shows each evening. The best place to view these LCD shows is from the balcony on deck 7 at either end of the promenade.
MSC uses similar large LCD screens instead of the usual stage scenery in its main theater and circus lounge, and also next to its open-deck pool. This is ingenious and entertaining, and is one of the highlights on this ship. Kids of all ages will love the effect.
The atrium spans decks 5 though 7 and sparkles with millions of glass crystals embedded in its spiral staircases. Similar sparkle is present in the walls shelving wine bottles outside some of the dining rooms.
Reception and cruise services are clustered on deck 5. I found the personnel there were very helpful and efficient. Waiting lines for these services are common on a ship this size, but the lines moved quickly on the Meraviglia.
As an aside, we experienced two nights with hurricane force winds (72 knots actual, 83 knots perceived, Beaufort scale 12) and the ship handled them with ease. There was minimal list in spite of the ship's enormous wind profile, and I felt minimal rocking and no pitching in my upper deck cabin, which was far above the ship's center of gravity. There was the usual thud of the hull against waves that one hears in severe weather, but no noise from structural flexing. I felt very safe and would trust this ship to be comfortable even on a transatlantic itinerary.
FELLOW PASSENGERS: On this western Mediterranean itinerary the passengers were an enjoyable mix of nationalities -- something I enjoy when I travel in Europe. Based on overheard languages, I estimate that about 20% were native English speakers, 20% Chinese or Japanese, 5% Russian or South Asian, and 55% an equal mix of European languages (Italian, Spanish, German, Portuguese, and French).
Announcements are multilingual but reasonably infrequent. Ironically, the Japanese and Chinese announcements were the easiest to understand because they were done by native speakers. The European languages were sometimes less clear because they were often rushed and given by non-native speakers.
In this age of smartphone apps and smart TVs (each cabin has a smart TV), MSC would be wise to give all (except its safety and emergency) announcements via smartphone or TV. The ship already has a TV channel in each language where announcements and updates could be posted. Overhead announcements could be limited to one sentence in each language, giving the topic and referring passengers to their smart devices for further info. Also, most announcements are standard in content and could be pre-recorded at reasonable speed by native speakers.
In any case, the variety of nationalities and languages is one of the pleasures of traveling abroad. If you want a Disney version of the world, then stay home.
CHILDREN: I am not fond of children running loose on cruise ships, which is one of the reasons I chose a midwinter departure. Another bonus is that we were the only cruise ship docked in each port, and each port was relatively free of tourist crowds during the off-season. Our cruise had about one or two hundred children at most, preschool age or Australians on school summer holidays. The children were easily accommodated by the extensive play areas and children's programs on this ship. The school holiday calendar and a ship's quota on younger passengers is something to consider whenever booking cruise.
CREW: All crew members I met were very polite and did their jobs very well. Even though this is an Italian cruise line, the crew were of diverse nationalities and usually used English as their common language. A special effort is made to provide some crew members for each language group, although passengers and crew were not always matched in this regard in the dining rooms or cabins.
The ship is new, and it is maintained spotlessly clean by an excellent housekeeping staff. The officers are not as visible as on some other cruise lines, although opportunities are made to introduce high ranking officers to passengers. This is a non-issue for me as long as the junior officers maintain the safety standards of the ship so that fires and evacuations can be handled well in an emergency.
CABINS: MSC is unusual in that it has relatively uniform cabins over four cabin grades called "experiences" -- Bella, Fantastica, Wellness, and Aurea-- based on what amenities are included at each price level. In addition, there are are the Yacht Club cabins, which I believe are not that much nicer than standard cabins but are isolated in a locked area of the ship with special dining, decks, and lounges (corresponding with the old first class). You can read further about this system on the MSC website.
I was fortunate in that I applied to MSC and was ultimately given reciprocity (MSC gold status) to correspond with my elite status on some other cruise lines. In addition, I booked this cruise relatively late before departure when the price was so low that I thought it must be an error, but fortunately was real. It was by far the most "bang for the buck" that I have had on any cruise. I also got the 12 free drink vouchers with my Fantastica level cabin, a bonus that will be discontinued in late March 2019.
My upper deck mid-ship Fantastica grade balcony cabin was absolutely beautiful. It was a little larger than the standard for the industry. Most of the extra space was devoted to a long (2m) sofa that could be converted to a queen size bed for two more adults. The cabin came with all the usual amenities, but no robes and no body lotion, so bring your own if needed. The bathroom was compact but had a shower large enough for almost anyone. The balcony was large enough for two standard chairs and one ottoman/table. The glass wall of the cabin and glass railing of the balcony offered beautiful views.
Given the choice, I think that a starboard cabin provides nicer views in most ports on this itinerary. I did not realize how enjoyable a balcony view can be, even in winter, in this part of the world. For those with an inside cabin, there are two TV channels showing the view to the port and the starboard sides of the ship, which is an improvement over the usual single forward-facing bridge-cam channel.
My cabin was especially well-maintained by my cabin steward. After a severe wind storm that coated my balcony with sea salt, the huge glass windows were immaculate the very next day. I did not go on a cabin crawl on this ship, so I cannot comment on the inside cabins or the suites. My cabin was a wonderful respite in the evenings, when the public areas and the entertainment venues tended to get too loud for my taste, as is too common on cruise ships. I do not understand why louder entertainment is considered better. To me, louder entertainment just sounds more amateur.
DINING: The food on the Meraviglia is usually good to excellent, with only a few disappointments. For me the buffet breakfasts were by far the best meal of the day, equal to or better than that of any other cruise ship. The light and flaky croissants are some of the best I have ever had. The meats, fruits, cereals, and eggs at breakfast are all very good. The waffles (tough and soggy) and the orange drink (real orange juice is available at a surcharge) were breakfast disappointments on this cruise. I cannot comment on the coffee and tea, since I tried neither.
There is only one sea day on this itinerary, so I tried the buffet lunch once and the dining room lunch once (I skipped Rome because of heavy rain and the usual transportation hassle of going from Civitavecchia port to Rome and back). The dining room lunch menu is limited but good, and the buffet lunch on the Rome day featured the best beef (rare filet mignon) of the cruise. The afternoon buffet snacks are also good, although the pizzas are surprisingly soggy rather than crisp. No free ice cream is available in the buffet (it is a favorite of mine on other ships), but very good ice cream at dinner in the main dining rooms is free.
The food and service in the main dining rooms (based on my limited experience) is not up to the level of that on other cruise ships. The menu tends to be limited compared with other cruise lines (one appetizer, one soup, one salad). Upscale choices (lamb, beefsteak, lobster, salmon, etc.) are absent, although some of them can be purchased with a surcharge of about 15-20 euros. The fish is invariably the best main course on the menu, in small portions but perfectly prepared. The beef at dinner was often a disappointment on this cruise. The "chef's special" prime rib, for example, was a thin slice of lean, over-cooked beef that was as tough as leather. My waiter offered to bring me another item from the menu, but I was already running late for a show I had reserved. Similarly disappointing, the veal shank was a large cross-section of bone with a scant rim of meat along one edge.
The dining room service is also not on par with other cruise lines for several reasons, and not the waiters' fault. There are fixed dining times -- early or late. Only the most expensive cabins have the freedom of flexible dining times. Diners are supposed to arrive within 15 minutes of their designated time, but they tended to wander in gradually. With flexible dining, a table fills quickly and the service begins promptly. With a fixed dining time, I usually spent the first 20 minutes eating bread until there were enough diners at his station for the waiter to start service.
There are no sommeliers in the dining rooms, but if you enjoy wine and know your labels, you will do fine. There are multiple choices of wine by the glass in each major category (red, white, rose, sparkling).
Unfortunately, the waiters are delayed in starting service in part because they show newly embarked diners to their assigned tables. Also, table assignments did not make sense on my cruise. Waiters' native language often did not match that of their diners. Worst of all, my waiter and his assistant were at a work station up one level and around the corner from my table even though my table was just a few feet away from another waiter's work station. My waiter had no way to anticipate my needs or see any of my requests. Finally, all waiters are burdened with bulky touch screen tablets the size of a library book. Most restaurant waiters make written notes at table and then enter them into a computer at their work stations. Entering each order in the computer as it is given slows down the entire process.
If MSC spent just a little more on ingredients (especially the beef), trained and assigned waiters in a logical way, and allowed dinner service to start promptly and progress efficiently, dining on the Meraviglia could be second to none.
The one thing that disappointed me the most in the main dining room was the absence of free drinking water. If one wants to drink water at dinner, one must pay for it -- a new bottle of water with each dinner. If only half of the 4,500 passengers have water with dinner, that generates more than 800,000 bottles of plastic waste every year, not to mention the fossil fuel wasted in shipping bottled water to various ports. Since water is free in the buffet area, making bottled water a requirement in the dining rooms is hypocrisy for a cruise line that claims to be environmentally sensitive. Bottled water should be available for purchase in all venues for those who need it, but it should not be the only source of water in any venue.
DRESS: The Meraviglia passengers were well-dressed (no ball caps, rare slashed jeans) but were still casual during the day. There were two formal nights when about a third of men wore a suit and tie, a third wore a sport jacket, and a third wore a good shirt with no jacket. Women dressed correspondingly.
SANITATION: Hand washing is much more effective than alcohol gels at killing bacteria and viruses. The good news is that MSC wisely installed multiple hand wash stations at the entry to the buffet and in restrooms near the main dining rooms. The bad news is that almost no one used them. There is no one to remind passengers to wash hands, and unfortunately the automatic sinks in the restrooms rarely functioned properly -- the spigots and sensors are hidden by a shelf, and it takes multiple attempts to get any water. Those sinks would never pass a health inspection. Not once did I see a man successfully use the sink in the restroom. To protect my own health I not only washed my hands before each meal, I washed my hands again after touching any buffet tongs, which hundreds of passengers had already touched. Then again, I am aware of infection risks because my former profession involved infection control in hospitals.
ENTERTAINMENT: The Meraviglia has very talented singers and dancers on the main stage, and talented musicians in the lounges and atrium. Because of the multiple languages represented, almost all entertainment is musical -- no lectures or enrichment activities. Most of the music is popular and familiar to Americans, but there is one abbreviated opera performance (La Boheme) by two well-trained opera singers. The opera used ballet dancers onstage to interpret the music, which added interest for those not used to opera performances. As I mentioned, the scenery relies on huge LCD screen backdrops, which worked very well and added interest (and sometimes humor) to each performance.
In addition, Cirque du Soleil presents two different shows (Viaggio and Sonor) on various nights during the cruise. These can be reserved online prior to the cruise, but schedules usually change, so check soon after embarkation to verify your reservations or to add new ones. The Cirque desk is adjacent to the reception desk. Of the two, Viaggio is probably better for kids since it involves a little more clowning around. Both programs are surcharged via a drink or a dinner package. Ironically, the less expensive drink package offers the better seating.
The problem with all of the entertainment on the Meraviglia is the decibel level. Singers are over-amplified to the point of distortion -- one can feel the sub-woofer bass in one's gut. I tried the stage shows each evening (wearing ear plugs) but gave up after a few days and instead just relaxed in my cabin in the evening. This problem is not unique to MSC -- it occurs on most cruise ships. Only the luxury cruise lines seem to keep the amplification at a reasonable decibel level. Parents taking their kids to the Cirque performances should definitely consider ear protection for the younger ones.
EMBARKATION AND DISEMBARKATION: This cruise was unique in my experience because passengers embarked and disembarked at every port. This made embarkation much easier -- just 1,000 new passengers daily instead of 4,500 on a single day. I am not certain, but I believe that demand and pricing varies by embarkation port, so check this if you want the best price for your cruise. This system also makes disembarkation easier at the end of the cruise -- far less baggage to offload and claim each disembarkation day. It does add a bit of a disturbance each afternoon as the newly arrived passengers are summoned to their mandatory safety drill, but this is a minor inconvenience.
If you are just spending the day ashore and then returning to the ship, check the daily program since the arrival and departure times for several of the ports were changed from the original cruise schedule.
SUMMARY: The Meraviglia is a beautiful ship, the crew is wonderful, and the western Mediterranean ports are enjoyable. At the right price, you will enjoy this cruise very much.
WESTERN MEDITERRANEAN PORTS ON YOUR OWN AT MINIMAL EXPENSE:
GENOA: I love Genoa because it seems so completely Italian, especially in the historic center, which is a UNESCO world heritage site. Our ship docked in the main harbor in the middle of the city's waterfront -- an easy walk to almost any attraction and just a few minutes from the main (Principe) train station. Genoa is built on a hillside, so there is some climbing, but the waterfront alone has enough attractions to fill a half day for those with mobility issues.
Pick up a map in the cruise terminal and exit right (east) along the waterfront until you reach the Galata Museum del Mar (Museum of the Sea). This is a large, modern, very enjoyable museum that is worth at least an hour or two when you are returning to the ship. See their website for hours and current prices.
From the museum, cross the street and head uphill through the narrow lanes (gritty but safe) to the main street (Via Balbi). From there continue east to the Palazzo Real. There are five major palaces remaining from the days of Genoa's peak power and wealth. The Palazzo Real is the most interesting, but combination tickets are available, and it is fun to see more than one.
From the Palazzo Real walk farther east to Via Garibaldi, where there are beautiful historic buildings and three more palazzi -- together called the Palazzi dei Rolli on the Strade Nuove, designated a UNESCO world heritage site. Combo tickets for the palaces are available at the nearby bookshop. The fifth palace, and the one with the most art is the National Gallery of Palazzo Spinola, on Piazza Pelliceria nearby.
From there walk downhill to the cathedral and nearby fountain on Piazza de Ferrari, where you will find the Genova sign/sculpture for a photo op. The view down the historic Via XX Settembre is grand.
It is an easy walk back west to the waterfront for either (or both) the maritime museum or the modern aquarium. Even if you do not enter the aquarium, there is a cute floating park at the end of its pier, with good views of the ship and the city. From the aquarium and maritime museum it is an easy walk back to the ship.
ROME: I usually skip Rome when it is just a single day visit from Civitavecchia. The shuttle/walk/train/metro each way takes more than an hour (about the same as a rental car). If you decide to go into the city, I recommend getting a BIRG ticket, which covers the regional train and all transport in Rome. Rick Steves guides have excellent info on what to see and do in Rome, with self-guided walking tours. His Mediterranean Ports of Call guide includes detailed info on how to get from the port to the city. Highly recommended guides.
PALERMO: Palermo has a gritty beauty and vitality that I always enjoy. Some of its main streets have been blocked off and are now pedestrian friendly. The ship docks at the maritime station near the ferry terminals. As you exit the port, pick up a city map at the TI in the small wood cabin near the gate. From there it is about 15 minutes to the Teatro Massimo, another 10 minutes to the Quattro Canti intersection, and another 15 minutes along Via V. Emanuele to Piazza Independenza where you will find the bus #389 to the fabulous Cattedrale Monreale. The best place to get on the bus is at its rest stop on the far (inland) side of the plaza across from the row of small gas stations. You are more likely to get a seat from there because when the bus starts up, it swings past the wall of the Palatine Chapel and quickly fills with tourists. Check the schedule on the internet -- I believe there is a convenient departure at 10 am and about every 30 minutes thereafter. The trip into the hills takes about 30 minutes and costs 1.80 euros each way, ticket purchased from the driver. The cathedral is near the end of the bus line and there is a gorgeous view of the entire Palermo city and harbor from the walk between the bus stop and the cathedral. Inside the cathedral are the most extensive and beautiful byzantine mosaics in the western Mediterranean. It is absolutely breathtaking. For a restroom there is a friendly cafe across the plaza, and there is a small park ideal for picnics if you pass the front of the cathedral on your left, and walk under two arches past the mini-post office. The return bus leaves from exactly the same spot where it dropped you off. Back in Palermo, the new tourist entrance to the Palatine Chapel is on Piazza del Parlamento, on the opposite side of the palace from Piazza Independenza and the former tourist entrance. If you are there Fri-Mon when parliament is not in session, you can see the royal palace at the same time that you see the chapel. The chapel is a mini-version of the Cattedrale Monreale, and just as breathtaking. The chapel can be a mob scene in high season, so go early or during the lunchtime lull. From there it is a leisurely walk back to the ship. A detour through the Palermo Cattedrale and the Ballaro street market is worthwhile. On your way back, near the Quattro Canti, is the too-sexy-for-prudes Pretoria Fountain. Near the fountain are some old Norman churches, useful because all the Norman sites have free wi-fi access.
VALLETTA: Almost the entire walled town of Valletta on the island of Malta is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The ship docks on the waterfront below the city walls. The easiest way to enter the city is by the new elevators which are an easy 10 minute walk to the right (northeast) as you exit the port (the TI has free maps of the city as you disembark). The elevator costs just 1 euro to go up and is free to go down. Best of all, the elevator leaves you in the upper Barrakka gardens, which have a fine view over the harbor. From the garden make your way to the Triton fountain, which is at the new gate to the city and is the terminus of bus lines that cover the island (in case you want to take a bus to one of the beach towns or to the historic town of Mdina. Bus fares are cheap and many towns are within 30 minutes by bus. From the Triton fountain walk down the main street (Republikka) to visit the spectacular St. John's (co-) Cathedral, the impressive Grand Master's Palace, and (least interesting) the archeology museum. In high season the cathedral can be a mob scene, so best to go when it first opens before the tour groups arrive. In the afternoon you can take a bus to picturesque Mdina (again, heavily touristed) or to a beach town. The only annoying thing about Valletta is that the return to the ship zig-zags through a gift shop with no apparent exits.
BARCELONA: Barcelona is so heavily touristed (and so filled with scams and pickpockets) that I tend to avoid the crowds and spend my time on the periphery. The Gaudi sites, Ramblas, Picasso museum, and Gotic old town area are all worthwhile, but not fun in crowds. From the cruise ship I like to walk over the bridge (30 minutes) to the Drassanes metro station near the Columbus monument at the base of the Ramblas. Most ships offer a pricey shuttle, and later in the day the city offers the T3 shuttle bus for about 4 euros round trip. I buy a T10 packet of metro tickets (about 1 euro each, can be shared) and am on my way. I take the metro to Paral-lel for the funicular up Monjuic or to Placa Espana when the funicular is closed (it is under repair as I write this in early 2019). Bus #150 goes up the mountain from Placa Espana, with spectacular views over the cruise ships from the fort at the top (terminus of the bus). Along the way I always stop at the Catalan National Museum. The view over the city from its entrance is worth the trip, but the museum is also one of my favorite museums in all the world -- I usually spend 2 hours there every time I visit Barcelona (seniors are free -- a bonus for the elderly). The museum has Catalan art from the Romanesque through the 20th century, an amazing collection in a beautifully modernized building. I also check the Caixa Forum near Placa Espana to see what special exhibits they have. In the afternoon I usually visit some of the other tourist sites or simply amble through the old town. There are nice bike tours, walking tours, and many other things to do. The Rick Steves guide to Barcelona has great suggestions. Be aware that the current price to enter Gaudi's Sagrada Familia is now 33 euros!
TOULON (and La Seyne-Sur-Mer): If you are on a large ship, you will probably dock across the bay from Toulon at La Seyne-Sur-Mer. From that dock you exit the port and turn right (west) to get to the ferry (#8M) dock about 10 minutes away. It helps if you view the port area from the upper deck of the ship first, so that you can see where the ferry stops -- it is at Espace Marine in a somewhat bleak industrial area. Any local can show you the way. The ferry costs 2 euros each way, but is included in the day pass available at the Toulon tourist information office. If you are on a smaller ship, you may dock southeast of Toulon's center, just a 10 minutes walk away from the tourist information office. Whichever dock, I suggest that you first go to the Toulon tourist information office at Place Louis Blanc. They have all the information and maps that you will need to enjoy your day. They also sell the 4 euro transit pass, which is good for all buses and ferries in the area. Just outside the office is an enjoyable street market that extends for several hundred meters up the hill. There is a pleasant walking tour of Toulon on the tourist map, or you can hop on a bus #3 or #23 to go to the attractive beaches and parks of the Mourillon district southeast of town. Alternately, you can enjoy the beach and park at Sablettes, south of La Seyne-Sur-Mer. From Toulon ferry # 18M (or less enjoyable bus #18) goes there. Bus #18 passes a few blocks west of the La Seyne-Sur-Mer cruise dock on its way north to Toulon or south to Sablettes. For those who want to see Marseille rather than Toulon, bus #23 and bus #3 go from near the waterfront area up the hill to the train station (Gare Toulon) for the ride to Marseille's St. Charles train station. Check the internet for prices and schedules. Read Less