We wanted a 2-week vacation in Europe, particularly the Eastern Mediterranean, but with airfares so high, and the dollar falling against the Euro, we thought we couldn't afford it -- until our online travel agent told us about the MSC Orchestra. We booked an 11 night Eastern Mediterranean cruise, March 3-14, 2008, for what we would have spent just on average hotel rooms for a week in Europe. What follows is my review of the ship as well as our excursions and sightseeing at the ports of call. The entire 14-day trip, including airfare from Washington DC and all sightseeing, meals and drinks ashore, wine on board, and taxis to and from the Genoa airport, cost us less than $2,500 per person. I challenge anyone to fly to Europe and stay for a week for what we spent for a luxurious two week vacation.
The Ship: The pictures on the MSC website don't do the ship justice. Last year we cruised the Holland America Noordam, which was built in the same shipyards. The ships are almost identical, like boutique hotels, very modern and stylish decor with lots of marble and granite -- first rate. We booked the least expensive inside cabin, which turned out to be very attractive. Inside cabins measure 150 square feet, outside cabins are 183 square feet, while balcony cabins range in size from 164 square feet to 191 square feet. Suites are 269 square feet. I recommend a suite for a family of three or four, or even for just a couple if you are crossing the ocean (which the Orchestra does on repositioning cruises) and spending more time in the cabin than we spent on this cruise (which had port calls eight of the ten days).
Food: Dinners exceeded expectations, given the comments posted by others on Cruise Critic. There was a wide variety of traditional Italian food, each night featuring one region. Presentation and quality compared favorably with trattorias in Italy. The cuisine is typical rustic Italian. The pasta and risotto courses are huge; the meat and fish courses not so large. Typical fish fillet or meat serving is about 6 ounces. Desserts are not the huge portions served in chain restaurants in the US but you can order two if you want, as I did the night I couldn't choose between the panna cotta and the coffee gelato (both of which were excellent). There is more than enough to eat, sized appropriately so that you can enjoy 6 or more courses if you want. If you don't like European food, or your idea of Italian cuisine is Olive Garden, you should pick a different cruise line. If you enjoy slow paced typical European dining, you should be very happy with the Orchestra. One night I had a puff pastry appetizer, pesto pasta, 3 nice lamb chops as a main course, Opera cake for dessert. As good as any food I've had on any ship. Breakfast in the dining room was identical to Holland America, except the smoked salmon portion on the Orchestra was immense. Buffet breakfast included all the usual breakfast items plus mushrooms, broiled tomatoes, and beans to suit European and British appetites. We did not experience pushing/shoving at the buffet, and we always found a table. There is no charge for food in the dining room or the buffets at breakfast, lunch, or midnight. The Shanghai (Chinese) restaurant charges approximately 3.5 euro for soup, and 6 to 8 euro for main dishes. The Four Seasons restaurant also charges extra. The night we looked at the menu, the charge was 18 euro per person for the entire dinner. There were some upscale choices on that menu but we didn't eat there or at the Shanghai so I can't say whether it's worth the extra charge. There is also a charge for gelato (ice cream) other than in the dining room.
On the first "sea day" we sampled the 4:00 p.m. tea, which consisted of small sandwiches and pastries. The Orchestra does not serve dinner on a buffet, which may disappoint passengers who lack the patience for a two-hour seated dinner or who want to dine at different times each night. However, you can get pizza or kebabs for about 7 euro until 10 p.m.
Room service menu: soup of the day 2.25 euro. Club sandwich 3.1 euro. Smoked salmon sandwich 3.2 euro. Mozzarella, tomatoes + basil, 3.1 euro. Mediterranean salad with tuna and hard boiled eggs 3 euro. Mixed cheese platter 2.8 euro. Fresh fruit platter 2.6 euro. Dessert of the day 3.1 euro.
Entertainment: The evening shows are mostly revues with energetic dancers, acrobats/tumblers, jugglers, contortionists, gymnasts, magician, etc. Very high energy. Lots of fun and only 45 minutes so you have plenty of time for dancing or just listening to music after. There were classical music shows and some midnight topless shows that we did not attend. There is also a staff of about eight "animation" activity leaders for the daytime activities such as a minigolf tournament, yoga, stretching/relaxation exercises, aerobics, Italian lessons, trivia contests, bingo, Latin dancing lessons, and talks by the sommelier on Italian wines. The magician demonstrated "micro magic" in two one-hour sessions where you could see his moves close up and still be tricked. The animation team also dance with passengers at night. Every evening, there are six or seven musical groups on board playing live music all over the ship. Internet and phone: The ship has an internet cafe. You put your room card in the slot and you are charged 4 euro for the first 10 minutes, then .40 euro per minute. No discount packages. If you have a laptop or wifi enabled PDA you can buy 30 minutes of wifi for 12 euro, 60 minutes for 24 euro, 120 minutes for 40 euro or 250 minutes for 80 euro. You go to the registration desk, give them your room card, and they give you an envelope with instructions and your logon id and password. The ship has various wifi hotspots. If you want wifi in your cabin, apparently you can get a network cable. I don't know the price of that. The wifi was fast enough for email, but when I used it for Skype VOIP calls, a lot of words got dropped. Still, it's a relatively cheap way to check your home or office voice mail, or to check on the family at home. The information booklet in the cabin said that satellite phone calls from the cabin are 3.99 euro per minute. Someone calling you from the states might have to pay a high per minute rate to reach the ship; best to ask the long distance carrier in advance. I saw some people using their cell phones. MSC doesn't charge for that, but your cell phone company may charge you for roaming at sea. Mine quoted $5.00 per minute.
Tennis: There is one tennis court that appears to be full size.
Miniature golf: There is a typical miniature golf course.
Spa: The spa on the ship is run by a Balinese company and has sauna and steam rooms, which I think are shared by men and women. Various massages and treatments are available at fairly high prices. There also are thermal baths, which may be individual. There are fees (15 euro per hour, with occasional discounts) for those spa facilities. There are hot tubs on the pool deck that are free.
Gym: The gym is adequate. There are treadmills, ellipticals, stair climbers, and one circuit of weight machines. Limit of 25 minutes on the cardio machines. Stretching classes were free, some other classes for a fee. No water fountain. Fabulous panoramic view in the front of the ship. The gym got fairly hot with the sun shining on all of the glass.
Service on Board: Embarkation -- out taxi knew where to drop us off so that a porter took our bar code labelled suitcases and we didn't have to carry them. Check in was well organized and took an hour. We were shown right to our cabin. Our bags showed up 10 minutes later.
Noise issues: Overall we found our cabin to be very quiet. We did hear children running in the hallway, but we didn't hear any voices. Several times we did hear loud music/bass on the other side of our cabin wall. The third time, we called the desk. Within 5 minutes a ship officer came to our cabin to hear the music, and within about 2 minutes after that it was quiet. Our table mates had a similar problem with noise from neighbors, which the staff resolved promptly.
Disembarkation: Mid-cruise, a form is put in your cabin for you to complete, indicating your travel plans at the end of the cruise. Near the end of the cruise, the assistant cruise directors conducted language-specific briefings on disembarkation. On the last night of the cruise, they put color coded labels in your cabin for you to put on your luggage. You need to leave your large suitcases outside your cabin door by midnight, keeping your hand luggage. Early in the morning, the ship delivers two copies of your final bill for onboard charges (including excursions, wine, bar drinks, the standard 6-euro per day per passenger tip/gratuity for the waiters, cabin stewards, et al.). If you are satisfied with the bill, you sign one copy and bring it to the registration/information desk or the accounting desk, keeping the copy. If there is an error or you want to delete the standard tip and give tips directly, you go to the accounting desk. On the morning of disembarkation, all passengers have to vacate their cabins by 7:30 a.m. Breakfast is available and the lounges are open. The daily program indicates which lounge you should wait in, based on the color of your baggage tags. After the ship docks and is cleared by the authorities, you claim your passports at the accounting desk (around 9:15 in our case, although no announcement was made). You disembark when they call your color code, with first priority to those with early flights. We had an early flight out of Genoa, so we were in the first group off the ship, around 9:30. All passengers, even those with prepaid transfers to an airport, must claim their own suitcases in the terminal. Luggage carts are provided. Taxi to the Genoa airport is about 32 euro. MSC has a nice private lounge at the Genoa airport. The cafeteria there is also very good and reasonably priced.
Clientele: On our cruise, there were about 2500 passengers, only 300 of whom were English speaking (American, Canadian and Australian). Most of the passengers were German. A fair number were Italian. Announcements are made in five languages. Breakfast and lunch in the dining room are open seating. The maitre d' will try to seat you with people who speak your language. Most Europeans speak some English so it's interesting to sit with them. You really feel like you are in Europe when you are sailing the Mediterranean on MSC.
Ports of Call:
Genoa: We spent the night before the cruise at the Hotel Bellevue in Genoa, which is right across from the main Genoa train station with hourly bus service to/from the airport (Volabus #100). We had a lot of luggage so we took a taxi. The meter read 18 euro but the driver said there were extra charges for airport pickup, second passenger, baggage, entering the old port area, etc., and he insisted on 30 euro. The hotel was only $105 for the night, including breakfast, which was Continental plus yogurt, thin sliced ham and processed cheese. The room was large, about 15' x 15', with a nice bathroom. We had a corner room with huge windows overlooking the harbor. Given the price and location, I highly recommend the hotel. With the windows closed, the trains didn't bother us. Sightseeing -- Monday morning we did some sightseeing in Genoa. In retrospect we should have allowed an additional day in Genoa, either before or after the cruise. Still, we had time to visit the Staglione cemetery, which is not to be missed. We bought bus tickets from a tabac (tobacco shop) for 1.2 euro. The #42 bus left from the front of the Principe train station and took 25 minutes to get to the cemetery. Don't bother with a taxi; the roads are too narrow for any taxi to pass the bus! The cemetery is fabulous, sculpture, monuments, landscaping. On our return, we got off the bus near the middle of town, a five minute walk to the Genoa aquarium, which costs 18 euro per person but was well worth it. The hummingbird forest was not worth another 2 euros per person. Then we walked through the old port city, caught a taxi, picked up our suitcases which were being held at the desk, and headed to the cruise terminal. As described above, embarkation was smooth.
Katakolon (Olympia): Katakolon is a small tourist town that is used as an access point for Olympia. Rather than taking a bus tour, we took the train to and from Olympia. The train is only a couple of euro roundtrip. Our ship docked on schedule at 9:00, which was too late for the 8:36 train. We took the 10:13 train which ended in Pirog. We walked through that town until the 11:26 train to Olympia, which turned out to be the same train that leaves Katakolon at 11:06 and gets to Olympia at 11:52 a.m. After walking 10 minutes to the archeological site, we gave ourselves a walking tour for about an hour and a half, then walked back to the train depot for the 1:46 p.m. train that arrived in Katakolon at 2:32 p.m. The next return train, which leaves Olympia at 3:42 p.m., does not get back to Katakolon until 4:30 p.m., would have missed our ship. So we settled for the short visit to Olympia. Fee for the archeological site or the museum is 6 euro; combined ticket for both is 9 euro. There also are taxis in Katakolon but if you take the train you get some contact with the locals, like the old woman we saw waiting at the Pirog train station with the three kids (baby goats) that she had bought in town. We enjoyed a late lunch (pork, not goat) at a seaside cafe in Katakolon.
Piraeus/Athens: Having made some friends on the cruise, six of us decided to visit the Acropolis on our own. From the ship terminal, we walked about 45 minutes, mostly along the harbor road, to the metro/train station. That is the end of the line for the #1 train, which costs 1.4 euro roundtrip to Monastirakiou (the 7th stop). The train took about 20 minutes, then it was about a 20 minute pleasant walk to the Acropolis, which you can see from the train station. Admission to the Acropolis was free the day we visited in honor or memory of a government official or his wife, so we don't know the usual admission price. We paid an official guide 85 euro for a private tour (about 75 minutes) that combined history, sociology and politics. Then we walked through the parking lot and up the adjacent hill, about a 10 minute climb via the stairs (it would take about 20 minutes if you take the sloping pathway). The view looking over to the Acropolis was fantastic. We reversed our course and got back to the ship around 3:00. The Orchestra obligingly served buffet lunch until 3:30 including lamb stew and pork stew with prunes, both of which were excellent.
Rhodes: We walked through the Medieval old city (including interesting side streets that are free of souvenir shops), and we toured the Palace of the Knights (6 euro). We then enjoyed lunch on the square (9.5 euro for a Greek sampler platter that two of us shared; drinks 4 to 6 euro).
Alexandria (Cairo, etc.) Egypt: We assembled in one of the ship's lounges at 8:00 a.m to get our identifying stickers for our 12 hour bus tour to Sakkara, Memphis and Giza. By 8:30 we were on a new, air conditioned bus with a tiny bathroom (toilet and sink), with an excellent English speaking guide, driver, and armed guard. Our bus and about 40 others drove in a convoy with police/security escort on the desert road, a fairly uninteresting 3 hour drive to the outskirts of Cairo. The buses then went different directions depending on the tour. There were tours of the Egyptian museum and Giza; Egyptian museum and Roman amphitheater; Cairo and Giza with lunch on a cruise boat on the Nile. Each of these tours was between 106 and 118 euro. As you will see as you read below, the price is a good value and it would be difficult, if not impossible, to sightsee in Cairo safely on your own, and be sure of returning in time for the ship to sail). Our bus continued to Sakkara, arriving about 12:20 p.m. We had a 40 minute visit to the ancient stepped pyramid (the oldest pyramid in Egypt), followed by a 20 minute drive to Memphis. There we had a 20 minute stop to visit the alabaster sphinx and a large statue of Ramses II. At both of these stops, peddlers swarmed the tourists trying to sell souvenirs and inviting picture taking (one of them taking your picture with one of them and a statute, etc.). The scam is they then expect money, especially to give you back your own camera. This happened to us in Memphis and it was the Tourist Police themselves who tried to shake us down. At Sakkara one of our group ignored the guide's advice to stay away from the camel drivers. Once they were on the camel there was a disagreement about the price to get down. Anyone sightseeing in Egypt should avoid eye contact, much less conversation, with anyone selling or offering anything, including people offering to have their pictures taken for free (it's just not true). After our stop in Memphis, we went to lunch at a hotel in Giza. Although the buffet was included in the tour, we had heard from friends who had traveled to Egypt that North Americans often get sick from Egyptian food, so we ate only what we had brought from home (pasta/tuna salad in poptop cans, nutrition bars, cheese/peanut butter crackers). We also brought our own bottled water because we had been warned that Egyptian bottled water can be contaminated. After the 45-minute lunch stop, we left the hotel around 3:15 and drove to Giza for a quick tour of the pyramids and sphinx (very impressive). Those attractions close at 4:30. Then we went to a papyrus "factory" to see how the plant is turned into paper, followed by 15 minutes to browse the artwork (ink and paints on papyrus rolls). We bought a small one for $11, which they rolled into an attractive carrying tube. Then we had 20 minutes at a gift shop where the prices were supposed to be non-negotiable, but we got 15% off two gold charms. We think our guide got a percentage of what we bought at both places. Back on the bus we fought our way through Cairo traffic, which includes foolhardy pedestrians, beasts of burden, and reckless drivers. Back on the desert road, we arrived at the ship at 8:30 p.m. The ship obligingly had an open seating for dinner for all who had been on tours. Our overall reaction to the day in Egypt was that the sights were worth the 12-hour bus trip but we would not want to return to Egypt.
Limmasol, Cyprus: The ship docks in the new port which is about three miles from the old port/town center. The ship offered a bus shuttle for 5 euro per person, but four of us shared a cab for a (negotiated in advance) rate of 10 euro. Then we walked the streets. It was Greek Orthodox festival (the day before Greek Orthodox Lent) so the Castle and the cathedral, etc. were closed, but we enjoyed the small zoo and then we stood on the parade route for the town parade which was great fun.
Marmaris: The ship offered a shuttle to and from the town for 5 euro (roundtrip). However, you can walk to the town center in about 20 minutes on a well marked path through the yacht club. From the town center, it's a five minute uphill walk to the castle which has fabulous views. I sent Cruise Critic a photo of the MSC Orchestra that I took from, and framed by, the castle battlements. Warning: If you aren't on a prepaid excursion, you have to pay 2 Turkish Lira (about 1.10 euro or about $1.70) for admission to the castle, and unlike the shops, the castle does not accept euros or dollars. The change bureaus won't change euro coins. So you may want to buy a half liter bottle of water from a shop, pay with a 2-euro coin, and accept 2 Turkish Lira as your change. Marmaris' seaside promenade is about a 45 minute roundtrip walk from the town center. So if you walked from the ship to the end of the promenade and back to the ship, with a visit to the castle, it would take about two hours. You might want to stop for Turkish coffee, lunch or dinner at one of the dozens of waterfront restaurants or cafes in town. Because the port call is a full 12 hours, you may want to take one the tours like the trip to the hillside cave tombs in Dalyon, as you still will have plenty of time to explore Marmaris. Caution: Whatever the official exchange rate, the restaurants and shops are likely to give you much less for your euro or dollar. They also declined to accept my credit card, probably so they could profit from the exchange on currency. But if you change money into Turkish Lira at a bank or money exchange, you can't exchange what you have left over back to euros or dollars.
Heraklion (Crete): We walked from the port to the street, turned right and walked about 20 minutes, past the first major intersection. In the next block on the left is the main bus station. In the back of the bus station we found the ticket kiosk for the bus to the Palace of Knossos (the highlight of Heraklion). Bus tickets cost 2.30 euro roundtrip. The bus leaves every 10 minutes and takes about 25 minutes. When you get off, look across the street to your left and you will see a sign pointing to the palace entrance. Admission is 6 euro. There are excellent information signs in English throughout the palace, so we did not hire a guide (which would have cost 120 euro). We spent about 90 minutes at the palace. There also is a museum which we did not visit. Returning to the town, we followed a walking tour from a guidebook. We visited the cathedral and two churches. We walked around the 1628 Morosini fountain on Plateia Venizelou. We got lunch at an excellent taverna, and we liked the local wine so well that we bought two bottles to share with our table mates at dinner on the ship. MSC allows small quantities of wine or beer to be brought aboard. In the dining room they charge a corkage fee of 2.50 euro per passenger who drinks the wine that you bring onboard. After lunch we continued our walking tour and picked up pastries at a pastry shop. Apparently Heraklion is well known for its pastries and the sidewalk cafes that serve them with Greek coffee. On our way back to the ship, we passed by the Venetian Loggia and the 16th century Venetian fortress at the end of the old harbor's jetty. We didn't have time to see if we could tour inside. Naples: The Orchestra arrives in Naples at 8:00 a.m., and "all aboard" is 2:30 p.m., so you have to choose among touring Naples, Sorrento, Capri, or Pompei [their spelling]. We chose the ship's 4 hour excursion to Pompei, which cost about 45 euro. We decided to take the tour rather than public transportation because of the time constraint, as well as the reassurance that the ship would not leave without us if we were on one of "their" tours. The drive from the Naples port is about 30 minutes, followed by a 30 minute visit to a coral/shell cameo "factory" (shop) that is also the bathroom stop. Then our excellent guide gave us a two hour tour of Pompei. I can't possibly describe Pompei in this post except to say that it should not be missed and I plan to return when I have more time. Now let me tell you about a passenger who got left behind. At the end of the tour, the guide showed us the meeting place and gave us 15 minutes to buy souvenirs before walking to the bus, which had been moved to a parking lot. At the appointed time, our group walked with the guide to the bus. One woman ("Mary") was missing. Her traveling companion on the cruise ("Sheila") had not brought this to the attention of the tour guide either at the meeting point, nor during our walk to the bus. The guide and Sheila returned to the meeting point and looked for Mary for about ten minutes. Then they returned to the bus and we drove back to the ship. Enroute, the guide called the drivers of the other buses conducting Pompei tours from the ship, but Mary was not on their buses. The guide left word with the Pompei ticket office to have Mary take a taxi back to the ship. Mary, it turns out, had heard our guide gathering our group, but didn't see him. Rather than calling out to him, or to Sheila, Mary stayed behind and was with another group from our ship, but she did not ride with them. After waiting the better part of an hour, Mary took a (56 euro) taxi to the ship. Mary's and Sheila's point of view is that the guide should have continued looking for Mary even though she was not at the meeting point. Sheila took no responsibility for having left the meeting point without Mary, and without telling the guide until we got to the bus. Mary took no responsibility for leaving the meeting point when she heard but did not see the guide. The ship took no responsibility for anything related to the tour, and would have left without Sheila. Who was at fault? You be the judge.
Conclusion: If you have stayed in First Class hotels in Europe, and you have been satisfied with neighborhood trattorias in Italy, you should be very happy with an MSC cruise, and particularly with the MSC Orchestra.
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