Wonderful First Experience with MSC: MSC Divina Cruise Review by NellieVA

MSC Divina 5
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Wonderful First Experience with MSC

Sail Date: December 2013
Destination: Eastern Caribbean
Embarkation: Miami
We just returned from a seven-day sailing aboard the beautiful MSC Divina over Christmas week. As perhaps many of you reading this review, I spent the past several months reading fervently on these boards seeking out as much information as possible about MSC, in general, and the Divina in particular. My wife, (teenage) daughter, and I have been on nearly a dozen cruises running the gamut from Princess (Coral and Caribbean), Norwegian (EPIC and Spirit), RCCL (Explorer and Imagination of the Seas), Carnival (Fascination), and HAL (Oosterdam and Westerdam), but this was our first experience with MSC. I can already say, with satisfaction, that it will not be our last, as we’re already booked aboard the Orchestra in August to visit Norway and Sweden.

In addition to my family, my in-laws traveled with us for the holiday journey. Information provided before the sailing was much more sparse than on other lines, and – as regular readers know – the MSC website truly More sucks. We had booked through a travel agent, so any calls I made to MSC with questions were – understandably – directed back to the TA. In the end, the pre-boarding documents are sparse. Ours only showed our dinner assignments, which were not what we had requested. If the website had been more robust, and allowed one to look at details of your booking, we might have caught this mistake earlier. As it was, it required a 30-minute wait once on board to have the maitre d’ change our seating so we could all eat together at the early seating. Other very basic information that MSC really does need to provide before sailing are dinner assignments and times (for our sailing, 1st seating was 5:45pm, and second at 8:30pm), and – most importantly – the breakdown or attire requirements for the main dinner dining. I completely packed the wrong clothes in anticipation of more than one formal night. I do, however, give MSC kudos for having “casual” night, in additional to “gala” (read formal), and “informal” (tie and jacket for men). For our sailing, we had two casual nights (first and last), one formal, one semi-formal, and three color and decade-themed nights – red, white, and “70’s, 80’s, and 90’s.” If we’d known this, we would have packed differently, as I’m sure most other passengers would, and it could have been fun. Anyway, note to MSC – improve the pre-embarkation info.

We flew into Miami, not through MSC, on the day of sailing. We used a taxi from MIA to the Port, which is a great deal at $24 per carload, especially as we were a party of five. I never saw an option for an MSC airport transfer, though it must exist, as I saw them listed on our final day of departure. Again – note to MSC – provide more pre-departure information.

We arrived at the port around 2:00pm and, I must admit, from the moment we saw the Divina from the causeway, we knew she was an incredibly beautiful ship. The port was busy with five large vessels, but check-in was pretty good. The sidewalk where taxis/cars drop passengers off is rather narrow, so it was confusing at first to find someone to take our bags, especially amid the growing throng of passengers. A wheelchair attendant was on the sidewalk and asked my mother-in-law if she wanted assistance. We are very happy she availed herself of the service, as the terminal is large and there was a lot of walking involved. We cleared security and waited no more than two or three minutes to check-in, which was smooth and analogous with every other cruise we have taken. We were directed to board the ship immediately, entering on deck 6 midship. P.S. The port wheelchair attendant was able to roll my mother-in-law on board, and she was able to immediately transfer to a ship steward and chair, which brought her up to her cabin. We were welcomed from several staff members but, alas, no maps were handed out. A very good, detailed, and 3-D map is available in the cabins, but a small index card-sized map (similar to what NCL does) would have been appreciated.

Rooms were already ready to be occupied so we set off there directly. We had two Superior Balcony cabins on deck 10 – 10277 (double, with one of the very large 14-foot-deep aft-facing verandahs), and 10267 (a triple around the corner, furthest back cabin on the port side). It is confusing on the MSC website, and most US travel agents don’t know MSC ships and therefore can’t answer the question, but the Divina has two categories of balconies, though they are only listed as “balconies” on their deck plan. They are updating their cabin designations in April 2014, so for now, the superior cabins (which are LARGER than standard) are categorized as B-12, I believe. After April, it will be easier, as superiors are classified B3, and standard balconies are B1 and B2. This differentiation, however, is still not clearly made on the MSC website. Whatever the case, a) MSC needs to update this, and b) ASK before booking. It shouldn’t be so hard to figure out which cabins are larger than others. Aside from a Verandah Suite on a HAL vessel, these cabins were the nicest we have had as sea. Beautiful, very large, and in excellent condition. The aft double was identical to our triple, aside from the massive balcony and the fact that the sofa did not convert to a bed. In our triple room, the sofa did indeed convert into a VERY comfortable and large double sofabed. Unlike on other ships we’ve sailed, the couch flips open in a book-like fashion and is comprised of REAL mattresses, rather than thin sofa-bed-type pads. The couch is very wide and, as such, when open, people sleeping there put their heads near one arm, their feet at the other arm, and sleep perpendicular to the occupants of the people in the regular beds. It is a very nice set-up, allowing for a really comfortable mattress and leaving sufficient room to have the sofa open and still be able to easily access the balcony. The main beds were WONDERFUL – best we’ve had at sea – and easily the largest. When pushed together, it felt like a true king bed. There are two small drawered nightstands on either side of the main bed, a good-sized desk with drawers (one contains the hairdryer), a mini-bar, and a flat-plan TV mounted above the desk. Lots of storage room here and a nice layout. There is a glass coffee table in front of the couch, which neatly fits under the desk when made, and an ottoman-like chair can either stay under the desk with the table, or be used as an end table for the couch occupant(s).

The cabin was beautifully appointed. The huge mirror mounted on the wall opposite the bed was at first a little jarring, but we quickly learned to love it, as it made the already large room seem positively palatial. On the left wall as you enter the cabin was a three-doored wardrobe, with a main compartment for hanging clothes, and a third door hiding a well-functioning and easy-to-use safe, and several clothes draws. The doors had rubber stoppers on them, so no loud slamming noises as on most other ships (Note to NCL and Princess to copy this.) Storage was a little tight on this ship, however, but we give them kudos for not wasting space. If anything, I could see doing away with the mini-bar and replacing that with two or three drawers, after which storage would not be an issue.

The bathroom occupies the right side as you enter and I LOVE rpt LOVE the layout. It is huge by cruise ship standards and extremely efficient. A very large sink takes up one whole wall, with plenty of storage below and glass shelves built into the far side. The showers were spacious and rather than using those God-awful film curtains, they have been replaced with dual glass doors. The doors work wonderfully and can be adjusted in a myriad of positions thanks to very clever magnets. I really loved the setup and it helped keep everything tidy and livable for the three of us. There are, by the way, body wash and shampoo dispensers in the shower, as well as built in soap dishes.

Our verandah was standard sized, with two aluminum mesh seats and a matching ottoman. Not huge, but very useable. The only downside we had, and which I did not realize until I studied images of Divina after she arrived in Miami, but half of our balcony was glass, and half was metal. You’ll see that as part of her elegant design, there are far-forward and far-after cabins that have metal or partially metal balcony facings, as part of the design. If I’d realized this earlier, I would have booked the cabin next to ours, to get the full glass view. Study the pictures before you book.

I’ll add a small comment about my in-laws’ cabin – 10277 – as it is aft-facing with a huge balcony. As discussed on these boards, the balcony sizes very by deck on all of the aft Divina cabins, ranging from “Princess balconies” (door opens, but no place to stand) on 13, down to the ginormous 14-foot-deep balconies on deck 10. While their sizes differ, the aft cabins are NOT cantilevered, meaning they are fully covered, unlike, for example, on the Coral Princess, where port and starboard balconies vary in size and are cantilevered, allowing for true “sun porches.” I did not mind the deck being covered on Divina, but if folks are booking these in hopes of sunbathing, you will be disappointed. These verandahs, too, are furnished exactly the same as others, whereas the addition of a couple of chaise loungers would be very welcome, and still leave LOTS of room on the deck. The only downside I see to these cabins is that they are subject to collecting “smoke-stack grime,” depending on the prevailing winds. My in-laws noted that by the end of the night, their deck was often covered with a thin layer of oily grime. We tracked it down to exhaust from the smoke stacks. To their steward’s credit, the deck was washed each and every morning. Finally, other sailors have reported water cascading down from the aft infinity pool on Deck 15. I did see this water accumulate on my in-laws deck, but a) it was from the automatic deck/window cleaner which runs on a rail around each of the decks, and b) stewards came in very shortly after each pass to mop away the residue water. They did, however, report an occasional sewage smell in their cabin. They reported it to our steward. I’m not sure if they did anything and/or if the smell was from inside or outside their cabin. Our room steward, by the way, was very easy to find, very friendly, and extremely efficient. NO complaints in the service department. For those looking for towel animals, aside from one on Christmas Eve – along with a nice Christmas card – there are none.

We headed up to the buffet on Deck 14 after checking out the rooms. Expecting departure-day chaos, we were very pleasantly surprised. As we quickly learned, and as noted by a few others, HEAD FOR THE BACK of the buffet area. The buffet runs the entire length of deck 14 from the main mid-ship pool, all the way to the rear of the ship. Each half has a different name, but they are contiguous. The pizza station – wonderful pizza – is at the front, closest to the pool, and there is an “ethnic station” at the far other end. Between they have a really wonderful mixture of selections. I give the food on this ship’s buffet high marks, at least for breakfast and lunch; we never had dinner at the buffet. You will see, however, the people tend to congregate toward the front, near the pizza station, while the rear remains relatively empty and quiet. We never had trouble finding a table in the rear, at any time, and our ship was completely sold out, with 1,200 children on board, 900 or which were under the age of 12. The food at lunch on embarkation day was really wonderful. As noted by others, the selection of fine Italian meats and cheese is a real treat, and without fail, every pasta dish I tried on the buffet was outstanding. One thing they do not have is a burger grill. Rather, on the front side opposite the pizza station, there is a large area with prepackaged hamburgers, cheeseburgers, and fries, but the burgers were not grilled and not to my liking. My wife, however, said they were excellent, so color me spoiled. The waiters do not bring you water or tea to your seat, but there are plenty of beverage stations at which you can easily get water or coffee all day, and a wide variety of juices in the morning and iced tea, lemonade, and flavored waters at lunch.

While we were at lunch, the waiters came around and were explaining the various drink packages available on board. No hard sell, though. Nice change. They had offerings which were not on the MSC website before sailing. I’m not sure why this was, and it makes it rather confusing. We ended up purchasing a 14-voucher book for “adult beverages” at ~$80, and a 15-voucher “Doremi” package at ~$35 for our daughter, which covers soft drinks, shakes, virgin drinks, etc. We did not see an unlimited soft drink package, but neither were we looking for one. They both worked out to be good deals. Interesting enough, the wine package we bought on-line was not available on board. Again, rather confusing.

We toured much of the ship after lunch, and it is truly stunning. Everything was in immaculate shape and the lounges/public areas are beautiful. It lacks the art work of, say, a Holland America ship, but it is lovely nonetheless. Speaking of art, there is no art gallery. This is MORE THAN FINE with me, as I never understood the whole art-auction-at-sea thing anyway, but I note it in case others are looking for it. I noted that the wall outside the La Luna Lounge says “Gallerie d’Art,” so I wonder if there had been an earlier gallery but it was removed when Divina arrived in North America.

Our lifeboat drill was at 5:00pm. Directions were a little confusing, but we figured it out. They have people bring their lifejackets to three main stations, where they scan your key card and then do a demonstration. The drill is conducted in five languages, so it takes a little longer than on other ships, but it still wasn’t arduous. More on the language situation later.

As I noted, we were able to change to early seating, which had us in the Villa Rosa dining room, in the aft section, at 5:45pm. The other main dining room is the Black Crab closer to mid-ship. As in other ships, the kitchens create a barrier, meaning that to enter Villa Rosa, you have to get to deck 6 aft, but the only way to access that is from deck 7 at the aft elevator/staircase. The same goes for the Black Crab, in that you can’t access it from the aft, and have to go forward and down to reach it. I’ve read others complain about the layout, but I have seen this, or a similar configuration, on every ship we’ve sailed, so once we figured it out, it was no problem. They have added a few signs, too, for the Villa Rosa, to help direct people.

In the main dining room I had the only true down portions of our trip. The food is average at best. In addition, the dining room is loud – I’m not sure if it is the ceiling height or the configuration, but when full, the noise level is high. It was nowhere near the stadium-like levels on Carnival, but far from the quiet ambiance on Princess or HAL. We spoke to people who had the late seating, and they universally commented on the noise level, particularly as most families with young children seemed to be at that seating. We never had an issue with loud children, but rather it is the overall level. An easy fix would for them to not play, or turn WAY down, the music they play during dinner – that should help. We did not, however, have ANY problems with the service. Our server was Mayun and he was great. Yes, they are a little understaffed, but aside from some confusion on the first night, the service was excellent and Mayun was efficient, funny, and pleasant. Confusion on the first night revolved around our wine package. We had purchased the seven-bottle wine package on the MSC website before boarding. Aside from the confirmation e-mail, we received nothing to “prove” we had the package. I asked when we sat down, and Mayun said we’d have to wait for the bar. About 10 minutes later, a woman did come from the bar, looking for us, with a coupon book for seven bottles of house wine. From then on, we’d simply tell Mayun if we wanted red, white, or rose, and he’d bring the bottle. You could not choose from a menu and we were never sure exactly what was coming, but I’m happy to report that all of the wine was Italian and all of it was good. At the end of the evening, I’d give him our key card and one of the coupons, and then sign a bill marked “zero.” No problems.

The menu was fairly extensive, with appetizers, soups/salads, pasta, and main dish categories. There is also a “light fare” section, as well as an “everyday favorites,” which had the same dishes every night – grilled chicken, salmon, etc. The menu is presented in a cardboard binder printed in five languages, and our server would hand it to us, open to English. Bread is brought around by the assistant waiter and you must choose, rather than being left on the table. Bread was good, but they never return for seconds, so if want more, grab it the first time around. Water is also automatically poured, and we had zero issue with not getting rather immediate refills, as noted in some other reviews. I don’t think my glass ever got below half full before Mayun or his assistant refilled it. For bar drinks, a separate waiter would come to the table at the beginning of the meal. Service was quick. If you finished that drink, the waiter will ask you if you want a refill – if you do, he will bring over a bar waiter, as I guess only they are authorized to take bar orders. Not a problem, but something to note.

I won’t go into great detail on the food, but suffice it to say, some meals were quite good, while others were sub-par. It was easily on PAR with Norwegian (main dining only), and exceeded Carnival (not hard to do), but still nothing to write home about. I’ll have some thoughts later in the review, but food is clearly an area where MSC can, and should, concentrate effort. I had to keep mentally reminding myself of the very aggressive pricing MSC is offering on the Divina, so I almost have to give them a break here. Still, they could raise prices and the food quality accordingly, and they’d be poised to give Princess and HAL a run for their money.

We had pre-purchased a “celebration cake” on the MSC website before we left. Nowhere on the website does it ask you to specify the occasion or when you would like to celebrate; I expected them to contact me once on board. This did not happen, but our “cake story” is memorable nonetheless. I had wanted to note my wife’s birthday, which will happen right after our cruise ends. At the first night’s dinner, we noted that other tables were presented with dessert menus, but we were not. Rather, the assistant waiter brought over champagne flutes. A few minutes later, the waiters marched in with cake, with candles, and they were playing Indonesian instruments and singing a celebration song. We soon realized they were headed to our table. The cake was placed in front of my wife, and we noted that it read “Happy Anniversary.” We all had a chuckle over that, but the point was that we did celebrate. They wished us well and then brought over a bottle of Prosecco (sweet Italian champagne) for us. It was very nice and they did not charge us for the bottle – a nice and unexpected touch.

We did eat one evening at the Eataly Steakhouse, which is one of only two specialty (pay) restaurants on board. The two – Eataly Italian and Eataly Steakhouse are contiguous restaurants, but one is fixed price and the steakhouse is ala carte pricing. As noted by others, they were not crowded and they do not have the ambiance of a fine restaurant. They may, in fact, mirror the Eataly chain restaurants in Italy and New York – I simply do not know. Service was excellent and the meal was certainly better than the main dining room, but not stellar. This is a lot of real estate on board to devote to specialty restaurants. I’m not sure why they were not more heavily used – aka, I’m not sure if it is a reflection of the passenger demographic on our sailing or the less-than-spectacular menus.

After dinner on the first night, we headed for the second seating of the main show, and we were soon to see why MSC is known for their wonderful entertainment. Without comparison, the entertainment on this ship was OUTSTANDING – the best we’ve seen at sea. I say it now – do not miss a single show. For all seven nights of the cruise, the entertainment team puts on a spectacular music/dance show. I can’t commend them enough for the quality and variety of entertainment. It really makes the shows on other ships look like amateurish high-school-level productions. The main theater is on decks 6 and 7, all the way forward. We watched every show from the deck 7 balcony. We routinely arrived 30-40 minutes early for the best seats, but there were always seats remaining when the show began. To my amazement, none of the late shows were completely full. I never had a chance to attend a 1st showing, so I can’t comment if those were over capacity or not. Others had complained of finding a seat on earlier sailings, but unless you were looking for a huge number of seats in a row, it was a non-issue for us. The shows were, in order, “Withes of Paris” (a French cabaret-like show), an Italian-song show, Alice in Wonderland (SPECTACULAR), an “opera highlight” show, Pirates of the Caribbean, a Michael Jackson tribute, and a Frank Sinatra tribute show. I loved them all…and I don’t like opera. The Michael Jackson show, on the surface, had the chance of becoming a cheesy parody, but rather the dancer who “played” MJ was phenomenal and had everyone on their feet. I could go on and on about the shows, but I’ll leave it that MSC has put together an outstanding cast here and deserves to be proud of the product. On the second night of the cruise, they had a “late night” comedy/magic show, at 10:45pm. It was good and family friendly. I wish, however, that there had been more such shows during the week. Oh, by the way, each show runs about 45 minutes. I read some folks complain about this, whereas I thought it the perfect length, especially when you consider how elaborate each show is.

More comments on the entertainment. Aside from the main theater, there were singers and/or bands playing in all of the lounges in the evening. The dueling piano players in the Golden Jazz Bar was particularly enjoyable and a lot of fun. I enjoyed the “folk-like” duo in La Luna, and my in-laws loved the violin duo and piano player in the main atrium. One interesting note was that there was no calypso-like band playing at the pool during the day, as has been the case on every other Caribbean cruise we’ve taken. That didn’t bother me, but if you’re looking to sit by the pool and listen to reggae music, it won’t be live. Also, on the party front, if you’re looking for a big sailaway party when you depart Miami, you’ll be disappointed. The ship does not leave dock until 7:00pm, when the vast majority of people are either at dinner or the show. Again, NO issue to me, but if you’re looking for it, you’ll be disappointed. I laugh in hindsight, as we were up on the pool deck around 4:30 on disembarkation day, and a Carnival ship was leaving port. They sailed right past us, and the scale (and noise level) of their sailaway party was deafening. We stood there able to see and hear the whole party as they sailed by. As they did, an older woman next to us said, “Thank God they don’t have that crap on this ship.” ;-)

Our first two days were at sea, and I really enjoyed them. As noted, our cabin was aft, and I think the location was perfect. By using the rear elevators, we easily reached the buffet, and ate in the back where there were always tables. For dinner, we took the rear elevators straight down to Villa Rose on 6 – no having to walk up and down to reach it from forward on the ship. They offer a fairly extensive list of activities during the day. As we learned in speaking to folks from different countries, the schedules vary according to your language. There are activities designed for certain languages, and rather than list everything, they tailor the daily schedule, which I thought was nice. Thankfully, and on the huge plus side, there were VERY few announcements during the day – one, maybe two. There are NOT the constant announcements about jackpot bingo, limbo competitions, spa specials, or “huge sales” in the shops. This was great! Aside from safety announcements, by the way, everything was in English, which I understand is a big change, whereas in the past (and on MSC in Europe), everything is done five times.

MSC offered daily craft classes, which was a first for me on a cruise ship. My wife and daughter took a jewelry-making class and really enjoyed it. We also availed ourselves of multiple trivia games which were, as always, fun.

The upper decks were very full during our three sea days, but with an at-capacity sailing, it was no surprise. I’ll note now that despite the capacity, aside from maybe one or two times, the ship never felt “that full.” We’d heard about the 1,200 children on board, but I often wondered where they all were. There are dedicated children and teen facilities on deck 15, and they must have all been there. There are three general-population pools on board (the Yacht Club has its own) – a Garden pool with retractable cover, a main mid-ship pool, and the aft infinity pool. Adhering to our theme of sticking toward the rear of the ship, we stuck to the aft infinity pool, which is lovely. I recall reading past comments with people complaining of children in the infinity pool. I never saw any signs indicating that the pool was “adults-only,” so I was not surprised to see some kids in the water. Maybe they changed this, or the adult-only designation is not clearly signed. Chairs do fill up, but we were able to get chairs every day. There was a notice in the room asking people to not save chairs if they are not going to use them, saying that items would be removed after 30 minutes if the chair was unattended. I never saw this happen and I saw many chairs saved for hours at a time. Still, everyone seemed to find a chair, so not an issue. There are also at least seven hot tubs on board – likely more – which is the most I’ve seen. There was always room available if you wanted, and some are tucked away, such as our favorite up on the rear of deck 16. The pools, by the way, are all salt water and were very comfortable, temperature wise.

Towels were an issue unto themselves. I’m used to having to check-out or request towels on ships, but MSC’s policy is unique. In order to get towels, you have to go to a central “towel station” on deck 14 (there should be more than one), present your key card, and they will “check out” towels to your room. When you want replacements, you bring them back to the station and trade them in for dry/fresh ones. There are warnings, though, that you will be charged if you do not return the towels. I never figured out how, however, to return them. They hand you a paper receipt when you check them out. My only guess is that you’re to give that receipt back to someone when you finally return your towels, but in my case, the receipt was wet and falling apart before I even made it back to the pool after first checking them out. For my in-laws, they checked them out and brought them back to the cabin. Our steward took them during the evening turn down, but didn’t replace them with fresh ones, so we worried they might get charged. Adding to confusion was that during our day at Great Stirrup Cay, they provided the same orange towels in everyone’s room the night before our arrival, for use on the beach. At that point we had six towels in our room and I wasn’t sure what to do. We never got charged, so it’s probably nothing, but a little clarity would have helped.

I noted in other peoples’ reviews some complaints about finding it hard to get a drink. Yes, it is true that there are not waiters swarming everywhere looking to take your drink orders, but I actually liked this. Whenever we wanted a drink it was not a problem to see a waiter and call them over, but they only occasionally walked through the chairs soliciting orders. I found this refreshing, as on Norwegian and Carnival, at least, it felt like a constant push to sell more alcohol. The same goes for the bars. Once you sat, a waiter would come over, but usually not return until your drink was empty, then politely ask if you wanted something else. There was no big sales pushes – buy one, get one free, or “you must try our drink of the day.” I liked this, but folks who are used to constant drink solicitations will be disappointed. I’m still not sure if this is just MSC practice, or if it is a reflection of the fact that almost everyone seemed to have a drink package of some kind. Waiters on other ships are earning tips for every drink served. Here, the tips were included up front, and that may explain the difference. I’m not sure. But whatever the case, I found it refreshing and, as noted, it was never a problem for us to find a waiter and get a drink.

Smoking policy – MSC, I LOVE YOU. As noted by others, MSC has amended their smoking policy for the North American market, making it the most restrictive among the big cruise lines, and I could not be happier. Aside from a smoking lounge up front, one small section of deck 16, and a one-side section of deck 14, there is no smoking anywhere else in the ship, including on balconies. In seven days, I smelled smoke only once, and that was in a designated smoking area. For a ship absolutely chock-full of Europeans, this was amazing. I recall a sailing on the EPIC, also with a healthy contingent of Europeans, and my suitcase reeked of smoke upon my return home. No such problems here. Bravo to MSC for this policy.

Ports of call: Disembarkation at each of our stops was straightforward and rather efficient. I’ll write separate reviews on each port separately, but suffice it to say, I enjoyed the itinerary. We booked a snorkel trip with “Captain Bob” at St. Maarten. It was, however, cancelled due to the chance of poor weather. In San Juan, which we visited on Christmas day, we took a city tour through MSC. It was efficient, with us congregating in the main theater, checking in, and being assigned a bus number based on language. We had prebooked this on-line before we left, but MSC did not publish tour times. As a further reflection on the poor MSC website, the system had registered our ticket purchase twice for both our room and my in-laws, necessitating a trip to the excursion desk to return the excess tickets. To their credit, there were no questions asked the duplicate charges were removed, but they need to fix that website. The tickets were delivered to our room on the first night of the cruise, but had no time printed on them. When I enquired at the Excursion Desk, I was told assignments are made the day before and the meeting times are published in the daily schedule, meaning you’d look at the schedule for the next day, and they’d publish a list of meeting times and places. I can understand how this is necessitated by the fact that tours are conducted in one of five languages, but it also made it harder to plan your day. Not a big issue, and if I were an Italian or German speaker, for example, I’m sure I’d be very pleased language-specific tours were even offered.

Our final port day was a Great Stirrup Cay in the Bahamas. As many people know, this is Norwegian Cruise Line’s private island, which MSC rents for port days. I noted that an earlier sailing visited the Holland America private island, so it must be based on availability. We had to tender to the island, using 400-person ferries kept on the island. They announced the night before that the first tender would leave at 8:30am. My daughter and I went down early, hoping they might leave early, but they stuck to schedule. We spent about 40 minutes waiting on deck 5 for them to get everything set up on deck 4 for the tenders. Lots of other people had the same idea, so the lobby was rather full. People were in good spirits, but there were select pockets of people cutting the line (or at least what semblance there was of a line), and I’m sorry to say that my fellow Americans were the most obnoxious in this regard. When they announced we were ready to board at 8:30am, there was a near stampede. To their credit, the staff loudly announced that there were 400 seats and everyone would make it, which we did. It was an overcast, rainy morning, and the seas were a little rough, which made for a “less-than-smooth” sail to the island, but nothing bad. Following a morning downpour, the sun came out and stayed out the remainder of the day. There are lounge chairs on the beach, and despite the throngs of people coming over later in the day, there was room for everyone. This was one of the few times I felt the crush of the full-ship contingent; here, and on the last night of the cruise in the photo shop – more on that later.

There are very limited activities on shore, the biggest being snorkeling. I will advise you now to not bother renting the snorkel gear. It was not easy snorkeling and there is, frankly, not enough to see to merit the near $30 price tag. Many people were VERY vocal about their disappointment and didn’t hesitate to let the snorkel staff know this. Ironically a woman who was providing her unsolicited commentary to us about how mad she was at MSC over the fact that her child was too young to snorkel, also threw a literal hissy fit while in line for lunch. We couldn’t hear it all, but she was hysterical enough that the maitre’d had to come over to calm her down. As best we could tell, it had something to do with a bag of potato chips. Really, people? You’re on vacation! Lunch was, by the way, a burger/hot dag affair at an open-air pavilion. Passable. The final tender back to the ship was set for 4:30pm. We got in line at 3:15 and it took an hour to finally board back onto the ship. This was a pure capacity issue, limited by the fact that there are only two tenders on the island and the fact that only one gangway was in use. Some people were upset, but I really don’t know what else MSC could have done here. As I’m sure many would agree, people can always find something about which to complain. The tendering was, however, a little rough, and I only mention that to caution older folks or those in wheel chairs that they may need to skip this stop.

There were a lot of photographers working on the ship and we were ultimately convinced to buy a bulk-picture package, which allowed us to save all of our pictures taken during the week and then, on the final night, pick 20 we wanted (any size), along with a cruise DVD and a CD with the .jpg files of the pictures we selected. It seemed like a good idea until that final night, when the photography studio was a MAD HOUSE. Admittedly, there were tons of large families on board, so there were lots of people trying to do the same thing as us. The photography area, however, was far too small for so many people. In addition, it is along the main corridor on deck 7. The far side of the deck is closed off by the specialty restaurant, so traffic naturally channels through the photography area, which made it even more chaotic and, at times, even a little dangerous. To be fair, deck 7 is also the promenade deck so people could easily walk outside to get around the chaos, but I was frankly surprised by how few people chose to use the promenade at all. I used it a lot, and was usually by myself. The push bars on the door leading to the promenade have a red strip. I can only guess that some people thought it was an emergency-only exit. Just a guess. Anyway, it was chaos that last night and, had we not already paid for the picture package, I would have given up. One of my few gripes about the cruise involves this ordeal. We finally picked out pictures and while literally shouting above the din, I was able to explain which pictures we wanted and how many. I was told to return after 11:00pm to pick up the pictures, DVD, and CD. I planned to be asleep at 11:00pm, but I had little choice. While my family slept, I loitered until around 10:30pm, at which time I was able to get help from a woman. She had the prints and DVD ready. When I asked about the CD, I was told I didn’t buy the package including the CD. After verifying that I had indeed done that, she told me to return the following morning after 7:00am to pick it up. We had elected to do “self-assist” departure in the morning (read, walking off with our luggage) and were told to assemble to disembark at 6:30am. I explained this to the woman, who told me that “oh, that is wrong. No one gets off the ship before 9:00am. They’ll tell you earlier, but -- trust me -- no one gets off before 9:00am.” Rather than not get the CD, I gave her the pictures back and said I’d return after 7:00am, but that I was going to the Front Desk to check on departure times. Of course, going to the Front Desk on the last night of a cruise is always mayhem, with people disputing charges, etc.. I had, however, only had to wait around 10 minutes. I explained the situation, and the very helpful woman explained that we would be disembarking at 6:30am. She called the photo studio and got them to agree to deposit our package with them during the night. As soon as I woke up the next morning, I went downstairs and they were, indeed waiting for us.

Disembarkation: Best ever! As I noted above, we elected to do “self-assist” departure. We submitted a form before 6:00pm on the Thursday of the cruise, and luggage tags were delivered to our cabin the following night. In the final daily schedule, they publish a list of meeting places and times based on the color and number of your tag. We were told to go to one of the lounges at 6:30am. Breakfast started at 6:00pm in the buffet or Black Crab. Everyone is to be out of the cabin by 7:00am. Given how late people were staying out on Friday, I’m curious how many actually made it out. Nonetheless, we hit the buffet at 6:00am – no problems – and by the time we reached the lobby on deck 6 at 6:25am, they were already letting people leave. We breezed off the ship and through Customs, and were in a van to the airport by 6:40am….at the airport by 7:00am. Really outstanding. I have to comment, however, on the overall departure scheme used by MSC. We were never asked to provide the time of our flights. When I looked at the list of departure times in the Daily, I noted that it was based on tour company or the location of your stateroom, with some people having a departure close to 10:00am. This may help with the flow of people, but for those people with flights, I’m not sure how this worked, and I suspect it sent a lot of people to the Front Desk to change times. Again, this system is different than any other cruise line on which I’ve sailed, but I cannot complain as it was our easiest and quickest disembarkation ever. Bravo!

I apologize that this review is so long, but I hope it will help future MSC cruisers in general, and Divina passengers in particular. Below are few general observations from our cruise.

Aft outdoor staircases. On both sides of the aft section, there are outdoor staircases that run from deck 6 to deck 15. This “real estate” could have easily been used to add another cabin or two, but MSC elected to use them for walkways and I applaud them. These were “express” routes for us and our aft cabin. We were able to easily shoot up to the buffet and pool, or down to the promenade with no problems. The aft elevators were nearly always available and fairly quick, but the stairs were a great way for some exercise, great views, and fresh air. On the subject of elevators, I’ve read other people’s complaints about them. The forward and mid-ship elevators were busy at peak times, and with the number of strollers on board, they were often full. That said, there were more elevators on this ship than, for example, the EPIC, which has many more passengers. There are two solo side elevators located mid-ship, around the corner from the main elevator bank, and these were underutilized. In addition, the rear elevators were – in our experience – always available, with little wait.

The security staff for embarkation and disembarkation is Israeli, and they were uniformly professional and efficient. They kept the lines moving, but were obviously serious about their work. Kudos to MSC for using a dedicated, and professional, security team.

Our fellow passengers: Okay, here is where the debate may begin. Yes, MSC is an Italian cruise line and, yes, they are known to Europeans. I’ve read how people are afraid that MSC will “Americanize” too much and “lose its Italian flair.” To these observations I offer up the suggestion that it is the clientele which make the ship, more so than the cruise line. In other words, MSC will not “lose its flair” so long as there are so many Europeans on board. Conversely, it will “Americanize” only so far as the number of American cruisers increases. As noted, this was a Christmas cruise and there were a HUGE number of large families traveling. A member of the Cruise Director staff told me how the sailing before had been dominated by folks aged 65 and older, whereas the average age for this sailing was closer to 30, factoring in the children. That demographic shift will surely mean that my experience over Christmas is different than someone sailing the week prior. For our sailing, Americans were in the minority, if you lump all of the Europeans together. We heard countless languages, but the main ones were Italian, German, Spanish, French (to include French Canadians), Chinese, Hebrew, English (American, Canadian, Brits, etc.) and Russian. It was a true smorgasbord of nationalities. I, personally, am fine with this, though it was an admitted huge departure from all of our other cruises. That said, there are – shall we say – cultural differences that turned off many of our fellow passengers. Mainland Europeans are far less “anal” than Americans about waiting in line and, for example, allowing others off of an elevator before boarding or joining the end of a line at the buffet. My mother-in-law walks with a cane often and on only one occasion did someone stand aside and let her exit an elevator before people piled on. Having lived in Europe several times, I’m used to it, but it was obvious that many, many Americans on my cruise were taken aback and were all too willing to share their thoughts. “How rude?!” “There’s a line here!” “Did you see me standing here?” You can get the idea. Again, this is not MSC-centric, but passenger-centric. That said, Americans were far from model passengers, with teenage children among the worst “offenders.” I hesitate to write this, as it may give the impression that I did not enjoy our cruise. Nothing could be further from the truth. It was one of our most enjoyable cruises ever, and the ship is simply stunning. All that said, fellow passengers can make or break a cruise, and if you are looking for a homogenous “Carnival-like” ship-full of people, you’ll likely be disappointed.

As noted in other boards, MSC has introduced a Divina traveler app, which is only accessible once on board. I have to say that this has great potential. Wi-Fi access is available throughout the ship at very good levels – there are routers and repeaters all over the ship. It was fairly easy to access the app and create a profile (once I found the Internet Access Code on my key card). The idea is great – that you can check out the daily schedules, book reminders, check and book excursions, “friend” other passengers and send messages, look at the ship map, etc. That said, it was far too slow to actually work in any of those capacities. When it was mind-numbingly slow to load the daily schedule on my Android phone, I assumed it was my phone. I then connected through my brand-new Kindle Fire HDX, and it was no faster. I’m not sure why it was so slow, but if this could be fixed, I would have used it a lot. A great idea, but it needs work.

Information: Inside the stateroom there is a thick, leather-bound information book in five languages. It contains a WEALTH of information on ship amenities, policies, facilities, disembarkation, etc. I found myself referring to this very often and would have LOVED to have had this information before we left. Referring back to my earlier recommendation that MSC improve the amount of information they make available before sailing, a very easy fix would be for them to make the info in this book available over their website. Quick win.

As on every cruise I’ve ever taken, most conversations with fellow passengers on board begin with “how are you enjoying your cruise?” People usually respond with a polite “it is great” or decide to launch into a tirade of all their complaints. I did not hear a higher proportion of complaints on this sailing as on any other, but I did often hear people complain about the food (quality in the main dining room) and service (lack of bar stewards trolling the ship). I heard or participated in multiple conversations with people making comparisons to other cruise lines. Interestingly enough, I heard most people make comparisons to Celebrity and Holland America, usually using those lines are standards against with to compare (Celebrity for food; HAL for service). That is all fine and, I suppose, a compliment to MSC that the comparison was even being made, but it all brought me back to the fact that we would have been paying hundreds (probably thousands) of dollars more to sail on one of those lines, so the comparison is not fair. Sure, folks can talk about loving another line, but to make an apples-to-apples comparison, cost has to factor in. It left me often with the impression that people want to have their cake and eat it too. If MSC invests more money in food and increasing the staff-to-passenger ratio, then cruise fares will increase and true comparisons with other lines can take place. In the meantime, in my opinion, MSC is offering a great product at an outstanding price. If prices rise and people have to make straight choices between sailing on, for example, Celebrity, HAL, or MSC, then I’m confident that MSC has enough going for it to compete. In the meantime, at their current price point, MSC is undercutting RCCL, Norwegian, and even Carnival to a point, and in those cases, they are offering a superior product in many regards and represent a truly outstanding value.

I thank MSC for the fun cruise we had and our holiday memories. I think with the right leadership and direction, they have the opportunity to establish a solid foothold in the U.S. market. If not, I still look forward to our upcoming European cruise with them in August. Less

Published 01/04/14

Cabin review: 10267

Very large and spacious cabin, with a double sofabed. Furthest cabin back on aft side. One half of the balcony facing is metal; one half is plexiglass. Very quiet and convenient location, close to the aft elevator bank and next to the outdoor staircase.

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