HEEDING THE WARNINGS THAT CAME BEFORE I saw all of the reviews online before I went on this cruise and also spoke with people at work who had been on this cruise line before and there was pretty much a mixed bag aside from the commonalities which were that you need to like authentic Italian food and that you need to be aware that it is not American style cruising. Having understood that, I prepared my husband for the potential differences and he said fine. We both held an open mind and said fine...let's try it out.
FIRST IMPRESSIONS Embarkation took less than 20 minutes. I will preface my next sentence by saying that I have a very keen sense of smell and our room was as I expected although I noticed that the duvet cover had a bit of a funk to it like it hadn't been washed in several sailings. (They disembark passengers at 7am and reembark new passengers at 1pm so...no telling how many weeks the duvee covers and pillow covers go without washing.)
There was an odor so I'm not sure where it was coming from but it seemed to be from those coverings. Either way, having thrown all of those items off of my bed promptly upon entering the room - I did think the room was beautiful and had tons of storage. My husband and I brought a total of 4 medium to large suit cases so there was plenty of room to store everything we had. Our balcony was very spacious and we were situated toward the back of the ship (one room away from the back of the boat).
One of the first pleasant European surprises we did find on the ship was that all the water and minibar items are Italian (aside from Pepsi products) and we enjoyed sampling the Limoncello and Campari soda. It was also a nice treat to have cold bottled water out of an actual glass bottle. Everything seems to taste better that way! There was fresh fruit in our cabin the first evening and our room was made up appropriately for the time of day each time we came back to our room. It was pretty amazing actually. I really got the feeling right away that the crew on the ship work...a lot. They are always visibly working and it almost made me feel bad because it seemed to be every time I turned around there were 4 or 5 crew members near me doing work of some kind. They definitely have the attention to detail when it comes to cleaning. Bathroom amenities include small pink bottles of shampoo and soap and showercaps. No conditioner. Glad I brought mine... Oh, also - highly recommend bringing in your checked baggage some bottles of wine and/or liquor. We brought on 5 bottles of wine and one of liquor with no problem. Also brought on one bottle of rum from a port with no issues whatsoever. This was a nice feature of this cruise...I must say as it saved me quite a bit of money.
Dinner the first evening took almost 3 hours...it got better each night after that so I'm not sure what happened that evening but it was a bit of a surprise. I must say that our server Ruslan was very helpful and accommodating to even the most critical of guests (2 were at our table). We did have a strange and rude encounter with the Maitre d' on the first night because he wanted us out of the dining room as it was time for the next seating and he didn't realize that it was our servers who had kept us there that late. So, everyone got up abruptly and left in a state of shock. I'm pretty sure one of my fellow tablemates had words with him afterwards as they were syrupy nice the next evening. It did get better as the cruise went on...and our table took every opportunity to tease them about wanting to yell at us again. One night when the restaurant was mostly empty they even played around with the guests by riding one of the guests scooters around the dining room. Everyone had a good laugh and the owner of the scooter especially enjoyed seeing them have fun for a change.
The show the first night was hilarious, the second was good, and the third was interesting. This night I noticed that they were playing recorded (simulated) music over the top of a classical concert and it was obviously strange. I didn't go to any shows after that until the Celtic Spirit (5th night) and they went from Celtic music and dancing straight into a Michael Jackson song followed by We are the world...which felt like a strange ploy for better tips. Strange to say the least. Didn't go to the show the next two nights. I think having lived in Chicago and Las Vegas for many years - I am probably not the best person to judge what entertainment should be on a cruise ship. I have high expectations and I was a bit disappointed in this area. I really enjoy cruise ship comedians and there was not a hint of comedy on this boat except for the first night. I was not prepared for that realization.
WHAT'S NEXT? Husband got sick on the 3rd night (sore throat, coughing), I did too around the 6th night. I heard the ships out of south Florida are known for the virus due to the recycled air so it probably hasn't much to do with the ship itself however there was not one mention on this ship of handwashing. There were Purell stations set up at embarkation and disembarkation points but that was it...I can't help but think this could have had something to do with it. Even our cabin steward was coughing non stop. When I asked her how long she'd been on the boat she said it was a 9 month contract. I also asked her how long she'd been sick. She said weeks...
The food in the dining rooms was most always good to excellent. Buffet was fair to good. Every breakfast was exactly the same items in the buffet(included scrambled, fried, plain omelets, sausage, bacon, variety of bread, cereals, yogurt, milks, fruits, pancakes, waffles, juices). One strange note...there was not one berry to be seen on the ship the entire time I was there. Most lunch items were the same from day to day as well although they did change up the main entrees from day to day and added fresh pastas. The pizzeria was fair to good depending on how good of pizza you are used to eating. If you are from Chicago or New York you will probably judge it more harshly as we did...it was decent and hit the spot when you were hungry. They have basic cheese, pepperoni, veg, then you can add some additional toppings if you want.
Breakfast at the buffet cuts off distinctly at 10:30am and there is no food available between 10:30am and noon when lunch starts. The buffets are abruptly cut off in between meals so if you get up late you need to order one of the 4-5 items from the room service menu which includes tuna salad or chicken club sandwich, ceasar or mixed green salad, fruit or cheese plate, or desert. That is it...
You can order a continental breakfast (rolls, juice, coffee, tea) for delivery to your room in the morning but it is a pretty disappointing breakfast unless you are used to a small breakfast.
Tried the Chinese restaurant and while their Dim Sum is on par with what I would expect from a high end Chinese restaurant, the rest is your average Chinese food in any decent sized city. Service was a bit slow for the price and the price was high when I went in with the expectations set by previous reviewers who stated "Best Chinese at Sea". It may be, but it isn't better than the three Chinese places that are within one block of my house in Las Vegas, or what would have been near my house in Chicago either. Again, a matter of what is available to you on a daily basis vs. how much you enjoyed the experience.
Port times and excursions were the most disappointing part of the cruise. If you noticed when you read the excursion descriptions that you had a hard time choosing because they all sounded the same...it is because they are very run of the mill. There was not one moment of "Wow" factor in either of the mid range excursions that we attended. If you are looking for wow, spend your money on the experience based excursions like parasailing, jeep tours, zip lines, etc. That would be the only way I would recommend paying for an MSC organized excursion. I would think twice about paying for the touring excursion. The two that we attended were boring and not worth the money. We would have been better off taking a tour on our own, renting a car, or staying on the beach. The port times are WAY TOO SHORT to do much and they will leave you if you don't make it back to the ship on time. Several people were left throughout the cruise. One guy fell asleep at Cayo and had to catch another cruise ship to catch up at another port with us. The best recommendation I can make is to stay close to the port so you are on time or carefully plan your time so that you have enough time to do something realistic and get back in time. Beach would be best. My favorite port on this cruise was Cayo Levantado which was the first port to visit...after I left there I had a bad taste in my mouth. It wasn't until I went to the other islands that I realized that it was the best of the 4 which wasn't saying much. I do think that all of that could have been remedied if I had chosen to just go to the beach on the first three ports and then shopping at or near the port in Nassau. In Antigua, I highly recommend searching out the best beaches in a guide and going there in a group if you can.(adds a factor of safety). There were some magnificent beaches there that we saw on our way back to the boat and it made us sick to our stomachs that we had sat for 4 hours on a boring bus tour when we could have been at that beautiful beach. If you stick to that you would be much better off and would save the excursion costs. You could easily take a cab wherever you need to go using a guide book.
The ship has a ton of swaying and vibration. I have never felt it like this before and it was worse in the back so if you think this will bother you then I would advise booking in the front to middle of the ship. Also, the back of the ear patches are very necessary on this ship. I didn't do it and I regretted not getting them the whole time I was on the ship. Instead, I had to take Bonine and was either half sleepy or sick for most of the "at sea" portion of the trip.
LAST IMPRESSIONS ARE LASTING IMPRESSIONS I didn't see one moment of disrespect until the night before disembarking when I went to the Accounting office to see about an issue with my credit card. They do not authorize transactions on your card as most companies do...they do multiple authorizations across the cruise in $50 increments and after a few authorizations coming from outside the US - my credit card company saw it as fraud, called my house, and promptly disabled my card. This happened on two cards. When I went to explain that they needed to settle the authorizations they already made on my card they told me no...it was declined. I had to tell them several more times to settle the authorizations they already made and I would pay the remainder in cash. I was met with some attitude and when I asked the person to listen to what I was saying I did end up with what I needed, however the next morning I also heard a passenger raising their voice and being an ugly Canadian (threatening) and the crew at the Accounting office sneered and spoke to each other in Italian but never responded to the passenger. I think it may be a cultural thing to avoid the confrontation but I'm not sure. I do know that they had a steady line for 3 hours on the morning of disembarkation full of passengers who were disputing their bill or portions of it...so there probably was a reason for the anger on both sides of the equation.
My husband also reported that the disembarkation crew members were very rude to him when I was at the accounting office dropping off my final paperwork. I believe they were tired of seeing him standing there and we were suppose to be self assist disembarkation but it took me longer to get thru the hoards of people in Accounting than I thought it would so he was left standing with them for 20 minutes or so... Once I appeared and we moved out of their way they looked pleased. I later found out that they have to have all of their self assist passengers out before the other passengers can leave.
So, all in all...I was happy to leave the ship and was looking forward to eating food that wasn't Italian. I was happy to leave the room that made my sinuses clog up in a few minutes. This was the first time I have ever felt this coming back from a trip. Luckily, I do have a few days in south Florida to sit on the beach and relax. I would probably not recommend this cruise line to anyone unless they have kids and could benefit from the kids sailing free. Everything is scheduled and unless you skip most of the activities you can't really just sit and relax. If you were looking for a low cost vacation as I was in this case, I do think we got our money's worth but I think we could also have done that and gotten some better entertainment and port times by going thru Carnival.
Ample closet, bathroom, balcony, space. Vanity smallish, floor space small, too much vibration.
Couldn't find Dominican Republic/Samana/Cayo Levantado
Beautiful beach, get up early to get your tender ticket so you can be first on the beach to get your best chair and place on the beach as it gets crowded. There are a lot of vendors...mostly junk. Food vendors are on the expensive side although seem to be worth it for the ability to eat close to the beach.
Duty Free shopping at Mayaa in Marigot on the french side is really good. Get some of the local Banana Vanilla rum...it is amazing and only $11 US!
Get a guidebook and seek out the best beaches on your own. Tours are boring.