MSC Fantasia Cruise Review by Cruisin-Geezer
- Sail Date: December 2016
- Destination: Middle East
- Cabin Type: Balcony Stateroom – Fantastica
Our two cruises aboard Fantasia were each one week long and sailing out of Abu Dhabi (UAE). Week 1 went to Sir Bani Yas (UAE), Doha (Qatar), Manama (Bahrain), Dubai overnight (UAE) and back to Abu Dhabi. Week 2 continued on to Muscat (Oman), Khasab (Oman), Sir Bani Yas again, Dubai overnight again (UAE) and back to Abu Dhabi. We know Abu Dhabi and Dubai reasonably well and enjoy them, but we chose this combination for Qatar, Bahrain & Oman, which were new to us. We also wanted a couple of weeks of winter sunshine.
TRAVEL & EMBARKATION: In 2016/7 season MSC offer joining in Dubai or Abu Dhabi. The difference is that with a one week cruise Dubai embarkation gives you one full day each in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Whereas Abu Dhabi embarkation gives you two full days in Dubai but no quality time in Abu Dhabi. We chose Abu Dhabi as with back-to-back cruises it gave us 4 full days in Dubai and 1 in Abu Dhabi.
We flew directly from London to Abu Dhabi and back aboard Etihad's superb Airbus 380. Being on tourist group bookings we were at the back of the aircraft and were unable to pre-select our seats - but that was no big issue. On arrival in Abu Dhabi immigration was slow but there were plenty of MSC signs and reps to point us in the right direction. A problem occurred on exiting the airport building at 09.30 to find 250 guests of various nationalities clamouring to board two 50-seater coaches! I thought there might have been a fight! It required a certain degree of forthright determination to load our bags and ourselves onto the second bus! The journey from airport to ship was under 30 mins. This was MSC's first intake at Abu Dhabi for the season and I guess they learned some lessons as there were no adverse comments a week later when the new arrival boarded.
Actual embarkation was seamless. Our cases were taken direct from bus to cabin. We checked in at the cruise terminal and were directed on to the ship. Security photos were taken as we boarded and people were generally told to report to a lounge in an hour to collect cruise cards, but were invited to breakfast before hand in the main buffet. As we are black card members our cruise cards were awaiting us in our cabin, which was free to access by 11.00 am.
THE SHIP: MSC Fantasia is the largest ship we have cruised on - Gross Tonnage 137,936; Length 333.3 m (1,092.2 ft); 18 Decks; Normal Passenger Capacity 3,300; Crew 1,325. The first week seemed comfortable, the second felt over-crowded. I think all MSC ships look like floating blocks of apartments from the outside and this one is no exception. However, the interiors of all ships are contemporary, roomy and stylish and kept to the highest standards of cleanliness. There are bars galore to choose from, two main restaurants as well as a huge buffet and an under-utilised Tex-Mex speciality restaurant (supplementary cost). There are large outdoor and indoor pools (retractable roof on latter), and a small pool at the rear.
As it was sunny it was always crowded around the pools (especially the second week) and the indiscriminate reserving of sun-beds by towel was not policed. Most of the daytime activities were conducted around the main pool, which created a cacophony, from which we were relieved to escape by going to out balcony cabin!
MSC does tend to squeeze too many seats around too many tables in the restaurants and this makes for a rather 'compact' dining experience.
All the inside activities are concentrated on decks 5, 6 & 7 and the Atrium area on all three decks can become a bit of a bottle neck. There is a large casino which tends to become a bit smokey. The theatre is fantastic with a capacity of about 1,000 very comfortable and spacious seats. A good view of the stage is always available and the acoustics and lighting are exceptional.
I hear a lot of criticisms that on MSC you have to pay for everything extra - even water at the table. True, its the Italian way. However, you must consider that the basic cruise price is normally very competitive, so in the end it probably doesn't cost you any more. Further, there are various drinks packages that you can buy for alcohol, or coffee or sodas. Best, where possible to buy these pre-cruise. Sometimes they may be included in the inclusive price you pay.
INTERNATIONAL MIX & SOCIABILITY: MSC is an Italian line and whilst the crew overall is drawn from probably 50 nations, most of the officers are Italian. The customers are a cosmopolitan mix and on these sailings I would guess 40% were Italian, with British, German & French making up the bulk of the rest with further representation from numerous other European countries and a few Asians (including Gulf Arabs), North Americans and elsewhere. To enjoy a cruise on MSC it is therefore rational to suggest that you need to be reasonably internationalist in outlook and forbearing of cultures other than your own. Sadly there were rather a lot of Poms whinging about Italians in particular - unacceptable in our opinion, but quite honestly if you struggle with other nationalities don't sail with MSC!
As with most cruise lines, when allocating guests to a dinner table they group people by nationality or language and then by age. As we have both turned 70 we found we were automatically assigned an oldies table! With no disrespect to our table companions, as we are both young at heart we would have preferred younger people to share our meals with, and indeed folk from other countries - we see enough Brits throughout the year!
It is regrettable that the Cruise Critic Roll Calls for both sailings were very poor. This is normally a great way to get to know fellow travellers before the cruise, to exchange information, arrange private excursions and other activities. We managed a Meet & Greet for the second cruise (7 people!) and to also agree on a very pleasurable private excursion in Khasab. We also met socially at other times.
DINING: We had perfectly acceptable service for Dinner in the Red Velvet Restaurant. The waiter and his assistant were friendly, efficient and professional. However, service in the same restaurant for breakfast and lunch really did leave a lot to be desired.
I feel that the cuisine has dropped a bit on this ship, compared with our previous MSC experiences. The dinner menu still has an Italian underpinning and one needs to be comfortable about ordering at least 4 or 5 courses out of 7 to achieve the desired quantity and balance to the meal. Individual courses are small and you generally need to order a salad to be sure of your greens! People expecting to be satisfied by 3 courses will be disappointed. Having sailed well over 100 days on MSC, we were saddened to find the choice and quality have dropped a little.
We were saddened to find there was no Italian night - replaced by a Mediterranean night that rather than offering authentic regional Italian cuisines, presented a hotch-potch of fare from throughout the Med - Greece, Lebanon, Spain, Morocco and so-on - neither one thing or another!
There were two formal nights each week. The so called 'Gala' menus were not particularly special and we objected to paying a premium of 21 Euros for lobster! Many people do not dress for formal night particularly well. There are some wearing DJs or suits / evening or cocktail dresses, but far too many people turn up for formal dining in casual clothes - even some in jeans/tee shirts, and not policed by the crew. Rather disappointing.
The weekly menu was the same for both cruises, so on week 2 we found ourselves trying to select items that were not our first choice on week 1! We had the Allegrisimo drinks package which worked perfectly well in the various bars. However, at dinner we were faced with a choice of 2 very cheap red wines or two white, one rose or prosecco. Over two weeks this became rather gruelling!
But our real disappointment with the Red Velvet is that at breakfast and lunch they offer what they describe as a Bistro or Buffet choice. There is a small menu for a served bistro meal, or you can trundle up to the buffet counter to serve yourself from a limited choice. We got the marked impression that wait staff wanted you to choose from the buffet! But the net result is that bistro/buffet is neither one thing or the other and the decorum of a served meal is lost due to the ongoing clutter of the buffet.
The main buffet up on Deck 14 is a colossal affair! During our first week we thought it worked well, but on the second week when the ship was full it was chaotic! Just too much noise and pushing and shoving!
The Tex-Mex restaurant is really not worth paying for.
PORTS OF CALL & EXCURSIONS: In our opinion ship's excursions are needed in Qatar & Bahrain and maybe Abu Dhabi & Muscat.
The ship offers lots of excursions in Dubai, but there are many alternatives there to be more independent. There is a choice of two ho-ho bus operators (mainly same routes, frequencies & prices). Alternatively taxis are relatively cheap and the metro system is easy & economical. You need all of the two days there to see a range of the many sites and attractions.
Downtown Abu Dhabi is about 4 miles from the port, whilst the Grand Mosque is around 10 miles and the Yas Marina Circuit / Ferrari World are about 15 miles. MSC offers excursions to all, whilst the Ho-Ho also serves all (to get to Yas Marina requires a change of bus at the Mosque). We had been to Abu Dhabi before, so this time we just took a cab into the city, strolled along the lovely Corniche to the Hilton Hotel, had coffee and then took a cab back to the ship - a relaxing day. However, for first time visitors to Abu Dhabi I would certainly recommend the Grand Mosque - the 8th wonder of the world - no superlatives are adequate. They do a free English speaking tour most days (check online) - well worth taking this, but do remember to dress modestly.
In Qatar the local authority laid on a free shuttle from Port Hamad to Doha city centre (about 6 miles), but it was not clear what to do once there! As we found out, it would have been better to do a ship's excursion!
Similar story in Bahrain, where a chargeable shuttle was provided for the approx 10 miles from the port to Manama. The city is quite spread out and indeed some of the attractions are elsewhere on the island. We did a full day tour that included the F1 Race Circuit, Fort Bahrain, the main Mosque, lunch in the Souk and a visit to a heritage museum - excellent excursion, wonderfully guided and at about 90 Euros good value.
Sir Bani Yas Island is a purpose development for cruise ships, with a long beach excellently appointed with adequate sun-beds and parasols, several BBQ and refreshment stations. Bathing seems safe, but do remember to take beach shoes as the fine sharp stones and shells can be a bit crippling! On our Week 1 MSC Fantasia was the first ship to ever call there and so everything was pristine. We had no trouble tendering from the ship although the landing jetty did not have proper securing stanchions for the tender boats, so getting ashore was a little hazardous for some. On our Week 2 the call to the island was supposed to mark the official opening of the facility, but unfortunately a strong cross wind made it too difficult to operate a safe tender operation, so sadly we sat off shore all day. MSC offer excursions on the island, but quite honestly we couldn't see the point.
We did a short half day tour of Muscat. I would have liked to have done more as it looks a very interesting place, but my wife was a little unwell so we did the minimum. Our 4 hour tour took in the outside of the Opera House, Mosque and one of the Royal Palaces, plus an hour in or around the Souk - the cost about 33 Euros - fair value. The Souk is just along the waterfront from the dock entrance. A shuttle is provided from ship to the dock gate, so if you don't want an excursion you can easily walk along the corniche to the souk and beyond - a very pleasant stroll.
Khasab is little more than a village in an Omani enclave in the Strait of Hormuz. The worthwhile thing to do there is to take a dhow excursion into the fjords to see the dolphins and to have a swim off the boat. MSC offer this excursion, but we did it much more cheaply with Dolphin Khasab Tours. We booked by email and paid on the day - AED 150 pp (approx £33) - also payable in Euros, US$ or OMR. The price included light refreshments on board for this 4 hour cruise. We saw lots of dolphins really close up and the trip was very good value. They call them fjords, but don't expect a mini Norway or Alaska. You will find sunken valleys with desert mountains rising on either side - fairly grand.
ENTERTAINMENT: We thought the evening shows in the theatre were really very good - colourful, imaginative and some shows worth seeing for a second time. We never found the theatre to be full. In the evening most bars had live musicians playing, whilst deck parties were held late at night around the pool.
DISEMBARKATION: This was a dream. Etihad embarkation cards delivered to cabin the night before departure. Bags collected from outside the cabin during the night. At the appropriate time after breakfast we mustered for our timed departure, picked up our cases in the Terminal, took them across to Etihad check in desks (in the cruise terminal) - checked in the bags and got on a bus for the airport. Two hours at the airport before boarding flight. Collected our bags at London, Heathrow! Lovely!
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Everything was in excellent condition. The TV is small and the choice of English-speaking channels is very limited. Films are chargeable. The shower room/toilet is the standard economical size, but everything was in good order. The wardrobe storage area is a little small - especially drawer space. We take our own slim clothes hangers to supplement the bulky ones provided by the ship.
We had an excellent cabin steward - friendly but unobtrusive and towels were changed morning and night, whether we asked for it or not.