I’m publishing this review four months after it ended, because of lack of time to write it. Still I think I have relevant experiences that could be useful for future cruisers. I boarded this ship in mid August in Hamburg, with my girlfriend and our 8 years old daughter. It took us to Iceland and Scotland.
I cannot really say much about embarkation. Before the cruise when I received my tickets through mail message, my personal embarkation time was clearly stated. It was set at 16:15 and the ship was due to sail at 19:00. Upon arrival to the cruise terminal they got our tagged suitcases and gave us a number that would be called by the check-in desks. Because there were so few passengers at the cruise terminal at that time, we proceeded immediately to the check-in. At this moment they do not ask for a credit card to assign to the shipboard account. You have to do it on board yourself. The procedure is easy but I had to queue for a while, something I would rather not do on a vacation.
Disembarkation is well organized, as in every other cruise company I know. You are given colored tags to put on your luggage and are disembarked according to the time assigned to that color. There is also the possibility of getting off the ship as soon as clearance is given by port authorities. It is called the Self Assist program that you have to sign up for a few days before the cruise ends. With this program you have to carry your luggage with you.
Tip: I was mistaken about Hamburg, thinking it was a port city without much to see. It is in fact very interesting to visit. Consider a stay before or after the cruise.
We were on cabin 9097 and it was well situated since the elevators were quite near. It was a standard size balcony stateroom but ok for the three of us. Plenty of space under the beds to put our empty suitcases, drawer space was adequate and there were enough hangers inside the wardrobe.
There were several glass shelves on the stateroom and bathroom that I am sure had not been dust cleaned when we arrived. We had to do it ourselves with a paper tissue. I always look under the beds before stowing the suitcases and, as in other staterooms of other cruise ships that I have been to, the carpet on that precise spot had not been vacuum cleaned for a very long time. The sliding glass windows that lead to the balcony were full of salt. So was the railing of the balcony. They only cleaned them a few days later, doing the same to all the other balconies of the ship, taking advantage of the day that we were anchored off Isafjordur in Iceland. This is not the kind of cruise where one should expect to find funny folded towels on the bed.
Tipping directly the staff is discouraged by MSC since they already charge 10 euro per day per guest for this purpose, but I saw a neighbor tipping our steward two or three days into the cruise.
Tip: On cruises to high latitudes such as this one and I assume Norway or Alaska, you will not be able to sit on the balcony due to the cold air temperature. Consider saving some money and take a sea view stateroom with no balcony.
We were assigned to L’Arabesque restaurant for dinner. There are two sittings, the first is at 17:45 and the second at 20:30. Upon making my reservation I asked for second sitting and they respected my request. It seems they try to put people around the tables according to the languages people speak. This could have been bad for me, since when I’m travelling I prefer to speak with different people from other countries than mine, have different conversation topics from those I have at home and practice any other foreign language I speak. Mingling with different people is interesting and is part of the fun of travelling. However we were assigned to a small table just for the three of us.
Our waiter, Oka from Indonesia, was urbane and efficient. The timing between one course and the other was never long. The menu consists of an entrée, main course and dessert, each of them with several options. Sometimes we were lucky with our selections and other times not so lucky. Presentation is good and the size of portions is… adequate. Remember that you are on vacation, consequently there is not much physical or mental fatigue and therefore you should adapt the intake of food. Big portions are unhealthy and unnecessary. However it is possible to order more than one selection of each course, something I only did once for two desserts I was keen to try. I got somewhat embarrassed while doing it but our waiter Oka did not even blink an eye, so I assumed this is common procedure.
The wine menu is conspicuous but expensive. Leftover wine was saved for a later meal but it is also possible to order just a glass of wine.
There are five specialty restaurants on board. We tried three of them. It is necessary to make reservations in advance at reception on deck 5.
The Galaxy restaurant is located on deck 16 and it has nice views. The meal consists of what they call an “experience”. In other words, several courses are served and all of them are small portions for you to taste. Service is attentive. It is just a pity that the entrance to the games arcade is very close to the restaurant entrance, so during our meal we had to endure loud talking from youth standing nearby.
We had a bad experience at the restaurant Eataly. We waited at the door to be seated, but no one came to greet us for more than a minute so we decided to choose a table on our own. The room was almost empty with just other three tables occupied. The waiter that came a few minutes later to give us the menus seemed a little puzzled to find us there and asked if we had a reservation that obviously we had. We waited for more twenty minutes before someone decided to come and take our orders. During the waiting time we noticed that the only server at the restaurant was constantly running back and forth inside the room although it was almost empty. Running is the evidence of poor management inside a restaurant. There was also a maitre d’, in suit and tie walking around the room and speaking to the cooker and the server but paying no attention to the clients. It is customary in countries around the Mediterranean, to put a saucer with olive oil on the table, for people to wet their bread and taste the oil. We had the saucers but olive oil was missing, so I called the maitre d’ when he was passing by and pretended that we did not know what the saucers on the table were for. He promptly informed us what was the use of them and run to grab a bottle of fine olive oil to serve us. He quickly realized that we had been ignored. In the meantime I complained because of the long wait just to be served and the continuous running in an almost empty room. He was extremely apologetic and said they were having some issues with the management of the room without going into details. My girlfriend and our daughter had pasta and I choose tenderloin. Surprisingly the food was very good. All in all, staff was more evasive than helpful, décor of the room is mundane.
The Ristorante Italia is close to Eataly restaurant and I think they share the same kitchen. Like on the Galaxi restaurant we had an “experience” again. Food was very good, service was better than on Eataly but the restaurant is nothing to rave about.
Finally there are the Inca and Maya buffets on deck 14 and it is difficult to perceive where one ends and the other begins. This area is too big to be easily manageable. During breakfast there are crowds of passengers with trays in hands bumping into each other while trying to find an empty place to sit. At peak times there no free tables or they have not yet been cleared of trays with remains from previous passengers. In my opinion there are enough servers to clear the tables but they need better guidance and there is no one to do it. I have been in big restaurants in some resorts where there is a supervisor that collaborates with the servers while giving instructions. Around this restaurants I only saw two maitre d’, or whatever their name is, but they just walk around the place in their suits and ties, pretending to be attentive to details but longing for their shift to end. This kind of people are already too old to long for a promotion, so they are just there waiting for their retirement to happen. MSC should be more attentive to staff in such demanding venues of the ship. Again at peak times I noticed tables were not cleared at all for over 20 minutes. When this happens, passengers have no other option than to clear the tables themselves by putting trays full of leftovers on a close by table that is unoccupied and already full of dirty trays. Around this restaurant, be prepared to help the servers if you want an empty table. In what concerns food, I had no problem finding whatever suits my palate for breakfast, but if you came for lunch, expect a wide assortment of unmemorable food. Pasta around this buffet is not worth trying. What a shame in such a cruise company. However I could find soup, and unpeeled fruit which is something both me and my family consider essential on our daily diet. Few people know that fruits lose all their nutrients minutes after being peeled or pressed and very often people find themselves eating or drinking nothing more than flavored fiber or water. Just by looking at other passengers sitting in front of their trays, I found myself mesmerized by the huge and injudicious assortment of items they manage to consume. One ends up with the feeling that half of humanity dies of diseases caused by overeating while the other half dies with severe deficiencies due to lack of food. So goes the world.
There are lots of bars around this ship but after dinner I never managed to find a place to sit. I assumed lots of passengers bought drinking packages and lingered around bars. Therefore I cannot rate these venues but there are plenty to choose from and they are pleasantly decorated. My favorites were those around the reception area where very often at night was a talented lady playing piano, sometimes accompanied by two singers with harmonious voices.
Tip: Avoid peak times at breakfast or lunch on the Maya/Inca buffet on the first day after embarkation. It is a mad house with crowds still not knowing where things are exactly located, bumping with another crowd already with their trays in hands and trying to find a place to sit while the staff pushes carts full of dirty trays with leftovers. On days at sea you should also avoid this buffet for lunch, again because of the above mentioned problems. Go to the Golden Lobster restaurant where you can have lunch à la carte or choose from a smaller buffet they set on the room.
As in every cruise, they are way too expensive considering what you get and this is something every seasoned cruiser knows. Depending on the guide escorting the cruise it can be pleasant or not, but this is a question of luck. My advice would be to do your homework and prepare yourself prior to the cruise selecting what you want to see and reserve your excursions independently. I admit I did not do so because of lack of time. However when one receives the travelling documents by email, there is also a password to access MSC webpage where you can reserve the excursions. This is very convenient if you want to avoid the crowds on the shore excursions office once on board (another mad house during the first days into the cruise). However the webpage in my country had a bug. While selecting the excursions one has also to choose the language for that excursion, since the same excursion has different guides and departing times according to the language. At that point, the dropdown menu in the website did not show the languages and therefore I could not proceed with the reservation. I had to call my travel agent by phone and tell them which excursions I wanted. They managed to reserve everything I had selected, but I had to pay full immediately and before leaving home. After embarkation when we arrived to our cabin for the first time, the tickets for the excursions were already there. However, I noticed that they had reserved all the excursions in Spanish, a language that we do not speak and have some difficulty understanding should guides speak quickly. The consequence was that the next day I had to stay in line in front of the shore excursions office to have them changed to English. They informed me that all passengers from Portugal, which is my country of residence, receive their excursions in Spanish and this is standard procedure with MSC Cruises. I should add that this is a ridiculous procedure since the first foreign language one is obliged to learn in Portugal is English and not Spanish. I can well understand there are no excursions in Portuguese since we are so few, but assuming that we all understand Spanish is utter nonsense. It is as if a passenger from Poland would always receive his excursion in German language for the sole reason this is the closest neighboring country with much more passengers.
Changing all the excursions was not easy. I waited in line for 20 minutes before arriving in front of one desk and after presenting this issue, they took all the tickets and asked me to wait a moment on a side sitting area in the shore excursion office, since they had to see if there were still vacancies in the English spoken excursions we had selected. The moment I was asked to wait turned out to be another 60 minute wait. I was so furious that after that time I got up and went to speak directly to the member of the staff, cutting through the line of people and told him this wait was totally unacceptable. He realized he had forgotten all about my issue and went inside the office and after another ten minute wait came back finally with the excursion tickets in English.
Tip: If you still want to take the excursions proposed by the cruise line, do it at home through their website and mind the language you want while choosing them. Once on board be aware that the same shore excursion has different departure times according to the language. I was mislead since I received in my cabin the daily program in Portuguese where the departure times of excursions were for those in Spanish, not in English. Always confirm the correct departure time of your tour posted on the shore excursion office and not on the daily program you receive in your cabin.
All the other relevant aspects have been addresses by other reviews and I will only mention a few more:
- All the announcements and entertainment are conducted simultaneously in several languages. First they speak in English then German, then French, then Italian and then Spanish. This becomes ridiculous specially for the entertainer who has to pronounce phrase after phrase in the above mentioned sequence of languages. It is also very disturbing for the passengers attending them.
- There are lots of shops around decks 6 and 7, but after dinner the shopkeepers set a market around the social areas of the ship thus decreasing their ampleness, slowing down the traffic of people and transforming the pleasantly decorated venues into an Arabian bazaar. Why don’t they stay inside their shops? Shops are expensive and the photo shop is a complete rip-off.
- There are lots of pre-paid packages for drinks, internet connectivity, laundry, entertainment games and so on. I took the water package which was worthwhile without being a huge saving. Fortunately I did not take the drinking package since it would have been difficult to find unoccupied couches/chairs/sitting areas around the many bars before or after dinner time. Already on board I took the entertainment package for € 80,00 which allowed me and my family to see the 4D movies as many times as we wanted, to try the F1 race car simulator, also as many times as we wanted both located on deck 16 and to play bowling on deck 7. It turned out to be profitable for us. By the way I did not know that on F1 cars you have to brake with left foot since the steering shaft is placed right between the accelerator pedal and braking pedal. Unlike me and while driving, my girlfriend managed to stay inside the racing track, since as a teenager she drove go-karts and said she is still used to braking with the left foot.
- Internet Connectivity is expensive and slow. There were three packages and the most affordable one only allowed access to the facebook and twiter. My advice for all those willing to enjoy their vacation in a more engaging way would be to forget about the internet, emails and mobile phones. If you need absolutely to see your email account, go to the cyber café on deck 5 and pay only for the time you are connected.
- Probably it is not so important for other cruisers but I enjoy very much reading, something I do not always have the time to do while at home. Since we had 4 full days at sea I hoped that the library or the outside areas of the ship would be a perfect spot to do it. In fact, it was impossible to hang around the open areas of the ship because of the cold air temperature and wind. The library on board is called “Diamond Bar & Library” that is to say it is noisy, difficult to find a place to sit and when you do find, there is always a someone asking if you want anything to drink. Fortunately I had brought my reading from home. They had books in different shelves sorted by language. A few in English, German, French, Italian and… a huge amount of books in Portuguese. Now, go and find out why, since people speaking this language do not make the bulk of passengers.
Tip: If you want peace and quiet to read, go to the cyber café, taking into account the excessive price of internet connectivity, no one hangs out there for long.
- If you are not travelling on a tight budget, you can book the cruise on this ship as an MSC Yacht Club passenger, which entitles you to various benefits such as a butler service (utterly ridiculous, as we are well into the 21st century and we are not royals), private restaurant and bar, better cabins in terms of décor and location and priority boarding at all ports of call. By the way boarding this huge ship when several excursions end at the same time is not easy. Long queues were formed on the pear to access the ship because of airport-like security procedures. Passengers and their belongings have to be scanned at the entrance every time they go out, fortunately we had no rainy days through-out the cruise. However, passengers bearing their Yacht Club card were entitled to cut lines just at the beginning of the gangways and in front of hundreds other passengers enduring cold and windy weather. This situation reminded me of the social structure of European middle ages. We, peasants, had to wait sometimes more than twenty minutes while the nobles would embark without having to endure such discomforts. Should my budget allow the Yacht Club membership I would have never booked a cruise on MSC. Due to my humble demeanor I would fill uncomfortable cutting lines in front of less fortunate passengers. There are specialized cruise lines on this market niche such as Radisson, Silverseas or Seaborn where every passenger pays a lot but there is no queuing nor passenger discrimination.
- The gym, on deck 14, is a nice place to exercise your muscles. It is very well equipped and has great views to the sea for all those using stationary bikes or treadmills. While at home, my routine includes the gym three times a week, since workout is considered a health enhancer. As a consequence and while on board I decided to change my routines and tried to read more on those long days at sea.
- MSC cruises does have some sort of partnership with UNICEF. They invoice one euro per passenger to be handed over to this organization. Obviously you can revoke this charge. I only realized they had charged us on the last day of the cruise while checking my shipboard account. Since at that time the reception staff was overwhelmed with work, I did not have the opportunity to ask them to increase our donation. It is for a good cause therefore it does not hurt giving more.
At the end of any stay there is always a question that is paramount: Should I go on a MSC cruise again? The answer is not easy. I choose a cruise based on three criteria, which are in descending order of importance the itinerary, the date of sailing and the price. Our cruise took us to Iceland and Scotland and there are not many cruise lines doing this very interesting route. So, we had no other option than taking this particular ship and company. However if I was to choose a more popular route like a Mediterranean or a Caribbean sail, where there is a wider choice of cruise lines operating, I would not go back on an MSC ship. There are other options, probably somewhat more expensive but with much better organization.
They have however some enticing conditions. Most of the sails have special fares for children travelling with two paying adults. My daughter was only charged port charges. The consequences of this policy are huge savings for parents and sometimes the discomfort for the remaining passengers to put up with inappropriate behavior of groups of children wondering around the ship without due parental supervision. Besides that, If your mother tongue is English or if you are fluent in English you do not need to choose MSC. The fact that all announcements, excursions, speeches, daily programs are made in several languages, implies lots of challenges that management does not always overcome. I ended up with the feeling that this is a cruise line geared for people who refuse to learn or speak any foreign language, or the internationally accepted foreign language which is English. Apart from the staff, I rarely heard any passenger speaking English. Most of the passengers spoke German, Italian and French. There were also others whose language I could not distinguish. I heard saying that there were several dozens of different nationalities of passengers on that particular cruise.
In my opinion what this ship needs is better organization and more active supervision. Always choose a smaller ships if like me you do not like queing.
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