First, although Cruise Critic insists on calling this a 5-night leaf-peeper run, it was in fact a 13-night repo from New York to Miami via the Eastern Caribbean.
My wife and I booked this cruise as a target of opportunity: a nice way to celebrate her birthday, a nice opportunity to see our kids in New York before the cruise, and a nice opportunity to visit cousins in Florida afterward. We chose the Meraviglia partly because of a good experience with MSC a little more than a year ago and partly because we were curious to see whether a ship this big was really too big.
This was our 35th cruise since our first in 1976. Coincidentally, we marked a full year at sea during this run. We realize that to many people who spend every possible moment at sea, a year is no big deal. And since it took us well over 40 years to reach that milestone it’s obvious that we average less than a cruise a year. We differ from many on board this cruise in that we’ve always taken more vacations on land than at sea.
Three days before the cruise we took the train from our home in the DC area up to New York and checked in to the Conrad Midtown on West 56th Street. This was an excellent headquarters for our activities with the kids, and made for a very easy 10-minute cab ride to the ship.
Absolutely no issues boarding. Bags were dropped within seconds of the cab pulling up to the West Side terminal, our Diamond status got us to an agent immediately, check-in was very efficient, and we were onboard quickly with no fuss. This was surprising given the dire warnings about long waits to board previous cruises here.
Meraviglia is big. Very big. If your cabin is at one end of the vessel or the other (or even if it isn’t) you walk a lot. That’s not necessarily bad, it’s just a fact. A big plus is that getting around the public areas of the ship is extremely straightforward. No hidden public rooms, no “you can’t get there from here” adventures. The customer service desk is on five. On six, the main restaurants are aft and the main theater is forward. On seven, the casino and the big Carousel Lounge (Cirque de Soleil and other things) are aft and the spa is forward. In between on both six and seven is the central core of the ship, with all the shopping, boutiques and specialty restaurants easily found under the huge and very clever semi-circular LED “ceiling” that functions variously as décor, light show and video screen. Overall, the ship gets high marks for being quite attractive in a Las Vegas sort of way.
If you’re past MSC customers and/or Diamond (formerly Black) card holders you’ll be invited to one or more parties in recognition of your status. Unless you’re absolutely desperate for a free glass of champagne, you’d be wise to skip these assemblies. Where on most ships these events are held in one of the larger lounges, with seating and reasonable breathing room, the size of the Meraviglia and the number of eligible guests forces them into the promenade on deck 6, with no seating and little room to move. They use crowd control barriers to be sure only those with invitations get in, while others are forced to the sides of the promenade to get by. The feeling is distinctly one of a cattle pen. The program consists of the cruise director appearing on the deck 7 bridge over the promenade to say a few words and to introduce the captain, who does a quick welcome. The Cruise Critic party, on the other hand, was held in the deck 18 lounge on the morning after embarkation and was very well done. Although those who sign up are supposed to receive invitations, we did not. However, we saw it listed in the daily program and found our way up there in good order. So if you’re signed up for such a party, keep your eyes open. You may not get a personal invitation.
We booked an Aurea suite on the 13th deck, in the bow just under the bridge. We had a large balcony and a private hot tub which was very nice. The ergonomics of the suite, on the other hand, left a lot to be desired. While it was nice that there were two closets, it seemed strange that one of them was in the living room. Similarly, the only access to the bathroom was from the living room. Entering from the bedroom would have made much more sense. Finally, although the total area of the suite was fine, parts of it felt really cramped, especially along one side of the bed, where the open door between the rooms all but blocked access. To boot, that door was extremely heavy, and would not remain in the open position by itself. MSC provided a very flimsy doorstop to wedge under the door, but it was awkward to use and only marginally effective. A sliding pocket door would have been the best solution here. Overall, an annoying setup for a premium room.
We always enjoy situations where we can meet and chat with people from other countries, and MSC ships reliably provide plenty of opportunity for that. We had great fun talking with Canadians, Brits, Norwegians, Australians, Kiwis, Danes and many others. Not so enjoyable were some Americans whose sole focus seemed to be on the rock bottom price they paid for the cruise. This seemed to be the only thing they could talk about except for their further proclamation that small inside cabins are the only way to go because, “all you do is sleep in the room anyway.” I resisted pointing out that this is the classic self-fulfilling prophecy. One person with an inside room told us frankly that it was virtually unlivable compared to similar rooms he’s had on other ships.
I realize that ship dress codes have largely fallen by the wayside, and I’ve never been a big fan of dressing up on cruises. But I have always respected the traditions of the sea and followed the code of whatever ship I was on, including digging out the tux back in the days when they were expected. On this cruise several nights were designated as “elegant,” which to me meant nice slacks, tie and jacket. I was conspicuously overdressed. A very few people did dress up, but many more arrived at dinner every night looking like—how shall I say it?—slobs. Torn clothing, ratty shorts, t-shirts with all sorts of inscriptions, some of which were downright obscene. MSC says that they forbid shorts and t-shirts in public areas after six, but no attempt was made to enforce this rule.
Compared to most other cruises we’ve been on, except for the specialty restaurants the food on Meraviglia was borderline dreadful. Yes, we’re foodies, but we also understand the limitations imposed by steam-table operations when cooking for thousands at a time. But the fact is that if you got a mediocre, “just OK” dinner in the main dining room, it was a good night. On embarkation evening, my wife’s “blackened” fish entrée was stone cold and showed no signs of blackening. On the next night I opted for the “always available” New York strip steak. What arrived was a piece of meat roughly 4 inches square and a quarter inch thick. I just stared at it. A few nights later we ate at the specialty steakhouse where I held my breath and again ordered a New York strip. Happily, what arrived was an excellent steak, cooked as ordered, with a nice array of sauces. When the waiter asked if everything was OK, I told him that it was, and suggested that he have the chef take one of those steaks over to the main dining room and show them what a New York strip looks like. At a main dining room “fish and chips” lunch the fish was 90% soggy, greasy breading. On another night, “Maryland Crab Cakes” were on the menu. Our home in the Maryland/DC/Virginia area boasts the best crab cakes anywhere, and we just laughed at what the Meraviglia’s version might be like. We didn’t order them. In the main dining room, soups were generally OK, salads tended to be less than fresh and quite small, entrees ranged from awful to just bland, and the best bet for dessert was ice cream.
Upstairs in the buffet, at breakfast the omelet station turned out a perfectly credible product, the bakery items were OK, as were some of the meat products. The highlight of the place is the “mozzarella factory” where they make fresh batches of the cheese while you watch. They evidently supply mozzarella from here to all the restaurants on the ship, and the quality is excellent. The much-publicized pizza, on the other hand, is utterly ordinary and not up to MSC’s standards. Neither New York nor Chicago (nor Washington, for that matter) need fear competition from these pies. Most items in the buffet are just OK, generally under-spiced and, well, dull.
The best food we had was in the specialty restaurants. We ate at the steakhouse twice, the seafood restaurant once and the Japanese restaurant once. All were very good to excellent, with high quality, well-prepared food, and a healthy dose of imagination.
Also good were the various bars around the ship where, in addition to booze, you can get very credible specialty coffees. I think we used the drinks package that came with our room much more for coffees than for liquor. But drinks package or no, the availability of good coffee all over the ship is a big plus.
I think it is now a well-established law of the sea that no cruise ship is allowed to complete any itinerary until somebody sings Andrew Lloyd Weber’s feline anthem, “Memory.” Meraviglia’s entertainment troupe didn’t pussyfoot around, getting that chore out of the way on the second night. In their version of the standard Broadway mash-up show, which was performed to an entirely pre-recorded and synthesized orchestra, “Memory” was sung by a trio (odd). “Singin’ in the Rain,” which is actually a lilting, laid-back swing tune, was given the full aria treatment (very odd). On the other hand, the show managed to channel some moments from Chicago pretty well, and the contemporary stagecraft which made ample use of scenic projections was impressive in this and a number of other shows.
After that first experience we imagined that there was no stage band aboard, but in fact, there was. They played a number of other evening shows, but they were most enjoyable at a pair of afternoon jazz sets in the large theater. This was some of the most authentic and best music on the entire cruise. Also good was an afternoon classical concert, consisting mostly of arias and guaranteed-to-please Italian fare from the operatically trained young singers in the entertainment troupe.
And, to their credit, MSC paid tribute to its roots by taking a swing at an opera, namely La Boheme. This Cliff’s Notes version of Puccini’s hit opus was credibly performed by the house singers. It’s interesting that the threadbare plot of young love thwarted (boy meets girl, boy courts girl, girl gets sick, girl goes away to recover, girl doesn’t recover, girl comes back to boy, girl dies) is about as well-developed in this 40-minute version as it is in the hours-long original. But the real point is that some of the music is gorgeous. Two magicians and a Canadian improv troupe were featured in other evening shows.
The main theater is pretty, but does have some flaws. There are no railings to help folks up and down the aisles, and the LED floor lighting sometimes creates optical challenges for people with balance and visual issues. Most surprisingly, not only are there no drink holders at the seats, but drinks are prohibited in the room. Drink service at the shows represents a solid revenue stream on most ships, but not on Meraviglia.
Drinks are available (and come with the price of admission) at the two Cirque de Soleil shows that are performed onboard. We saw both of them and enjoyed them. You can choose the “drinks only” version or the “drinks-and-dinner” package. We did drinks only after seeing some pretty bad comments about the set dinner that is served there. We think this was probably the right choice, especially since the dinner people are seated in the back of the room while we had prime seating up front.
Television offerings were minimal. Something like ten or twelve channels were devoted to shipboard stuff, including shopping, tours, safety, bridge cams and ship’s technical data. They carried CNN US, CNN International and CNN Spanish, two ESPN channels, and two Turner movie channels, both of which experienced several audio and video dropouts per minute for the entire 13 days, and therefore were useless. A few other channels featured the languages of the international clientele on board. A small menu of pay-per-view movies was available for $8 each, and an even smaller array of hard-core porn films could be seen for $16 each. Noticeably missing was a morning broadcast by the cruise staff. While these shows are never Emmy material their absence was unusual, especially since one of the bars is called the “TV Studio,” but except for a nice little control room behind glass panels seemed to be just a bar.
We’d been to these islands a number of times, so we took no ship’s tours. We did pick up a local tour in Curacao, the one port we hadn’t visited before, and had a nice three-hour introduction to the island. We were due to be the first cruise to visit MSC’s new Bahamian private island, but that stop was cancelled because evidently the place wasn’t ready yet. We went to Ocho Rios instead, where we were among the many, many passengers who absolutely did not get off the ship. MSC gave everyone a $100 per room credit and a certificate worth 20% of their current fare on a future cruise to compensate for missing the private island.
The cruise staff warned us that owing to the large number of passengers and the fact that there would be many ships pulling into Miami that morning, getting off the ship could be a lengthy ordeal. Bottom line: it wasn’t. We were eligible to get off early, but we lingered over breakfast, chatting with another couple. When we did go, we waited in line maybe ten minutes. Once we got to customs we waited less than five more minutes. Out on the sidewalk, it was another 20 minutes to catch the shuttle bus to the rental car lot at the airport. The whole process was efficient and well managed.
This and That
• Our room steward, the dining room and bar staffs, and the cruise staff were universally very good to excellent. Absolutely no problems on those fronts.
• The “MSC for Me” app tied to the shipboard internet system is excellent. There’s no need to subscribe to an external internet package to use it, so the service is free. It’s a welcome alternative to carrying around the printed daily schedule to keep track of your planned activities. You can also make restaurant and show reservations with the touch of a screen. The app gets high marks for usefulness.
• Our room included the standard internet package for general uses like emails and web surfing. It, too, was very good and we didn’t come close to reaching our data limit, even on this 13-day cruise. The wi-fi signal was strong everywhere on the ship, and it was nice that the data package could be shared between two devices.
• The cruise spanned the last two games of the baseball World Series, where our home team Washington Nationals emerged victorious. Although the games were carried on one of the ESPN TV channels, it sure would have been nice if the cruise staff had turned them into special events, maybe with hot dogs and popcorn under the big screen on the pool deck. I realize that MSC is a European line, but this cruise started and ended in the US, and the cruise director was American, so this was an obvious missed opportunity.
• Lines at the customer service desk on five were hellishly long for the first four or five days of the cruise, as people waited to get various problems straightened out. The lines diminished later in the cruise, but this was a two-week run. With such a high passenger count, the lines could be long for the entirety of shorter cruises.
And Finally. . .
Is the Meraviglia, for all its good features, just plain too big? Our answer: yes it is. We feel that many of the negatives we encountered were directly tied to the 4,000+ passenger capacity. We remember back around the turn of the century when we were worried that the new 2,000+ passenger ships like Celebrity’s Millennium would be too big. We found that they were not. But we think that 4,000 people, many of whom are on board solely because they scored dirt-cheap rooms, are a bit too much. We’re likely to stick to smaller ships on future cruises.