Day 1 - Embarking Miami; smoothest embarkation ever.NO lines at any point during the process. Our stated boarding time was 4:00-5:00, but we showed up at 2:30 and went right through. I had wine in a tetrapak in my checked luggage, which ... Read More
Day 1 - Embarking Miami; smoothest embarkation ever.NO lines at any point during the process. Our stated boarding time was 4:00-5:00, but we showed up at 2:30 and went right through. I had wine in a tetrapak in my checked luggage, which was not confiscated. We wandered through the ship to get comfortable with the layout. We walked through the spa and gym ( no tours or specials offered), walked up to the day pass sun deck (nothing special) and went past the specialty restaurant, which was not open for viewing. Lunch was being served in the buffet and the grill and pizza station were both active. The luggage showed up at our room at 6:15, so we quickly changed and went to dinner in the dining room. Our Fantasia package drink tickets were delivered to the room - I wish the credit was on our room card instead; it wasn't very convenient dragging the coupon book around for the week.
Dinner was "fine". No one came by to take orders for drinks/wine. The food was unremarkable for the most part. Portions are fairly small, which I appreciated as I like to order several courses and don't care to overeat. The "snickers cake" was pretty awful. It didn't have much flavor and the filling (which was caramel, I suppose) was extremely gritty and full of undissolved sugar. The apple tart was weirdly served with pistachio gelato, and that gelato was the highlight of the dinner! We went looking for the gelato station afterwards, but it closed at 7:00 p.m. (Gelato is now free; I understand there used to be a surcharge).
Day 2 - Sea Day; We had breakfast in the buffet at 8:30 and it was quite full. No dishes seemed to be highlighted as daily specials (and in fact, breakfast did not really change throughout the week). Items that are more typically European breakfast fare (sliced meats, cheeses, veggies) were offered in addition to American standards. Baked beans seemed to be the only the only British breakfast item. During breakfast hours, the pizza station served breakfast baked items such as waffles, pancakes, doughnuts, and breakfast pizza (both sweet and savory).
After breakfast we attended the Cruise Critic meet and greet, held in a midship bar, which was roped off. There were only 10 of us, and we were each given our own banquette, each table attractively set with canapes and chocolate-dipped strawberries. Waitstaff circulated with fruit juice, sparking wine, mimosas, and bloody Marys. Senior staff circulated and we had several pleasant conversations with them. We learned that fast-growing MSC (adding 2 new ships every year!) is breaking into the American cruise market and recognizes Cruise Critic as influential. A special Cruise Critic cake had been decorated, and group pictures were taken (we received a copy later in our stateroom). Disappointingly, the special cake was the same Snickers cake from the evening before, with the same, terrible gritty filling.
In the morning, we had left a note that the safe didn't lock and tht the bathroom sink sprayed water all over, and by the time we returned to the room from the meet n greet, both had been repaired. We literally never saw the cabin steward the entire week of the cruise, but the room was always clean and well cared for. I spent the next several hours working on a research project and found a great space to work in the deck 12 disco lounge, which seemed to be only used at night. It was completely empty and offered lovely panoramic views from the rear of the ship. I had checked out the library, but it was just a nook in one of the bars, not even separated by a door. There were very few books but there were plenty of games, and every time we passed by the area through the week, games were out and being played.
We had a fairly decent lunch in the dining room. Service was quite slow, but we weren't in a hurry. Sadly, they had run out of pistachio gelato in the dining room (which we all had ordered, based on our fond memories of the night before). That evening, we saw the French Follies show, which proved to be nominally French. It seemed as if they took stock of their performers' skills and tried to find a "French" way of showcasing their specialties. You are supposed to reserve spaces for the shows (although this was never checked), using a fairly intuitive interactive board. It would have been nice to have more information on the content of the shows. One was titled "The Greatest", which turned out to be Broadway tunes, but how was one to know?
Day 3 - Montego Bay; We arrived early and we allowed to disembark early as well. There is a free shuttle from the dock to outside port, from where you can grab a taxi or shared van to town. MSC offered a shuttle to town for $20 a head, also from the dock. Inside the port there were two lines, one for each shuttle option and it was confusing to figure out which line we needed. We chose the free shuttle, and there was a stream of taxis and shared vans waiting to whisk us to the Hip Strip for $7 each. Locals were fairly pleasant but often approached tourists with an offer of something to sell and could be a bait aggressive. We were not impressed with the Hip Strip, and elected to pass a few pleasant hours at Doc's Beach. Despite the early arrival, our time in port seemed short.
For dinner that night, I had the seafood trio, which included grilled lobster, one very large whole shrimp, and a piece of fish. All of it was somewhat overcooked, as was the shrimp cocktail. After dinner, we watched the show (the aforementioned The Greatest). It wasn't very good - performances were fine, but the show was very choppy, with no continuity and no storyline. The pacing seemed to presume that the audience had ADHD as it whirled from song to song, spending less than a version on any one song and sometimes less than one line. A grant total of two measures of music were devoted to Jesus Christ Superstar, for example. Other oddities included an arrangement that also forced songs into odd keys, and the umbrella props for Singin' in the Rain were also unaccountably used when the song became a number from West Side Story.
Day 4 - Grand Cayman; This was the only port where we needed tenders to reach the shore. And it did take a while. You had to get a number, wait for the number to be called, then join another queue to the tenders and wait again. There were 6 other cruise ships in Grand Cayman, which proved to be a quaint, charming town. We all agreed that we would like to return some day. Locals were not hustling or hassling tourists and there were plenty of activities on offer upon leaving the port. We took a public bus (a van really) to the beach. To get to the bus stop, go inland a few blocks to the public library. We sent out to Calico Jack's, which was a nice beach with chairs and umbrellas for hire, public flush toilets, showers, and a few food trucks. There was also a bar/restaurant a few steps away on the sand. Lines were very long to get back on the ship at the end of the day. Return tenders bounced around quite a bit in the wind and waves, but we were safely delivered back to the ship. We were the only ship lucky enough to get out of the area and outrun an incoming storm.
We dined that night on some very good meatballs, lovely asparagus (which was served warm and not chilled as the menu stated) and the best crepes Suzette that I have ever had. Later that night, we relaxed in the nearly-empty rum bar (a new addition to the ship), which served a variety of rum-based cocktails. The adorkable server Spaik (Spike) was extremely knowledgeable, not only about the rums, but he also had an almost encyclopedic knowledge about the ship and others in the MSC fleet. Evening events on the ship seemed lightly attended, as bars were fairly empty and activities appeared lightly attended. Overnight we could feel the movement of the ship quite a bit. The ship held its position pretty well, pitching and rolling but no grinding or groaning noises.
Day 5 - Cozumel; We were delayed getting to port because of the storm and high winds. We snagged a taxi after exiting the port. We planned to go to Uvas Beach Club, based on the recommendation of a cruiser from another ship that we met on the beach in Grand Cayman. The taxi driver mentioned that the water was quite choppy on that side of the island, due to the winds. We pulled up to Uvas in the taxi and one look at the water was enough for us to change our plans. We put our faith in the driver, who said he could take us to a beach on the other side of Cozumel, where he promised the water was calm and swimmable. He was right. It took us a while to get out there and we passed through some fairly remote areas but finally pulled up to Chin Rio Beach, which was simply lovely. This public beach had no entry fee and was beautiful with clear water, soft sand, and not too crowded. There was also a restaurant and flush toilets (with toilet paper and soap). Many taxis awaited customers at the beach, with passengers often paying the driver 1/2 of the return fare up front as assurance to come back. Our driver gave us his name, cell number, and taxi number, and another driver offered to call him for us when we were ready to leave. FYI, you cannot take shells back onto the ship. Mine were confiscated before leaving the port. This was poorly explained in the ship's literature, which stated that plants, food and shells could not be taken off the ship.
It was Italian night in the dining room, which proved to be quite the treat! I had the osso buco, which was incredibly tender and tasty, and a divine lemon cream, made with limoncello. This was the night where the dining room staff was recognized. The show was also Italian-themed. It was pretty good; the best we saw on this MSC cruise. The singing was good and the paired dancing was top notch and elevated the show and gave it energy.
Day 6 - Havana; we had the morning aboard ship before reaching Havana. I ate an early lunch of amazing ship pizza. It had just come out of the oven, which I think made it extra amazing, and there was no line. The pizza with prosciutto and red sauce was exceptional and the white pizza with black olives and onions was very good.
The ship was late getting to Havana due to the storm. Disembarking in Havana was the single worst experience of the cruise. MSC disembarked only people on MSC tours first, which wouldn't have been such a problem if the ship had reached port on time. Staff did not announce where people not on MSC tours could line up and several made remarks in passing about there being enough time to see Havana. It didn't seem to occur to staff that some people (like us) had made plans with a tour company not connected with the cruise line. There was eventually a mob of people jamming a long hall near the gangway and periodically lines of tour groups would be shoved through. There were no directions provided orally or with signage and no ropes were set up to create order. IT TOOK US 90 MINUTES JUST TO GET OFF THE SHIP from the time we joined the waiting mob (which was not right away, due to the lack of directions). That is not including time for entry into Cuba, that's 90 minutes just from the time we got in line on the ship to the time they scanned our MSC cards at the gangway. Consequently, we were an hour and a half late for our private tour. I had budgeted an ample 2 hours after arrival before the start of the tour and it still wasn't enough. Given our limited time in Havana, it was frustrating.
I arranged our private tour through Strawberry Tours. Cesar greeted us with a hug, exclaiming that he worried we weren't coming. I was so glad he waited for us, as our ship had docked rather late. Our 6 hour tour began with a walking tour of Old Havana, followed by a classic car tour, accompanied by Cesar, who was excellent. We saw so much! It didn't feel hurried, despite our late start, and we saw so much. Havana is an amazing city. Cesarr and the driver dropped us off at a paladar for dinner, and then we walked to The Tropicana, where we ended the evening.
I booked The Tropicana online, directly with the theatre and it was quite a show. It was so over the top in the very best way. Ladies were presented with a flower upon entry and gents received a cigar. Admission also came with a welcome drink of sparkling wine and two half-bottles of Havana Club 1-year rum for the four of us, along with four Cuban colas and little dishes of salted peanuts mixed with raisins. A bottle of 7-year Havana Club rum was later plopped on our table; we were able to take the leftover rum with us. The dancing, singing and musicians were all quite good, and the dancers were performing everywhere. Any other show would have taken it too far when the ladies came out wearing actual chandeliers on their heads, but at The Tropicana, it was just another part of the show. The only downside was the persistent cigarette smoke throughout the evening; I just don't have a tolerance built up for that.
Day 7 - Havana, day two; In the morning we left the shipand walked into town for the food tour, arranged through Strawberry Tours. We were the only English-speaking guests, so we had a guide all to ourselves! We strolled Old Havana with Alex sampling many fine examples of Cuban food. He was disappointed that neither of us drinks coffee, so we started with a superb Cuban sandwich that included chorizo made in the shop. We also tried corn on the cob (which was field corn, but had tasty toppings), churros and ice cream - and then we had lunch. We lunched on the rooftop patio of an unassuming, restaurant and could see all along a several block stretch in Old Havana. Alex was a warm and gracious host.
After the tour, we wandered over to the ware house artisan/souvenir space on the waterfront, where we purchased several small original prints and then took a coconut 3-wheeled taxi back to the ship. You can change money in the cruise terminal, even on Sunday, and change it back again before boarding. Also in the terminal is a small store - this is where I purchased the rum I brought back, so that I didn't have to carry it through town. Dinner aboard ship that night was good, and the peanut butter pie was outstanding!
Day 8 - Miami; breakfast on the ship featured the same selections as other days, and they were giving our juice that normally was available only for a surcharge. Disembarkation ran ahead of schedule. All passengers were invited to leave the ship by 9:45 a.m. Luggage was easy to find and customs was a breeze. All in all, it was a lovely trip, and a great price. I was charmed by the international clientele on the ship - I have never heard less English aboard a cruise ship. I would definitely cruise with MSC again! Read Less