Last month my wife Carol and I sailed aboard the MSC Orchestra to the ports of Key West, Cozumel, Grand Cayman and Cayo Levantado, a lovely beach island located in beautiful Samana Bay in the Dominican Republic. Our primary reason for doing so, other than the need for a relaxing week at sea, was to see how the product that MSC Cruises is currently offering compares to that of the more well-known cruise lines which have been sailing in the Caribbean for many years.
In order to gather as much information as possible I took notes throughout the cruise, we collected all daily programs and other related literature, and with two trained pairs of eyes observing as much as possible, we attempted to see and experience as much as we could. We spoke to many of our fellow passengers to get their positive and negative opinions of their cruising experience. In addition, we had numerous extremely beneficial conversations with members of the onboard staff to gain even more insight into what the cruise line has been trying to accomplish, what problems have been encountered, and how it has been going about its tasks until this time.
Our general conclusion, after a week at sea which overall was truly quite an enjoyable experience, is that MSC definitely has the potential to be an excellent cruise line. We determined that while a number of aspects of the cruise were truly exceptional there is much improvement needed in certain critical areas in order to reach the overall level of their competitors. After spending a week onboard, experiencing virtually every aspect of an MSC cruise, and returning home armed with a great deal of in-depth knowledge, we would certainly sail with them again and you will probably have a fine time as well if you choose to do so.
In order to increase the probability of your having a good experience you need to know what to expect onboard, MSC's strengths and weaknesses, and, most importantly, how to work around certain potentially problematical areas that you may encounter. As described below, I will be reviewing and analyzing, in as objective a manner as possible, numerous aspects of our experience on the MSC Orchestra.
Throughout this review high marks and accolades will be given without hesitation when they are deserved, and where shortcomings exist or when criticism is warranted it will be presented in an equally objective manner. Hopefully this rather lengthy review (would you expect otherwise), will accomplish its goal and I am always available to answer any questions that you might have and provide you with additional information about the Orchestra or MSC cruises in general.
This was the first area where the information provided by the representatives at MSC's offices and in their cruise documents was contradicted by what actually occurred at the cruise terminal. For starters, the MSC Orchestra sails from Ft. Lauderdale at 7 P.M. which is considerably later than most of the other ships that leave from Port Everglades. Their office staff told me that boarding would begin at 4 P.M. one time and at 2 P.M. during another call. In either case, one could have concluded that the late boarding might be intentionally done by the cruise line in order to avoid having to serve the traditional lunch buffet that is offered on every other ship. This assumption, however, would turn out to be completely false.
I later discovered that all disembarking passengers are usually off the ship by 10:15 A.M. or so, and that subject to unforeseen delays boarding generally begins between 11:00 and 11:30 A.M. Obviously, this is an area where the major discrepancy between MSC's verbal information, their printed cruise documents, and what actually occurs at the cruise terminal needs to be eliminated.
Since we live only about a 30 minute drive from Port Everglades we arrived at the port around Noon and were onboard before 12:30 P.M. Once inside the terminal the boarding process was as quick and seamless as we have experienced with any other cruise line. The check-in counter was manned by 35 individuals and it was no more than 15 minutes from the time that we entered the terminal until we actually boarded the ship.
CRUISE IDENTIFICATION CARDS
When you check in at the terminal each passenger is given their cruise card which, typically, is used for identification purposes when you leave or board the ship, serves as your stateroom key, and is used as a credit card for purchases that will be billed to your onboard account. These cards also show your assigned dining room and table number.
Most disturbingly, however, MSC's cards also show your stateroom number. This is, in my opinion, a major error and one which, should a card be misplaced and subsequently found by another passenger or crew member, may result in a severe breach of security.
Obviously, finding a card with an actual stateroom number would enable someone with nefarious intentions to enter a person's cabin and then damage or steal valuable personal possessions. I have sent this recommendation to MSC's home office and hopefully they will soon change the printing of their I.D. cards so that the stateroom numbers are eliminated.
We had a Superior Balcony stateroom located on Deck 10 which measured 191 square feet in size plus a 48 sq. ft. balcony. As far as the other accommodations on the Orchestra the Inside and Ocean View Cabins are 150 sq. ft., Standard Balconies measure 164 sq. ft. plus a 48 sq. ft. balcony, and the Balcony Suites are 278 sq. ft. plus a 48 sq. ft. balcony which is about the size of a mini-suite on a Princess or Royal Caribbean ship. There are, however, no larger Owner's or Penthouse Suites on the ship.
The Orchestra was launched in 2007, weighs in at 92,400 tons, carries 2550 passengers at double occupancy but has a maximum passenger capacity of 3,103 when all of the triples and quads are included. The ship has a crew of 987 and this 3:1 passenger-to-crew ratio, as I will discuss at numerous times later in this review, is simply not adequate to provide the level of service that a passenger should expect on a large, ultra-modern cruise ship.
MSC continues to promote family cruising quite vigorously by only charging the government taxes for all children age 17 or under who travel as the 3rd or 4th passengers in your stateroom. On our cruise, for example, kids sailed for the entire week for only $ 97.40 apiece!!!
Upon close examination of our accommodations we were most pleasantly surprised. The cabin was impeccably clean upon our arrival, it was beautifully decorated with a primarily navy blue patterned carpet and bedspread and the furniture and cabinetry was done in a medium brown veneer dEcor. There was a huge floor-to-ceiling mirror across from the bed, a two-cushion couch which could be converted to a bed for a third passenger, a small cocktail table, two nightstands with reading lamps and drawers, and a desk/vanity table across from the couch with a large mirror. The cabin had ample closet and drawer space, an in-closet safe with a handy shelf, and a flat screen television set that sits on top of a cabinet which holds a fully-stocked mini-bar. The balcony, which was small but certainly adequate, included two faux-wicker arm chairs and a square wicker table.
The pure white bathroom has the typical shelf space and a good-size cabinet under the sink for additional storage. The shower is small but definitely similar in size to that which is found on many other ships. It includes an excellent hand-held showerhead and a three-inch high barrier on the floor which completely prevents any unwanted flooding. The shower and the sink had exceptionally strong water pressure and virtually instantaneous hot water which never varied throughout the cruise. The towels and wash cloths were of excellent quality, large and soft, and whenever they were left on the floor or in the sink they were promptly replaced by our cabin steward.
As far as bathroom amenities MSC only provides a few small bottles of shampoo for their passengers. Unfortunately no hair conditioner is provided nor is there a typical basket of hand and body lotions or a shower cap such as you find on most other cruise lines. The addition of these items, whose cost is certainly quite nominal, would certainly make a good impression on MSC's passengers and they should definitely be considered by the cruise line.
One excellent feature of the cabin, which naturally was noticed by Carol, was that the cabin lighting was bright, perfectly positioned, easily adjustable, and significantly better overall than one finds on other ships. There have, however, been numerous inaccurate postings on the Internet about the operation of the lights in the cabins so here is some clarification.
When you enter your stateroom there is a slot in a box on the wall across from the closets for you to insert your I.D.Card/Room Key. When you do so all of the lights in the cabin will go on simultaneously and you can then turn those in any area on or off using the wall switches.
Inserting your card also activates a signal light which is located outside of your cabin. This light tells your cabin steward that you are inside your cabin so he will not enter to do any of his housekeeping chores. When you leave your stateroom you remove your I.D. card and take it with you. Doing this turns off all of the lights in the cabin within a few minutes, which is an excellent energy saving feature, and it also turns off the signal light in the corridor. This tells your cabin steward that you have vacated the cabin and that he is now free to clean or deliver any cruise related literature without disturbing you. As far as the air conditioning in the cabin it is controlled by a separate thermostat, has no relationship to the operation of the lights, and it operates continually whether or not you are in your stateroom.
CABIN STEWARD & ROOM SERVICE
Our cabin steward was extremely friendly and proficient at his job and any special requests that we made of him were taken care of promptly. A number of times we found him working a few cabins down the hall and when we asked him to take care of something in our cabin he often stopped what he was doing to handle our request and then went back to work in the other stateroom.
Because of the clever corridor light signal system the cabin stewards on our deck were able to take care of their housekeeping chores as soon as passengers left their staterooms. Whenever we went for breakfast, for example, our stateroom was cleaned in its entirety upon our return. Obviously, we can only judge MSC's housekeeping system by our experience with one cabin steward, but our observations of the other stewards who were assigned to the cabins in our corridor left the impression that their system is well designed and works extremely well.
MSC's nightly turndown service, while certainly efficient in every regard, was a bit disappointing in that it did not include the traditional pillow chocolate or any towel animals. Perhaps the cabin stewards make the towel animals in those cabins where children are staying but the cruise line really has no excuse for cutting corners by eliminating the chocolates.
We ordered coffee and some pastry items every night before retiring for delivery the following morning. You do this in the usual manner by completing a form and hanging on the door knob outside your cabin before you retire for the evening. This form enables you to select a delivery time, starting at 7:30 A.M. and then in 15 minutes intervals thereafter. I would always circle 7:30 A.M. to have our order delivered as early as possible, and without fail our food was delivered between 7:20 and 7:30 A.M. every morning of our cruise.
MSC's Room Service menu, which along with the breakfast order forms is found inside a blue ship guidebook in the cabin, is an area where a great deal of improvement is needed. The options are extremely limited and definitely need to be expanded to match those offered by other cruise lines. The one time that we did order from room service the item which was requested, a fruit and cheese platter, was extremely skimpy and included only three small slices of cheese, two packages of crackers, and a meager five grapes. The staff also forgot to send napkins and there was no knife included to spread the cheese on the crackers.
OVERVIEW OF THE SHIP
Without a doubt the MSC Orchestra is a beautifully decorated ship where every public area exudes a sense of style, class, and the ambiance of a modern, upscale resort hotel. The interior design of the ship's public rooms and staterooms was done by the Giuseppe De Jorio Company in Genoa, Italy, and the fabrics used for the chairs, couches, draperies, and window treatments are designed and manufactured in Milan. Truly outstanding in every way, the color schemes flow perfectly through the interior public areas and within each individually themed lounge.
The ship is also extraordinarily clean and during recent surprise inspections it, along with other ships in the MSC fleet, scored a perfect 100 which is truly outstanding in the cruise industry. Between the constant polishing of the brass railings, the rapid clearing of dining tables at the buffet restaurant and by the pool, the vacuuming of hallways and public areas, and the placement of dozens of hand sanitizer dispensers, the appearance and cleanliness of the Orchestra is obviously a top priority.
The ship has four elevator banks where the visual feeling of the landings is expanded tremendously by using lots of mirrors and brass to offset the beautiful marble trim and flooring, perfectly coordinated carpeting, and attractively patterned brown veneer walls. The colors are restful and this style of decorating is used in many areas of the ship to provide an open and expansive appearance. Forest green, accented by brass and wood, is a common color scheme in many of the public lounges.
The three-story atrium, which features a faux waterfall as the artistic focus, is decorated with lots of glass along with gleaming brass accents and railings. The floors, columns and curving staircases are made of light colored marble of various patterns and textures. The center of the main level of the atrium features a piano and bandstand where the classical string quartet or the folkloric trio from Ecuador performs, and the comfortable wood accented furniture is offset by forest green fabrics.
There are a number of boutiques on the second level of the atrium. These include the mandatory logo and sundries shop, some upscale clothing retailers, and numerous watch and jewelry shops including an actual branch of Colombian Emeralds. The main information desk is located on the first level of the atrium along with a number of large casual sitting areas and bars.
The shore excursion desk, where the port and excursion literature is printed in five languages, is located on the second level of the atrium. This area is supplemented by a number of video screens which constantly play movies about the ship, its route and current location, the ports of call, and the numerous shore excursion options. Curiously, there was no future cruise consultant on the ship to assist passengers in booking future cruises nor were there any brochures or any other promotional literature on display.
When you leave the atrium and head towards the front of the ship you will find a number of bars and entertainment lounges, a small card room and library, the casino, a specialty Chinese restaurant and, of course, the main show lounge at the very front of the ship. Heading towards the rear of the ship from the atrium one enters the two dining rooms on the lower levels, while from the third level of the atrium you will find the photo gallery, the wine bar, the sports bar, the cigar room, and another large show lounge at the rear of the ship.
The public decks of the ship are numbered from 5 up to 15 and the areas noted above are found on Decks 5, 6, and 7. The pool, buffet restaurant, spa and fitness center, and another specialty restaurant are located on Deck 13. Deck 14 includes the children's pool, game and playroom center, a jogging and sunning deck, and the discotheque in the rear of the ship. Deck 15 offers a miniature golf course, shuffleboard, and deck quoits.
MSC charges $ 12 per person, per day for gratuities and this amount will be placed on your shipboard account towards the latter part of your cruise. The daily gratuity charge covers the services of your cabin steward, waiter, busboy, and, apparently, every other member of their onboard staff.
Most interestingly, however, MSC does not add the traditional 15% gratuity to any of their bar drinks, sodas, wines sold by the bottle or by the glass, or to the price of their specialty coffees or home-made gelato at the pool deck. When you order a bottle of wine or a drink the receipt does not even include a space to add your own gratuity even if you wanted to. Obviously, not having to pay the extra 15% gratuity will certainly be quite a money saver over the course of an entire cruise.
From what we were told, Europeans would stage a general revolt if a gratuity was automatically added to the price of anything that they ate or drank. Because of this, MSC has kept the policy of no automatic gratuity in place on all of their Caribbean cruises and the prices of their bar drinks and wines are extremely nominal.
The Internet Center is located adjacent to the third level of the atrium. This is an ultra-modern area with 18 terminals located at individual desks or on circular counters surrounded by bar stool-like seats. This area is decorated in silver and grey brushed aluminum and is accented with purple carpeting and ultra-modernistic light purple lighting.
To open your Internet account you simply insert your room key into a box located next to the monitor or on the front of the desk of your desired terminal. As always, the speed of your Internet connection will vary depending upon the positioning of the communication satellites. The first time that I used this facility the connection was painfully slow, yet when I switched to one of the desks the following day the connection was quite satisfactory and it remained that way for the remainder of the cruise.
The Internet service is priced at 50 cents per minute however this rate is only applicable to the first 10 minutes that you log on to use the service. After that the price is reduced to 40 cents per minute for all of the additional minutes that you use. A record of your usage briefly appears on your monitor after you log off and all of the daily charges were accurately reflected on our shipboard account.
MAIN ENTERTAINMENT VENUES
The Covent Garden Lounge is the main theater onboard where the nightly shows are presented. It features a creative variable color lighting design on the walls and ceiling, an excellent sound system, and some unique visual effects which are employed during many of the production shows. The seats, while no where as oppressively tight as those found in many Broadway theatres, have seat cushions which are not especially comfortable and leg room could certainly be a bit more generous.
The best visibility is found in the orchestra which slopes upward quite adequately from the stage to the rear exits. Visibility in the balcony is very problematical in many areas with your view potentially blocked by railings, Plexiglas barriers, a few support poles, and a number of entry staircases.
The Savannah Bar is one of the largest combination bar, live music, and entertainment venues that I have ever seen on a cruise ship. Beautifully decorated in a jungle motif it is definitely the hot spot on the ship for live music, dancing and dance lessons, and numerous unique and very entertaining contests. The bar is huge and the cocktail waitress service is excellent. The room is always packed after dinner and you will definitely want to spend part of every evening in this lounge.
Most of the music in this location is provided by the Ocean Band which is an exceptionally good four-piece band for all types of dancing. This band also backs up the extremely popular daily dance lessons as well as the contests and musical games that are hosted by members of the ship's entertainment staff.
The Amber Piano Bar is located adjacent to the Savannah Bar. It is a lovely venue where music for dancing or your listening pleasure is provided by a duo or a solo piano player. Live music generally begins around five o'clock in the late afternoon and continues until one o'clock in the early morning.
This room and the Savannah Bar are also used for activities such as Trivia contests, Italian lessons, the weekly art auction, and the not to be missed Mister and Miss Orchestra contests.
The Shaker Lounge, located in the rear of the ship, is another large entertainment area where live music is provided in the evenings and where onboard events such as Karaoke, dance lessons, and the ship's passenger talent show take place.
The lower level of the atrium is where classical musical entertainment is provided by the ship's superb string quartet or one can enjoy the guitar playing and traditional Latin and South American folk music presented by Los Paraguayos.
Finally, the R32 Disco provides late night music and dancing. This ultra-modern room is decorated in a combination of metallic finishes offset by orange lighting and a lit dance floor.
The Palm Beach Casino is smaller than one would expect on a ship that can carry 3,000 passengers at full capacity. While it includes slot machines and all of the usual gaming tables we were informed that Europeans, in general, do not gamble to the extent that Americans like to do while on a cruise and thus the casinos on MSC's ships are smaller.
In addition, the casino only opens in the late afternoon or early evening and there were reports of a shortage of trained dealers. We spoke to one fellow passenger who told us that when a significant number of guests wanted to arrange a high-stakes poker game they were told that the ship only had one qualified poker dealer. Besides offering longer hours of operation this is an area that MSC obviously needs to improve in order to bring their gaming facilities up to the level of their competitors if they are going to continue to sail in the Caribbean.
Our first exposure to the cuisine onboard the Orchestra was at the buffet where we had lunch shortly after boarding. The buffet is divided into two sections and virtually the same food selection is available on either side of the ship. Entering from the pool deck the first section is called La Piazzetta Cafeteria and further back you enter the 4 Seasons section. Both areas are beautifully decorated with a dark green and beige color scheme offset by brass, marble and mirrors. The tables, chairs, and booths are well spaced and comfortable.
Whether you have breakfast or lunch at the buffet there are multiple serving stations on both sides of the ship. Breakfast features the traditional offerings including four types of eggs, the traditional full English breakfast items, pancakes, waffles, cheeses, yogurts, and fruits including baked apples. There is also home made oatmeal available along with the thoughtful addition of packets of brown sugar.
The baked goods at the buffet are exceptionally high quality and that statement applies to all of the home baked breads, pastries, and Italian dessert items onboard the ship. Breakfast features items such as bagels, croissants, brioche, plum cake, Danish, and numerous types of artisan breads. The condiments are logically arranged at every serving station and the staff provides table clearing service that is extremely prompt and attentive.
The machines that serve coffee (strong and much better than is available on most cruise ships), tea (a complete selection of Twinings is available), and juices are located at the ends of both sections of the buffet. As you would expect the section of the buffet closest to the pool tends to get quite crowded at times while the section further towards the rear of the ship, which includes some outdoor seating, is usually an easier spot to quickly get a table.
The walking area of the buffet could be more spacious and at times the combination of the lines at the serving stations and the people walking by made things a bit crowded. We were informed that on their newer ships, such as the Poesia which will replace the Orchestra in the Caribbean later this year, a redesign of the buffet will allow for significantly more walking space.
Lunch at the buffet features a salad bar which, while certainly adequate, could be enhanced by the addition of a wider selection of items. A large variety of hot foods are prepared and the menu changes on a daily basis. The specialty regional Italian dishes, including a fresh pasta station and even home-made Paella on one day, were among the best and most reliable offerings. For those seeking the standard offerings burgers, hot dogs, and fries are always available. Pizza is prepared daily and in the evenings between 5 and 9 P.M. when it is the only food available other than room service.
DINING ROOM OVERVIEW
The ship has two dining rooms. The Villa Borghese Ristorante is located on Deck 5 and L'Ibiscus Ristorante is located on Deck 6. Both venues are staffed primarily by Indonesian waiters and busboys while the maitre d's and their assistants are Italian. Be prepared for the fact that due to a lack of experience or their very recent exposure to the English-speaking traveler, the communication skills of many of the waiters and busboys definitely need improvement. Pointing to the item that you want on the menu and making sure that they have written your order correctly will go a long way to insuring that your meal will be delivered just as it was ordered.
Dining on MSC is a bit different than on the more well-known cruise lines. For starters, the seatings for dinner on their Caribbean cruises are at 5:30 and 8 P.M. Primarily because MSC does not have an adequate number of waiters and busboys in their dining rooms your dinner will take approximately two hours from start to finish. Based on our observations MSC is assigning far too many tables to each waiter and thus any delays in service or the taking of your orders is really the fault of the cruise line rather than their overworked staff. Because of the above described shortage of personnel MSC has made a couple of adjustments in their dining rooms. For starters, when you get to your table you will see that your bread plate is already set up with a fresh baked roll, a bread stick, and a slice of one of their delicious fresh-baked artisan breads. A serving tray with lots of butter and one with coffee creamers is already on the table, obviously as a time saving measure.
Most unusually there is also a pitcher of ice water on every table. Your waiter or busboy will pour the first glass of water for you after you have been seated but afterwards the pitcher is left on the table so that you can serve yourself. Actually, not having to summon your waiter when you need your water glass filled is a very nice convenience especially since these fellows are trying to handle far more tables than they should.
The appearance of the tables could also be improved significantly by eliminating the tacky vase of artificial flowers on each table and replacing it with fresh flowers. Salt and pepper shakers are also found on each table, quite obviously because neither your waiter nor busboy will have the time to grind some fresh pepper on any of your dishes. I can handle this situation easily, of course, but for goodness sake don't cut corners by giving me a shaker of plain ground pepper when many of your dishes are crying out for a generous application of freshly ground pepper.
MSC also has an extremely large and very reasonably priced wine list. There are plenty of domestic wines and an extraordinarily wide selection of Italian wines which are listed and described by their geographical region. Unfortunately, MSC has also made the decision not to have trained sommeliers in the dining rooms to assist passengers in making their wine selections. Obviously, this would be extremely helpful where the many Italian wines are concerned since you would have to be a true wine expert to know enough about the vineyards or vintages to make an educated choice.
Considering that many of the Italian vintages are priced at less than $ 20 per bottle (when was the last time that you saw a $ 15 bottle of really good wine on a cruise ship?), and that there are many unique after-dinner wines and liqueurs to choose from, not having at least four sommeliers in each dining room is costing MSC a tremendous amount of potential income. From what we heard from our assistant maitre d' the only real wine expert on the ship is assigned to the Wine Bar while guests in the dining room are left on their own when it comes to selecting wines either by the glass or the bottle.
For passengers desiring a cocktail with their dinner there are numerous waitresses who continually circulate in the dining rooms to take your order. Finally, because of the way that the waiters are scurrying around, if you order a bottle of wine be prepared to pour any additional glasses for yourself since waiting for your waiter or busboy to notice that you need a refill will simply be an exercise in frustration.
DINING ROOMS - THE CUISINE
Overall the food aboard the Orchestra ranges from fair to very good and there is certainly the need for improvement in a number of areas. Appetizers are generally very good although it would be nice to have a few additional selections to choose from during dinner. The salads are fine although they could be enhanced quite easily if the chef demonstrated some additional creativity with the ingredients and the presentation. Soups, whether hot or chilled, are only fair to good and could stand some significant improvement. Entrees are basically good with some dishes excelling while others fall far short of expectations. Desserts, especially those with genuine Italian roots, are very good to excellent with a good balance of flavors, textures, and sweetness. Between the breads, baked goods, and desserts it is obvious that the Pastry Chef onboard the Orchestra is blessed with far more creativity and a higher skill level than is the Executive Chef.
Naturally the Executive Chef is from Italy and thus you will be well advised to favor dishes from that country rather than venture into other cuisines which, obviously, are not the strength of the kitchen. The various beef dishes are adequate, although as one can experience on many major cruise lines the quality of the cuts is not as high as one would like. Fish is prepared properly and numerous varieties are offered during the week.
One disappointing feature of virtually all of the entrees is the complete lack of creativity in the design and presentation of the side dishes that accompany the main course. Potatoes and vegetables, whether boiled, blanched, or roasted, are very simply prepared without any attempt whatsoever at demonstrating the kitchen's ability to wow their passengers. The presentation of the entrEe is also as plain and simple as one might find at one's kitchen table at home with the meat or fish just lying on the plate with the potato and vegetable on the side. Visually these dishes are unexciting and in many cases even a simple sprinkling of chopped parsley would go a long way towards enhancing the appearance of the main course.
MSC appears to be under the misimpression that the American palate is far less sophisticated than it actually is. With their U.S. offices located in Ft. Lauderdale, a city with dozens of superb, cutting-edge restaurants, it is hard to believe that the menu planners at the cruise line do not understand how adventurous and knowledgeable Americans are when it comes to food. After having spent thirty-five years as an executive in the cruise industry, the President of MSC cannot possibly offer any excuse for not being aware of the variety, quality, and presentation of food that is currently being served on all of the other major cruise lines.
As devotees of the Food Channel the American traveler wants to see and taste new dishes that invigorate their palates when we go on a cruise. MSC's half-hearted efforts in many regards, or else their complete misunderstanding of what passengers are looking for when they sail, often results in a significant under application of herbs and spices on many main courses. In some cases these essential ingredients are neglected to the point that flavors that should jump out at you and excite your palate are missing altogether.
As an example, an order of Mahi Mahi, described as being coated with Cajun spices, turned out to be a plain piece of fish with scant evidence that it had come anywhere near to the required spices. The timidity of the chef, or whomever selects the recipes and determines the method of preparation, is very disappointing. Interestingly, however, when it comes to Italian dishes such as their excellent pasta preparations, the sauces are fresh and very well seasoned and are certainly the strongest selections at any lunch or dinner.
There are two specialty restaurants onboard the Orchestra which carry a nominal surcharge and require advance reservations. We did not have the opportunity to dine at either of these venues but I can provide you with a brief description of each one.
The Shanghai Chinese Restaurant, which is open for lunch and dinner, is decorated beautifully with an authentic red and black lacquer theme and offers numerous dishes from a range of regions in the country. The 4 Seasons Restaurant, which is open only for dinner, is actually the back half of the buffet which in the evening is transformed into an upscale dining venue. Based on conversations that we had with some passengers who had dined there it appears that the quality and presentation of the food in this locale is significantly higher than that which we experienced in the main dining room. Where the 4 Seasons is concerned, MSC does very little to promote the existence of this dining venue and one night the restaurant was actually closed due to a complete lack of customers.
MSC also offers late night buffets on the pool deck or special snacks which are distributed in the lounges around 11 or 11:30 P.M. These late-night snacks, which overall were really excellent, can range from club sandwiches to flaming crepes to zesty hot from the oven snacks such as the delectable chocolate-filled mini-croissants. The more expansive buffets on the pool deck included Italian night along with the Magnifico buffet towards the end of the cruise.
Despite the numerous shortcomings noted above, if you pick and choose carefully you can have a good dining experience onboard the Orchestra. The overall quality of the food at the buffet will probably satisfy most passengers, and you can enjoy a pretty satisfying meal in the dining room in the evening if you understand the chef's strengths and weaknesses and make your choices accordingly.
Combining a good variety of live music for your dancing and listening pleasure, an exceptionally talented and active entertainment staff, and truly unique production shows, MSC's onboard entertainment is as good if not better than that which is found on virtually any other cruise line. Offering what can be described as International entertainment, the nightly production shows are quite different from the typical offerings on most cruise lines.
Instead of the ad nauseam singing and dancing to Broadway tunes which tends to keep more people away from the theatres than draws them in, MSC has put together an extremely interesting and varied top-notch entertainment program. The shows are scheduled before dinner for passengers with the Late Seating and after dinner for those in the Early Seating. As I mentioned seats in the orchestra of the theater are the most desirable and arriving at least 30 minutes before show time is definitely recommended.
With hundreds of non-English speaking Europeans flying to Florida to sail with MSC, there wasn't any comedian onboard since interpreting his performance into three or four languages would be futile. Instead, the nightly shows focus on themes such as the circus (highlighted by an incredible performance by a troupe of acrobatic gymnasts from Africa), plus a magic and illusion show which is an amazing full-stage production.
Music is the focus on a number of evenings including a classical piano concert where the star is supported by the string quartet, the trio from Paraguay, and a troupe of operatic singers. On another evening the focus is opera where many world-famous operatic songs are performed by an excellent tenor and a soprano while being backed up by the ship's truly superb dancers and the string quartet. A highlight of the cruise was the Celtic Spirit show where incredible music and dancing is enhanced by magic and acrobatics.
The final show of the cruise was a wonderful musical journey featuring all of the week's stars and supporting performers ending with a truly wonderful finale. Every performance was awarded well deserved standing ovations by the audience and overall our evenings in the main theatre were enormously entertaining and enjoyable.
The ships entertainment staff is composed of ten individuals who apparently work from early in the morning until very late at night. They host the daily morning walk, aerobics, stretching, tournaments and dance lessons on the Pool Deck, and in the evening they conduct the various games, dance lessons, and unique often hysterical contests in the lounges.
The group on the Orchestra is full of life and their ability to speak at least four languages only adds to the enjoyment of their zany antics in the lounges and in the main theatre before the evening shows. They are an exceptional group who obviously love working together and they truly work their butts off to make the cruise as enjoyable as possible for passengers who come from all over the world to sail with them.
THE POOL DECK
If you are like most cruisers you will probably spend a great deal of time on the Pool Deck when you sail in the Caribbean. On the Orchestra this area is extraordinarily large and includes a number of features that are truly unique.
For starters, on the end of the deck closest to the buffet restaurant the outer sections of both sides of the deck are furnished with large wicker tables and chairs. These areas are protected from the sun by the sunning and jogging deck above and are perfect for your lunch or just relaxing and people-watching with friends. The center of the deck features the pools, along with two elevated sun decks with recliners and the Jacuzzis. There are plenty of recliners available and one much appreciated feature of them is a moveable sun visor that is attached to the end closest to where you place your head. Towels are distributed at one end of the deck and there are plenty of very unobtrusive and pleasant drink waitresses who continually walk the deck taking orders and emptying ash trays.
Since many people bring their lunch out to the tables there are busboys with rolling carts who promptly clear the tables. Many of these fellows were from Italy and it was not unusual to see them stop and chat with travelers from their homeland and even burst into song with the mothers, fathers, and grandparents who were traveling together.
The far end of the pool deck includes another pool and a large expansive area with more recliners. There is also a large multi-function wood floor which the entertainment staff uses for the morning programs, dance lessons, and other related activities during the day. Additional pool chairs and smaller bars are located on other higher decks of the ship and while walking space can be a bit tight at times, and the recliners are positioned a bit too close to one another, it is a very lively deck that was always busy during our cruise.
The main feature of the pool deck is the El Sombrero Pool Bar. Situated mid-ship, this is where you can get a tropical drink or a bucket of beer, or order a latte, cappuccino or an espresso. With movies under the stars being shown on most nights, this bar remains open quite late into the evening.
The highlight of this bar is the gelato station where you can chill out during the day with as many as sixteen different flavors of genuine, homemade, Italian Gelato. Served with the traditional tiny spoon, this is the perfect snack before retiring for the evening and if you are a big fan of superb gelato you will find yourself drawn to this location many times during the day. Truly a stroke of locational genius, the mouth-watering gelato is available in a small cup for $ 1.50 or in a large cup or large cone for only $ 2.00. Once again, whether you order a drink, coffee, or gelato the price that you see is what you pay with no 15% automatic gratuity ever added. SHIPBOARD DEMOGRAPHICS & RELATED ACTIVITIES
MSC's Caribbean cruises are scheduled only in the winter, and between December 20th of this year and April of 2010 the Orchestra will be replaced by the Poesia, their newest and largest ship. If our voyage was a typical one there will be many Europeans onboard who have traveled to Florida for their winter vacation and naturally are sailing with MSC as they do back home. On our cruise, for example, there was a group of 400 Italians traveling together along with many passengers from Spain, Portugal, Germany, France, and a large contingent of French Canadians.
Because of the international composition of the passengers and the fact that many of them did not speak a single word of English all of MSC's entertainment staff and onboard hosts are required to speak a minimum of four languages. Announcements, while thankfully kept to an absolute minimum during our cruise, were done in four or five languages. This practice also applies to the evening dance lessons and contests which are conducted in the lounges, as well as the tender announcements which were necessary when the ship anchored off Grand Cayman and their private island. It is interesting to hear so many languages spoken during a week at sea, and MSC does offer Italian lessons, but admittedly it did get a bit tiring towards the end of the cruise.
MSC continues to appeal to families traveling with young children by only charging the nominal government taxes for kids under the age of 17. Obviously, if you can sail for a week and only pay less than $ 100 apiece for your children MSC may have a tremendous amount of appeal to you. This was certainly in evidence during our voyage when there were hundreds of children of all ages and lots of newborns and infants being carried or pushed around in strollers.
MSC appeared to have an exceptional children's program and wonderful onboard facilities. Always very security and safety conscious, MSC requires all children to wear a yellow I.D. wrist band at all times that shows their names and the cabin numbers of their parents. Programs are separated by ages (3 to 6, 7 to 12 and 13 to 18), and there is a large and extremely well-trained staff who do a marvelous job with the kids. The smallest ones seemed to get a great deal of attention and their parade on the pool deck after their face-painting class was one that put a smile on everyone's face as the wee ones made their way by.
MSC'S BEACH ISLAND
MSC's beach island is named Cayo Levantado, and this small, tropical getaway is located in the middle of La Samana Bay just off the coast of the Dominican Republic. Naturally it is necessary to tender ashore and I can report that the early morning distribution of the tender tickets, the calling of the tender numbers, and the entire back-and-forth transportation process ran extremely smoothly throughout the day.
We did discover, however, that MSC does not actually own or lease the island as is typical of the major cruise lines that have their private getaways in the Bahamas. In fact, the island is owned and operated by the government of the Dominican Republic and because of this you will have to pay for your food and drink on the island as opposed to the complimentary lunch time barbeque buffets that are provided by other cruise lines.
As with the other ports of call a number of shore excursions are offered at the island. You can go whale watching in Samana Bay, on a 4 x 4 jeep safari, or you can actually swim with sea lions. Parasailing and a catamaran sail and snorkel are offered or you can head to the mainland for an excursion to the waterfall, caves and tropical mangroves. SUMMARY & CONCLUSIONS
Based on my experience on the Orchestra I believe that at the present time MSC is a good cruise line with the potential to evolve into a very good to excellent one. If I had to rate our cruise from one star to five I would probably give it 3 or 3 ½ stars. There were a lot of positive aspects during our week at sea and this ship does excel in a number of areas. On the other hand there are a number of areas, ranging from the minor to the most critical, where a bit of tweaking or a significant amount of improvement is needed.
Reviews of this ship on the Internet are extremely varied and one can certainly become quite confused when one passenger gives their cruise one star and another person awards the identical cruise five stars. Having carefully observed everything onboard for an entire week in an extremely detailed, diligent, and professional manner, I can say without hesitation that many of the statements and negative comments that are posted on the Internet are either totally inaccurate or presented in an extremely subjective manner.
To lapse into a bit of pure subjectivity for a moment, if you read between the lines of many reviews, and back that up with the actual observation of passenger behavior on the ship, it becomes evident in short order that ones attitude towards the personnel on a cruise ship will set the tone for the type of response that you will get and the level of service that you will receive.
The fact that language barriers exist onboard an MSC ship, or that a staff member is being exposed to a totally new language and unfamiliar culture for the first time, is neither a flaw nor a fault of the individual. It is, on the other hand, a situation, or a circumstance that exists on this European based cruise line and is one which can be handled without any difficulty if the "Ugly American" attitude is left at home where it belongs.
As with any voyage on any cruise line if you go onboard believing that the ship's personnel are basically dirt underneath your fingernails then you will not be satisfied no matter what the staff does for you. On the other hand, if you demonstrate some basic respect for people who come from other countries, work extraordinary long hours, are away from their families for many months at a time, and understand that under circumstances like these that a smile is a universal greeting that is immediately understood by anyone, then you can have an extremely pleasant time. I cannot defend MSC for not doing their homework and adequately or completely preparing for their entry into the Caribbean cruising market, yet at the same time I believe that they are headed in the right direction and that hopefully over time they will make the necessary changes to their overall product.
My objective in writing this review has been to provide you with as much objective, in-depth information so that you can make an educated decision as to whether a cruise on a MSC ship is something for you. As a moderately priced cruise line where a cruise with the kids is an extremely economical way to travel, you can definitely have a very enjoyable time on an MSC ship. The strengths of the ship and the cruise line are readily apparent and based on the information in this review you should be well aware of the shortcomings and how you can make adjustments to overcome any potential problems. Read Less