(6:15 p.m. EDT) -- We're just back from a week in the Middle East aboard MSC Cruises' newest vessel, the 205,700-ton MSC World Europa.
An entirely new design of ship for MSC Cruises, it is also the first in the fleet to be powered by Liquefied Natural Gas.
We hopped aboard in Doha, Qatar for a look at this new and unique ship -- and found a lot to like about MSC Cruises' new direction in shipbuilding.
Embarking MSC World Europa in Doha, we sailed a fascinating itinerary calling on Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Sir Bani Yas Island, and Dammam, Saudi Arabia (more in-depth coverage of the ports of our itinerary can be found here).
But equally fascinating was MSC Cruises' newest and largest ship to date, which is full of superlatives. It is 1,093 feet long and 154 feet wide. It has 23 passenger lifts, including four hidden panoramic elevators. It has seven pools and 13 hot tubs, and 413,000 square feet of public rooms spread across its 16 passenger decks.
Yet as big as it is, MSC World Europa remains cozy and comfortable. Rather than offering cavernous spaces, MSC has decided to instead focus on smaller venues that hold a few hundred passengers, or fewer. It has segmented its main dining rooms into four areas with their own unique décor. And it has taken some functionality -- like booking shore excursions -- into the digital world with its MSC for Me app.
It's a big ship, absolutely -- and it is filled with plenty of big ship fun. But it's also one of the most oddly approachable big ships we've sailed on in recent memory.
Throughout my week aboard MSC World Europa, one thing that consistently surprised -- and impressed -- was that the ship held passengers well. Despite being nearly 6,000 passengers full at the time of my sailing (out of a capacity of 6,762), there was always plenty of space to spread out. In fact, some bars and lounges were downright empty, while others were hopping.
Adding to the excellent passenger flow onboard were the prevalence of outdoor spaces that have been cleverly added to certain bars and lounges on Deck 8. The Fizz Champagne Bar, Raj Polo Tea House, Elixir Mixology Bar, and the cigar-and-scotch-heavy Malt Lounge all offer both indoor and outdoor seating. You'd never know it unless you physically entered these bars: unlike other ships, this exterior partition is not part of a wrap-around Promenade Deck, but rather an open deck space carved out between the ship's lifeboats that is otherwise inaccessible.
That, coupled with a three-story atrium promenade that runs amidships inside, helps to disperse people. At full capacity, the ship will likely feel much busier, but those extra people can probably be absorbed by the bars and lounges that, on my sailing, vacillated between full and empty.
MSC World Europa has a sprawling MSC Aurea Spa complex located on Deck 8 forward that offers some substantial improvements over past ship designs. It has a thermal suite complex that passengers can purchase access to that offers a hydrotherapy pool, heated ceramic loungers, and several sauna and steam room combinations. There's also lesser-seen features like a Kniepp walk, which offers bathers the opportunity to walk between hot and cold basins of water in order to promote better blood flow and immune system strength.
It's an excellent way to continue relaxing after a treatment. And the treatments at the MSC Aurea Spa do not disappoint. I had the hands-down best Balinese massage ever thanks to spa therapist Phyllis, who seemed to constantly know how much pressure to use and who made the scheduled 50 minutes melt away. Ship massages are generally pretty gentle affairs; this was a proper massage that rivaled those I've had at land-based spas. I'm normally one to only go to the spa once per cruise, if that; I literally left the facility and immediately booked a Hot Lava Stone massage for later in the week. It's your vacation; why not indulge?
Just outside the MSC Aurea Spa is a juice bar that proved to be the perfect complement to my treatments. Plus, these fruit smoothies and detox drinks are included as part of the premium drink package.
Onboard MSC World Europa, passengers will find four of the line's trademark specialty dining venues: Kaito Sushi, Kaito Teppanyaki, the Butcher's Cut steakhouse, and the Mexican-inspired Hola! Tacos and Cantina.
I dined at Butcher's Cut and found it exactly as it has been on other ships: consistently good, and well-worth the price for a classic American steakhouse experience.
The restaurants that really blew me away, though, were the ship's newest additions.
La Pescaderia is all about seafood. Located on Deck 8 aft in the World Promenade, it offers indoor and outdoor seating and even has a cool "Grab and Go" window for fish and chips on the run. Fish selections are made à la carte, and are served fresh: you pick the fish, they take it off the ice where it has been chilling and grill it up. But it's the starters -- everything from Greek Salad to Fritto Misto to Moussaka -- that really tipped the experience over the edge for me.
Another winner was The Chef's Garden Kitchen. This restaurant developed in conjunction with Chef Niklas Ekstedt uses micro-greens grown right onboard to create dishes that are fresh and delicious. A dining experience runs 68 Euros per person, but it's worth the price of admission. I had the beef tartare I've ever had outside of Hapag-Lloyd Cruises' five-star Europa 2, which still offers the best tartare I've ever eaten. My main course -- roasted lamb, confit breast, white asparagus and smoked celeriac -- was sinful in its deliciousness. It ranks as one of the best meals I've had on land or sea.
But paying for meals aboard MSC World Europa isn't necessary: food in the main dining room was solid, and selections in the Il Mercato Buffet on Deck 18 (and its sister-venue one deck up) were varied enough that I always found something I enjoyed. One of my favorite spots, curiously, ended up being the aptly-named "Pizza & Burger" venue on Deck 6. Decorated like a 1980's American arcade, this fast-food joint offers beef and chicken burgers, pizza, hot dogs, fries, and all the usual accompaniments. The chicken burger was solid; I found myself going back there more times than I care to admit for a little "snack".
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Royal Caribbean must be flattered indeed with the design of the aft-portion of MSC World Europa. Much has been made about remarkable similarities to Royal Caribbean's Oasis-class ships, with MSC World Europa featuring a split-hull design rising from Deck 8 up to Deck 20 for the last couple hundred feet of the stern. The ship even has its own dry slide, the Venom Drop at The Spiral, which looks like The Ultimate Abyss slide found on some Oasis-class ships like Wonder of the Seas, except that the entry is a snake's head instead of a menacing fish.
But that's where the similarities end. Rather than the raucous promenade found aboard the Oasis-class ships, the World Promenade -- as it is known aboard MSC World Europa -- is an oasis of calm, filled with aft-facing seating options overlooking the ship's wake and bookended by some high-end retail, two panoramic glass elevators, and several bars, lounges and specialty restaurants -- the latter of which offer both indoor and outdoor seating to take advantage of cool sea breezes.
I expected to dislike this area and was surprised to find myself gravitating to it each evening for sailaway, or the odd nightcap outdoors. While MSC may have taken inspiration from the design of the Oasis class ships in more ways than one, the cruise line has done a good job at putting their own stamp on this outdoor area.
I have to admit, I tend to gravitate towards MSC Cruises' smaller ships, like MSC Divina or the even-smaller MSC Poesia. They're good, solid classes of ship, though they do lack the whiz-bang features of the line's newer, larger ships, like MSC Seaside and MSC Meraviglia.
MSC has more fun in store for cruisers in the future: MSC Euribia, a brand-new Meraviglia Plus-class ship, will set sail this summer. And in 2025, MSC will introduce MSC World Europa's sister ship, MSC World America, which will make its debut Stateside.
Except for some small quibbles here and there -- the public bathrooms aboard MSC World Europa are, for example, woefully small, and the lack of an aft stairtower makes for some pretty long treks back and forth from the midship elevator banks -- MSC got the design of MSC World Europa spot-on. It's a big, bold, busy ship that always seems to have a quiet spot onboard. It's staffed by an excellent crew that are friendly, proficient and prompt. And its food and beverage offerings are vastly improved from past sailings on other ships in the fleet.
MSC World Europa is a new era in big-ship cruising for MSC. The ship will soon depart the Middle East and head for its first cruise season in the Mediterranean, where the real test of the vessel begins: with six embarkation ports and passengers coming and going at all times, the Med is the "proving ground" for crews and ship designers alike. We feel confident the ship will prove to be as successful there as it has in the Middle East.