(4:45 p.m. EDT) -- Though Geneva, Switzerland-based Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC) has long had divisions operating cargo carriers (it has the world's largest fleet by capacity) and even vintage cruise ships (remember the Achille Lauro?), the company's debut into contemporary cruising began about 10 years ago. That's when MSC Cruises launched its first new-build, MSC Lirica, beginning a modern quest to become the line with the industry's youngest fleet. The 3,502-passenger MSC Divina, which debuted this week, is the ninth MSC new-build to launch in the last decade. (The line operates an additional three ships that were originally built for other outfits.)
As MSC Cruises has expanded, its approach to building ships has changed dramatically. In a chat with CEO Pierfrancesco Vago aboard Divina, we learned that MSC's execs, initially inexperienced in the world of designing cruise ships, essentially let the line's now-longtime shipyard in St. Nazaire, France, have a heavy hand with its first pair, MSC Lirica (2003) and MSC Opera (2004). (Lirica and Opera were actually sisters to two ships previously built by the yard -- MSC later bought those sisters and renamed them Armonia and Sinfonia.)
Executives had a little more input when it came to creating the Musica-class quartet, the first of which, MSC Musica, debuted in 2006.
But it wasn't until 2008's MSC Fantasia that MSC's ship-building team was able to really find its voice. Fantasia and its two sisters, MSC Splendida (2009) and Divina, boast what have become MSC signatures: the exclusive Yacht Club, a small-ship-within-a-big-ship concept featuring cabins clustered around a private restaurant, bar and deck; superb, dynamic entertainment offerings; a Formula One simulator; a massive sun deck; and an elegant spa.
Still, outside of its core European audience, as well as regional passenger bases sourced when ships are stationed in South America, the Middle East and South Africa, MSC is little known to English-speaking passengers. That, says Rick Sasso, the line's U.S. head, will change. The cruise line is setting its sights now on North America. It just announced that it will send Divina, its newest and splashiest offering, to Miami for the 2013/2014 winter Caribbean season; it will sail alternating seven-night Eastern and Western Caribbean itineraries.
Having traveled on both Divina and Fantasia, I've come to love their sleek, European designs and the passenger mix that blends cruisers from Italy, Germany, Spain and France -- with a sprinkling of Brits and Americans, of course. MSC is not for everyone, but if you enjoy traveling in Europe, Divina and company will appeal.
Take a look at our photos from our cruise on MSC Divina.
--by Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor in Chief