MSC Cruises' newest ship, the 4,475-passenger MSC Meraviglia, launched earlier this month in a glittering ceremony in Le Havre, France.
The first ship in a brand-new class is always exciting, but this was especially so, as Meraviglia -- as well as being the biggest ship to launch this year -- is also the largest ever constructed by a European cruise line.
The 171,598-ton, 19-deck ship is officially the fourth biggest in the world, and also marks the start of an unprecedented ship building program worth almost nine billion euros over 10 years.
We got onboard a few days ahead of the ceremony on June 2 and got an initial feel, and were particularly taken by how much thought and effort had gone into its creation. (Read our initial thoughts: Live from MSC Meraviglia: 5 Reasons You Should Be Excited About MSC's Newest Cruise Ship.)
That was not a "proper" sailing with fee-paying passengers onboard, however. In particular, we wanted to experience what the ship is like when it's sailing completely full. Luckily, we were able to get back onboard last week, sailing from Naples to Marseille.
Here are five hits and a couple of misses from our week-long sailing.
We fell in love with the Aurea Spa -- again and again and again. Not just because of the lovely Balinese masseuses (who treat you like a VIP every time you enter), nor the fact that it is huge (20 treatment rooms) or even for the wide range of treatments. Our love stemmed from the Thermal Suite, which takes the title for best at sea (in our view). It boasts two thalassotherapy pools, two steam rooms (dark, which we have never experienced; and light); two saunas (one gentle, one classic); a salt room; two aromatherapy rooms and two relaxation rooms and a snow grotto -- which is like a freezer and aids circulation (apparently); plus numerous rain showers. It was sheer bliss, and hard to not to keep going back to. The Thermal Suite prices are 40 euros per day (55 euros per couple), and 120 euros weekly (165 per couple).
Cirque du Soleil – Viaggio.
One of two shows created exclusively for Meraviglia, the performance is a riot of color, sound, craziness and pure unalloyed joy. Viaggio is nominally about an artist searching for his muse, but that's just a vague plot device to hang a crazy 40-minute show, which includes (in no particular order): flying bicycles, performers walking along the LED screens, juggling, extraordinary acrobatics including an edge-of-your-seat ladder balancing sequence and some of the best costumes we've ever seen in a show. A real triumph, and we'd have been happy for it to last twice as long. Everyone from youngsters up loved this show.
MSC has upped the game when it comes to food onboard, with link ups with celebrity chefs and well-known brands, as well as the introduction of two brand-new restaurants: Teppanyaki and Butcher's Cut. Both of these for-fee specialty restaurants are outstanding, and you'd expect quality. Go beyond these, in the several main dining rooms -- and even the Marketplace Buffet -- and the quality of the food is surprisingly high. It helps that a lot is made fresh, including bread, pastries, pizza bases, pasta and mozzarella, and you can really tell. The only bum note is Ristorante Italiano (see below).
It's an oft-quoted truth that your hardware can be the best in the world, but it means nothing without good service. Once again, MSC has upped their game in an area where they were not recognized as best in class. We found almost without exception that service in all areas, whether it was our cabin steward who went out of his way to do an express clean on our clothes; the chef in the buffet who remembered our daily order; the sommelier who remembered the wine we liked; and the waiter in the pre-Cirque show who went out of his way to find an alternative main course for us.
We use Royal Caribbean's Oasis-class ships as our yardstick here (which in our view is the finest at sea), and this is on par -- or even better. The partnership with LEGO is frankly a masterstroke, meaning the whole kids' club is LEGO-themed and full of bricks and primary colors, as well as a cute display of LEGO characters at the entrance to the whole complex. Ditto, the link up with Chicco, the Italian baby specialist, which sponsors the baby room. But on top of this, there is an experimental lab where children get to play with a 3D printer, amongst other cool things, an interactive family room, a games arcade and a VR Center plus the Sportplex games court.
Embarkation is never easy on any ship, especially on a mega ship. But getting on Meraviglia was more like an endurance test: unhelpful ground staff, crowds of passengers with no concept of a queue or embarkation priority times, a tiny check in area and an endless wait for it to open, despite the ship having arrived in port hours earlier. It wasn't the best first impression.
Cirque du Soleil – Sonor.
The second exclusive show for Meraviglia from the Cirque team explores sound. The plot (and we use that in the loosest sense) involves an evil person who wants to "steal" sound from the world. He tries this in a variety of ways, explored on stage, but the main problem is there is no counterpart to this, there's no light, or indeed levity. What you get is a series of unconnected scenes which are occasionally diverting, but there's really nothing to draw you in. The nadir of the performance is a 10-minute interlude by a human beatbox. But hey -- this is just a personal view -- make sure you check it out for yourself, then decide -- you might love it!
Eataly Ristorante Italiano.
There are two branches of Eataly onboard. One is the marketplace, with lovely salads and cured meats, as well as produce for sale; this one is outstanding. The other one, this restaurant, is not. The setting and décor is deeply uninspiring -- plain and unexciting, and so dark. It's odd, it doesn't know what it wants to be: a hearty trattoria or an upmarket Italian restaurant, and ends up falling somewhere in between. It's also overpriced with mains north of 18 euros and a total bill of 129 euros for a three course meal for two with wine.
Overall, MSC Meraviglia works really well. It takes the best of the existing ships, throwing in a few elements from other lines and sprinkling it all with a MSC Cruises feel -- to great effect.
--By Adam Coulter, Managing Editor, U.K.