by A. David Darman
January 4, 2005
I disembarked the MSC Armonia in January 2005 after we sailed seven days from Rio de Janeiro to Salvador and back. For anyone thinking about booking this line, my advice is to do some homework first. As detailed below, I thought this was a horrible cruise, although in fairness to MSC I have heard that the Armonia experience outside of Brazil is not as bad. It could hardly be worse.
I have been on 35 cruises, on Seabourne, Crystal, Orient, HAL, Carnival, Celebrity, RCCL and others. I am knowledgeable and do not consider myself a snob. I have no axe to grind. This was by far the worst cruise I have been on, both in absolute terms and in terms of value.
Since we sailed over the New Year, prices might have been inflated. An inside cabin cost about $300 per day per couple. I can usually get outside cabins on Carnival and RCCL for that price or less. Without regard to price, the food was horrendous. The only breakfast available free from room service is a continental one of bread and coffee. Other room service breakfasts came with a charge. There was also an extra charge for all other room service snacks. The breakfast buffet was scrambled and hard boiled eggs only -- no omelet station -- sometimes accompanied by reheated hot dogs, greasy bacon or unappetizing cold cuts. The fruit was all canned except for the melon; there was only white toast -- forget English muffins or bagels. The juice was like Kool-aid. There was no variety day after day.
The lunch buffet was not much better. It seemed like the food was recycled. The desserts were bad. As Italians, they ought to be ashamed of what they call pizza: It was worse than any improperly cooked frozen pizza I ever tasted (and I was a bachelor for a long time). They served poor quality hotdogs and hamburgers at the poolside grill, and there was no option for a cheeseburger or veggie-burger; nor was there any relish or pickles. Food handlers often were not wearing gloves, so it didn't come as a total surprise when I got sick the last day of the cruise.
Curiously, in the buffet lines and at the grill there are no food trays, so you must carry a large plate and put everything on it, including utensils and drinks. This was quite challenging for even the most dexterous of passengers. Forget about service: The waiters were there to clear the tables, nothing else. My wife and I played cards for four hours one afternoon at a poolside table on deck, and no one ever asked if we wanted a drink. The ice cream bar was closed - I was told it wasn't profitable.
Dinner in the dining room was bad. Service was marginal at best. I attribute the poor service to senior dining room staff, including the manager. An incident that occurred right boarding provided a clue to the level of service. Through no fault of our own, we were not provided with a dining room seating assignment. I called Reception to get one, but I was told (after some delay and a couple of follow-up calls) I would have to go to the dining room to get one. Consequently, I had to wait in line approximately one hour just to get a table assignment. Though service was lackluster, it was nowhere near as bad as the food itself. Pasta was served every day -- which is fine, but with only the identical mundane tomato sauce every day? Breadsticks and rolls were ordinary – there was no bread tray. Soups all tasted the same no matter what they were called. The food was over-salted. The meat was as tough as shoe leather. Fish came without all the scales removed. Some dishes were downright inedible. My tablemates concurred.
The dancers were OK as performers, but the production values of the shows were poor. The costumes, lighting, props and decor were all amateurish. Music in the lounges was very limited and ordinary at best. We like to dance and have a cocktail before dinner, and we couldn't find a decent spot to do so.
There was no functioning library or card room. On the last day, the library was open one hour. It had only a small selection of English paperbacks, probably left behind by passengers, and one Spanish-language Scrabble set.
The cabins were smallish at 144 sq. ft., but had adequate storage space, some of which would have been better devoted to making the uncomfortably tiny shower larger. There was a small refrigerator - good for keeping your own drinks cold, although the price of drinks aboard was reasonable. TV in the rooms advertised pay movies, but they were not operable in any language. There was not much programming at any time, though we did get CNN for a while one day. The cabin attendant provided the best (in fact, the only) decent service.
The shops were only open limited hours, but that was no problem since they didn't have much to offer. I thought the layout of the shops was disorganized. The underutilized casino had a couple of roulette and blackjack tables and a modest number of slot machines. I don't remember a craps table although there was ample space to install one.
The pool was always crowded because on this South American run there were loads of kids...to whom I have no objection. It's just that it was noisy and crowded. The ship had a smallish gym with minimal weight and cable machines. It cost extra to use the steam room and sauna - a first in my experience.
Bad First Impression
Probably the worst part of the cruise was the very first part -- embarkation. We somehow got left off the passenger list. A friendly land agent of MSC (I later learned) who didn't want me to recognize his affiliation told me to go F* myself as we frantically tried to convince MSC staff we had indeed paid for this fiasco. When I complained to MSC management (after boarding and in a detailed written memo), I was told they would get back to me. No apology was forthcoming while we were on board, nor was any explanation given as to why we were not on the passenger list. When I contacted MSC management after the cruise, they told me my complaint memo had been lost, and could I please resubmit it! I did. No apology or explanation was ever given. They just ignored me.
Unless this cruise was an aberration I advise against spending your money with MSC: Caveat emptor.