We are 55 and 60 years old, and have traveled extensively. We took the westbound transatlantic crossing of the Opera in November 2004, starting in Genoa, Italy and ending in Ft. Lauderdale. This was our seventh cruise together.
If you have a specific idea of what cruising should be, with a thousand detailed requirements, you will not enjoy this ship. It does not offer the same experience as Carnival, Royal Caribbean or Norwegian and probably never will. If, on the other hand, you find the interplay of cultures fascinating, and find differences stimulating, you'll have a wonderful time.
MSC is an Italian company. It is the second-largest cargo line in the world and is relatively new to the cruise market, so it offers some good values.
At least half the passengers on our crossing were Europeans, and the blessedly few PA announcements were in English, German, Italian, French and Spanish. Service personnel must function in most of these languages. Some do this better than others, but all seemed pleasant and patient.
The new MSC Opera is a sleek greyhound. It was designed for the luxury trade before the company decided to pursue the budget end of the market. The interiors are quietly elegant in dark blues, smoky plums, corals and creams. There's no art in particular, but lighting fixtures are designed like big sculptures. The ship lacks glass-sided elevators, high atriums and Vegas-style metallic glitz, but makes up for it by being really comfortable and human-scaled like a good European hotel. It has lots of small places to settle in, lots of glass and views of the sea.
The top deck has two pools and is very lively. (There is often an excitable host screaming in several languages, and running incomprehensible games and contests with enthusiastic passengers, as Euro-pop blares on the speakers.) If you want quiet, there are lounge chairs on the Boat Deck most days and also at the stern of many of the cabin decks.
We had an inside cabin. It was not the largest we've been in, but the mirror layout was the best we've seen, giving more light and sense of space than we expected. The bathroom was equally well-planned, and generously sized with an excellent shower. Water heat and pressure were both good.
Food and Restaurants
The smaller of the two restaurants, L'approdo, is a jewel box of red and pink. The larger restaurant, La Caravella, is very sophisticated in green, cream and yellow, with lots of columns and divisions so it seems more intimate than its size would indicate. A cafeteria on the top deck provides indoor and outdoor seating.
The Opera's northern Italian cuisine was extraordinarily good. We were aboard for 17 days and they didn't miss on a pasta or risotto once; good pizza, superb homemade ice cream, excellent bread, good soup. We found the meat entrees a little lacking but others singled them out as exceptional. You could always get a grilled sirloin or chicken if you didn't like the chef's entrees.
The cakes were of the baba au rhum variety -- very airy and not much chocolate, but plenty of variety. There were lots of salads and fruit, and fresh fruit was available in the rooms.
The Italian waiters joke a little too much at first and aren't always successful in their attempts to charm you. On the whole they are very good. When I expressed a preference for iced tea and breadsticks rather than rolls, I found them waiting every night. Luigi was an excellent waiter, Mario and Carlo excellent maitre d's (and Sylvie was a superb cabin steward).
MSC has a policy that you don't have to tip if you don't want to. This is churlish -- the staff deserves it, they work hard. We followed the policy we have always followed. We ignored management's guidelines and tipped what we wanted to and felt was appropriate.
Best and Worst Aspects of the Opera
The intimacy and sheer livability of the ship were the main virtues for us. But one of the most civilized things is that they allow you to get duty free liquor and open and consume it in your room. They don't seal it for the voyage so you'll order more from the bars -- like many other lines do.
There are two really bad things about the ship:
1)Smoking. Many Europeans smoke like chimneys. And seemingly they aren't even aware it might hurt others. Fortunately smoking is not allowed in the restaurants, but the outdoor patio area was rendered unusable for non-smokers. This was a big disappointment to us, but didn't ruin the cruise. We don't go to the lounges at night (we like to get up for the dawn), but we heard there were fights in the lounges when people ignored the no-smoking designations. And there's nothing like being in a jammed corridor trying to exit the ship in a port and having someone light up.
Some Americans complained to the offenders, but many of the smokers didn't speak English, so it was futile. We never saw staff do anything to enforce the no-smoking areas. I am asthmatic and suffer from smoke, but I was able to get away from it. Judge for yourself whether it makes a difference to you.
2)Management. The operation of the ship was charming but utterly chaotic -- generally inefficient and sometimes maddeningly so, and in odd ways. The loading of the ship in Genoa, for example, was the most efficient I have ever seen. You checked in, reserved your dining table, and booked your shore excursions in one very smooth line. But once on board, both the purser's and excursion desks were uninformed and uncoordinated.
For example, we tried to book a transfer from the dock to Ft. Lauderdale Airport. Reception said Shore Excursions handled that, Shore Excursions said Reception handled it; they bounced us back and forth, called each other and yelled into the phone. We eventually got to the airport and made our flight, but a little more coordination would have worked wonders.
Similarly the 24 hour Internet service broke down periodically because the satellite gave them problems. Nobody had any idea when it would be fixed. There is a technician on board but service remained unreliable.
Our two valiant American hostesses, Amanda and Vanessa, bravely took a barrage of passenger criticism, justified and otherwise, and relayed the complaints to management. Often the response from the bridge was an automatic "no," but then the problem would be mysteriously solved 24 hours later.
The Americans on this positioning cruise were largely retired, many from Florida. They are very experienced budget cruisers -- they have taken every line and have fixed expectations about what they want from a cruise. When they don't get what they are used to from Carnival, Royal Caribbean, etc., they don't perceive this European ship as different, they perceive it as WRONG! This makes some of them very hostile.
For example, there are only small cups of ice water on a hot day -- not spigots of iced tea or fruit juice like on other ships. There is iced tea but only in the dining rooms -- not in the cafeteria or outdoor patio. This made a lot of people hostile. (Until management gets around to this one, bring a tall insulated mug and make your own).
We were told there is little music for ballroom dancing at night -- only disco (I guess their Mediterranean cruises have more young people; Europeans have longer vacations than us and the American passengers skewed older).
There are movies on the TV but they are dubbed in many languages, and the English-language originals are often not on at convenient times, nor are the schedules reliable. "Welcome to Mooseport" loses something when dubbed in German.
Some passengers just don't like being around so many people they can't talk to, and grow impatient when instructions have to be translated. Also, some cultures are trained to get on line, while others just crowd in, which makes for conflict. If management would put rope lines in front of the reception counter, that might defuse a lot of bad feeling.
We read some hostile reviews of this ship and its sister ship, the Lirica, before we booked this, but we must say we enjoyed the experience thoroughly and found it a phenomenal value. You just have to know what you are getting in to.
The shops are very tasteful and expensive, which made no sense. The shops were one aspect of the ship not recalibrated for budget cruising. The stock was entirely for the European market, the wrong weight clothing, and not even in American sizes. They didn't sell bottles of aspirin or Tylenol, but did sell several kinds of expensive anti-cellulite cream. Considering the average age and needs of Caribbean cruisers, this is pretty odd. Also, one lone bottle of SPF sun block shared shelf space with plentiful supplies of old-fashioned tanning butter.
If they sold some insulated mugs with the ship's logo, they'd clean up and stop the no-iced-tea hostility, but they are not yet that sensible. The $350 sweaters didn't sell, even at 50% off. When the temperature outside went to 90 degrees, people wanted tee shirts. They only had a few, and they were expensive and for sale only in the liquor store! A simple $29 item in the jewelry shop would have sold out. But they didn't have anything in that category.
The stops on our crossing were: Barcelona, Casablanca, Funchal, Barbados, Antigua, Tortola, St. Maarten, and Nassau. Excursions were generally well run. Remember to bring euros for Barcelona and Funchal (not all the Americans on board did). The ship charges 3 percent to change money (and to cash travelers' checks!).
The full-day excursion to Marrakesh from Casablanca, which includes a four hour bus trip both ways, is exhausting but worth it! In Madeira, we found riding a wicker basket down a mountain in Funchal is terrifying without much thrill. They don't tell you you're riding down a HIGHWAY with trucks coming at you and you're being steered by two guys with string. Take a cab to the top of the cable car instead. Also, Tortola is the most beautiful place I ever saw in the Caribbean.
A note on luggage: Our luggage was lost between Paris and Genoa. The idea of a 17-day cruise with no luggage was really frightening, but it was found and delivered to our hotel at midnight the night before we departed. We met people whose luggage was lost connecting from Rome, Frankfurt and London. Some bags caught up with the ship before we left, some joined us at our first stop in Barcelona, some never caught up at all. Since the art of transferring baggage seems to have been lost, travel insurance is a good idea, at least giving you some money for replacement clothing. And pack your carry-on bags carefully in case your big suitcases go AWOL.
Hope for the Future
MSC has hired management from American cruise lines to explain American cruise culture to them, so improvement should be swift. They are really trying hard. But I don't expect they'll ever be "plain vanilla." If you like, by all means give them a try, but only if you understand it's going to be different, and that's not a bad thing.