Summary: On first glances, this is a typical cruise ship - but scratch the surface and you'll find poor service, terrible food and a lack of attention to detail. Not recommended for first time or seasoned cruisers!
Ship exterior: An attractive ship, with sleek lines and a nice profile. My only question remains over the basketball/football court which appears to have been tagged on to the stern of the ship as an afterthought. Looks like a jail cell which could fall overboard in heavy seas and not a pretty sight when returning from day trips. Equally unpleasant when seated in the lounge directly beneath the courts.
Beware that the ships rolls every which way in high seas - however Reception hand out complementary seasick tablets to passengers (but this isn't publicly announced).
Ship interior: The public spaces are simple, clean and uncluttered. The 'less is more' approach has worked well and does not make the passenger feel overwhelmed (or hysterical) from facing excessive, often ridiculous, artworks and mirrors on a daily basis such as on other cruise ships. Christmas decorations were understated, but New Year decorations were childish paper cut outs.
A 114.8 ft-long mid-section was added to increase the ships length before it came into service for MSC - this was noticeable. Some lifts only went as high as Deck 9, leaving you to either walk the additional two decks to the upper decks or to walk the length of the ship to find a lift that would take you up the remaining two decks. Corridors would unexpectedly come to a dead-end, meaning you'd need to walk up the stairs and along, then back down the other side. This was a problem frequently incurred while attempting to get to the restaurants on decks 5 and 6. Very frustrating.
The balcony cabins (referred to as 'suites'), are spacious and well laid out. There was plenty of cupboard space, a good wardrobe, and room under beds for stowing luggage. Balcony cabins benefited from a bathtub with overhead shower. Basic toiletries were provided, but bring your own facecloths. All cabins have hairdryers and safes - although we only found this on the last day as they are so well hidden!
The beds, in typical Italian style, are rock hard. We used every blanket possible to line our mattress, along with the extra bedding off the sofa bed, and yet we still suffered from aching backs each morning. We were also woken by the pool attendants at 6.30am each day as they noisily arranged the deck chairs above our heads (a problem for those with a cabin on Sibelius Deck).
Facilities: The ship provides all the usual facilities - the San Carlo Theatre for shows (beware the seats at the back right/left - you won't see a thing), and the vast but incredibly empty Casino San Remo. Unsurprisingly there's a Cigar Room for the heavy European smokers and numerous bars, one of which is made out to be an Irish Pub, but I couldn't spot the Irish quirks that make a pub 'Irish'. The Library holds a few battered hand-me-down books, a limited number of which were in English. There is also an ice cream parlour but don't get too excited as it wasn't open once on our cruise (although perhaps we missed the one and only opening time?!).
The pool area is pretty standard, with deck chairs all around and a few spa pools in the middle of the pool complex. The deck games you'd expect to find here were a huge disappointment. There was one rusty old table tennis table for which you had to collect ping pong balls from the Capri Bar - or was that Cafe del Mare - or was that Reception? The crew always treated me as if I'd demanded the earth whenever I attempted to track down the elusive ping pong ball. In the end, we gave up. Obtaining mini golf clubs/balls was no easier but we finally managed to secure them after leaving a eu10 deposit at Reception. Shame we couldn't have a scorecard and pencil - perhaps that costs another eu10?
All in all, be prepared to entertain yourselves as the ship is certainly unwilling to do it.
Embarkation: Our MSC arranged flight was delayed, meaning we arrived at about the time the ship was meant to be departing. Hence, we experienced absolutely no queues (and next to no crew). The ship eventually left port a good three to four hours late.
Passengers: Fellow passengers on our cruise were mainly families (quite often with young children) from the European nations. There were also a smattering of older passengers from Britain and the US. Inevitably, the ship is tailored towards the Europeans, so an open mind is absolutely necessary. Announcements are made in numerous languages - but only when deemed necessary, the entertainment is bland, and smoking really is permitted everywhere (the token 'no smoking' sections were laughable). Also beware that your fellow European passengers on a whole will not waste time queuing or holding open doors.
Crew/Service staff: To put it simply, the service experienced was absolutely disgusting and it started the second we got on board. We were escorted to our cabin by a disgruntled crew member, who proceeded to moan about the passengers to another crew member while in the lift with us. She then took off at a rate of knots in what appeared to be a vain attempt to lose us in the corridors. While this 'escort' service is a lovely touch, I would have preferred to have found my own way to our cabin.
Service staff in the bars were stressed and incredibly slow. Expect to wait at least 20 minutes before attracting the attention of a waiter to take your order. A word of warning - check your receipt to ensure you're getting what you paid for. My husband ordered a large ginger beer only to be given a small bottle at the higher price. Their excuse? They ran out of large bottles. Upon pointing out the overcharge they grudgingly agreed to give us another small bottle for free.
The captain made typical appearances at the cocktail parties, and seemed fairly jovial. However, he let himself down by not informing passengers as to why, on a sea day, the ship had changed course and was anchored off shore of some unknown island in the Mediterranean while a helicopter took over ten attempts to land on the pool deck (all outside areas being out of bounds in the meantime).
Cabin attendant: Our cabin attendant briefly made an appearance and mumbled her name, never to be seen again. We'd heard rumours that other passengers were receiving ice in their rooms but our bucket remained empty for the entire cruise. Soap was also a rare commodity and we were only given a new bar once our current one had become a see-through scrap of nothingness. Fresh fruit was also placed in our cabin on arrival, but closer inspection showed it had seen better days. Despite the mould growing on the fruit, our attendant would not remove it until I threw the entire lot in the bin. It seems she took offence to this action, and refused to provide new fruit until half way through our cruise - despite being told that fruit would be provided daily in cabins.
Restaurant staff & cuisine: We thought we'd seen the worst of it, but then we went to dinner in the Il Covo restaurant. Our waiter was surly and rude, and only seemed to speak/understand English when the mood took him. I was frequently handed a shabby menu in German (no fancy menus for this ship - only a horrible thing printed on cardboard) and was served the wrong dish on numerous occasions. Meals were cold, over cooked, tasteless and uninspired. The pasta dish, from which I expected great things, was doused in salt to make up for lack of flavour, and the steak offered every night was tough and never served with vegetables or sauce. Desserts were no better, being insipid and dull. In fact, the only creative aspect of the cuisine was the fancy name given to an ordinary sponge cake each evening. Coffee was never once offered, and it was a struggle to get water at the best of times. Needless to say, the Maitre d' only made one appearance and on the last evening only schmoozed with the Europeans who had racked up extensive alcohol bills.
Unfortunately the buffet grill is not open for dinner; hence you are forced to eat every evening meal in the main restaurant. The Christmas menu was the same as every other night, and by New Years Eve we were so disheartened that we bought our own food ashore and ate it in our cabin. We knew we hadn't missed anything special though, as the same meals turn up in the grill the next day for lunch.
One good aspect of MSC is that you are allowed to bring onboard your own food and alcohol. I recommend you make the most of this lenient policy otherwise you'll be facing weight loss by the end of your cruise - an absolute sin on any cruise ship!
Excursions: After spending a day at sea before our first port of call, we decided not to partake in any optional excursion offered by MSC. It was the best decision we ever made and actually ended up saving eu400 by finding our own way round the main sights. We never experienced any queues disembarking.
Disembarkation: Appeared to be organised but in reality was a complete shambles. It was the only time we arrived in port early, with the first group of passengers being disembarked before the arrival time advertised in the brochure. From what we could tell, announcements were made in multiple languages for all groups being disembarked except for our own. Ours was conveniently read out in Italian, which I do not speak, but in no other language. We subsequently missed our transfer to the airport, and subsequently faced a barrage of verbal abuse from the five reception members who insisted they had made the announcement in English. Numerous other English speaking passengers also missed this mystery announcement. We were hustled off the ship at a rate of knots and then told, once in the arrivals hall at the port, that the next shuttle would be here in an hour. Staring at the excited faces of the embarking passengers, I only felt joy at being off the ship and had an overwhelming desire to tell them all to run for the hills.Other points:
- The lifeboat drill was incredibly laid back. Many passengers stayed in their cabins and no roll call was taken.
- Keep an eye on your valuables. This is the first ship I have come across where multiple thefts have occurred (digital cameras, leather jackets etc) - and the crew just aren't interested.
- If you want a questionnaire, then you may have to request one at Reception. None were provided in our cabin despite being told they would be.
- TV channels cater for all nationalities, so there is only one English Channel (BBC World) and the odd, incredibly old, movie (which may or may not be in English).
- If you are travelling with or are disabled, it may pay to check your transfers to/from the ship are for all your party. We heard of one instance where a taxi was arranged for one disabled person plus four adults, but when it eventually arrived it could only take one disabled person and three adults. The remaining party member had to pay for his own taxi to take himself and their luggage to the airport.
- Flights arranged through MSC are not at the best of times (early mornings and late evenings) and are often indirect. No tours are offered to those with late evening flights - but you are transported to the airport 6-8 hours before your flight just in case!