The Line in a Nutshell
MSC is "the other Italian cruise line" (after more established Costa) that would really, really like to join the front ranks of the cruise business. Toward that end, it's invested gazillions in a new megaship fleet that's the youngest in the cruise biz, affording a European-style cruise experience and good prices to boot. All it needs to do is polish up its delivery and it'll be good to go. Sails to: Caribbean, New England/Canada (plus Europe, South America).
Based in Italy, where it was born as an adjunct of Mediterranean Shipping Company (the world's second-largest container-shipping operation), MSC is all about "Italian style": Italian menus, lots of Italians (and other Europeans) on board, European-style entertainment, and a laid-back, nearly laissez-faire attitude. Its large, modern ships leaven their generally contemporary cruise experience with elements of what cruising was like in the distant and not-so-distant past, when it was more about interacting with other passengers than riding a surfing simulator or playing glorified video games. The line attempts to cater to a mostly American audience when it operates in the North American market, and primarily to Europeans when it's in Europe -- a balancing act that its staff hasn't really mastered yet.
The typical age range is mid-40s and up, and while MSC's European itineraries tend to carry 85% European and 15% "other" (including North Americans), Caribbean itineraries are almost exactly reversed, with Americans dominating. Though the line doesn't currently carry as many kids in the Caribbean as it does in Europe, expect that to change as their "kids travel free" policy for children 11 and younger becomes better known in the U.S. To accommodate the cultural mix, announcements in the Caribbean are made in English and Italian (in that order) and sometimes Spanish, French, and German as well, though they attempt to keep to a "quiet ship" policy as much as possible.
MSC Cruises came into being in 1990 as the cruise wing of Mediterranean Shipping Company, one of the world's largest container-shipping operations. Originally concentrating on the European market, the line began making overtures to U.S. passengers after buying the "Big Red Boat" Atlantic from defunct Premier Cruises in 1998 and setting her off on 11-night Caribbean cruises. It was in 2003, however, that the line really began its hard sell to the English-speaking world, and it's been in the midst of a massive, sustained building program ever since, introducing so many new ships in recent years that, by fall 2008, it could boast the youngest fleet at sea.
MSC still concentrates on the European market but dips its toes into the U.S. market each winter, sailing one or two ships on Caribbean routes out of South Florida. Beginning in late 2010, it also offers a series of New England/Canada cruises from New York.
In keeping with the line's intention of providing an international cruise experience, dining is generally traditional. Dining service has been MSC's main problem for years, and still needs to improve if the line ever expects to compete effectively with the American mainstream lines.
The tug of war between Italian, American, and "other" traditions plays itself out in both positive and negative ways. On the positive (and surprising) side, MSC is the only line on which we've noticed a kosher category on the wine list -- and the only line we've been on where poppy-seed bagels are a staple at the buffet. (On every other line, it's plain bagels, period.) On the annoying side, you may have to specially request coffee in the dining room after meals (only Americans do this, several Italian staffmembers told us), and you may be asked to order your dessert selection at the same time you make your full meal request (just tell them you haven't decided yet, if you haven't).
Traditional -- All of the line's modern midsize and mega-size ships have two formal dining rooms apiece, serving open-seating breakfast and lunch. Dinner is served in two fixed seatings, with an emphasis on Italian cuisine. Six-course lunches include appetizers such as smoked salmon tartare, tomatoes stuffed with tuna mousse, and barbecued chicken wings; a soup of the day; a choice of salads; pasta selections such as ravioli, risotto with pears and Bel Paese cheese, and traditional spaghetti; and main courses that might include pan-roasted chicken breast in a Riesling wine sauce, sliced sirloin, Caribbean red snapper filet, frittata with zucchini and Swiss cheese, or a plain old turkey sandwich. A selection of vegetables, cheeses, and desserts round out the offerings, along with made-to-order burgers, a special vegetarian menu, and healthy-choice options.
Expect about the same for dinner, with appetizers such as lamb-and-mushroom quiche, avocado boat with seafood salad, and crispy fried spring rolls; a salad of the day; three soup selections, such as Trieste-style red bean soup, oxtail broth with sherry, and chilled orange and tomato cream soup. Pasta selections include risotto with artichokes and fresh mint leaves, and pappardelle pasta with white veal ragout. Choose one of the main courses such as rock Cornish hen with mushrooms and crispy bacon, prime rib, grilled mahimahi filet, and vegetable couscous with raisins and cashews. As at lunch, dinner offers a vegetarian menu, a healthy menu, and a selection of cheeses and desserts (including sugar-free desserts), plus a bread of the day. The daily Italian regional specialties tend to be the highlight of the menu, while other dishes can be inconsistent. On our last sailing, for example, the chimichurri minute steak came without the chimichurri sauce, and the crispy potato pancakes were delicious but not at all crispy. On the other hand, the Bolognese sauce was simply sublime.
An always-available list rounds out the menu with steak, chicken, salmon filets, Caesar salad (pre-prepared with a little romaine and a dollop of sauce on top), baked potato, and corn on the cob.
Specialty -- Poesia has the stylish and delicious Kaito Sushi Bar, serving sushi, sashimi, tempura, and noodle dishes. It's open for lunch and dinner daily, and pricing is on an a la carte basis. In the evenings, the aft part of the buffet restaurant is sectioned off to create a second specialty venue, L'Obelisco, serving a more refined version of Italian cuisine than in the main restaurants, with waiter service and a la carte pricing. In addition, La Piazzetta Pizzeria is opened in the evening for custom-made and absolutely sensational Neapolitan-style pizzas, along with a variety of Greek sandwiches and yummy desserts such as tiramisu. There's a small per-item charge but it's well, well, well worth it.
Casual -- A buffet restaurant serves all three meals, with dinner available from 6 to 8pm. To best avoid lines, guests should head to the back serving sections during breakfast and lunch.
Snacks & Extras -- In true Italian style, every bar on these ships is also a coffee bar, so guests can enjoy a well-made espresso or macchiato virtually anytime, anywhere. In the late evening hours, waiters bring snacks around to prepublicized locations, and once per cruise there's a not-to-be-missed midnight buffet -- an increasingly rare happening in the cruise world.
Room service is available 24 hours a day from two different menus: a very limited menu of complimentary items and a fancier menu with items at extra cost.
Service is the number-one downside that MSC must address if it wants to reach a wider audience. While the line touts its Italian officers and crew -- a distinction that hearkens back to the Golden Age of ocean travel, which was dominated by European lines -- it's actually those staffmembers who tend to have the most lackadaisical attitude. Their surprising inattentiveness -- whether at the front desk or in the dining rooms -- is a major deviation from the sophisticated ambience promised by the line's advertising. It's the inconsistency that's most frustrating: When the service is good, it's great; when it isn't, it can feel downright unfriendly.
Note that the line has, in fact, blurred its Italianism in recent years by recruiting service staff from Indonesia and other Asian nations. As on other lines, the Asian crew distinguishes itself with its attentiveness and professionalism, though occasional language barriers can pop up from time to time.
Tipping is handled on an automatic basis, with $12 per adult, per day ($6 per day for kids under 18) added to your onboard account. The amount can be adjusted up or down by contacting the Reception Desk.
Laundry service is also available, though there are no self-serve laundromats.
Activities on MSC tend toward cruise traditions, many of them with a European sense of fun. Some of the entertainment and activities may not be highbrow, but they sure are enjoyable for those who want to cut loose. Outside, expect goofy pool games, including water polo, relay races, dance lessons, and various team games, plus darts and golf tournaments, the latter on a miniature golf course. Goofiness continues in the evenings, with the kind of participatory games for which Italian ships are known. Leave your self-consciousness at home. Flamenco and tango dance lessons might be held in one of the lounges. Other classes may include Italian language lessons and wine talks, and other activities include cards and bingo, gambling in the casino, arts and crafts, and various meet-and-greet events such as singles and honeymooners cocktail parties.
Evening entertainment is centered around each ship's main theater. On our most recent cruise, the internationally themed production shows were mostly well received. By design, they feature very little singing or talking in English, which distinguishes them from the usual shows you find at sea. Some shows draw on European circus traditions, featuring jugglers, magicians, opera singers, and classical musicians. It's that European influence -- also evident in shows by opera singers and other guest performers, at audience-participation shows, at the lively disco, and in karaoke sessions -- that distinguishes MSC's entertainment from the American cruise lines. In the evening, there's live music in multiple lounges, ranging from a pianist to a combo, from a Mexican trio to a string quartet. Strangely for ships with so much live music, there's no live orchestra for the shows: Even background music for the classical pianists and opera singers is prerecorded.
Poesia has an indoor/outdoor kids' complex of four rooms plus a wading pool on Deck 14, with activities broken down into three groups: Mini-Club (ages 3-8), Junior Club (9-13), and Teens (14-17). Activities include supervised circuses, disco, water yoga, shows, basketball, volleyball, pajama parties, treasure hunts, Olympic pool games, quizzes, and more. The indoor/outdoor jungle-gym complex is very appealing -- even to smaller adults before and after hours.