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Copyright © 1995-2004 
Linda Coffman

 

MSC Opera
C
aribbean
December 2004

by Amber Blecker

Thereís always something exciting about a new ship, but I have to say the anticipation I felt for not only a new ship but essentially a new cruise line was something else entirely.

I was aware of MSC from her older, European-based (and essentially European-only marketed) ships so I found this new venture from the Italian shipping magnate fascinating. An owner with a history of identifying what he wants and making sure he achieves it, regardless of obstacles, is someone who can make a significant impact in any type of market. But heís also smart. He brought on one of the few people with true experience in adapting an existing line to the premium American market--Rick Sasso, formerly President of Celebrity Cruises. Can Sasso et al. work their magic yet again? Is MSC North America going to become a true competitive alternative to premium cruise lines in the Caribbean?

These were my thoughts as I neared boarding day. But much has been written about all that. Itís time to look at the experience itself! For readers, this is not a true travelogue, but more about my impressions, things I think the Opera (and MSC) excel at, areas where theyíre still rough, and idiosyncrasies to take into account before you book or sail this line.

Boarding process was smooth, though not quite effortless. By transferring 100% of their South Florida commercial shipping operations from Miami to Ft. Lauderdale, overnight MSC became the largest tenant at Port Everglades. For that reason, even with only 2 passenger ships, they now have a dedicated terminal. They are located at the perpendicular terminal right next to Princess. For those who enjoy seeing their ship from their hotel, the Embassy Suites and Marriott Marina would be the best choice, though if you are on the top 3 stories of the Renaissance facing east you should also have a decent view of the upper decks. The view from the Hyatt is likely almost completely blocked most days by the Caribbean Princess for Saturday embarkations. 

Speaking of the Caribbean Princess, the Opera holds her own next to her, even though sheís less than half her size. At about 58,000 tons, sheís a little shining jewel with sleek lines and a non-boxy profile. For those who appreciate a ship looking more like a ship than a hotel, for a newbuild she definitely gives more of a sense of movement. Her sides are not cluttered with balconies, and she has lots of open deck space.

But back to embarkation. In the terminal, as you enter there is a very warm greeting from staff. You are offered water and orange juice, which is good as this terminal has never been that even in temperature and it was fairly warm the day we boarded. They have a maze line for US citizens, although it moved quickly. But, of course any time youíre waiting to board, time lags a bit. If youíre a non-US citizen, youíre in luck as, at least on this sailing, the huge majority of passengers were Americans. Non-US citizens had their own separate line with virtually no waiting at all. Same for those with accessibility concerns.

At the front of the line, youíre asked for your citizenship papers, actual ticket (which really looks like a ticket), and credit card. A security picture is taken here, via a web cam. No pictures taken in that unflattering downward angle as you board the ship. From there, nothing unusual--you go through security, up to the ship, and your card is scanned as you step aboard. For me it was 55 minutes from entering the terminal building to stepping aboard the ship. Definitely acceptable, especially for an inaugural.

Awaiting you on the Promenade are gloved attendants to take your carry ons and escort you to your cabin. Bravo! It was wonderful to have my first views of the public areas unencumbered by luggage and free to just look as we went from one lovely room to the next. First impression? This ship isnít flashy, but sheís beautiful and comfortable. First impression turned out to be correct as the week progressed.

Approaching the cabin, the trepidation from what I knew about the room sizes returned. Would two women, who are not notorious under-packers, be comfortable? Is the shower so small as to be almost unusable? The attendant opened the door to a bright, efficient cabin. Wider than average, the space is definitely usable. Specs say approximately 165 sq. ft., but I did not feel at all cramped. Large window with ledge for items you want handy, 2 good sized night tables with 2 shelves inside the door, color is a soft mint green predominantly. Soothing and comfortable. One upholstered chair at the desk which a few cabins put out in the hall to give them more space (with the beds made up into a queen I could see how that might be preferable if you donít tend to use the desk as a vanity). Two hanging closets, a third closet with 6 drawers and 2 shelves, corner mirror over the desk which contains your programmable safe and 1 full shelf as well. Desk has narrow cabinet on both sides with 2 shelves perfect for makeup and such. Lighting is good overall with the cabin in twin configuration (good in bathroom and at desk), but those whose cabins were made up with a queen bed commented the reading light wasnít good with the two lamps separated on either side of the bed.

The cabin was a triple, with the upper berth folded against one wall. Not as completely out of the way as those that recess into a ceiling, but other than visual impact, didnít affect the flow or function of the cabin.

Opening the door to the bathroom, I was a bit surprised after the cautions Iíd read from several members of the trade press. While the shower is small, it doesnít seem less functional or smaller than, for example, the standard balcony cabins on the Grand Class ships of Princess. The grab bar could pose a problem for some, so watch out for it as it could give you a bruise over the week, and you definitely want to use the trick of putting your foot at the edge of the shower to anchor down the curtain to prevent the curtain from becoming uncomfortably intimate with you (or opening the curtain while showering), but with a Grohe hand held showerhead, this isnít nearly as bad as I feared. Iím a ďfluffyĒ woman and was okay. If you are quite large you may want to upgrade to a suite, or just leave the curtain open, but I didnít feel like a sardine. There are two metal shelves placed out of the way in the corner which are perfect for holding shampoo, etc.

The commode is set on an angle which might be a tad uncomfortable to those of greater size, as the rounded corner of the sink unit might hit your leg. But in general, the design of the bathroom is well thought out and quite functional. Standing at the sink there is lots of elbow room. Two vanity shelves in the corner against the glass, 2 partial shelves under the sink, and bravo--the tissue roll is well placed (do any of you grumble on other lines every time you have to reach WAY behind you to get the paper?). The tissue is also of good quality for marine use. Quilted! Lighting in the bathroom is fairly good.

Other touches in the bathroom reflect the premium quality of this ship. The towels are bath sheets, not small standard towels. Very fluffy! The hand towels arenít much smaller than most standard bath towels. As one person commented, theyíre large enough for a woman to easily wrap her hair in.

One idiosyncrasy in the closet, however... the hangers are of good quality, albeit the type with the permanently-attached metal fitting over the bar. They are wide, so no hanger corners on your clothes. Velveteen bar perfect for pants. However, not a single skirt hanger to be found on the ship. If you have skirts you to hang, which would not do well folded over the velveteen bar, you need to bring your own skirt hangers for now. 

Another cabin oddity became apparent as the week progressed. There is no voice mail on the phones, so no way to leave a message for other passengers other than going up to their cabin and sliding a note under their door. Since the cabins are small, and the entertainment good, most do not spend much time there, so adding voice mail would be a definite benefit.

An announcement came over the speakers as I was in my cabin that passengers should visit the Maitre Ďd on Deck 5 to set up dinner reservations. Hmmm? Whatís this? I looked on my cruise card, and no dining assignment listed. No card in the room either. Since the Opera doesnít have a premium restaurant which required reservations, it must be for regular dining. Unusual. Found the Maitre Ďd and made the reservations. The two restaurants have identical dining times, so that wasnít a consideration. Not many larger tables--most seat 4 or 6. But on this ship, without a doubt, your very first step when you enter your cabin is to look for your table assignment. Iíve been assured that my sailing was unusual and there was a glitch in the system. However, if you donít see that familiar card, your next stop onboard once you drop your carry-ons should be with the Maitre dí to arrange your dining.

And the experience with the Maitre dí sure brought home this is an Italian ship. When he saw I was alone in the line (though I did bring a friend on this trip), he asked if I was single (with a playful eyebrow lift). I told him I was and hoped heíd make sure I was taken care of. The flirting was on! Harmless, friendly and not at all invasive or intrusive, but enough to make a flirtatious lady feel special. I saw the female members of the entertainment staff seeking out some of the men to ensure they werenít left out of the fun either. Definitely a ship where singles will be fully included in the activities and events to the extent youíre comfortable. Or even a bit more than your usual comfort level if youíre willing to be daring, but never did I see an inappropriate advance. 

And while on the subject of dining rooms, the two are very similar, though with distinct differences. The LíApprodo dining room aft on Deck 6 is in somewhat of a horseshoe shape. The long entry way lined with tables would not be my first selection if I were choosing my own table. However, the main area is open with comfortable seating arrangements.

I preferred the dining room on Deck 5, La Caravella. I felt it was brighter, more open and flowed better overall. Also this is where the Maitre dí has his base of operations. However, some diners felt the noise levels in some areas were a bit high. I think it would be best to describe LíApprodo as a bit more intimate, La Caravella as having a larger feel.

Now itís off to explore the ship!

Walking the 5th and 6th decks where most of the public lounges are located is a comfortable experience. The lounges are small, but comfortably arranged. each with a distinct, yet not glaring dťcor. You know you are in a different room with a different purpose as you progress from one to the next. Ten lounges overall. Egads! I counted 3 different pianos, from the Piano bar to a lounge obviously set up for a combo and a third just there. In addition, other lounges had keyboards for the musicians. Lots of light woods, soft colors, creams, mauve, teals, blues, greens and tans predominate, as does gleaming brass. Wood and carpeted floors, along with marble tiles in the 2-story atrium area. This is not a ship with WOW factor as weíve become accustomed to from so many of the U.S.-based lines, but itís a ship with ďahhhĒ factor. At least for me. I came aboard and felt soothed, comfortable and welcomed by the interior.

Unfortunately, there are no deck chairs on the teak promenade deck. I hope MSC reconsiders and adds at least a few chairs for sitting and enjoying the view. However, al though itís a good, wide walking deck, it got little use throughout the week. Itís not a full circle promenade, so most walkers were up on Deck 12 above the pool area for their outdoor walking.

Trying to climb from the 6th deck (by the way all decks have a musical theme name, such as La Traviata, Rigoletto, Aida) to the 11th to check out the pool area, I found another major idiosyncrasy of the ship that you need to be aware of even before you board. The center two elevator/stairwells do not reach all decks. They end on 9, which is not even the top passenger deck. Only the forward and aft elevators/stairwells reach all decks. Thus, if youíre a bit mobility impaired you will absolutely want to be forward or aft, rather than midship, to maximize your mobility options.

However, the nice impact of the wide open space is seen on the pool deck where there is a nicely arranged uninterrupted expanse. The buffet is all the way aft. The grill area is just forward of that, with pizza on one side and excellent burgers and such on the other in the afternoons, pancakes and cooked-to-order omelets in the mornings. This area also has the Il Patio seating area which is partially covered, but still mostly open air cooled by breezes (often quite strong while underway), yet partially protected. You may bring your buffet plates out to it. As we prepared for sailaway, a nice 3-piece Spanish style band was playing. There is a bar nearby as well

Going forward through a Plexiglas separating wall is a split pool area. There are two smallish pools with 2 hot tubs between on the open deck. LOTS of deck chairs. Not padded, they are comfortable and feature adjustable sun shades for the face if you prefer not to have full sun. Be forewarned the chairs are all put away at night. Bright orange towels are provided on the chairs--no dragging the towels up from your cabin. Forward in this area is the pool bar and the primary visual focus is a 2-deck marble waterfall feature, though on our sailing it was dry. Lovely! An encircling upper deck has more chairs and lightly smoked Plexiglas windscreens in some areas. You can also access the top deck forward-facing area from here for a beautiful, partially protected view ahead. 

Finally, all the way aft on Deck 12 is an intimate disco area. Lots of cozy seating areas, this might not be the best place to meet people, but if you like to sit, drink and dance to club tunes, itís your place. During the day it has a great view, and another fantail seating area which is perfect for watching the wake trail out behind you. On this sailing, the disco was the only lounge with entertainment past 1:15AM, but was sparsely used. Officers were often here, with a few other crew members and passengers, but an unfortunately underutilized space overall. That could easily change week-by-week with different passengers.

Speaking of fantails, most passenger decks have a small, comfortable, covered area at the aft. There are no aft-facing cabins, so if that is your view of choice, youíll quickly get acquainted with these spots. The same type lounge chairs are provided on these decks as at the pool. Be forewarned, though--they put these away at night as well. However, theyíre extremely easy to remove from their retaining ropes if you want to watch the wake at night. Shhh.

There are a few other oddities about the arrangement of decks and access to public areas. Much of Deck 7 is officer/crew quarters. You cannot walk across Deck 7 from forward to aft or reverse, you must go up to 8 or down to 6 for example then back up again to get to the Carouso Lounge. The Deck 5 dining room is easy to get to if youíre in the forward part of the ship, but if youíre aft on one of the upper decks, you have to remember which of the many stairwells/elevators is the first one you can use to get down. Small things, but if it matters for your choice of cabin placement and navigation, extremely good to know in advance.

Now that weíve gotten you through the major areas of the ship, letís talk about some of the other idiosyncrasies I observed. 

The little smoking I noticed onboard is port/starboard segregated. Ashtrays are only provided on the port side, with non-smoking on the starboard. No signs or other indications of this separation were printed throughout the week, so be aware when you board if you wish to be smoke free or be a considerate smoker. 

A few lounges seemed to have a bit more of a smoke issue. On this sailing, the Piano/Martini Bar had a disproportionate number of smokers, and the ventilation wasnít as good. But itís the best place on ship to get a martini (the full martini menu is only offered here). While weíre speaking about martinis, the list isnít as extensive as on lines such as Celebrity, but itís unusual. Other bars have different specialties, such as flavored coffees, tropical drinks, etc. Yet another way the lounges all have their unique personalities.

In the buffet, some fans of Celebrity and HAL will likely notice first off they use the platter-type plates. No trays, yet linen napkins are provided. However, the biggest shock came when I went to get a glass of water. NO GLASSES! Plastic Dixie-type cups in dispensers were all they had. I was told this is on the list of changes in the very near future. Europeans tend not to drink water with meals as Americans do, preferring wine instead, so itís definitely one of the adjustments they need to make as they transition from their summer, mostly European passengers, to Caribbean in the winter. (Note: The differences in culture regarding water were very apparent early in the cruise, but became much less so as the waiters became used to our habits later on. The Dixie cups were still there, but at lunch and dinner they became much more aware of the necessity for more frequent refills.)

While weíre discussing beverages, know that water, tea, milk and coffee are the only free beverages at the buffet and on deck, though juice is available at breakfast in the buffet and breakfast and lunch in the dining rooms. Iced tea was a work in progress onboard to get it available in the dining rooms. Some times early in the cruise when it was not delivered when requested. (That was a dramatic change from the beginning of the cruise to the end. By St. Thomas, I found the iced tea in the dining rooms to be quite acceptable and easily available.)

Muster drill was standard, though be forewarned it is in 5 languages. However, those were pretty much the last PA announcements we heard for the week. No bingo announcements, no mid-day declaration from the bridge, nothing. Bravo!

Lots of top deck space for sailaway, but if you enjoy a forward view, Deck 13 forward is the best location for you. Windy, but lessened by the wind screens. Donít forget to wave to the condo owners as you exit Port Everglades. If you want a less wind-blown location, try the spa on Deck 11.

The spa is well appointed, though the gym is a bit small for those who really want a good workout. Basic machines, fairly good sized aerobic space for a ship this size, but will never rival the great facilities on Royal Caribbean for example.

Lots of venues before dinner, but the first night they were a bit quiet. The Spanish combo was in the lounge outside the shops and seemed to be the liveliest prior to late seating this first night. 

While the doors for dinner opened a bit late the first night (and several other nights as it turned out, though theyíd worked that out by the end of the week), it was well worth the wait. I will say the waiter wasnít the most outgoing Iíve had, and the service was more than a bit spotty (though other waiters, for example at lunchtime, were friendly, accommodating and excellent). Sometimes there is just a dud. And yes, I did say something about it to the Maitre dí. My philosophy: If the service is good, tip the waiter; if the service is bad, ďtipĒ the management.

I could easily overlook the service lapses for the food itself. YUM. If you are a risotto fan, youíll love this ship. The mahi mahi was firm and tender, though a bit plain on the seasonings, and my dinner partners really enjoyed their steaks. Some comments in the past have been negative regarding desserts. Not from me! The first night, the white chocolate cheesecake was moist, creamy, and heavenly. Possibly the best Iíve had.

Since I always arrive for a cruise a day early, I am usually full of energy the first night. Asked the crew which lounges are the most active. The answers were the Cotton Club and Carouso Lounge. Have to say the entertainment (cruise director) staff was everywhere at night. Friendly, outgoing, fun and lots of them. I used to believe that the cruise director and staff had little to do with my enjoyment of a cruise. However, Iím learning that doesnít have to be the case. A good staff, such as the one on the Opera, can turn a nice cruise into one full of wonderful memories. 

After the show, I headed up to Carouso for the dance competition on the urging of the entertainment crew. The house band, Pop Corn, is terrific. They have a deep song book and are quite talented. This was the venue I was looking for to be ďhomeĒ for the week. Comfortable lounge, good music and lots of energy. Iíll be looking for other options throughout the week as well, but I know later in the night Iíll likely end up all the way forward on Deck 7 in Carouso.

The entertainment crew was out in force here working the dance competition. Afterwards, they were all out dancing and getting the passengers involved. They didnít let anyone sit by the wayside if there was a chance you might want to be up, but were perhaps a bit shy or alone. The women and men were working the crowd, being sure you enjoyed the evening. Diverse staff, too, mainly from Italy, but also Spain, New Zealand, US, Canada and Japan as I recall. Fun, funny, energetic and outgoing, also friendly and personable without a lot of the scripted, familiar humor we typically see on other cruise lines. Refreshing. Also quite attractive. (Okay, Iíll say it. Thereís nice international eye candy on this ship, for both men and women.)

My bed was welcoming at 1:30. Previous passengers have observed that their beds were hard. I found mine definitely on the firm side, but not nearly as hard as Princess beds, which tend to make my hips sore by the end of the week. I considered requesting a pad if I found it to be that firm, but there was no need whatsoever. A bonus is there are two upholstered pillows on the bed--one large, one small. Theyíre great for reading and lounging. If you want chocolates on your pillow, be sure to make a stop at the store on your way to the ship and get some Dove bars. They will be the only ones you will receive. 

A few last comments from this first day. Wine drinkers should ask about the wine package. Three bottles of pre-selected whites, 3 of red, and one blush are $91. You cannot substitute wines, nor duplicate them, but if you enjoy both red and white, itís an excellent bargain. In general, the wine and alcohol prices are excellent. Bar drinks are in the $4.50 to $5.00 range and no corkage fee is charged in the dining room if you wish to bring your own wine on board. 

There is a childís package of sodas and non-alcoholic drinks, but it is not an unlimited soda card, which is under consideration.

The room service menu is a bit limited--basics like Caesar salad, club sandwich, cheese platter, fruit, and similar items. There is a notation that lunch and dinner are not served in the cabin. However, I noticed a few dinner trays in the hall with an entrťe from the dinner menu, so that may not be set in stone. But they do seem to be pretty firm in denying other requests. For example, while bagels are available through room service, cream cheese is not (except when it is part of the cheese plate).

Remember, at this time, the buffet is not open for dinner. This is a traditional style ship with traditional dining only. Keep that in mind as you consider whether MSC is in your future. They are thinking about offering the buffet area as an alternative dining venue at some point, but no word what or when at this time. I wouldnít expect it this sailing season, though the night we were late in port in Freeport, they did decide to open it. Iíd expect them to do the same in the future in San Juan.

Now that weíre done with the first day, weíll move away from the moment-to-moment dialogue and more to new things I discovered as we went along.

For example, when the shops opened, it was apparent this is not the normal complement of logo items, souvenirs, and similar stock. Instead, VERY upscale designs, no mugs or trinkets. Be aware they also have much more limited hours than other cruise lines aimed at the North American market. However, MSC allows you to purchase duty-free alcohol and take it immediately to your cabin. Another example of this being a line which respects you as adults.

MSC doesn't force you to compensate their employees through tips, either--theyíve already paid them a living wage. If extraordinary service is provided, you may of course offer an additional gratuity, but it truly is not required or expected. They believe you can find your own way to events if youíre interested without blaring constant reminders. You can be trusted to drink in your own room. They arenít going to nickel and dime you. While espresso is an additional charge, with tip itís $1. Much better than other comparable lines. When you board, youíre not swooped down upon by waiters bringing drinks (though throughout the week a bit more attentive service from bar waiters/waitresses would have been nice). Very low key. Very adult, though not family unfriendly. Not many children onboard this week, but thatís not unusual for any line the first week of December. Wine has a mark-up over straight retail, but itís reasonable and Iíd not feel I needed to bring my own to save (though I might bring my own on if I wanted certain brands; the list is not terribly extensive). No corkage fee to have a bottle opened at a bar or in the restaurants. 

Shore excursions are mostly the usual offerings, however the pricing is generally less expensive than Iíve observed on other lines, with offerings a bit more limited. There are no art auctions, no constant pressure to buy, buy, buy, and thatís all due to the ownerís belief thatís gauche and tacky. He wants class, and heís providing that. Some little things are culture specific, and are being adapted, but this line I believe is going to feel much like a luxury line at premium line pricing. I think Iíd like to say elegance without pretension.

Youíll find the daily program for the sea day to be less active than most mainstream lines. But a good variety of activities. Also more upscale. The first daily trivia quiz was world capitals. Not the typical Trivial Pursuit which is mostly applicable to Americans. The Italian lessons were extremely well attended and useful. The pool games were fun and not offensive or obtrusive.

Several lectures throughout the week, ranging from foreign policy presented by a former US Ambassador to talks on classic ocean liners and cruising. Italian lessons given in 4 different parts. Bingo, of course. A three-part Olympic Game of Knowledge. LOTS of dance lessons more in the Latin theme (lambada, bassanova, merengue, etc.)

This line is not one for buffet lovers. While the breakfast and lunch buffets are adequate and you wonít starve (though I prefer the grill area for both), the real star is the dining room. Lunch usually was heavenly. From the first day at seaís menu, the red snapper was firm, fresh, light and well seasoned, risotto creamy and light, and the rum cake was truly soaked in rum, not just rum flavoring. The options are extensive and varied. 

Are you a midnight buffet lover? This ship has combined some of the elements of Celebrityís gourmet bites with traditional midnight buffet. On some evenings, there are snacks in the lounges with different themes. One night flambť, another Indian, and so on. Other nights there is a buffet up on deck. Second formal night is a true formal midnight buffet suitable for photographing. 

Get the idea yet that Iím really enjoying this line? Not to say there arenít still rough spots, but at current prices, this is a true value in the premium class. And only getting better. Not quite at the service standards of Celebrity and Holland America, but theyíd better be watching out.

Internet is an area they could improve. The internet cafť on Deck 6 is roomy and comfortable with flat screen monitors. However, there is no wireless option if you want to use your own computer and no in-cabin access. While it was a treat to be ďdisconnectedĒ for a period of time, sometimes itís not an option. Use of their computers is $6.00 for the first 10 minutes, $0.60 a minute thereafter. I count not find a way to have multiple browser windows open if you want to multi-task. Not a problem for most, but I found it frustrating when I was trying to respond to client emails for example. Had to log out of email, go to another program, and back to email, etc. Phone service from the ship is $7.95/minute. 

I adopted the Aroma coffee bar as my office on the ship. Itís the upper level of the atrium and there is a high level of activity and noise from the lower level with the shipís Purserís desk, but I can look out over the Promenade to the ocean or down to the lobby and enjoy the activity, while still taking care of some business. If they added wireless to this area, it would be lovely.

Iím not a coffee drinker, but I will admit the espresso here is terrific. So is the service. 

However, on Deck 5, the Purserís lobby itself can get a bit noisy. Itís all marble, brass and glass, and nothing absorbs the sound. If youíre there awaiting disembarkation in port, or at a busy time, itís rather loud.

Watching the stream of people on their way to the Captainís Gala dinner, thereís no question this ship observes a dress code, though not as formal as some. Ladies are in dressy attire, with cocktail dresses being the majority. Men are predominantly in dark suits, with some tuxes. There was some confusion among first time cruisers in that the Daily Program called tonightís dress ďGalaĒ and some thought that meant festive, island-type attire. Just a terminology difference, but like most ships, the first sea night is a formal night with all the fixings Ė pictures, champagne reception, etc. Donít miss a picture with the Captain; heís a charmer. 

The clientele on this particular sailing was a bit older than Celebrity tends to be, a bit younger than Holland Americaís typical average. A surprising number of first-time cruisers were attracted by the rates, not to mention seniors living in Florida who were left somewhat homeless due to the hurricanes. But many are experienced cruisers who were looking for something different. Iíd say for a premium line in early December, the slightly more mature demographic isnít too surprising. I have a feeling as this line evolves, and people become aware of what it is, it will be a diverse demographic onboard. Hip, but not needing to impress. Comfortable but not necessarily older. I saw signs of that potential in the Carouso Lounge. Not fully developed on this sailing, but would be what Iíd expect this lineís direction to head in the U.S. People who are adventurous, but still want luxurious surroundings.

MSC expects the demographic to be average 45-55 and active, though seeking comfort and relaxation. Based on the daily low-key offerings and large variety of nighttime activities, I can definitely see that as an appropriate target. Night owls can find fun, but early birds may not feel as fully accommodated.

Turning now to general port impressions. We docked at the main pier in Old San Juan earlier than the brochure times. In at 5PM. Remember, however, that at this time there is no evening alternative dining option on this ship. If you choose to be ashore during your scheduled dining time, you will want to dine ashore as well or plan on room service. At least that was the case on this sailing. Would not surprise me one iota to see a buffet alternative starting soon since it was a bit of a mess in the dining room with diners stridently ďrequestingĒ to be accommodated at other than their scheduled dining time.

In St. Thomas, the ship was scheduled to dock at Crown Bay, which is the dock facility at the opposite side of town from Havensight. About a $6 taxi ride into town, or $8 to Havensight. If you are planning independent excursions, be sure to allow at least another 30 minutes to get back to the ship from areas such as Coki Beach or Red Hook due to the horrendous traffic through downtown St. Thomas.

With ships just now returning to St. Croix, there are some glitches. The government is performing major construction in the port area. Due to this, the Coast Guard will not allow passengers to walk from the pier into town, but must instead ride shuttles. When we were there, it was disorganized and confused. But to their credit, the head of the tourism bureau not only apologized over the speakers (one of the very few announcements at all), but also had delivered a letter to each cabin expressing their regret over the way it was handled and promising it would be better in the future. They want our business, and the island is beautiful. If you want to visit St. Croix, book this year, as next year the Opera will instead be going to a new private island they have purchased.

Open note to MSC. While there is still time to investigate changes to the 2005/2006 winter itineraries, Iíd really love to see St. Croix substituted for the day in La Romana. If the distances and logistics are favorable, I think itís a more appealing destination very well suited to your target market. But I also applaud the private island options youíre developing.

At each port, separate blue beach towels were provided as you exited the ship. This week, some of them were so new they left a blue lint trail on everything they touched. For future cruises, that shouldnít be an issue at all.

As the week has progressed, many of the rough edges smoothed out. MSC has been open with the agents onboard that we were guinea pigs of sorts. However, it clearly demonstrated their commitment to make this ship and line something different and special. I was amazed at the alterations they made in procedures large and small in response to feedback and their own observations. When the main dining room was overwhelmed at lunch (due to the poor quality at the buffet), the next day they opened both main dining rooms for lunch. Problem solved, though it meant the staff was working more. Small things--like instead of serving the bread individually, which was taking more time, they began putting the bread basket on the tables and replenishing them regularly. It saves waiter effort, doesnít sacrifice quality, and shortens the time in the dining room.

There were a few problems this week with timing of shows. Those on late dining werenít always out in time for the late shows. They are tweaking the schedule next week and beyond (and even this week as we proceed) so that will no longer be an issue. This line literally changed their entire serving style overnight when they reached Ft. Lauderdale, and that affects the results. I am highly impressed with the way theyíre adapting, the clear intention to be high quality, premium and excellent service. They will likely get there.

The service and even sometimes the dining room food have been uneven. We changed tables (actually even restaurants) after the second night. However, as I encourage everyone to do, before we changed, I had a word with the head waiter to let him know I felt our waiter needed a bit more attention and supervision. The head waiter simply wasnít in his section much and our server was overwhelmed and a bit confused by it all (plus I learned later he had 25 passengers instead of the 18, which was to have been standard). But, when that didnít work, instead of brooding and complaining about it all week, I spoke with the maitre dí and requested a change to the other restaurant. It was done, he checked to make sure everything was good, and we were all happy campers. Is it perfect service? No, but weíre laughing at the glitches and understand whatís happening. For this first season, a sense of humor and willingness to work through the challenges is necessary. But MSC wants to make it worth your while. The prices are more than reasonable for what theyíre providing, and this yearís passengers will be given special consideration in the past passenger program (such benefits are still being worked out and will be announced).

For those interested in such things, a surprise health inspection was performed while we were in port in San Juan. Of course, there is also the regular inspection, but the health department reserves the right to pull surprise inspections at any time. Even though procedures were new and changing, and we were in full serving mode at dinner, the ship achieved a remarkable 98 rating. 

Evening entertainment is the best Iíve ever experienced. The shows arenít the same-old, same-old you see with different settings on most ships. Theyíre different and good and donít drag. The entertainment staff fun shows are even better with different games than weíve seen in the past. A crew that obviously is enjoying what they do, each other and the passengers, and a truly good time. For me, this has been more fun and activity at night than any ship Iíve been on other than Carnival. The larger Royal Caribbean ships have more venues, but for just plain options, this little ship packs more in less space than Iíd have thought possible.

I basically made it a policy to be where ever the full entertainment crew was for the evening and was not disappointed once. I usually am ďehĒ about cruise director staff antics, but not this time. Where they are, the fun follows.

The comedy theme for the week was prevalent, but not overwhelming. Essentially they had comics and a great singer and combo in the Carouso Lounge from 9:30-11:30. It added a flavor to the cruise, but if you werenít into comedy, you werenít left out. Donít feel that if the theme for the week youíre considering isnít interesting to you that you will have a lesser experience. It adds if you enjoy it, but wouldnít take away if it wasnít your thing. Other themes for this winter season include baseball greats, more comedy, jazz, classic rock, Branson Country Music and others.

While it didnít apply to me, for those who are interested in the childrenís program, there is a nice space for it on Deck 12. Right now, itís split into two age groups, though they will be expanding it to 3 in the future to better suit the needs of passengers bringing along families.

Some of the early marketing of this ship had incorrect cabin sizes. When they first put out the dimensions, they excluded the bathroom square footage. Once included, the standard inside and oceanview cabins are only slightly smaller than average. Approximately 165 sq. ft. I was told, but have not confirmed since I disembarked, that their web site is now up-to-date with accurate sizes.

Before I wrap up this far too long review, letís touch on the disembarkation. This week, they were on the honor system with regard to luggage tag colors. They had a table set up near the lobby with a chart of which color you should choose by flight time, other arrangements or deck. As most North Americans would expect, the earliest disembarkation tag color quickly disappeared. Weíll see how long they keep the system this way.

We arrived in port at around 6:30AM. Breakfast was served in the two main dining rooms from 6:30-8AM, with the buffet continuing until 9AM. Passengers were requested to vacate their cabins by 7:30AM and wait in the many lounge areas until disembarkation commenced. Deck 5 lounges were quite crowded, but even at 8:30, seating could be found on Deck 6. After several passengers were requested to contact the front desk (similar to what often happens on HAL ships), the first disembarkation group was called just after 9:15. While I had the early disembarkation tags (had planned a meeting that morning with a friend also disembarking another ship and was told by crew that was the correct choice in that case), I chose not to join the first bunch off the ship. Instead, by waiting about 15 minutes to proceed to Deck 5, I avoided most of the initial rush to get off the ship, was able to very easily locate my luggage and proceed. From time I rose from my lounge chair on Deck 6 to hitting the exit door of the terminal, including a bit of a wait at the shipís door to leave, was 30 minutes. It moved well. 

Those with items to declare to customs were asked to report to a lounge onboard at an early time, but those without declarations walked off the ship, to immigration check, down to luggage, turned in customs declaration, and that was that. Well run.

There was a horrible line awaiting taxis. Being right next to Princess is a disadvantage in this regard. When Iíd used this particular building before on a Princess cruise (when 2 Princess ships were in port on one day and 11 ships in port overall), there was more than an hourís wait at times for a taxi. They just donít seem to have that flow down yet, and the drivers donít aim for the MSC terminal as they do some of the larger lines at this time. The porter we used said it was about a 45 minute line. However, he must have sensed a nice tip and flagged down a taxi out of order and commandeered it for us, even though we didnít request any special consideration or service. He was fairly chivalrous. Felt more than a tad guilty as we drove past the line, but couldnít claim I waited when I didnít. The same thing happened last time I was at this terminal-Ėdonít know how or why. However, Iíd much prefer to have a well-flowing system where such things arenít needed and donít occur. MSC will need to work with the cab companies in the future to see how to better arrange disembarkation transportation for those with independent air or hotel arrangements.

By the way, unless you are using MSC air, there are no airport transfers available for purchase. Fortunately, most of the time in Ft. Lauderdale theyíre not needed, especially for embarkation. Iím usually not a fan of transfers from this port, but weíll see how this gridlock works out. 

Who would I say is a good candidate for this line this year while theyíre in transition? Someone who is looking for laid back during the day. Some activities, but more about relaxation and enjoyment of cruising than wanting constant parties, though the pool deck is usually hopping. People who want more activity at night than is typically found especially on HAL but also to a certain extent Celebrity. Accepting of different styles and doesnít let small things take over the overall enjoyment of the cruise. The food is mostly Italian, but not what weíve become accustomed to at places such as Olive Garden (stay away from the crŤme brulee at this point--itís just a baked custard and not what weíre used to). In two words, adventurous and flexible cuisine. 

Overall impression is quite good. Part of that is very personal. I enjoy smaller, more intimate ships. I like difference and exploring. This ship made it extremely easy for me to spend lots of time in public spaces, which sometimes I donít do. Iím often a quiet person, but socializing here is easy and enjoyable. It fit me well. While many people didnít like the food, I found the sauces quite tasty. But theyíre not typical. This is not Celebrity and isnít meant to be the Italian equivalent. And even Celebrity wasnít Celebrity when the Roux menus were first introduced. Those who cruised then will remember quite a few changes were made to the first menus to adapt to feedback and the cruiserís tastes. I think that will happen here as well.

However, there is no question in my mind that this is not for everyone. Likely not even for a majority of premium cruise passengers and itís not intended to be. Itís another alternative for someone looking for something different for a change. What I think is one of the true bargains right now as they try to build a clientele. 

The strengths are the ship itself and crew overall, especially their attitude. Yes, the dining rooms need some help, but the change this week is remarkable and I expect before the end of the month theyíll be far more consistent and acceptable. The entertainment. The food if you enjoy different tastes and styles. The number and different styles of lounges. Once you get used to the deck idiosyncrasies, itís extremely easy to navigate. Tips are included in your basic fare. 

Weaknesses? Systems are adapting to North American preferences and are shaky. The ship rocks a bit, but Iíd say on a par to other similarly-sized vessels. Port times are shorter than Iíd like, but four ports on an Eastern itinerary is nice. Iíd prefer a bit more selection of gift-type items in the shops. Salads were uniformly disappointing and the buffet needs serious improvement. They need to get better water glasses and hangers. Some of these will be changed pretty quickly. Others are just the style of the line and ship. No ship is perfect.

The true issue I found during the cruise was that many passengers did not know what type of line they were boarding. They had little information, either from their own research or from their agents. And the line wasnít really good at getting out the facts either. MSC, because they donít want to bombard passengers with flyers or announcements, is not the greatest on communication and the rumors onboard were times quite amusing. Most onboard had no idea they did not need to tip on the final evening, or that there would be no charge on their bill for example, and the guidance given in the daily program was confusing. They expected another similar line to what theyíve already been on. OR they thought it was going to be just like other European lines theyíve experienced before. When expectations donít match reality, people are unhappy. And there were a higher than normal number of unhappy cruisers during the week. Many expect everything to be to American tastes. My sense of what MSC is doing is adapting their normal style and menu to be more comfortable to the North American market, but not to become fully ďAmericanized.Ē They will continue to have a different style, and passengers need to be comfortable with that when they book it. Think of it as a truly Italian line with some North American adaptations. If you feel comfortable with what Iíve described, I think youíll be a good fit for this ship and should at least explore the option. 

Absolutely can put this line near the top of being solo cruiser friendly. Several singles get-togethers this week, though with the unusually older demographic (even MSC was surprised by it), they were sparsely attended. The fares, combined with the interaction of the crew to ensure everyone is included and welcome, make this a line where you donít have to feel out of place if you sail alone, whether you like to just sit back and watch or join in and dance. With the exception of the true luxury lines, Iíd put MSC at the top of the list in that aspect.

Iíll go back to MSC (at least the Opera and the Lirica) in a heart beat. I was smiling all week, even when hearing complaints from others (anyone who has cruised the first week of December will know what Iím talking about when I say complaints and a general whiny tone are not unusual on any line around this time of year). I am considering it for personal travel to the Mediterranean this summer, even though it will be priced in Euros at that time and thus comparatively more expensive. This line, crew and ship have firmly captured my heart. Iím glad I had the opportunity to explore the vision of this line, the truly beautiful ship and enjoy the wonderful crew. Iím going to miss being on her.

If there is an area of the ship, line, or cruise about which youíd like more information, drop Amber an email at SinglesCruiseResource.com.