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Copyright © 1995-2004 
Linda Coffman


MSC Opera
Transatlantic Crossing
October 2004

by Dave and Mary Bowman

ABOUT US: We are 55 and 60 years old, and have traveled extensively. We took the westbound Transatlantic crossing of the MSC Opera, starting in Genoa, Italy and ending in Ft. Lauderdale. This was our 7th cruise together.

ABOUT THE SHIP: If you have a specific idea of what cruising should be like, 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 instead of just “wrong,” you’ll have a wonderful time.

MSC is an Italian company. They are the second largest cargo line in the world and are relatively new to the cruise market so there are some good values to be had.

At least half of the passengers on our ocean crossing were Europeans and the blessedly few PA announcements were in five languages: 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 MSC Opera is new and is a sleek greyhound. It was designed for the luxury trade before the decision was made 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 the lighting fixtures are well 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, human-scaled like a good European hotel. Lots of small places to settle in. Lots of glass and views of the sea.

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 equally well-planned, generously sized with an excellent shower. Water heat and pressure were both good.

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.

There is a cafeteria on the top deck with indoor and outdoor seating. The top deck also has two pools and is very lively. There is often an excitable host screaming in 4 or 5 languages, running incomprehensible games and contests with enthusiastic passengers, Euro-pop blaring 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.

ABOUT THE FOOD: Extraordinarily good. Northern Italian. We were on 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. Lots of salads and fresh fruit, plus fresh fruit in the rooms.

The waiters are Italian and joke a little heavily at first and not always successfully in an attempt to charm you. On the whole they are very good. When I expressed a preference for ice tea and breadsticks rather than rolls, I found them waiting every night. Luigi was an excellent waiter, Mario and Carlo excellent maitre’ds (and Sylvie was a superb cabin steward too.)

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.

THE BEST THING ABOUT THE SHIP: The intimacy and sheer livability of the ship are the main virtues for us, but one of the most civilized things is that they allow you to get duty free liquor and open it and consume it in your room. They don't seal it for the voyage so you'll order more from the bars like many lines do.

THE WORST THING ABOUT THE SHIP: 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. They are behind us on banning smoking. Fortunately they were not allowed to smoke inside 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 understand there were fights in the lounges about people who ignored the non-smoking area 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 OK. Judge for yourself whether it makes a difference to you.

2) MANAGEMENT: 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 that, they bounced us back and forth, called each other and yelled into the phone. We eventually did get to the airport and make our flight, but a little more coordination would have worked wonders with the experience.

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 PEOPLE ON BOARD: The Americans on board this repositioning cruise were largely retired people, many from Florida. They are very experienced budget cruisers. They have taken every line and they have very set expectations about what they like and 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 on the outdoor patio. This one thing 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 (I'm not kidding).

And some passengers just don't like it when they are so many people on board that they can't talk to, and they 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 like a bank 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.

SHOPS: Very tasteful and very expensive, which made no sense at all. The shops were one part 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 the Caribbean cruisers this is pretty odd. Also, one lone bottle of SPF sunblock 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 dollar 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, 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 at all in that category.

SHORE EXCURSIONS: The stops on our crossing were: Barcelona, Casablanca, Funchal, Barbados, Antigua, Tortola, St. Maarten, and Nassau. 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. This includes 3 percent to cash travelers checks which is a bum deal. They're supposed to be cash.

The full day excursion to Marrakesh from Casablanca which includes a 4 hour bus trip both ways is exhausting but sooo worth it! Don’t miss this one. 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 2 guys with string. Phooey! 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 for us. 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 suitcase(s) 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 going in it’s going to be different, and that’s not a bad thing.