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MSC OrchestraMSC Orchestra
"Beautiful, Passionate, Italian" Cruising

by Linda Coffman

March 2009 For more than a dozen years I've written articles and guidebooks about cruise ships and the onboard experience. In all that time, I've never had a thoroughly bad cruise, just some that have suited my taste more than others. Before sailing, I was aware that MSC Cruises are different than contemporary cruises, which cater to to American lifestyles, and it's that difference—the Italian difference—that makes an MSC cruise appealing to Americans who aren't afraid to leave their comfort zone and get into the Italian spirit. No matter where their ships sail, MSC Cruises are most definitely, “Beautiful, Passionate, Italian”! My husband Mel and I were up for the difference and the Mediterranean ambiance, although our cruise aboard MSC Orchestra on March 7-14, 2009 was a Western Caribbean itinerary.

Every passenger approaches their cruise ship on embarkation day with different expectations. We had one main concern, “How long will it take to board?” That may seem odd, but embarkation was problematic when MSC Orchestra kicked off her Caribbean season this winter with a 2-night cruise. As Richard Sasso, President and CEO of MSC Cruises explained it, the day got off to a bad start when the ship arrived late in Fort Lauderdale, got worse when passengers began arriving at 10am for a 4pm check-in, and the situation progressed to “perfect storm” status when a computer glitch caused additional delays.

Since that inauspicious beginning, MSC Cruises is on track with their usual schedule of handling 900 passengers an hour in Port Everglades. To see what would happen by arriving at a peak time, we entered the terminal at 11:30am and the entire check-in process took 20 minutes. We had crossed the MSC Orchestra gangway and made our way to the buffet for lunch before noon.

Our first impression was that MSC Orchestra is an Italian beauty with an abundance of gleaming marble and brass. In a way, you could say the décor is a bit retro, but Mel’s description—“upscale warmth”—sums it up.

At check-in we received the best news an embarking passenger can hear. We'd been upgraded from our Superior Balcony stateroom to a Suite. That was a first for us, but a very welcome one.

MSC Orchestra SuiteWith 278 sq ft inside and a 48 sq ft balcony, MSC Orchestra’s Suite 15012 (pictured here) was our spacious and very comfortable home for the week. Cheerful artwork and deep burgundy fabrics set off warm wood paneling and creamy wall coverings. A walk-in closet with a bank of drawers, floor to ceiling shelves behind doors, and a credenza provided plenty of storage. It took a while to discover, but a large mirror mounted over the dressing table/desk concealed even more deep shelves and a personal safe. In addition, a large flat-screen television was mounted on the credenza, which also housed the mini-bar refrigerator.

Although the bathroom wasn’t of suite proportion, it had a tub/shower combination and cabinets beneath the vanity augmented two wall mounted shelves for toiletries. For Mel, its most important component was good water pressure and consistent temperature—no blast of cold water when other passengers turned the water on in their showers.

While there are a dozen categories to choose from on MSC Orchestra, staterooms are laid out in five basic configurations: Suites described above; Superior Balcony and Balcony Staterooms at 191 and 164 sq ft respectively (with 48 sq ft balconies); and Oceanview and Interior Staterooms, both at 150 sq ft. There are also a dozen 226 sq ft wheelchair accessible staterooms in a variety of categories.

Sophia Loren Suite on MSC OrchestraOne of the suites on deck 15 is designated the “Sophia Loren Suite”—named for MSC Orchestra’s Godmother—and bears her signature. In fact, each new ship in MSC Cruises’ fleet has such a suite as Ms. Loren has christened them all. She uses her suite to relax and entertain guests when she is on board and, in the event she wishes to sail, it’s all hers.

Just a hint in case you ever receive a surprise upgrade at embarkation. Your luggage is obviously tagged with your original cabin number and will, most likely be delivered there. At some point, it will be re-routed to your new location, but that can take some time. We decided to be proactive and when luggage began appearing in passageways, we went to our original stateroom and our two suitcases were there. We rolled them to our new accommodations and got a jump start on unpacking.

Food is a pretty personal subject and one that’s hotly debated amongst cruise passengers. This was good… That wasn’t... It's all a matter of taste.

MSC Orchestra Gala Buffet
Gala Buffet: As good to eat as it looked
MSC Orchestra Gala Buffet

I like Italian food, especially authentic Italian food. Unfortunately, many Americans haven’t had the opportunity to visit Italy and their exposure to “Italian” cuisine has been limited to Pizza Hut and Olive Garden where pasta is drowned in heavy sauces and garlic is the only identifiable spice—usually on crusty bread. The Italian food on MSC Orchestra was much lighter—particularly the spaghetti and other pasta dishes. Some people loved it and some didn’t. Mel and I often ordered more than one pasta to share and we particularly enjoyed a seafood risotto and cheese filled Sorrento-style cannelloni. On "lobster night" I passed on the crustacean in favor of a delightful veal entree.

We set out to dine in each of MSC Orchestra's restaurants and, as a result, only had dinner in the dining room four times. We tried the Shanghai Chinese restaurant, the 4 Seasons for steaks, and even the casual buffet option for pizza.

Mel and I aren’t accustomed to eating Chinese food often, but the generous portions in Shanghai were quite tasty—mine hot and spicy and Mel's sweet and sour. For two of us, the a la carte dinner was $34 for a shared appetizer sampler, two soups and two main courses, and well worth it. What we do prefer for dinner is a good steak and the 4 Seasons didn’t disappoint us a bit. The filets were perfectly prepared and the entire meal was enjoyable in the aft-facing section of the buffet restaurant seating area (cordoned off in the evening). With a view over MSC Orchestra’s wake, the setting is divine and, for $25 each, we really got our money’s worth.

MSC Orchestra PizzaNow, about that pizza. Richard Sasso claims it’s the best at sea and we aren’t about to argue. Baked in special pizza ovens at a temperature of approximately 600°, we always found piping hot pies available in the afternoon and evening. Slices went so fast that they didn’t have time to cool down. That says a lot.

Beneath the hot Caribbean sun, MSC Orchestra’s two ice cream options were poolside favorites—soft serve cones ($2) at the Barracuda Bar and a dozen flavors of gelato at the El Sombrero Bar available in cups, cones, or sundaes ($1.50-$4). While several lounges are designated “coffee bars,” specialty coffee drinks can be ordered ship wide, even at a bar in the buffet.

In addition to restaurant meals, evening cheese and prosciutto snacks were served in the wine-and-piano bar and MSC Cruises continues the tradition of lavish midnight buffets. The poolside buffet on Gala Night was truly a sight, with the kind of elaborate ice and vegetable carvings I haven’t seen in a long time.

We all know that it’s impossible to please everyone and Mel and I were happy to meet a fellow Georgian, Ken from Columbus who confided that he’s an avowed “foodie” and shared our enthusiasm for dining aboard MSC Orchestra. To not sample the Italian specialties would be like heading for an American fast food chain while touring Rome. Unfortunately, that's what some Americans do.

More in Part Two: Entertainment, Activities, and a day in Cayo Levantado

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