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GETTING TO THE CRUISE:
We chose to fly into Fort Lauderdale the day prior and stay at a hotel, which always makes for an enjoyable first day of the cruise. There is nothing worse than being wrecked that first day due to overnight travels. It was our first time flying Virgin America and what an AWESOME experience! I can’t say enough great things about it, in-flight services that compare to nobody else flying the friendly skies, wi-fi access at 30,000 feet for the entire flight, a wide array of music, television and movie programming. The flight went very quickly. In fact, right now I am typing this review on the airplane on our way home ~ how is that for efficiency?
We stayed at the Hyatt Regency Pier 66, located very close to the Port of Fort Lauderdale, although anything located by the airport or the port is close, it is really all of about 10 minutes drive between the airport and the port. Our hotel did not offer shuttle services; but taxis are readily available between all points. Post-cruise we stayed at the Hyatt Place North Airport and they had a complimentary shuttle to the port and airport.
THE PORT OF FORT LAUDERDALE:
This is a very busy port, on the weekends they are processing about 5-7 ships each Saturday and Sunday. This makes for a lot of traffic in and out of the pier, but amazingly enough everything was very smooth. Our shuttle bus knew exactly where to drop us off, next to the porters who took our luggage and we could enter the cruise ship terminal building to begin check-in. Contrary to what you might have always thought, the employees working the port are not cruise line employees. The check-in process was extremely streamlined. You were able to sit in waiting areas instead of going through a “Disneyland” line and you never felt crowded in a bunch of people.
When our cruise ended, again the disembarkation process was very smooth and this is partly due to the efficiency of the cruise line. MSC has people off the ship starting at 8am, which is the earliest I have ever seen a ship get processed! There are a lot of transportation options at this Port. I noticed the airport shuttle, complimentary bus system that drops at all the terminals and the airport parking lot. There were taxis a plenty, several hotel shuttles and also some car rental agency shuttles. So getting to and from the airport, port and surrounding hotels is very easy.
I want to preface that I am going to do this review a bit differently than the reviews that I normally do. You might be wondering why? Overall, after experiencing this cruise line first hand, I would not recommend MSC Cruises for the majority of my clients when there are so many other U.S. Cruise Line options that I feel do a much better job. MSC Cruises is an Italian Cruise Line who recently just started sailing in North America with Caribbean cruises in 2008-2009 and now 2009-2010 seasons. My big appeal to this was the fact that they were doing a Country Music/Dance Theme Cruise and Country dancing is our thing. I also knew that I would have many people interested in joining us for that same drawing factor. They have very decent pricing and a wonderful “kids sail free” program that does peak interest, but the adage of “you get what you pay for” really comes true with this cruise experience.
First of all, being a European Cruise Line, all announcements are done in five languages. English is the first spoken language, then French, German, Italian and Spanish. They don’t do that many announcements, so it really wasn’t that much of a big deal; however; if you went to bingo or a dance lesson or ship party, all five languages were used. At the beginning of each show, the announcements would be done in five languages and at the end of the show once the English announcement was done, half of the theatre cleared out very quickly.
Furthermore to the language barriers, every cruise that I have taken, which now would be 21 and counting has had an international staff, but they all did a pretty decent job with English as a second or third language and tried very hard to communicate with you. On this cruise, there were many staff members who probably had very few English skills and that was unacceptable. It would be one thing if the cruise line only marketed to Europe and some North Americans took the cruise, but they are marketing to the U.S. market, so I feel that the staff should be fluent enough in English.
Many of the staff members were downright rude, if you were in the way of the busing staff in the buffet or walking in someone’s path you were pretty much run into with no “excuse me” or “pardon me”. Now there were a few staff members who shined with wonderful personalities and we tried to gravitate towards them. We had a few cocktail staff in the various bars who were talkative and tried to communicate. Our dining room waiter was very good with communication, our busboy didn’t speak a lick of English other than “coffee”, “cream” and other useful food and beverage service words. Our cabin stewardess was great at cleaning, but not great with her English either. We had an issue with her leaving our balcony door unlocked each day after she cleaned and that was really a frustrating thing with trying to get her to understand how to lock the door and that it needed to be done. I think she just lacked a lot of common sense. The DJ in the disco on the first night just stopped playing music in the middle of us dancing and I asked him, “what’s up with no music?” and his reply, “no people”. Of course, my reply to him was “so what are we? “ He did not reply and walked off in a very pompous manner. I then went directly to the reception desk and filed a complaint. The Cruise Director did have a talk with him and it never happened again and she was very good at following up with us by phone and letter.
Marianna, our group coordinator was wonderful to work with. All of our group requests were handled very efficiently and she was always there at our events to make sure we had what we needed. Any deliveries that I needed to my group, she handled with a smile. Again, a bit of communication issues and awkward moments of us not being able to communicate that the conversation was done, but she did a good job.
Shore Excursions were a bit challenging. There were a few in San Juan (including our Flamenco Show) that were cancelled due to lack of people, which I find hard to believe and they shouldn’t have minimum limits. That is something I’ve never heard of on a cruise before. We had a few canceled tours in Tortola due to adverse weather conditions. However, to get the refund you had to bring your tickets down to the desk so they could process. They could have processed refunds without inconveniencing the passengers to do this.
There were quite a few other incidents where I feel MSC had to learn to do things better if they are going to succeed with the American Crowd. One other thing to note, MSC never seemed to get to port on time- there were significant time changes from the itinerary that was published with our original documents, this interferred with shore excursions that we had arranged with outside companies. These are just a few of them.
This is a new ship, two years old and it is a very clean, sleek and beautiful vessel. The “hardware” is beautiful. There are some lounges with very decent size dance floors, which is something that I am always look for when viewing a ship. The “grand atrium” isn’t as grand as some other ships I’ve been on, but it was pretty. There is a lot of outdoor deck space on the pool and sun decks. We never had trouble finding a deck chair or a good place to lay out. Casino was pretty large for a ship and they also had a separate poker room, which is great for any poker aficionados. One was never lacking a good place to get a drink with several locations throughout the ship. The stores were small and I didn’t feel they were mapped out on the deck plan very well. We had trouble finding some of the specific stores, when usually on other ships the stores flow one into the next.
On this ship, they have two main restaurants with fixed dining schedule. There is also the standard buffet restaurant located up on Deck 13 near the pool, they have several stations that you can go through, separate salad bar and separate beverage station for water, iced tea and juices. Overall, your typical buffet for a cruise line. Now most cruise lines will have a poolside grill restaurant for hamburgers and hot dogs, MSC does not- they offer those items in one section of the buffet restaurant. They also have another section that has pizza until 10pm. I will say that the burgers are excellent. The pizza is good, not great. Most meals in the main dining room were good, not outstanding but then again when you are feeding 1500 people at one time, you are going to be serving average food. I would have expected the pasta dishes to be better, seeing as this is an Italian Cruise Line, but they really weren’t that good.
They have two specialty restaurants on this ship. One is located on deck 13, using the back area of the buffet restaurant (so it’s buffet during the day and fine dining at night). They only serve 30 people per night in this venue and it is an a la carte menu with prices. You PAY for this experience , but the food was excellent. Most cruise lines with specialty dining will charge a flat service fee, this was different- you paid the a la carte prices on the menu. Now the prices were reduced from what you’d expect to pay at a fine dining venue on land. We all had very excellent meals in this venue the night we chose to dine there.
The other specialty restaurant is a Japanese/Sushi restaurant. We did not dine in this venue at all, but heard that overall the food was good. We never really saw a crowd in that restaurant, so looks like we just didn’t have a crowd on this ship that enjoys sushi.
Something to keep in mind- each evening there is a dinner buffet for people who do not wish to eat in the main dining room. However, on Gala Nights, the buffet is closed. I don’t really agree with this as I feel that people should still have that choice. Also, each night they have snacks from 1130pm-1230am The “Gala” Buffet on the first formal night was very disappointing, but the second formal night they did advertise to come early and take pictures. I would have expected better, but it was o.k. They did have the ice and food sculptures, but it’s not that “grand” when done in the buffet restaurant, most cruises that I’ve been on will do this buffet in one of the main dining venues.
There is limited 24 hour room service. The breakfast offered continental and then the rest of the day it’s soup, salad, cheese platters or brownie with vanilla sauce. Of course, we typically don’t use room service on a cruise unless we are starving at 2am when we return from dancing and cheese/crackers is a suitable choice.
As a group, we did have our own pre-arranged dance lessons on three days for two hours a piece. That was a lot of fun and our group dance instructor taught many line dances to our group and anyone else who dropped in. There were a few other dance groups on board and everyone was happy to “share” their dance time and lessons with others. Because this was a Country Theme Cruise, they did have one lounge with nightly entertainment. Two country singers who would play for 4 hours non-stop, they would take turns with an hour set. They weren’t great, but good enough and we did get to dance every night so I feel that MSC upheld their end of the bargain with that.
There was a Country Concert on the second night, “The Bellamy Brothers” and they put on an awesome show and I will say it was the only night that the Theatre was packed. I did enjoy the fact that you could get to the theatre at starting time and not have a problem finding a seat and being that they had to do the announcements in five languages, we had that leeway time to get seated. Most of the Poesia dancers/singers shows were o.k. The dancers weren’t that great, the singers were very good and they had some fabulous “Cirque du Soleil”- like dancers and awesome acrobats. We did go to the shows nightly and never felt bored.
PORTS OF CALL:
San Juan, Puerto Rico: We had both been here before and did plan on going to the Flamenco Show that ended up being canceled. So we just stayed on board the ship and had our fancy dinner in the 5 star alternative restaurant. We enjoyed our bottle of complimentary wine on our balcony as we watched the evening lights come on in San Juan. The weather was temperamental, sunny one moment and then raining the next.
Phillipsburg, St. Marten: We had also visited this port of call before also and did not have any plans for this day, except to enjoy the ship all to ourselves while everyone else was in port. We were able to get some great sunshine that day and enjoy the peacefulness and catch up on some reading.
Tortola, British Virgin Islands: We were going to do a boat mini-island cruise, but found out the night prior that it had been canceled due to adverse weather conditions. When we arrived into port, the weather was beautiful, but we were told the other side of the island had completely different weather. We ended up walking into town and doing some shopping.
Nassau, Bahamas: We had pre-planned to take the Atlantis Excursion, which included a ferry ride to Paradise Island, a guided tour of the Atlantis and It’s aquariums and then a free day to enjoy the property until you take the ferry back at your leisure. The Atlantis Resort is beautiful and huge with lots of beaches, pools and a great water slide park. However, in order to use the beach/pools we would have had to pay $25 upgrade charge (to our already $50 ticket) and if we wanted to use the water slides, it would have been $75 upgrade charge. We felt for two hours, neither charge was worth it, so we just walked around and took in the sights of the resort. We had beautiful weather in Nassau this day also.
What this my favorite cruise? No, probably down near the bottom, better than the Dawn Princess, but probably worse than all the others.
Will I cruise MSC again? Not likely, my feeling is “never say never” and I’d like to see them do well in North America, they have beautiful ships, it’s just everything else that they need to work on. If they did another Country Theme cruise, I would probably be inclined to try it again. We will see.
TO VIEW PICTURES OF THE SHIP CLICK HERE: