Friday, June 17, 2016


Inna and I love cruisin' the world by ship and have previously gone with Royal Caribbean (our favorite), Holland America, and Norwegian. Those are the middle ground cruise lines.  You get all that you need for an enjoyable trip at a reasonable price and the ships are ornate and clean.  Disney and Princess are the top tier lines.  But you are going to pay more for the fancy perks, like mints on the bed each night and bathrobes, better entertainment and food, and more lavish surroundings.  At the bottom end, there's Carnival.  Carnival sucks you in because they are always the cheapest.  But there is a reason for that.  They suck.  So, we stick to the mid-range cruise lines and it has always worked out well for us.

The problem with booking the same cruise lines is that they go to the same places.  So, once you have done the Eastern Med or Western Caribbean a few times, there's nothing else to see that's new. They don't change the stops.  And that's okay two or three times, but you will eventually say to yourself, "We're stopping in Grenada again?"

When it comes to Europe, that's a serious commitment of time and money, and having done two Med cruises already, we decided we wanted to go on a cruise that stopped at places we had never seen.

Last winter I started checking out our options and found a seven day cruise with a company I had never heard of before called MSC, offering a very interesting trip with stops in Barcelona, Spain; Marselle, France; Genoa, Italy; Naples, Italy; Messina, Sicily; Valletta, Malta; and Mallorca, in the Balearic Islands of Spain  Friday to Friday, for $905 per person.  That also included a balcony, which for Inna and me is an absolute must.  So, with tips, booze, and incidentals, it would probably come out to about $200 a day.  And that was, at least in theory, cheap for a seven day cruise with a balcony, sailing out of Barcelona (my favorite city on earth), and stopping at six exotic Mediterranean ports that we had never visited.

Before booking the cruise, I checked out a website called Cruise Critic where they rate every ship and tell you the pros and cons.  
They rated the MSC Poesia a 4 out of 5 and said that 51% of people who had taken it liked their cruise.  Not exactly glowing praise, but still not bad.

Then they got down in the weeds, providing greater detail:

Launched in 2008, 92,600-ton, 3,000-passenger MSC 
Poesia is the third of Italy-based MSC Cruises' four Musica-class vessels. 

Tastefully exuberant decor--
 brass handrails on the staircases, marble countertops at reception, a waterfall in the atrium, twinkling lights on the ceiling in the theater -- means the ship is elegant but not boring. Its lounges (particularly the Zebra Bar, Il Grappolo d'Oro wine bar and Hitchcock Lounge) are charming, and the well-appointed, color-splashed cabins make it feel more like an upscale hotel than a cruise ship. Of course, you'll still find the standard cruise-ship offerings like pools, nightly entertainment and kids' activities.

While the ship is lovely, what really sets it apart from other mainstream mega-ships is this: MSC is an unabashedly European line, and the approach to service, onboard vibe and passenger habits reflect that. North Americans shouldn't expect the usual, proactive service which many cruisers are accustomed to finding on Carnival, NCL and Royal Caribbean. While everyone, from cabin stewards to dining room waiters, is helpful and friendly, don't be surprised if you don't learn their names without asking or if you have to specifically request certain U.S. staples like in-cabin ice. You also shouldn't expect to be coddled; although all staff members we encountered aimed to please, we found that it wasn't the norm for them to anticipate our every need.

Poesia splits its time between Northern Europe and South American itineraries. You'll still find many international passengers, even when the ship sails from Fort Lauderdale, so expect all messages -- everything from muster drill instructions and daily programs to announcements from the cruise director -- to be delivered in at least five different languages: English, Italian, Spanish, French and German. (Note: During Caribbean sailings, currency onboard is the U.S. dollar. When the ship sails in Europe, the euro is used.)

Entertainment, some of which missed its mark, has to transcend various language barriers, so you won't find comedians or other similar performers. However, acrobats and jugglers achieve the balance flawlessly, and our jaws dropped more than once at their talents.

In general, the European crowd seems to take life at a much more relaxed pace. In that vein, dinners are eaten a bit more leisurely, and portions are smaller than Americans might be used to, but that just means you'll leave feeling pleasantly full, rather than disgustingly stuffed. Plus, you can always ask for seconds, and the waitstaff will oblige. Another nice touch is that ship staff do their best to seat you with other English-speakers, so you won't have to fumble through meals relying on nods and gestures.

MSC offers excellent rates and deep discounts, but anyone expecting a Carnival-type atmosphere will be disappointed. It seemed the most notable takeaway from our time on Poesia was that people either love it, or they hate it, and we met a lot who fell into each camp. Some weren't happy with the service. Others disliked that the announcements took five times as long, due to the language issue. And still others complained about all menu items that weren't hot dogs and fries. 

If you're looking for an affordable sailing with an international flare without having to travel too far, this might just be the ship for you. However, it's important to understand what you can expect. Overall, cruises on Poesia aren't bad; they're just diff

Inna and I both like different and we had usually found Europeans to be fun and interesting, so we booked the cruise.  We ended up getting exactly what we wanted: a balcony room, amidships, on the tenth deck, so we were strategically located near the dining room (sixth deck) and the cafeteria and pool (thirteenth deck).  And we could avoid the crowded elevators and get some good exercise each day walking the steps.

                                                    MSC IMPRESSIONS
Unlike any other cruise lines we had previously sailed with, this MSC cruise had no beginning or end.  It was a non-stop,7-day loop and people were getting on and off at each stop.  So the faces were constantly changing.  It took us a few days to realize what the hell was going on.  When we pulled into Genoa on the second day, I noticed there were tons of luggage waiting on the dock.  And when we went ashore to look around, we were surrounded by passengers carrying their bags off the ship.  It was then that we realized we were on a cruise that was sailing a never-ending circuit.  Some folks were just doing a two or three day cruise, especially on the weekends.  Essentially, we were on a giant sailing bus with lots of places to eat and play with comfy beds.

Genoa is the big stop because it is MSC's home port, so that's when most people depart and board.  And that first night the new arrivals came on-board was crazy wild.  When we came out of the dining room after dinner, it was like walking into halftime at a Baltimore Ravens football game.

MSC is cheaper than most of the other cruise lines, so their ships are always packed.  But they constantly nickel and dime you with add on fees – expensive shuttles from the port, Internet that doesn't work, steam room and sauna, coffee or tea at dinner  it's all extra and got slightly aggravating.  You probably end up paying more for the cruise in the end when you factor in all of the hidden costs.

As Cruise Critic had warned, there were very few Americans on the MSC Poesia.  Hardly anybody spoke English, including the people working on the ship.  And it was way different than a Royal Caribbean or Holland America cruise, starting with the fact that pretty much every place we went on the ship was really crowded and loud.  It was a perpetual free for all.  And while they tried to limit the ship-board announcements over the PA, when everything has to be done in English, French, Italian, Spanish, and German, it does start to get under your skin.  Luckily for us, they started with English each time, so we could tune it all out after that.

I really must say that the ship was lovely, the state rooms were slightly larger than any ship we had sailed on before, and the crew was always cleaning everything from stem to stern.  Usually, the stateroom attendant comes and cleans your room while you are at breakfast, and then in the evening when you are eating dinner.  But on MSC ships, they run right in and clean your room every time you leave.  We couldn't figure out how they knew when we left.  We thought that maybe there was a hidden alarm on the door.

It took us about two days to figure out how to play the MSC game, and at first we were pretty overwhelmed – and not in a good way.  But we soon learned the dance moves and how to navigate the crowds, and after that, we had a ball.

Lessons learned included:
*  Go to the gym between 4-5 when people are getting
    ready for dinner and starting to party.
*  Eat in the dining room for breakfast rather than battle
    the throngs in the cafeteria.
*  Never go to the cafeteria at peak hours between 12-2.
*  Find the out-of-the-way bars where you can sit quietly
    and relax after dinner.
*  Order drinks via room service so you can avoid the 
    long lines and sloth-like bartenders at the pool and 
    main bars.
*  Don't take any crap off the Europeans.  Push back!

Inna and I have spent a lot of time in Europe, and we thought we knew the score.  We had always found Europeans to be cultured and friendly. But being on a tightly-packed cruise ship with them is a whole different ballgame.  

As a general rule, when occupying a finite space, Europeans (not all, of course)  I mean, I don't want to start sounding like that jerkoff Donald Trump  are pushy and rude, especially the little old ladies and children.  But I really don't think it was intentional.  It's more like second nature.  My theory is this:  Their crowded urban lifestyles teaches them from an early age that they have to scramble to get their rightful share. So, they bump into or in front of you without even really seeing you. And being small definitely gives you an advantage because you have a low center of gravity.

The buffet each day was like a rugby scrum.  And you could see the Americans holding their plates tightly against their chests almost in fear, with their mouths agape, like WTF?  It really did give us a new appreciation for just how courteous Americans are in relation to Europeans when space is limited.

You could hold a door open for others all day before someone would stop in thanks and let you pass. They figure that you are either a total dumbass or the doorman.

Being a big-boy American definitely had its advantages in such a dynamic.  By day three, I found myself elbowing people out of the way in the cafeteria, hallways, or around the saltwater pools.  When in Rome ...

Inna likes her coffee in the morning, and we have a ritual when we travel where I get up early and go get her some fresh coffee.  I don't drink coffee, but I like keeping my little baby happy.  So, I go take a dump in one of the main bathrooms so I don't stink up the room, and then snag some hot coffee.  Inna said the coffee on-board the ship was much better than the "dishwater" they served on the other cruise lines. Europeans do know their coffee.

One morning I was standing by the Espresso machine, waiting for the server to change the filter, and this little Italian lady just butted right in front of me.  I smiled and then kneed her right in the back.  She didn't say a word or even look at me.  But she got the point, and immediately moved behind me where she belonged.  Imagine doing that in America.

Food is definitely a big part of a cruise for a lot of people, but not so much for Inna and me.  We do breakfast and then we are off the boat until late afternoon.  We take along some fruit and yogurt in our packs for while we are ashore.  Dinner is our big meal and it's always fun to eat a fancy feast where you get served like royalty.  And we invariably meet very nice people with whom we can share our daily adventures. This time around, it was a wonderful couple from Montreal who taught ballroom dancing.  We plan to visit them this summer in Canada.

Dinners are always a big production on a cruise ship.  There can be no denying, however, that many passengers spend a lot of time chowing down in the cafeteria buffet and that's where most people eat all of their meals, especially families with kids.

The MSC food was okay, nothing special.  There was less variety than we were used to, but they changed up the menu a little each day, it was pretty tasty, and we always found something we liked.  It was mostly Italian.  There were many pasta and rice dishes, casseroles, and a wide assortment of meats and fish.  The salad bar was immense with a wide variety of ingredients to mix and match.  And the desert lines were always quite long as people grazed through a nice assortment of cookies, cakes, custards, and jello parfaits.  

Fruit is my thing and the fruit was fresh every day.  One thing we found interesting was that all the fruit had seeds, like the watermelon and grapes.  I had forgotten that those fruits even had seeds.  I thought that seeds in everything other than maybe oranges were long gone.  That's because Americans eat genetically modified foods.  The Europeans don't.  So their fruit still has seeds.  And it tastes better too.

One of the most popular food items was pizza.  They had two big pizza ovens pumping out pizzas from dawn 'til they closed at ten.  And it was really, really good.  It was very thin crust pizza with spicy ingredients and excellent cheese.  They couldn't make it fast enough.  And as soon as a pizza was put out on a tray, it was gone.

Another big hit was pure Americana.  They served hamburgers and pretty tasty french fries.  For some inexplicable reason, they put them in bright yellow fast food packages like at Burger King.  We found it very amusing. 

But the most popular food every day was bread.  Anything bread – buns, biscuits, rolls, doughnuts, bagels, bread sticks – it didn't matter. We often saw people walking with an entire big plate laden with bready substances.  They also really went in for monstrous cold cut subs that were mostly bread.  This was curious because Europeans are rarely overweight.  Maybe they were just loading up while on vacation.

Most cruise ships offer several high-end places to eat, where you pay extra like you are dining on the town, but our ship just had one eatery, a very attractive sushi restaurant that required reservations.  We both like sushi but never found the time to check the place out.

The one thing that was exactly like America was peoples' constant obsession with their goddamn cellphones.  Even on a ship without Internet most of the time, everybody was always checking their phones, especially the young girls.  I could never figure out what the hell they were looking at.  The only time I used my phone was to snap a photo, play my music out on the balcony, or upload my handy-dandy Avenza geopdf map App which I used to navigate without an Internet connection in each city we visited.

I was constantly perplexed by  the MSC business model which is really quite odd.

For instance, the excursion help desk was closed in the mornings before the shore excursions left.  This often led to much confusion.

The library was always open, but the books were all locked up in pretty glass cabinets and there was often no one there to help you.

At dinner, they swiped my cruise card to pay for tea and coffee, and then a few minutes later they would come back and ask for my card again in order to pay for our drinks. We could never figure out why they didn't just do it all at once.

They aggressively pushed the photo package and there were photographers standing all over the ship, like panhandlers on a street corner, trying to get you to let them take your picture in front of a nondescript black background that could be anywhere on earth.

They were constantly hawking the Internet package and it was a total ripoff because it often didn't work.  And when it did, it was incredibly slow.  On the fourth day, Inna got a denial of service message when she tried to go on-line, and when she asked why, she was instructed to read the fine print on the contract where it said in tiny print at the bottom that once you reached 800 MG – a limit very easy to quickly reach if you are downloading photos – the service would end without warning, until you bought the extended package.

It took at least 15 minutes to get a drink at almost any bar – 30 at the pool bar – so we soon learned that it was much easier to order through room service which was actually quite speedy and efficient, and cost the same. (8 euros)

Because of the language barrier, we were never really sure whether the answer we got was correct, or whether they got our order right.

The thing that I liked the most about MSC was the fact that they didn't hassle us about bringing liquor on-board at each stop.  They told us in advance that we couldn't bring ANY liquor on the ship at any time. And they made a big show of checking our bags in metal detectors and x-ray machines each time we re-boarded the ship.  But they never confiscated anything.  Like with everything else on-board, it took us a few days to figure this out.

By day three we were sick of paying $10 per drink, so in Naples, Inna bought a nice bottle of wine and stuck it in her big purse.  I had her throw in a few tall boy beers in glass bottles for good measure because I'm not big on wine.  She smiled at the attendant as they scanned her bag and nothing was said.  We sat on the balcony that night drinking our wine and beer, wishing we had brought more.

When we got back on the ship the next day in Messina, we had a bottle of wine, a handful of scotch miniatures, and a couple tall boy beers. Again, we sailed through the scanners without a peep.

In Malta, I just bought a six pack of local beer in cans, put them inside a plastic shopping bag and no one even noticed  or cared.

Having your own liquor on a cruise is a huge bonus, and MSC makes it easy.  We really liked that.

Being a true lover of frosty beverages, I would be remiss if I didn't say a little about the Mediterranean beers.  They really go in for lagers and they have some great ones.  Three of the best were:

MESSINA - La Nostra Passione Birra - Big brown pint bottle, bearing a yellow label with a blue clipper ship logo. (My favorite)

CISK - Lager Beer brewed since 1928 - Malta's finest - Red label in a yellow can with a fancy white and silver crest of a rearing steed and gold coins.

SKOL - Danish lager brewed in Malta in a red and white can.

When you add up all the god, the bad, and the ugly, we had an absolute ball sailing on the MSC Poesia.  Inna and I both agreed that we would travel with them again in a heartbeat.  BUT, and this is a really big but, we wouldn't couldn't – do it without a balcony to escape the madness.  It would have been pure torture without the haven of our wonderful balcony where we spent many an hour reading, watching the deep blue sea, and toasting the islands and countries that passed by our crow's nest perch.

No comments :

Post a Comment