The rise of MSC cruises over the past decade has been nothing short of breathtaking. Within ten years, the company had commissioned a stunning quintet of five massive, 92,000 ton Poesia class sisters and, even more impressively, the even bigger Fantasia class quartet, coming in at a block busting 133,000 tons each.
Add to that the now well known ‘work horses’ such as Opera, Sinfonia and Lirica, and you have a fleet whose growth has been the most dramatic so far this century. Yet the genesis of this maritime monolith could hardly have been more low key.
MSC had it’s beginnings in the freight division of the famous Italian Lauro line. When the company morphed into MSC- Mediterranean Shipping Company- it was primarily a cargo concern; a part of the business that still has a high priority in the head offices at Genoa.
All the same, the company began operating a quirky trio of second hand tonnage on cruises in the 1990’s; the Rhapsody (former Cunard Princess) Monterey, and Melody, formerly the Home Lines flagship, Atlantic.
All of these ships were relatively small and intimate, and the cruising division remained very much an experiment; a kind of side order on the company’s global platter of products. That all changed with the collapse of First European cruises in 2003.
When that promising company’s fleet went into liquidation, MSC surprised everybody when they purchased several of the ships. At the same time, the line began planning the next generation of ships for what would be it’s sudden, spectacular expansion. Initially at least, the core product was concentrated in and around the Mediterranean region. The exception was the venerable Melody, which was packed off to operate winter cruises from South Africa for four months each year.
The new ships came like a series of stunning drum rolls. Huge, expansive and sheathed in gorgeous marble, etched glass and shining brass, they are a million miles removed in style and execution from their prime rivals over at Costa. Huge, sweeping staircases studded with lights flow beautifully through giant, uncluttered atria. The lines are sweet, simple, and meant to emphasize the spatial splendour of this new generation of ocean goddesses; each one suffused with an unmistakably Italian flair.
The MSC ships have taken the whole subtle, indolent vibe of la dolce vita and pretty much made it their mantra. Each of their ships reflects the art and elegance of the Italian way of life. They are often noisy, crowded and yes, sometimes quite maddening experiences for more genteel, less quixotic souls. They appeal very much to multi-generational families. And this has proved to be one of MSC’s main revenue streams over the last decade.
Daytime lifestyles echo that of the lidos of Sorrento or even Venice. There are vast, double height lido areas with sliding glass roofs, a large pool and waterfall, and bubbling hot tubs. This being Italy afloat, there is a handy ice cream bar serving lashings of mouth watering gelati, and a nearby buffet. On the big ships, these are the size of a small railway station.
And they can feel just as crowded and chaotic, too. That said, it is all pretty good natured. Standing in line is an alien concept to the majority of Italian passengers; they weave in and out like dragonflies to whatever part of the buffet takes their fancy. Rather than be offended- and they don’t mean you to be- the trick is to do exactly the same yourself. Do it with a smile, and the apparent carnage becomes less of a chore.
At night, families keep their children up much later than we’re accustomed to in the UK. It is not unusual for the very young to be still running off all that surplus energy at eleven in the evening, but you can guarantee that the parents will be keeping a very watchful eye on the bambini.
As with all contemporary lines, the MSC ships are massive, balcony strewn monoliths that bear little resemblance to such past Italian legends as Raffaello or Rex. But their distinctive, deep blue, swept back funnels are every bit as architecturally distinctive- and unmistakable- as those of Carnival or, indeed, the rival Costa ships.
Food on MSC was very good indeed, with much creative play resulting from the locally sourced fruit, vegetables and meats on board. As on many lines, the main dining rooms have evolved into theatre and entertainment venues. During the evening, each operates as a two seating venue. But there are no shortage of alternatives.
While MSC has not embraced the alternative dining venue concept as fully as Norwegian and, lately, Royal Caribbean, the line does feature some very finely styled, minimal chic, extra tariff options, mainly in the form of Asian themed venues. The aforementioned buffet also offers an evening dinner service, and tends to be less chaotic at that time of the day. It is also quite beautifully lit as well.
Inside, the ships are beautiful examples of modern styling. Deep, comfortable armchairs in shades of terracotta flank the passageways that meander through the main public areas. As a venue for people watching, few things are better set up than an MSC ship.
The show lounges are huge, multi level confections, alive with sound and colour productions that try impressively to cater to the company’s multi lingual passenger make up. Inevitably, some are more successful than others. But you cannot fault the enthusiasm and, because of their massive entertainment handle, the bigger ships especially are suffused with a wealth of alternative entertainment venues and options; from a huge, glass walled disco than spans the entire stern of the upper deck, to a cozy little hideaway with a live acoustic guitarist. You’ll always find something that makes you want to linger just that little bit later. And many do exactly that.
With a plethora of new, platinum chip tonnage on stream, MSC has been able to diversify way beyond it’s Mediterranean cradle. Each year, their ships operate a scintillating series of cruises to South America. A ship is almost always positioned in the Dubai market, with another in the Red Sea. For next season, the winter deployment to South Africa is up to two ships; testament to the growing success and visibility of the brand.
There are ships deployed to northern Europe and, in the summer, even one that is home ported in Southampton for a lucrative season. While remaining more or less true to its quintessential Italian style, the line has tweaked the on board product to appeal to other national sensibilities.
But the big game changer has been the placing of a ship in the winter Caribbean market. Next season sees the arrival of the gigantic MSC Divina to begin year round Caribbean cruises out of Miami.
It has taken a while to get a definitive presence established in the States. American passengers are far more used to the familiar, US-influenced styles of the major cruise lines, and many Americans still find MSC a little quirky for their tastes. But the line is constantly fine tuning it’s product, and the arrival of a dedicated, year round ship- and quite a stunning one at that- should allow MSC to finally ‘bed in’ to the lucrative USA market. Expect definite expansion in that direction.
MSC has also been very assiduous in building up a year round presence in the Mediterranean and Canary Islands, sailing ships from both Venice and Barcelona right through the winter seasons. This is actually a very good time to see the ‘Med’, with lower temperatures but generally bright, clear days. Shorn of the summer tourist hordes, it is also that much easier to see the sights. Many Eastern Mediterranean cruises allowed for overnights in both Israel and Egypt. Like all companies, MSC watches the complex, tortured political situation in the region. It can amend itineraries for safety’s sake and, indeed, it sometimes does.
Cabins on MSC are comparable to other main stream cruise lines in terms of size, location and facilities, and run the usual ranges. from insides to outsides, to balcony. I got very little use from my balcony during my February cruise (it was usually overcast) but you can put that down to my decision. I should imagine those same balconies are quite idyllic little window boxes during the long, languid summer days and nights.
Of course, the newer ships also operate the MSC Yacht Club; a kind of gated ‘ship-within-a-ship’ community that has upgraded accommodation, private lounge, dining and pool areas, and lots of peachy little touches, such as private butlers and priority embarkation. I have not yet sampled these sumptuous little havens, but I am told on good authority that they are some of the most decadent, desirable digs anywhere on the seven seas, and well worth the cost of the upgrade.
I really do enjoy the bubbly, feel good vibe and sense of fun that is to be found aboard these ships. They are not perfect, but no ship ever is. And, it has to be said, they do represent outstandingly good value for money.
You’ll be with a lot of other people of course, and that invariably means that getting on and off the ship can be more time consuming. A bit of patience and a certain amount of tact will go a long way here, as will a smile. Practice your indolent shoulder shrugging; you’ll see a lot of it here.
I should also mention that MSC has very good singles prices, sometimes with no supplement at all on certain sailings. Outstanding bargains are to be had on ocean cruises, when the ships transit between cruising grounds each spring and autumn (see my previous article on crossings) and also on some of the excellent Red Sea itineraries on the smaller, more intimate Sinfonia and Lirica.
For lovers of the good life and those seeking a change of cruising style, with more than a hint of subtle Italian elegance, this line will deliver the goods nicely. MSC is as bubbly as prosecco, and every bit as authentically native Italian. Enjoy!