November 25, 2013.
By CruiseReviews Editor-in-Chief Dave Beers
I just returned from a 3-night debut cruise aboard MSC Divina, sailing from the ship’s new homeport of Miami, Florida. The ship is nothing short of stunning, with a beautiful decor and an elegant feel. The crew is cordial and they usually provided efficient service. The food was often excellent. But can MSC Cruises establish a niche in the North American cruise market that will keep MSC Divina sailing full? One ship versus the elephants in the room (Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Norwegian) and their multi-ship operations from south Florida, year around?
MSC Divina is a mega-ship that can carry over 4300 guests. However it’s design gives the ship an intimate feel more along the lines of a ship much smaller. There are many bars and lounges and they all have an upscale motif with quality furnishings and a lot of marble surfaces. This is true even for the outside areas. The interiors are soothing with lots of dark woods and fabrics. Cabins are similarly decorated. However there are flashes of glitz such as the stunning Swarovski Crystal stair cases in the atrium and the use of mirrors in several places (the elevators in particular) which can often fool one into thinking they are open areas. I almost walked into one mirror, thinking it was another hallway.
Deck 7 is where most of the action takes place, with a seemingly endless line of bars, lounges, and alternate dining venues. You definitely won’t be bored! It was a bit overwhelming at first and it took me a few walk-throughs to get familiar with the layout.
Deck 14 is the pool deck and also has the large buffet restaurant. There are technically two buffets, each with a different name, but this is primarily just to separate the two sides as at times they only keep one side open. Seating was never a problem and I like that there are tables outside the buffet leading to the pools, but not actually by the pools.
I was in cabin 8111, which is a category 7 balcony room. The cabin was typical for a standard balcony on modern cruise ships. About 175 square feet with a balcony that fits two adults. There was a minibar that is stocked with both soft drinks and alcoholic beverages which of course carry a fee. The lighting system uses a card slot by the door which requires that someone place their cruise card in a slot in order to activate the lights. They will not operate without a card in the slot. This is an energy saving measure but it may not be familiar to most American cruisers. The bathroom was small but functional. There were no face cloths provided, which is typical for Europe, but it is an expectation for North American cruisers. I expect that the ship will be providing them, sooner than later. All soaps and the shampoo were liquid and the sink had a built-in squirt pump for hand soap. The bed was firm. I also noted that my cabin was a connecting room with the door to the adjacent cabin in the center of the room. I could hear the neighbors quite clearly at times.
Some things were frustrating to me with regard to cabin service. I guess the cabin staff is used to a largely European clientele because they certainly were in no hurry to set up the cabins for the evening. Our steward would be turning down beds and cleaning at 9pm or later, and the daily program for the next day was not delivered until after 10pm. I was quite disappointed with the debarkation information. There really wasn’t any. No passenger talk by the Cruise Director, no video on the TV, and on the final evening I had no idea where to go on debarkation morning or the process the ship used until around 11pm, when the steward stuck the necessary information in my mail slot in the hallway along with my Customs declaration. The American standard is that these things be handed out by mid-afternoon on the last day of the cruise. They need to remedy this because of the anxiety involved in not knowing what to do mere hours before debarkation commenced.
For those wanting the ultimate in personal service and amenities, the MSC Yacht Club offers high-end suites in a private area of the ship. A large staff of butlers cater to their every whim, starting on the pier at check-in and at every moment of the cruise. MSC Yacht Club guests have access to an open bar, a private lounge and restaurant, and a private pool and hot tubs. I toured this area and found it to be stunning.
Most of the time I was pleasantly surprised by the food on MSC Divina. They are using quality ingredients and almost all pasta used is made fresh daily. Black Angus beef is served. Service was mostly excellent although at times leisurely in the European style. This may not sit well with some American cruisers, especially those who don’t ‘get’ that this is not your average mass-market cruise from a U.S. port.
On embarkation day the ship had both the buffet and a main dining room open for lunch. I went to the dining room and it was a multi-course event, with appetizer, soup, pasta course, entree, and dessert. Portions were large. The steak I ordered was buttery tender and delicious.
We had a special luncheon in the Eataly Italian Steakhouse, which is an ala carte priced dining venue that seats 115 guests. The food was wonderful but I felt the background noise was way too loud with all the tables filled. The room has no soft surfaces to absorb the noise and it got too loud to hear the person sitting next to me. This feeds on itself and everyone was soon shouting just to carry on a conversation. This needs to be addressed by the cruise line.
The Eataly venue has two dining areas. Besides the steakhouse there is Ristorante Italia, an upscale dining room with seating for 30, where dinner costs $34 per person.
The Galaxy Disco Restaurant is another extra-fee dining choice with three set dinner menus ranging from $30 to $55 per person.
La Cantina di Bacco wine bar and pizzeria offers made-to-order pizzas that are perhaps the best at sea. These are authentic Italian-style pizzas with delicious crusts and clean tasting toppings that are not overly seasoned as is common with typical American pizza.
The previously mentioned Buffet Calumet & Manitou is open 20-hours a day offering full meals at times and lesser choices such as “make your own sandwich” bar at other times. The selections were plentiful during the breakfast, lunch, and dinner hours. There is a pizzeria in the buffet that is also turning out freshly made pizzas constantly and they were a hit with the guests. A burger/hot dog line serves ‘fast food’ style with the sandwiches already assembled and in wrappers. I had a cheeseburger that was wonderfully juicy and flavorful. However I think Americans would prefer that the items be offered in the usual assembly line fashion so that people can build their own burgers. I ate breakfast at the buffet one morning and was disappointed. The scrambled eggs and pre-made omelets were cold and chewy and the bacon was in small curled pieces that were overcooked and tough. They also served mass produced fried eggs on the buffet and they were not especially appetizing. Again, American tastes prefer that eggs be made to order unless they are scrambled. Breakfast in the main dining room is the recommendation here. It was excellent.
Dinner in the main dining room was pleasant. The Divina has the traditional 1st and 2nd dining seatings with no ‘my time’ option, which is popular on most other mainstream cruise lines. The staff was gracious and helped each other rather than the typical practice of crew staying within their job descriptions. Again, the portions were very large and the food was tasty and beautifully plated. A surprise on the second night was a flaming Baked Alaska parade with real flames! Other cruise lines have long abandoned that practice so it impressed the crowd. I left dinner on the second evening with the feeling that it was one of the best meals I’d ever had on a cruise ship.
The Sports Bar on deck 7 was barely used. I never saw more than a few people inside. This venue has a food menu offering standard items such as hot wings, burgers, fish and chips, and hot dogs. Certainly a good option for game day.
The room service menu was typical, but oddly they do not serve pasta dishes on the room service menu. I asked the chef who conducted our galley tour why, and he said they didn’t want the quality of the pasta to suffer in the time it takes to put an order together and deliver it. Yes, they take their pasta quite seriously!
Oh, one more thing. Gelato is served both on the pool deck and in the Piazza del Doge on deck 7. It is extra-fee but trust me, it is heavenly. I had a deep sense of well-being one afternoon, sitting in the Piazza del Doge with some passion fruit gelato, followed by a delicious espresso. Every bar is set up to serve Italian style coffee to order. It is something that makes MSC Divina distinctive from the other ships in the American market.
I interviewed the Cruise Director of MSC Divina, Andre Schlemmer. Andre received his cruise creds with Princess, rising through the ranks to Cruise Director. He was offered his current position by MSC Cruises and told me that after touring the ship he leapt at the opportunity to have a leading role in bringing the Divina to America. MSC Cruises wanted a CD with knowledge of the American passenger and their quirks, and Andre clearly was an excellent choice. He was especially proud of the entertainment aboard MSC Divina. I was astonished when he told me he has seven production shows to choose from for any particular cruise, plus a production show solely for children. That is a lot! On our cruise we saw the Billy Bones Pirate show, and Abba show, and a tribute to Michael Jackson. Each show was high caliber with a gifted cast and some wonderful singers. The entertainers are able to perform at some level in any program, so they have a lot of versatility. I was also surprised to learn the ship has two classically trained opera singers aboard. I happen to love opera, and wished they had staged that show for us. Note that there is no bar service in the main showroom. The cruise line feels it detracts from the entertainment, to the point that they are willing to lose that bar revenue in the name of quality shows. Bravo!
Lounge acts were very good. A dueling piano show in the Golden Jazz Bar was fun and got the audience involved. There was a Latin Mambo band and a soft rock band that played in the Black & White Lounge and they were excellent. Several other musical performers were also on the schedule, including a lovely classical music ensemble.
The adventuresome will be blown away by the 4D Cinema. You strap into a chair and go on a simulated roller coaster ride that leaves you screaming like it was the real thing. Awesome!
The ship has a full children’s program for those from 3 to 17 years of age, broken down into four age groups. The children I observed seemed to be enjoying it immensely.
MSC Divina is an elegant ship that offers something different to American cruisers who might be bored with the usual cruise to the Caribbean. It is an authentic taste of the Mediterranean lifestyle. You will have to have your expectations correctly set for an ‘enjoy the moment’ experience, and not for the constant activity and announcements typical for the big players such as Carnival, Norwegian, and Royal Caribbean. MSC Cruises knows this and they are not trying to compete directly with those other lines. They want to be unique. On MSC Divina you can get a taste of ‘La Dolce Vida’ without flying to Italy for a cruise.
MSC Cruises is offering several cruises with competitive rates. I think any cruiser looking for a relaxing vacation in beautiful surroundings should consider MSC Divina.