MSC Splendida, Day 2: Marseilles, the European Capital of Culture

ABOARD THE MSC SPLENDIDA –-You get the feeling that this is going to be an upscale cruise when the taxi driver taking you from the Barcelona airport to the port is playing classical trumpet concerti on his radio.

Upscale is a forte of MSC  cruise ships. In fact, according to cruise director Valerio Stegleano, exclusivity and privacy and five-star service is so important to some passengers now, that pricing voyages according to cabin placement or size is not the main selling point of cruises. Evaluating the cost of them according to “experiences” is vital. “Cruises have gotten cheaper,” Stegleano explained, “so that many more people can afford them.” (This was backed up by passengers Siophan O’Reilly and Liam McCartney of Iniskillem, Ireland, who pronounced their MSC cruise “a bargain compared to others we’ve taken.”)

The MSC Yacht Club offers an exclusive experience.

This means that the riffraff has come aboard in great numbers. Thus, for passengers willing to pay for a private section of the ship with exclusive restaurants, pool and elevator, butlers and complimentary spa and beauty salon treatments plus their own private entrance to the latter, MSC has created its Yacht Club on the top two decks of the Splendida.

Most of the competitively priced staterooms on Splendida — 1,151 to be exact — have balconies anyway, including 28 for the disabled. And you can buy a 7-day cruise package with balcony in the low season for as little as $500. But if you are willing to pay nearly $7,000 for the same week, you’ll get the Yacht Club experience, which we sampled by having the breakfast buffet at its Top Sail Lounge. You’re not even allowed on the yacht club elevator without a butler escort, so Junior Butler Bogdan Lada was sent to push the elevator button with his special key and bring us up to the VIP area, which is equivalent to first class seating in an airplane. There are just 71 yacht club suites, two for the disabled, and one over-the-top royal suite built for the likes of Sophia Loren, who is the diva mascot for MSC Cruises and, yes, who has slept up here in the stratosphere.

The Top Sail Lounge is large and quiet and private, with enormous windows leaning so far up and out of the ship’s bow that sitting in it you feel like one of those iconic wooden figurehead maidens that used to grace ancient ship’s prows. The view is spectacular; we pulled into Marseilles as we breakfasted. The buffet is beautifully presented and with it you will be served your choice of juice and a large variety of coffees and teas. I wouldn’t be surprised if they build a helicopter pad on top of the ship so that these few privileged don’t have to embark and disembark through the same doors as all the great unwashed.

The pool area for the masses, though, is plenty lively and fun for every level of cruise package, with energetic fitness directors who keep everyone working off their gluttonous behavior in the restaurants with aerobics, yoga, stretching, and in the afternoon, mass dancing to such a strong beat that everyone from babes in arms to white-haired grandmothers gets into the act.

Those who took excursions into Marseilles today found that the oldest and second largest city in France has been declared the European Capital of Culture, with 17 museums, 42 theaters and 7,000 cinemas. The largest yachting center in France, too, it produces a Festival of Sacred Music, a Jazz Festival and a Documentary Film Festival. Passengers who don’t love cities can go instead to Aix-en-Provence, with its castles and gardens, or the small town of Cassis, known for its great wine. Kir Royale, anyone?

Passengers have the option to begin and end their 7-day cruises at any of the cities on the itinerary except Tunis, and since a plethora of people arrived aboard from Marseilles today, Stegleano, a Roman native who speaks six languages and is working on his seventh –- Portuguese — switched his public welcoming greeting to the crowd in the theater to begin it in French. He has been asked to work as a translator at the upcoming World Cup games in Brazil, and so will take some time off the ship to do even more translating for a short time.

When there is a large group from a country such as Japan, MSC hires a special “social hostess” to translate for the visitors while on their cruise. So even if you’re not a part of the yacht club privileged, you have your own special “language butler.”

May 18, 2014

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