From guest writer Kay Showker
The arrival of the new MSC Divina in Miami last November marked a milestone for MSC Cruises as the first ship of the fast growing cruise line to sail year-round from her home port in Miami to the Caribbean. Since 2005, the line had offered only seasonal fall through winter sailings from the U.S.
MSC Cruises growth is unmatched in the cruise industry. Begun in 1995, by Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC), a Swiss group operating a global fleet of over 500 container ships and several dozen fast ferries, the new line acquired three cruise ships in less than four years, sailing them in the Mediterranean and little known in North America. Then, beginning in 2003, with the aim of becoming a major player in Europe and the Americas, the line built ten large, cutting-edge ships and acquired two others, representing a US$8 billion investment and launching a new ship almost every year for ten years.
And MSC hasn’t finished. Four of its older ships are being cut in half and adding a section with 193 cabins to each and in March 2014, MSC announced its intention to build two 2,250 passenger ships – the largest to date – with an option for two more. MSC Cruises, now one of the largest cruise lines and still privately owned, sails the Mediterranean and the Caribbean year-round, and Europe, South America, South Africa, and Asia, seasonally.
The much-anticipated MSC Divina, the largest member of the MSC Cruises’ fleet, was christened in France in 2012 by Italian film star Sophia Loren, who is godmother of all MSC Cruises’ ships. The Divina is as beautiful as her godmother and Italian from her captain to her design, to her cuisine, to her entertainment.
You can’t miss the Italian connection. The ship brought with her many famous top Italian products and amenities. Topping the list is Eataly, the popular Turin-based chain and epicurean emporium, which is partnered with celebrity chef Mario Batali, among others. The Divina has two Eataly venues: The 30-seat Ristorante Italia, which serves a different gourmet “table d’hote” menu every night ($34); and Manzo Eataly Steakhouse, fashioned after its Manhattan location (and where I ate the most tender filet ever!). Eataly has a mini-market, if you want to take home a taste of Italy. Next door, La Cantina di Bacco, a wine and tapas bar, serves specialty pizza ($8.50 to $12 for 4 persons) and pies that represent various regions of Italy.
More tastes of Italy are found on Deck 7, where Segfredo Cafe Italia serves Segafredo Zanetti coffee, a leading Italian gourmet coffee and chocolate brand. Another partnership, Venchi, makers of fine gelato since 1878, offers two dozen flavors, made fresh daily on board (cone: $2.70). The best known of the Italian partnerships, Campari, features a signature cocktail and a Campari-themed evening once during the cruise; and 150-year-old Martini offers – what else? – a menu of martinis in the La Luna bar. Disaronno, the Italian liqueur maker, has its own bar offering specialty cocktails.
And that’s not all. Piazza Del Doge is designed as a typical Venetian plaza gathering place, day or night, with marble fretwork, a bandstand and music. It is enclosed by archways leading to specialty shops for coffee, pastries, gelato, clothing and jewelry. So now, you know why MSC Cruises’s tagline is “Beautiful. Passionate. Italian.”
These assets are reasons enough that the glamorous Divina is different from other big ships sailing from Florida but there are more. MSC Yacht Club, available for the first-time in North America, is a “ship-within-a-ship” with 60 suites for passengers seeking exclusivity, pampering, and deluxe amenities, such as a personal butler, 24-hour concierge service, and complimentary wines and spirits any time of the day. The Yacht Club has an exclusive pool, lounge/library, Top Sail Lounge and bar, Le Muse dinner restaurant, and private access to the Aurea Spa. Except for being larger, however, the Yacht Club suites are similar to the deluxe cabins elsewhere on the ship.
Top 18 Exclusive Solarium, an adults-only sanctuary on Deck 18 offers its own spa service, bar menu and lounges, where you can buy a lounge for the day (US$20 or a cruise-long access pass (US$110). Wide-brimmed pods providing shade are available for an added fee. Misters and complimentary fruit skewers are served and passengers can enjoy 20 minute on-deck spa treatments like reflexology.
MSC Divina is the first cruise ship to offer Aqua Cycling at sea. The stainless steel bikes, made in Italy by Aqua Cycling by Hydrorider, are placed in pools and classes and training for passengers are led by trained fitness professionals. ($10)
The 3,502-passenger MSC Divina (4,345 max) has 18 decks, each named for a god of Ancient Greece. In creating her interiors, the design team of Genoa-based De Jorio Design International, who designed most of the lines other ships, blended high-tech cool and contemporary features into elegant, stylish decor with Italian and Mediterranean accents and occasional flashy notes.
Passenger cabins and facilities begin on Saturno, Deck 5 centered by a three-desk Atrium with a piano lounge, reception desk, bar and cybercafé and its showpiece — sparkling spiral stairways where each step is covered with hundreds of Swarovski crystals under glass. Forward, the handsome, three-deck-Pantheon Theatre in red and silver has 1,700 seats, all with unobstructed views. The stern holds the lower of the Black Crab Restaurant, the main dining room.
Zeus and Apollo, Deck 6 and 7, house most of the ship’s shops, restaurants (Villa Rossa, the second, smaller main dining room, and two Eataly restaurants), lounges, each with its own design and entertainment, and including a sports bar with a bowling alley, Jazz bar, cigar lounge, and casino. In the stunning, elegant Black & White Lounge and bar, you step down on black granite stairs onto black and white marble floors into a large room with Murano glass streamers sparkling overhead.
Decks 8 through 13 have the majority of the 1,751 passenger cabins and suites with eighty percent outside cabins and about one-third of them with balconies and roomy bathrooms with tub and shower. All cabins have relaxing, contemporary décor with white bedding and duvet covers accented with colorful pillows and throws. They are furnished with dressing table and stool, soft chair and a closet with generous drawer and hanging space. All have flat-screen television, hair dyer, robes, mini-bar, ice service and 24-hour room service.
Almost half of Aphrodite, Deck 14, is taken up by two connecting buffet restaurants – Calumet and Manitou – for breakfast, lunch, and dinner with stations for salads, eggs (no cooked-to-order station), pizza, pasta, deserts and ethnic cuisine. The forward end houses the Aurea Spa with massage rooms [to my surprise, robes or slippers were not provided], pool, fitness center; thermal area with Turkish bath, sauna, beauty and barber shop. The outdoor Aqua Park at midship has the main pool, two hot tubs, and two bars. Next door, Le Sirene houses an indoor sliding glass-roofed pool, three hot tubs, lounge chairs and tables, a bar, and the Pool Shop. (The music here was so loud, it was deafening.)
Mercurio, Deck 15, is home to the first level of the Yacht Club and to the children’s areas with pools, disco, and multi-deck waterslide. At the stern, the infinity Garden Pool and Zen area designed with a soothing blue and purple mosaic, has a lovely De Iorio Design sculpture (others are featured throughout the ship). The balcony overlooking the main pool doubles as a jogging track.
Urano, Deck 16, is a split Deck with more Yacht Club suites and a pool. In one corner is the surprisingly small Sophia Loren Royal Suite (16007), designed with input from the Italian diva. The living room and bedroom are dressed in plush red furnishings and pictures of the actress. Its narrow terrace has high protective (unattractive) windshields.
The Galaxy, aft, is a small specialty restaurant, bar, and disco, billed as a 1950s-style Italian nightclub. It serves a three-course dinner of Mediterranean cuisine and daily brunch. Next door is a small conference room/cinema and Virtual World with a Formula 1 simulator. Outside, the MSC Sports Arena has stadium seating and nets for soccer and other sports.
During a cruise, the main show lounge stages Las Vegas type shows and entertainment tailored to the itinerary, along with dance productions, magicians and comics. Caribbean island bands are featured, too. “Italian Days” dedicated to the music, dance, cuisine and folklore of Italy, include themed dinners, shows, music, language, dance and cooking lessons; the art of pizza making is presented regularly. Passengers can pass their time with trivia, bingo and arts and crafts or outside with mini-golf, ping-pong, shuffleboard.
All dining and theatres on MSC ships are nonsmoking, but don’t be surprised to see some European passengers light up. Laundry and pressing services are available via the ship’s facilities, but Divina does not have self-service launderettes (a much-appreciated amenity on most new ships).
Recently, MSC expanded its kids’ and teens’ programs across its fleet with four new age groups and expanded hours, new activities and entertainment. A soda package costs $28. Throughout the year, MSC has promotions – for baby boomers, seniors, baseball fans, golfers – with substantial reductions and “Kids Sail Free.” Babysitting is available for a fee.
Basically, MSC has been a European product for Europeans but for Divina’s year-round base in Miami, changes were made to appeal to North American cruisers. These included the new smoking policy and English-speaking guest relations, youth, crew and entertainment staffs, hotel director, and cruise director, among other changes.
I can recommend the MSC Divina to Italophiles; to frequent cruisers who want to try something different; to first-time cruisers and less experienced travelers who want to sample a European ambience on a large ship with extensive facilities; and to those looking for a bargain. But bear in mind, Divina is a work-in-progress with more to be done, particularly communicating with cabin stewards who come from many different countries; with cuisine in the buffet restaurants; and with consistency in service and food.
MSC Divina sails year-round from Miami on Eastern and Western Caribbean itineraries with several different itineraries ranging from three to 11 days. For information: MSC Cruises, 6750 N. Andrews Ave, Ft Lauderdale, FL 33309; 800-666-9333; 954-772-6262; fax 908-605-2600; www.msccruisesusa.com or follow MSC on Twitter@MSCCruisesUSA or www.Facebook.com/MSCCruisesUSA, and www.youtube.com/user/MSCCruiseLines.