I used to balk at people who went on cruises. I didn’t understand the appeal. To me, it was akin to staying in a floating hotel in a state of constant gluttony, while being forced to partake in activities I had no interest in. I also wasn’t sure if it would be a good choice for my adventurous family. Little did I know that my perception was all wrong, and my recent week spent on a MSC cruise ship proved otherwise. My children were extremely excited about this trip as soon as it was booked. They had been dreaming about going on a cruise for months (granted, they were hoping for a Disney cruise) but my husband who has traveled extensively, remained skeptical, as did I.
The Escapism Factor: What We Like About MSC However, after just 1 or 2 days on the ship, we were both converts, realizing the escapism factor that cruise traveling offers and it’s not something to be taken for granted. Traveling on the MSC Divina on our first family cruise was really special and sheer luck as our first venture out onto the high seas for many reasons. For one thing, the Divina is a new ship and a spectacular one visually. It offers the best of cutting-edge technology, the glamour of golden age sea travel (there are photographic reminders all over the ship) and a full itinerary. MSC’s story began 300 years ago in Sorrento and the line maintains their legacy. Their mantra is literally that good food is a way of life and that following your heart is just as important as following your head. Life should be measured in moments, not minutes. Hence, my family savored our time on the ship, and the warm staff helped in our quest to have an authentic cruise experience.
Another reason we favored this ship is that MSC is a European line. It derives from Italy, and there are so many Italian touches on board – from the staff to the foot to entertainment. From Italian opera to learning the language to espressos to a gelato bar to wine tastings, the ship exudes Italian culture and heritage. Saying that, the entire staff is around the world, and I think, for that reason, they aren’t pushy. No one pushed us to book excursions on board or purchase anything from the shops. The service was nothing but attentive and courteous. There was also a lot of focus on safety and hygiene. In addition to constant hand washing (there are Purell containers all over the ship and you’re asked to wash often). there was a safety drill as soon as we got on board and obvious efforts to keep us safe at all times. The ship is also very clean and its staff make every effort to keep it that way 24 hours a day. The food is also exceptional for a cruise ship, although you have to remember this was my first cruising experience. It was hard to believe the chefs were preparing for over 4,000 passengers a day. There was a nice variety of healthy options, an issue of great importance to me, and our meals weren’t rushed. Once on board, we were reminded that we were on holiday and that there was no rush. That included long, savory meals.
We truly savored the variety of entertainment and daily activities. The night time performances were outstanding. Every night after dinner we were treated to a night of acrobatics, music and dance. By day, we were all doing our thing – whether it was lounging by the pool or jive dancing. The options were creative and fun and often there was more than one activity at a time that I wanted to participate in, but we refused to follow a schedule and went with the flow during our entire seven days on the ship. Where We Slept: Our Stateroom We were given a perfectly sized stateroom for four persons with a balcony overlooking the sea. The room consisted of a double bed, a pull-out sofa, a TV and bathroom. While it wasn’t easy keeping it tidy with two kids, our room attendant cleaned it twice a day – replacing our towels, making our beds and tidying up our belongings. The mini bar was refreshed daily. After a long day out in the sun, sitting out on the balcony watching the view of the sea felt just right.
Where We Ate I had a bit of a misconception about cruise food before getting on the Divina. I envisioned one long buffet after another, so I was pleasantly surprised to find not only restaurants that served sit down meals for lunch and dinner as part of our package, but also specialty restaurants that offer a change of pace from the normal cruise food. These weren’t included in the cruise package but were nice diversions from the set meals.
At the beginning of the cruise, I tried to best to rein in what my family ate and encouraged healthy choices. I won’t say I gave up but I did become less rigid. We agreed on having one sweet option a day and to lay off sugar drinks. I encouraged high protein dinners, as well, but I refused to cramp anyone’s style and gave into the fact that it was only seven days and completely surreal. Who eats like that in real life? Why not enjoy ourselves? However, I will add that for people watching their weight, the menus did list alternative options so it is possible not to overeat on a cruise. Also, when you’re not eating, try to exercise as much as you can – walk up stairs every chance you get – get your body moving to work off some of the calories. Buffet breakfast is served from 6:30-10am and offers just about everything you and your family could want. It was definitely the most crowded meal of the day, as it’s the only place to go in the morning, but the room is huge and it was always possible to find seating with a view of the ocean by the window, or we could take our morning coffee and meal out on the deck to get some air. There were more options for lunch. If you’re into buffets, the Buffet Calumet and Manituris is open all afternoon. We were pleased to find an ethnic section and traditional offerings, as well as a full salad bar. For more controlled portions and refinery with a sit down meal, we went to the Villa Rossa. Seating times were more limited (12-2), but when time is of no issue, it is well worth it. The food during this meal was not dissimilar to the evening meals.
We had a reserved table each night at 6pm. Two waiters were assigned to our table, both from Indonesia and both very well mannered and attentive. The boat has a dress code in the evening – no jeans or shorts. As a mom who works and has to get food on the table regularly, it was a treat to have full sit-down meals with polite service. I can’t say the food was extraordinary, but most of it was quite good. We always had an option of fish, meat or pasta, and always a vegetarian option, which I appreciated. Wine and beer was included with evening meals.
The Divina hosts Eataly Steakhouse, which we were happy to experience during a date night without our children. The popular Turin-based chain was founded by Oscar Farinette in 2007 and opened in the U.S. in 2010 in partnership with celebrity chefs Marion Batali and Lidia and Joe Bastianich. Eataly now has 16 locations around the world. It’s an upscale Italian culinary experience and we were treated with exceptional wine, exquisite fish and steak, the best salads on the ship and out of this world cannoli for dessert. The décor is simple yet elegant. White tablecloth, white flowers, wooden floor, exposed brick walls. The bread is served in paper bags to keep it warm with olive oil for dipping it into. I’m going to elaborate on this experience in a future post. The meal was just that good. Eataly serves their homemade pizza with individual toppings all day – either in the restaurant or via room service. It’s not the pizza you can get from the buffet – it’s gourmet and it’s sublime and worth the extra fee.
Nearby is La Cantina de Bacco, a wine bar associated with Eataly, that has an extensive menu produced by an association of leading Italian winemakers committed to producing high-quality wines using only sustainable farming practices. The menu offers bottles from famous wineries including Fontana Fredda and Mirafiore. The cruise offers “The Winemaker Experience” where you can create your own custom bottle of wine and purchase anywhere from 1, 2, 3, or 12 bottles of wine or simply participate in the Boutique Winery Tasting. We sat at the wine bar one afternoon and sampled a few Italian wines and a few appetizers offered free of charge with a tasting. Our Daily Program
Each night we received a full agenda for the next day and were able to check off our planned activities. There was an entertainment team who led everything and was seen all over the ship all day and night who led these activities. My daughter enjoyed arts & crafts and spent several hours each day designing a tee shirt, making a decorative box and paper flowers. My husband likes to dance and took classes daily including tango, jive and waltz. We took Italian lessons. We went shuffle boarding and joined in ping pong tournaments. I took yoga classes daily (for a small fee) in the gym and took morning walks on the top deck. There are trivia games, aerobic classes, water balloon tosses and so much more. We could be busy…or do nothing.
After dinner, we danced (with the kids in tow). We drank cocktails in the jazz bar. We went to the shows. One night there was an Elton John tribute, another night karaoke. We drank tea in the lounge and listened to a Russian trio playing classical music. It was a true break from reality. Excursions at Island Stops
The boat stopped three times. We spent a whole day in St. Martin, 1/2 a day in the British Virgin Islands and a whole day on a private island called Great Stirrups Bay in the Bahamas. We booked our tours off the ship for a fraction of what was charged on board ($20-$25 a person) and got a full taste of each island. We shopped in the markets, soaked up the sun on paradisiacal beaches and met the locals. Great Stirrups Bay was quite a special day as it’s a private island shared by the cruise line with Norwegian. Our shop brought off food for lunch, their entertainment crew, bar drinks and equipment to enjoy the sea. We snorkeled all day and saw the most brilliant, colorful fish. It created quite a memory for all of us. What to Expect as a Family
MSC is one of the newer cruise lines, and my hunch is that they are still figuring out kids’ activities. The good news is that they offer a full kids’ club that is open most of the day. Mine were hesitant to join, mainly out of fear they would miss out on what we were doing but also because they worried about being on the older side. Their age group ran from 7-11 and my daughter is right at the tail end of the spectrum. But when they finally went in on our 3rd day, they enjoyed themselves somewhat. Though they were courted with Wii game, arts and crafts and other fun activities, my kids wanted to be out on the deck with us. However, my kids are old enough to roam around on their own. The ship offers a water slide and several game rooms. We purchased a “Teen Card” when we boarded to control their spending in these areas, which was a brilliant idea. We put a cap of $30 on each card and they couldn’t spend beyond that amount. I have a feeling that MSC will keep improving their selection of activities for kids as time progresses so that parents have more alone time but I think they are more than on their way.
Getting Down to Basics: COST (w/ Ideas for Saving Money on the Cruise Ship) Right now if you head over to MSC’s web site, you’ll see that you can book the cruise for $299 a person for a 7 day Caribbean cruise. That is for an interior room with no balcony or view of the water. Or you can get a stateroom with a balcony for $599. We even met people on the ship who booked the cruise for $199 for the week, plus taxes. Booking prices have never been cheaper, and you have to wonder what MSC prices are going to do to the rest of the cruising industry
However, despite these low booking prices, you need to be careful with all the extra fees that you can incur onboard. It’s definitely important to do your research before boarding so you know how to book drink cards, teen cards and anything else you can purchase in advance to cut down costs. A few dollars here and there does add up. Gym classes cost extra, as do excursions, video games, shopping on board, and you can easily rack up quite a bill. While on board, I came up with a short list of how to save money on a family cruise – I’m sure there even more ways and I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.
– Wifi is costly ($30 an hour) but free in many restaurants on port stops so you can easily bypass purchasing a plan.
– Buy a teen card to control your kid’s spending – the can use it anywhere on the ship. We purchased cards for $30 each and it cut them off at their limit.
– Book excursions off the ship. They are 3-4 times more onboard. You can local tours and taxis for a fraction of the price and have just as good a time.
– Shop on the last ship on the last day of the cruise (if you must shop). Prices are slashed. – Drink H2O or stick to meal plans, or purchase a drink plan, but don’t just go ordering drinks all day. Wine is given with meals in the evening so you can drink your liquor then.
– Use the gym – classes are costly.
– Take advantage of child care – it’s free and the kids will have more fun than they will with you (if you can get them there!).
Disclosure: I was provided with complimentary cruise fare and a special package to review the boat’s services with my family However, all opinions are my own.