The neverending review
Copyright 2018 Debra Littlejohn Shinder
On February 17th, I stepped onto a new ship from a new (to me) cruise line and into a new world of cruising unlike anything I had experienced in twenty previous cruises. To say I came away impressed would be an understatement.
Was every single moment absolutely perfect to the point I could suggest no possible improvement? Of course not – life isn’t like that. Was it one of the best weeks of my life and do I want to do it again (and again. And again)? Absolutely.
For more about my cruising history and how I came to book this MSC cruise and what my expectations were going into it, see my previous article, “Contemplating and Anticipating Seaside.”
MSC has a wonderful experience to offer, regardless of your “level.” whether you’re up top enjoying the rarefied air of the YC or downstairs mingling with the masses. I love that they have taken some of the feedback from the initial cruises (which got some pretty negative reviews – not surprising given that it was the ship’s “shakedown period,” that it was also a brand new class of ship with many innovative features, and that it was being marketed to an American demographic that is not MSC’s usual clientele.
The amazing thing is that, just a couple of months after launch, they have already listened, heard and acted on many of the complaints from those first cruises and improved on many things. I’m happy that I benefited from coming slightly later on the learning curve and I appreciate the “beta testers” (aka guinea pigs) who were on the maiden and first few voyages.
However, I hope the company doesn’t pay too much attention to some of the complaints, which are based on a lack of understanding (in my opinion) of the kind of company MSC is and what they’re trying to accomplish with the Seaside, and a lack of appreciation of the wonderful and different flavor of its ships compared to those of the “all American” cruise lines. My desire is that they continue to step up the game without changing the overall international flavor of the experience.
MSC has an ad slogan that says “This is not just any cruise.” It definitely isn’t. It’s not like the American lines and I hope it doesn’t try to be. It’s an international experience. It’s an immersion in cultural diversity. It’s about coming together with people of different languages, different countries, different parts of your own country, different socioeconomic statuses, different political and philosophical beliefs, different lifestyles and backgrounds and occupations, and enjoying the differences and discovering how much alike we are despite those differences.
It’s not for everybody and that’s okay. It is going to be #MSCforMe for the foreseeable future.
Someone in one of the Facebook groups asked me if I have a new job as MSC brand ambassador. LOL. I guess I must sound that way, but my enthusiasm after cruising on Seaside is completely genuine and not paid for.
The MSC “product” is very different from the competition – it retains everything that I love about cruising and adds to it much of what I love about traveling in Europe. Other ships I’ve sailed on were made in Italy. The Seaside IS a little slice of Italy in the middle of the Caribbean.
The Yacht Club provides a taste of the upscale feel of a luxury cruise line but with access to all the features and venues of a mass market megaship right downstairs – and at lower cost and without a shred of pretentiousness. Pampered but not pompous – that sums up the YC experience for me. And I can’t deny that the YC is at the heart of my newfound adoration of this cruise line.
Executive summary (overall impressions)
I posted my initial impressions on Facebook at the end of the (very short and went-by-too-quickly) week and I’ll repeat some of those here. Remember that what I say here pertains to my own personal experience and these are my own opinions. Others’ mileage may vary, even for those on the same sailing, depending on their personal preferences, the experience level booked, which activities they participate in, and “luck of the draw” factors such as which cabin steward is assigned to them or which staff members they deal with. I speak for no one but myself.
Because I selected the Yacht Club “experience” level, my review will naturally come from that perspective. That means it will be different from the perspective of someone who booked the Bella, Fantastica, Wellness, or Aurea experience. That doesn’t mean you can’t have a wonderful time in one of those lower tier bookings – I had many friends on board who did just that. It does mean I had access to some areas and amenities that those with other experiences don’t get. Thus some parts of the review will be more relevant to those who are booking or thinking about booking Yacht Club.
However, I also spent a good amount of time outside of YC, checking other ship areas and activities, and will be writing about those, as well, so just skip over the YC-centric sections if you aren’t interested.
Unlike some of my past cruises, this one was intended from the beginning to be all about the ship, not the itinerary. It’s good that I didn’t book it for the ports, since they all had changed by the time we sailed. When I first booked the cruise back in the summer, we were scheduled to go to Sint Maarten (Dutch Antilles), San Juan (Puerto Rico) and Freeport (Bahamas).
Then along came hurricane season 2017 and it was a big one. Irma and Maria delivered a one-two punch to the eastern Caribbean and both Sint Maarten and San Juan suffered major damage with uncertainty as to when they would reopen for business. MSC quickly revised the itinerary to substitute Antigua and St. Thomas for those two ports of call. Freeport was still on our agenda up until the week before the cruise, when we learned we were going to Grand Turk instead. For most, that was happy news; Freeport is on most cruisers’ list of least-liked destinations.
Although the new itinerary included some of my favorite islands, I only booked one excursion (which I ended up cancelling). I would have been happy if this one had been a “cruise to nowhere.” I wanted time to get to know the ship – especially when most of the passengers were gone and the public areas weren’t crowded.
The week flew by, and there just was not time in the days to do all that I wanted to do. The itinerary felt irrelevant; even though we went to some of my favorite islands, I was barely interested in getting off the ship. In fact, I cancelled the one excursion I had booked, and only went out for a couple of hours at each stop. Normally I’m more of a port person than a sea day person but this time, I would have been perfectly happy if it had been a “cruise to nowhere.” I spent the money that I would have allocated for excursions to booking a couple of the specialty restaurants that I wanted to try out.
I started this review on board, and in the beginning, my plan was to do a daily “play by play” of my trip. That soon proved to be a little tedious (and the time it was consuming cut into the time I had to actually go out and experience it all) but more important, I realized that “daily journal” format would make it more difficult for people to find the parts that they were most interested in, so I went back and shortened the daily posts and took out the big descriptive and prescriptive chunks and organized them into sections by topic, including:
· La mia famiglia: the MSC family
· Sun Follower: The ship design and environment
· Ship of tomorrow: high tech on the high seas
· A tale of two ships (in one): the Yacht Club concept and experience
· Buon cibo, buon vino: the dining and drinking experience
· That’s entertainment: the shows and music
· Different strokes: Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Carnival anymore
· Processes and procedures: Administrivia
· Nothing’s perfect: a wish list for making the MSC experience even better
Part one of this series will cover a brief recap of some of the things that I did on the first day of the cruise. Part two will continue with a more abbreviated description of subsequent days’ activities, and then we’ll get into the different topic areas. As you’ll see, there was plenty that I didn’t get around to (which seems to me an excellent reason to go back again. And again).
NOTE: My overall experience was shaped by the experience level that I booked: the Yacht Club. I know many of the readers of this review will be sailing in other experience levels, and I’ve been asked “What about those of us who aren’t the Yacht Club?” Obviously I can’t personally give you that perspective, but someone who sailed in one of those other levels can. If you’re interested in Seaside from the non-YC viewpoint of a very experienced cruiser, check out Norman Freeman’s review of the Seaside sailing a few weeks after mine.
My week in a nutshell: Day One (Saturday, Feb. 17)
Sometimes the first day of a cruise, despite all the time you spent wishing it would arrive, isn’t the most pleasant part of the experience. It can be hectic, crowded, tiring, and have a high hassle-to-fun ratio. However, the MSC Yacht Club experience is “not just any cruise,” and neither is embarkation day – in all the right ways.
Embarkation and Exploration
As is the norm for me, I’d gotten only a couple of hours of sleep the night before. The excitement of finally seeing all the months of planning and anticipation come to fruition kept me awake until the wee hours, and my early morning same-day flight from DFW to MIA meant getting up at 4:00 a.m. By the time I made it to the cruise port around 10:00 a.m. I was already feeling worn out and wishing for a nap.
On some cruises, I would have been beginning a process of long hours of waiting, sitting, standing, going through the “processing,” more waiting in hot places in long lines or crowded rows of folding chairs. Not this time. It was the easiest and fastest and most pleasant embarkation ever, out of 21 cruises. Granted, being in the Yacht Club makes a difference; however, several of the folks in my group of friends who had booked the Fantastica experience said this was also one of their quickest embarkations. This is probably in part because you can’t bring wine on board, so there’s no checking of bottles to slow down the process.
The Seaside docks at Terminal F, which only recently opened up after expansion and renovation specifically to accommodate MSC’s new larger ships. The official ribbon cutting was in early December, and there are 60 new ticket counter positions in the 38.000+ square foot addition. They also expanded the waiting area with seating for 1500 people. However, if you’re in the Yacht Club, you won’t really see much of this.
YC passengers take their luggage to a small tent just to the left of the entry to the terminal. When I got there, I was the only guest there. The staff there consists of a porter who tags your checked luggage and a butler who walks you inside the terminal, into a special short line (there were 3 people ahead of us), through security (which was fast and painless), and to the YC lounge.
There he gives your passport and boarding pass to the staff at the front desk, gets you seated if there’s a wait, serves you champagne and a snack (pastries and croissants), and after you’re called to the desk and your paperwork processed (wait was about 12 minutes, processing maybe 5 or 6 – they just checked my paperwork, took my picture, gave me my card and wristband and some informational brochures), the butler escorts you onto the ship past all the lines, and up to the YC entry where the locked doors open at a wave of your magical bracelet or card. There you’re introduced to the concierge, who registers you, then the butler takes you to your cabin.
He shows you how to operate the various implements (TV, lighting, shows you the mini fridge, espresso maker, etc.) and answers any questions you might have. There was a big bowl of fruit and a bottle of champagne on ice waiting for me, as well as a filled ice bucket and a selection of pods on the desk by the espresso machine. I’ll go into much more detail about the cabin in a later section of this series.
It is a full-service experience and it only gets better. That fruit bowl is replenished daily and little plates of goodies – cookies, muffins, chocolate strawberries – appear randomly in the cabin. If you have a good butler (mine was one of the best), he will be there often – friendly and accessible but not intrusive – ready to fulfill almost any need or want you can throw at him.
Note: The butler who walks you through the embarkation experience probably won’t be “your” butler, the one who will be assigned to your stateroom for the week. In fact, although you’ll have a butler of your own, you will be served well by many butlers throughout the cruise. More on that later in the “Yacht Club concept” section.
Once I was alone in the room, I kicked off my shoes and took 30 minutes to just sit and relax since I’d flown in on the super early flight that morning and had little sleep the night before. My checked bag had arrived by the time I was ready to venture out into the public areas of the ship.
Note: The YC1 cabin was lovely, and I will do a thorough “tour” and description of it later in the “Home suite home” section.
New girl in (floating) town
By 11:30, I felt somewhat situated in the cabin, and I went to check out the YC lounge, restaurant and pool deck area. I’ll be talking a lot more about them in the “Yacht Club experience” section. Suffice it to say I was impressed.
Then I left the exclusive area and set off to explore the ship and take a lot of photos before all of the public areas were full of people. The ship is beautiful – it’s hard to describe how awesome it is in mere words, so thank goodness for cameras. I’m going to write a whole section on the look and feel and layout of the ship.
A modern cruise ship is like a self-contained small city. The population of the Seaside is, at double occupancy, 4134 passengers and 1413 crew members – a total of more than 5500 people. Of course, some cabins will accommodate three, four, or even five people, so maximum capacity is higher – over 6500. There are 2067 passenger cabins, six public swimming pools, more than forty hot tubs (some private), nine restaurants, numerous bars and lounges, an art gallery, various shops, a theater, a gym and spa, a business center, a medical center, amusements including a bowling alley, children’s areas, a sports arena, and outdoor movie screen, a photo gallery, and many other aspects of a town on land. Seaside is 20 decks high (15 of which are open to passengers), 33 elevators (19 for passengers), over 1059 feet long, and can chug along the sea at 21.8 knots.
There are bigger ships out there (Royal Caribbean’s Oasis class ships come in at 225-227,000+ gross tons, compared to Seaside’s 153,516). However, the design of the Seaside is unique – particularly when you look at her back side. She has been called “the big, beautiful lady with the gorgeous butt” and it’s easy to see why. The aft of the ship is patterned after a set of Miami high-rise condominiums with big wrap-around balconies overlooking the South Beach Pool on deck 7. Glass elevators run between the two towers, offering expansive views as you travel from deck to deck, and on deck 16 the glass bottomed “bridge of sighs” takes you out over the pool for some of the most breathtaking looks at the wake that you’ll see.
I remember how impressed I was the first time I walked on board a cruise ship – the Carnival Magic. Well, the Seaside blows all of Carnival’s ships away in terms of glitter and glitz and glamour and sheer beauty and utterly innovative design.
Even among the people who were giving her bad reviews in the wake of the “new ship” glitches during the transatlantic crossing and the first few sailings at Christmas and New Year’s, almost all conceded that she is one gorgeous lady.
It’s true that to an extent, “it’s done with mirrors.” There are mirrored walls and glass doors all over the ship. That can be dangerous. On that first day, I walked into a much-too-clean and clear glass door in the Yacht Club hallway and came away with a headache and a big bruise to remind me not to act like a bird that has to learn the hard way what a plate glass window is.
I heard a few others tell the same story, or mention trying to step out of the way of a person who was walking toward them, only to realize it was their own reflection. After a day or two you get used to it, but be careful in the beginning. I got a big purple souvenir on my knee to remind me to look very carefully.
Navigating the ship isn’t the easiest thing in the world, either. For one thing, it is so very big. For another, there are a number of places where you “can’t get there from here.” Those who have sailed Carnival’s larger class ships with the galley in the middle know what I mean.
People have spoken of the “dead ends” on Seaside and unfortunately, they aren’t made clear on the deck plan. For example, the forward and aft sections of decks 16 and 18 are completely separated, although on the deck plans it looks as if you would be able to walk from one end of the other. In the deck plan below, it appears on the deck plan that you can go from one side of the red line to the other but in reality, there’s no access.
Note: I’ll go into more detail about the layout of all the public decks and these “gotchas” in the “ship design” section.
My first day walkaround of the ship spawned dozens of photos of different areas, but I’ll save most of those for the individual topic sections as I discuss each venue, but here is small sampling of just a few of her many public indoor and outdoor spaces.
My preliminary conclusion: She’s gorgeous, she’s enormous, she is la bella signora – a beautiful lady.
An inevitable and often dreaded part of every cruiser’s first day on board is the muster drill, also called the safety drill (just don’t call it the “mustard drill.” Please). I have been to muster drills on Carnival ships where we stood outside on the deck in the rain on a shivering cold (or miserably hot) day, standing up shoulder to shoulder in rows like sardines, for 45 minutes or longer while waiting for everyone to arrive, the counting to be finished, the life jackets to be demonstrated, and the standard spiel to be delivered.
Not all Carnival muster drills are quite this bad, but many of them – especially on the older and smaller ships – are. This is a shame because it sets the tone for the cruise, or at least for that day, and frequently results in a lot of grumpy people.
The muster drill on Seaside, while not necessarily a thrilling experience, was so much quicker and so much less painful by contrast that I think I would pay extra to have every muster drill be like that one. I’ll describe it in detail in the “processes and procedures” section.
I belonged to two Facebook groups dedicated to this sailing of Seaside and both groups scheduled an informal meetup in the Seaview Lounge immediately following muster drill. The Seaview is on deck 8 midship and on some deck plans (including on MSC’s own website) is labeled the News Café. It does in fact still have a selection of newpapers available around the room. There’s a bar at the back, a stage at the front, and a decent amount of seating that’s arranged in small groups for easy visiting with friends.
Our groups commandeered most of one side of the lounge and mingled, and I enjoyed seeing some of the folks I’d met before on Carnival cruises, and meeting for the first time in person so many of the people with whom I’d been exchanging ideas, information, and our hopes and dreams for this cruise through the group pages. It’s always nice to be able to put real, physical faces (not profile pictures) with the names after months of online communications.
I felt almost like a celebrity as I walked through the ship that day; many of the people from the groups recognized me and came up to introduce themselves. “Are you Deb?” seemed to be the question of the day, and especially at the meet and greet. I stayed at the party until it was time for everyone to disperse and go seek out dinner, and by the end I felt as if I had made a few new BCFFs (Best Cruise Friends Forever).
It was after the party (where I had only had one drink – a glass of Moscato) that I had my close encounter of the stupid kind with the glass door and banged both my knee and head into it. Luckily, I’ve always been told I’m “hard headed” and didn’t end up with a bruise on my forehead to match the one on my knee. I did, however, spend the next few hours checking my pupils to ensure they were equal and responsive. I swear it wasn’t the alcohol, and I can’t even blame the motion of the ocean for my misstep. I just wasn’t paying attention, after getting only two and a half hours of sleep out of the previous 40.
Because I was so tired, I decided to skip dinner and just grab a slice of the amazing pizza I’d seen at the buffet when I checked it out earlier. This would turn out to be the only pizza I had the entire week. That wasn’t because it was bad – in fact, it was delicious – but there was so much wonderful food, everywhere, that I just didn’t ever get around to it again.
I had an unexpected and pleasant surprise when I did the “down and up” route to get from the front of deck 16 – where my Yacht Club cabin was – to the back of the same deck where the evening buffet is. Since you can’t walk through, I went down the stairs to 15 and made my way through the starboard cabin corridor to the aft area stairs so I could go back up.
I wasn’t even thinking about the fact that the bridge and officers’ quarters are on 15, until I ran into (not literally) Captain Marco Massa in the hallway, heading toward the front of the ship. I said hello, and he stopped and talked for quite some time. I was thoroughly charmed by the time we went on our ways in opposite directions.
Next up on my “to do” list after the pizza was, of course, the gelato. I did manage to sample it more than once, although not nearly as many times as I’d have liked to. This first time, I tried out the cappuccino flavor and it was magnifico. I wish I could have brought one of the three gelato bars home with me.
Afterward, I went back to the Yacht Club lounge for a drink and another (small) dessert. Soft live piano music was playing and it was all just “so civilized” – a catchphrase that I would find myself repeating throughout the coming week.
Since I’d had only 2 and a half hours of sleep in the past 40 hours, and had a very sore head and knee from my close encounter of the stupid kind with the glass door, I was ready to retreat to my cabin to say goodbye to Miami as we sailed away into the night.
By 11:00 p.m., I was eager to try out the bed that I’d heard was so comfortable. It didn’t disappoint. There is even a pillow menu in case you need customized cradling for your head. For me, the default pillows were just fine.
There was plenty of entertainment going on that first night, but I was oblivious. I didn’t even hear the three crying children next door – although they would, unfortunately, become a prominent part of my evenings when I was a bit less utterly exhausted (and a source of my future exhaustion – but that’s just about the only negative thing I experienced in the entire cruise, so I count myself very blessed indeed).
Thus ended my first day on the MCS Seaside, with a smile on my face and la gioia di vivere in my heart.
la vita è un viaggio. Life is a voyage.
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