Nave bellissima – in so many ways
Copyright 2018 Debra Littlejohn Shinder
Thus far, in this long series of articles, my focus has been on the Seaside experience: my day-to-day activities, and all the wonderful people who made the cruise special. Now I want to step back and look at the ship itself, and what makes the Seaside so unique among cruise ships that she turns heads wherever she goes. “Nave bellissima” (beautiful ship) is the perfect descriptor for this lovely lady of the sea.
Cruise ship design – before the building ever begins – is a complicated process. The design phase for a new class of ship such as the Seaside can take many months. There are numerous industry and governmental requirements that must be met. The engineering of a huge, floating resort is an enormous undertaking that involves bringing together structural, aesthetic, and functional objectives to create a vessel that operates safely and efficiently – and provides a pleasing environment and a host of venues and activities for its passengers and crew.
Given the enormity of the project, is it any wonder then that every brand new ship comes out of the shipyard with a certain number of imperfections that have to be fixed along the way as they’re discovered during her inaugural season? Malfunctioning electrical, plumbing, and hardware are issues that are common to brand new ships (and to new construction buildings and homes on land). These are different from design issues, so let’s set them aside for the purpose of this section.
We’re going to be talking here about ship design and ship environment, which are two different but related things.
Ship design includes:
- Structural design, which concerns the infrastructure – engineering, plumbing, electrical wiring, and so forth – and is beyond the scope of this article and outside my areas of expertise
- Exterior design, in which respect Seaside is especially notable
- Interior design, of both the public spaces and the cabins
Because I’ll be addressing cabin design (focusing on the Yacht Club because that was my experience, but also comparing it to the Bella, Fantastica and Aurea cabins that I saw) in a later article titled Home Suite Home, this piece will concentrate on the design of the ship’s exterior and its interior public spaces.
Ship environment is more about the “feel” or “vibe” of the ship and involves many factors, including the ship’s design but also things such as lighting and temperature and sound levels and the activities that go on there and the people (both crew and passengers) who are on board.
Seaside’s exterior and interior design is mostly American, from the Miami Beach condo look of the aft to interior spaces like the Sports Bar and Garage Bar and the cutting-edge technology that is spread throughout the ship (although other areas, such as the Bistro on deck 8 that seeks to emulate the aura of a French sidewalk café are distinctly European in flavor).
The overall atmosphere, though, leans more heavily toward the Mediterranean. Seaside might be made to attract (a certain segment of) the North American market, but she doesn’t attempt to hide her Italian heritage; on the contrary, she wears it proudly. That’s a source of consternation for some U.S. cruisers, and a breath of fresh air to others. You probably already know which group I fall into.
The first thing I do when I’m planning to buy a new computer, smart phone, or other gadget, is look at the specifications sheet, and that’s something I do when I’m considering cruising on a brand new ship, too. So first, let’s take a look at some of the technical aspects of the Seaside.
At 154,000 gross tons with 20 decks (15 open to passengers), the Seaside is a big girl, and the largest cruise ship I’ve experienced to date (although not the longest – Carnival Vista, on which I sailed in the Med in 2016, is 1062 feet long, just a tad over Seaside’s 1059 feet).
You can see more of the ship’s “numbers” in the tech sheet graphic below:
In general, I haven’t been a big fan of the megaships. On Carnival, I much prefer the 85,000 GT Spirit class ships to their larger siblings. I’ve not been very interested in trying out Royal Caribbean’s gargantuan Oasis class ships (the latest of which, Symphony of the Seas, comes in at 228,081 GT).
Thus my biggest initial concern about Seaside was whether a) her passenger capacity of 5179 people (plus 1413 crew members) stacked into 2036 cabins of “high density housing” would make it feel as crowded as a floating sardine can, and b) whether the large size would make being on the ship feel less like being at sea and more like being in a big building (less motion and less connection with the ocean).
The first concern was alleviated by booking the Yacht Club. Its “ship within a ship” concept with only 89 cabins provides a higher staff-to-passenger ratio and a greater square footage per passenger measure than elsewhere on the ship.
Whereas there were parts of the ship that definitely did feel crowded – most notably the Miami Beach and South Beach pool areas – the Yacht Club never felt in the least crowded, whether in the lounge or the restaurant or up on the pool/sun deck.
And as for not feeling “at sea,” I needn’t have worried about that.
Both those who love it and those who hate it have used the same word to describe the Seaside: different. She does stand out in a crowd. When we were in ports with other ships from Carnival, Princess, and Norwegian cruise lines, I saw passengers from those ships staring at ours and you could see the curiosity and admiration and yes, a little bit of envy in their eyes. As much as any cruise ship I’ve ever seen – including Royal’s giantesses that get points for sheer size – the Seaside screams “wow factor,” both inside and out.
She is a lovely lady. She’s tall and sleek but also curvaceous, like a fashion model – the ones who pose in swimsuits for magazine covers, not the anorectic ones who walk the runways. She is definitely not a AA cup size zero. It’s hard to describe her without mentioning her big, beautiful butt. In fact, it’s that rear end – the twin condo towers separated by a panoramic glass elevator and topped with the glass-bottomed Bridge of Sighs – that gets her so much attention at the ports.
Neither the artists’ renderings nor the photographs really do it justice. As the old saying goes, “you had to be there.”
Although the Seaside is all about “living large” – in more ways than one – she seems almost petite next to the the Royal Caribbean behemoths. And that’s fine with me. Maybe you can’t be too rich or too thin but you can be too big, and that goes for cruise ships, too.
Most importantly, with Seaside MSC has made an effort – a successful one – to rectify one of the complaints that I’ve heard from numerous cruisers about RCL’s giants: the feeling that you’re not on a ship at all. I remember a friend telling me after sailing on Allure that “it was fun, but it was more like being in a grand hotel in a small resort city than sailing on the sea.” Many of the cabins on those ships that are classed as balconies don’t look out to sea, but rather down on the interior “Central Park” or “Boardwalk” areas. They’re marketed as “neighborhood view balconies” and they’re not quite as expensive as traditional ocean view balconies, but I sail because, well, I like the ocean.
Different people like different things, of course, but to me, the whole point of paying for a balcony stateroom on a cruise ship is to be able to look out my glass door, or sit on my balcony, and enjoy the peaceful vastness of being surrounded by water as far as my eyes can see. Sit on my balcony and watch people walking through a “neighborhood” below? Eh. Not so much.
Its intimate connection with the aquatic macrocosm outside is where Seaside is different. Oh, like most ships, she has interior cabins for those who use their staterooms only for sleeping and showering, and who spend most of their time out on the ship. But having a balcony on Seaside means you’ll “see the sea” – although there are a certain number that have their views partially obstructed. Luckily, mine wasn’t one of those.
The obstructed view, in most cases, is because of another design element (which might or might not also have structural functionality). As you can see in the graphic on the left below, the white metal on the balcony walls near the front of the ship cause the view at the bottom to be blocked in comparison to the balconies with see-through walls, like mine shown above. I made the exterior graphic with deck labels to help people determine whether the cabins they booked are in the obstructed areas.
As you can see if you look at the labels, the white metal stops at deck 14. The forward cabins on decks 15, 16, and 18 do not have obstructions (unless you count the part of the bridge on 15 and the Top Sail lounge on 16 that jut out to the side). You might recall that there is no deck 17 because the number is considered bad luck in Italy.
The first picture below shows the aft of the ship, with a smaller “line” of solid white metal running diagonally up and partially obstructing a smaller number of balconies’ views. The second picture shows what it looks like from one of those obstructed balcony cabins. Unlike the front obstructed balconies, some of these do give you a small glass area to peek through and see the sea.
But obstructions aside, or even if you’re in an interior cabin, you’ll have no trouble finding a place in the public areas to stand or sit or lie and drink in all the grandeur of the ocean views while you’re drinking in one of those yummy cocktails. Whereas Royal’s largest ships may have disconnected people from the ocean, Seaside’s design is all about ensuring that its passengers get much more than the recommended daily dosage of “Vitamin Sea.”
Unlike some ships I’ve been on where the atrium felt closed off from the outside, with perhaps a few large porthole style windows, almost everywhere you go in the public areas on Seaside, there are great expanses of floor-to-ceiling windows to connect you with where you are: in the middle of the ocean.
The multi-deck atrium is open to the sea and sky via walls of windows at each level. There are bars and lounges with sweeping water views, great promenades, glass-bottomed “Infinity bridges” that let you walk out over the water, and the main buffet is down much lower than on most ships, on deck 8 – closer to the water, with both indoor and outdoor seating offering great views.
The lifeboats are neatly tucked underneath the deck 8 promenade overhang, keeping them more out of the way and out of the view, and you can watch the wake as you ride the aft elevators up and down or enjoy the ocean views as you work out in the gym.
The specialty restaurants, too, are designed with the views in mind (except for the Teppanyaki section of the Asian Market, but there your focus is on the chef). The Yacht Club restaurant has incredible views of the sea from almost all seats through the two-deck windows that come up from the lounge below to which it is open.
When MSC dubbed Seaside “the ship that follows the sun,” they weren’t kidding. She doesn’t just follow it; she embraces it. Her design revolves around both bringing the outdoors in and providing plenty of true outdoor spaces for enjoying the warmth and brightness of the Caribbean.
In fact, one of the only complaints that some might have is that the designers succeeded a little too well in some of the outdoor spaces, insofar as ensuring that passengers are “walking in sunshine” (and sitting, and lounging). For example, for those of us – redheaded or otherwise – whose skin doesn’t take kindly to an abundance of UV rays, the Yacht Club pool deck area can be a challenge.
Unlike at the other pools, there were always plenty of open lounge chairs in the deck 19 YC pool area when I was there (no worries about having to play the “early bird gets the chair” game here). However, almost all of those loungers were almost always in full sun. Ouch – as someone who looks like one of those lobsters on the grill after a few unprotected minutes in the path of UV rays, I can feel the burn just looking at the pictures. The only shaded area is the overhang that protects the grill and buffet area and the few (too few) tables located there.
I’ve never been big on laying out by the pool, and I was usually able to snag a table to eat lunch. But I know many people enjoy lounging around on the sun deck but also need shade, and there wasn’t much of that to be had. This is a design issue, and I hope they address it on future ships. It could also be ameliorated by providing umbrellas or “clamshell” style loungers.
The good news is that if you’re willing to pay (one way or another), you can get one of the eight cabanas that have a canvas cover offering some degree of sun protection. The per-day cost is $149 on sea days or $99 on port days, and it’s been confirmed by the Yacht Club director that although they weren’t doing this on my sailing of Seaside, they are now providing a cabana at no extra cost to those staying in the two Royal Suites (the most expensive staterooms on the ship). Of course, it seems to me Royal Suite holders are the ones who need the cabanas least, considering the huge balconies that come with those suites – but it is a nice perk.
EDIT/UPDATE: According to recent reports from passengers who have sailed in March, the cost of the cabanas on the YC sun deck has been lowered to $99 on sea days and $59 on port days. This has been confirmed by several sources.
Full disclosure: My husband and I have Royal Suite 16024 booked for next year.
Photos: inside of private cabanas on YC sun deck are thanks to Mary Ann Beckham, Josette Dishongh, and Ignazio Marco Spezzacatena
What about the public pool areas? Again, at the Miami Beach and South Beach pools, most loungers are in full sun while the shade is dedicated to tables, although there is a nice covered area with outdoor sofas at the aft pool.
You’ll find the most shade at the Jungle Pool on deck 18, which is also where the Aquaventure water park is located. This is definitely the place to be if you want to hang out in or near the pool and you burn easily.
Both the Miami Beach pool and the Jungle pool have something to cool you off: gelato bars. Unfortunately, the Yacht Club pool doesn’t have one, so I had to venture “out there” to get my gelato fix. It’s just as well; with that much delicious gelato around, I needed all the exercise I could get.
Glitz and glamour
Seaside was constructed by Italian shipbuilder Fincantieri, which is the same company that has built dozens of cruise ships for Carnival, Princess, Holland America, Costa, Cunard, P&O, Disney, Viking, not to mention air craft carriers and destroyers for the Italian Navy. The company also has contracts to build ships for Norwegian Cruise Line, Virgin Voyages, and Regent Seven Seas in the next few years.
Seaside, however, is different from all those ships that have gone before. For one thing, the funnel is in the middle of the ship instead of the aft where it’s traditionally located.
And of course the back end “condo towers” design is completely distinctive so that no one seeing her from behind will mistake her for any other ship on the sea (other than her soon-to-be-launched sister ship, Seaview). It was, in fact, an engineer at Fincantieri who came up with that exterior design in the first place – twelve years before the Seaside’s maiden voyage. It was a little ahead of its time then, and no cruise line was willing to take a chance on something so radically different until MSC’s CEO, Gianni Onoranto, saw the plans. The rest is history.
Seaside’s “wow” factor comes not only from her size, shape, and exterior design, but even more so from her extravagantly decorated interior spaces. According to what I was told, Rafaela Aponte (wife of MSC founder and owner Gianluigi Aponte) is in charge of MSC ships’ interior design, including personally choosing the colors, fabrics, furniture and art work. She has done a magnificent job with the Seaside – which is a brand new ship that’s the first of a brand new class of ships designed for a brand new market: North America.
We Americans are a very diverse lot, and while some sectors of the population may not fully appreciate the upscale style of the Seaside, there are many others of us who love our “bling” and are mesmerized, the moment we walk on board, by the ship’s over-the-top yet tasteful decor.
MSC cruise ships have become known for their Swarovski crystal stairs and the Seaside’s grand atrium boasts twin staircases that span three stories on each side, sparkling and glittering with hundreds of tiny white lights to highlight those stones, and serving as a favorite staging place for portraits taken by both the ship’s professional photographers and families and friends armed with everything from phone cams to prosumer model DSLRs.
Although the crystal staircases are perhaps the most famous example of la signora Aponte’s lavish style, they are really only the icing on the magnificent cake that is the MSC Seaside. From the dazzling triple-screen display behind the multi-media stage in the atrium to the giant loops that you breeze through on the zip line to the infinity bridges that make you feel as if you’re walking on air to the suprisingly understated main theater to the sophisticated look of the Haven Lounge to the warmer decor of the Seaview lounge to the clean lines of the Ocean Cay restaurant to the “contemporary traditional” look of Butcher’s Cut to the French sidewalk cafe aura of the Bistro La Boheme to the modern but cozy decor of the cabins themselves, it’s obvious that a lot of thought – and a lot of love – went into both the exterior and interior design.
Ship environment and ambiance
Ambiance is the word for the “feel” or “tone” or “atmosphere” of the ship, which can determine whether you feel right at home there or like a fish out of water. Words that might be used to describe a particular place’s vibe or mood include “party atmosphere,” “relaxed and laid back,” “fun and playful,” “sophisticated,” “warm and welcoming,” or in a more negative light, “somber,” “cold and sterile,” or “dark and uninviting.”
Depending on which area of the ship you’re in, all of the terms in the first group are applicable. I didn’t encounter any areas that fit the less flattering descriptors. One thing I loved about Seaside was the way there really was something for everyone. I walked through the ship one evening and in the space of half an hour experienced a down-home country and western party in the Haven Lounge, a bustling deck party with people dancing to pop music by one of the pools, a gathering of sports fans watching a game in the Sports Bar, an opera in the main theater, and the quiet sophistication of the Top Sail lounge accentuated by classical piano in the background up in the Yacht Club.
In that way, the atmosphere on Seaside is whatever you choose for it to be. There is, however, an overarching “feel of the ship” that’s subtle enough some won’t even notice it, while others won’t be able to get past it, and that’s the sweet sound of multiple languages all around you that reminds you that you’re on an international voyage.
An American cruise line such as Carnival feels more like a piece of the USA broke off and floated off to the islands. When you’re on board the ship, whether you’re in the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, or the Mexican Riviera, you still feel as if you’re back home. Things are done the way they are in the U.S., the vast majority of the passengers speak English as their first language, the customs and traditions are very American.
To many people, this is comforting. It’s certainly a way to travel outside your native country without leaving your cultural comfort zone. But for those who enjoy immersing themselves in the lifestyles of foreign lands, who like to go beyond the usual tourist checklists when they travel, it’s not as stimulating. A cruise that provides you with a taste of “elsewhere” both on board and off is a pleasant change.
I came across a quote a while back that I liked so much, I made it the theme of this blog: I don’t travel because I’m rich; I’m rich because I travel. The wealth of information, understanding, and perspective that comes with travel, though, isn’t just a product of seeing different places. It comes also from getting to know the people who built, grew up in, and make their lives in those places. In seeing how they differ from us – and in discovering how much we all have in common.
On the Seaside, I didn’t have to wait for the few hours in port to do that. On board the ship I met and interacted with other passengers from England, Sweden, Germany, Japan, South America, the South Pacific, South Africa, and of course Italy. That’s in addition to crew members from other parts of the world. This international aspect of MSC has been a source of complaints and negative reviews from those who prefer a more homogeneous environment. It’s one of several of MSC’s differences that cruisers tend to either love or hate.
The design of MSC’s new Seaside takes a daring step outside the traditional parameters to make a bold statement: This ship and this cruise line are not like all the others. That extends past structural, functional and decorative issues to the ambiance on board the ship. For some cruisers, those differences add up to a good thing, and for others, not so much. It’s up to each of us to decide. For me and some others I know, variety is the spice that makes life taste good.
The Seaside is a spicy dish – too much so for some folks who are used to their bland American diet. For those with more adventurous tastes (culinary and otherwise), she is exactly what we’ve been craving for a while.