We wish you a Meraviglia, and a happy new tier! (Part One)

An overview of my 3 days on board MSC’s new-to-the-USA ship

This is my review of my first time to cruise on the MSC Meraviglia, shortly after her repositioning from Europe to the United States for a winter season sailing out of Miami. 

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Photo credit: Gretchen Cooper

After three wonderful cruises on Seaside, I was wary about trying out this new (to me and to the U.S. market) class of ship. The many not-so-great reviews of her first couple of U.S. sailings didn’t help. I honestly didn’t think I’d like her nearly as much as Seaside, but I did want to see it and judge for myself (and blog about it). Thus booking this very short sailing (3 nights/4 days) seemed like the perfect way to get a taste without making a week-long commitment.

SPOILER ALERT: My worries turned out to be baseless, and the only big complaint I have about the cruise is that it was over way too quickly. 

MSC Diamond Card

This was a special cruise for me in that it was a milestone in a couple of ways. It was my 25th cruise overall, and it was also my first cruise after earning Diamond (the top-tier loyalty status formerly known as Black).

Diamond card

It might seem odd that I booked this particular cruise for such a special occasion, but this was not your typical 3-day “booze cruise.” This short pre-Thanksgiving sailing was originally scheduled to call at Ocean Cay, MSC’s brand new private island. Many MSC corporate people, including MSC Chief Operations Officer Ken Muskat (pictured below), were on board, along with many travel agents and media folks.

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Well, ship happens and the opening of the island ended up being delayed until December 5th.  That was okay with me — I have another chance to see it next month — but didn’t sit so well with some of the passengers.

The upshoot of this, though, was that the staff and crew seemed to be always going out of their ways to impress all the VIPs on board — and it seems the rest of us benefited from that, too. Or maybe I just got mistaken for a VIP; I certainly was treated like one.  Whatever the reasons, this ended up being a wonderful cruise, even though (or perhaps because) I never left the ship.  In the following sections, I’ll go into some detail about what made this short but very sweet cruise so great.

PRE-CRUISE MUSINGS: Meraviglia vs Seaside

This  was a last-minute booking, something that I rarely ever do. I’m a obsessive planner, and my normal M.O. is to book a cruise (or other trip) months or even years in advance, giving me time to prepare as fully as possible.

As mentioned above and as those who have read my previous blog posts know, I love the MSC Seaside. I found Meraviglia’s coming to America interesting, and was excited in a general way that MSC was expanding its fleet here, but I didn’t really have a lot of interest in booking her in the beginning. My research led me to believe that although the ship looks beautiful, it wouldn’t appeal to me in the same visceral way Seaside does.

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Seaside was designed to “follow the sun.” She was made for the Caribbean, and every element of her layout speaks to that core principle. Her public areas are open to the sky and sea with lots of floor-to-ceiling glass windows that make her light and bright inside unlike other ships I’ve sailed.  Every time I walk into her atrium, I stand and stare in awe.

Meraviglia is impressive, too – but in a very different way. Her interior reminds me of a grand Las Vegas strip hotel, with her closed-in interior promenade made to look like an avenue lined with restaurants and shops and the changing LED ceiling running above it. if the ocean is calm, you wouldn’t even know you’re on a ship at sea.

NOTE: I’ll be doing a much more detailed comparison of Meraviglia, Seaside, and Divina in a future blog post to be titled “A Tale of Three Ships.” 

The price is right

Everyone around me was getting excited about booking the new (to the U.S.) ship for the past year, and of course – being naturally curious – I sort of wanted to try her out even though I was pretty sure I’d end up preferring Seaside. But not enough to spend a lot of money and a week of the limited time I get to travel on a ship that probably wasn’t going to be my favorite.

Image result for dollar signsInstead, to satisfy my craving to cruise on a different MSC ship after three (wonderful) times on Seaside, I booked a short December cruise on the Divina. It would be my Christmas present to myself. It was only 3 nights so I knew it would be over in a flash, but it fit my parameters, and a number of friends from the MSC Facebook groups were going.

But then I discovered that they were also offering a couple of short cruises on Meraviglia in November, a 4-night sailing November 17 and a 3-night sailing Nov 21.  The prices on these short cruises were very low, and I would be away from home for a shorter span at a time, which is important to my dogs and my husband. I wanted to do the 4-night but ended up settling for the 3-night due to scheduling conflicts.

And then there’s the island

Booking the November cruise offered a double benefit: I’d get to see a new ship and I’d get to be on one of the first cruises to MSC’s new private island, Ocean Cay, which was scheduled to open November 9. Well, that was the plan. But you know what they say about the best-laid plans of mice and men – and of cruisers.Image may contain: one or more people, ocean, sky, beach, outdoor, water and nature

No itinerary is ever set in stone. Every cruise ship contract specifies that ports can be cancelled or switched at any time. Weather, mechanical issues, operational issues, the vagaries of the sea – anything can interfere with the planned itinerary. In most cases, it’s something that you just have to expect and accept. I learned early to never book a cruise for a particular port, because you may or may not end up actually going.

And over two decades as a software beta tester taught me that anytime you sign up to be the “first” for anything, you’re taking risks. Risks that it won’t be all that it was supposed to be, or that it will even materialize at all.  And beta-testing a new island turned out to be no different. The November 9 opening date that we’d all been looking forward to was cancelled at the last minute. For a while we had hopes that it would only be delayed by one sailing, but soon MSC dashed those hopes by announcing a new opening date of December 5th. So much for seeing the island on my November 17 mini-cruise.

no ocean cay

And you know what? That’s fine with me. The cruise groups on social media were awash with weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth, angry people disappointed at not getting what they thought they paid for, demands for full refunds, and folks (who obviously never read their cruise contract) threatening to sue and/or vowing never to cruise on MSC again.

But I was actually a little relieved. I’d wondered how in the world I was going to explore and get to know a new ship and explore and review a new island all in the space of 3 days. Now I would have more time to just focus on the ship. So when we got the letter telling us we were getting a sea day instead of Ocean Cay, along with $100 OBC and a 20% future cruise credit, I was more than happy.

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SNEAK PREVIEW: I did, in fact, make it to Ocean Cay the following month on the MSC Divina, although that visit was cut a little short. I’ll tell you all about it in my next review. 

GETTING THERE: ‘Twas the night before Cruisemas

I flew out late on Wednesday afternoon so as to further minimize the time away from home, Tom, and the animals. Got to DFW almost two hours prior and settled in at the Admiral’s Club in terminal A for a nice, leisurely pre-flight snack and coffee — I thought. Once again, I was reminded that plans are fluid, and I logged onto the airport wifi and opened my email to find that my gate had been changed (again – it had changed once on the way to the airport). This time, it had moved to a whole different terminal.

So I packed everything up, trekked over to the Skylink, and got to terminal C without enough time to go to that Admiral’s Club. I just visited the ladies’ room and then proceeded to the gate. Boarded the plane, where I was in a bulkhead seat, to find that the overhead bins there were already filled and I had to put my bags three bins back. Oh joy. Going against the crowd to get them down was going to be fun.

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What made it worse was seeing others who were sitting behind me in econ come in and put their bags in the first class overheads. I asked the flight attendant if I could move mine, he said as soon as all the first class passengers were seated, if there was room left, he would move them for me. Of course by that time, so many other econ people had put theirs there that they were full.

I guess it’s true that it’s better to ask for forgiveness afterward than permission beforehand.

Oh well. The flight was smooth, and I had a good conversation with the flight attendant, who was sitting in the backward-facing jump seat across from me.  He was apologetic about the overhead bin situation. When we landed, I was ready to leap, and managed to get out of my seat and back to the bin with my bags before those people stood up. I was stuck back there until people started moving, but at least I didn’t have to wait until the whole plane emptied to go back to get my bags.

HEARTBREAK HOTEL

Image result for eurostars langfordNot really – but it definitely wasn’t the Doubletree by Grand Hilton that I always book when Tom is cruising with me (described in my review of our September cruise). To save money and because I was getting in late – flight arrived at MIA after 8:30 pm – I went with a place that had good reviews but that I’d never heard of: the Eurostars Langford. It was downtown, fairly close to the port, a bit less expensive than those I usually stay in, and had rooms available (my other choices, such as Holiday Inn Port of Miami, were full since I booked the cruise so late). 

True to its name, the place resembled a European hotel. I guess the best word to describe it is “quaint.” Decor was minimalist, the night clerk wasn’t very helpful, and the room was clean but a little sparse and cold (not the temperature, but the general feel).

It had a really nice looking bathroom with a very large shower (that I couldn’t get to work). There was a desk with a very fancy coffeemaker (that I also couldn’t get to work, at first — but coffee is far more important than a shower so I called down for help with that one).   There was no view, and some street noise, but I had my headphones and my “relax and sleep” app that drowns out ambient noise with soothing sounds such as air conditioner, water fountain, ocean waves, summer rain, etc.

There appeared to be no food or restaurant, no ice bucket, and when I called down to ask about room service I was told they didn’t have it. There was no book or pamphlet or even a mimeographed sheet of paper telling anything about the hotel or its amenities. I was starving, but didn’t really want to go walking in this part of Miami after dark. I had an energy bar in my bag, thank goodness.

On the up side, wifi was free and fast. After two phone calls and not much help from the guy at the front desk, a female staff member came up to help me get the coffeemaker working. I was gratified to see that it wasn’t just me – she couldn’t figure it out either, at first … but we kept trying different things and finally some button combination worked and I had coffee. Which made me a lot less grumpy.  Then I discovered the very well hidden mini fridge (it was in a closet) and that was even better. It would suffice, and it did. My thirst and hunger quenched, I slept well.

The next morning when I went downstairs to check out, a lady was manning (LOL) the front desk and was the opposite of the man from the night before. She was extremely helpful and I found out from her (too late) that there is a lounge on one of the floors and a restaurant on the roof. That would have been a nice thing to mention when I called to ask about room service.

EMBARKATION/DEBARKATION

It took a while for my ride to arrive, but he dropped me off right at the YC tent and it was only a few minutes’ wait there before a butler came to escort me and a few others to the terminal.

One  of the advertised benefits of Yacht Club is priority embarkation. In theory, you get on the ship ahead of almost everyone (with the exception of B2B cruisers, wedding parties, and the like).  In practice, sometimes it works that way and sometimes it doesn’t. This time, it didn’t.

Everything started out nicely enough. I had arrived at the port a little before 11:00 a.m., proceeded to the white YC tent where my checked bag was processed quickly, and within minutes I and six others were led into the terminal and through security.  We had a bit of a holdup as one of our party had a pair of scissors in her carry-on that caused a bit of a delay, but soon we were headed up the escalator and around the corner to the “VIP lounge” — a route with which I’m now intimately familiar.

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In the lounge, there were pastries and champagne waiting, as usual. I got mine and found a seat, and was quickly called to the desk for check-in.  At this point, all was normal. All we had to do was wait for a butler to escort us onto the ship. And so we waited. And waited. And waited.

Meanwhile, we heard general boarding begin. They had already called Group 8 by the time we finally got someone to take us on board.  To say some folks were getting impatient would be putting it mildly, although it was a small minority. Once we made it through the last checkpoint, we were greeted by another butler and whisked through the boarding walkway and into the atrium, then to the (priority, of course) elevator and up, up, and away to the rarified air of the 16 floor access-controlled Yacht Club area.

The first thing I noticed as we passed the concierge desk was the difference in layout between Meraviglia and Seaside – but I’ll be addressing all those differences in detail in a separate article.  We were taken into the Top Sail lounge first, where I prepared to settle in to wait for my cabin to be ready.  But unlike the wait in the embarkation lounge, I had barely taken a seat before my butler appeared, called me by name – without being introduced, told me he “had been waiting for you to arrive,” and picked up my bags to take me to my room.  Total time from the tent to the cabin, even with the wait in the terminal lounge, was only around 45 minutes.

The tiny glitch in the embarkation procedure was quickly forgotten as this wonderful cruise unfolded. It was no more than a momentary irritation that was made up for 20x over by the amazing service I experienced over the next three days. 

 

goodbye in sand

On the final day, I was a little worried that there might be delays again. For the first time ever, I had booked an early flight out of MIA — at 10:30 a.m.  I knew I was taking a chance but the next flight had been at 3:00 p.m. and I wanted to get back to Tom and the dogs as early as I could. I need not have worried.

Debarkation went as smoothly as silk. I was up at 6:00 a.m. and ready to go at 7:00.  I hadn’t checked a bag (for such a short cruise, I had a small one) so I wheeled my luggage to the concierge desk where a butler was just leaving to take a couple of families off the ship. I joined them, we made our ways down past some very long lines of “regular” people waiting to debark, through a door to a “secret” exit, and waited about ten minutes until the people staffing it got the “clear” signal to allow debarkation to begin. I was the third person off the ship, walked to the taxi line and got the second cab, and was at the airport by 7:35 a.m.

Despite my good luck, I don’t recommend booking such an early flight and I probably won’t do it again. There’s too much that can go wrong: late docking, customs delays, waits for a ride, etc.  I rolled the dice and won – this time. I’m back to booking a 2:45 p.m. flight for my next cruise. 

YACHT CLUB STAFF, SERVICE, AND AREAS

It seems that very time I have a cruise booked, shortly before I go, there will be a flurry of social media posts lamenting how the Yacht Club service on whichever ship I’m booked on has gone way downhill.  Suddenly everyone will be talking about how the food quality in the restaurant had deteriorated, how the butler service has gone downhill, how the amenities are being taken away. As usual, reviews of the Meraviglia’s first few U.S. sailings were full of negatives.

edrisBut every time, I get on board and I find that my experience in the Yacht Club is even better than it was the time before.  This was no exception. After numerous complaints about Meraviglia in the Yacht Club forums and groups, I had set my expectations low — and then YC director Idris Esergul and his team absolutely blew me away.  From the moment I set foot on the ship, I felt catered to and pampered and taken care of to an even higher degree than on my most recent cruise on Seaside (September 2019), which had been utterly amazing.

Butler Service

Back when I was contemplating my first Yacht Club cruise, I couldn’t imagine why I would want or need a butler. I’m pretty self-sufficient, and the word conjured up images of staid English gentlemen helping me on with my coat (who needs a coat in the Caribbean) or greeting my guests at the door (not many people get invited to my cruise ship cabins).  I’d heard tales of butlers carrying your drinks to your room for you or even unpacking and packing your clothes, either of which I was perfectly capable of doing for myself.

20191121_124951But I soon found out that the best Yacht Club butlers really do enhance your cruise experience. Far from being in the way, they pave the way for you, making everything easier.  They find out what your preferences are – drinks, ice, towel animals, newpapers – and see that those things are waiting for you in your cabin each night. They escort you past the long lines – on and off the ship at ports, to shows and parties and specialty restaurants – and they just generally make you feel pampered to whatever degree you are comfortable with.

Not all butlers are created equal. I know some of my fellow YC guests have lamented that they rarely saw theirs. I’ve been lucky to always get good butlers, but on Meraviglia my good fortune increased exponentially and I got possibly the best butler in the whole world, ever. At least that’s how I came away from this cruise feeling about my butler Mevin Appadoo. 

Apparently I’m not the only one who feels that way. MSC usually assigns its very best butlers to the two Royal Suites and those cabins adjacent to them. It was my proximity to one of the Royals (thanks to my TA, Christina) that caused me to be blessed with Mevin as my butler.

The butler did it – and did it beautifully

So what makes Mevin so special?  It’s partly his demeanor. He’s professional and attentive without being at all obsequious. He’s friendly without getting overly buddy-buddy.  He seemed to “automagically” appear whenever I needed something, but he never hovered. He’s smart – he seemed to be able to read my mind and know what I wanted even when I didn’t.  He seemed to really enjoy making his guests happy.

It might have taken a little longer than I’d have wished to get on board the ship, but from the moment we stepped through that door, everything was much more than okay. The butler led us quickly through the atrium and to the forward elevators where his magical card summoned the priority car to whisk us up, up, and away to the rarefied air of that elite retreat that I know and love so well.

I had barely situated myself in the Top Sail before a butler rushed over to introduce himself as the famous Mevin, known on the YC Facebook groups as “the man” on Meraviglia; having him assigned to your room is like winning the butler lottery. I already had an inkling that I was going to be one of the lucky ones, as a group member who had been in the same cabin on a previous cruise had sung Mevin’s praises. She wasn’t exaggerating.

The first evening I came “home” to my room to find roses, candy, and a towel animal on the bed, more flowers on the table, and even more flowers in the bathroom. Talk about feeling welcome.

I thought that was impressive, but the next night, I arrived back at my room after dinner to discover that my inner door was covered with butterflies, my mirror was covered with flower stickers, a second bottle of sparkling wine and chocolate covered strawberries were on the table, and a new towelie was standing guard over a whole handful of chocolates.

Color me gobsmacked, as my Australian friends would say. What a wonderful surprise. I have never had a butler who went so far above and beyond the call of duty to make my cruise a completely over-the-top experience.

Tea and sympathy

And then there was tea time in the Top Sail lounge. I like going to tea (the event) on cruises but I’ve really only been there to enjoy the pastries and wear my hat or fascinator, and disappoint the staff by ordering coffee.  I’ve spent most of my life avoiding tea (the drink). When I was a kid growing up in the south, “tea” meant sweetened iced tea, which I could not stand. Then when I got into my 20s, I was introduced to hot tea in the form of Earl Grey, which was only slightly less awful.

Ergo, I concluded that tea was not for me.  I actually forgot all about tea time on this cruise, or rather assumed that since it was such a short sailing, it wouldn’t happen. So I was surprised when I wandered into the Top Sail a little before 4:00 and found Mevin setting up the tea service and tables.

I took a seat away from those tables and settled down to read, but 4:00 pm came and nobody had shown up for tea (like me, most probably didn’t even know it was taking place).  I didn’t want him to have gone to all that work for nothing, so I moved over to a “tea table.”  We chatted a little and I told him how I usually wear one of my Kentucky Derby hats at tea, but had only brought a small fascinator this time. He suggested I go put it on, so I ran back to cabin and did so.

When I returned to the lounge, Mevin instantly appeared with the tea cart, ready and eager to serve. I didn’t have the heart to ask for coffee. I decided to step outside my comfort zone and try it.  I asked for a recommendation and he told me about each of the teas. I settled on an Italian variety,  and he brewed it up, all the while regaling me with stories about the history of how “tea” (the event) came into being, and details about the different flavors.

To my surprise, I found that I actually liked this particular brand of tea, and finished off the whole cup, along with a couple of bite-sized sweets. 4

It was a very pleasant, very civilized (with a nod to James Edward Bolger) experience, and one more example of how Mevin added to the enjoyment of my cruise.20190915_132458

Mevin continued to amaze me throughout the entire cruise, from the little special touches in the cabin to his ability to just “automagically” be there whenever I needed something, with my having to ask.  I’m afraid Mevin has spoiled me; I’m sure that forever after, I’ll subconsciously evaluate every butler against the ultra high bar that he set on this cruise. 

When a friend booked on a future Meraviglia cruise posted online that she was torn between bidding on an upgrade  from her YC interior cabin, which is in Mevin’s section, to a YC deluxe suite in an unknown location, I didn’t even have to stop and think for a moment before giving my opinion:  I would keep the YIN and Mevin even if the upgrade price was one dollar.  That’s how much I value his service.

As of mid-January, Mevin is no longer on board Meraviglia. He had to go back home due to family issues. There are other great butlers on this and other YC ships, but he is truly in a class of his own and will be missed by many people. I feel privileged to have had him as my butler. 

Concierge staff

Mevin was by no means the only member of the YC staff and crew who stood out on this cruise.  I don’t usually have a lot of interaction with the folks at the concierge desk (although there have been exceptions, such as Alejandra Garcia on our September 2018 Seaside sailing).

Maybe it’s because the concierge station is right there at the head of the stairs from deck 15 (where my cabin was located) and deck 16 (where the Top Sail lounge is located), but it seemed I was constantly saying hello to the concierges, and I called on them more for assistance with small things than I had on previous cruises because they were so personable and helpful.

Caio and Luciano both went out of their ways to help with any questions or minor problems I had, straightening out billing issues, making change, helping with reservations, and sharing tidbits about their own lives and experiences.  I would love to cruise with either or both again.

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YC restaurant and wait staff

Many of the negative reviews of Meraviglia’s first U.S. sailings centered on the Yacht Club restaurant. Complaints ranged from the usual Euro/American cultural differences – “Dinner took two hours” or “food wasn’t seasoned” or “was served warm instead of hot” to more concerning comments about tough steaks and inability to get simple substitute dishes such as a plate of pasta when no menu items were appealing.

Despite all that, I already knew that my dining experience on Meraviglia was going to be wonderful when I found out that Arthur Javier had been assigned to the YC dining room as head waiter. Then I learned that Alex Cunanan was one of the top waiters, and I knew with that combination, I could never go hungry. I was right.

SERVICE WITH A SMILE

I had first met both Arthur and Alex on Seaside and had absolute faith in their abilities. I also have a few aces up my sleeve: although in some ways I’m picky about food, in others I’m not. I’ll talk more about that in the “Food” section below.

As for the service, it was exemplary every step of the way. Alex’s assistant, Junny, was also fun and friendly and provided excellent service. I felt completely pampered at every meal. Junny kept my wine and water glasses full, and also brought a small bucket of ice on the side for the water. 20191123_193937.jpg

On the first day, Arthur greeted me with a hug and he came by a few times each night to check on how things were and chat. A big advantage of dining early (6:00 p.m.) is that the dining room is less crowded and the staff has more time to interact with guests.  On one night when I wasn’t excited about any of the entrees on the menu, I asked if the chef could prepare me a simple plate of pasta with pesto sauce. Arthur made sure it happened. 

Luis, the maitre d’, was friendly and helpful, as well, and always asked if everything was okay and how he could make things better.  I honestly don’t know how my Meraviglia dining experience could possibly have been any better.

When I’ve cruised solo in the past, I’ve usually felt a little awkward about dining alone. Thus I would often get room service, eat at the buffet, or make friends with someone else on board and go to dinner with them.  On Meraviglia, I savored my solo dinners. I didn’t feel alone at all with Arthur, Alex, and Junny catering to my every need and providing great company.

One of the things I have loved about MSC from the beginning is the way the crew and staff make you feel like part of a family, and I felt this strongly in the Yacht Club on Meraviglia. The only other cruise can compete in this respect was my birthday cruise on Seaside two months earlier.

DINING ROOM LAYOUT AND DECOR

As for the location, layout, and decor, the YC dining room on Meraviglia is absolutely stunning.  Unlike on Seaside, it’s not open to the lounge so you don’t have the extra noise. I had thought I might not like not being able to hear the live music in the lounge, but I found that the quieter atmosphere actually made for a more pleasant dining experience.

Unlike on Divina, this separation is not achieved by placing the restaurant all the way at the other end of the ship and necessitating a long walk to get there. While I didn’t mind that walk, I wasn’t fond of the view of the aft pool and sunbathers while sitting in Divina’s YC restaurant. Meraviglia’s big picture windows show only the sky and sea ahead of the ship.  And there are far more tables “on the glass” than on Seaside.

To get to the dining room, you take the spiral crystal stairs between the concierge desk and the entry to the Top Sail. Those stairs bring you to the open hallway just outside the dining room instead of opening up into the dining room itself – something that was a little annoying on Seaside (and would be especially so for those seated at the table right next to the stairs with people going up and down all evening).

The dining room on Meraviglia feels intimate due to the dark colors and the greenery (neither of which Seaside has) but also spacious because of the mirrored ceiling. Overall, the ambiance is much more traditionally elegant.  It’s my favorite of the three YC dining rooms I’ve experienced.

Top Sail lounge

After my first YC cruise on Seaside, I pronounced the Top Sail lounge my “new favorite place in the world.”  The lounge on Meraviglia is different from that of Seaside, in many positive ways and one negative way.  First, I like the separation from the restaurant (something I’d been unsure of before sailing on Mera).  The lounge feels much cozier and more relaxing without the ambient noises of clanging silverware and chatter from above.

I also like the darker decor. With all the sunlight coming in, it provides a contrast that works well, and I’m biased because the dark red and black combination is my favorite and is what I have in my living room and master bedroom at home – so it makes me feel even more at home.

The snack bar on Meraviglia is larger than Seaside and had a bigger selection, and I like the way it and the bar are at the entry to the lounge. The piano/small stage area isn’t centrally located but that’s actually a good thing, since those who want to hear the music better can sit on the port side of the lounge and those who don’t can go to the starboard side farther away from it.

One Pool deck

I love the idea of the pool deck on Seaside. The grill buffet is so nice and the food there is so good that I often have lunch there instead of going to the YC restaurant. But when I finish eating, I leave. I don’t hang out on the pool deck because the only place that’s not in direct sunlight is the small handful of tables right under the grill’s roof overhang (and even those aren’t always shaded, depending on the angle of the sun).  The second reason I don’t stay long is that the seating choices are mostly the chairs at the tables or loungers.

Meraviglia has plexiglass tops over much of the deck area that provides some shade while still being see-through. That means I – and others like me who burn to a crisp in direct sunlight – can settle in and stay for a while. The pool itself has shade, as well. I don’t ever get in public pools but if I did, I’d be glad of that. And I do like to just sit and enjoy the view, and love how that’s enhanced by the very comfortable big round sofas at the front where you can sit and sip a drink and feel as if you’re at the top of the world – because you are, at least at the top and front of the world of the ship.

As for the grill, I will conceded that Seaside’s has a bit larger selection of food and the flow through the buffet is better. On Mera, people would order a hamburger or pasta plate and then stand there while it was being made, blocking access to the hot buffet serve-yourself dishes.  I do, however, like that the buffet is over on the side and not front-and-center of the deck area.

Summary: Yacht Club area

On Meraviglia, the Yacht Club areas make up the forward sections of the ship on decks 14, 15, 16, 18, and 19. There are seventy-seven deluxe suites, fifteen YC interiors, two Royal Suites, and eight duplex suites which were formerly designated as Aurea experience but are being changed to Yacht Club suites in 2020.  These duplex suites are outside of the Yacht Club proper, on decks 12 and 13, but will enjoy all the amenities and exclusive areas of the YC experience.

The Ship

Meraviglia is the most beautiful ship I’ve cruised on. Seaside is amazing, but the decor is just a tad too slick glass-and-chrome modern for my tastes. Divina is old-world lovely, but is looking slightly worn and some of the decor, such as the YC dining room, is a little too ostentatious for me. Meraviglia, like baby bear’s bed in the Goldilocks tale, is (in my opinion) just right. 

Even though there are some things I like better about Seaside’s “downstairs” area, if given a choice between the two with the same itinerary, price, and dates, I would now choose Meraviglia since I spend more time in the YC areas than out on the rest of the ship.  And even though I like the location of Seaside’s specialty restaurants better, the YC dining room on Meraviglia is so good that I never wanted to miss a night there, so that didn’t matter.

Cabin 15007: A room without a view (and that’s okay)

This cruise was a new experience for me in more ways than one. It was my very first time to ever stay in an inside cabin. I’d booked interiors before, but I always got cold feet and upgraded before the cruise. I’d done twenty-four cruises and had always had at least an ocean view and most of the time a balcony.  I have experienced a little claustrophobia at times and thought it would feel like sleeping in a closet.

In fact, my original plan with this cruise was to take a deep breath and try something completely new – seeing how the “other half” lives in a Fantastica cabin. But I got a great price on the Yacht Club interior and chickened out on that idea.  I admit I was a little anxious about it, but I needn’t have been.

If I’d been traveling with my husband or a roommate, I might have felt differently but as a solo, I really enjoyed my little “cave.”  It was roomier than I expected, the setup was fine for working on the computer (something I’d worried about), there was plenty of storage for just me, and it was quiet (except for the last night, and I wasn’t going to get any sleep then anyway).  And Mevin kept it decorated and stocked with surprises every time I came back to it.

Christine Wandell, my travel agent, had put me in 15007 instead of the room I had asked for (15029).  I’ll be forever grateful to her for that. 15007 and 15009 are the only two YINs on the ship that each have a long private hallway separating the room from the main public corridor.

The deck plan is misleading when it comes to this room. It makes it appear that there is a U-shaped hallway that runs in front of it and 15005. In reality, each of those two rooms has its own separate little long private hallway, giving them “double doors.” That is, there is an outer door that looks like all the other cabin with your room number on it and a peephole and a lock that you open with your card or wristband. However, when you open it, you’re not in the room. You’re in a narrow hall, what I called my “entrance hall.” At the end is a second door that also locks and is opened by your card/bracelet. This hall, while it seems like wasted space, actually provides several advantages.

You can prop open the inner door (I always pack doorstops) and make the interior room feel much more spacious and less claustrophobic. When both doors are closed, it provides a sound buffer from any noises in the main corridor. And instead of being surprised by your butler’s knock on the door, you always have a few moments to prepare because you hear him open the outer door first.

The hallway also has a small recess and you can stick magnetic hooks to the wall there and hang things there for extra storage space if you want. Unfortunately, it won’t work for an idea I had at first: I was thinking if my husband and I ever cruised in that room together, and his snoring got too loud at night, I could take a blanket and pillow and go sleep in the hall. Well, scratch that — there’s no way to turn off the light there, and there is soft music piped into the hall most of the time. You can’t hear it when the inner door is closed, but it would definitely keep me awake if I were camped out in that space.

These two interior rooms also are assigned the same butler as the Royal Suites (which are diagonally across the main corridor), and that usually means the best butler on the ship.

mera deck 15 deck plan

When I booked the cruise, both 15007 and 15029 were available. I agonized over which to pick and decided on 029 because it was closer to the hallway to the YC stairs and it only shared a wall with one other cabin, whereas 007 had cabin both to the side and backed up to it.

I got my confirmation and didn’t really look at it for a few weeks. When I did, I saw that I was in 007, and contacted Christina to ask about it. She said she had put me there because it was across from the Royal Suite – and thus would probably have the same butler (traditionally, the very best butlers are assigned to the Royals). She said she could change it, as 029 was still open. I said nah, I’ll just keep this one — I sort of liked the sound of 007 anyway; it’s all secret agentish, you know. And I’m so very thankful that I did.

My initial thought about getting an interior was that I wouldn’t spend much time in the room, but I actually ended up spending more time there than I’d planned. Although the desk is a good bit smaller than in the deluxe suites, there was plenty of room for my laptop, the one chair was comfortable and the right height for typing, and Mevin even made the small table work for room service dining, so I had breakfast there most mornings.

I liked it much more than I thought I would, although I admit to having a few thoughts along the lines of “if the ship started sinking, I’d never know it in here,” and “No way to jump overboard if the corridor outside my room caught on fire. (Can’t help it; considering all the possibilities isn’t just the way I was trained, it’s the way I am.

On the other hand, pirates aren’t going to be able able to pull up alongside and climb into my room via the balcony, and a foreign Navy’s sniper won’t be able to shoot into my room from a hostile vessel beside us – so it all evens out. And anyone who wants to break into my cabin will have to work twice as hard as for the other 2,242 staterooms on the ship that don’t have double doors.

Another slight worry I’d had about the room was being on deck 15.  On my Seaside cruises, I’d always booked a cabin on deck 16, which is in the “thick of things” on the same floor with the concierge desk and Top Sail lounge. I wondered if I’d feel cut off from the YC experience down on 15.

That was yet another needless worry. I found that I loved the privacy and quiet of being in a “residential-only neighborhood” and the proximity to the Royal Suites ensured that my cabin was in no way “forgotten” by the staff.  It was a short jaunt up down the hall, around the corner, and up the stairs to get to the lounge, and for those with mobility issues, there is an elevator that opens right by the concierge desk. You can also take it up to deck 18, where the dining room is, and deck 19 (the pool deck).

Atrium and central promenade

The central promenade design is one of Meraviglia class ships’ defining characteristics. It features a curved modular LED display on the ceiling of the walkway that runs down the center of the ship on decks 6 and 7.  It’s designed to look like a Mediterranean street scene with shops and restaurants lining the sides, and it’s a very impressive looking area.

The ceiling display changes frequently, showing 16K static and video content on a system that was developed and built specifically for this purpose. The dome is made up of more than a thousand panels and the light shows are run by a cluster of seven custom media servers.

The lower level of the promenade (deck 6) includes Jean Philippe gelato and crepes shop on the port side (not free to Yacht Club guests like Venchi on Seaside) and its chocolate and coffee shop across the way on the starboard side, HOLA Tapas bar, Ocean Cay seafood restaurant, the jewelry shop, boutique, and Plaza Meraviglia where perfume, cosmetics, costume jewelry and such are sold. The excursions desk is also along this level and at the aft end before you get to the Edge Cocktail bar and the Swarovski staircases, you’ll find the MSC logo shop and a fashion jewelry shop.

The upper level of the promenade features the Brass Anchor Pub, Kaito Teppanyaki and Sushi Bar, the Butcher’s Cut steakhouse, and the TV Studio and Bar. The Champagne Bar spans both sides of the ship at the aft end.

My favorite venue on the promenade was the Pub. It was the only one that made me want to sit and stay.  I loved the English atmosphere and it was quieter, being at the front end of the promenade.  To me, it was the best place outside of Yacht Club to meet up with friends and have a leisurely drink.

Pools, tubs, and waterworks

I’m not a pool person. I don’t get into public pools, so I can’t report on this from a “user” perspective. From an aesthetic standpoint, I thought the pools on Meraviglia were prettier than those on Seaside.

Of course, the one that I saw the most of was the Yacht Club Pool, on deck 19 forward.  Unlike on Seaside, this pool gets a lot of shade so if I did use public pools, I’d be much more apt to get into it than the Seaside’s.  It’s not big – but it doesn’t need to be. I rarely saw more than two people in it at a time. It’s tucked back out of the way, too, and is around the corner from the grill area, so you can sit and eat without fear of being splashed or having swimmers as your main view.  There is one adjoining hot tub on a raised platform.

The Atmosphere pool in front of the outdoor big screen with nice statues (not the strange ones at the Seaside pool) and lighted square pads for sun beds during the day is a really attractive backdrop for the white party that was held there and there’s room in front of the stage for a dance floor. It’s reportedly one of the longest pools at sea, at 80 ft. long. This is the main pool and appeared to be the most crowded one. This is the pool for hardcore sun worshipers, with its double sun beds fully exposed to the elements.

The covered pool (with retractable roof) on Meraviglia is the Bamboo Pool on deck 15, open to deck 16 above. It’s a bit more elegant than Seaside’s Jungle Pool and there are whirlpool tubs on the upper deck cantilevered to overhang the lower level, which is pretty cool looking. There are plenty of loungers and a nice bar in this area on the lower level, with table tennis, foosball, and tables and chairs overlooking the pool from the upper level.

The Horizon Pool at the aft end of the ship on deck 16 is a small, square pool that has an amphitheater in front of it and transforms into a dance area at night.  This one does have one of the “weird lady” statues similar to those at Seaside’s South Beach pool.

horizon pool

There are additional hot tubs on deck 15 in the Solarium and near the walking track.

On deck 19 aft, you’ll find the AquaPark waterworks, which has a kids’ area with a splash pool and spray guns. For older kids and adults, there are three water slides, the most interesting of which is the Champagne Glass where you go around and around an open glass-shaped space.  Not my thing, but it looked as if those who were so inclined were having a good time.

meraviglia water park

Other outdoor activities

Near the water park is the ropes course, for those who wish to test their sure-footedness. Since it doesn’t involve getting wet (unless you’re very unlucky), I wouldn’t have minded trying it out but simply never got around to it. Three days isn’t enough time to do everything you want on a ship this big, even when you never get off at ports.

meraviglia top 19There is also a sports complex that has tennis, basketball, and volleyball in the daytime. It becomes a disco at night.

The Top 19 sun deck is for Aurea passengers. It doesn’t have a full pool like the Yacht Club area, but does have a long narrow sort of lap pool at the front.  I only passed through and didn’t take time to thoroughly examine this area. I know Top 19 on Seaside has a bar but am unsure of whether this one did.

One major plus in comparison to Seaside, for me, is that Meraviglia does have a walking/jogging track. This is on deck 16 mid-ship to aft and provides a way to walk all the way around from one side of the ship, across the back, and back up to the front of the mid-ship section. It does not go around the front of the ship – Yacht Club occupies the forward one-third of this deck.

In Part Two, I’ll go into detail about the food, the theater and specialty restaurants, the shows and parties and the other activities on board. Stay tuned for more.

NOTE: I’ve never had a bad cruise on MSC, but this one was extraordinary.  It set the bar high, and I know that I can’t expect this level of amazing service on every future cruise. I also caution readers to realize that if you cruise in Yacht Club, don’t expect to get everything I’ve described it. I didn’t, on any other YC cruise. That doesn’t take away at all from the quality of those other cruises. Every experience is unique and I enjoy each one, savor the best parts, and don’t dwell on the parts that aren’t as good. 

I’m not so naïve as to think I would have been treated exactly the same way if crew and staff weren’t familiar with my name and face from my blogs and social media. I don’t think it’s just because TAs, travel writers, etc. can influence others’ decisions to cruise with them, though. I think a lot of it is that there is a natural inclination to cater more to people you feel you “know” in some way — i.e. people in the travel industry feel like “family” and people whom they’ve seen and gotten to know through the online forums feel like “old friends.”

Anyone can get out there in the social media groups, become a regular poster, and make yourself familiar to the MSC personnel who read those group postings. 

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Dear MSC Seaside: A love letter

My Dear Seaside –

We’ve been seeing each other for almost two years now, and I think we’ve reached the point in our relationship when it’s time to have “the talk.”  Things have gotten serious, now that you’ve given me this Diamond.

MSC Diamond Card

Of course, we had gotten well acquainted online over a year before we met in person. I feel as if we know each other pretty well now. I love you; there’s no doubt about that. I have to confess that in the beginning, it was your incredible good looks that first attracted me.  When I saw you standing there, so straight and tall, towering above those other silly ships that were wagging their whale tails, I was intrigued. And when I got my first glance at that amazing rear end of yours … well, who could resist?

Was it a rebound thing?  Maybe. I was just getting over a bad breakup. The divorce from Carnival had been long and drawn out. I’d tried to make it work for a while even after  the thrill was gone. I’d invested a lot of time and money into that relationship. And there had been many good times,  even great times. Those memories kept me coming back for “just one more try.”

But there comes a time when you just have to admit that it’s over.  There’s no need to point fingers; we just grew apart.  It wasn’t that Carnival changed (although it did) — it was more that I had changed.  I needed something different, something more.  I grew up; Carnival didn’t.  Life is too short to spend it married to a cruise line you no longer love. It was time to move on.

For a while, I withdrew from cruising altogether. Yes, I had trust issues. But I got lonely for the companionship of the sea.  I longed to dress up in my finest for elegant night. I missed the gentle motion of the ocean rocking me to sleep. I wanted to love again.

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When a friend, Ray McDonald, set me up on that first blind date with you, I was excited – and also nervous. You had a reputation – and not all of it was good. There were people on social media who warned me that you’d let me down.  Some of  your exes said really nasty things about you. Some of my friends tried to dissuade me from getting involved with you.

Here’s a secret: I came very close to cancelling our first meeting.  I was afraid I’d feel like a stranger in a strange land.  You were so handsome, but so different from what I was used to.  You came from a different country, a different culture, with different customs. Was there any way we could make it work?

But I’ve never been one to back down from a challenge. I decided that, like Kris Kristofferson sang, I’d rather be sorry for something I’d done than for something that I didn’t do.  And so I flew more than a thousand miles to meet you on your home turf – although you were new in town at the time. I put on my bravest smile and I walked right up to you and introduced myself … and that was when the magic began.

It didn’t take me long to realize that your beauty was more than skin deep. I was mesmerized by your suave Italian charm, but what really won me over was the way you treated me. From the moment I was escorted into your waiting lounge, plied with champagne and pastries (the way to a girl’s heart, for sure), then shown to my beautiful room, you made me feel like royalty.

You’ve been making me feel that way every time we’re together, ever since.

heart hands

And now, here we are and you’ve met my family and won them over, too. In a couple of weeks I’ll be getting to know one of your sisters, and then I’m going to spend some time with your other, older sister in December.  You’ve made plans to take me to your family’s private island.  Things are moving fast.

When I split up with Carnival, I wasn’t sure I’d ever be able to love cruising again.  You showed me that it’s just a matter of finding “the one.”  And now I don’t care what others say about you; they don’t understand you like I do.

Oh, I know you’re not perfect. I don’t expect you to be (neither am I!) I know you’re going to do some things that I don’t like. You’re a bit wishy-washy sometimes and I just wish you’d make up your mind about things.  Sometimes you change the rules on me without telling me. You don’t always communicate as frequently and as clearly as I’d like.

islandBut I love that unlike some loves in the past, when I complain, you actually listen. And more often than not, you make positive changes in response. I love the way you’re always coming up with little surprise gifts that I didn’t expect – free Internet packages, deck parties, little candies left on my bed, little snack plates that I didn’t ask for.  I love that you remember my birthday and make it special.  I love that you take me to beautiful, exotic places where I can forget all my worries and responsibilities for a little while and just be me.

I know some people prefer to play the field, but I guess I’m a serially monogamistic cruiser.  I’m proud to wear your Diamond now as a symbol of my love and loyalty.  When we’re apart, I miss you so much.

I can’t wait to see you again.

msc for me heart

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MSC Seaside Day Four: Happiest Birthday Ever

This is the fourth installment of the day-by-day, blow-by-blow review of our September 14-21, 2019 cruise on the MSC Seaside. If you don’t have the time or inclination to read the “long form,” there is an intro/overview that hits the highlights HERE.

Tuesday, September 17th

What better way to start the day on your birthday than to open up your curtains and look out on a gorgeous sunny morning in the U.S. Virgin Islands?  We docked at Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, at 7:00 a.m. so needless to say, we were already there when I got up. Unlike the overcast and light rain we had the evening before in San Juan, it was hot but clear and lovely, and the view from our balcony was perfect.

We grabbed some snacks and had some coffee in the Top Sail, as usual, and then prepared to venture out onto the island. We didn’t book an excursion – we never do in St. Thomas. The Havensight area at the port is easy to walk around and you can take a taxi if you want to go to other parts of the island.

“What do you want to do today, Deb?
“The same thing we do every day (in St. T.), Tom.”
“Take over the world?”
“Nah. Take a look at the world from Paradise Point while sipping a Bushwacker.”

(Only those familiar with the 1990s animated children’s program Pinky and the Brain will “get” the above conversation. If you aren’t and don’t, please disregard and just scroll on by).

The last time we’d been up to Paradise Point together was in 2014 when we were on our 20th anniversary vows renewal cruise. Tom caught a bad cold on the plane and was sick for much of that cruise, and missed going out at several ports, but he was feeling better by the time we got to St. Thomas and we have some great memories of that, so of course we wanted to revisit them.

I’d been to St. Thomas a few times since on solo cruises or with friends, but hadn’t been back up to the Point since hurricanes Maria and Irma did so much damage to the island in the fall of 2017, almost exactly two years before. 

deb in st thomas with seaside

At the Paradise Point skyride base station

IMG_20190917_113020.jpgPrimas escorted us downstairs to leave the ship. Since we’d been docked for a couple of hours, there were no lines. We walked off and past the Havensight shops, and across Frenchman Bay Road to the skyride base station. There was no long line there, either, so we quickly purchased tickets and climbed the stairs to the platform to board the tramway, where we had a car all to ourselves.  I took the obligatory photos of the rapidly receding ships as we went higher up the mountain, and the post card perfect view Seaside docked below from the top.

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On the way to paradise

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After we got to the upper tram station, I noticed a few subtle differences since the last time I was there. For instance, the “Welcome to Paradise” sign at the entry to the stairs that lead to the bar and grill was missing, probably a casualty of the storms that devastated the region.

Something that hadn’t changed (thank goodness) was the delicious taste and alcoholic lethality of the bar’s signature drink, the bushwacker.

I learned a couple of visits ago that this is a very sneaky drink. It packs a punch – but not right away. The previous time I was there, it was extremely hot and I had quickly drained my glass and ordered a second. I finished it off, too, and didn’t feel much of an effect — until ten minutes later when I tried to stand up. Oh, dear.

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Paradise Point Grill menu

This time I knew to order food to go along with the delightful frozen concoction, and to stop after the first one (although I certainly didn’t want to). Even if I were a little better at holding my liquor, I didn’t need all those liquid calories in duplicate.  It was yummy, and so were the conch fritters that I selected to go along with it (yeah, yeah, I know — I didn’t really need those calories, either, but hey, it was my birthday).

 

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Conch fritters to die for

We hung out for a while, perused the little shops above the bar, and bought Tom a beautiful parrot design shirt made of silky terrivoille that quickly became his favorite shirt.

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Sadly, the real parrots that used to be in one of those shops, with which we’d had our pictures taken back in 2014, were no longer there. However, we found a few more nice little souvenirs.

parrots st thomas

Almost 5 years ago (12/2014)

I always like to spend some money and help out the local economy on the islands but that’s especially true in the wake of the hurricanes.  St. Thomas has come a long way in recovering – farther than some of the other islands – but there are still many reminders of the terrible consequences of those storms. 

We did get one fun photo taken, though. Tom looked pretty distinguished as a pirate and I guess I made an okay wench.

st thomas pirate picture

Playing pirate

Before we headed back down the mountain, I was able to get a gorgeous zoomed in closeup of our lovely ship. I know I’m biased, but I really do believe she is the prettiest cruise ship on the sea.

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We had considered catching a ride over to MountainTop, another summit on the island that boasts beautiful views and a sweet libation – the banana daquiri. But it’s an approximate 20 minute drive each way, and we wanted to spend some time on the ship before dinner, so we headed on back.

Yacht Club and Black Card gangway

That’s one of the side effects of cruising in the Yacht Club: you almost hate to spend time off the ship in port because you get “homesick” for the lounge, the pool deck, your cabin, and most of all the wonderful YC staff and crew members who make it such a fantastic experience.

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Deck 16

 

Back on the ship, we trekked back to our cabin to get cleaned up after spending the time in the hot sun. When we got there, I found a little surprise on the bed: a sweet birthday card signed by Primas and Sheena, our butler and junior butler.

How sweet is that?  But that was only the beginning of the Seaside crew’s and staff’s conspiracy to make sure this was a birthday that I would remember forever.

It wasn’t quite time to get ready for dinner yet, so we then headed to the Top Sail for a little appetizer and to check out the restaurant menus. They’re always posted next to the stairs that go up from the Top Sail to the dining room, and there we could see both what we missed at lunch time and what was in store for dinner.

To be perfectly honest,  I didn’t find the dinner menu compelling. I don’t eat beef, not a fan of octopus or mussels, and tuna isn’t my favorite fish. But everything would turn out just fine, thanks in part to a surprise dish that wasn’t listed.

Tonight was Italian night, and I’d brought my Italia shirt and color-coordinated long skirt for the occasion. We went back to the cabin and took our time getting dressed, and by the time Primas showed up to escort us to the dining room, I was feeling festive.  Tom wore his red parrot shirt that we’d bought in St. Thomas, and it went well with the color scheme.

I love Italian night on MSC. Although, unlike other theme nights, they don’t have a party for it later in the evening, they do up the dining rooms beautifully and the waiters all wear the Italian flag colors – red, white, and green. We were one of the first couples to arrive and the tables were all decorated to celebrate the wonderful country of MSC’s origin.

We got a nice photo of us with Primas and Christian to serve as a memento of this fantastic day.

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In the Yacht Club with the man I love, my butler on one side and my waiter on the other, and the beautiful island of St. Thomas in the background to look out on while we ate — how could this birthday possibly be anything but happy?

I ended up ordering the tricolor salad for my first course, which turned out to be surprisingly good, and the risotto with Taleggio cheese as my entree. Seaside’s risottos have never let me down yet, and this was no exception. It was delicious.  Tom had the beef carpaccio and a cheese plate to start, and surprised me by getting the clam and mussel pot instead of the filet mignon.

It was all good, and what had appeared to be an uninspiring menu morphed into a meal that was one of the best on the ship.  But there was one more dish in store for me.

I love pasta, and when I saw that Ercan was cooking up a special pasta dish right there in the dining room, I was glad I’d gone with the salad instead of something heavier, and saved some room for it.  What I didn’t expect was that he would call me over to help stir it, for a perfect birthday photo opp.

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Now we’re cooking!

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Delizioso!

Not only was it fun to help make it – the pasta tasted great, too.  And no sooner had I finished off the plate than Christian reappeared with the tiramisu I’d ordered for dessert and a rose made from a red napkin, topped by a white napkin bird. Just another example of how the little gestures add up and make you feel so cared for among the Yacht Club family.

He disappeared before I could even thank  him properly, but a couple of minutes later, he was back – with another huge birthday cake like the one I’d been surprised by at Teppanyaki the night before. Oh, my.  And half a dozen waiters plus Ercan gathered around and sang “happy birthday” to me. Just … wow. I wasn’t really expecting it to happen again, and I was so touched.

Dinner had been absolutely fantastic, but I was feeling beyond full. It was time to walk, so after taking the rest of the cake back to our room, we made the rounds of the ship’s public decks, several times.

While it was Italian night in the restaurant, the theme party that night in the atrium and the Haven lounge was country and western, and we stopped to take some photos in the lounge where they were gearing up for the C&W bash, and then snapped a few more here and there around the ship.

Even though we were both feeling fat following that fantastic fare in the restaurant, we decided to go ahead and pose for some pro photos since we had the unlimited package. I didn’t expect any of these to be very good, but we were surprised to find that some of them were among our favorites.

I have to say once again that I found the photo package to be a really excellent value, and we had a lot of fun hamming it up for the camera.

This entire cruise was amazing, but this day was special in so many ways.  We packed in a lot of seeing and doing (and eating and drinking), yet it never felt frenetic – it was still one of the most relaxing days I can remember ever having.  I hated to see it end, but there was still plenty of fun yet to come.

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As we sailed off into the sunset – literally – I reflected for the hundredth time this trip on how very blessed I am.

Tomorrow we would dock early in Philipsburg, on the Dutch side of Sint Maarten. This was the only port at which we had purchased an excursion, and to our dismay, once on board we learned that it was scheduled to start at 7:30 a.m.  To avoid being completely sleep-deprived during our tour of the island, we decided to forego that evening’s show and turn in relatively early — after one last visit to the Top Sail lounge for a medicinal glass of wine to help us sleep, of course.

Stay tuned for our day in Sint Maarten and the full account of our exploration of this little outpost of the Kingdom of the Netherlands and its slightly larger French-speaking conjoined twin, Saint Martin, as we hit the halfway mark of this cruise on Wednesday.

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MSC Seaside Day Three: Late Port Day

This is the third installment of the day-by-day, blow-by-blow review of our September 14-21, 2019 cruise on the MSC Seaside. If you don’t have the time or inclination to read the “long form,” there is an intro/overview that hits the highlights HERE.

Monday, September 16th

Rainy days and Mondays always get me down  — but a misty Monday morning at sea, now that’s a whole different thing.  There are few things as calming as being in the middle of the ocean, with nothing but water surrounding you, knowing you’ve left all your worries and pressures and obligations back on land and, at least temporarily, you can relax and just take in the beauty and majesty of this world from a whole different perspective.

I don’t use the balcony much on a cruise, but I do love to open up that door and step outside first thing in the morning and watch the waves go by. It reminds me of why our earth is called the “blue planet.”

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Breakfast at the Buffet

After our elegant evening celebrations, we slept late and so we got up to the Yacht Club Grill just as they were shutting it down. Oops.  We stopped in at the Top  Sail lounge for coffee, and then headed down to the deck 8 buffet to grab some breakfast.

IMG_20190916_103315.jpgIt doesn’t have the ambiance of breakfast at the YC grill, but the selection was bigger and the food was actually quite good. And I just had to rub it in to my Carnival friends that MSC has real butter in foil packets (“Buttergate” has been an ongoing issue with Carnival for the past year or so).

Making the Most of Monday

This day was a half sea/half port day, as we were scheduled to arrive in San Juan, Puerto Rico at 5:00 p.m. and stay until 1:00 a.m. Many people don’t like that aspect of this itinerary because some of the famous landmarks, such as the forts, are closed in the evening. If I hadn’t already seen them a few times, I might feel the same way.

As it is, though, I enjoy the night life in Old San Juan and have never felt unsafe walking around near the port at night, even when I’m by myself.  We planned to go out and explore a little on our own before the scheduled Yacht Club deck party that evening.

Meanwhile, it was a lovely, lazy morning and a perfect opportunity to have another cup of coffee in the lounge and catch up on Facebook.  By the time I finished with that, it was time for a snack and the first drink of the day – a BBC, of course. I first discovered Bailey’s Banana Coladas on my very first cruise, on Carnival Magic, years ago. It is still my “go to” cruise ship drink.

The combination of Irish cream and banana liqueur and/or banana rum, depending on the bartender (here’s a recipe) is delicious, and of course when you’re in the Yacht Club there’s no cost — at least not a monetary one. Yummy sweet frozen drinks are pricey in terms of calories, though, so afterwards we took a long walk around the ship to rack up some steps and work off a little of the potential weight gain.  Of course I seized the opportunity to take a few more photos.

In the atrium, they were holding an “ask the officers” session, which is nice for newbies. It was also crowded, so we just watched from the open deck above.

They were handing out flyers with information about the ship, and answering questions. But although it’s titled “Captain’s Corner” in the Daily Planner, Capt. Di Palma wasn’t there when we went by. He most likely had other things to do — such as commanding the ship.

After our walk, we gravitated back to the Top Sail lounge (it draws me like a magnet) to check out the restaurant lunch menu before it was too late.

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It looked more than okay, but Tom was now (like me) deeply in love with the Deck 19 grill, and since there was nothing that compelling on the restaurant menu, we trekked up the stairs to check out the day’s fare up there.

As usual, it all looked and smelled wonderful.

We weren’t super hungry, but I had to try out the pasta, and Tom made himself a small plate. We noshed on that and enjoyed the sea breezes for a while.

Of course, more calories demanded more walking, so we did another round, this time mostly outdoors, and then went back to the cabin to chill for a bit. We played with the TV and checked out the available content. Here are some photos of what you can tune in.

As you can see, there are a few channels, such as CNN and Cartoon Network (is that redundant? LOL), and you can access your personal agenda, billing information, make reservations for shows, see the ship’s location on the map, and more.

An aside: How to connect your computer or phone to the TV

We don’t really watch TV on a cruise, other than maybe occasionally hooking up one of the computers to the TV to watch a movie or TV episode we downloaded beforehand. To connect your computer or phone to the TV as mentioned above, you’ll need a cable with a connector on one end that fits your device’s display output (mini USB or USB-C for Android phones, mini Displayport for my Surface Pro) and a full size HDMI connector on the other for plugging into the television.

The TVs in the YC1 rooms on Seaside present a challenge because they’re mounted so close to the wall and don’t swivel or pull out. You need a small hand (luckily I have two of those) and a lot of patience because you’ll have to find the HDMI port entirely by touch. Then you need to reboot the TV and you’ll get this screen:

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Once you get it connected, it works fine, and I just leave the cable plugged into the TV for the duration of the cruise and unplug it from my computer when I want to take it to the lounge with me.

seaside tv (3).jpg

Honestly, though, we always find way too much to do on the ship and don’t really have much time for watching — after all, we can do that at home.

Port One: Puerto Rico

We got into port a little before 5:00 pm and we went to the Top Sail to meet our butler so he could  escort us past all the lines off the ship. We had a beautiful view of the city from the lounge.

20190916_163201.jpgNormally we have dinner at 6:00 but we’d made reservations for 7:30 at the specialty restaurant for the first of our “Roy’s Asian Trio,” giving us time to go out walk around in Old San Juan before coming back to the ship to eat.

IMG_20190916_182810.jpgWe walked up the waterfront and then up the hill to Fortaleza Street, which had always been adorned with colorful umbrellas on all my previous visits, before they were torn down during the protests in the city that had taken place a couple of months before. It was sad to see the street without them. IMG_20190916_182859.jpg

We checked out the merchandise in some of the little shops along the way and Tom bought some cigars. We enjoyed just walking around, listening to the street music, and people-watching until it was time to go back to the ship to get ready for dinner.

Back on board, we got cleaned up and changed clothes and headed on over to the specialty restaurant area, which is across from the entry to the Yacht Club on our deck.  This was my fourth time to do Teppanyaki on Seaside (I loved it so much the first time that I did it again on that same cruise).  I was hoping this time would be the same and I wasn’t disappointed.

Teppanyaki Time

The teppanyaki dinner is about more than just the food; the chefs put on a show as they prepare your meal in front of you at the big hibachi tables.  Previous times, there have been as many as twelve people at the table but this time – probably because it was a port night – it was just us and one other couple. That didn’t keep our chef from putting on a stellar performance.

The meal begins with sushi, salad, and miso soup – a three course appetizer before you even get to the two main courses. From the first time at Roy’s, I have thought and still think that the sashimi on this ship is some of the best I’ve ever had, anywhere (including at much higher prices).

teppanyaki menu 1.PNGThis three-part first course is the same for everyone, regardless of your choice of the three options – Katana, Sencho, Shogun, or the Vegetarian dinner.  It’s really an excellent value for the money, considering the usual prices of good Japanese food on land.

I got the Katana as I always do (Mahi Mahi and chicken entree). Tom went all out and got the most expensive Shogun (Wagyu and lobster). The other couple both stayed in the middle of the road with the Sencho selection.  It was, as always, very good.

It’s served with yummy fried rice – second helpings all around – and then everyone gets the same dessert, glazed pineapple chunks with ice cream on top, which is quite good. Of course, by the time you get that far, you’re going to be feeling so stuffed that you might not be able to fully appreciate it.

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This time, though, that wasn’t the end of it. The next day was my birthday, and to my utter surprise, as we thought it was all over and time to leave, a couple of the restaurant staff came parading in carrying a huge birthday cake, and they all sang happy birthday to me. The cake was beautiful but I really was at the point where I couldn’t eat another bite – so they sent it “home” to my cabin with me.

I hadn’t expected my birthday to begin so early, and I was really touched by this sweet gesture. IMG_20190916_204527.jpg

Oh, but there’s more. This was also the night of the Yacht Club pool deck party, which we had almost forgotten about. But, although we didn’t want any more to eat, we decided to go check it out and perhaps have an after-dinner drink.

Party by the Pool

Since we got there late, we didn’t get to see the party in all its glory as others’ videos showed, and it didn’t help that it was also raining a little when we got there. The live music was still going but was winding down. The buffet looked great but I couldn’t even try to eat any of it.

Tom, however, valiantly made himself a plate and I sat and sipped a piña colada while he somehow found room for it.  The YC staff were attentive as usual, and came by frequently to check on whether we needed anything else.

Image may contain: 1 person, standingThe YC party was winding down, but the 70s party downstairs in the atrium was still going strong. I had brought my 70s costume – shiny disco outfit complete with long blonde wig – but by this time I was too tired to change clothes again. We did go for a last walk around the ship and watched the party for while, then headed on back up to the Yacht Club lounge for a final nightcap before calling it a night.

And what a night – and day – it had been. It was a long one but a good one. We said goodnight to San Juan from our balcony, and I went to bed knowing that tomorrow I was going to be a whole year older (and, I hoped, at least a little bit wiser).

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Stay tuned for Day Four, which (spoiler alert) turned out to be one of my very best birthdays, ever.

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Safety at Sea: It’s a shared responsibility

I’ve been working in the IT security sector for two decades, and as more and more organizations have transitioned to cloud computing, something we stress is that security becomes a shared responsibility when you entrust your resources to a cloud provider such as Microsoft Azure or Amazon AWS.

Likewise, when board a cruise ship or an airplane, or enter your room in a high-rise hotel, your safety becomes a responsibility that’s shared between you and the cruise line, airline, or hotel management.

safety first

There was a minor uproar on one of the Facebook cruise groups recently, regarding the muster drill on MSC Seaside. I’ve seen similar complaints before, and I appreciate the concerns. I hope I can allay some of them here.

Most of the complaints/concerns center on two things:

  • Muster drill is short and chaotic
  • Life jackets are kept at the muster stations instead of in your cabin

Both of these are true, but here’s why they aren’t the huge problem that some are making them out to be:

Short and sweet. The MSC muster drills are indeed quick, and may seem chaotic, though they’re certainly a relief to those who have stood in sweltering heat for 45 minutes just waiting for Carnival to even get started. There is a demo on how to put on and inflate your life jacket, and instructions are repeated in several languages because the ship has an international mix of passengers. 

musterThe drill is more casual than those on, for instance, Carnival’s older ships where everyone has to line up shoulder to shoulder four or five rows deep out on the deck and stand at attention during the demo. Instead, you get to sit in comfortable theater seats or stand around in the casino while watching the demonstration. (On Carnival’s newer ships, stations are indoors and you can sit in the restaurants and theater – which is a good thing, as I’ve seen people pass out from the heat while standing during the long outdoor drills).

It’s the ship’s responsibility to conduct the muster drill according to SOLAS guidelines. It’s your responsibility as a passenger to attend, to pay attention, and to know where to go and what to do in case of an emergency.  The muster drill is only part of that.

Safety video. I’ve been on Seaside three times. Every time, it’s been repeated during the drill that there is a safety video on the cabin TV and you are advised to watch it. This is intended to be part of your safety training, just like the airlines have gone to showing a video instead of or to supplement the live safety briefing.

This is a good thing. You can watch the video with no distractions, without your view being obstructed by a tall person in front of you, and re-watch it if you need to. Again, this is part of your responsibility as a passenger.

sleeping on planeYes, there are people who won’t watch it, just as there are always many people on the plane who have their headphones on and eyes closed or on their books or are snoring away during the safety demo or video. You can’t force anyone to learn anything.  The cruise can only make the information available and it’s up to you to utilize it.

Life vest location. Having the life jackets handed out at the muster stations absolutely makes sense. Think about it. The likelihood of an emergency occurring while you’re out on the ship vs. in your cabin is much higher. Going back to the cabin to get the jacket wastes precious time when minutes can make the difference between life or death.

This takes a big part of the responsibility off of you and places it on the ship’s personnel. You no longer have to stress out about rushing to the cabin to retrieve your jacket. If others in your cabin haven’t come to get theirs yet, you don’t have to agonize over whether to take theirs with you or leave them there for them to get or wait there for them to get there – any of which could end up putting your life or theirs in danger if you guess wrong. 

I understand the fear that an emergency could occur while you’re asleep in your cabin, requiring you to don your jacket and jump off your balcony — but that’s not the protocol. Going to your muster station is, whatever time it is.

However, if not having a life vest in your cabin concerns you, there are very portable inflatable ones you can buy and bring with you. Some airlines allow you to fly with the cartridges and some don’t. Here is info on flying with your inflatable life vest:
https://www.ussailing.org/education/adult/safety-at-sea-courses/safety-at-sea-resources/traveling-with-your-lifejacket-tsa-guidelines/ 

Part of being responsible for your own safety means taking extra steps on your own, such as bringing your own equipment, if that’s what’s required to ensure your peace of mind. It also means maintaining a state of mental awareness so that you can respond intelligently if something happens.  If you drink yourself silly and leave your safety entirely in someone else’s hands because “it’s vacation,” you’re taking a bigger risk. That’s your choice, but make it knowing what you’re doing.

Is cruising safe? If you have worries about safety on board, please read the article linked below – especially this statistic: “the odds of dying on a cruise ship are roughly 1 in 6.25 million.” And that includes all the people who deliberately jump off the ship or fall while doing something incredibly stupid such as standing up on the balcony rail.
https://www.forbes.com/sites/lealane/2019/03/24/is-cruising-safe-facts-and-figures-to-help-you-decide/#1d8e1e245b58

I know it’s disconcerting when things change. We get familiar with the same old ways of doing things and it seems scary when they’re done differently. But different doesn’t always mean there’s a problem.

The MSC masters I’ve met on Seaside – Captains Massa and Di Palma – are very experienced and very caring captains. I have every confidence in them to run a safe ship, and I know they would never put their passengers and crew – as well as their own lives – at risk.

Accidents can happen and it’s important to be prepared, but please don’t be paranoid. And let’s not unnecessarily scare the first time cruisers who are already a little nervous about this new and unknown experience. All of the good things in life carry risks. It’s your responsibility to consider all the facts and factors and then decide whether the risks are reasonable, and to learn how to mitigate them. 

A related and overlapping subject is safety in ports, and I’ll do another article addressing that in the near future. 

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The Travel Gamble: When Good Trips Go Bad

Someone I know, who is travel-averse, is fond of saying that taking a trip is a gamble. And it is – just like getting married or accepting a job offer or, indeed, getting out of bed in the morning.  Like life itself, there are no 100% guarantees. If you’ve had the foresight to purchase insurance, you might get reimbursed for the money you spent, but you can never get back your time, and that’s the most precious thing of all. 

I cruise a lot, so I’ll focus here mostly on that mode of travel, but what I’m going to say is also applicable to flying to Hawaii for a week to stay in a fancy resort, backpacking through Europe and sleeping in hostels, or taking a road trip through the backwoods of your own U.S. state. And while I’m writing with traveling for pleasure in mind, some of this also applies to traveling for business.

Attitude is everything

In the real estate business, the mantra is “location, location, location.” When you’re traveling, whether for pleasure or work or something in between, it’s all about “attitude, attitude, attitude.”

attitude

Adopt an attitude of gratitude. Wherever you are in the world, your attitude determines your outlook and frames your experience.  Some people manage to be miserable in a penthouse suite with a butler waiting on them hand and foot, because the bar was out of their favorite wine. Others stay in a tiny closet-sized windowless room but somehow have fun even when it rains every day and the ship loses power and the plumbing stops working and they’re stranded at sea for days.

Several years ago, I met a group of ladies who were on the infamous Carnival Triumph “poop ship” cruise back in 2013. I listened in fascination to their “war stories” and how they “just pretended we were on a camping trip in the middle of the ocean” and made the best of a situation that had others suing for compensation for “mental injury.”

Here’s the thing: Having bad things happen on your trip doesn’t mean you have to have a bad time. Sounds contradictory, I know.  But while you can’t control the weather, the policies and practices of big corporate travel providers, or the fellow human beings you encounter along the way, the good news is that you can control how you react to those events and people. And you can have a good time in spite of them all.

NOTE: I am obviously not talking here about a trip where your plane crashes or your ship sinks or your hotel burns down and sends you to the hospital. I’m talking about the million and one little things that I see people list in their trip reviews that culminate in “It was the most horrible week I’ve ever spent and no one should ever cruise on/fly with/ stay at this cruise line/airline/hotel ever again.”

small stuff

Manage your expectations

Sometimes it seems as if some of the folks who get the very best top-of-the-line treatment on a cruise or at a hotel are the ones who complain the loudest about small negatives.  world-1301744_960_720That always prompts the less privileged to comment about #firstworldproblems. Of course, in truth, the problems of all of us who are blessed to be able to travel frequently for pleasure – in any level of accommodations – are first world problems, because that’s the world we live in.

But when you think about it, it makes sense that those who are most blessed are sometimes the most irked by the “small stuff.” When you pay more  for a higher grade of experience, you set your expectations differently. What we have to remember is that a higher price may get us a larger/nicer room and more amenities, but it doesn’t buy us immunity from the human, mechanical, and natural blunders and unexpected events that can disrupt our best-laid plans.

The key to happiness, then (and not just on a trip but in all of life) is to manage your expectations. Hope for the best; prepare for the worst. 

Good trips go bad for a myriad of reasons. Lack of planning is a common one, but even if you spend two years mapping out your routes and researching your destinations and comparing costs and considering the pros and cons of various airlines, hotels, ships, train companies, restaurants, and other options, things can still go awry. That’s the “gambling” part. Crossing out Plan A and writing Plan B on a blackboard.

Always have a backup plan. Many people plan extensively for their trips and everything they want to do, but it’s all a part of Plan A. They fail to have a Plan B; they don’t even consider what they’ll do if some or all of their primary plans don’t work out the way they’ve imagined them in their dreams. In fact, overplanning every single little detail is one of the worst culprits when it comes to creating unrealistic expectations.

If you’re OCD like me, you are going to make detailed plans. But if you want to have a great time, you’ll keep those plans flexible. A downpour on the day you were going to take a helicopter ride to the top of the mountain doesn’t have to be a disaster.  In fact, it can end up being an adventure (I know – been there, done that).

How to even the odds

We said traveling is always a gamble, but not all gambles have the same chances of success or failure.  When you bet on the 30-to-1 horse who’s never finished in the money before, he might come in first but your likelihood of winning (albeit with a lower payoff) is greater if you bet on the 1/5 four-time champion.

horse racing

There are ways to increase your odds of “winning” at the travel game, too.  Buying travel insurance will help protect you from a financial standpoint if things go wrong, but discounting those types of disasters (having to cancel the trip, lost baggage, delays, and other reimbursable events), you can also take steps to make it more likely that you’ll enjoy yourself by avoiding the minor annoyances – especially if you’re someone who doesn’t like unexpected surprises.

Note that none of these measures will guarantee that something out of ordinary won’t happen to throw a wrench into the works of your well-oiled preparations, but they can help you avoid the “expected unexpected” things that, for some people, can detract from the experience. 

First, don’t be first. If you want an experience as close to glitch-free as possible, don’t book the maiden voyage of a ship, or its first few sailings out of a new home port, or be one of the first to visit a new port of call (especially something like a private island that’s just opened).

only a testIn the software world, we call such people “beta testers” or “early adopters” and those of us who opt to try out brand new versions of operating systems or applications know that we’re bound to hit some snags and discover some bugs.  In fact, part of the fun of being on the cutting edge is getting to provide feedback on what works well and what doesn’t and how the product can be improved.

Sometimes beta software won’t have all of the planned features functional yet, and the same is true with a brand new ship, island, hotel or resort.  New amenities will be added as time goes on, policies will be adjusted, and things will be different a few months later. Those of us who got there first and got to experience the rough edges can take comfort in the fact that we helped make it better, and enjoy watching the changes take place.  But if you’re going to insist on everything being finished and perfected, don’t be a first-timer.

EDIT: This blog post is a prime example of what you get in the beginning vs. what you get if you come later to the party. The original version that I published had some typos and a couple of formatting errors. I came back to fix them, read through the whole thing again, saw some places where I could add more, throw in a graphic, or polish the language a little. The current version is, in my opinion, better.

Second, do be flexible. Keep things in perspective. It’s a vacation. Relax and enjoy your time off work and away from your daily routine – yes, even if some things aren’t perfect. Learn to change your attitude and your focus.focus

Whenever I see a review that begins with “Everything went wrong” or “I didn’t like anything about this ship” or “all the crew members/other passengers were rude and unfriendly” I know right then that I’m not going to give this reviewer much credibility.

Pilots say “any landing you can walk away from is a good one.”  My philosophy is also that any cruise you don’t have to swim away from is a good one, at least in some ways.

ship in storm

I’ve had some not-so-great cruises, where a combination of factors made me wish at the worst moments that I’d stayed home. But even on my rock bottom dead last least favorite one, there were some absolutely wonderful moments and experiences. I met some great people and I learned some things, even if one of those things was that I didn’t want to cruise on that ship ever again.

The trick is to focus on the good things instead of the bad ones. Negativity is a learned behavior that becomes a habit. But so is positive thinking! You can train yourself to notice all the things that go right and the friendly people you encounter, and put the plans that fall apart and the obnoxious folks who cross your path on the back burner of your mind.

Here’s an example from a friend of mine: “On my first ever and only cruise holiday, we found ourselves chasing an out-of-season hurricane; and several people were queasy or sick, including my husband. While this ruined a couple of activities (including a long-awaited chocoholics buffet that I did not have the heart to attend without him), we did get to enjoy super brisk morning walks on deck in the gusty winds that made us feel we were having a genuine seafaring experience. This may sound trivial, but it’s about trying to ‘turn a frown upside down’ in whatever way you can.”

Do your homework. Before you book a particular cruise or resort, read everything you can about it. Find out whether the activities, ambiance, food, and rules are a good fit for what you want out of a vacation. homework With the plethora of information available on the Internet today, there’s no excuse for not knowing that the cruise line you booked doesn’t allow you to bring your own alcohol on board or the experience you booked doesn’t include anytime dining or the cabin you selected is right above the nightclub.

Read both the travel provider’s “official” literature and the customer reviews with a small grain of salt, though. The cruise line or hotel web site will naturally highlight the best and make their ships or resorts sound like a floating or land-based paradise. Reviews will be all over the chart — for any particular venue you’ll find people who loved it and people who hated it.  Even two people next door to each other on the same ship or in the same hotel at the same time can have drastically different opinions.

Coming up: I’m working on a blog post on “how to read reviews without drowning in conflicting information,” so stay tuned for that. 

Be prepared. Whether you were ever a scout or not, it’s a good motto for travelers.

Here’s a case in point: when my checked bag was lost on the flight that was taking us to 20th anniversary vows renewal cruise, I learned the importance of packing enough clothes in a carry-on to get by in case it ended up being all I had. Now I make sure that carry-on duffel includes a pair of shorts, a pair of jeans, a skirt, and a couple of tops that can be worn with any of the foregoing. Also a pair of sandals that can be worn with casual clothes or to dinner with the skirt and top (I always wear my bulkiest walking shoes to board) and underwear (which they don’t usually sell on the ship).

Brighten someone else’s day.  However badly your cruise might be going, there is probably somebody else on board whose problems are worse. When you encounter somebody who’s grumpy or abrupt, give him/her the benefit of the doubt.

Sure, there are some folks who are just obnoxious and you can run into them anywhere – on a ship, at a hotel, at the grocery store back home; it’s best to just steer clear of them.  But often those who seem negative are just dealing with their own unfortunate circumstances.smiles

Many people on cruise ships have chronic physical conditions or even terminal illnesses. Some are there to try to recover from a painful loss of a loved one or a marital breakup or a business failure or to escape a bad family situation. The possibilities are endless. A smile and kind word from you might just make a difference in how they feel at the moment or even for the rest of the day. It never hurts to give it a try.

How to complain effectively

Does all this talk about being positive and focusing on the good parts mean you shouldn’t complain if a travel provider doesn’t provide what you reasonably expected? Of course not.  But there is a difference between random ranting and lodging an effective complaint that has a chance of a) getting you some compensation or b) making real, positive changes in the experience for everyone in the future.complaint

I don’t know how many times I’ve gotten “special treatment” – not because I’m special, or know people in high places, or bribed someone, but simply because I complained nicely.  Most of the time, the people to whom we take our grievances aren’t the ones who caused the problem; they’re simply charged with the task of cleaning up the mess.  The more you make an effort to sympathize with their position and establish rapport, the more likely your issue will go to the head of the “doing something about it” line.

An example: we were once on a flight that connected in Orlando with its final destination in Miami. There was a mechanical problem, the last leg was delayed for several hours, and when we finally got to MIA, one of our bags was missing. We weren’t the only ones. The line at the desk was long and mostly angry. The two ladies working it were under seige. People were yelling, a few even threatening. When it was my turn, I smiled and spoke softly: “I certainly wouldn’t want your job. I really admire you for not running off screaming into the night right now.”

She smiled back, the tension in her face relaxed just a little, and although she wasn’t able to magically make my bag appear (it had been left in Orlando), she called me several times at our hotel that night and the next morning to update me on the status, and managed to get my bag to the ship before we set sail. I’m not sure that would have happened if I’d ranted and raved at her the way some other passengers were doing.

Complaining is an art, not a science. The first rule of complaining effectively is: be assertive, not aggressive. Be reasonable, not emotional. Speak slowly and softly. Be understanding of the other person’s situation; he/she is doing a job, not intentionally trying to destroy your day. Don’t whine; don’t play the victim. Enlist the other person as a partner in a mission to set things right, not as an opponent who loses if you win.

Complain to the right people. Determine who has the authority and capability to solve your problem and don’t waste time with functionaries who can’t.  And before you voice your complaint, know what it is that you want.

Prioritize – don’t hit the person with a long litany of large and small gripes.  Decide what’s important and see if you can get those addressed.  Then, when it comes to the small stuff, let it go.

Manage your disappointment

Sometimes it seems as if the universe is out to interfere with your plans and make sure you don’t realize your dreams. A couple of years ago, I booked flights to St. Thomas and a a week in a beautiful condo for my husband and myself to celebrate our anniversary.  A little over two months before it was to happen, hurricanes Irma and Maria came along and wiped out the resort and much of the island.

I then scrambled to reschedule everything at a Seven Mile Beach resort on Grand Cayman. The night before we were to leave, when I went to check us in for the flight, I found out that he had forgotten to renew his passport and it was expired so he couldn’t fly. Travel insurance doesn’t cover “forgetfulness.”

Was I disappointed? Of course. I’d been looking forward to the trip for almost a year. But there was nothing I could do about it at that late date. So we made the best of it, found some local things to do, enjoyed the time off at home, and learned from the experience (I now have his passport expiration in my calendar six months before the date with urgent reminders).

Every unfortunate incident that we go through is an opportunity to learn something and to grow as a person. I could have gotten mad at him; I could have gotten mad at mother nature (he could have flown to St. Thomas without a passport since it’s a U.S. territory). I could have sat home and pouted because I didn’t get the trip I had put so much time into arranging and that we had put so much money into. But what good would that have done?  We had a nice anniversary, albeit not the one I had envisioned.

Any time you have to depend on some other person or company or force of nature (and when you travel, that is always the case), you risk being let down.  People forget, airlines cancel flights, cruise ships miss ports, islands get devastated.  But you don’t have to let your (understandable) disappointment make things worse.

When life hands you lemons, make lemonade. If you don’t like lemonade, trade them in for pineapples and make piña coladas. 

pina colada no bg

Summary

Following these tips might not result in a perfect, flawless cruise or other trip. But it will be a happier one if you adjust your attitude, manage your expectation, and when it’s warranted, make your complain in the right way.  So go ahead – roll the dice and take a gamble on travel.  The payoff is worth it.

And may the odds be ever in your favor.

 

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MSC loyalty program: Diamond is the new Black

Note: I don’t have any “insider info” about any upcoming changes to the loyalty program. This article is purely analytical and speculative as to what some MSC cruisers might like to see if a higher status tier should ever be created.

For those of us who love cruising on MSC and especially for we who didn’t get “instant top tier” status through the match from another cruise line or hotel chain, it was a special thrill when we got that email advising that we had achieved the highest level in the loyal program hierarchy: Black card.

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MSC is not alone in designating the “black card” as a signal of prestige. Several credit card companies call their high-annual-fee, invitation-only “luxury cards” Black cards, including some cards that aren’t actually that color. In exchange for their $400-500 annual fee, these cards include perks such as airport lounge access (a privilege that can cost $500/year all by itself), travel insurance coverage, free checked bags on flights that usually charge for them, reimbursement for Global Entry fees, and more.

So to many of us, the black card conveys a sense of prestige and privilege, just as “black tie” implies upscale elegance. That’s obviously what MSC’s Voyager Club loyalty program was going for in naming its highest status level years ago. Unfortunately, however, that name has led to some awkward misunderstandings in online discussions.

“That’s not what I meant”

Multiple times, I’ve seen a conversation play out like this in cruise groups and forums:

MissMillionTimeCruiser: “Here’s a picture of my chocolate ship!”
NeldaNewbie: “How do you get one of those?”
MissMillionTimeCruiser: “I get it because I’m Black.”
NeldaNewbie: “Whaaaat? What does your race have to do with it?”

Ever since the first time I saw this happen, I’ve been extra careful to always say “Black card” when I refer to the loyalty status, but most people don’t.  It might sound silly to those who are familiar with the loyalty program, but some of these folks seemed to seriously think that MSC hands out favors based on the color of people’s skin. And in today’s political climate, that could be a potential PR nightmare.

diamond statusA few months ago the news began to circulate that the company was going to change the name of the Black level to Diamond.  No reason was given, and certainly not the reason I mentioned above. In fact, Diamond is in keeping with the naming schemes of many other cruise lines so it makes sense from that point of view, too.

A week or so ago, some Black level members starting getting emails informing them that their status would be changing. Others (myself included) didn’t get the email but logged into our accounts one day and saw that they said “Diamond.”

You might notice, in the screenshot to the right, that the picture of the card underneath the status is still … black. And according to some reports, actual cards being issued on the ship this week are also still black in color, but say Diamond. Personally, I wish they’d keep it that way. After all, a black diamond has more cachet than an ordinary colorless one.

Time for a change

I have heard some criticism of the name change, but personally I think it was a smart business move. With racial tension prevalent, particularly in the United States at this point in time, no company needs its terminology to be misconstrued this way.

Sure, the venerable Black level has worked fine for years, but MSC didn’t have a big presence in North America until the Seaside began sailing out of Miami at the end of 2017.  The Divina was here before that, for part of the year, but she – and MSC as a cruise line – was something of a “best kept secret” in the U.S. market.

Seaside changed all that. MSC built her specifically for the Caribbean and set out to become much more high profile here, with aggressive pricing and advertising and even boldly going where no cruise line had gone before by offering a status match program to lure customers away from Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Norwegian and other lines that were holding them hostage via loyalty status.

Match Game

climb ladderNone of us want to start over at the bottom after working our way up the ladder for years, so many cruisers have stuck with the line they started with, continuing to “dance with the one who brought them” even if they grew tired of it, in order to avoid the stigma of the dread “blue card” on a new cruise line. MSC came along and upset the apple cart by giving people who had never taken a single MSC cruise high level loyalty status — all the way up to Black card — based on their status with another cruise line or hotel chain.

This upset more than the apple cart, though. It also upset some MSC cruisers, especially Black card holders, who had earned their status the “hard way” (not that one could really call spending all that time at sea, drinking and feasting and being pampered, hard – but you know what I mean). And their response was understandable.

MSC apparently listened to their feedback; recently it has appeared that they’ve started being far less generous with matching to top tier status. For example, last year Carnival’s Diamond members were getting matched to Black level. For the past few months, new status match applicants with Diamond status on Carnival have only been matched to Gold on MSC.

MSC membership levels

There are still a number of ways you can still come in with Black/Diamond, though. Those with high status on Disney, Cunard, Princess, HAL, and the luxury lines are still being matched to top tier, along with many who are at or near the top of popular upscale hotel chain loyalty programs.

The match program is a brilliant marketing tool and has brought in a host of new customers to try MSC, but that needs to be balanced with loyalty to the company’s own loyal cruisers. My personal opinion is that nobody should be matched to the very top tier. It’s great to give people some credit for their status with other companies, but don’t let them waltz in with the highest level card on their very first cruise on the line.

Scaling up

Something else that doesn’t seem quite fair to long-time MSC cruisers is that your progress on the loyalty scale essentially stops once you’ve earned 10,000 points.  A Diamond member with 10,000 points gets all the same benefits as one who has 50,000 points. Some of the unhappiness with the name change has to do with disappointment that it was only a name change, rather than the addition of a new, higher status level.

Revamping the loyalty programs seems to be one of those things that many cruise lines promise for years before they get around to doing it.  Let’s hope MSC listens to feedback from those who provide the highest revenues to the line and finally finds a way to reward them. alexandrite

I’ll call this hypothetical new level Alexandrite (a gemstone more precious than diamonds, which also fits with the fact that Alexa Aponte is CFO of MSC) just for fun. What would this new top status look like?  Some additional perks that have been suggested include:

  • Free laundry service (something Carnival gives both their Diamond and Platinum cruisers)
  • Free in-room babysitting services
  • Exclusive dinners with officers or exclusive group tours of “backstage” areas for top tier members only)
  • Meals served in your stateroom or on your balcony
  • Free minibar, stocked throughout the cruise (something that Yacht Club guests currently get, but that may be going away soon according to some recent rumors)
  • Luggage valet service, whereby your bags are picked up at your home and delivered to the ship, or picked up outside your cabin at the end of the cruise and delivered to  your home or home airport
  • An exclusive line or desk at guest services, and/or an exclusive phone number for top tier guests
  • Reserved section in the theater
  • OBC (on board credit)

Those who have been cruising with MSC for many years and attained Black card status before the status match program came along tend to just want back some of the perks that were lost when the huge influx of newly matched people were brought onboard. These include:

  • Specialty dinner for two people for each top tier member, instead of just one per cabin (so that if two people in the cabin have that status, that would mean two dinners for two instead of only one
  • 20% discount off the cruise price instead of the current 5% (although there is still an additional “up to 15%” on some select voyages)
  • Bottle of Champagne instead of the Prosecco that’s now given
  • Dinner with a member of the Bridge staff

Perhaps if a much smaller and more exclusive top tier were created, some or all of those lost and lamented benefits could be restored.

What’s your number?

numbersOne of the first decisions that would have to be made if a new tier was to be established would be the number of points required to reach it.  In my opinion, to keep it truly exclusive (and affordable to extend some truly desirable benefits), that number should be fairly high, at least 30,000 points. Some have suggested 50,000 or more.

I think an important element would be that in order to gain entry to this rarefied status, it has to be earned and can’t be attained through a match.  With a 30,000+ threshold, even someone who matched to Black and was given his/her first 10,000 would have to cruise enough on MSC to earn another 20,000 or more points.  This would help alleviate some of the resentment toward the “infiltrators” who got all the Black perks on their very first cruise.

Overlapping perks

One final issue that comes up sometimes in regard to the loyalty benefits is how little it actually does benefit those in Yacht Club to attain high status. Many of the perquisites of Black/Diamond level are meaningless to you if booked the YC experience.  Higher priority embarkation and debarkation already comes with YC regardless of your loyalty status.  Ditto the complimentary sparkling wine and chocolate covered strawberries, and bathrobe and slippers.

The only extras you get in YC by virtue of being Diamond are the one free specialty restaurant dinner for two (per cabin), the chocolate ship, and an invitation to the Black (now Diamond) party.  Late check-out has also been a Black card benefit, but I’ve heard in some of the groups that on some of the ships, it’s no longer available or has been moved back to earlier than before.

In a way, those cruisers who spend the most are given the least incentive, through the loyalty program, to cruise more often. Not that this bothers most YC guests, since the experience is so good that loyalty perks really don’t matter.

Summary

MSC has made a big splash in the U.S. market over the last couple of years, and their bold move with the status match contributed to that. But those have moved to MSC from other cruise lines expressly because the other line seemed to focusing all its love on attracting new cruisers and neglecting its most long-time and loyal fans need to realize that we are those newbies in the MSC community.

Our natural reaction is “Oh, wow, I don’t have to start at the bottom – this is great!” But the perspective of the long-time loyal MSC cruiser is very different.  I’m very appreciative of the match points I was given – and to be honest, without the match, I might not have ever taken the step of giving MSC a try – but I’m also glad that I didn’t start out at the top, that I had to at least partially earn my way to Black/Diamond.

I don’t want it to be because of me that someone else’s experience has been diluted. So while I’m happy to be a Diamond, I’ll also be happy if and when those with many more points than I have get the new, upgraded status they deserve.

 

 

 

 

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MSC Seaside Day Two: Underway

This is the second installment of the day-by-day, blow-by-blow review of our September 14-21, 2019 cruise on the MSC Seaside. If you don’t have the time or inclination to read the “long form,” there is an intro/overview that hits the highlights HERE.

Sunday, September 15th

After a mostly great embarkation day with one glaring glitch, we woke up Sunday morning with no way to hold our heads that didn’t hurt — no, no, strike that; that’s just an old Kris Kristofferson song that started playing in my mind. Actually, we woke up feeling good and ready to have a fun and relaxing day at sea. There turned out to be more of the former than the latter, but that was more than okay.

Morning has broken

We began the day with snacks in the Top Sail lounge. When I cruised solo, I got my breakfast from the Top Sail snacks case almost every day. They always have plenty of yummy fruit and pastries, and sometimes tiny pancakes and waffles. And you certainly can’t beat the view.

Tom is more of a breakfast person than I am, though, so a little later, we trekked up to the YC pool deck to check out the “real” breakfast spread up there. I have to say there was an impressive selection.

I was anticipating several parties coming up where there would be food and drinks, though, so I just enjoyed my coffee and another nice view, while Tom sampled some of the offerings.

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Party time again

10:00 a.m. might not seem like the most likely time for a party, but that’s when they’re now scheduling the Cruise Critic Meet & Mingle and the Captain’s Welcome (the former for anyone on the cruise who signs up for it through the CC web site, the latter only for YC guests). Invitations to both had been delivered to our cabin the previous evening.

My first time on Seaside, in Feb. 2018, the M&M was held at 5:00 p.m. in the Haven Lounge. I personally prefer that timing. Since it was elegant night, most people were dressed up and there was just more of an air of elegance about it. The captain was in dress uniform, the lounge was a bit more elegant in decor and atmosphere, and it felt more upscale. 

However, I understand the probable reasons for the change. It’s likely more people will attend, since the 5:00 p.m. time cut it close to early dining schedules, and indeed both of the cruises where the party was in the morning had better attendance. The more casual atmosphere encourages more mingling among officers and guests. It’s also no doubt more convenient for the officers to do the M&M and YC Welcome parties one right after the other. Finally, it’s likely there are cost savings since most people tend to drink less of the free alcohol in the morning vs. in the evening. 

The M&M was held in the Seaview Lounge on deck 8. Unlike the two previous years, our butler came to escort us down to the party. The room was closed off to the general public for the special event and they were asking to see our invitations at the door.

The first time I went to a M&M on Seaside, I was amazed at how differently MSC does this in comparison to Carnival. On that line, they provide a lounge and that’s about it. No drinks, no food, and either no staff/crew or one low-level employee attends. At least that’s been the case when I’ve gone on Carnival ships.

In contrast, MSC goes all out, with free cocktails, snacks, and a big and beautifully decorated cake that – unlike many beautiful cakes – actually tastes great.

I was surprised and happy beyond words when not only did cruise director Eric Brouman remember me from Carnival days and come over to talk to me, but Captain Di Palma also remembered me, had a long conversation while we were waiting for the party to get started, and then pulled me in beside him for the “official” group photo.

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CC Meet and Mingle

The YC Welcome with the Captain in the YC lounge was scheduled immediately after the M&M, at 11:00 a.m.  We got to the lounge before most of the rest and settled in at the bar. Then we got to do it all over again – without the cake, but with more champagne.

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Captain Di Palma gave another great talk, and we all got to toast the wonderful staff and crew who work in the Yacht Club, including the fantastic butlers, waiters, and maitre d’.

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We stayed and hung out in the lounge for a while after the party was officially over. It’s still one of my absolute favorite places in the world. Tom seemed to be enjoying himself, and the previous evening’s dress code aggravation was all but forgotten.

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By then it was noon, but we weren’t very hungry after all those snacks, so we took a walk around the ship to get some steps and enjoy the beautiful day. Then we went down to deck 8 to check out the buffet, and grabbed a quick bite to hold us over until dinner. For me, that meant the pizza, which in my opinion is the best at sea and better than most on land. IMG_20190918_223552.jpg

Of course, pizza requires more walking to burn off some of the calories, so we made the rounds of the ship again, enjoyed more great views, and did some people-watching – always a fun pastime on a cruise ship and made even more so on Seaside, thanks to the geographic diversity of the passengers.  Then it time to go back to the stateroom to rest up a bit and then shower and get ready for dinner.

Image may contain: 2 people, including Thomas W. Shinder MD, people standingThere would be no dress code issues on this night, since it was the first gala (elegant) night and we had come well prepared for that. We got all spiffed up and went to the YC lounge for a drink before dinner, where Ysabella took a great picture of us.

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First elegant night on Seaside is also Great Gatsby/Roaring 20s night. We had great fun dressing up last year – me in my sequined and fringed flapper dress and Tom in his “gangster” style suit – but this year I didn’t get a chance to shop for a different dress and instead of doing the same clothes over again, we opted for more of a “wedding” look, to get photos that would commemorate our 25th anniversary coming up very soon. 

Primas showed up a few minutes before the dining room opened up, and escorted us up to be greeted by Ercan and then shown to our table by the window.  The entrees on this night’s menu, in my opinion, were less impressive than last year’s first elegant night selections, but the starters made up for it —  I had a hard time deciding between my top three, and ended up getting both the escargots and the rock lobster bisque, both of which were very good.  I did look longingly at the blue cheese souffle, as well.

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My entree was the vegetable risotto, which was light (and that was exactly what I wanted after consuming both starters.

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No photo description available.Tom went with a double entree: the chef’s special signature dish, Galzed Pluma of Iberico Pork, which was on its own separate menu, and the jumbo shrimp and calamari skewers.

After all that food, you’d think we would have no room left for dessert, but somehow we managed.  I just couldn’t pass up the crepes Suzette, and Tom always loves to finish up with the cheese plate.

As delicious as the food was, and as beautiful as the restaurant and all the formal clothes were, what really made the evening special was the people with whom I got to share such a lovely meal.

Service was nothing less than exemplary, and I felt as if this night, rather than the one before, was the true beginning of the magical experience that would be this birthday cruise.

0-6After that glorious dinner, we went on a long walk around the ship, took in a little musical entertainment, and had our formal photos taken with Captain Di Palma.

That put us in the mood to model some more, and since we were all gussied up in our finest, we made the rounds of the photographers in the atrium and got over sixty pictures taken. We had pre-purchased the unlimited digital photo package (last year we bought it on board and paid $50 more), so why not?  I was thrilled when the vast majority of them came out looking great.

Even though some of the photographers seem to be a little disinterested and in a hurry to just snap, snap, snap, they still got some really nice pictures. And those who took their time and adjusted lighting and angles and bothered to pose us got some amazing ones. I highly recommend this package; it’s a much better value that most studio portraits you can have done on land.

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How do you top off a perfect night?  Why, you go to Venchi for a nightcap, of course.

My chocolate martini was exactly what I needed to end the evening on a sweet note. And what a sweet day it had been — chock full of fun and food and family, both my immediate family in the form of my husband, whom I was so glad to have along with me, and my MSC family – la mia famiglia.  

I went to bed that night tired and very happy to have met so many new family members, and looking forward to spending the coming week getting to know them better. I was also eagerly anticipating the next day in Old San Juan, one of my favorite “walking around” cities.

Stay tuned to read all about that one

 

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MSC Seaside Day One: Third Time’s a Charm — Pre-cruise experience and embarkation

This is the first installment of the day-by-day, blow-by-blow review of our September 14-21, 2019 cruise on the MSC Seaside. If you don’t have the time or inclination to read the “long form,” there is an intro/overview that hits the highlights HERE.

WARNING: As those who read my previous reviews know, this is going to be long. For some, it will be TL;DR, and that’s okay. If you don’t have the patience to wade through the whole thing or don’t really want all the gory details, I did a summary/overview of the cruise by topic (butler service, lounge, restaurant, parties, shows, etc.). To read that first, or instead, click HERE

After two previous cruises on this ship, embarkation day felt less like an adventure than like a homecoming – but that made it no less exciting. On September 14th, my husband (Tom) and I boarded Seaside for my third time and his second, hoping for an experienced that matched that of a year ago. It (mostly) exceeded our expectations.

We spent the week before the cruise anxiously tracking the weather and Hurricane Humberto in the Atlantic, but he ended up cooperating and bypassing both Miami and the ports of call scheduled for our cruise, although the northern Bahamas weren’t so lucky.

MOON OVER MIAMI: THE PRE-CRUISE EXPERIENCE

Thursday, September 12th

We flew to Miami a couple of days early this time, to enjoy the lovely Doubletree by Hilton Grand Hotel at Biscayne Bay. We spent the night before the cruise there the previous September and loved the room and the view. This time, we got an even better suite with the same amazing view of the Bay.

As before, the hotel staff members were friendly and accommodating. We highly recommend this hotel to anyone looking for a nice upscale-but-not-crazy-expensive place to stay before a cruise.

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We had a corner suite with a nice, spacious living room, separate bedroom, marble bathroom and a balcony overlooking the Bay, from which  you can see the cruise terminals and ships across the bridge when they’re in port.

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We got into town late afternoon on Thursday before the cruise on Saturday. That first day we enjoyed a nice walk around the dog park down by the waterfront, and racked up plenty of steps on our smart watch fitness apps.

then went to dinner at Casablanca, the seafood restaurant that’s in the same building as the hotel. Just like last year, the food was excellent, and so was the atmosphere. At 6:00 pm on a Thursday, we were almost the only customers.

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Friday, September 13th

Yes, it was Friday the 13th. What better day to go test your luck betting on the ponies? We spent most of Friday at Gulfstream Park racetrack. Tom is a major horse racing fan, we’re Texas thoroughbred owners, and seeing them run at Gulfstream has been on his bucket list for a long time.

The weather was great, the facilities there are very nice, and we had a nice, relaxed lunch in Ten Palms restaurant that overlooks the track and even won a little money on a couple of long shots.

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IMG_20190913_192735.jpgThat night, back at the hotel, we weren’t especially hungry (having had the huge and delicious dinner the night before and a hearty lunch (lobster roll for me and a big burger for him) at the track, so we just grabbed some takeout from the deli downstairs and ate in our room. I had chicken curry and creamed spinach, both of which were surprisingly good and cost about 1/3 of the price of my meal the night before.

We’d had a great time in Miami, but that was only the appetizer and both of us were looking forward to the main course: seven days in the Seaside Yacht Club.

Saturday, September 14th

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Saturday dawned overcast and cloudy, with intermittent rain predicted throughout the day. We checked out of the hotel around 10:30 to make it to the port around the time boarding usually starts at 11:00. Of course it was raining when we arrived, but our Uber driver dropped us off right at the Yacht Club tent out by the curb, so we only got a little wet.

The check-in process was quick and easy, as is the norm with YC (and indeed, according to what I’ve heard, with MSC in general – recent post-transatlantic sailing on Meraviglia being a notable exception). Our bags were tagged and whisked away, and a butler escorted us through security, up the escalator, and across to the YC embarkation lounge, where we were greeted with champagne and pastries to enjoy during our short wait. There we found with some folks I’d met through our sail date specific Facebook group (who, coincidentally enough, are also from the DFW area), and they were kind enough to take a photo of us together under the Yacht Club sign.
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It wasn’t long before we were called to the desk to complete check-in (passport check, quick photo snap, and we got our key cards and wristbands. It was good to have that “magic wristband” that opens all the special doors back on my arm again.

Soon we were on our way upstairs, a small group of us following behind the butler as he led us past all the lines and onto the ship and into the priority elevator.  As usual, we got our share of dirty looks from the non-YC folks as the butler cleared the way for us to whisk past their lines and swiped his card to call the priority elevator service. It’s one of the very few down sides of being in the Yacht Club (and a very minor one).

seaside atrium (18)There was no time for us to stop and stare when we entered the atrium, but even though I’d seen it before, I wanted to. That multi-deck multi-screen array above the stage always makes an awesome impression.

But there would be plenty of time to gawk at the ever-changing displays over the course of the next week. As beautiful as the ship’s public areas are, the real thrill upon boarding is getting up to the top and front of the ship, to the very special little enclave reserved for Yacht Club guests that makes the “ship within a ship” experience so worth the extra cost.

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Off the elevator on deck 16, through the access-controlled doors, a brief stop at the concierge desk for quick introductions, and then a walk down the starboard side corridor to the Top Sail lounge – and it felt like coming home. Not only because the place itself is so familiar to me now, but because of the staff/crew members who rushed to greet us as if we were long-lost relatives back home for the reunion.  The amazing thing about MSC, to me, is that they made me feel that way even on my very first time to cruise on the line, and it has only gotten better each time.  The blog post I wrote in March 2018, La mia famiglia: my new MSC family, now feels more real and accurate than ever.

Chi si volta, e chi si gira, sempre a casa va finire.

No matter where you go or where you turn, you will always end up at home.

(Italian proverb)

When we got to the lounge, we found that someone else had already beat us to “my” corner, deep in the back of the port side of the lounge – but no worries, I would reclaim it soon enough and spend many wonderful hours there in the coming days. We met our butler, Primas, along with Ysabella, who would quickly become our favorite server in the Top Sail lounge. We met the maitre d’, Ercan and I put in my request for Christian Garcia as our waiter, since I had heard from several of those on recent sailings that he was one of the best (and they were proven correct).

20190914_120445We settled into another small group of chairs – in the shaded part of the lounge – and ordered our first drinks of the day. For me, that meant a Bailey’s Banana Colada (BBC), and it was delicious. There is something about that first drink on the ship that makes it all real: yes, you are finally here and the fun is just beginning.  And of course, in the Yacht Club where those drinks are “free” (well, okay – included in the cruise fare), the symbolic value of that initial sip is even  higher. Pampered but not pretentious. That’s how I sum up the Yacht Club experience (see, I can actually be succinct when I want to).

I left my drink and carry-on with Tom and went to the concierge desk to make a change to our specialty restaurant reservations. I had pre-booked the Discover Roy’s dining trio online, but the confirmation email showed different dates than the ones I had requested (much as I love MSC, I have to admit that their web site leaves something to be desired).

Miguel at the concierge desk quickly and efficiently made those changes, and by the time I got back to the lounge, Primas was there to tell us that our suite was ready, and to escort us to it.

Location, Location, Location

We were in cabin #16006 this time. It’s identical in layout, decor, and furnishing to the other two YC1 (Yacht Club deluxe suites) I’ve stayed in: 16003 and 16022. Unlike in 022 last September, the sofa wasn’t “broken” (that one had a cushion that would not stay in place and I kept sliding off of it).

 

 

I have to say I liked the location of this stateroom most of the three, although I had been uncertain about that before boarding. It’s true that booking a deluxe suite next door to one of the Royal Suites (which 16022 was) increases the likelihood of getting one of the best butlers, since they seem to be assigned to the Royals and those cabins surrounding them. However, all three of the butlers I’ve had were good, and what I loved about 006 is its easy access to the lounge.

16003, which I stayed in on my first Seaside cruise in February 2018, is on the port side of the ship. The good thing about that is that it feels a tad more private. But that’s because there is no access to the lounge in that hallway (or at least there wasn’t on that sailing; I’ve heard some people talk about using the crew/fire door recently).

Both 022 and 006 are on the starboard side, where there is a “double hallway” – the more open public one that leads to the lounge (if you go forward) and the concierge desk and YC area exit (if you go toward the aft) and an inner hallway that opens on the staterooms. Another plus about the starboard side is that there are no rooms across the hall from you as there are in part of the port side (those on the opposite side of the hall are the YINs – Yacht Club interiors). image

There is a door right across from our cabin’s, though. It has a small sign at the top that says “crew usage” or something to that effect, but we soon learned that nobody minded if we used it to get out into the outer hallway instead of walking all the way down to the “official” glass doors and then back in the other direction. In fact, our butlers held that door for us whenever they saw us leaving or coming back. This made it super quick and easy to get to the lounge so we really appreciated that convenience, especially on a couple of evenings when we’d had a generous allocation of the “free” spirits.

In the deck plan on the left, the green line represents the glass door that is the obvious ingress/egress for guests whose cabins are in that starboard side section. The purple lines represent the “secret” crew doors that make it much more convenient to get to the Top Sail without having to backtrack.  There is another guest door across from the small left turn in the hallway across from the Royal Suite, which I didn’t mark on the diagram.

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You can also see the YC interiors on the deck plan; these are the gray colored cabins, whose doors open directly across from deluxe suites 16021, 027, 029 and 041. In most cases, this won’t be a problem, but it does introduce an additional possibility of a noisy neighbor that you don’t have when your room is on the starboard side.

My next booked cruise on Seaside is in suite 16009, which is back on the port side. I’m solo on that one, and I don’t really mind the walk (more steps for my fitness app on my smart watch to record), but any time I book a deluxe suite on Seaside with my husband in the future, I plan to get one of those starboard side cabins close to the front on deck 16 if I can. As they’re always saying in the real estate business, it’s all about “location, location, location.”

A (state)room with a view

The YC1 cabins on Seaside are nice, and have some features that you don’t get on some of the other ships. The balcony is deeper than standard, and none of the Yacht Club cabins have the metal balustrades that partially obstruct the view on some of the balconies near the front of the ship on Seaside’s lower decks. With the curtain drawn back, you have a beautiful view of the sea and sky from inside the room.

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PRO TIP: You can identify the partially obstructed balconies on the deck plan on MSC’s web site by color coding. If the balcony is white, as all are in the diagram of deck 16 cabins above, the balustrade is glass so you can see through it. If it’s gray, it has the metal balustrade that blocks the view up to about four feet, and if it’s blue, the balustrade is half metal and half glass.

All Yacht Club cabins on Seaside are transparent all the way down. The only “obstructions” are the bridge wings that stick out to the side (and the wings of the Top Sail above them), that slightly obstructs the view looking forward, and the mid-ship section that slightly obstructs the view looking aft if you’re in the front section. In that section, you’ll also be able to see into the hot tubs on the balconies of the YC Royal Suite and the Aurea whirlpool suites beneath them going down that mid-ship section. Not a problem for me, but some might prefer a balcony in that mid-ship section where you’ll have more of a view of only the sea. 

We don’t use the balcony much, although I do enjoy standing out there and watching as the ship leaves ports. But we rarely just sit out there when at sea, mostly because of the sun. Nonetheless, we have almost always booked cabins with balconies so we would have that full length view.

For next year, we’re booked in an executive/family suite on Divina that has a large sealed picture window instead of a balcony. The tradeoff is that it’s at the very front of the ship and gives you a view straight ahead that’s similar to the captain’s view from the bridge (on a smaller scale, of course). We’ve had such cabins before on Carnival and loved them, and this one will be better since it is a genuine suite, with separate living room and bedroom.

But I digress. Back to the Seaside and cabin 16006. On that first day, Primas escorted us to the cabin and pointed out relevant features (which we were already familiar with, having stayed in a Seaside YC1 before).  Tom asked him to keep the mini fridge stocked with vodka and the ice bucket full. The usual bottle of sparkling wine and bowl of fruit were there to greet us, along with invitations to the Cruise Critic Meet & Mingle and the Captain’s Welcome Party for YC, both the next day.

 

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The time and place of the M&M has varied on my three Seaside cruises. On the first one, it was at 5:00 pm in the Haven lounge, with live music, cake, drinks, snacks, and the captain and other officers and CDs present. I was impressed, having attended CC M&Ms on Carnival ships where all the cruise line does is provide a room for you to gather in and neither officers nor CD usually attends. This time, like the second time, the party was in the Seaview lounge in the morning (10:00 a.m.), and the YC party was immediately following in the Top Sail lounge (11:00 a.m.).

I thought that first party was slightly more festive and party-like and I prefer the Haven lounge venue. However, I understand the reasoning behind the change: having it in the morning probably cuts down on the number of free drinks consumed (not an issue for YC and those with drinks packages, but a main motivator to attend for those paying for their drinks individually).

The Seaview lounge is more private and easier to control attendance and limit it to those with invitations, since the Haven is a thoroughfare between two ends of the ship. It’s also probably more convenient for the officers to block out the time for both parties in a row instead of doing one (YC Welcome) in the morning and one in the evening. And finally, people with early dining weren’t able to attend the 5:00 p.m. party unless they wanted to miss dinner seating.  On the other hand, it was nice that people were dressed up for the evening party; in the morning we were all in shorts and tee shirts so the group photo is a lot more casual. Smile

More on the parties later, and in the Day 2 installment, I’ll give a thorough description of the one on this sailing. 

Our Nespresso machine and both still (for me) and sparkling (for Tom) water were there and accounted for. I was happy to see that there was a plethora of clothes hangers in the closet, probably left from the previous occupants who sent out their laundry.

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You can never be too rich, too thin, or have too many clothes hangers.

The fact that we rarely use the balcony was one of the reasons we decided to cancel the Royal Suite with its huge balcony with hot tub, which we had originally booked for this sailing. However, I do like that the YC1 balcony on Seaside is spacious and deeper than the average balcony, and of course I love having the full-length view from inside the room.

Another thing that I love about YC1 staterooms is the bathroom – and in fact that is my biggest obstacle to doing a YIN (Yacht Club interior).  I don’t really think the smaller space or the lack of balcony/window would bother me a lot, but I will surely miss the big bathroom and generously sized shower with its bench. On the other hand, I’d choose a YIN over the biggest suite on the ship outside of the Yacht Club.

Another aside: I’m now booked in a YIN (Yacht Club interior) on the Meraviglia at the end of November, so it will be interesting to see how I feel about the smaller space, lack of a window, and the smaller and less luxurious bathroom and shower (Tune back in for that review sometime in December.

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Out and about the ship

After checking out the cabin and unpacking our carry-ons, we were ready to get out and re-explore the ship. After all, it had been a whole year since we were here last, even though it didn’t seem nearly that long (it definitely did seem that long while I was waiting for this day to arrive, though).

We hadn’t had any breakfast that morning (other than coffee at the hotel and some small pastries in the YC embarkation lounge), and we were both hungry, but not really in the mood for the restaurant, so we headed upstairs to the YC pool deck grill on deck 19 for lunch.  It was my go-to place for the noon-time meal on my first Seaside cruise, but last year when Tom was with me, he always wanted to go to the buffet so we never made it to the grill. I had made a point to tell him how great the grill was prior to this one, so he was eager to check it out.

As usual, the Yacht Club staff did not disappoint. Not only did they have the usual assortment of salads, breads, meats, veggies, fruits, and desserts, but they were also cooking freshly cooked pasta and made-to-order hamburgers. Tom apparently approved.

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In fact, Tom approved so much that we ended up eating lunch at the grill almost every day this time around – which was just fine with me. Who needs the big buffet when you have all this to choose from?

My favorite from the grill was the pesto pasta dish, which – with a nice glass of Moscato — made the perfect lunch for me. 20190914_141043.jpg

Party time

By the we finished lunch and walked around the ship a bit to rack up some steps on our fitness watches and get rid of a few of the calories, it was 3:00 p.m. and time for the first of many parties we’d go to during this sailing. This was an informal little get-together that we planned as part of our sailing-specific Facebook group, which had grown to over 125 members. Some of us had become fast (virtual) friends and I was really looking forward to meeting them in person.

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Although I didn’t ask MSC to do anything special for us, intending to just meet up in one of the public areas very informally to say hello on the first day, it turned out they put up a “private event” sign at the door of the Seaview lounge and we had it all to ourselves, which was nice.

Although there were a few who didn’t find us, or flew in late, or just plain forgot about the party in the excitement of boarding the ship, we had a pretty good turnout of our core group, and we enjoyed this first in-person meetup. Even Tom – who isn’t much of a party person – came with me and seemed to enjoy meeting the group.  And I had an excuse to wear my Kentucky Derby hat (so there would be no mistaking who I was – not that there was much chance of that, anyway).

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Drilling down

As the party came to an end, muster drill was about to begin. We were assigned to station C this time, much to my delight. That meant we mustered in the theater, and that meant we could sit comfortably while listening to the presentation on how to put on your life jacket, which – as I have come to expect from MSC – was very short and sweet despite being repeated in seven languages. Within fifteen minutes or so, we were out of there, and headed back up to our room to get ready for dinner. And that was when the first (and really the only) little glitch in our perfect cruise occurred.

Dressing down (not)

Ah, the dining room dress code. Subject of much controversy on every cruise forum. I spent years listening to the arguments in all the Carnival groups. “If you don’t want to dress up, go to the buffet.”  “I paid for my vacation so I should be able to wear whatever I want.”   “It ruins the ambiance.”  “Even five star land restaurants don’t have dress codes anymore.” “Rules are rules.” Image result for rules are rules

Honestly, I can see both sides. Personally, I love getting all spiffed up every night and I love seeing other people dressed to the nines. It does make for a different atmosphere. On the other hand, I don’t care that much what other people do. I’m certainly not going to let someone else’s clothes destroy my good time. And to me, there is a big difference between casual and elegant nights.

As is often the case in any marriage, my husband’s and my opinions on dressing for dinner aren’t always in perfect alignment.

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Traditionally, the first and last nights of a cruise are more casual than the rest. There’s a good reason for that. On the first night, people might not have gotten their checked bags delivered yet, or might not have had time to unpack them before dinner. On the last night, many people pack before dinner and the nice clothes are already put away. So it’s not unusual to see people coming to dinner on those two nights wearing clothes that, the rest of the week, would be reserved for lunch: shorts, jeans, tee shirts, etc.

Last year in the Yacht Club, the dress on casual nights during the week was what I think of as “country club.”  Where I come from (perhaps because where I come from has very hot summers), the country club casual look includes dressy shorts for men (same cut and material as dress trousers but to the knee or a little below), worn with a nice button down shirt or even a polo. Tom loved that look and comfort, and wore it to dinner on casual nights in 2018 with no problems. He bought several new pairs of dress shorts for this cruise.  And on embarkation day, he got dressed in that same outfit.country club casual

Unlike last year, the butlers are now being very proactive about escorting YC guests everywhere. Primas had asked us what time we were going to dinner, and he showed up at our door promptly on time to take us to the dining room. And that’s when things (temporarily) went south. We were halfway out the door when he said, “Oh, I’m sorry but no shorts allowed in the dining room.”

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Those who know my husband well can probably figure out how that went over. Of course, to the butler he said, “Oh, okay, sure,” and we went back inside so he could change. Where he ranted (not at me, but to me) for half an hour. I thought it was overreactive but I also understood his feelings. This had been perfectly acceptable the previous year, and this was embarkation day when casual dress is normally common. He got over it, and we eventually made it to the dining room, but it definitely did put a damper on dinner that night – especially as we watched other people come in to the dining room dressed in ratty, faded blue jeans and tee shirts that looked far, far less “refined” than his dressy shorts and dress shirt.

The next day, I made an appointment to talk to the YC director, Mandy, about it. Surely there was some mistake here. Surely the length of the pants wasn’t the only defining criteria. Surely common sense would prevail. What about Scots, some of whom like to wear their kilts to dinner?  Or is that acceptable even though it shows a man’s bare legs, because it’s more a skirt than shorts?  Could women wear skorts (what we oldies called culottes back in the day)?  They aren’t exactly shorts but as the name implies, they sort of are.Related image

All these questions are interesting but of only academic interest. My main concern was my husband’s comfort, as he is hot-natured and being able to wear short pants that keep his legs cooler really helps. I went into the meeting ready to plead my case and optimistic that the butler had been wrong, at least about embarkation day.

Alas, it didn’t matter. The Yacht Club has adopted (at least for the time being – we all know MSC policy changes often and unexpectedly) a zero-tolerance enforcement policy toward short pants. They are, at dinner time in the YC dining room, strictly forbidden. Verboten. Taboo. Banned. Proscribed. Off limits. Persona non grata. A big no-no.

Don’t get me wrong. She was nice about it. Very dispassionate, very professional. She even offered to have our dinner served from the restaurant menu in our cabin or up on the pool deck. I appreciated that gesture and told her so. In the end, we ate in the dining room on elegant nights (for which Tom had brought long pants) and in the specialty restaurants (which were wonderful – I’ll get to that later) on most of the other nights.

Mandy did also offer that the rules could be relaxed on the final night, so he did get to wear his dress shorts to the restaurant that one time.  Those worn-out jeans and tee shirt still grate on me a little, though.  My personal issue isn’t with the dress code itself, but with the lack of consistency in enforcement and communication. It needs to be the same from ship to ship and from sailing to sailing so people know what to expect and what to pack.  Had we known ahead of time that the enforcement policy had changed, Tom could have been prepared for it instead of being taken by surprise.

I made the mistake of posting about this little incident in one of the Yacht Club groups. I specified that I was doing so not to start an argument about the merits of the dress code, but simply to let others who would be sailing soon know that this had changed since last September.

Of course, the post did start an argument about the dress code (which was inevitable) and also illicited from a few people some snarky criticisms directed at my husband for not being “adult” enough to want to “dress appropriately” and a lecture repeating over and over that “this has always been the rule” (to which I repeated over and over that this rule that existed since the beginning of time had, however, not always been observed in practice). Such is the nature of social media.

Oh, well. As Gilda Radner used to say, it’s always something.

Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln …

I’ll be honest: our enjoyment of dinner in the Yacht Club that first night was affected somewhat by the dress code fiasco. However, we put it aside and focused on the food. It was fine, but not up to the same standard we would see on the rest of the cruise. Maybe this was due to the usual first-day chaos, or maybe it was more our perception because of the aforementioned issues. Still, Christian and Reynaldo did their best to make us happy and we certainly didn’t go away hungry.

 

 

After dinner, we headed downstairs to drown our troubles – minor as they were in the overall scheme of things – in chocolate.

They say music soothes the soul,
but I’ve found that chocolate usually works faster. 

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It wouldn’t be the last time that week that we would make our way to Venchi after dinner, but subsequent nights would be in a more celebratory mood. We were both tired after a long day with little sleep the night before, so we retired to the cabin early. It would be the only night we’d done that.

Day one: summing it up

Although the dress code inconsistency made the evening a little less festive than I would have liked, overall it was still a great day. Embarkation was smooth, the cabin was great, the food was good, the service was excellent. If the cruise hadn’t gotten any better than that, it would still have been well worth the time, money and effort. Oh, but it did. And kept on getting better every day.

Stay tuned for all the juicy details about our first day at sea.

~~~

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MSC Seaside: Third Time’s a Charm (The Overview)

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I started writing a day-by-day, blow-by-blow review of my September 14th sailing, and I’m still working on that. But it’s obvious that it’s going to take a while to finish (and that some people won’t have the time and patience to make it through the multi-part novelette), so I’m going to preface it with this summary that will focus on the highlights, the things that have been in question on the groups, and the things that were different from my two previous Seaside cruises.  Then I’ll publish the daily reviews.

Some of the things I’ll cover in those daily reviews will seem like “old hat” to regular YC cruisers because they’re just business as usual in the Yacht Club. However, I know there will also be readers who have never cruised at this experience level, as well as those who have never cruised on MSC or even cruised at all, so I’m trying to be as thorough as possible for them.

Also note that I took a lot of photos on this cruise, but most of those will be included in the day-by-day review rather than this summary. So stay tuned. This is only intended to be an appetizer. The main course is yet to come.

Finally, please excuse any typos. I wanted to get this up on the blog as quickly as I could since I have been so snowed under with other other obligations and wasn’t able to write it in a more timely fashion. 

Intro

The first time you do something new, you aren’t quite sure what you’re doing. You’re anxious, excited, focused on not doing anything wrong and learning how to navigate new (figurative) waters. You’re watching and figuring it all out. You miss a lot, but you learn a lot.

The second time, you’re a little more confident. You’re on familiar ground. You can delve a little more deeply into the things that interest you. You can make a point to get to those things you didn’t have time for or weren’t aware of the first time. You can immerse yourself in the experience.

The third time, though, you feel like a pro. You know what’s where and who’s who and where to go and what to do, and if you’re with others who are first-timers, you can show off your knowledge and help them learn the ropes.

In the medical field, they call it “see one, do one, teach one.”  In the world of travel and cruising, it’s just part of the process of getting to know a city, a country, a hotel chain, an airline, or a cruise line. I had cruised twenty times before I first stepped onto an MSC ship in February 2018, but it was a brand new and different experience, like starting all over.

When I took my twenty-fourth cruise – the third one on MSC – in September 2019, I felt like an old pro and I enjoyed sharing my experience with others on the ship who were new to the cruise line and/or to cruising in general. I always love to cruise with newbies, because it makes me see the ship and the sea through their eyes with all the wonder and awe of that first time.

The best part of “coming home” to a familiar place, though, is the people there whom you already know. We all love being in a place where “everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came.” And the wonderful staff and crew of the Seaside always make me feel that they’re happy to see me, both in and out of the Yacht Club. If I could say only one thing in this blog post, I would say a great big thank you to every one of the folks on board who make this cruise line and this ship so very special to me.

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Working the ship

My approach to cruising is a little different from that of the majority of cruisers. But then, my approach to life is a little different, too. I’ve always loved learning. Lots of people love to learn new things, but I crave it. Always have and I guess I always will.

They say the world was once comprised of hunters and gatherers. I guess I’m a hybrid, because what I love most – what I just naturally do without thinking about it – is hunting down information and gathering it into a form to share with others. I’ve had a few different careers seaside top sail (9)over lo, these many years and all of them have followed the same pattern. As a paralegal, researching the law and then writing up what I found was what I enjoyed most. When I was a police officer, investigating and preparing the report was my thing. When I was teaching at the police academy and later at the community college, becoming expert in a subject and putting together the curricula and lesson plans was my favorite part of the job. And for the last almost two decades as a professional writer, it’s been all about learning everything I can on a topic and then putting it into words that will (I hope) make it easier for my readers to understand. image

So for me, every cruise is, in a way, a “working cruise” even when I don’t have paying projects going on that I have to tend to during the cruise. I observe, I experience, I analyze, and I document. It’s just what I do. Beforehand, I do my homework. I find out everything I can about the ship and the on-board protocols and I frequent the groups and forums and I read about others’ experiences and I compile a list of the questions that others are asking and I go into it with a dual purpose: to hunt down the answers to all of those questions and to have fun. But you see, hunting down the answers, to me, is having fun.

One thing I’ve discovered over the years applies to cruising and to life in general is to never assume that because I “know” something, that knowledge is still current and accurate. Things change. But ferreting out those changes is just part of the adventure. So here we are, and here are some of the topics I investigated and the answers that I unearthed.

Just keep in mind that a) some of the information I share is factual and some is only my opinion, and b) even the facts aren’t written in stone; they reflect my experiences at one particular point in time. Crews rotate in and out. Policies, procedures, perks, and names change (case in point is the rumored upcoming change in MSC’s top tier loyalty level from Black to Diamond). With that caveat in mind, let’s look at my impressions (and I definitely was impressed, again) of the MSC Seaside during the week of September 14-21, 2019.

Yacht Club Butler Service

One of the premier perks of the Yacht Club is the personal butler service, but in the past, it’s been a little inconsistent. Some folks would report that their butlers were extremely helpful and attentive, while others would come back lamenting that they hardly ever saw their butlers. I’ve been lucky to always get good butlers but I felt for those who didn’t. It is, after all, part of what we’re paying for.

It appears the YC management heard those complaints and have implemented measures to provide a better and more standardized level of service. One of the big changes I noticed was that butlers are now tasked with escorting their assigned guests to … well, almost everywhere.

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Our butler this time, Primas, was there to introduce himself in the Top Sail lounge within less than half an hour after we embarked, and he came to tell us and escorted us to our cabin when it was ready. He offered to unpack our bags for us (an offer none of my previous butlers had made), to escort us back to the dining room for lunch, and to escort us up to the pool deck if we wanted to go there.

We declined all three; we wanted to get unpacked and settled into the cabin and then explore the ship on our own. We enjoy the butler’s services but we don’t really expect a lot from them. He asked what time we wanted to go to dinner and said he would come to get us and escort us there (which he did, and which ended up causing an unexpected brouhaha – not his fault; it was a “don’t shoot the messenger” situation) but I’ll get to that in the Day One review).

Throughout the week, we had an escort everywhere we went – to the specialty restaurants, to the theater shows, and of course on and off the ship at ports. There were times, I admit, when it got a little tedious (our stateroom was only a few yards from the door to the Top Sail lounge and the stairs to the restaurant, so it seemed a little silly to have him spend his time taking us there) but the intentions are certainly good, and for getting through crowds and past lines down in the “rest of the ship,” it certainly comes in handy and makes you feel special.

In addition to all that escorting (which was new since our cruise the previous September), your YC butler and junior butler service your cabin, bring you room service if you order it, and generally get or do anything you ask (within reason). Primas and his assistant, Sheena, did an excellent job of keeping the cabin clean, and except for one day, of keeping the mini-fridge stocked and the ice bucket full. They also left little treats for us in the evening – cookies, pastries, chocolate covered fruit, and such.

I’ll be talking more about the butler service over the course of the week in the day-by-day reviews.

Bottom line: It’s obvious that there has been a conscientious effort to increase the visibility of the butlers and make them more accessible to the guests and in our case, at least, that effort was successful.

Yacht Club Restaurant and Specialty Restaurants

One of the main selling points of the Yacht Club experience is the private dining room that boasts higher quality food than the ship’s main dining rooms. Last year I found the dining experience there to be equivalent in value to the (extra cost) specialty restaurants, and although on that cruise we had pre-booked an evening at Ocean Cay (the seafood restaurant), we almost hated to go because we didn’t want to miss even one night in the YC dining room with our wonderful waiter, Arthur Javier. IMG_20190915_183950

This year, Arthur was long gone – promoted and assigned to a new ship – and we had pre-booked Roy’s dining trio, which consists of three separate dinners (or two dinners and one lunch) in the Asian fusion, sushi, and teppanyaki experiences.

I had been hearing for months that the Yacht Club menus had changed rather drastically sometime in the summer, and there were quite a few complaints in the cruise forums saying that the new menus were inferior to the old ones, so I was hedging my bets by booking the specialty restaurants.

In addition, part of doing my homework was asking those who cruised in Seaside Yacht Club in the weeks before me for recommendations as to the best Yacht Club waiter. The consensIMG_20190915_175610us seemed to be that Christian Garcia was the man to ask for – he seemed to be well on his way to becoming the new Arthur – so as soon as we boarded the ship, I went to the maitre d’ and put in my request to be assigned to his section. Luckily, this also turned out to be the section that was on the starboard side windows, and we ended up with one of the very best tables, right on the glass.

Christian and his assistant, Reynaldo, ensured that we would never go hungry or thirsty as long as we were in their dining room. After a slightly rocky start (that was in no way their fault), food and service were impeccable every night.

On past cruises I’ve been on, most of the maitre d’s have been just nebulous figures who might or might not greet you at the door and might or might not breeze by your table occasionally and ask a perfunctory “is everything okay?” without slowing down much on the way to somewhere else.

That’s not to say they weren’t good at their jobs or that their roles weren’t important. There is a lot that goes into keeping a restaurant/dining room running smoothly and much of that takes place behind the scenes. But I can honestly say I’ve only really “felt the love” from a maitre d’ in a way that stands out three times out of twenty-four cruises. Two of those times were on the MSC Seaside, and one of them was on this cruise.

Ercan Demir is easily the best cruise ship maitre d’ I’ve ever encountered and he played a big part in making my birthday, and the whole cruise, a memory I’ll always treasure.

I’ll be writing more about our wonderful waiters and our magnificent maitre d’ in the day-by-day reviews.

When I first saw the new menus posted online a couple of months before the cruise, I admit I wasn’t too excited about them. The primary drawback is that there are fewer choices each night than thimageere were with the previous menus. However, somewhat to my surprise, it didn’t prove to be a problem.

Although there were nights when I didn’t, for example, like any of the appetizers listed, there would be two entrees that looked good so I would just ask for a small portion of one of them as my appetizer. On other nights, I would end up with a second appetizer as a main course. One night I wasn’t crazy about anything and they made me an off-menu pasta, so that all worked out.

And the answer to one of the frequently asked questions in the groups is: yes, they will make you an off-menu item if you ask. Maybe not Peking Duck (is it Beijing Duck now?) or puffer fish, but definitely a simple pasta or risotto. There is also an “every day” menu of steak, chicken, or salmon that’s always available, and there were a couple of nights when they had a “chef’s special” in addition to the regular menu items. I’m picky, but I still had more than enough that I liked to eat. 20190915_175204

Also note that they ask if you have any allergies or food intolerances, religious restrictions or just plain preferences, and are extremely accommodating in that regard; I had a friend on a previous cruise who has to have a gluten-free diet and they gave her a tour of the galley to show her that they even have separate kitchens for preparing those foods to avoid cross contamination.

The other change in the restaurant, that has nothing to do with the food, is the new strict enforcement of the dress code at dinner. No longer is “country club casual” – dressy shorts with a dress shirt or polo shirt – acceptable on non-elegant nights. Although the written dress code for MSC fleet-wide had included “no shorts in the dining rooms,” last year on Seaside that rule was not enforced on the “smart casual nights” in regard to the clothing style I described. This year it is, so be prepared for that.

I’ll write more the dress code and the impact of the change on our cruise in the day-by-day reviews. (Spoiler: while it was an annoyance, it by no means ruined our overall enjoyment of the cruise).

IMG_20190918_160358The specialty restaurants on Seaside are very good, although when you’re in the Yacht Club, you sort of hate to book them because of the way you become “attached” to your wait staff in the dining room – at least if you have good waiters, and as noted above, I always have.

On the previous year’s September cruise, we booked Ocean Cay and Teppanyaki and enjoyed both very much. This year we debated over whether to book any, but because you don’t get Asian food on the YC dining room menu (you do get plenty of seafood and steak), we decided to try Roy’s Trio.

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This consists of three meals: teppanyaki, sushi/sashimi, and Asian fusion. Even though it took us away from the YC dining room a couple of nights, we were glad we did it because the food was absolutely superb. If you enjoy this kind of food, I highly recommend it.

I’ll go into more detail about each of those meals in the day-to-day reviews

Yacht Club Grill

The first time I cruised on Seaside, the grill on the pool deck was my “go to” place for lunch and a couple of times for breakfast, although I’m not normally a big breakfast eater.  When I went back for the second time in September 2018 with Tom, we never made it to the grill; we ate in the YC dining room or in the buffet, which he liked for its large variety. In fact, he never even gave the grill a try. This time, I made sure he did, and he and I were both glad that I did.

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The grill has changed a little since last year, although not substantially. It seemed to me that on a daily basis there were few fish dishes offered. On that first cruise, there would be mahi mahi, salmon, and cod all available on the same day. I realize this didn’t sit well with people who don’t like fish, and I’m sure it was their feedback that caused the change. I missed having all those choices (since I like certain types of fish much more than others) but I understand that it makes sense to cater to more American tastes.

The more limited selection of fish was more than made up for by something that was new to me. On my previous forays to the grill, they had a sign advertising made-to-order hamburgers, but now they also have a chef up there making fresh pasta dishes. I had that most days and it was fabulous. I especially liked the pesto linguine and would have been happy eating that every day.

Something else that’s new since we sailed last year is the deck party in the YC pool area on one night of the cruise. On our eastern itinerary, this happens on the day the ship ports in San Juan. It’s a late call there, from 5:00 pm to 1:00 am the next morning, so this does conflict with spending as much time as you might want in the city. I’d have preferred to have it on a sea day, or failing that on a port day when we’re back on the ship early, but I’m sure they have their reasons for scheduling it as they do.

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Many of those who had cruised recently had posted great photos and videos of the party and I was looking forward to it. But we arrived a little late and unfortunately it was raining at the time, so we didn’t really get to experience this at its best. The live entertainers had shut down because of the rain, and the food variety was less than I expected, at least in terms of things that I like – but I know I’m not a typical American eater; I don’t eat beef, pork, or lamb. This wasn’t a problem, since there is always plenty of fish and seafood to be had in other eating venues and I was still full from dinner anyway.

I just had a drink and we sat and listened to the music for the short time the band was playing. It was pleasant, but not the big deal that it seemed to be on other sailings. Bad weather – or bad timing – can do that. There were others on the same sailing who were there earlier or later when the party was in full swing and said it was great.  We were tired from all the walking in San Juan and maybe less in a partying mood that we might have been otherwise, and that may have colored my perception as well.

Something else I’d looked forward to was “lobster lunch” at the grill. I’d seen the enormous seafood spread in others’ pictures and they had my mouth watering – but we ended up missing it. We had pre-booked Roy’s Trio online, and the first day of the cruise we had to schedule those three specialty restaurant meals. We picked lunch time on the last sea day (the only day the lunch slot was available) with the idea that we didn’t want to miss dinner in the YC dining room. Unfortunately, that was the day they had lobster at the grill.  If I’d known, I’d have scheduled differently but it wasn’t a big deal. The sushi was wonderful and we had a great time there and didn’t miss the lobster.

I’ll write detailed reviews of each of the specialty dining meals we had in the day-by-day reviews.

Top Sail Lounge

The TSL is still one of my favorite places in the whole world. I spent a lot of time in the lounge, as always, and most of the time I was able to get “my” seat (or rather “our” seat – as it’s also the favoImage may contain: people sitting, ocean, table, water and outdoorrite of several others in the Original Yacht Club Group on Facebook, and between all of us and all our cruises on different sailings, I think we keep it occupied for most of the year).

It’s a table for two way back in the port side back corner, tucked away behind the snacks display, far from the (only occasionally maddening) crowd.  It’s my onboard “work space” – I take my Surface Pro and set it up on the table there and take care of any necessary online business while sipping my morning coffee or a late afternoon piña colada and enjoying the utter beauty of the sea going by just outside the window.

Service in the lounge was wonderful, as usual. Ysabella took wonderful care of us.  And she always knew where to find us, in that secluded corner. As soon as one or both of us sat down, she was there to bring us whatever we needed. After the first sea day, she knew what we liked and how we liked it (i.e. my coffee in the morning, black with no cream or sweetener, my Bailey’s Banana Colada after lunch).

I had been a little concerned before this cruise that the ambiance in the lounge in the evenings might have changed. Some who had cruised in the previous couple of months had reported that the classical pianist and violinist I absolutely loved had been replaced with a duo singing pop songs, and that the volume was so loud it made it hard to have a conversation even upstairs in the YC dining room. Not what I wanted to hear during dinner, as I especially enjoyed being able to sit and talk with Tom while we ate and converse with our waiters.  I needn’t have worried.Image may contain: 4 people, including Thomas W. Shinder MD, people smiling, people standing and eyeglasses

Maybe we just got lucky or maybe someone had read my (and a few others’) posts about this in the groups, but it turned out not to be an issue at all.  We like to eat early, and between 6:00 and 7:30 the entertainment in the lounge was soft instrumental piano much like on my two previous Seaside cruises and made for a perfect background for dinner conversation. Iris Duo – the couple that others had written about — did come in later, but their sound wasn’t loud or overly “energetic” as I had feared; it was a perfect balance for sitting and listening with an after-dinner cocktail and most of the songs were ones I know and like.

We got to meet them when the male half of the duo, Maurice “Bowtie” Farmer, Jr. caught up with me and introduced himself downstairs one evening. We had a wonderful conversation – about pocket watches, of all things – and later on Tom and I also met and talked with him and Irina in the lounge. Maurice is incredibly talented on multiple instruments, and Irina has a beautiful voice. I feel silly now for thinking this change in entertainment might negatively impact my experience. Instead, their presence enhanced the overall experience and made a great venue even better.

Theater Shows and other entertainment

The year before this, we only made it to one of the shows in the theater, Fly. This year, we did a little better and managed to find time for three of them: Timeless, My Life in Music, and Starwalker (which I had missed on both of my previous cruises and which almost always gets rave reviews).

Unlike on the two prior cruises, they now have a reserved section roped off in the theater for Yacht Club guests, you don’t have to make reservations if you’re in YC, and your butler escorts you to the shows (although never fear – if you happen to be out and about on the ship when you realize it’s time for the show, you can just show up at the door and when they scan or see your YC wristband – or card – you’ll be allowed into the show and into the YC section).Image may contain: one or more people, people on stage, people dancing, crowd and indoor

Some people have expressed that they don’t care for the reserved seating because it’s near the back (in the center) of the theater. This didn’t bother us. We found the seats to be very good as far as viewing and hearing are concerned and didn’t have any desire to be closer to the front. From that location, it’s easier to leave at the end (and would be a lot easier to sneak out before the end if you find you don’t like the show or remember that you were supposed to meet someone for some other activity).

The shows were the same ones we saw last year, but with some different singers/dancers. We thought they all were good, some of them extraordinary. The “pole dancing” guy was amazing: such strength and flexibility turned into pure art. The costumes were beautiful. The Michael Jackson portrayal was very well done.

Some people in the Facebook groups complain about MSC’s shows because they’re different from the American cruise line norm. Yes, they are mostly singing and dancing and acrobatics. No, they don’t really have “plots” that  you can follow. Yes, there are some oddball seemingly random things, such as the “guy in the boat with the book” who goes back and forth and back and forth across the stage.

Contrary to what some will tell you, there is only one operatic performance, Butterflies, which is an adaptation of Madam Butterly that, ironically, is the one show that does have a defined story and plot (yet the people who lament about the lack of plotlines are usually the same ones who say they don’t want to see opera). It’s only shown at 4:00 p.m., before the regular nightly show times. If you do enjoy opera, it’s a must see.

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Here’s the thing about the shows: MSC is a very international cruise line, even on sailings out of the U.S. This is another of the complaints we hear from many of my fellow Americans, sadly enough. People come from all over the world – Europe, Asia, Australia – to cruise on Seaside. That’s why announcements are made in seven different languages, after all.  And the kinds of shows that are common on the American cruise lines don’t work so well with an international audience, many of whom might not be able to follow the plots if there were any.

But song and dance and amazing acrobatics can be enjoyed by anyone, regardless of language. So I don’t see MSC changing this anytime soon and frankly, I don’t want them to. (I do wish, though, that they hadn’t done away with what was my favorite show last year: Forever Frank. I guess I’m atypical, but I loved that tribute to Sinatra even if – or maybe because – the songs were sung with European accents. The rendition of “My Way” at the end really touched my heart).

Something else that we enjoyed were the improv comedy shows. Both the “family friendly” and the “adult” varieties were funny and interactive. Cari, Ryan, Tracy, and IMG_20190919_225618Guy made us laugh in a way the standup comedians on Carnival ships almost never did. There were no political jabs, and while there was cursing and sexual innuendo in the adult show, it wasn’t gratuitous or over the top.

There was plenty more entertainment going on every night, much of it musical. Jazz, country and western, pop, rock – whatever your genre, they probably had it somewhere at some point. One possible exception to that is Caribbean reggae. If you follow the online groups, you’ll see a lot of complaints about that. While I get that the ship is sailing in the Caribbean and it makes sense to have some of that music, it’s not a favorite of mine so I have no problem with this at all.

I see people saying there isn’t much to do on the ship and I just don’t get it. We were always busy almost every moment of the day, rushing from one thing to another, and not able to pack all that we wanted to do on board into the seven short days, even when we skipped getting off in Nassau. I guess it’s just a matter of what you like doing.

Party Time

One of the things that I enjoy is meeting other passengers, crew, and staff members at the various parties, and MSC throws a lot of parties. I already mentioned the deck party for YC guests on San Juan evening. In addition to that, there’s the Cruise Critic party on the first sea day, the captain’s welcome party for YC in the Top Sail lounge, the welcome back party for those who have cruised with MSC before, the Black party for those at the highest status level, and a party celebrating each of the theme nights (Gatsby/20s, County and Western, 70s, White Night, and Pirates).  The sail date-specific Facebook group that I started for our cruise also planned our own informal embarkation day party and MSC reserved a lounge for us. That’s a whole lotta partying goin’ on.

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Since my first Seaside cruise, I’ve been impressed with MSC’s party-hosting and this cruise lived up to all the expectations set by those other two.

I’ll talk more about the parties we went to and post pictures in the day-by-day reviews.

Officers, Staff, and Crew

Something that always changes over time, and can have a significant impact on the experience, is the people manning the ship. From the captain down to the galley workers, crew and staff rotate in and out of a ship, go home on leave, quit the business or go to another cruise line, retire, get promoted to different positions on different ships, etc.  I’m always disappointed to hear that one or more of the people I came to know and admire is no longer working on the ship, but more often than not, I end up loving those who have taken their places, too. And even if some staff and crew members aren’t as friendly as their predecessors or we just don’t “click,” there are always others who become dear friends by the end of the course.

CaptureI had cruised with Captain Francesco Di Palma before, and I was honored when he greeted me like an old friend this time. He and Captain Marco Massa (the master on my very first Seaside cruise) played a huge role in making me feel like part of the MSC family from the very beginning. I got a chance to talk with Captain Di Palma several times on this cruise and he was always gracious and personable and made me feel that he really cared about my opinions and feedback. After coming from Carnival, where most of the captains (with a couple of exceptions) stayed out of the public areas except for formal events where they were on stage and rarely mingled with the passengers, I was impressed with the charming Italian personalities of the men who command this MSC vessel.

I didn’t get to know as many of the other officers as on the two previous cruises. I met them at various parties and all were polite, but none stood out the way Hotel Director Ziggy and Yacht Club Director Ivan did on the first Seaside cruise. No big deal; they’re busy people with jobs to do that involve much more than gladhanding passengers – but I did miss Ziggy and Ivan a little.

Someone I didn’t miss from that first cruise was the cruise director. Not that he was a bad CD; he just wasn’t very memorable. In fact, I can’t even remember his name. I only saw him when he introduced the shows and I don’t recall him having anything to say at the Cruise Critic meetup or even being at the YC welcome party.

By the second Seaside cruise, Gene Young had taken over as CD, and he was very much “there” and smiling and greeting and showing a very active interest in the passengers. I was sad to hear Gene was leaving shortly before this cruise, but Eric Brouman, whom I’d previously met when he was a CD with Carnival, did an absolutely great job. He was full of energy, funny on stage, and friendly and helpful in person-to-person interactions. He, too, made me feel like a VIP every time I encountered him.

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 image Eric Brouman CD

There were numerous other members of the crew and staff with whom we spent time during the cruise, including at least half a dozen of the butlers who worked in the Top Sail and up on the pool deck, servers and chefs at Roy’s, bartenders and servers “downstairs” at some of the various bars around the ship, a great photographer, Lisdon, who took some of the best photos of us that we’ve ever had made, and a very special bartender at Venchi’s, Igede Sandy Antara Yasa.

I’ll share more about some of the great MSC family members we met on this cruise in the day-by-day reviews.

Some subtle differencesImage may contain: outdoor

One of the nicest perks of being in the Yacht Club has been the butler escorts onto and off the ship. In ports of call, we would be taken past the lines to exit the ship, and when we came back, there would be butlers at the YC tent to take us past the lines again to board. The down side of this was always the dirty looks that we would get from other passengers who weren’t happy having us moved to the front of the line ahead of them when they were hot, tired, and ready to get back to their cabins after a long day of excursions or just exploring. This time, instead of having us go to the head of the line on the gangway, they opened up a whole separate entry for YC and Black card members. This avoided the issue of “cutting” in the regular line and worked out really well.

Here’s another nice surprise: Last year, the photos with the captain at the ship-wide welcome back party and the photo with the captain at the YC welcome party were included in digital format in the unlimited digital photo package that we purchased, but if you wanted prints of those (or any) pictures, you had to pay extra for them. This year, we received prints of the photos with the captain, along with the picture of the group at the Cruise Critic party, in our cabin on the last night and weren’t charged for them. I thought that was a nice gesture.

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Also in regard to photos, last year we had to wait until the last day to download our pictures on board. This year they were available for download the next day after they were taken.

IMG_20190919_145054Crepegate” – the first time I cruised on Seaside, Venchi’s gelato and crepes, along with chocolate drinks, were free to Yacht Club passengers. Second time around, gelato was free but crepes weren’t IMG_20190918_213104included. This time, both gelato and crepes were included again. And unlike what some who cruised in between have reported, we weren’t limited to the “baby cups” of gelato. We could get the full size one, double scoops, as many as we wanted. Will that change again in the future? Who knows?  I just enjoyed it while I could.

Other than the dress code, the only not-so-subtle change that I didn’t love was that whereas the previous year on both cruises we could stay in the Yacht Club until 10:30 on debarkation day, this year they “kicked us off the ship” at 9:30 a.m. Certainly not a big deal, but the extra hour was nice for those of us who book late afternoon flights. I completely understand that they need to get things ready for the next sailing and this wasn’t a complaint, just an observation and a heads-up to those who might be expecting to be able to disembark later. If we’d known early enough, we probably would have tried to get a slightly earlier flight.

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No two cruises are exactly alike, and of course there were other small differences between this year’s September cruise and last year’s. I’ll address some more of those in the day-by-day reviews. The important thing is that our time on Seaside this year was, overall, even more enjoyable than the previous time. It’s obvious that the company has listened to feedback from their customers and has taken steps to make some changes to better suit the American market. At this point, though, they haven’t gone too far in Americanizing the experience and in fact have struck a nice balance. I hope it stays that way.

As of now, this is how I feel about MSC in general and the Seaside in particular:

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hope this review is informative, a little entertaining, and helpful to those who have cruises on Seaside coming up in the near future. Stay tuned for the upcoming day-by-day reviews. You’ll find the Day One review HERE.

My next cruise will be on the Meraviglia, and I expect to see some much bigger differences there. Not only is the ship itself a very different design and layout, but she’s been in Europe since her launch in 2017 and my sailing will take place when she’s been in Miami for less than a month. I don’t know whether all the “new market shakedown” period will be over by then, so I’m prepared for some things to be unlike my previous Yacht Club experiences.  I look forward to exploring those differences and to see MSC’s new private island, Ocean Cay, which first opens just two weeks before my visit there. I’ll be an island beta tester!

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