La mia famiglia: my new MSC family

Copyright 2018 Debra Littlejohn Shinder

This article lays a foundation for its topic of discussion by starting out with some dry historical and statistical information, but please bear with me; I will then get into la parte importante, the important part: what the MSC family means to me and why I feel like a lifetime member of it after just one sailing on the Seaside.

The mainstream American cruise companies – Carnival Corporation (which owns Carnival, Princess, HAimageL, Cunard, AIDA, Sebourn, P&O, etc.), Royal Caribbean LTD (which owns Royal Caribbean, Celebrity and Azamara), and Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings LTD – are large corporate entities that are publicly traded and thus owned by and beholden to shareholders.

This is yet another way in which MSC is different. MSC Cruises is part of the Mediterranean Shipping Company SA, which is thimagee world’s second largest container shipping company. The company is now headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland but was founded in Naples, Italy in 1970 by Gianluigi Aponte. Even though it has grown to employ tens of thousands of people and has a net annual income in the billions, it is still a family business with Diego Aponte (son of the founder) at its helm.


The following information is based on my research, which was extensive but is still an imperfect method in many ways. If anyone from the MSC family/company is reading this and finds any inaccuracies, please let me know at and I’ll correct it immediately.

According to online sources, the cruise line was purchased from another cruise operator in 1988 or 1989 and was renamed MSC Cruises in 1995. It’s now the world’s fourth largest cruise line (after CCL, RCL, and NCL) and is the world’s largest that is privately owned. It has been a prominent face on the cruising scene in Europe and South America, and is now expanding rapidly, including into the North American market. According to its own web site, MSC Cruises has grown by 800% since 2004 and now employs 17,000 people.


MSC currently has a fleet of 16 cruise ships and expects to have a total of 23 operating by 2026. The Seaside, on which I sailed in February and which I described in detail in what is possibly the longest cruise review ever, is currently MSC’s newest ship. She will soon be joined by her sister ship, the Seaview, slated to launch this coming summer. The Bellissima is scheduled to launch in March 2019, and the Grandiosa will follow her into service in November of that year.  In 2022, things are going to get really interesting, with plans for four massive World Class ships that will be built in France and will accommodate up to 6850 passengers each. 


In a business world that’s dominated today by nameless, faceless corporations, I love that MSC is still in some ways a “mom and pop” operation – albeit a big and successful one.

One of the things that I always liked about Carnival was its history. Ted Arison was an Israeli businessman who was an officer in the IDF before moving to the U.S. In an interesting similarity to MSC, he started out in the shipping industry and then moved into cruise lines. Many don’t know that he co-founded Norwegian in 1966 before breaking away to form Carnival.

Unlike Carnival, which went public in 1987, fifteen years after being founded by Arison in 1972, MSC remains a private company. On the down side, that means I can’t buy stock in it. I would if I could, because I prefer to invest in companies that I personally like and admire.


The Aponte family’s involvement in seafaring matters goes back much farther than Arison’s. According to family records, their maritime involvement goes back to 1675 in Naples. Gianluigi Aponte was a young seaman when he bought his first ship that was the beginning of the Mediterranean Shipping company in 1970; today the company operates more than 450 container shipping vessels. MSC’s first cruise ship was the Monterey, soon followed by the Rhapsody and the Melody. 20180217_142711

In 2003, the company initiated a $5.5 billion investment to expand its cruise fleet. Another $5.1 billion investment launched in 2014 brought more and bigger ships, and that plan was increased to $9 billion in 2016 with the ambitious intent to build the World class ships. MSC’s modern ships are recognized as some of the most beautiful and most innovative cruise ships in the world.

I’ll explore how the Seaside fits that description in a couple of later blog posts to be titled Sun Follower: The ship design and environment and Ship of tomorrow: high tech on the high seas.

MSC has some magnificent vessels, but a cruise line is about more than just its ships. It’s the people – the family – that nurtures and grows and sets the tone for a company that is in the business of providing not just a temporary home at sea but an entire experience for approximately 1.8 million passengers in one year (based on the company’s 2016 annual report). And perhaps more than any other cruise line, MSC “gets” that there is not a one-cruise-fits-all solution, and sets out to provide different choices for a diverse range of people with different personalities and preferences.


To the customer, a cruise is both a product and a service. Ships happen, but it’s what happens on the ship that determines whether a cruiser comes away singing the cruise line’s praises or blasting negative reviews all over Facebook.

It would be foolish to ignore the fact that the Seaside has, in the weeks since her U.S. launch in late December, received a number of negative reviews. I wrote about what I think are the reasons behind that, especially the lack of understanding by many Americans of the cultural differences, in my blog post titled Falling in love (with cruising) again: The MSC difference.

I think an important point to note, though, is that even many of the reviews that rated the cruise as “worst ever” conceded that Captain Massa and other officers and crew members were fantastic. I heard similar things from those who sailed on the earlier cruises with Captain Pier Paolo Scala, about him – and in fact, one of the things that first got me excited about cruising on the Seaside was the unprecedented social media engagement of Captain Scala.

I was a little disappointed when I learned that Captain Scala would be leaving Seaside before my cruise. How could any other Captain possibly be as personable as Captain Scala obviously is?  That disappointment turned to delight when I me20180218_171620t Captain Massa. Both my own personal interactions with him on many occasions over the week and the stories that I heard from other people showed that while he might not be all over Facebook and Instagram like Captain Scala, on board the ship he was a most gracious and charming host who treats everyone on board as a welcome guest in his floating home.

On a couple of occasions when I spoke at some length with the Captain and the Yacht Club director, Ivan, the subject of the MSC family came up. They talked about how it really is a family and not just a job for them. Of course in a company this large, it’s likely that not every employee feels that way, but I definitely got that impression from many of them, including my fantastic butler and wonderful waiter.


There was a time when I felt much the same way about Carnival. Back when John Heald was a cruise director instead of a “brand ambassador,” he made me feel like a part of the family when I sailed with him. John is as different as night and day from Captain Massa in many ways, but one thing that was the same was the way he would go above and beyond to address any problems or concerns or answer any questions and do all he could to make each passenger’s cruise better.

Like Carnival itself, John has changed over the years – or at least his online persona has. Back then, his blog and Facebook posts were more about generating enthusiasm for the joys of cruising and telling silly but mostly funny jokes, and less about bashing other forums and groups and lamenting the unfairness of what people say about him and stereotyping Carnival’s most loyal customers as greedy, selfish snobs. I know that’s harsh, but it’s true.  I still like John and I think he has been put into impossible positions by the company and by some of its customers that have left him frustrated – but it’s a change that’s been noticeable to many other people, as well. 

Carnival uses the hash tag #CarnivalFamily in its marketing but these days, many of those who earned Platinum and Diamond status and who defended Carnival for years are feeling as if we’ve become the black sheep of that family simply by virtue of being around too long. The new babies are getting all the attention, and the Powers That Be (or as John calls them, “the beards”) seem to want to kick us older kids out of the house to make room to build more nurseries.

Those who are new to cruising comprise the infamous new demographic market that Carnival is targeting today. That’s okay. It’s a business decision, and when you have shareholders, you have an obligation to focus on the bottom line and what brings in the most revenue to keep them happy – although in a touch of irony, many of Carnival’s (small) shareholders are also its long-time, avid cruisers. But the non-monetary bottom line is this: Carnival is a corporation first and a family second.

Some families stay close-knit forever, but others drift apart. Some family members leave the fold to pursue interests that are different from those of our kin. I remember a comedy skit on the old Carol Burnett Show (yes, I know I’m showing my age here) in which one of the sons had left his lower middle class home to move to New York and become a famous author. He comes back home to visit and his attempts to communicate with family members who live in an entirely different world are hilarious. They all love each other, and they share a history, but he’s not really one of them anymore.

That’s sort of how I’m feeling now about Carnival. See, I never was really a typical Carnival cruiser. I always felt a little “different.” I tried to fit in, and don’t misunderstand – I did have fun. But in my heart of hearts, I always knew there was something else out there that was calling to me.

As I said (directed at Carnival) in a previous post, it’s not you; it’s me. I’ve gotten older and I’ve changed. I don’t want the same things – in many areas of life, including cruising – that I did even a couple of years ago. I grew up and I settled down and I reevaluated my priorities and I realized that I am no longer the same person I was twenty years, ten years, or even five years ago.

I will always love my Carnival brothers and sisters (you know who you are). You’ll always have a part of BCFFmy heart; you played important roles in my life and I hope, even if we don’t cruise together again, that you’ll continue to do so, that we’ll stay in touch and meet up on land and enjoy each other’s company in a different setting. I dare to also hope that some of you might even come and meet my new adopted family one day, and a few of you might like it so much that you decide to make it your own.


Whether or not some of my Carnival BCFFs join me on future MSC cruises, I won’t feel lonely. Even though my first cruise on Seaside was done as a solo, and even though many of the people I’d originally thought were going to be on that sailing cancelled or rescheduled for various reasons, I never felt isolated.

I know that’s partly because, having grown up as an only child, I don’t need constant human interaction. I very much enjoyed the “parallel play” in the Top Sail lounge, sitting by myself with a drink or cup of coffee or a snack, with or without my Surface Pro or smart phone, surrounded by other people who were enjoying the same relaxed atmosphere, gentle piano music, and awesome view of the sea that I was experiencing. Some of them were speaking languages I didn’t understand; far from bothering me, I found that background noise much less distracting than the conversations in English.

But although none of them were in the Yacht Club, there were also over a dozen people on the ship whom I’d gotten to know pretty well from the Facebook groups as we interacted online for months before sailaway. I met up with them for lunch and dinner at specialty restaurants, to attend shows, and for pre-planned activities such as our embarkation day gathering in the Seaview Lounge, a cabin crawl on the second sea day, and a “leftover champagne party” at the Miami Beach bar area on the final sea day.

Even in the Yacht Club, I wasn’t always alone. I made new friends whom I talked to in the lounge. I got to know my neighbors in the cabin next door and had meals with them several times. Some of the crew/staff became like old friends who greeted me with a smile when I walked into the lounge.

Joining sailing-specific Facebook groups or Cruise Critic forums is always a great way to ensure that you know people when you get on board. The general MSC groups and Seaside groups have also been wonderful – both in providing information so I knew what to expect and in getting to know other people who share my growing passion for the cruise line. Unlike my Carnival BCFFs, they don’t need any convincing – they already love MSC and the vast majority of them have wholeheartedly welcomed me into their fold.

So not only do I have a new cruise family in the form of the company and its employees, I also have a new and expanding family of fellow MSC cruisers – my MSC brothers and sisters (and, with a nod to James B., cousins and uncles).  This is in large part due to Christina W., a great TA who has worked hard to become the go-to “MSC specialist.” She and her husband Dan perform the thankless job of managing multiple groups dedicated to various MSC ships and experiences, without which I would have been far less prepared for my first Seaside cruise and the transition from Carnival to MSC.


Now I’m excited about where this new phase in my cruising life is taking me. They say every exit is an entrance to somewhere else, or as French author André Gide more eloquently said, “One doesn’t discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore.” 


I’m ready to discover new lands – to cruise to places that Carnival can’t take me, both literally in terms of itineraries and figuratively in terms of more upscale experiences. Maybe that will lead me up into the rarefied air of the luxury cruise lines eventually; I don’t know. But I think MSC and specifically its Yacht Club is a big step in the right direction. My cruise on the Seaside felt like “coming home to a place I’d never been before” (with apologies to John Denver).  And home is where your family is.

I’m proud to be a new member of the #MSCfamily.




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Falling in Love (with cruising) again: The MSC difference

Copyright 2018 Debra Littlejohn Shinder

This is the first in a series of “editorial commentaries” inspired by my first cruise, as a long-time Carnival cruiser, on the MSC Seaside. For a day-by-day account of that cruise and photos of my specific experiences, please see my previous blog posts, beginning with MSC SEASIDE: THE FULL EXPERIENCE (Part One). These next few articles will be more generalized and more opinionated ruminations on how I feel about cruising in general, MSC as a company, the Seaside in particular, and the Yacht Club “experience” on that ship. Thank you for coming along for the ride.

Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Carnival anymore

imageOne of the first things you’ll hear from other experienced cruisers when you start looking into sailing on MSC is “it’s different” – meaning different from the mainstream mass market American cruise lines (Carnival, Princess, Norwegian, Royal Caribbean, etc.). You’ll hear that it’s “more European” or that they do things “the Italian way.” But what does that really mean?

After 20 cruises on Carnival, something different was exactly what I was looking for. As I wrote a little over a year ago in my article titled Have you outgrown your cruise line?, I discovered cruising late in my life after having traveled a lot by air and land and I found it to be an entirely different and more relaxing way of going places.

My first cruise was on Carnival because friends and relatives were loyal to the brand and it had ships in Galveston, within easy driving distance of my home. I got “stuck” there because their prices were lower, the experience was a good value, and I had loyalty status and didn’t want to start over – and because of all the good friends I made and with whom I reunited on numerous cruises, both fellow cruisers and crew members.

But as prices rose, quality deteriorated, and mostly as I got tired of the same old ships and ports, I wanted to try something new and I set my sights on MSC, initially because of their loyalty match but then as I researched, I got excited about the prospect of a more European experience right here in the states. I love traveling in Europe and enjoy the culture, especially in Italy and the rest of the Mediterranean.

NOTE: I made many memories and met many wonderful people on Carnival cruises, whose friendship I will treasure forever. In no way is this meant to bash Carnival or criticize it as a cruise line. To me, Carnival was like the starter home that you buy when you’re young, and you love it dearly and will always remember it fondly – but as you get older and your needs differ and your preferences change and you can afford more, it’s time to move on and up to something that’s a better fit for you at that point in your life.

Now, there are also some people who stay in that same house for fifty years and live out their whole lives there, raise their kids there, retire there, lovingly maintain the building and grounds as the neighborhood changes and neighbors come and go, and never have any desire to live anywhere else. And that’s great, too. Different strokes for different folks.

I just don’t like to be stuck somewhere simply out of habit and fear of the unknown. Most people are afraid of change – even when it’s good change. My husband went into depression when we moved from our old house to the new one, even though the new one is much, much nicer and the price was fantastic and affordable and the location is wonderful and he was the one who initially fell in love with it and wanted it in the first place. Now, of course, he loves this house and doesn’t want to ever move. Change is scary, more to some folks than others. People who have only or mostly cruised Carnival (or Royal, or Norwegian) are familiar with “their” cruise line; it feels like “home,” and they’re scared to step outside their comfort zones and try something else.

Unlike selling your house, though, you can try out a new cruise line and if you don’t like it, easily come back to the fold.

When I booked my first MSC cruise, then, I was coming at it from a different direction than many of the disgruntled Carnival cruisers who also booked the Seaside’s inaugural season sailings. They wanted something that was like the old Carnival, before the cutbacks. I wanted something that was … different. And I’m happy to say that’s what I got.

Different strokes for different cruisers

These differences are both strengths and weaknesses for MSC as it steps up its campaign to capture more of the North American cruising market share. Its distinctive European flavor is the very thing that attracts many people (including me), but that is also the source of many of the complaints and negative reviews that you’ll see in the groups and web boards.

NOTE: In my opinion, most of the negative reviews of the Seaside’s maiden and first few voyages stemmed from two different factors. The first category involves the “new ship shakedown period” issues that plague every brand new ship – and more so for the first ship of a brand new class – and that will be corrected over time. These are things such as plumbing problems, doors that don’t open/close properly, finishing touches that weren’t quite finished, and similar issues that you find in all new construction whether it’s a home/building on land or a ship at sea.

The second category falls under those cultural differences mentioned above, and I and other fans of MSC fervently hope those things are not “corrected” to emulate the other American cruise lines. It’s those differences that set MSC apart from the crowd and make it a great option for we who don’t expect or want the “same old same old.”

I won’t be talking about the first category here; I’ll just be addressing the second. Some of the differences are subtle and some a little less so.  Those who have traveled a lot in southern Europe understand and (most of us) appreciate the Italian “way.”  Many of those whose only international travel has been in the Caribbean or Mexico on CCL/RCL/NCL cruises seem bewildered and upset by customs that seem strange or “wrong” to them. Specifically:

  • Long dining times. There have been many complaints about dinner lasting for 90 minutes to 2 hours. This makes perfect sense to anyone who knows Italian culture. Meal times, especially dinner, are not juimagest about eating; they are social occasions for long and leisurely conversations with family and friends while savoring multiple courses of food and wine. Many Americans are way too used to the concept of “fast food” in more than one sense. I love not being rushed to finish my meal and I loved the leisurely dining style in the Yacht Club restaurant on Seaside.
  • Dinner buffet is sparse. See above regarding the meal tradition in Italy. Buffets – dedicated to a “quick and dirty” eating style that is the antithesis of the Italian attitude toward food – aren’t very comm20180217_134548on outside tourist areas. On Seaside, the lunch buffet(s) – there are two of them – together offer pretty extensive choices, but at dinner time the larger one on deck 8 turns into a dining room (more on that later, in the blog post that will be titled Buon cibo, buon vino: the dining and drinking experience). Only the smaller buffet on deck 16, with limited menu, stays open. Again, this makes perfect sense in the context of an Italian ship.
  • Food “isn’t good.” Food is one of the most subjective topics around. Our taste buds are different so we all like different things and one person’s idea of heavenly cuisine is another’s culinary nightmare. I get that. I heard many complaints that “there’s too much fish and pasta.” To someone who adores seafood and Italian food (me), that’s definitely not a negative. As for those whose idea of a great meal is Guy’s Burgers or Pig & Anchor on Carnival ships, maybe MSC isn’t for you (although they do have burgers). Honestly, though, having eaten in the YC restaur20180221_185743ant and a couple of the specialty restaurants, perused the buffet, and seen the menus and photos of the food from the regular main dining rooms, I can’t imagine that there are people who can’t find anything they like to eat on Seaside. The gelato alone is worth the price of admission to me. Yes, the menus go a little heavy on the Mediterranean diet. Is that a surprise? Do you know what the “M” in “MSC” stands for?
  • Crew and staff “aren’t friendly.” I found this to be about as far from the truth as you can get, especially in the Yacht Club. And with a few minor exceptions, I also found the crew members throughout the ship, from waiters to officers, to be exceptionally helpful, accommodating, and yes – friendly. Ho20180223_152759wever, many of them tend to be more reserved and professional when they first meet you, and take their cues from you as to how familiar to be. Europeans don’t tend to be as effusive and outgoing with strangers as Americans, and those in service positions aren’t expected (or desired) to be buddy-buddy. Nonetheless, by the end of the seven day cruise, I felt close to my butler, waiter, several of the lounge staff, and a number of others including Captain Massa (who definitely is outgoing) and the YC director, Ivan.
  • Passengers are “rude.” I saw numerous complaints about other passengers, especially about “breaking in line.” Like it or not, except for the British, most Europeans aren’t big on lining up (or “queuing” as our friends in the U.K. call it – and they take it very seriously). Italians, especially, just don’t do queues. This is very frustrating to Americans who spent their elementary school days being rapped on the kimagenuckles – or at least sent to the end of the line – if they dared nudge in ahead of someone who was already there.  What you have to understand is that these people aren’t being intentionally obnoxious; they’re just being Italian. Please note that this goes both ways; there are many things we Americans think are perfectly acceptable that come off as rude and uncouth to people of other cultures (there’s a reason the moniker “ugly American” is so oft-used abroad).
  • Too many “foreign” languages. Seriously?  But yes, I’ve seen many reviews of Seaside (and MSC Divina) complaining that there are all these people speaking languages other than English – even complaints that the Captain’s announcements and the muster drill demonstrations are given in multiple languages. Guess what, people – English isn’t the only language in the world. And MSC caters to an international clientele; there are many Europeans who come to Florida because they want to sail in the Caribbean, just as many Americans go to Italy to sail in the Mediterranean. The difference is that most of thoImage result for bilingualse Europeans can speak two or three different languages, whereas only about one-fourth of those in the U.S. can hold a conversation in a second language. I love the international aspect of cruising on MSC and it gives me a chance to practice my Italian and learn more phrases in other languages.
  • Staff not fluent in English. I didn’t encounter anyone who was unable to communicate with English-speaking guests. Yes, many of the staff and crew have accents, some of them fairly heavy. Whenever someone apologizes to me that “my English is not so good,” my answer is “it’s better than my Italian/Spanish/German/French/Russian (whatever that person’s native language is).”
  • Cabins are too small/not enough storage. My Yacht Club deluxe suite was spacious and had a ton of closet and drawer space. However, I did get briefs tours of a Fantastica level balcony and an oceanview, and I agree that they are small (compared to Carnival’s OVs and balconies). I think this hearkens back to cultural differences, too. Europeans are generally used to living in smaller spaces; you don’t see many McMansions and huge walk-in closets there since cities tend to be more heavily populated and square footage is at a premium. If you’ve ever watched House Hunters International, you know this. There is a solution if it’s an issue for you: upgrade to a suite (YC or Aurea). As a bonus, you’ll get unlimited free drinks, too.
  • No calypso/Caribbean band on the pool deck. I saw a few mentions of this on Cruise Critic reviews. Okay, I guess since it’s a Caribbean cruise, it’s something some people really want. I’m not one of them; personally I like the classical piano and violin in the Top Sail lounge in the Yacht Club.  I also enjoyed tImage result for musiche smooth jazz in the Seaview Lounge downstairs. It seemed as if there were many different types of music in different venues – country & western, pop, rock, Latin, etc. – but I admit I don’t remember hearing Caribbean music. Is that a cultural thing, too? I don’t know.
  • Entertainment is “weird.” No, it’s not. The entertainment is more sophisticated than you may be used to, and it’s geared more toward an international audience so there’s less “talk” and more dancing and acrobatics. And yes, there is opera. Which some of us – even fourth generation Texans like me – thoroughly enjoy. It really irritates me to read reviews that claim to speak for Americans as a w20180220_215926hole (as in “they should know Americans don’t like opera.”). It irritated me even more when many people got up and walked out between acts of “Butterflies.”  Well, a) some Americans do like opera, b) not everybody on the ship is an American, anyway – remember? and c) why did you attend if you don’t like opera? Could you not read the description of the show before you decided to go?
  • The shower curtain and/or washcloths are missing. These were complaints I heard from a few people after the first sailings of Seaside. Some of the bathrooms are apparently patterned more after those in Europe, where it’s not uncommon for the entire bathroom to be part of the “shower room” with no curtains or glass doors separating it from the rest. (I say “apparently” because the bathroom in my Yacht Club deluxe suite did have a glass door).  Another tad of culture shock comes from the fact that most E20180217_121057uropean hotels (as opposed to American chains in Europe) don’t provide washcloths. Don’t believe me? Just do a web search for “washcloths in Europe” and sit back and peruse the wailing and weeping and gnashing of teeth on the travel forums. However, once again this wasn’t an issue in the Yacht Club. There were washcloths already waiting for me in my YC1 stateroom on Seaside, and I’ve heard from others that although their cabins didn’t have them, the stewards brought them some if they asked for them.
  • No standup comedians. I guess the comedy shows are important to some people, judging by the long lines to get into them on Carnival cruises. I have never been big on canned comedy acts, and I stopped going years ago, when most (not all) of the comedians stopped engaging in clever word play and started focusing on adolescent bathroom humor, denigration of political figures and those who vote for them, and/or the mistaken belief that dropping the “F bomb” into every sentence automatically makes their material hilarious when there’s no real joke there. So as you might guess, I didn’t miss or even notice the absence of the standup comics. Seaside does have an improv show – about which I heard one person complain (in apparent sincerity) that “they seemed to be just making it up as they go along.” Now that’s funny.
  • No hairy chest contests and similar so-called “fun ship” attributes. All I can say to that is “thank goodness.”

Bottom line: MSC is a European cruise line. Those who are used to or want “the American way” seem to be the ones who are complaining. Many of the crew likely came from European ships and are used to serving people of that culture. These are not “things wrong with the ship.” These are cultural differences. I and some others want to sail on MSC precisely because we want that European experience. Folks really need to research a cruise line before booking, and determine whether it fits in with what they as individuals or families want from a vacation.

Sailing on a European/Italian line and complaining about European/Italian practices and customs is like sailing on Carnival and complaining about the party, party atmosphere or the hairy chest contests, or sailing on Cunard and complaining about having to dress up for dinner.


Now, did some people have legitimate complaints about the Seaside? Of course. As with any ship or any large building on land, there will always be some problems. Some unlucky people had toilets that stopped up (I can’t count the number of times that’s happened to me in hotels). Some were the victims of human or computer error that resulted in their billing being messed up, or items for which they had pre-paid not being credited. Some ran across staff members who were in a hurry, or having a bad day, or just not as nice as most – when you have well over a thousand staff members, there are bound to be a few who aren’t smiling, accommodating, and competent all of the time.

But that’s not unique to the Seaside, or MSC, or cruise ships. Life is imperfect, the people we encounter while going about it are imperfect. Where there’s a cruise, there will be complaints – even from those paying tens of thousands on Regent, Oceania, and Cunard. Where there’s a cruise ship, there will be problems. Where there are human beings, there will be “issues.” Because all people don’t like the same things. Because all cultures don’t do things the same way. Because we’re all subject to moods, to luck, to priorities that aren’t the same as someone else’s. Because “stuff happens.”

And it’s all subjective. I’ve been on cruises where everything went smoothly and the experience was almost magical, and heard others on that same cruise moan about what a lousy time they had. I’ve been on cruises that didn’t go so well (for me), where I felt the food was mediocre and the service was lacking and everything just seemed determined to go wrong, and read glowing reviews from others on the same cruise who christened it their best ever.

The above applies not just to cruises, but to all travel — indeed, to all life experiences. That’s why I read reviews avidly but take both complaints and accolades with a grain of salt. Sometimes it’s hard to believe that two different reviewers were on the same ship, at the same time, but they were. And the very experiences that make it so wonderful or so awful for one person might have the opposite or no effect on someone else’s enjoyment.

In the end, I remind myself that every experience, good or bad, serves a purpose — even if only as an opportunity to learn what not to do in the future. And I know that I am truly blessed to be able to have so many such experiences. 

Finally, my experiences and my perceptions are all completely my own. What I love might not be what you love – so please take my reviews with a grain of salt, too (but only a grain. You wouldn’t want to get bloated from sodium overload). Smile 

Experiences matter

Another way in which MSC is different, which isn’t a cultural thing but a business strategy, is by offering all those different experience “levels.” This can be confusing, even to those who are very experienced cruisers on other lines.

When you book the cruise, you choose an experience – Bella, Fantastica, Aurea, Wellness or Yacht Club – which in turn determines which cabins are available to you and the amenities (such as free drinks, exclusive areas, priority embarkation/debarkation) that come with your “experience.” 

Bella, at the low end, will give you the lowest cost fare and is a little like the “base” model of an automobile; you get just the basics: the cabin, food in the buffet and assigned main dining room, the free entertainment and activities in the lounges and theaters. If you want extras, such as individual drinks or a drink package, you have to pay for it separately. You won’t have access to certain areas that are reserved for those in Yacht Club or Aurea levels. You’ll have lowest priority in choosing your dining or getting on and off the ship.

Amenities increase as you move up the “experience” ladder, until you get to the Yacht Club at the very top, which I will describe in exquisite detail in a later, dedicated article that will be titled Pampered but not Pretentious: The Yacht Club Experience.

I absolutely love that MSC offers different experiences, with different perks, at different prices. Just like the penthouse suite in a hotel or first class on a plane, if you pay more, you get more.

Different people care about different things when they cruise. Some don’t drink or drink very little, so the  unlimited alcohol packages that come with Aurea and Yacht Club won’t matter to them. Some never use the pools and hot tubs, so having less crowded, restricted access ones won’t be important. Some just want to eat pizza and burgers, so the higher quality Yacht Club restaurant wouldn’t appeal to them. Some might want to spend most of their time dancing to high energy music in the nightclubs, and find the soothing classical piano in the Yacht Club’s Top Sail lounge infinitely boring. Some only visit their cabins to shower and sleep, so the larger and more lavishly furnished YC and Aurea suites wouldn’t be something they would want to pay for.

The good thing is that unlike on a luxury cruise line where all cruise fares include all the amenities (and thus are all very expensive), with MSC you can pay for what you want – and still be on the same ship with friends or relatives who want something different and booked a different experience.

Leveling the loyalty playing field

The experience levels should not be confused with the loyalty status levels (Welcome, Classic, Silver, Gold and Black). Most cruisers are familiar with that concept, although here again MSC is different from most and especially from Carnival in that your loyalty status is based not only on how many days or cruises you’ve sailed, but also on which experience you were in for each cruise and the additional dollars that you spent on pre-bookings and on board expenditures.

You get loyalty points for money spent on drinks, specialty dining, excursions – basically everything except casino gambling. You get more loyalty points for booking a higher level even if, for example, you pay more for an Aurea suite than for a Yacht Club interior, as shown here on the MSC web site:


The current loyalty program is called the Voyagers Club and these are the current membership level thresholds:


Please see the MSC Voyagers Club web site for more information and any changes that occur after the date of this writing. And of course, MSC famously matches the loyalty status you’ve earned on other cruise lines. For example, if you’re at the top-tier Diamond level on Carnival, they’ll give you 10,000 points and a Black card on your very first MSC cruise. (You do have to cruise MSC again within 3 years to keep that status – a more than reasonable requirement, in my opinion).

I prefer MSC’s way of awarding loyalty points because it recognizes and rewards their best customers, i.e. those who contribute more to their bottom line, more effectively than the custom of counting cruises or days. Under Carnival’s system, sailing in a $399 interior cabin and spending nothing extra counts the same toward status as spending $4500 for a Captain’s Suite and racking up charges of $2000 more in specialty dining, drinks, photos, and excursions on that same cruise. I sail solo, pay double the per-person rate of those with two in their cabin, and only get half the total points awarded to the two of them. image

I’m not a big on-board spender; on my recent Seaside cruise, after on board credit was applied, my balance was only $44.82. In the Yacht Club, there’s really not much extra to want or need. But I do spend more for that YC experience, and I also think those who buy a lot on board should get credit for that.

Some will say basing loyalty on money spent “isn’t fair.”  Then more often than not, those are the same people who, when asked why they should get priority in lines and perks that newbie cruisers don’t get, turn around and say they “earned” their loyalty status by “all the money I spent on all those cruises.”  Umm. Indeed.


Speaking of loyalty

The whole concept of loyalty to a brand is an interesting one to me from a sociological and psychological perspective. Some people are fiercely loyal to the point where any criticism of their chosen product/service feels like a personal attack – and some of them are quick to attack back.  It seems that with cruise lines, in particular, many people have a big emotional investment in their favorites. If you suggest that another line might be better (for you), they feel threatened, as if their character (or at least their judgment) is being called into question.

Then there are those who secretly would like to try something different, but are afraid to. It’s just so much easier to stick with what you know. Companies count on this. We humans crave the familiar (while at the same time getting bored easily and longing for new adventures — we are creatures of contradiction that way). We don’t like to be the “newbie” or to feel stupid because we don’t know how something works or what theImage result for love and loyalty routines are. So we stay put. Heck, think of all the people who stay with spouses they don’t love or jobs they hate just because they’re afraid of change — and those have far more serious impact on our lives than being dissatisfied with a cruise line.

I felt like a fish out of water at first in the MSC forums and Facebook groups. But I absorbed as much knowledge as I could, asked questions, read about others’ experiences, studied the official sites, and came to feel at home there. And although — people being people wherever you find them — there are folks in those groups who are just as annoying as the Carnival trolls, I have to say that in general, I find those most of those groups more congenial than most of the Carnival pages (I think one reason is that most have fewer members, though).

The thing is: you don’t owe any cruise line, or any company, your loyalty. Their marketing machines (paid and unpaid) have tried to sell you on the idea that you do. All companies try to do that. OMG, how could you possibly drive a vehicle that’s made by GM when you’ve always been a member of the “Ford family”? (It’s even worse if you should consider one of those – shudder – foreign cars). Your world won’t be the same if you use an evil “off brand” detergent instead of Tide. You gave up your iPhone for a Samsung Galaxy? How could you? And so forth and so on.

It’s a lie. You are free to choose. When you look around and realize the loyalty perks are the only reason you have to pick imagea particular cruise line, it’s probably time to pick a different one, if only to expand your horizons and let you know what else is out there. It’s not good to get stuck in a box, even a comfortable, cushy box. It’s even less good when the cushions in the box start wearing thin and the hard edges are poking you in the side.

Booking a cruise is not a lifetime commitment. If you try something new and don’t like it, you can go back to the old one — or you can try yet another “something else” until you find the one that makes you happiest. I believe I just might have found that in MSC and the Yacht Club experience.  One reason for that is the beautiful story behind the MSC family, which will be the subject of my next post.


Up Next: La mia famiglia

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The never-ending review: The debarkation situation

Copyright 2018 Debra Littlejohn Shinder

My bags are packed,
I’m (not) ready to go …


Like most cruisers, I always dread debarkation day, for multiple reasons. There is the obvious: I don’t want the vacation to be over so quickly. But also because that final morning is usually a slightly unpleasant experience at best:

  • You’re rousted out of bed way too early, usually after only a few hours of sleep since you were up late packing and/or saying your goodbyes to crew and fellow cruisers
  • You’re kicked out of your cabin and forced to either stand in long lines of people and their luggage or wait in cramped, loud, crowded public areas of the ship until it’s your turn to exit
  • If you choose to do it the leisurely way and have breakfast first, the buffet is a madhouse and the dining room is full and service is generally less than optimal since the crew is rushing like crazy to get things wrapped up so they can immediately turn around get ready for the next sailing.

I had a feeling the debarkation experience for a Yacht Club guest would be a little different – just like the embarkation and everything in between. And I wasn’t disappointed in that regard.

I was up at 7:00 a.m. and we were already in port when I opened my balcony curtains for the last time. It was still dark, but not for long. The lights of Miami welcomed us back and then faded as the sun came up and took over the job. For me, sunrise has always carried with it a sense of hope and rejuvenation as it brings me the gift of a brand new day. The older I get, the more I appreciate the value of that gift and the less I take it for granted.




My time on the Seaside was almost over. I said goodbye to my last towel animal, perched on the shelf between my oh-so-comfy bed and my little “living room” where I had enjoyed my room service breakfasts and snuggled at night to read myself into sleepiness.

20180224_061913I made a final check of the drawers and closets to ensure that I hadn’t left anything behind. I took a last look into my beautiful marble bathroom and “stole” the unused disposable shower cap to wrap around my sandals before putting them in my carry-off bag. I checked again to make certain my passport, credit cards, and other important documents were where they were supposed to20180217_121137 be.

And then, reluctantly, I removed my ship card from the power activation slot and went out that door for the last time.  So long, 16003 – I’ll miss you. You might not have been perfect, but crying babies next door and the occasional banging sound in the wall aside, you provided me with a comfortable and beautiful place to call my own within my ship within a ship. I would happily make my nest there again.


A ogni uccello il suo nido è bello.

To every bird, its nest is beautiful.


I may have relinquished my “nest,” but I was still free to fly within the Yacht Club environment – for a little while. I made my way, with my backpack and small duffel, to the place I most hated to leave: the Top Sail lounge.

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There were only a few folks waiting there when I got there.  I ordered coffee and grabbed a goodbye pastry, and settled down to wait until my ride got there or they forcibly removed me from the ship, which came first. 

We were “parked” next to the Carnival Glory. Coincidentally, that was the ship I had been on almost exactly a year earlier, sailing on John Heald’s Blogger Cruise 10 (which turned out to be the last one by that name, although the concept goes on). I couldn’t help thinking about how much my cruising life had changed since then.

A LENGTHY ASIDE:  BC10 had been a great cruise, too – but in a very different way than Seaside. It was less about the ship and the cruise line sponsored activities and more about having my daughter along with me and the other dear friends who were on that sailing with  us (speaking of the ship, my daughter’s first comment when we got to our cabin on Glory was, “Wow, this is an old ship, isn’t it?” She had only been on the Breeze and Vista – the newest ships in Carnival’s fleet – before that).

bc10 group

We had a Glory-ous time on that trip, getting bushwhacked at Paradise Point in St. Thomas, exploring Old Juan, visiting the Dominican Republic (first time for many of us), and trekking down the beach to play with Topher the dog at Jack’s Shack in Grand Turk.

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DSCN3345 topher

As much as I enjoyed the time with good friends on the Glory, the seeds of dissatisfaction had been planted and soon afterward started to grow. I had started, a while before, to notice and become a little unhappy with changes Carnival was instituting in their apparent stepped-up focus on attracting what we veteran Carnival cruisers often referred to as the “new demographic” (first-timers and those who had only cruised a few times) and a seemingly increasing disregard for those at the higher loyalty status levels. D7K_2008D7K_2007

Still, at that point in time, as a Platinum “VIFP” and well on my way to the top-tier Diamond level, I had no real plans to break away and start all over on another cruise line. I had a lot invested in Carnival – emotionally as well as all the money I’d spent there over the years.

Then two things happened: my cruise on the Sunshine in May of that year, which for many reasons was a big disappointment despite being a reunion of some of my closest cruise friends, and the discovery of a new alternative: MSC and the new ship it was going to be bringing to Miami in the near future – the Seaside.

In life, timing is everything and sometimes unrelated circumstances converge to send us down a path we hadn’t even known existed. Just back from my not-so-great time on Sunshine, I heard that Ray – a Carnival Diamond I knew from previous cruises who is also a travel agent – was putting together a back-to-back on one of Seaside’s early sailings, not quite two months after her arrival in the U.S. I couldn’t be away from home for fourteen days to do both legs, but I was very interested in going one of the weeks. Specifically, the second half of the B2B, which would sail February 17th to the eastern Caribbean (although the actual itinerary would end up changing completely – but in my opinion, for the better).


I had been hearing and reading about MSC for a while and what first captured my attention was their loyalty match program. One major obstacle to switching to a different cruise line is losing your loyalty status and starting over at the bottom, but with MSC, you didn’t have to. They would honor the status you had earned on other cruise lines. That was a big plus. Carnival didn’t even do that within its own different brands (Princess, HAL, etc.). If they did, I probably would have booked on one of those lines instead of looking outside the Carnival Corporation family.

I had looked into alternatives to Carnival in the past. Even before my summer of discontent, I had considered trying something new, booking a cruise on Royal Caribbean or Norwegian or one of the other, higher-end CCL lines. I toyed seriously with the idea of doing a transatlantic on Cunard’s Queen Mary 2. But it wasn’t just the thought of going back to being a lowly first-timer that stopped me; it was more so that there probably wouldn’t be anyone I knew on those cruises. Most of my friends were pretty much “Carnival only” these days, even the ones who had sailed on other lines in the past.

So the Seaside cruise was also attractive to me because there would be people there I knew from Carnival. In fact, in the beginning when I made the commitment to book it, I thought there were going to be several of those I count within my inner circle of cruise friends coming with us. Most of them ended up not going for various reasons but I hung in there. By then, I had gotten involved in the Facebook groups for the cruise and met new people who would be on board, although I ended up having the best times with people I wasn’t well acquainted with online prior to boarding the ship. It’s funny how things turn out that way sometimes.

When I do something, I don’t do it halfway. Between the time I put down my deposit in early July and the day I left for Miami, I delved deeply into the forums, Facebook groups, news stories, press releases, and the company’s official web site to find out everything I could about MSC in general and Seaside in particular. I followed the ship’s progress as it was being built and the live reviews of its maiden voyage/TA crossing, the christening ceremonies, and its first cruises out of Miami at Christmas and New Year’s.

Molto più fanno gli anni che i libri.

Years teach more than books.

I was well aware that my knowledge was all second-hand “book learning” and thus lacking in an important way, but I believe by the time I stepped onto the ship, I knew about as much as one could know about this cruise line and ship without having experienced it in person. And I was ready, willing, and eager to correct that missing element.

By the time February rolled around, I was not only ready to take that (in some ways scary) step away from what was familiar and walk into the unknown, I was completely excited about it. Sitting in the Yacht Club lounge and looking back at all I’d seen and done on the Seaside and how it had made me feel, I was glad I’d rolled those dice.

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did.
So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor, catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

— Mark Twain

Back to debarkation day. The best description would be the one I’d been using all week in regard to the whole Yacht Club experience: so civilized. My butler was in the lounge, offering a drink or to escort me off the ship whenever I was ready. Ivan (YC director) was there, as well, so I got to say goodbye again to both of them. Several of my fellow passengers I’d met throughout the week came and went.

I sat and read and breathed the last molecules of the rarified Yacht Club air, until I got a a text message from my local friend who was picking me up at the port for a day tour of Miami before taking me to the airport. That happened around 10:00 a.m.  I stood up and started to gather my bags, and my butler was almost immediately at my side asking if I was ready to leave the ship.

He took my duffel from me and took my ship card, and led me out of the Yacht Club, down the elevator to the atrium, and to the front of the line of people getting off the ship. He handed my card to the person scanning them and took me to the door of the ship, where he handed me my bag and we said our last goodbyes. I was officially disembarked (or debarked, as you prefer).


If you’ve cruised before, you know what came next. The long walk down the SBB (Ship Boarding Bridge – the official name for the covered and enclosed walkway that connects the ship to the dock at its home port), then into the terminal.  In Miami, you have to go down an escalator (or stairs) to get to the baggage claim area, which is huge.

On Carnival, luggage tags are numbered according to zones. On MSC, they’re color coded, which makes it a lot easier to spot and probably less likely for your luggage to get put into the wrong section. Yacht Club color is gold (could it possibly be any other way?) and that section is all the way at the end and around the corner from the long, long line of other colors. What that means is that you’ll get your bags nearest to the exit and thus not have to maneuver them as far as those whose sections are at the beginning of the rows of bags.

Image result for u.s. customs and border protectionSince I had waited so late to leave, there were only a few bags left in the YC section and it was easy to identify mine; I grabbed it and headed for the customs lines, which were short. I saw some people being questioned for a while, but the customs officer looked at my passport, looked at me, and nodded to me to go through. Shortest customs “interview” ever.

Out to the sidewalk and I turned to look at the Seaside one last time, then made my way to the line of cars at the curb, where my friend was parked. 20180217_105557

Although we had met through Internet discussion groups over twenty years ago when we were both law enforcement officers and had been online friends all that time, this was the first time we would finally meet in person. I had worn my bright lime green “parrot” shirt to make it easy for her to identify me, and she did and waved me over. 

We got my bags into her trunk and I was off with my own personal tour guide to explore parts of Miami I had never seen before in previous visits. My last view of the Seaside showed her in line at the port between a Celebrity and two Carnival ships. I might be biased, but to me she was the prettiest of the bunch.


Arrivederci – until we meet again.


These are the voyages of the good ship Seaside – or at least one voyage, my first but not my last on her. At least in the realms of design and technology, she is indeed boldly going where no cruise ship has gone before. I look forward to being back on her in the future, and I can’t wait to see explore the strange new World (class) that’s coming in 2022. But in the meantime, I’m eager to find out what her sister ships Meraviglia, Bellissima, and Grandiosa have to offer.

This is the cruise line I’ve been waiting for.


This concludes the day-by-day, blow-by-blow portion of this review. Subsequent posts will be more in the format of individual articles that address different aspects of sailing on the MSC Seaside, which I hope will answer a lot of questions for those who haven’t yet cruised on her, and help you to get the most out of your experience (whichever experience you choose to book) when you do go.


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The never-ending review: Such sweet sorrow

Copyright 2018 Debra Littlejohn Shinder


And now, the end is near

All good things must come to an end, and when they do, the last day is always tinged with sadness. Whether it’s the last day of summer before school starts or the last day of school before it lets out for vacation, the last day on the job before starting a new chapter in your life, the last day in the house you’ve called home before moving to a new one, or simply the last day of a week-long vacation, we all hate letting go.

But nothing lasts forever (except, apparently, for my supply of clichés) and it’s knowing there will be an end that motivates us to make every moment count. That’s how I felt about my last day on the Seaside.


I woke up Friday morning to the familiar sight of the ocean waves outside my window, knowing it was likely the last time for a while that I would open my eyes to that particular sight (although I am blessed to wake up every morning at home to look across the water of the ocean-substitute that is the lake on which I live).  The next morning, we would be back in the port of Miami by the time I was up and about, and the open sea would be behind me until the next time.

But I didn’t want to waste time mourning what wasn’t yet lost, and I had a lot yet to do before I had to leave this sweet suite that had served me well for the past seven days.


My week in a nutshell: Day Seven (Friday, Feb. 23)

If you’ve been following this Diary of a Crazed Cruiser from the beginning, you can easily guess how I began the day. Room service (just coffee this time), a shower, and then to the lounge – which I suspected was the part of Yacht Club I would miss most of all.

Only a few days before, I had hesitantly crossed that threshold from the hallway (hesitant not so much out of apprehension about what I would find or the welcome I would receive as new-found wariness of clear glass doors that might be lurking in what appeared to be an open doorway – the bump on my head was no longer noticeable in the mirror, but still slightly sore to the touch).


On that last day at sea, I walked in as if going to another room in my house; that’s what it becomes for Yacht Club cruisers (or at least for me) – an extension of “your” space, your cabin.  It’s more public but it still feels private. It’s a place where you can meet up with the rest of the “family” – or find a corner to claim as your own retreat. It’s hard for me to describe (or even understand myself) my love for the Top Sail lounge. You have to experience it for  yourself (and your experience might or might not be similar to mine).


More coffee and croissant consumed, email answered, Facebook friends duly apprised of where I was and what I was doing, and then I was off to the first scheduled “event” of the day – an impromptu gathering at 11:00 a.m. of some of the Faceb20180223_121225ook group at the Miami Beach aft pool area on deck 16. The purpose was for everyone to bring their “leftover” bottles of champagne (received as black card and/or Yacht Club perks) and share a last round of toasts to a great cruise.

I arrived to find a table of 6 or 8 people already assembled, with several bottles of bubbly and orange juice for making mimosas. We sat and talked, shared our thoughts about the cruise and the ship and the cruise line, and for some of us, said our goodbyes since we didn’t know whether we would get together again before debarkation.

Although group members were still arriving, I had to leave a little after noon as I had reservations for Teppanyaki (again!) for lunch with a different set of friends.


The Teppanyaki lunch was similar to, but different from the first time. Of course you can never truly duplicate an experience exactly even when all the elements are the same, and it was very good, but not quite as great as on the first sea day. First, we had a different chef; he was completely competent as a chef but not as enthusiastic and natural as an entertainer as Joseph had been.

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The second factor that probably impacted the overall feel was that the first time, our group was alone in the room. This time, three of the four hibachi tables were filled, so there was some distraction from the other chefs and other diners at the other tables.

The sashimi was a different fish (it was fine, but I didn’t like it as well as the white fish on the first day). I ordered the same meal as before (Katana), and the mahi-mahi, rice, chicken and veggies were all just as good. The ice cream/pineapple dessert tasted the same, although the presentation wasn’t quite as pretty.

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It was still a very good time and a very good meal, and if I hadn’t done it the other way first, I would have been completely impressed. Everything is relative, they say (notice we keep coming back to relativity, for some reason). Standing alone, this was a great experience. In comparison to the first time, it was slightly lacking.


One thing that was identical about this Teppanyaki lunch and the first one: I felt just as stuffed afterward. So I needed to walk it off. I also was concerned that I hadn’t gotten as many photos of the ship’s public areas as I’d like, for the blog, so I thought I could take care of both at the same time, and set out on my final long walkaround.

One of the places I had neglected was the Garage Club Bar area, so I went down to deck 7 aft to capture more photos of it. This is a little blast from the past, decorated with a 50s motif and complete with classic cars and a “soda shop.” It’s a cute concept. Also in this area is the bowling alley, F1 simulator, and arcade games.


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I covered much more of the ship on that walk – basically all of the common areas on decks 5, 6, 7, 8, 16 and 18. I’ll use the photos I took in the “Ship design and environment” and “Dining and drinking experience” sections.

Meanwhile, here are a few random shots of different parts of those areas.

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The theme party that evening was Pirate night, and the atrium was already decorated for it. I hadn’t bothered to bring my pirate costume (yes, I do have one, from a previous cruise) and was pretty sure I wouldn’t make it to the party since I still had to pack, but I did get a shot of skulls hanging in the atrium.


Since I was going to be cruelly kicked out of it and forced to hand it over to the next occupant in less than 24 hours, I wanted to spend a little time in my cabin before dinner, so I headed back up to the Yacht Club around 6:00. I sat on the balcony, enjoying the breeze and the peace and calm, until it was time to get ready for … the last supper (or more accurately, dinner, since supper technically is a light evening meal, and there is nothing light about meals in the YC restaurant).


Scott, Rich, Bob and Frank were kind enough to allow me to join them again, for what turned out to be Italian Image may contain: 1 person, smilingnight in the YC restaurant. I had brought a red, white and green outfit but I ended up forgetting to wear it. Arthur, however, was appropriately dressed for the occasion and looked dashing in his vested of Italian colors.

NOTE: There is some obvious confusion in the groups and forums about the various theme nights. On our sailing, Gatsby and white night seemed to be the ones for which more people dressed up. Italian night seemed to be more a theme in the dining room, rather than a special party and “Atrium moments” night like the others. Don’t worry about having to take clothes for all those themes; just pick the ones you like (or already have the appropriate dress for), or if you like just ignore them all.  You won’t be alone in not being dressed thematically.

20180223_211352I made an executive decision to take off my “reporter” hat, at least to an extent, on this last evening and just enjoy dinner without documenting absolutely everything. So I don’t have a lot photos of the last night’s menu or as much of the “food porn” as usual from that evening. I did snap a few. I ordered calamari, eggplant, and tiramisu, and it was very good. 

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There was a lot of good conversation – among ourselves and with Arthur and Luigi, and we lingered long over dinner to the point that the restaurant was almost deserted when we finished.

We did, however, gather for a goodbye photo with Arthur, which turned out really great and is the perfect memento of my first (but definitely not last) experience in the Yacht Club.


The last chore of the night was to finish packing my bags and set my checked bag out before 2:00 a.m. to be picked up. Morning was going to come early, I knew – the captain had announced that we could expect to get into port before 7:00 a.m., and we had to be out of our cabins by 8:30 so they could be cleaned up and prepared for the next round of guests. However, we could stay in the lounge until 10:30, and I intended to take advantage of that and hang out as long as I could. Why leave any sooner than I had to?

It had been a great cruise. In fact, I would say it was a game-changer for me. It opened my eyes to a brand new way of cruising, one that I could easily get used to. It introduced me to new friends I would never have met otherwise. Trying something new and different is always a gamble. This one paid off handsomely. As I drifted off to sleep that night, I was sad to be leaving, but glad that I would be seeing my husband and home and pets soon, and happy that I would be back on Seaside again in a few months.

Many thanks to Ray McDonald, who arranged the group booking and led the Facebook group for the back-to-back cruises (only the second half of which I was a part), and who also blogged about his own experience in a Fantastica cabin. Those who are booking that experience level should check it out as it may be more directly relevant than my Yacht Club experience.

Also thank you to Mohammed Rai, Arthur, Luigi, Ivan, Ziggy, Judith, Captain Massa and the rest of the “cast and crew” of the beautiful Seaside, and to all my fellow cruisers on the February 17, 2018 sailing and all of the new friends that I met on this voyage. We had the privilege of sharing something special.


I’ll drink to that.


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The never-ending review: It’s a Grand Old Turk

Copyright 2018 Debra Littlejohn Shinder


According to the theory of relativity, time dilation is a difference in the elapsed time measured by two observers, either due to a velocity difference relative to each other, or by being differently situated relative to a gravitational field. In other words, depending on your position and speed, time can appear to move faster or more slowly relative to others in a different part of the space-time continuum.

I’m no theoretical physicist, but I know for sure, based on extensive observation and experimentation, that time does indeed fly when I’m having fun, and cruises that ostensibly have a duration of 7 days in fact zoom past in about twenty minutes. At least, that’s how it seems, and perception is everything.

It was hard to believe the cruise was so close to being over when it had only just begun. But in a random act of kindness, the universe threw us a bone and gifted us with sixty extra minutes to enjoy on our next-to-last day. Now, of course I knew it wasn’t really a gift; like the IRS at tax refund time, the universe was merely giving us back what belonged to us that it had confiscated earlier and held hostage. But it felt as if we were gaining something when the time came to set our clocks back a hour to Miami time.

Not one to look gift horses in mouths, I gratefully accepted the illusion of a longer day to squeeze a little more fun and/or relaxation before midnight came again.


My week in a nutshell: Day Six (Thursday, Feb. 22)

Grand Turk was our last minute itinerary change and a pleasant surprise. Most of the frequent cruisers I know don’t care much for the Bahamas in general, but at least Nassau has Atlantis. Freeport has … not a lot. There are some beaches, a couple of all-inclusive resorts that sell day passes, and a few shops and bars. I’ve been there/done that and had planned to stay on the ship when we ported there.

Grand Turk, on the other hand, is a favorite of many cruisers. It’s a small island – just 6.9 square miles of land – albeit the largest of the Turks, which in turn are part of the British overseas territory called Turks and Caicos. There are thirty islands in the territory but only eight are inhabited.  Despite its size, Grand Turk has many things to do and see. SCUBA and snorkeling, whale watching, stingray encounters, all in beautiful clear water are major attractions.

But the star of the show on Grand Turk is something that nobody else has: Topher – the frisky dog with the curly blonde hair who lives at Jack’s Shack, which is a popular bar/grill that’s a fairly easy walk down the beach from the cruise center. When Grand Turk sustained damage from Hurricane Irma, the Internet lit up with inquiries from concerned travelers who had visited in the past, and they all had the same question: Is Topher okay?

We were all relieved to hear that the popular pup and his family survived the storms, and now I can report from personal experience that Topher is very much alive and well and as frisky as ever.


We weren’t scheduled to arrive in the Turks until noon, so there was plenty of time for a leisurely room service breakfast and to catch up on my email and Facebook and get a little “real work” done before we docked.  My butler arrived promptly at 9:00 a.m. (the time I had designated on the door hanger order form) with my coffee and croissants.


Although I thought I had ordered “a” croissant, I uncovered the plate to find four. I couldn’t possibly eat all of them (well, okay, I could, and wanted to, but my desire to be able to fit into the clothes I had brought along outweighed my hunger, so I only had one and a half, along with a banana from my constantly replenished fruit bowl). I did save a couple for late night snacks.

NOTE: It bears repeating here that I continued throughout the cruise to be impressed with the service that I got from my butler and everyone else in the Yacht Club. In my opinion, they exhibit exactly the right balance of friendly familiarity and proficient professionalism. I had seen some negative reviews from disappointed Yacht Club passengers on the first few sailings, whose service didn’t stack up to what they had experienced on the Divina and other MSC ships.

Either I got very lucky when butlers were assigned, or that initial feedback was taken to heart and big improveme20180305_132423nts made, because I can’t imagine how the service could have been any more attentive yet unintrusive, and I can’t offer one single suggestion on how my butler could possibly have done anything better.  Big kudos to Mohammed Rai for everything he and the rest of the staff did for me to ensure that the Yacht Club lived up to its advertised reputation.


In a departure from what had become my normal routine (i.e., spending my morning “work time” in the Top Sail lounge), I decided to stay in the cabin and hook up to the big screen TV to give a second monitor for my Surface. For a techie, this is pretty easy to do (although there were a couple of minor tricks involved). I’ll explain the procedure later in the “High tech on the high seas” section of review.


I did wish the TV was over the “desk” part of the counter instead of over the closed cabinets and mini-fridge, but I was able to make it work, and was able to get a lot done in a couple of hours.

I did want to watch as we pulled into port, though, so I shut down the computer and moved to my balcony around 11:30. No matter how many times I see it, the crystal clear water of Grand Turk always amazes me (as does that of Grand Cayman – maybe there’s something about the grand nature of these islands).

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I was, once again, glad that I had stuck with my cabin location near the front, as I really enjoyed the sneak peeks at the officers on the bridge as they maneuvered the ship into each port. Of course, this “obstruction” didn’t get in the way at all when I looked straight out from my balcony, and I couldn’t see the bridge protrusion from inside the cabin – only when standing on the balcony and looking straight ahead (all the way to the right).

We were in Grand Turk for seven hours, with back-on-board time of 6:30 p.m., so there was no hurry to debark.  Even though you can get a butler to escort you past the lines and off the ship, I wanted to wait until the crowds thinned (the looks you get from a few of the non-YC passengers when you bypass them are a bit, umm, murderous at times). So I headed back to “my” spot in the lounge to enjoy a drink and the view of the island.

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To me, one of the most fascinating things about Grand Turk is the way the transparency of the water so clearly shows off the fall-off in depth at each level of the shelf around the island. Looking at it from my front-row seat up above, it’s an awe-inspiring sight.


Look closely, and you can see the swimmers in the shallow part of the water (some of them appearing to be perilously close to that edge).

In fact, Grand Turk is well known for this 7000 foot drop from the shallow continental shelf, which creates the dramatic difference in water color from light aqua for a few hundred yards from shore to the sudden transition to deep blue. This creates an underwater “wall” where the beautiful coral reefs make Grand Turk a popular diving and snorkeling destination.

When I posted to Facebook that we were going to Grand Turk instead of Freeport, I got a lot of comments from people who don’t understand that although the cruise center there began as a Holland America project that was taken over by the parent company, Carnival Corp., it is also open to non-CCL cruise lines when there are berths available.

The beach is long and just steps from the cruise center complex (which houses shops Margaritaville) and there is nimageo cost to access it, although you may have to pay to rent loungers and umbrellas. The sand is white and deep – you sink into it when you walk, which makes it feel a bit as if you’re an astronaut trying to get around on some high-gravity planet. Because of this, it takes longer to make your way down to Jack’s at the end of the beach than it otherwise would.

When I went out that afternoon, I made a fatal mistake. My phone, which I had been using to take all the pictures on this cruise so as not to have to lug around one of my bulky, heavy “real” (prosumer Nikon DSLR) cameras, was charging on the desk and I forgot to put it in my small bag when I left the cabin.

Thus I have no photos of the beach, the ship from the beach, or Topher.  Of course, that last is what everybody was wanting to see. Here are a couple from a previous cruise, and if you happen to be Facebook friends with Dallas Smith, check out his excellent pictures from this cruise that do include shots of the unofficial mascot of the island of Grand Turk.

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I didn’t stay long – it was hot and although I had in fact nabbed some sunscreen in St. Thomas, after one drink I was ready to go “home” to my ship. I didn’t even do any shopping there this time. Back on board, I caught the end of lunch time up at the YC grill, where they had some really delicious sweet potatoes along with my favorite fish (mahi-mahi again) and a very good rice dish.

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Once again, there was no one in the pool and only a few in loungers. I really love the uncrowded atmosphere of that d20180222_131618eck area, especially so on a port day as lunch is about to close down. I did a walkaround of the pool deck area, and the hot tubs were empty a20180222_131857gain, too.  I also peeked into the Aurea sun deck area. A Yacht Club wristband/card will get you into the Aurea part of deck 19, but the opposite isn’t true.

It is a nice area, and also never looked crowded on the few occasions when I checked it out, but unlike the YC area, they don’t have a pool or a grill (they do have a bar and hot tubs).

Having seen some of the cabins and private area, and having experienced the Yacht Club would I ever consider booking Aurea in the future, if I was unable to get into YC?  I’ve pondered that question and the answer is “maybe.”  If I were sailing with a group of really close friends who were booked in Aurea, I could see doing that since I would want to sit with them at dinner and spend time with them on the ship.

Some of the Aurea cabins are very nice, especially the whirlpool suites and the grand suites. I don’t care about the difference between the premium and classic drink packages (and it doesn’t cost much to upgrade that anyway). You do get priority embarkation (although not nearly as high priority as YC). I would miss the lounge a lot, and the grill and restaurant a moderate amount. I would not enjoy standing in line at guest services vs. having the YC concierge take care of “issues.”

When traveling more “on my own” or with my husband, I think YC is the only way I want to go from now on. I really appreciate the “caretaking” that you get from the YC staff. I admit it – it appeals to the SBOC (spoiled brat only child) who still lives inside me. And honestly, the difference between the price of those Aurea suites and a YC interior or even deluxe just isn’t enough to convince me the “downgrade” is a good value – for me, that is. We’re all different and the amenities that are worth the extra cost to me would be meaningless to some people.


After lunch, I took another stroll around the ship, and came upon a small orchestra playing in the Seaview lounge. How cool is that? This is something you don’t see these days on a Carnival ship.


When I cruise on a new ship, one of my cruise friend inevitably asks me, “How was the casino?”
My standard answer: “It was the loud, smoky place that I walked through to get from one end of the ship to the other.”

I’m not a casino gambler, and the only time I ever placed a bet on a ship was once when my husband was with me and he wanted us to get one of the chips to keep as a souvenir (I still have it).  I heard from the people on board with me who do gamble that Seaside’s casino is smaller than most, and some don’t like that it doesn’t have a craps table. Some folks in our group did seem to be enjoying it, and winning, though.

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The aft-most entry to the casino on deck 7, between the two mid-ship staircases, is also the site of the infamous (in some of the Facebook groups) transparent floors. You can see through the floor to deck 6 below, and that has caused some apprehension about whether someone below could also look up and perhaps see a little more than they should of women who walk across that floor wearing dresses.

I didn’t take photos from below, nor did I stand there and stare up, but I did make it a point to glance upward when I went under that area and I wasn’t seeing anything inappropriate. I think because of the way the lights are situated on the underside of the transparent material, it allows you to see more clearly from the top than from the bottom.

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If you’re worried about it, I would suggest that you a) go walk under the transparent “bridge” on deck 6 and see for yourself what you can see, and/or b) if you’re wearing a short, full skirt, instead of going across it just take the stairs (located on each side of it) down to deck 6 where the floor is completely opaque and walk across there. Problem solved.


When the dinner hour approached, I took a look at the night’s menu and although it looked very good, I’d had lunch late, and I’d had the mahi mahi (which was what I would most likely have otherwise ordered from this menu) so I decided to go lightly, calorically speaking, and just snack a little, and indulge myself on the final night of the cruise.

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I was momentarily torn by the descriptions of a couple of the appetizers that did indeed sound appetizing – the mounta20180222_204037in cheese fritters and sweet corn soup – and if Tom had been with me, I know he would have gone for the roast octopus and/or Rockefeller oysters. But I stayed down in the lounge and noshed on the very yummy guacamole and truffle potato chips, and later on I would have a bedtime snack from the fruit bowl in my cabin.

That evening, I had to choose between going to the theater to see “Timeless” at 9:30 or catching my smooth sounds with Julio in the Seaview at 10:00. I ended up opting for the latter, mostly because I got to talking with some people in the lounge and looked up and it was 9:29.  I’ll have to catch that show next time around, too. My list of things that I missed and need to go back for is growing and growing …

I also went down to the Photo Shop to pick out the pictures I wanted to buy, since one of the ladies there had advised me earlier in the week that it would be better to do this on the next-to-last day rather than wait until the last day when it would be packed.  I really do like the kiosks, although I’d like it even better if you could pick your photos on the TV in your cabin, or the phone app, the way you can on Carnival Vista and Breeze.


On the kiosk shown above, you swipe your wristband or card and the machine recognizes you and displays the photos that have been taken of you throughout the week (the photographer also scanned your wristband or card when you had each set of pictures taken). It’s pretty handy, and I didn’t get any strangers’ photos attached to my account as I did on Vista or have any missing that I knew had been taken; they were all mine, and all of mine were there.

I was surprised and pleased to see that for whatever reason, when I selected the photos and went to my cart to purchase them, it applied a discount so I ended up getting five prints for $27.09. I’m not sure why, but I wasn’t going to question it. LOL.


After collecting my pictures, I stopped by the small stage that’s near the duty-free shop and Venchi, where a guitarist/singer was performing pop songs, and listened for a while.

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I worked my way back to the front of the ship and climbed the many, many stairs from deck 6 to deck 16 as I had done several times every day. It made my fitness band happy that I had gone from an average of 4-5 floors to 50+ per day that week.

I will confess that I did take the elevator a few times (something I try to never do on a cruise, but I had never cruised before on a ship that had 20 decks).  When I went down to the atrium to get photos made on formal night, wearing high heels, there was no way I was going to go back up 11 flights – although I did take the stairs going down.


As I got ready for bed that night, I could hardly believe the cruise was almost over. That relativity thing was in full swing. In one way, it seemed as if the seven days had gone by inordinately quickly. In another way, it seemed as if I had been living on the Seaside for a very long time. The Yacht Club staff all seemed like old friends, 16003 felt like “home,” and I had gotten to know my neighbors there better than some of the people on the street where I’ve lived for almost fourteen years. I’d even gotten (mostly) used to the crying baby next door.

I hated to go to sleep that night; it seemed like a waste to spend any of the rest of the time I had left on board in a state of unconsciousness. But when such a soft bed is cradling you and the sea is rocking you so gently, after a while it’s impossible to resist the call of the dream world. I just hoped I didn’t wake up to discover that the whole experience had been a beautiful dream.

There might be just one sea day left, but it promised to be a busy one. I had a lot scheduled for Friday, and of course I also would have to make time for the saddest parts – packing my bags and saying goodbye to all the wonderful people with whom I had shared this incredible space for the past week. But I intended to squeeze every last drop of fun and relaxation as I could out of my stay in the Yacht Club, and make its memories the stuff of dreams to come.


Vivi la vita al massimo.

Live life to the fullest.



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The never-ending review: Like a Virgin (Island)

Copyright 2018 Debra Littlejohn Shinder

After my sea-day-in-port at St. John’s that I wrote about in Part Four of this review, I was ready to finally get off the ship in St. Thomas. I have always enjoyed the U.S. Virgin Islands, and was very disappointed when our plans to spend the week in a condo there at Point Pleasant last December were obliterated – along with much of the island – by the one-two punch of category 5 Hurricanes Irma and Maria in September.

I was happy, then, when our original itinerary changed to substitute St. Thomas for Sint Maarten, which was even more badly damaged;  however, I was a little uncertain of how far along recovery had gotten and what changes (both temporary and permanent) were still extant in Charlotte Amalie outside of the main tourist areas.


St. Thomas is only 32 square miles of land but pre-hurricanes, it had more activities and sites of interest than many larger islands. There were beautiful resorts, gorgeous beaches, wonderful restaurants and clubs, and great shopping.  The photos and videos of the devastation in the wake of the hurricanes was painful to see. Roofs were gone, homes and hotels and public buildings were flooded, the local economy was badly damaged and individuals were left homeless and in debt.

The good news is that progress has been made in the five months since the storms. Roads have been cleared, power has been mostly restored and the cruise ships are back, bringing with them much-needed tourist dollars that play a big role in helping the islanders get back on their financial feet again. I was more than happy to spend my money in St. Thomas.

My week in a nutshell: Day Five (Wednesday, Feb. 21)

The ship arrived in St. Thomas at 7:00 a.m. and sadly, it was our shortest port day, with “back on board” time set at 1:30 p.m.  First, though, the breakfast that I had ordered from room service via door hanger arrive20180221_121439d promptly when requested, and I settled in to enjoy it, still in my pajamas, before going out to face the day. I opened up my balcony curtains as far as they would go (one of my few complaints about the cabin is that they don’t open further) and dug in.  For once, I was hungry first thing in the morning.


The waffles weren’t the fluffiest I’ve ever had, but they were cooked properly – not undercooked inside and not burned or hard on the outside. They were still hot, and there was a generous amount of chocolate sauce to pour over them and make them even more tasty. Along with black coffee and orange juice, it was just the right way to begin the day.

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I couldn’t linger over breakfast, though. Well, actually it turns out I could have, but I didn’t know it at the time. Some of the Facebook group had made plans to meet in the atrium at 10:00 and leave the ship together, then hire a taxi to take us up to Paradise Point – something that many of us had done before.

But that was “before” as in before the hurricanes. There were plenty of taxi drivers at the port, vying for our business, but when we asked to be taken up the mountain, they all told the same story: “We don’t do that anymore.” It seems the roads were so badly damaged that the vehicles can no longer manage the trip. The only way to get to Paradise Point is via the sky ride, which once you’ve been there, done that a few times begins to seem not worth the hefty ticket price ($21 per person for a 3 minute ride).

I was still game, but nobody else wanted to do it, so we ended up all just going our separate ways. Since this was my first time to get off the ship, I wanted to get a few photos of her in port, and also snapped a shot of our neighbor at the dock, the Regal Princess.

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I also found a friendly couple to take the obligatory tourist photo of me at the St. Thomas welcome sign (in exchange for taking one of them.


Although I would have liked to find out how much of the downtown I remember was still standing, there wasn’t really much time to venture into town, so I spent most of my two hours off ship shopping there at Havensight.  I ended up with a turtle (to keep me from missing the real one at home quite so much), a USVI cigar for Tom, shot glasses for the collection – even though I have several from previous visits to St. Thomas – and my favorite, a tee shirt that seemed appropriate, given my focus on this cruise.



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Back on board around noon, I stashed my purchases in my cabin and headed to the lounge. There I met up with my neighbors in the cabin next door, Scott and Rich, and they invited me to go with them to the YC restaurant. It was my first time to have lunch there. We were served by Arthur, who by popular consensus is absolutely the best waiter in the Yacht Club – in other words, the best of the best – and possibly the most loved waiter on Facebook.

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There were several items on the menu that sounded good – I could easily have had the cabbage spring roll – but in the end, given the impromptu nature of the meal, I knew I was there just for the halibut. It was a good choice; the fish was delish. And the crab was pretty fab, as well. For dessert I had the ice cream of the day, which was Hazelnut. I carefully avoided the strawberry (since I’m allergic to them) but the ice cream was almost as good as the previous day’s stracciatella gelato. But only almost.

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In addition to the good food, it was nice to have some good company with whom I could enjoy the meal. And it was wonderful to get to know Arthur and find out that he really was as funny and friendly and proficient as everyone had said. Every once in a while, someone really does live up to the hype.

After lunch, I had some writing to do so I went back to the cabin to retrieve the Surface and then set up shop again in my own little private corner of the lounge and worked for a while, then went for another walk around the ship to see what was going on, and stopped to admire yet another beautiful sunset (if less colorful) at sea.

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I stopped in at the Seaview Lounge for a few minutes to listen to “smooth sounds with Julio.”  I really love that I could find music I like on this ship: jazz, classical, and older favorites.  Except for the piano bar, it was always hard for me to find any music that was my style on Carnival ships after they stopped having the orchestra and live jazz.


Wednesday night was the second elegant night, and my plan for the evening was to go to dinner and extract my fair share of lobster – at the urging of all my Facebook friends who assured me that dining alone in the YC restaurant was perfectly acceptable – and then attend the “officers and gentlemen” dance in the atrium.  Well, you know what they say about plans: we make ‘em, God laughs. But I ended up having more fun than I would have if I’d stuck to my original agenda, and they (whomever “they” are) also say all’s well that ends well.

I began what turned out to be a very long and fun dining experience by asking for a table for one in Arthur’s section. The hostess led me to a small table near the railing overlooking the lounge, close to the window with a magnificent view.  She also asked if the location was okay or would I prefer a different table, but I was happy there.

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I really, really like the feel and layout of the restaurant. It is (with half-credit to James Bolger) so civilized. The decor is elegant, but not stuffy. The chairs are comfortable, but not huge and unwieldy. And yes, we do have tablecloths. Piano and violin music from the lounge downstairs wafts upward, but never so loud as to interfere with conversation. The tables are placed far enough apart so you don’t feel as if you’re almost in the lap of the people at the next one.

NOTE: I should mention that the chairs are obviously made with Europeans, who tend to be thinner, in mind. They do have arms. I like arms, but some extra large Americans might have trouble fitting into the chairs. As accommodating as they are in the  YC, I’m pretty confident that if it is a problem, they would find you a chair that works.

One reason I gave in to the advice of everyone online to just go and enjoy myself by myself was the elegant night menu. Both escargot and lobster – oh, my. And Crepes Suzette for dessert … that is like hitting the trifecta. And that’s what I ordered.

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As one of my Facebook friends commented when I posted the photos, “Now that’s a lobster.” It was huge, tender, and almost melted in my mouth. Arthur noted that he would be both my server and my surgeon, and expertly extricated the meat for me so that I didn’t have to fight with it as I have sometimes done in the past with introverted lobsters who didn’t want to come out of their shells. 20180221_195550

A word of advice for anyone else who is sailing solo in the Yacht Club: on one of the Facebook groups someone said she was apprehensive because she had heard that the YC is not solo-friendly. I found it to be the exact opposite. Everyone including the butlers (my own and those in the lounge), the waiters and bartenders, the cabin stewards, the concierge staff, and even the Yacht Club director himself seemed to go out of their ways to make sure I was comfortable and never wanting for anything.

Although the lobster was the highlight of my dinner, the escargot was also excellent. The flavor and texture were both perfect. My only complaint about it would be that I wished there was more of it (I know, I could have ordered another helping, but then I would have ended up feeling even more stuffed than I did).  The crepes were also very good, although of course they weren’t served flambé since open fire is a no-no on board a ship.

So I had a wonderful, quiet dinner all alone in my little corner (but I didn’t feel lonely, with Arthur popping by every so often with a quip to make me smile).  On the bright side, I got to really savor every bite without being distracted by conversation. On the other hand, I did miss the usual dining room interaction.

And then, as if by magic, I had that, too.  It was as if the genie in my lamp (or more accurately, electric candle) had noted the one thing that would make this elegant night YC restaurant experience better and said poof! and Rich and Scott appeared, along with their friends Bob and Frank  (whom I had also met previously in the lounge). Just as I was about to leave, they were being seated at a large table across from me – and asked me to join them.

I certainly couldn’t eat again (earlier desire for more escargot aside), but I was happy to sit and enjoy the company with a glass of wine and a cup of coffee. It was a very pleasant way to wrap up the meal, and the time passed quickly.  And for those Negative Nellie reviewers who have complained that their dinners lasted 90 minutes (I guess they mistook the dining room for a fast food place), I can beat that. My elegant night dinner went on for over three hours – and I loved every minute of it.

A lesson that we Americans could learn from the Italians is how to slow down and take time to appreciate our food, family and friends, and life.


There is an Italian saying, “A tavola non si invecchia,” that literally translates to “At the table, one does not age.”  The meaning is a meal is not just about feeding your body; it’s about feeding your soul with the pleasurable experience of sharing food and drink and conversation with others.

In addition to the complaint that dinner in the MDR lasts too long, another of the most common kvetches I read about Seaside was that at dinner time, the buffet is sparse, with few choices. I think both of these exhibit a lack of understanding of the Italian culture and outlook on living. In Italy, buffets aren’t very common outside of tourist areas because dinner is such an important family and social experience; it’s a “sit down and stay awhile” affair, not a “grab a quick bite and gulp it down” thing.

Knowing this was a source of my hesitation to go to the restaurant as a party of one. I should have realized something else about the Italians, though: “family” means extended family and includes friends, even those you haven’t met yet. And on the Seaside, in the Yacht Club, you are already part of a family – even sitting alone.



The seas were a little rough that night, and we were rocking and rolling more than usual. It wasn’t the best time to be we20180221_180943aring high heels. All of us were inadvertently “dancing” a little as we left the table, and my stumbling on the way back to my stateroom was not because of the wine. I arrived there safely despite the impromptu weaving, to find that night’s towel animal came bearing gifts – including a little plate of bedtime nibbles.

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In the end, it’s not so much the extravagant gestures as the little things that make you feel special. The MSC Yacht Club is very good at those small touches that add up to create an over-the-top experience.

That morning, when I took my yellow highlighter to the daily schedule, I had intended to attend both “My Life in Music” at 9:30 and Invito All’Opera (“Invitation to the Work”) at 10:30, but once again, my plans for the day proved to be more ambitious than my ability to carry them all out. The first show was over by the time we left the restaurant, and it was time for the later one to start.

Stronger than my desire to go to the opera was my overwhelming wish to get out of my formal clothes (and especially shoes) and into something more comfortable – like the oh, so soft, white, fragrant sheets on my bed, where I spent the next few hours reading and then being rocked to sleep by the still-swaying ship (but not before I checked off the breakfast boxes on the door hanger and left it out for morning delivery).

I know some who read this are likely to be disappointed that I didn’t go out and participate in more of the ship’s activities, see more of the shows, try out more of the entertainment venues, experience more of the things that they want to do.  I didn’t go bowling, didn’t go water-sliding, didn’t dance the evenings away in the night clubs or watch the big screen movies or get drunk and party at the pool.

Regrets? I have a few – especially about how few times I partook of the gelato and that I never did order a frozen Toblerone cocktail. But in the end, like Frank, I did it my way.


A tutti non si adatta una sola scarpa.

The same shoe does not fit every foot.

NOTE: Just FYI, the giant red shoe is not on the Seaside. I needed a photo that would go with the closing quote, so I “transported” it, via PhotoShop, from a picture taken in Las Vegas.


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The never-ending review goes to Antigua

Copyright 2018 Debra Littlejohn Shinder




At the end of Part Three of this review, I was finally falling asleep in the wee hours of the morning after dealing – long distance – with the inevitable issues that arise when you travel, especially when you leave a spouse, three dogs, a turtle and a fish at home to fend for themselves for a week. This is one of the reasons I can never be one of those constan20180222_134004t cruisers, and don’t want to be. I don’t want my fur babies and wet pets to forget me.

That, however, was the low point of the cruise and it only got better and better after that – right up until the saddest day of all: the day they kicked us off the ship to make way for some interloper to invade my stateroom and take over my chosen spot in the lounge and my table by the grill and eat my gelato and drink my coladas of both the piña and Bailey’s Banana variety.

But on Tuesday, I still had a world of fun and adventure and relaxation ahead of me, and I was going to enjoy it, as Frank – the subject of that evening’s first show – would say, my way.

My week in a nutshell: Day Four (Tuesday, Feb. 20)

After a too-short night, I woke up before our arrival in St. John’s to blue skies and fluffy clouds, which would change to overcast as we approached the island and then turn into full-fledged showers shortly. It seems I hadn’t escaped all of the rain after all – but the forecast for the day promised sun later on.

When I opened the balcony curtains around 7:30 a.m., the island was visible in the distance, but it would take a little while to dock. Weimage first had to sail its northern coast staying around two nautical miles from the coral reef before docking at St. John’s. Ships dock at Heritage Quay or Redcliffe Quay.

St. John’s is the largest town on the island of Antigua, which is part of the independent state of Antigua and Barbuda, and is not to be confused with U.S. Virgin Island St. John, which is 216 miles (187.5 nautical miles) to the northwest.

Also note that Antigua is pronounced “AN TEE GAH,” not “AN TEE GWA” or “AN TEE GYU WA.”  I heard many mispronunciations on the ship.

In the light of morning, the Lobster and Champagne Catamaran excursion that I had gone back and forth about and finally booked at the last minute was looking less attractive to me this morning.

imageProblem number one: I went through my toiletries bag and realized that I had forgotten to pack sunscreen. Because we were in port, the ship’s shops wouldn’t be open, and I had no idea whether there would be time to run to a store there at the port to buy some. Most likely I could have found someone else on the tour who would take pity on me and lend me some lotion, but problem number two was that I really just wanted to go back to sleep after getting less than four hours.

I wavered – after all, I had paid for the excursion, and some of the group members were expecting to see me there – but then made an executive decision based on the “it’s a vacation so why feel pressured?” principle, and went up to the concierge desk to let them know.

I didn’t expect, canceling at the last minute, to get a refund, and was surprised when she apologized profusely that I would only get half of my money back. She seemed relieved and grateful when I told her it was no problem; I got the impression that some others might have been less understanding. Interestingly, on my final bill, I did find the entire cost of the excursion subtracted. Maybe that was a mistake – or maybe being nice pays off in unexpected ways. I have frequently found the latter to be the case (and even when it doesn’t, it never makes things worse).

NOTE: Friends who went on the catamaran said they had a wonderful time, and it’s something that I would definitely try another time when I’ve had more sleep and come appropriately equipped with sunscreen.


With the day freed up to do whatever I wanted, what I wanted was to hang out in my usual location in the Top Sail lounge and watch the rain as we pulled into port.

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Top Sail Lounge means a plethora of goodies to start the morning off with a good taste in your mouth.

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As a matter of fact, I never did make it to the Yacht Club restaurant for breakfast even though I intended to. It’s just that the lounge food, and that up top at the grill, were so good that I never got around to it. I realize this demonstrates a serious lack of thoroughness in my research for this review, and means I need to go back as soon as possible to rectify the situation (along with checking out so many of the ship’s features that I didn’t have the time or inclination to try out).

I did at least check the breakfast menus, and had I been an early riser (and also immune to caloric overload), I would have happily created my own omelet and indulged in Belgium waffles with chocolate and whipped cream. But hey, it’s good to have something to look forward to next time.

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When my fitness band started nagging me to get up and get moving for the third time, I reluctantly left the lounge and hit the gym for a 20 minute walk to nowhere. I love the way the treadmills are situated at the windows so you have a view while you work out.

I was going to get off and walk around and shop a little at the port, but that turned out to be another thing that I just didn’t get around to. Instead, I did another walkaround of the ship. I’ve been to Antigua before, and it’s beautiful, but I actually love being on board when a ship is in port; the vibe is always completely different with most of the passengers away.

I came across the Captain’s guest book and “Q&A” display in the atrium, which I thought was a really nice touch. You can leave a little personal note in the book for the Master, and if you have questions, his answer will be delivered to your stateroom. It appears this is a standard thing with MSC, although I don’t know for sure since this was my first cruise on the line.

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I continue to be impressed with the Captain’s and other officers’ involvement with the passengers. I have never seen it to anything near this extent on Carnival. Even those Captains who are more outgoing seemed to engage mostly with the Diamond guests or those who participated in special events such as the behind the scenes tour.

By then, it was time for lunch and for me, that had come to mean the Yacht Club grill. Today’s buffet included more wonderful fish – cod, mahi-mahi again, salmon – steak for the beef eaters, chicken, hot sandwiches, and some wonderful pasta, along with the usual fruits, sweets, salads and cold antipastas, and breads.

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Choosing which to get is the hardest part, but knowing what to drink with it is easy. The bartenders up there already knew my established lunchtime standard: a big, tall, cold BBC garnished with pineapple. When I close my eyes, I can almost still taste it.

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Facebook friend James Bolger asked me, upon seeing that bottom picture when I posted it on my timeline, whether the glass was half full or half empty. That question misses the point. In the Yacht Club, with your magic wristband, the glass is always infinitely refillable.


Despite the lovely array of delectable little cakes and cookies and other goodies to fuel to feed a raging sweet tooth, I bypassed the desserts in both the lounge and at the grill, because I had the one craving that couldn’t be satisfied in the Yacht Club: it was time to venture downstairs for the ultimate sweet treat:


On the Seaside, when the hankering for something cold and creamy overcomes you, there are three strategically positioned gelaterias to choose from. There are gelato bars at the Jungle Pool on deck 18 mid-ship, at the South Beach pool on deck 7 aft, and of course at the Venchi Cioccogelateria and Coffee Bar on deck 6 mid-ship.

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All this goodness and yet, no gelato in the Yacht Club? Whatever were they thinking? Smile 

Perhaps it’s a ploy to nudge us out of our ivory tower to see other areas of the ship. Maybe it’s out of concern for our well-being; after all, it’s not healthy to be a permanent lounge lizard or bask like a turtle on the pool deck all day. Yacht Clubbers need to get a little exercise now and then – and whatever the motivation, it works. I would eagerly descend into the bowels of the ship if I had to, in search of stracciatella.

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Because the elegant indoor atmosphere of Venchi’s is more to my taste than the poolside environment of the other two venues, I headed down to 6, where I found Heaven in a Cardboard Cup. The YC wristband worked its magic again; while two scoops cost $5 for those without the drink package, unlimited gelato is just another way in which “membership has its privileges” and for some of us, is even more appealing than the included premium alcohol.

Oh, and yes – it was very, very good.


Even when it’s free with Yacht Club, there is always some kind of price to be paid. The cost of my gelato indulgence was another stint on the treadmill and another walk around the ship (not that that either was unpleasant). All of the rain was long gone and it had turned into a beautiful day in Antigua, so this time I walked on the outside decks. We had company in port; we were parked next to the Norwegian Gem, so I got chance to check out her outdoor areas.

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Nice enough looking ship, but meh. I’ve never had much desire to try NCL, although I have friends who love that line. And in fact, a recent review that I read comparing an NCL ship (Escape, I think) to the Seaside, by a reviewer who clearly preferred Norwegian, left me more sure than ever that based on the differences she described, I’ll stick with #MCSforMe.

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As a photographer, I’m always looking for interesting photo opps, and I became intrigued with these two half-sunken boats just off the shore. As I walked the ship, I took pictures of them from different angles and in different lighting, and wondered about the stories behind them as they lay there, abandoned and desolate. Were they the remnants of last fall’s Hurricane Irma that left Antigua mostly intact but decimated her sister island of Barbuda? I guess I’ll never know.


As the 5:00 p.m. departure time arrived, I said goodbye to Antigua from my balcony. St. Johnny, we hardly knew ye. (And how many of the readers of this blog will recognize that phrase, either as the traditional folk song, the 1960’s anti-war anthem, or (what comes first to my mind) the Kenneth P. O’Donnell book about John F. Kennedy.

As the ship pulled away from the quay and the sun began to inch its way down through the clouds to sink beneath the horizon, it became quickly obvious that it was going to be a spectacular sunset. I armed myself with my camera and got off a few good shots from my balcony, then moved to the YC lounge to capture the final display.

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Going, going … almost gone.


Once the sun was gone and no longer in need of my attention, I turned to thoughts of dinner. And once again, found myself not really enthused about getting dressed up to eat a big meal, all alone, in the restaurant. Although in general I love cruising solo, in the past I’d always been part of a big group and always had someone to eat with. In fact, something I really liked about Your Time Dining on Carnival was the ability to switch around and not only eat at different times every night, but with different friends.

You have that same flexibility in the Yacht Club on MSC – the problem was that all of those on this cruise that I knew well enough to have dinner with weren’t in the YC, and had set dining times in the regular MDRs. Of course, you can workaround that by eating together at the specialty restaurants, as I’d already done – but tonight I was on my own. I debated whether to go it alone at a table for one, and if I had been really hungry, I would have.

The menu for that evening looked appetizing, but nothing jumped out and grabbed me and shouted, “You must have this!” (although the eggplant came close).

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I decided this presented an opportunity to sample the room service dinner menu. It was a little sparse, but the grilled20180220_182408 chicken wrap sounded good, so back in my stateroom, I placed the call. I was surprised that it was my butler who delivered it, and it arrived more quickly than expected, and hot. It wasn’t much to look at, but it tasted good and was filling and really was all I wanted or needed after the big lunch and gelato.

Sorry, but I somehow forgot to take a picture of the room service menu or of the chicken wrap. Again, this is a gap that I really need to close by taking another cruise on Seaside.


My quick room service dinner afforded me the opportunity to see both of the shows for which I had made reservations for that evening: Forever Frank at 7:00 and Butterflies at 9:30.  I was looking forward to both of these after reading reviews (mostly negative) on the group pages.

Forever Frank is a tribute to Sinatra and involves the production company doing some of his most popular songs. The bad reviews came from people who were displeased to hear Sinatra songs sung with foreign (Italian and Dutch) accents. I guess I’m just atypical once again; I really enjoyed the show. The accents didn’t bother me at all; in fact, I thought it added charm.


I can hear Americans attempting to exactly imitate Sinatra (and usually failing) anytime.  The performance on Seaside didn’t try to do that; instead it took his music and gave it an international twist that I liked. The finale, a strong rendering of My Way, was especially well done and as always, that song touched my soul with its message of uplifting optimism and ultimate satisfaction at the end of an imperfect but well-lived life.


20180220_193550Tuesday was “white night.” Unfortunately, I didn’t see any White Knights – although one could have mis20180220_211456taken the Captain and other officers for same in their dress white uniforms. I would say that, at least on this sailing, white night was the most popular of the theme nights in terms of the number of people who dressed up for it. I ventured down to the atrium to see what was going on.

At that point, they were still getting things set up but there were a number of people in white at the bars. I had brought white jeans and a white silk blouse, and that’s what I wore to the show.  When I went back to my cabin for a few minutes before time for the next show, I found that my towel animal was also appropriate dressed for the occasion.

I was planning to stop by one of the photography stations and get a photo taken in my white attire, but as so often happens on a ship, other things intervened and so I have no record of my participation.


Butterflies seems to be a show that people either love or hate, nothing in between. Many of the reviews of Seaside that bashed the entertainment mentioned “nothing but opera and classical.” That wasn’t at all true; most of the shows were more like Broadway musicals, but this rendition of Madame Butterfly, based on what is probably one of the most popular operas around the world, does indeed fit that label.

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Although it’s a much shortened version, it was a bit longer than the other shows I saw on Seaside. The costumes were beautiful, the voices were strong, the set was lovely, and it was overall well done. Of course it was sung in Italian – but there were English subtitles and synopses of the stories displayed on the screen behind the performers so it was easy to follow along.

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I was a little embarrassed on behalf of my fellow Americans when masses of people got up and left at the end of the second act. Did they really not know it was an opera when they walked in?  I heard some remarks that indicated that no, they didn’t. I guess it’s asking too much to expect people to read the description in the Daily Program before making reservations or showing up. To me, getting up and walking out in the middle is rude.

The good news is that many people did stay and appreciate and enjoy this art form.


With another day at an end, and an early arrival in St. Thomas scheduled for the next day, I was ready to call it a day after a last glass of wine and some music in the lounge. I realized that I hadn’t yet made it to the improv comedy show (and in fact, never did), and although I circled the smooth jazz live music in the Seaview Lounge on the program each day, I had only actually made it there once. It always seemed to conflict with the show times in the theater, or dinner, or a party, or something.

Before going to bed, I filled out the breakfast room service order. I would finally get my Belgium waffle with chocolate sauce, and more important, a pot of coffee.

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That night, things were going more smoothly at home and since I also never did get that nap, I was asleep almost as soon as my head hit the pillow. To sleep, perchance to dream of getting bushwhacked again at Paradise Point in Charlotte Amalie – although alas, that was not to be.

Fino a domani …

Until tomorrow.



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