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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the medical field, they call it “see one, do one, teach one.”  In the world of travel and cruising, it’s just part of the process of getting to know a city, a country, a hotel chain, an airline, or a cruise line. I had cruised twenty times before I first stepped onto an MSC ship in February 2018, but it was a brand new and different experience, like starting all over.  When I took my twenty-fourth cruise – third one on MSC – in September 2019, I felt like an old pro and I enjoyed sharing my experience with others on the ship who were new to the cruise line and/or to cruising in general. I always love to cruise with newbies, because it makes me see the ship and the sea through their eyes with all the wonder and awe of that first time.

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

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Working the ship

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

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

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

One thing I’ve discovered over the years applies to cruising and to life in general is to never assume that because I “know” something, that knowledge is still current and accurate. Things change. But ferreting out those changes is just part of the fun. So here we are, and here are some of the topics I investigated and the answers that I unearthed. Just keep in mind that a) some of the information I share is factual and some is only my opinion, and b) the facts aren’t written in stone; they reflect my experiences at one particular point in time. Crews rotate in and out. Policies, procedures, perks, and names change (case in point is the change in MSC’s top tier loyalty level from Black to Diamond). With that caveat in mind, let’s look at my impressions (and I definitely was impressed, again) of the MSC Seaside during the week of September 14-21, 2019.

Yacht Club Butler Service

One of the premier perks of the Yacht Club is the personal butler service, but in the past, it’s been a little inconsistent. Some folks would report that their butlers were extremely helpful and attentive, while others would come back lamenting that they hardly ever saw their butlers. It appears the YC management heard those complaints and have implemented measures to provide a better and more standardized level of service. Butlers are now tasked with escorting their assigned guests to … well, almost everywhere.

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Our butler, Primas, was there to introduce himself in the Top Sail lounge within half an hour after we embarked, and he escorted us to our cabin when it was ready. He offered to unpack our bags for us, to escort us back to the dining room for lunch, and to escort us up to the pool deck. We declined all three; we wanted to get unpacked and settled into the cabin and then explore the ship. He asked what time we wanted to go to dinner and said he would come to get us and escort us there (which he did, and which ended up causing an unexpected brouhaha – but I’ll get to that in the Day One review).

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

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

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

Yacht Club Restaurant and Specialty Restaurants

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

This year, Arthur was long gone – promoted and assigned to a new ship – and we had pre-booked Roy’s dining trio, which consists of three separate dinners (or two dinners and one lunch) in the Asian Fusion, sushi, and teppanyaki experiences. I had been hearing for months that the Yacht Club menus had changed rather drastically sometime in the summer, and there were quite a few complaints that the new menus were inferior to the old ones, so I was hedging my bets by booking the specialty restaurants. In addition, part of doing my homework was asking those who cruised in Seaside Yacht Club in the weeks before me for recommendations as to the best Yacht Club waiter. 

The consensIMG_20190915_175610us seemed to be that Christian Garcia was the man to ask for – he seemed to be well on his way to becoming the new Arthur – so as soon as we boarded the ship, I went to the maitre d’ and put in my request to be assigned to his section. Luckily, this also turned out to be the section that was on the starboard side windows, and we ended up with one of the very best tables, right on the glass.  Christian and his sidekick, Reynaldo, ensured that we would never go hungry or thirsty as long as we were in their dining room. After a slightly rocky start (that was in no way their fault), service was impeccable every night.

On most of the cruises I’ve been on, most of the maitre d’s have been just blurry figures who might or might not greet you at the door and might or might not breeze by the table occasionally and ask a perfunctory “is everything okay?” without slowing down much on the way to the next. That’s not to say they weren’t good at their jobs or that their roles weren’t important. There is a lot that goes into keeping a restaurant/dining room running smoothly and much of that takes place behind the scenes. I can honestly say I’ve only really “felt the love” from a maitre d’ in a way that stands out three times out of twenty-four cruises. Two of those times were on the MSC Seaside, and one of them was on this cruise.

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

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

When I first saw the new menus posted online a couple of months before the cruise, I admit I wasn’t too excited about them. The primary drawback is that there are fewer choices each night than thimageere were with the previous menus. However, somewhat to my surprise, it didn’t prove to be a problem. Although there were nights when I didn’t, for example, like any of the appetizers listed, there would be two entrees that looked good so I would just ask for a small portion of one of them as my entree. On other nights, I would end up with a second appetizer as a main course. One night I wasn’t crazy about anything and they made me an off-menu pasta, so that all worked out.

And the answer to one of the frequently asked questions in the groups is: yes, they will make you an off-menu item if you ask. Maybe not Peking Duck (is it Beijing Duck now?) or puffer fish, but definitely a special pasta or risotto. There is also an “every day” menu of steak, chicken, or salmon that’s always available, and there were a couple of nights when they had a “chef’s special” in addition to the regular menu items. Also note that they ask if you have any allergies or food intolerances and are extremely accommodating in that regard; I had a friend on a previous cruise who has to have a gluten-free diet and they gave her a tour of the galley to show her that they even have separate kitchens for preparing those foods to avoid cross contamination.

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

I’ll write more about how that all went down and the impact of the change on our cruise in the day-by-day reviews. (Spoiler: while it was an annoyance, it by no means ruined our overall enjoyment of the cruise.

The specialty restaurants on Seaside are very good, although when you’re in the Yacht Club, you sort of hate to book them because of the way you become “attached” to your wait staff – at least if you have good waiters, and as noted above, I always have. On the previous year’s September cruise, we booked Ocean Cay and Teppanyaki and enjoyed both very much. This year we debated over whether to book any, but because you don’t get Asian food on the YC dining room menu (unlike seafood and steaks), we decided to try Roy’s Trio. This consists of three meals: teppanyaki, sushi/sashimi, and Asian fusion. Even though it took us away from the YC dining room a couple of nights, we were glad we did it because the food was absolutely superb. If you enjoy this kind of food, I highly recommend it.

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

Yacht Club Grill

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

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

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

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

Many of those who had cruised recently had posted great photos and videos of the party and I was looking forward to it. But we arrived a little late and unfortunately it was raining that night, so we didn’t really get to experience this at its best. The live entertainers shut down because of the rain, and the food variety was less than I expected, at least in terms of things that I like. That wasn’t a problem, since I was still full from dinner anyway, so I just had a drink and we sat and listened to the music for the short time the band was playing. It was pleasant, but not the big deal that it seemed to be on other sailings. Bad weather can do that.

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

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

Top Sail Lounge

Still one of my favorite places in the whole world. I spent a lot of time in the lounge, as always, and most of the time I was able to get “my” seat (or rather “our” seat – as it’s also the favoImage may contain: people sitting, ocean, table, water and outdoorrite of several others in the Original Yacht Club Group and between all of us and all our cruises on different sailings, I think we keep it occupied for most of the year).  It’s a table for two way back in the port side back corner, tucked away behind the snacks display, far from the (only occasionally maddening) crowd.  It’s my onboard “work space” – I take my Surface Pro and set it up on the table there and take care of any necessary online business while sipping my morning coffee or a late afternoon piña colada and enjoying the utter beauty of the sea going by just outside the window.

Service in the lounge was wonderful, as usual. Ysabella took wonderful care of us.  And she knew where to find us, in that secluded corner. As soon as one or both of us sat down, she was there to bring us whatever we needed. After the first sea day, she knew what we liked and how we liked it (i.e. my coffee in the morning, black with no cream oImage may contain: 4 people, including Thomas W. Shinder MD, people smiling, people standing and eyeglassesr sweetener, my Bailey’s Banana Colada after lunch).

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

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

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

Theater Shows and other entertainment

The year before, we only made it to one of the shows in the theater. This year, we did a little better and managed to find time for three of them: Timeless, My Life in Music, and Starwalker (which I had missed on both of my previous cruises and which almost always gets rave reviews). Unlike on the two prior cruises, they now set up a reserved section in the theater for Yacht Club guests, you don’t have to make reservations if you’re in YC, and your butler escorts you to the shows (although never fear – if you happen to be out and about on the ship when you realize it’s time for the show, you can just show up at the door and when they scan or see your YC wristband (or card), you’ll be allowed into the show and into the YC section. Image may contain: one or more people, people on stage, people dancing, crowd and indoor

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

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

Some people in the Facebook groups complain about MSC’s shows because they’re different from the American cruise line norm. Yes, they are mostly singing and dancing and acrobatics. No, they don’t really have “plots” that  you can follow. Yes, there are some oddball seemingly random things, such as the “guy in the boat with the book” who goes back and forth and back and forth across the stage. Contrary to what some will tell you, there is only one operatic performance, Butterflies, which is an adaptation of Madam Butterly that, ironically, is the one show that does have a defined story and plot (yet the people who lament about the lack of plotlines are usually the same ones who say they don’t want to see opera.

Here’s the thing: MSC is a very international cruise line, even on sailings out of the U.S. This is another of the complaints we hear from many of my fellow Americans, sadly enough. People come from all over the world – Europe, Asia, Australia – to cruise on Seaside. That’s why announcements are made in seven different languages, after all.  And the kinds of shows that are common on the American cruise lines don’t work so well with an international audience, many of whom might not be able to follow the plots if there were any. But song and dance and amazing acrobatics can be enjoyed by anyone, regardless of language. So I don’t see MSC changing this anytime soon and frankly, I don’t want them to. (I do wish, though, that they hadn’t done away with what was my favorite show last year: Forever Frank. I guess I’m atypical, but I loved that tribute to Sinatra even if – or maybe because – the songs were sung with European accents. The rendition of “My Way” at the end really touched my heart).

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

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

Party Time

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

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

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

Officers, Staff, and Crew

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

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

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

Someone I didn’t miss from that first cruise was the cruise director. Not that he was a bad CD; he just wasn’t very memorable. In fact, I can’t even remember his name. I only saw him when he introduced the shows and I don’t recall him having anything to say at the Cruise Critic meetup or even being at the YC welcome party. By the second Seaside cruise, Gene Young had taken over as CD, and he was very much “there” and smiling and greeting and showing a very active interest in the passengers. I was sad to hear Gene was leaving shortly before this cruise, but Eric Brouman, whom I’d previously met when he was a CD with Carnival, did an absolutely great job. He was full of energy, funny on stage, and friendly and helpful in person-to-person interactions. He, too, made me feel like a VIP every time I encountered him.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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Going “home” again: Carnival Glory December 2018 (Prelude)

We’ve all heard the saying: You can’t go home again. It was the title of a novel by Thomas Wolfe, the theme of which is that everything — places, people — is constantly changing, and the memories you hold dear generally belong to the past and can’t be recreated in the present.

Carnival was my first cruise “home.” It was where I cut my teeth on ship-board life, where I fell in love with the sea, where I learned the ins and outs of spending a week or more on the ocean waves, gliding from port to port and meeting new people — both the natives of those countries and my many fellow habitual sailors.

The memories and the friends that I made on Carnival ships are precious to me and I’ll treasure them for the rest of my life. But like so many do in the “real world,” I grew up and moved away and when I came back … it just wasn’t the same. Which, I hasten to add, doesn’t mean it was bad. In a way, it will always be “home.” But in another way, it’s not where I belong anymore.

Leaving home

Leaving home for the first time is always hard, a little frightening, and a little sad. But it gets easier and easier, and at some point, the paradigm shifts and it’s going back that’s difficult and even sort of scary.  That’s the point I was at when it came time to embark on a cruise this December on Carnival Glory, after a year and a half away from the cruise line, during which time I had been cruising on MSC.

The Glory cruise would be my twenty-first on Carnival, twenty-third total. I’d only been on MSC twice, both times on the Seaside, but I had also fully immersed myself in the MSC cruise world. I had dropped out of most of the Carnival forums and Facebook groups and was spending my social media time on MSC pages. I’d researched and studied and fully experienced my Seaside cruises and had made myself an “instant expert” on many aspects of the line’s operations, practices, rules, ships, and personnel.

I was obsessed, addicted, enamored, devoted, fixated on “MSC for Me” just as I’d gotten hooked on Carnival the first time I set foot on one of their ships. Cruising on Carnival was like when I bought my first home. It wasn’t a mansion but it was affordable and it was mine and I loved it. Cruising in the MSC Yacht Club for the first time was like when we left our 1800 square foot house in Seagoville and moved to this almost 4000-sf home overlooking the lake. It was an amazing step up but there were things that were new and bewildering and anxiety-producing, too.

It didn’t take long, though, for this to feel like home. I still sometimes miss some things about Seagoville, where at one time I knew everyone and they all knew me. I had served on the city council, been a city employee, been involved in the chamber of commerce and all sorts of clubs and committees. I was part of the community.

But I know if I went back to Seagoville now, it wouldn’t be the same. People have moved away (like me); some have passed away. New subdivisions have sprung up, new businesses have come in; older neighborhoods have deteriorated and the house we lived in and the street we lived on have changed. City hall and the police department that I knew so well would be full of new faces. Those friends I left behind who are still there are older now  (as I am) and the years have brought more changes than just physical ones. It’s not the same city I left fourteen years ago.

I hadn’t been gone from Carnival nearly that long, so the differences weren’t nearly as profound, but changes go both ways. It’s not so much that Carnival has changed (though in some ways, it has); it’s more about how changed, in terms of what I want from cruising, in those 18 months or so.

Why go back?

You may have read my many previous blog posts about how much I love the MSC Yacht Club experience, and you might wonder why — when it’s obvious that I already knew it was bound to be a letdown — I went back to Carnival at all.  Well, as Facebook users are fond of saying about their relationships (and relationships exist with companies as well as people), it’s complicated.

Okay, maybe not that complicated. Just a long story.  For a few years there, I was cruising four or even five times a year on Carnival. The last one (before this one) was in May 2017. It was a Journeys cruise on the Sunshine. A lot of things went wrong on that cruise, and I won’t go into that here, but it wasn’t a good one.

I also had a cruise booked on the Carnival Breeze for September of that year. I cancelled that cruise (for several reasons), but it had already been partially paid for. Unlike MSC, Carnival doesn’t refund your payment if you booked under their early saver plan, but they do carry it over to be applied to another cruise.  I used that credit to book this December 2018 cruise, mostly because I was able to find a Grand Scenic Oceanview Cabin open. That’s a rarity since there are only two on each ship (and not all ships), and it’s one of the best value-for-the-dollar cabins Carnival has to offer.

Initially I was hoping that some of my large group of buddies from past Carnival cruises – whom I call my BCFFs or Best Cruise Friends Forever – might join me on this on. As it turned out, none of them did. That was a disappointment, but I ended up inviting an old friend, who had never cruised before, to go with me. I also joined the Facebook group for the sailing and got to know some people there in the months leading up to the cruise.

I had cruised the first week in December every year for the past several and always enjoyed that time. The ships were decorated for the holidays, hurricane season was over, and since kids weren’t yet out of school (and in fact had just come back from Thanksgiving break), there weren’t a lot of them on board. I was hoping the second week in December would be pretty much the same (spoiler alert: in some ways it was, but in more important ways, it wasn’t).

As usual with me, timing was a big bugaboo. At the time I booked it, almost a year in advance, I didn’t know I was going to get a major contract working on a Microsoft project in September-January.  I also had no idea our upstairs bathroom was going to spring a leak (dripping into the ceiling of the kitchen below), and that my husband would want to go ahead and do a complete remodel of it while it was torn up to make repairs, and that this would be taking place during the week immediately preceding the cruise.

So I found myself rushing to meet a whitepaper deadline at the same time I was picking out granite and sinks and tiles and overseeing the remodeling project (not to mention living in the midst of the demolition noise) while also doing all my “regular” work, attending to the animals, trying to get ready for Christmas, and prepare for the cruise. Can we say “stressed to the max?”

So I didn’t go into this cruise with the best of attitudes. Although I hoped it would be an opportunity to get away from all this and relax, realistically I knew that wasn’t going to happen. Sure enough, the remodeling job didn’t get finished on time, collaborators on the paper kept wanting to make changes and delaying that, and by a couple of days prior to flyaway day, I knew I was going to spend most of my time worrying about my husband trying to deal with the contractors at home, and that I was going to have to work from my cabin on the cruise. Have Surface, will travel. Add to that additional unexpected expenses and my own quirks about sharing a cabin with someone, anyone (OCD only child that I am) and there was no way this was going to be the best of all possible cruises — regardless of which cruise line it had been.

In the review, I’m going to work hard to be fair and  unbiased, then. My personal circumstances were in no way Carnival’s fault, and even if I’d been in the Yacht Club, I’d have been under the same pressures (although the unlimited premium drinks in YC might have at least temporarily taken my mind off it all. LOL).

Still, despite everything, the cruise had its moments — some very nice ones — and I met some great people, as I always do. They say any landing you can walk away from is a good one, and I figure any cruise you can walk away from with brand new friends is a good one, too.

In the next post, I’ll go into some details about the cruise itself, as well as the pre-cruise hotel experience and the airports/flights.

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Seaside: The Second Time Around (Part 1)

PART ONE: Getting there is (can be) half the fun

There is an old saying that love is even sweeter the second time around. Whether or not that’s true of human interactions is up for debate, but after my recent second cruise in the Yacht Club on the MSC Seaside, I can attest that for me at least, it’s accurate in regard to cruising on this beautiful ship. I was so impressed with the Seaside after my February 2018 cruise that I wrote an 8-part glowing review and then followed up with several blog articles about different aspects of my new favorite ship and my new favorite cruise line. Don’t worry – I’m not going to be quite that prolific this time.

Executive Summary: The short and sweet of it is that I am still in love with this beautiful ship and with the MSC Yacht Club experience in particular, and if anything, it was even better this time than in February (which I wouldn’t have thought possible).

There’s no need to do a blow-by-blow description of every single day since much of the cruise was the same as the previous one (and that is a very good thing).  So if you haven’t read that 8 part review, please do for details that I don’t address in this one. In this review, I’ll just give my overall impressions and address those things that have change20180902_115306d or that I did this time that I didn’t get around to in February, as well as what we did in the ports.

I knew that this one was already going to be different in some ways from the get-go, because instead of traveling solo, I had my husband along with me this time. He had read and listened to my raves about how great the Yacht Club was and wanted to experience it for himself. I was thrilled to have him accompany me but also a bit anxious. Would the things that so impressed me leave him cold? Had things changed for the worse in the six months since I first sailed?  Would we have the same good luck with getting a great cabin and excellent service as I’d had before?

Despite not being a big fan of cruising in the past, Tom seemed to be genuinely looking forward to this one. He even got into helping me plan for dressing up on the theme nights – which I didn’t expect – and acted excited about the Yacht Club amenities. As the sail date approached, I was cautiously optimistic.

 

Travel curse, begone!

All frequent travelers know that some parts of the experience can be luck of the draw. Life happens, especially when you leave your comfort zone and venture out into the world for an adventure. I’ve certainly had my share of those recently:

  • Tom falling down the stairs and spraining his ankle badly the evening before my 12 day repo cruise, almost causing me to fly back home without boarding.
  • Discovery of credit card fraud and the loss of my bag the day before embarkation on our 20th anniversary cruise.
  • A Greek air traffic controllers strike that shut down the Athens airport the day I was scheduled to fly in for my Mediterranean cruise.
  • A flood in Galveston that almost prevented us from getting to the cruise terminal for a pre-Christmas cruise.
  • Tom coming down with a horrible throat infection the day I left for a 10 day Journeys cruise – and giving it to me when he kissed me goodbye so that I had to spend half the cruise quarantined in my cabin.
  • A hurricane that wiped out the St. Thomas resort where we were booked to spend a week.
  • Tom forgetting to renew his passport, which I found out the day we were supposed to fly to Grand Cayman, resulting in the cancellation of that trip and loss of the condo rental. image

You can see why we were both a little anxious and worried that something bad might happen to mess up this vacation.  Amazingly, though, on fly-away day, everything went off without a hitch. Kris came over the night before and was there to take over house and pet duties; we got all the bags loaded without forgetting any; we made it to the airport and found a parking space without incident; checked our bags at the curb and got priority tags; we were there early and got through security easily, then settled down for a nice snack in the Admiral’s lounge until boarding time.

Boarding went quickly and easily. We don’t like spending the money or miles for first class on a short flight, but I had upgraded us to Main Cabin Extra, in the exit rows, so there was plenty of leg room. It was an easy flight and went quickly.

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In fact, we landed at MIA a little early. It took a little while for the bags to start coming out at the carousel, but ours were among the first so we grabbed them up and headed to the taxi line, which only had a couple of people in it. We were off to the Doubletree by Grand Hilton Hotel in Biscayne Bay. There were a few dark clouds in the distance but no rain, and it was breezy with a nice temperature.

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Image result for doubletree grand hilton biscayne bayI had taken a leap of faith with this hotel, as I’d never stayed there before. I usually like the Holiday Inn Port of Miami but it was full when I booked. I wanted something nice, and not too far from the cruise port. This one had good reviews on Hotels.com and was (relatively) reasonably priced (for Miami on the weekend). When we arrived at the hotel, we were happy to see that it was right on the bay, and I hoped we would get a room with some water view. I never expected what we did get.

As we walked into the lobby, I got a very good immediate vibe. This was an upscale type hotel and there were quite a few people milling about – with dogs. I never did find out exactly why, but there were a lot of dogs at that hotel that weekend. Of course that made us feel right at home.

I gave the lady at the front desk my name and she looks up my reservation.

“You have a deluxe suite, right?”
”Sounds right.”

I really didn’t remember what I had booked since I’d done it half a year ago, but I thought I had gotten a regular “deluxe” room, which at most hotels meant a regular room. I had pre-paid, so if they wanted to give me a suite, that was fine with me. We got our key cards, navigated through the hallways to find an elevator, and made our way up to the 8th floor.

Well, our room was way at the very end of the corridor. In its own little private corridor, in fact, where the floors turned into marble. That seemed like a good sign. And indeed it was. When we opened up the door and walked in, I couldn’t believe I’d gotten this room for about twenty bucks more than I paid for a decidedly not upscale La Quinta Inn near the MIA airport the last time Tom came to Miami with me a couple of years before.

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It wasn’t a true suite (by my definition) in that there wasn’t a separate bedroom with a door. But it was deluxe enough to make up for that. There was a big comfy bed, a full sized sofa and large TV viewable from both, a big dining table and a full sized desk, a credenza for the coffeemaker, a beautiful stone tiled bathroom with a great shower and even a bidet.  But none of that was the best part.

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The view … oh, the view. Floor to ceiling sliding doors and windows wrapped around two sides of the room, leading to two balconies that looked over the bay and marina, with the bridge off to the right and the cruise terminal right behind it.  It doesn’t get much better than that.

~~

Since we’d gotten in late, we were both hungry.  We debated whether to call for room service or venture out into the streets of Miami, and settled on a compromise: we’d eat at the restaurant that was there in the hotel.  It was called Casablanca on the Bay, a name that implied more nice views, and there was no false advertising there. It took a little while to find it as we wound our way through the business and conference part of the hotel, but eventually we got there (without having to go outside). 20180831_214905

For a Friday evening, it was almost deserted (maybe everyone else got lost in the bowels of the business center trying to find it, or maybe we were just a little early). We chose to be seated out on the patio overlooking the marina. By that time it was starting to get dark and the lights across the water were spectacular. There was a nice breeze that made the outdoor seating comfortable.

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The waiter was friendly and prompt to take our drink orders. The menu was seafood-centric, which I like. To start, I ordered conch fritters and my husband ordered a crab cake. The fritters were very good, not rubbery but tender inside and crispy outside. The crab cake was presented beautifully and apparently it was good judging by how quickly my husband devoured it.

As our entrees, I had the lobster bisque and my husband had a crab stuffed shrimp dish with garlic mashed potatoes. The bisque was very good and he thoroughly enjoyed his.

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My only complaint, if I had to come up with one, would be that the portions were just a tad skimpy for the price — but that’s not unusual in Miami, I’ve found. The food was excellent, service was fine, and the restaurant decor was lovely, including a big aquarium in the front and a fish-on-ice bar.

We were both too full for dessert, so we made our way back through the maze to our room, sat and enjoyed the night lights for a while, and went to bed early since it had been a long day.

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~~

The next morning, we slept until almost 8:00 a.m. and took our time getting ready to check out and embark on our embarkation adventure. Throwing open those drapes was an experience – the first thing I saw was our ship, the lovely Seaside, just across the bridge, waiting for us.

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Check-out time was 11:00 a.m., and we left a few minutes before. Had another pleasant encounter with the front desk personnel, saw more dogs running around the lobby, grabbed a taxi and we were on our way to the port.

One thing that was going to be different this time was the itinerary. In February, because of hurricanes Irma and Maria that did devastating damage to some of the Caribbean islands that had originally been on our schedule, we had a modified itinerary that went to Antigua, St. Thomas, and Grand Turk.  This time, it was back to the “normal” eastern itinerary:

  • Philipsburg, Sint Maarten
  • San Juan, Puerto Rico
  • Nassau, Bahamas

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The cruise would begin with two sea days, with another tucked between SJ and Nassau, which is perfect because it gives you time to explore the ship and get to know others on board before you start getting off for ports.

After the unexpected upgrades and excellent experiences on the flight and at the hotel, I had high hopes for this trip as the cab pulled up to now-familiar Terminal F at the port of Miami. In Part 2, we’ll see how that works out.

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SHIP OF TOMORROW: high tech on the high seas

MSC Seaside is a techie’s dream boat

Copyright 2018 by Debra Littlejohn Shinder

For a long time, cruising was an activity that remained firmly rooted in the past. It was only about three years ago thatImage result for cruise ship 1920s discussion of cruise ship Internet connectivity on popular Facebook cruise fan forums was dominated by a majority who firmly felt it was not only unnecessary but somehow offensive. As a techie by both vocation and avocation, I engaged in countless arguments with those who proclaimed that “when you’re on vacation, you should leave the computers and phones turned off.” 

Of course, they failed to understand that many of us didn’t have that luxury even if we wanted to. As a small business owner and technology security writer whose publishers expect me to address breaking news about new cyber threats on a rush basis, I can’t be out of touch with the world for a week.

Image result for internet addictionAs the “mom” of a menagerie of dogs, turtles, and fish, I have to be available for whomever is house- and pet-sitting while I’m gone. As a happily married woman who often cruises solo because my husband isn’t as into it as I am, I don’t want to be cut off from him for the duration. As an avid blogger and member of a myriad of social media travel groups, I don’t want to make my friends and fans wait until I’m home to see all the fun I’m having; many people (including aforementioned husband) like to live vicariously through the posts I make and enjoy the “food porn” and other pictures in real time.

I know other people who have even better reasons to stay in contact with the outside world. For example, I have friends imagewhose elderly parents are in precarious health, and they would never want to be unreachable if something happened. Bottom line: each of us has our own unique situation, needs, preferences, and personality. What works best for one is not necessarily what works for another.  Maybe you can’t relax unless you’re cut off completely from “real life” back home – but I can’t relax if I’m worrying and wondering where things are okay back there.

I remember how, a few years ago, when Carnival rolled out their new, faster, unlimited Internet technology, their Facebook page was full of comments from people who said “who needs Internet on a ship?” and “everybody should just unplug.” I felt like a lone voice in the wilderness, wanting/needing good connectivity at sea. Several weeks ago, when their brand ambassador announced upgrades to the Internet services on their ships, the “That’s wonderful” and “I need good Internet to be able to cruise” comments were the vast majority. Times do change.

It’s because cruise ships now offer decent connectivity that I – and many others – are able to cruise at all. Cruise lines have recognized that this is something that’s important both to their up-and-coming market (the young “digital natives” who grew up with and expect to have access to the online world whenever they want it) and to many “old folks” like me who are dependent on it for work and personal use. Thus Royal Caribbean boasts about their high-speed VOOM service. Crystal Cruises invested a lot of money in improvements to their on board connectivity. As mentioned above, Carnival is upgrading their tech again.

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But a good, reliable, reasonably fast connection for passengers is only the first step in bringing high tech to the high seas. MSC – like some of the other cruise lines – realizes that and, with Seaside, is laying the foundation for a much more technology-enhanced cruising experience.

NOTE: Just as some people love and others hate MSC’s more European on-board ambiance, some will love and some will hate Seaside’s incorporation of today’s technology into passengers’ lives. It’s another case of “different strokes for different folks,” and another way in which the cruise lines give us all options so that we can each cruise the way we want to.

MSC for Me: there’s an app for that

Cruisers’ exposure to MSC’s on-board technology can begin even before they set foot onto the ship. The MSC for Me app, in both iOS and Android versions, can be downloaded and installed on your smart phone and set up with your profile. Its front page (home) serves as a countdown to your cruise, and it includes information about check-in (travel docs, luggage, payment methods, and the embarkation process); things to do on the ship (waterslides and similar features, bars and lounges, casino, entertainment options, pools, restaurants, shops, and more); general cruise info (procedures, FAQ, emergency contact info); and specifics about your particular sailing in your Profile (document numbers, loyalty status, itinerary, and booking details). It also supports web check-in.

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Once you’re on board and connected to the ship’s local network over wi-fi (you do not need an Internet package for this), the app takes on much more functionality.  It provides you with a daily agenda, allows you to make reservations for the shows and specialty restaurants, and helps you navigate through the ship. Parents can pay extra to have the app track their children’s location (via the wristbands that are free to kids) so you know where they are at all times. You can buy shore excursions and also check your purchases and account balance.

imageGiven the proliferation of smart phones and tablets today, it’s not surprising that cruise lines are tapping into that with apps of their own. In the past, these were pretty limited. For example, the Carnival app provides no info whatsoever prior to the cruise, except for a countdown to your cruise date. On board, it does give you an electronic version of the Fun Times daily schedule, account balance, ship maps, and food and drink info.  And Carnival’s app has one feature that MSC’s lacks: a local network chat feature for keeping in touch with others on the ship (there’s an extra charge).

All in all, I think the MSC app gives you a lot more than Carnival’s, but the chat capability is a killer feature that they really need to add in order to claim the title of “high tech cruise line.” This is especially true since many of their new U.S. clientele are coming from Carnival and are used to having that.

Kiosks, kiosks, everywhere

But what, you might ask, if you don’t have a smart phone?  After all, there are still such “dinosaurs” in the world and many of them cruise. There are also people who, as discussed above, just prefer to leave their phones in the cabin safe and stay “unplugged” for all or most of the cruise. MSC hasn’t forgotten them. image

There are big screen kiosks all over the ship, running a version of the application that you can sign onto and do most of the same things you would do on the phone app. These interactive displays are big touchscreens that are easy for even the fattest fingers to use. So if  you’re out and about on the ship and didn’t bring your phone along, and have a sudden urge to reserve a seat at that evening’s show or find out how much you’ve spent on drinks and gelato (if you don’t have an all-inclusive package), just log onto one of the many kiosks located on the public decks.

NOTE: Don’t confuse these kiosks with a different kind of kiosk that you’ll see here and there around the ship. These little machines are used to link your cruise card to a credit card. Instead of the staff at the cruise terminal doing this when you check in, you do it yourself on board. You have 48 hours after boarding to do it, and it’s a simple process. If you prefer to put up a cash deposit instead of using a credit card, you’ll need to go to the Guest Services desk or, if you’re in the Yacht Club, the concierge.

Meanwhile, back in  your high-tech cabin

Another option for those who don’t have or don’t want to use the app on their phones is to use the cabin TVs. The MSC for Me app is also installed there. From the “home page” when you turn on the TV, you have the choice to watch live TV, watch video on demand (for which there is an extra charge), or to open the app and do the same things that you can do on your phone or at a kiosk.

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For example, to make reservations for a show, select “Entertainment” in the left pane and then pick “Theatre Shows.” The app already knows who you are and your logon credentials are linked to your cabin, so you don’t have to worry about entering them. Select the show you want to reserve. You’ll be shown the location, a description, and the date and available times. The app also shows  you how many seats are still empty.

Select the time you want to go and a seat will be reserved for you. It’s that easy.  Now when you show up at the theater, the staff member at the door will scan your card or wristband with a tablet. It will show your reservation and you’ll seaside cabin tv (1)be allowed inside. If you don’t show up at least five minutes before show time (ten is safer), your seat may be given away since they open it up to people without reservations if the theater isn’t full at that time.

In addition to booking shows, you can check the app for information about the cruise and itinerary, check your billing charges, on a daily basis, see the daily program, highlighted activities and daily specials, get the weather forecast, see your agenda of selected activities,

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With a flick of the wrist

If you’ve booked an Aurea or Yacht Club cabin, you’ll automatically get a wristband that substitutes for the key card in most (but not all) situations. If not, you can buy one for $5.  seaside wristband (1)

The wristband is good for a few reasons:

  1. It’s easier to keep up with and use than the card, as you don’t have to worry about where to carry it, or dig it out of your pocket or purse when you need it, and you’re less likely to lose it.
  2. Because it’s always right there on your wrist, scanning it is faster than waiting for you to produce the card, which speeds up lines and transactions.
  3. There is no printed personal information on it; the data is all embedded in the chip, so you don’t have to worry about someone getting a look at your card and seeing your name or ID number, or knowing your loyalty level or which deck your cabin is on – all things that someone could find out by looking at your card.
  4. You can leave the card in the door slot to keep the power in the cabin activated if you want to charge your phone or otherwise have the electricity on when you leave the cabin to go out and about on the ship.

I found it especially handy to be able to just pay for my specialty restaurant tab, or get into a reserved show, or open my cabin door with a simple flick of the wrist. In fact, I used the wristband for everything – I never used the card at all on board the ship. It is very important to note, though, that there is one situation in which the wristband does not substitute for the card, and that’s when you leave the ship. You need the card to get back on board. So on port days, you can wear the wristband if you want but remember it won’t suffice to get you back through security, so take your card (and your government photo ID), too.

Communicating from the cabin

As mentioned above, one way in which the MSC for Me app is lacking is in the capability for person-to-person communications with fellow passengers. This was traditionally an issue on cruise ships; when you’re traveling with friends, you need a way to contact one another to make plans to meet up for dining, shows, etc.  Because I often sail solo, I get to know other people on the cruise through Facebook groups, and by the time I sail, I often have a number of “friends I haven’t met yet” with whom I want to get together on board. The groups also plan events such as meet & greets, cabin crawls, and slot pulls, and if times or venues need imageto be adjusted after embarkation, need a way to communicate that to everyone.

Of course, the cabins all have phones – fairly sophisticated ones – and you can call and leave messages if your friends are out and about on the ship. However, often you want to get in touch immediately, to make plans or let someone know where you’re going to be, and often you want to get in touch when you are away from your cabin.

In that case, your best solution is for both parties to have Internet packages and carry their smart phones or tablets with them. Then you can contact others on board via email, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Skype, or other standard applications. An Internet package also enables you to post to Facebook groups and reach large numbers of people simultaneously.

Unfortunately, this incurs extra cost. At the time of this writing, a 6GB 4 device premium connection on Seaside costs $127 and a 3GB 2 device standard package costs $79 (price for the duration of the cruise). While some folks (I’m one) are already going to buy an Internet package anyway – I need it for keeping in touch with work and with the people back home – others don’t want to spend money to get connected. To some, totally unplugging from the Internet is part of what they enjoy about vacation.

There aimagere other solutions. Some people bring along small walkie-talkies, but the range for the cheaper ones may not be long enough given the size of the ship, and because ships’ walls are made of metal, the signal may not be strong enough to penetrate to all areas. Of course, there is always the very low-tech method of leaving notes in the cabin mailboxes or sliding them under the door. Image result for writing a note

I envision that someday in the not-too-distant future, such a high percentage of cruisers will use the Internet that cruise lines will provide it as part of the deal, adding their cost to the fare and making at least a standard package “free” to all passengers. Something I could see happening a few years farther out is new ships with touch sc20180607_143338reens at the door of each cabin for leaving messages – and beyond that, perhaps wristbands that communicate with the ship’s internal network in a way such that passengers can send messages to one another over the wearables in the same way I can get my email or texts or Facebook PMs on my Samsung Gear Fit smart watch. In fact, it would be great if I could download a version of the MSC for Me app for the Gear.

In addition to keeping in touch with fellow passengers, we need to be able to communicate with the ship’s crew and staff – especially with those who service our rooms (cabin steward and, in the case of Yacht Club, butler).

Venturing out onto the Internet

MSC offers a choice of Internet plans on Seaside. These offerings have changed in the six months plus since she launched, and could always change again. When I sailed in February 2018, there were three options: a social networks only plan that could be used for only one device, an intermediate plan that included 3 GB of data and allowed 2 devices to use it simultaneously, and a premium plan that provided 6 GB that could be shared by 4 devices. 

The intermediate plan came with my booking promo so that’s what I had. The connectivity worked well for me, with a Galaxy Note 8 phone and a Surface Pro computer. I was online a lot, posting photos and blogging about the cruise, and keeping in touch with family and friends via Facebook and email, as well as writing a couple of articles for work that required web research.

I cruised again on Seaside in September 2018 and some changes had occurred. There were now only two plans available to pre-book online:

  • Standard package: 3 GB of data, 2 devices
  • Premium package: 6 GB of data, 4 devices

The social plan was gone completely, but on board, it was now possible to buy an unlimited data plan. The catch? It could only be used with one device logged on at a time, although you could register multiple devices and switch out (for example, between your phone and laptop).  This time, my husband was with me so as much as we would have liked to have the unlimited data, that one-device limit didn’t work for us.

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NOTE: These prices and specs are only for the Seaside, at the times notes. I have a cruise booked on the Meraviglia in the Baltic in April 2019, and the Internet packages offered online for that cruise are different: $57.50 for 2 GB with 2 devices, or $86.50 for 4 GB with 4 devices.  And of course prices can and do change (go up), so you might want to lock in the price by pre-booking the Internet package.

If you have any plan other than the unlimited, the most important thing to remember is to turn off background apps (on your phone) and unnecessary running services (on your computer) to avoid eating up your data allocation. That includes automatic updates, automatic backups (including the setting to back up your phone photos to OneDrive, Google Cloud, Samsung, or other cloud services), automatic download and playing of videos on social media, etc.  I did this and was surprised at how well the data lasted. A friend didn’t, and used up her entire 3 GB in two days.

I was happy with the reliability and speed of the Internet connection on both Seaside cruises. But please recognize that your bandwidth will be affected by many factors, including:

  • Geographic location (I’ve found connectivity in the eastern Caribbean is often better than in the western islands)
  • Location on the ship (proximity to routers and repeaters; metal walls and equipment in between that can block signal)
  • Weather (clear skies make for more reliable connections)
  • Local network congestion (the number of people on board who are using the ship’s network at the moment)
  • Your device’ hardware and software configuration (its network adapter and wi-fi antenna, the applications you’re running, malware, CPU and memory’s ability to handle the system workload, etc.

Cruise ships use satellite technology to provide Internet connectivity in the middle of the ocean. Satellite connections always (and always will) suffer from latency – the time lag caused by the distance the signal has to travel from earth up to geosynchronous orbit and back down again (over 22,000 miles each way).  This doesn’t matter much for things like email or posting pictures to Facebook but it can cause problems with real time communications such as wi-fi phone calling, video conferencing, and gaming.

Note, too, that none of the Internet packages are really designed for continuous streaming of music or movies/TV.  First, those files are big and will quickly cause you to reach your data limit, and the buffering caused by the connection speed may result in stops and starts.  I’m not sure whether MSC blocks streaming apps; some cruise lines do. The best way to take your media with you is to download it to your device or to an external USB drive and play it directly on your device, using zero megabits of your precious data and doing others on the ship a favor by not hogging the bandwidth.

All in all, the Internet worked well for me on Seaside in February and in September on the eastern Caribbean itineraries, in mostly clear weather. Your mileage, of course, may vary.

About that web site …

It would be remiss of me to write about MSC’s efforts to establish Seaside as a high tech ship of tomorrow without mentioning the elephant in the room: their web site. It’s not that it looks bad. It doesn’t; it has a nice, shiny front end – the problem is that half the time (I’m being generous here) it doesn’t work correctly.

One of the most frequent complaints on the forums is that people are unable to log into the web site, or that their bookings have disappeared (this seems to be especially prevalent if you have more than three cruises booked). Cruises that were there one day don’t show up the next. Enhancements you’ve purchased and pre-paid come and go. Cancelling an excursion for two via the web site gets you back a refund for only one.  The web site is infamous for its ability to frustrate and infuriate.

NOTE: To be fair, MSC isn’t alone in this. I’ve had problems with the web sites of many cruise lines and other travel vendors. Most of them need to hire a good HID/UX designer and get more competent IT people running the back end and/or give them the funding and equipment they need to make it work.

For now, it seems the quirks of the web site are something we just have to accept. One solution is to get a good travel agent and let him/her deal with it (from what I’ve heard, the TA site – although it, too, has its problems – is at least a little better than the public-facing site).  There are some “tricks” that can help you in navigating the site and accessing your bookings. For example, if you log in with your username/email address and password, and your booking isn’t showing up, try going back to the login screen and putting in just your booking number instead.  To do this, leave the log-in credentials field blank and click “I have an existing booking,” which will bring up the booking details screen.

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When you’re struggling with the web site, keep in mind that the many loyal fans of MSC (including me) will tell you that as bad as the pre-cruise experience with MSC can be (and that also includes the “low tech” method of calling the MSC reps, the majority of whom don’t seem to know the company’s own policies and offerings), the on-board experience is the exact opposite. If you’re booked in the Yacht Club, that goes triple.

Think of the booking process as the obstacle course that you have to run in order to get to the prize – and that prize is (or at least has been for me) more than worth it.

Summary

MSC has put a lot of effort into bringing today’s technology to the Seaside and her sister ship, Seaview.  Meraviglia and undoubtedly all MSC ships going forward will incorporate high tech features to enhance the cruise experience and appeal to the new generations of digital natives. If you’re one of those folks who cruises to get away from technology, that doesn’t mean you can’t have a wonderful, relaxing, unplugged voyage on these ships. It just means the tech is there for you to use if you choose to.

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Favorite photos from MSC Seaside Sept 2018 cruise

September 1-8, 2018

PEOPLE, PLACES, PARTIES AND OTHER PICTURES


Embarkation Day

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Early morning sighting of the ship from our hotel room window

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On board: First the food

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Membership has its privileges:

Lunch in the Yacht Club restaurant with Arthur, best waiter on the high seas

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A table with a view

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The beginning of a beautiful culinary relationship

Exploring the ship

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Bye, bye, Miami

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Dinner is served

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First sea day

Gatsby/elegant night with Captain Di Palma, Arthur, and the roaring 20s

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The people who made it a cruise to remember

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With our fantastic butler, Jeannot

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Best concierge ever: Alejandra

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With friend Debbie Marino and Gene, the Cruise Director

 

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With Robert, the Hotel Director

 

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Officers, gentlemen, and the rest of us at the Cruise Critic Meet & Mingle

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The cast of My Life in Music

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Our Teppanyaki Chef at Roy’s Asian Kitchen

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With friends first met on Carnival, in San Juan

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At Don Collins in San Juan

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Tom and Arthur on Italian night

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Tom and Leon, giving the lobster and steak a thumbs up

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With Arthur and friends Michelle and Leon and Kathie on gala night

Gala night professional photos

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With best-dressed parrots on pirate night

 

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Ready for white night

 

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Champagne tastes on a Yacht Club budget

The best part: doing it together

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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SUN FOLLOWER: MSC Seaside ship design and environment

 Nave bellissima – in so many ways

Copyright 2018 Debra Littlejohn Shinder

Thus far, in this long series of articles, my focus has been on the Seaside experience: my day-to-day activities, and all the wonderful people who made the cruise special. Now I want to step back and look at the ship itself, and what makes the Seaside so unique among cruise ships that she turns heads wherever she goes. “Nave bellissima” (beautiful ship) is the perfect descriptor for this lovely lady of the sea. 

Cruise ship design – before the building ever begins – is a complicated process. The design phase for a newseaside st thomas (7) class of ship such as the Seaside can take many months. There are numerous industry and governmental requirements that must be met. The engineering of a huge, floating resort is an enormous undertaking that involves bringing together structural, aesthetic, and functional objectives to create a vessel that operates safely and efficiently – and provides a pleasing environment and a host of venues and activities for its passengers and crew.

Given the enormity of the project, is it any wonder then that every brand new ship comes out of the shipyard with a certain number of imperfections that have to be fixed along the way as they’re discovered during her inaugural season? Malfunctioning electrical, plumbing, aimagend hardware are issues that are common to brand new ships (and to new construction buildings and homes on land). These are different from design issues, so let’s set them aside for the purpose of this section.

We’re going to be talking here about ship design and ship environment, which are two different but related things.

Ship design includes:

  • Structural design, which concerns the infrastructure – engineering, plumbing, electrical wiring, and so forth – and is beyond the scope of this article and outside my areas of expertise
  • Exterior design, in which respect Seaside is especially notable
  • Interior design, of both the public spaces and the cabins

Because I’ll be addressing cabin design (focusing on the Yacht Club because that was my experience, but also comparing it to the Bella, Fantastica and Aurea cabins that I saw) in a later article titled Home Suite Home, this piece will concentrate on the design of the ship’s exterior and its interior public spaces.

Ship environment is more about the “feel” or “vibe” of the ship and involves many factors, including the ship’s design but also things such as lighting and temperature and sound levels and the activities that go on there and the people (both crew and passengers) who are on board.

Seaside’s exterior and interior design is mostly American, from the Miami Beach condo look of the aft to interior spaces like the Sports Bar and Garage Bar and the cutting-edge technology that is spread throughout the ship (although other areas, such as the Bistro on deck 8 that seeks to emulate the aura of a French sidewalk café are distinctly European in flavor).

The overall atmosphere, though, leans more heavily toward the Mediterranean. Seaside might be made to attract (a certain segment of) the North American market, but she doesn’t attempt to hide her Italian heritage; on the contrary, she wears it proudly. That’s a source of consternation for some U.S. cruisers, and a breath of fresh air to others. You probably already know which group I fall into.

Tech specs

The first thing I do when I’m planning to buy a new computer, smart phone, or other gadget, is look at the specifications sheet, and that’s something I do when I’m considering cruising on a brand new ship, too. So first, let’s take a look at some of the technical aspects of the Seaside.

At 154,000 gross tons with 20 decks (15 open to passengers), the Seaside is a big girl, and the largest cruise ship I’ve experienced to date (although not the longest – Carnival Vista, on which I sailed in the Med in 2016, is 1062 feet long, just a tad over Seaside’s 1059 feet).

You can see more of the ship’s “numbers” in the tech sheet graphic below:

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In general, I haven’t been a big fan of the megaships. On Carnival, I much prefer the 85,000 GT Spirit class ships to their larger siblings. I’ve not been very interested in trying out Royal Caribbean’s gargantuan Oasis class ships (the latest of which, Symphony of the Seas, comes in at 228,081 GT).

Thus my biggest initial concern about Seaside was whether a) her passenger capacity of 5179 people (plus 1413 crew members) stacked into 2036 cabins of “high density housing” would make it feel as crowded as a floating sardine can, and b) whether the large size would make being on the ship feel less like being at sea and more like being in a big building (less motion and less connection with the ocean).

The first concern was alleviated by booking the Yacht Club. Its “ship within a ship” concept with only 89 cabins provides a higher staff-to-passenger ratio and a greater square footage per passenger measure than elsewhere on the ship.

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Whereas there were parts of the ship that definitely did feel crowded – most notably the Miami Beach and South Beach pool areas – the Yacht Club never felt in the least crowded, whether in the lounge or the restaurant or up on the pool/sun deck.

And as for not feeling “at sea,” I needn’t have worried about that.

Innovation exemplified

Both those who love it and those who hate it have used the same word to describe the Seaside: different. She does stand out in a crowd. When we were in ports with other ships from Carnival, Princess, and Norwegian cruise lines, I saw passengers from those ships staring at ours and you could see the curiosity and admiration and yes, a little bit of envy in their eyes. As much as any cruise ship I’ve ever seen – including Royal’s giantesses that get points for sheer size – the Seaside screams “wow factor,” both inside and out.

She is a lovely lady. She’s tall and sleek but also curvaceous, like a fashion model – the ones who pose in swimsuits for magazine covers, not the anorectic ones who walk the runways.  She is definitely not a AA cup size zero. It’s hard to describe her without mentioning her big, beautiful butt. In fact, it’s that rear end – the twin condo towers separated by a panoramic glass elevator and topped with the glass-bottomed Bridge of Sighs – that gets her so much attention at the ports.

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Neither the artists’ renderings nor the photographs really do it justice. As the old saying goes, “you had to be there.”

Although the Seaside is all about “living large” – in more ways than one – she seems almost petite next to the the Royal Caribbean behemoths. And that’s fine with me. Maybe you can’t be too rich or too thin but you can be too big, and that goes for cruise ships, too.

Most importantly, with Seaside MSC has made an effort – a successful one – to rectify one of the complaints that I’ve heard from numerous cruisers about RCL’s giants: the feeling that you’re not on a ship at all. I remember a friend telling me after sailing on Allure that “it was fun, but it was more like being in a grand hotel in a small resort city than sailing on the sea.” Many of the cabins on those ships that are classed as balconies don’t look out to sea, but rather down on the interior “Central Park” or “Boardwalk” areas. They’re marketed as “neighborhood view balconies” and they’re not quite as expensive as traditional ocean view balconies, but I sail because, well, I like the ocean.

Different people like different things, of course, but to me, the whole point of paying for a balcony stateroom on a cruise ship is to be able to look out my glass door, or sit on my balcony, and enjoy the peaceful vastness of being surrounded by water as far as my eyes can see. Sit on my balcony and watch people walking through a “neighborhood” below? Eh. Not so much.

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Its intimate connection with the aquatic macrocosm outside is where Seaside is different. Oh, like most ships, she has interior cabins for those who use their staterooms only for sleeping and showering, and who spend most of their time out on the ship. But having a balcony on Seaside means you’ll “see the sea” – although there are a certain number that have their views partially obstructed. Luckily, mine wasn’t one of those.

seaside YC cabin (6) seaside YC cabin 16003 (46)

The obstructed view, in most cases, is because of another design element (which might or might not also have structural functionality). As you can see in the graphic on the left below, the white metal on the balcony walls near the front of the ship cause the view at the bottom to be blocked in comparison to the balconies with see-through walls, like mine shown above. I made the exterior graphic with deck labels to help people determine whether the cabins they booked are in the obstructed areas.

seaside exterior front As you can see if you look at the labels, the white metal stops at deck 14.  The forward cabins on decks 15, 16, and 18 do not have obstructions (unless you count the part of the bridge on 15 and the Top Sail lounge on 16 that jut out to the side).  You might recall that there is no deck 17 because the number is considered bad luck in Italy.

The first picture below shows the aft of the ship, with a smaller “line” of solid white metal running diagonally up and partially obstructing a smaller number of balconies’ views. The second picture shows what it looks like from one of those obstructed balcony cabins. Unlike the front obstructed balconies, some of these do give you a small glass area to peek through and see the sea.

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But obstructions aside, or even if you’re in an interior cabin, you’ll have no trouble finding a place in the public areas to stand or sit or lie and drink in all the grandeur of the ocean views while you’re drinking in one of those yummy cocktails. Whereas Royal’s largest ships may have disconnected people from the ocean, Seaside’s design is all about ensuring that its passengers get much more than the recommended daily dosage of “Vitamin Sea.”

Unlike some ships I’ve been on where the atrium felt closed off from the outside, with perhaps a few large porthole style windows, almost everywhere you go in the public areas on Seaside, there are great expanses of floor-to-ceiling windows to connect you with where you are: in the middle of the ocean.

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The multi-deck atrium is open to the sea and sky via walls of windows at each level. There are bars and lounseaside bridge of sighs (5)ges witseaside bridge of sighsh sweeping water views, great promenades, glass-bottomed “Infinity bridges” that let you walk out over the water, and the main buffet is down much lower than on most ships, on deck 8 – closer to the water, with both indoor and outdoor seating offering great views.

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The lifeboats are neatly tucked underneath the deck 8 promenade overhang, keeping them more out of the way and out of the view, and you can watch the wake as you ride the aft elevators up and down or enjoy the ocean views as you work out in the gym.

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The specialty restaurants, too, are designed with the views in mind (except for the Teppanyaki section of the Asian Market, but there your focus is on the chef). The Yacht Club restaurant has incredible views of the sea from almost all seats through the two-deck windows that come up from the lounge below to which it is open.

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When MSC dubbed Seaside “the ship that follows the sun,” they weren’t kidding. She doesn’t just follow it; she embraces it. Her design revolves around both bringing the outdoors in and providing plenty of true outdoor spaces for enjoying the warmth and brightness of the Caribbean.

In fact, one of the only complaints that some might have is that the designers succeeded a little too well in some of the outdoor spaces, insofar as ensuring that passengers are “walking in sunshine” (and sitting, and lounging). For example, for those of us – redheaded or otherwise – whose skin doesn’t take kindly to an abundance of UV rays, the Yacht Club pool deck area can be a challenge.

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Unlike at the other pools, there were always plenty of open lounge chairs in the deck 19 YC pool area when I was there (no worries about having to play the “early bird gets the chair” game here). However, almost all of those loungers were almost always in full sun. Ouch – as someone who looks like one of those lobsters on the grill after a few unprotected minutes in the path of UV rays, I can feel the burn just looking at the pictures. The only shaded area is the overhang that protects the grill and buffet area and the few (too few) tables located there.

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I’ve never been big on laying out by the pool, and I was usually able to snag a table to eat lunch. But I know many people enjoy lounging around on the sun deck but also need shade, and there wasn’t much of that to be had. This is a design issue, and I hope they address it on future ships. It could also be ameliorated by providing umbrellas or “clamshell” style loungers.

The good news is that if you’re willing to pay (one way or another), you can get one of the eight cabanas that have a canvas cover offering some degree of sun protection.  The per-day cost is $149 on sea days or $99 on port days, and it’s been confirmed by the Yacht Club director that although they weren’t doing this on my sailing of Seaside, they are now providing a cabana at no extra cost to those staying in the two Royal Suites (the most expensive staterooms on the ship). Of course, it seems to me Royal Suite holders are the ones who need the cabanas least, considering the huge balconies that come with those suites – but it is a nice perk.

EDIT/UPDATE: According to recent reports from passengers who have sailed in March, the cost of the cabanas on the YC sun deck has been lowered to $99 on sea days and $59 on port days. This has been confirmed by several sources.

Full disclosure: My husband and I have Royal Suite 16024 booked for next year.


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Photos: inside of private cabanas on YC sun deck are thanks to Mary Ann Beckham, Josette Dishongh, and Ignazio Marco Spezzacatena

What about the public pool areas?  Again, at the Miami Beach and South Beach pools, most loungers are in full sun while the shade is dedicated to tables, although there is a nice covered area with outdoor sofas at the aft pool.

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You’ll find the most shade at the Jungle Pool on deck 18, which is also where the Aquaventure water park is located. This is definitely the place to be if you want to hang out in or near the pool and you burn easily.

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Both the Miami Beach pool and the Jungle pool have something to cool you off: gelato bars. Unfortunately, the Yacht Club pool doesn’t have one, so I had to venture “out there” to get my gelato fix. It’s just as well; with that much delicious gelato around, I needed all the exercise I could get.

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Glitz and glamour

Seaside was constructed by Italian shipbuilder Fincantieri, which is the same company that has built dozens of cruise ships for Carnival, Princess, Holland America, Costa, Cunard, P&O, Disney, Viking, not to mention air craft carriers and destroyers for the Italian Navy. The company also has contracts to build ships for Norwegian Cruise Line, Virgin Voyages, and Regent Seven Seas in the next few years.

Seaside, however, is different from all those ships that have gone before. For one thing, the funnel is in the middle of the ship instead of the aft where it’s traditionally located.

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And of course the back end “condo towers” design is completely distinctive so that no one seeing her from behind will mistake her for any other ship on the sea (other than her soon-to-be-launched sister ship, Seaview). It was, in fact, an engineer at Fincantieri who came up with that exterior design in the first place – twelve years before the Seaside’s maiden voyage. It was a little ahead of its time then, and no cruise line was willing to take a chance on something so radically different until MSC’s CEO, Gianni Onoranto, saw the plans. The rest is history.

Interior spaces

Seaside’s “wow” factor comes not only from her size, shape, and exterior design, but even more so from her extravagantly decorated interior spaces. According to what I was told, Rafaela Aponte (wife of MSC founder and owner Gianluigi Aponte) is in charge of MSC ships’ interior design, including personally choosing the colors, fabrics, furniture and art work. She has done a magnificent job with the Seaside – which is a brand new ship that’s the first of a brand new class of ships designed for a brand new market: North America.

We Americans are a very diverse lot, and while some sectors of the population may not fully appreciate the upscale style of the Seaside, there are many others of us who love our “bling” and are mesmerized, the moment we walk on board, by the ship’s over-the-top yet tasteful decor.

MSC cruise ships have become known for their Swarovski crystal stairs and the Seaside’s grand atrium boasts twin staircases that span three stories on each side, sparkling and glittering with hundreds of tiny white lights to highlight those stones, and serving as a favorite staging place for portraits taken by both the ship’s professional photographers and families and friends armed with everything from phone cams to prosumer model DSLRs.

The first thing guests see upon embarkation is MSC seaside atrium (3)

seaside atrium (8)

Although the crystal staircases are perhaps the most famous example of la signora Aponte’s lavish style, they are really only the icing on the magnificent cake that is the MSC Seaside.  From the dazzling triple-screen display behind the multi-media stage in the atrium to the giant loops that you breeze through on the zip line to the infinity bridges that make you feel as if you’re walking on air to the suprisingly understated main theater to the sophisticated look of the Haven Lounge to the warmer decor of the Seaview lounge to the clean lines of the Ocean Cay restaurant to the “contemporary traditional” look of Butcher’s Cut to the French sidewalk cafe aura of the Bistro La Boheme to the modern but cozy decor of the cabins themselves, it’s obvious that a lot of thought – and a lot of love – went into both the exterior and interior design.

Ship environment and ambiance

Ambiance is the word for the “feel” or “tone” or “atmosphere” of the ship, which can determine whether you feel right at home there or like a fish out of water.  Words that might be used to describe a particular place’s vibe or mood include image“party atmosphere,” “relaxed and laid back,” “fun and playful,” “sophisticated,” “warm and welcoming,” or in a more negative light, “somber,” “cold and sterile,” or “dark and uninviting.”

Depending on which area of the ship you’re in, all of the terms in the first group are applicable. I didn’t encounter any areas that fit the less flattering descriptors. One thing I loved about Seaside was the way there really was something for everyone. I walked through the ship one evening and in the space of half an hour experienced a down-home country and western party in the Haven Lounge, a bustling deck party with people dancing to pop music by one of the pools, a gathering of sports fans watching a game in the Sports Bar, an opera in the main theater, and the quiet sophistication of the Top Sail lounge accentuated by classical piano in the background up in the Yacht Club.

In that way, the atmosphere on Seaside is whatever you choose for it to be. There is, however, an overarching “feel of the ship” that’s subtle enough some won’t even notice it, while others won’t be able to get past it, and that’s the sweet sound of multiple languages all around you that reminds you that you’re on an international voyage.

An American cruise line such as Carnival feels more like a piece of the USA broke off and floated off to the islands. When you’re oimagen board the ship, whether you’re in the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, or the Mexican Riviera, you still feel as if you’re back home. Things are done the way they are in the U.S., the vast majority of the passengers speak English as their first language, the customs and traditions are very American.

To many people, this is comforting.  It’s certainly a way to travel outside your native country without leaving your cultural comfort zone. But for those who enjoy immersing themselves in the lifestyles of foreign lands, who like to go beyond the usual tourist checklists when they travel, it’s not as stimulating. A cruise that provides you with a taste of “elsewhere” both on board and off is a pleasant change.

I came across a quote a while back that I liked so much, I made it the theme of this blog: I don’t travel because I’m rich; I’m rich because I travel. The wealth of information, understanding, and perspective that comes with travel, though, isn’t just a product of seeing different places. It comes also from getting to know the people who built, grew up in, and make their lives in those places. In seeing how they differ from us – and in discovering how much we all have in common.

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On the Seaside, I didn’t have to wait for the few hours in port to do that. On board the ship I met and interacted with other passengers from England, Sweden, Germany, Japan, South America, the South Pacific, South Africa, and of course Italy.  That’s in addition to crew members from other parts of the world. This international aspect of MSC has been a source of complaints and negative reviews from those who prefer a more homogeneous environment. It’s one of several of MSC’s differences that cruisers tend to either love or hate.

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The design of MSC’s new Seaside takes a daring step outside the traditional parameters to make a bold stateImage result for dare to be differentment: This ship and this cruise line are not like all the others. That extends past structural, functional and decorative issues to the ambiance on board the ship. For some cruisers, those differences add up to a good thing, and for others, not so much. It’s up to each of us to decide. For me and some others I know, variety is the spice that makes life taste good.

The Seaside is a spicy dish – too much so for some folks who are used to their bland American diet. For those with more adventurous tastes (culinary and otherwise), she is exactly what we’ve been craving for a while.

 

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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.

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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 deb@shinder.net 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.

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.” 

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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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