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.

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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.

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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)

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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.

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

Copyright 2018 Debra Littlejohn Shinder

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Different strokes for different cruisers

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

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

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

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

  • Long dining times. There have been many complaints about dinner lasting for 90 minutes to 2 hours. This makes perfect sense to anyone who knows Italian culture. Meal times, especially dinner, are not juimagest about eating; they are social occasions for long and leisurely conversations with family and friends while savoring multiple courses of food and wine. Many Americans are way too used to the concept of “fast food” in more than one sense. I love not being rushed to finish my meal and I loved the leisurely dining style in the Yacht Club restaurant on Seaside.
  • Dinner buffet is sparse. See above regarding the meal tradition in Italy. Buffets – dedicated to a “quick and dirty” eating style that is the antithesis of the Italian attitude toward food – aren’t very comm20180217_134548on outside tourist areas. On Seaside, the lunch buffet(s) – there are two of them – together offer pretty extensive choices, but at dinner time the larger one on deck 8 turns into a dining room (more on that later, in the blog post that will be titled Buon cibo, buon vino: the dining and drinking experience). Only the smaller buffet on deck 16, with limited menu, stays open. Again, this makes perfect sense in the context of an Italian ship.

    UPDATE: In response to feedback from cruisers, Seaside no longer closes the deck 8 buffet at dinner time. Now all non-Yacht Club guests are seated in one of the main dining rooms, with three seating times instead of two, and both buffets are open for dinner. 

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

Experiences matter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leveling the loyalty playing field

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

 

Speaking of loyalty

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

Up Next: La mia famiglia

 

 

 

 

 

 

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MSC SEASIDE: THE FULL EXPERIENCE (Part Eight)

The never-ending review: The debarkation situation

Copyright 2018 Debra Littlejohn Shinder

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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A ogni uccello il suo nido è bello.

To every bird, its nest is beautiful.

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Molto più fanno gli anni che i libri.

Years teach more than books.

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

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

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

— Mark Twain

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Arrivederci – until we meet again.

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

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

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

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