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.

~~~

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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MSC SEASIDE: THE FULL EXPERIENCE (Part Seven)

The never-ending review: Such sweet sorrow

Copyright 2018 Debra Littlejohn Shinder

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And now, the end is near

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I’ll drink to that.

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MSC SEASIDE: THE FULL EXPERIENCE (Part Six)

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

Copyright 2018 Debra Littlejohn Shinder

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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Vivi la vita al massimo.

Live life to the fullest.

 

 

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MSC SEASIDE: THE FULL EXPERIENCE (Part Five)

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

Copyright 2018 Debra Littlejohn Shinder

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A tutti non si adatta una sola scarpa.

The same shoe does not fit every foot.

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


 

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MSC SEASIDE: THE FULL EXPERIENCE (Part Four)

The never-ending review goes to Antigua

Copyright 2018 Debra Littlejohn Shinder

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, and yes – it was very, very good.

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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Going, going … almost gone.

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

Fino a domani …

Until tomorrow.

 

 

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MSC SEASIDE: THE FULL EXPERIENCE (Part Three)

The never-ending review goes on

Copyright 2018 Debra Littlejohn Shinder

In Part Two of this review of my week on the MSC Seaside, I left off at bedtime on Sunday night, at the end of a very full and very fun first sea day.  On Monday morning, when so many people back home were plunging back into the work week, I opened my eyes once again to blue skies and blue water, and that unique smell and “feel” of being in the middle of the ocean, so many miles away from the deadlines and demands and worries and responsibilities that live on the land.

I understand why some people get addicted, why they go from one cruise to another to a another, spending more time at sea than at home – although, much as I love it, that’s not for me. For me, at its best a cruise is a special time; it’s a respite from the “real life” routine, and I don’t want it to become my routine.

I want it to be something that I spend weeks or months planning for and counting down to as the excitement and anticipation slowly build. And then I want to savor it like a good glass of wine, to swish it around in my mouth a bit and let it permeate my taste buds and burn the memory of it into my neurons   But that’s just me. We’re all different, and I enjoy being a hybrid land and sea creature.

My week in a nutshell: Day Three (Monday, Feb. 19)

20180303_085250Clocks were set forward an hour overnight, which made for less sleep since it was officially later than it felt when I woke up at 9:00 a.m. (my body said it was 8:00). This time change is noted in the Daily Program and also on the TV, which my cabin steward had left on with the notice prominently displayed the evening before.

The sun was, of course, already up, and it was a nice day, temperatures in the 70s, partly sunny skies and another lovely view from my cabin. So far seas had been smooth. This first leg of the cruise, sailing from Miami to St. John’s, Antigua, was the longest – a distance of 1167 nautical miles.

I had ended the first sea day feeling stuffed and bloated from all the eating, drinking and being merry. My stomach still imagewasn’t completely back to normal Monday morning, but I couldn’t have asked for a nicer environment in which to recover. I spent most of the morning in the lounge – my new favorite place in the cruise world. So civilized – that description fits the entire Yacht Club environment but the Top Sail in particular.

Note: Yes, I Photoshopped the picture. It doesn’t really say that – but it should.

Since after all, it was Monday morning, and when you’re self-employed, you’re never really completely on vacation (at least in my field), I did have a little work to get done so I set up shop in my familiar “spot” in the lounge.

I’m lucky in that in my home office, I have an expansive view of the lake from the big picture window across from my desk. The only thing that beats that is having the whole expanse of the ocean a few feet away on the other side of the floor to ceiling glass. My “home away from home office” in the YC lounge made working while on a cruise an absolutely pleasant experience.

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View from my office at home vs view from my Top Sail Lounge “office”

Lounge-as-office grew out of my difficulty with the ergonomics of working at the desk in the cabin. It is a great desk, with a nice long surface for spreading out with my Surface and its peripherals, but unfortunately it’s tall and I’m short.

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Stacking pillows in the chair (and there were plenty of pillows) was a workaround but still not as comfortable as having a shorter table, and the ones in the lounge are exactly the right height. And nice as that view to the side from the desk is, it can’t hold a candle to the view when I lifted my eyes from the keyboard at my lounge “desk.”

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I wasn’t up to a big breakfast (which is something that I normally don’t do anyway) so coffee and perhaps a bite of one of the breakfast snacks in the lounge sounded like the perfect solution to easing my stomach back into normality without overloading it again.

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Not that it wouldn’t be entirely possible to overload on the lounge offerings. They even had tiny pancakes, along with a wonderful array of croissants and pastries (my own personal weakness). But I exercised self-control, remembering how I’d ended up feeling the night before, and knowing there would be plenty of  tempting, tantalizing, taste-bud-teasing goodies to come in the hours ahead.

~~~

After a couple hours of intermittent writing, reading, and relaxing, I was up for another quick round on the treadmill so I dropped the computer off in the cabin and headed for the gym. I came back, showered, and headed up to at least check out the Yacht Club grill for lunch. I had missed out on it the day before, what with the Teppanyaki experience.

Speaking of Teppanyaki, I actually had plans to go again for lunch that day, with a different group of friends.

It was a windy day so not as comfortable up top as it might have been (and as it was later in the week). The breeze felt good but napkins and such were blowing away if you didn’t anchor them down. The biggest problem, though, was the lack of seating in the shade for those who wanted to eat.

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There were plenty of loungers (out in full sun). No worries about “chair hogs” and not being able to get a place to sunbathe, as at the regular public pools on the ship. However, there were only six tables under the canopy. I did a group of tables with stacks of chairs around the corner, and commandeered a corner there.

The food was plentiful and smelled wonderful. There were several fish dishes, beef, pasta, veggies, salads, breads, cheese, and desserts. I had a small helping of mahi-mahi, roasted cauliflower, and a spinach pasta, and only ate about half of it.

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I wished I was hungrier, because it was so good – but I really needed to completely recover from the previous day since I had reservations at 7:30 that evening at Ocean Cay, the seafood specialty restaurant.  I was impressed that the bar waiter found me, and came to check on me often, even though I was in that hidden corner, but I knew better than to have a drink while my stomach was still in flux.

I enjoyed the ambiance of the area despite the wind. The Yacht Club pool isn’t large, but it’s lovely – and I rarely saw more than a couple of people in it (usually kids).  I never saw anyone in the hot tubs, which are around at the very front of the ship where it was a little windy most days and especially so on Monday).

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I have never, in 21 cruises, used one of the pools or hot tubs so none of this really mattered much to me. We had a pool and hot tub at home that we didn’t use for a decade, too. I’m also not a sun worshipper so the loungers are irrelevant to the quality of my cruise, but I know there are people reading this review who care about those things.

~~~

Next up on the day’s agenda was the cabin crawl event planned by one of the Facebook groups. Although I couldn’t reasonably take a big group of people trekking through the Yacht Club, I did want to see some of the other cabin categories, and I offered to show my cabin to those who wanted to see it, two or three people at a time.

NOTE: If you’re in the Yacht Club, you can bring non-YC visitors to your cabin, but they aren’t allowed to use the YC shared spaces. This makes sense, as the exclusivity and lack of crowding is one of the things for which you pay a premium whenimage you book a YC cabin. I was told that sometimes, when YC is not filled to capacity (it was on this cruise), they will sell one-day passes for $110 to a small number of non-YC passengers. This also makes sense, from a marketing standpoint, to allow those who might be thinking of booking YC next time to see what it’s like. A brief tour of the Yacht Club common areas is also part of the $49 Behind the Scenes tour, which I’ll also talk more about later.

~~~

But I digress. Getting back on track, the plan was to meet up at the casino bar for the crawl. Approximately thirty people had signed up. Far fewer showed up. That’s normal, to an extent. I’ve organized several cabin crawls on other ships and generally you can expect half to three-fourths as many people as are on the list to make it to the event.

On a cruise ship, time slips away from you and the best laid plans go awry. There is so much to do, so much to see, so much going on, and often you’re dealing with “issues” – things happening back home, problems on board with your cabin or account or luggage or whatever – and you completely forget that you were supposed to be somewhere at a certain time.

Sadly, though, our cabin crawl ended up being more of a bar crawl and poker run (neither of which interests me); we only actually saw one “official” cabin, but I did get to sneak a look at another that wasn’t officially on the list. 20180219_154248

I did get to see one of the Aurea aft wrap balcony cabins. I had considered booking that category at one point, when the Yacht Club was sold out, but I booked an Aurea whirlpool suite instead. Seeing the aft wrap confirmed that would have been the right decision for me. Oh, it’s nice – but I certainly wouldn’t have enjoyed it as much as my YC deluxe suite or even, I think, the Aurea whirlpool.

The room itself felt much more cramped than my YC suite, perhaps because one corner was cut off diagonally. There was a lot of wasted space in a little wrap-around entry hall, although it was nice that it had a little extra window in it. Because the room is on the corner, it has a decent sized window that faces out20180219_154202ward to the side of the ship (in this case, the port side) as well as the sliding door that faces the rear. It also has one really neat feature: storage space behind the mirror above the corner dresser/desk. In addition, the shower was much larger than in a regular cabin, but didn’t have a bench (or granite) like mine, and the counter wasn’t as long.

I didn’t like that the TV was small and was sitting directly on the desk instead of being wall mounted.

The balcony itself is very large and wraps around on the side of the ship, so for people who spend a lot of time out on the balcony or especially if you have a large family or want to invite friends to share your balcony, that would be a big plus. I prefer a balcony stateroom because of the “big view” through the glass doors when I’m in the cabin, but I rarely go out there. 

This is a cabin for people who like to be in the middle of the “action.” The deck 7 South Beach pool is right below you and it’s a pretty view when it’s empty, but in the evenings, when that area is full of people and loud music, I think it would destroy the tranquility of the best part of having an aft balcony: watching the wake.

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But again, that’s just me and I’m not typical. It’s great that we have so many different options, and I know the Yacht Club was the best choice for me.

~~~

One of the couples who were crawling with us had a Fantastica cabin just down the hall, and I asked for a sneak peek since I had heard they were pretty cramped and I wanted to see one for comparison. They are indeed small, especially the bathroom, and there is very little storage space. It’s a bit smaller than a Carnival regular balcony, for sure. On a positive note, the decor was nice and the smallish TV was mounted on a swivel (my giant screen TV in the YC1 was mounted flat against the wall; I’ll talk about that later).

Another reason I wanted to see this cabin: it’s one of the balconies near the front and back of the ship that have solid metal instead of see-through material under the railing. There had been some speculation about these in the groups as people examined photos of the ship’s exterior to try to determine whether their views would be obstructed by this.

seaside exterior frontI labeled the decks on the exterior photo of the ship shown here on the left, to try to helimagep people figure out whether their cabins fell into the “white metal” group. As you can see, this affects quite a few of the balconies at the front on decks 10 through 14.  At the aft, fewer are impacted, but in this case it extends all the way from deck 9 to deck 15, as shown in the photo to the right.

The cabin I saw was on of those at the aft. The good news was that there is a small clear section that you can see through at the bottom. 20180219_154420

The balcony seemed very narrow to me after getting accustomed to my YC1 balcony, but it was the shower that was the real “ouch” moment. I think it was even smaller than the shower in the tiny hotel room in London that I once stayed in, and I could see that those people who talked about having to “sit sideways” on the toilet weren’t exaggerating after all.

20180219_154440Later in the cruise, I got to see an oceanview cabin on deck 5.  It was similar to the Fantastica balcony, except for the large window instead of the full glass door. The most notable thing about these cabins – other than the amazing shrunken bathroom – is the very short distance between the end of the bed and the desk. The OV had one of the sofas that turns into a bunk bed, which I like better than the pull-out sofa beds, especially in these smaller cabins, since it takes up a lot less of the floor space with the same sleeping space.

The Seaside has many different types of cabins, at many different categories and experience levels (and prices), so there really is something for everyone. Whether you’re in a low-budget Bella interior or you’ve booked the multi-room Royal Suite in the Yacht Club, there is plenty to do and see and eat and drink and plenty of memories to make in the many public venues on the ship.

~~~

I admit it: the cabin crawl made me appreciate my week-long “house” and “neighborhood” even more than I already did. Afterward I was happy to get back to the comfort of my lounge, where there was a piña colada calling my name now that my digestive system was finally feeling normal again.

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I took a quick look at (and a couple of pictures of) that night’s menu for the YC restaurant, but I wouldn’t be trying any of those delicacies, as delicious as the roasted swordfish sounded. Tonight was the evening I’d chosen for my pre-booked dinner at Ocean Cay, the Seaside’s seafood specialty dining experience. After getting cleaned up and changing clothes, I met up with the rest in our group at the Welcome Bar outside the grouped specialty restaurants that occupy deck 16 mid-ship.  They have an extensive bar menu there, but I only got a glass of Moscato.

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The restaurant itself is very shiny and new and clean looking, decorated with (not surprisingly) a nautical theme. I’ll provide more photos of it in the “drinking and dining experience” installment of this review.

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The “dining experience” (which is part of the dining trio package that others in my group had purchased, as well as the “seafood fest” that I had booked) consists of an item from each menu page (an appetizer, entrée, and dessert). I went with the conch fritters, sea bass, and creme brulee. All of them were very tasty. Friends ordered the oysters and crab legs, which came in an impressive size.

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The service was good after some initial confusion over use of water coupons to get bottled water and which wines were included in the drink packages. Our waiter, Eugene, was professional but not particularly personable – one of the few staff/crew members I dealt with who somewhat fit the “not very friendly” description in some of the early reviews of Seaside. It didn’t, however, detract from the relaxing and delicious experience. I would definitely go to Ocean Cay again.

~~~

By the time we were finished with dinner, it was almost time for the 9:30 showing of “Fly” so we went to the theater. I had made reservations for all of the shows on the first day (you can do this on the TV, the phone app, or one of the kiosks around the ship; I’ll go into more detail about it in the “That’s entertainment” section. 

I thought I had reserved the 9:30 show, but apparently not; when Judith scanned my wristband, it didn’t show up.  One other member of our party was in the same situation, so we waited while the others went in. At 5 minutes until show time, if the theater isn’t full, they open it up to those without reservations, so we were able to get in and our friends have saved us seats. No big deal, but if you aren’t used to needing reservations for shows, it takes a little getting used to. After that I always checked my reservation times for the evening before heading to a show.

The shows take place in the Metropolitan Theater on decks 6 and 7 forward. This was also where we had gone for muster drill on embarkation day. The theater isn’t huge, but they have several showings per night of the same shows and the smaller size lends itself to a more intimate feel that’s nice.

The sets are fairly simple but pretty, and the emphasis is on dancing and singing; there’s not as much of a “story” as with some shows. There is also more of an international flavor.

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I’ll discuss the shows more in the “That’s entertainment” section, later in this review. I enjoyed the show and thought the performers were talented and high energy.

~~~

After the show, I wandered back down to the Atrium to see what was going on there. The theme party for the night was “cou20180219_220925ntry and western.”  I hadn’t brought a costume for that one; I thought about it, but boots are too bulky and heavy to pack and I didn’t really want to wear them on the plane.

The big triple screen in the atrium reflected the theme and there was a band there, playing C&W music. The triple screen is an ever-changing display that’s reminiscent of (but also an improvement on) the funnel-shaped “dreamscape” in the atrium of the Carnival Vista. I found myself going down to that end of the ship several times most days, just to see what was up on those screens. Some of the displays were very impressive, some were even touching, and this night’s cowboy scenes were just fun.

The party was going strong in the Haven Lounge, and photographers had western backgrounds and props set up so that those who did go all out with the ten gallon hats and string ties and ostrich-skinned boots could capture the moment forever. 20180219_222736

It looked like fun, but it was loud and I was beginning to get tired. I did stop by one photo “studio” setup on the way back toward my Yacht Club retreat, to have a few photos taken. One of them turned out “not bad” and I ended up 20180219_230503buying it.

When I got back to the cabin, I found my towel animal de jour along with the next day’s schedule and a couple of surprises: a nice folder containing one of my photos with the Captain, and a lanyard with a reminder that we would need to take our cards with us when we left the ship in Antigua the next day. The wristbands substitute for the cards on board, but don’t work for getting back on in port.

It had been another busy day, and a good one, but it ended on a less happy note with news of troubles back home (pet issues along with a downpour that was creating other problems, including an indoor ant invasion) that kept me up late. They say into every life a little rain must fall, and apparently more than a little was falling (literally) back at the house, where my husband was holding down the fort.

As Gilda Radner (remember her?) used to say, it’s always something. I did sleep well after I finally dropped off, and was glad to be able to snuggle down into the comfort of the YC bed with my latest towel animal and dream it all away. Feelings of guilt for being gone and helplessness to do anything about it aside, and discounting my lumps and bruises (which were healing nicely), the first two and a half days of the cruise had been nothing short of wonderful.

Buon principio fa buon fine
A good beginning makes a good ending.

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MSC SEASIDE: THE FULL EXPERIENCE (Part Two)

The never-ending review continues

Copyright 2018 Debra Littlejohn Shinder

In Part One of this review, I might have left the impression that I really liked my experience on the Seaside. If so, let me correct that now: I really loved my cruise on the Seaside. This was my twenty-first cruise. Most of them have been at least very good; several have been fantastic, and only a couple have left me wishing I’d just stayed home. I can honestly say that in many ways, this was my best cruise ever.

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There are many elements that go into making a cruise great – or not. For me, those factors include:

  • the ship itself,
  • the attitudes of crew and staff,
  • the service,
  • fellow passengers,
  • the destination ports,
  • the weather, and
  • even my own mood and physical health and things that are going on back home while I’m cruising.

My first MSC cruise gets big points for the first four items on that list. The ports and weather weren’t at all bad, either – but really, this cruise more than any other was all about the ship.

After all, no matter what cruise line you sail, which ship you’re on, what experience level you’ve booked, which loyalty status you’ve been awarded, whether you’re in the cheapest interior cabin in the bowels of the ship or the most expensive penthouse suite, the last three factors will be the same.  I was there as a “Carnival refugee,” longing for an experience that wasn’t the same old ship, with my main objective to see what MSC – and Seaside in particular, and the Yacht Club experience, especially – had to offer.

So this review will focus primarily on the ship, the people, and service – with occasional forays into the other aspects of the cruise.

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I covered embarkation day in Part One, so I’ll continue with an abbreviated day-by-day report before delving into individual topic overviews.

My week in a nutshell: Day Two (Sunday, Feb. 18)

Sunday was our first full day on board and our first sea day, and my agenda was especialimagely full – I had come back to the cabin the evening before to find invitations to two parties: a Yacht Club welcome event with the Captain in the Top Sail Lounge at 11:00 a.m. and the Cruise Critic Meet & Mingle in the Haven Lounge downstairs at 5:00 p.m.

In addition, I had found myself with plans to eat lunch at the Teppanyaki specialty restaurant twice, on both the first and last sea days of the cruise (which turned out to be great as it was absolutely delicious) and so was meeting friends there at noon.

Sunday was also designated as both a formal night and “Gatsby” (roarin’ 20s) theme night, and photos with the Captain were scheduled for that evening, as well. Whew!

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After walking around in a daze on embarkation from sleep deprivation (and my knock-down, drag-out with the glass door), I had slept like a baby Saturday night. In fact, better than some babies – including the one next door on some days. The bed was amazingly comfortable and after getting to sleep before 1:00 a.m. (early for me), I woke up around 8:00 a.m. feeling about a thousand times better, albeit with a sore forehead and knee.  No bruise on the forehead, though; just a slight bump that was tender but not noticeable (I had been making plans to cut myself bangs if my head was purple). Fashion disaster averted.

I woke to a beautiful day at sea. This is what cruising is all about. It was so calm and relaxing, the water deep blue, a few whitecaps but not a lot of motion. Not that I don’t like motion; I do – and would get plenty of it later on as we hit some rougher seas. But the view from my balcony was pretty close to perfect.

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Despite my slight claustrophobia that has deterred me from ever booking an interior cabin on a ship, I had already decided by this point that I would do an interior if that was the only choice available in the Yacht Club. Nonetheless, I was really happy to be able to sit in my cabin and look out at the sea going by, especially first thing in the morning.

Around 10:00 a.m., I was dressed and decided to make my way to the Top Sail Lounge a little early so I could grab some coffee and see what they had there for a light breakfast. I wasn’t disappointed. The coffee (first I’d had on the ship) tasted great (Americano, black) and they had a nice selection of pastries, and had also laid out small plates at each of the seating areas for the Captain’s party.  A pianist and violinist were already providing wonderful background music to bring me more gently and gradually into the full world of the awake.

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Captain Massa, Ziggy (the hotel director) and Ivan (the Yacht Club director) soon joined the party, and made their way around the room, spending time with each of us. I can’t emphasize enough how friendly and personable all of them are and how welcome they made me feel. We talked at length and it really set a wonderful tone for my stay on the Seaside.

I also heard from others, not in the Yacht Club, that they had similar experiences with the Captain. It was obvious from their stories that he cares about all of the passengers on the ship, not just those in the YC.

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This was also where I met Judith, who was helping out with the party here in YC but I would also see her all over the ship that week, assisting with the photos with the Captain that evening and scanning cards and wristbands at the theater on other nights. She and I hit it off quickly but then bonded at a new level when we discovered we were both huge turtle fans. I showed her my pictures of Freddie and she was fascinated. I felt like a proud grandma showing off my babies (the dogs, too). I hope she’ll remember me as the “turtle lady.”

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I had to hurry from the lounge to make it to the Teppanyaki restaurant on time, but luckily the specialty restaurants are right across from the YC area on the same deck. There were twelve of us signed up and we were all assigned to one of four hibachi tables within the Asian restaurant. Ours was the only “active” table that day.

Our chef was Joseph, and he was from the Philippines. Not only did he prepare a huge and delicious meal, but he also put on a great show.

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I don’t usually eat sashimi unless it’s eel (yes, I can be picky), but it was included in the meal option that I chose, and I was feeling adventurous, plus the fish I was served was white, instead of red – and it was absolutely yummy. I may have to rethink my position in future visits to Japanese restaurants.

imageThere are three main options, as well as a vegetarian selection. Prices depend on the proteins that are included. Because I don’t eat beef and both of the higher end options include steak, I picked Katana. It’s normally priced at $25 but we got a 20% discount because it was the first sea day.

It was a huge meal. It began with the sushi and sashimi and then proceeded to miso soup, which was very good. That was followed by a salad that was fine. For me, the star of this show was the mahi-mahi, a thick slab that was grilled to perfection, not dry but thoroughly cooked.  Then came the excellent garlic fried rice (with egg) and grilled chicken with mushrooms, followed by dessert – ginger ice cream on pineapple slice. It was all excellent.

Photo by Dallas Smith

Photo by Dallas Smith

I had no problem using my deluxe drink package from Yacht Club to get drinks. A scan of the magic YC wristband and up comes the $0.00 charge on their little handheld devices. I came to really like that feature over the course of the cruise. More on that later.

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After all that food, I needed to burn some calories. I went to the gym (which I’ll review in a later instal20180217_152756lment) and walked on the treadmill for another half hour. Then I had a nice Bailey’s Banana Colada in the Top Sail and enjoyed the view from the chair where I had already staked claim, at the side of the room with a full, unobstructed view of the ocean (unlike the front, where the outside lounge chairs and the windscreen somewhat diminished the view).

As I was to learn in the coming days, time in the Top Sail goes by very quickly. That first sea day was no exception; before I knew it, it was time to go get cleaned up and ready for the Cruise Critic meetup.

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I rarely participate in the Cruise Critic forums as I much prefer the Facebook interface, but to give credit where due: their party was very nicely done. Kudos also go to MSC for providing such a beautiful venue and really doing it up right.

I’ve organized large Meet & Greets on Carnival cruises before and almost never has the CD or an officer attended. John Heald will (sometimes) provide a couple of bottles of champagne and a couple of “genuine solid gold plastic ships on a stick” to give away as door prizes. All you can generally expect is a reserved lounge or bar area (if you’re lucky – if you’re not, Guest Services tells you they have no record of your request and you’re out of luck, as Vlad on the Sunshine did last May. Fortunately, I’ve got friends in both low and high places, and Bob Burgess and CD Emma Nixon saved the day and found us both a spot and some great door prizes). 

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Anyway, on the Seaside, they sent printed invitations to the cabins and set us up in the gorgeous Haven Lounge, where they provided a beautiful cake and served free drinks and finger foods.

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There was a live band playing, and both Andre (the CD) and Captain Massa spoke briefly. Ziggy and Ivan were also there, and there was an “official” group photo taken (which I completely forgot about until I was back home – didn’t even see how it turned out) and informal photo opps, as well. 

Image may contain: 23 people, people smiling, people standingPhoto by Dallas Smith

It was a very pleasant time, and I got to meet a couple of the people from our Facebook group whom I hadn’t run across previously.

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I admit it: I had more drinks that day than I normally ever do. It started with champagne at the YC Welcome party, then I had a couple of glasses of wine with the Teppanyaki. That BBC in the lounge, followed by more champagne again at the Cruise Critic event put me over the top.  My usual limit is 3 or 4 over the course of a day, and often on cruises I only have 1 or 2. 

I’d also had a few of those delectable sweet snacks in the lounge and a sampling of the finger foods – plus the very yummy cake – while meeting and mingling with the CC people. It was getting close to dinner time when the party was over, but my stomach was feeling a little queasy from the mix of two much food plus too many drinks.  The last thing I wanted was to eat. 20180301_211007

Since it was Gatsby night, though, and I had conducted a major hunt for a great costume – not settling for a cheap Amazon flapper dress that would fall apart after one wearing but trekking out to the vintage shop in Plano and going for sequins rather than just fringe – I knew I had to get dressed up. 

So I did, and wandered down to the atrium where they had scheduled a “Gatsby Moment” for 8:00 p.m. on deck 6. I was over an hour early, though, and ran into my favorite threesome – Captain Massa, Ziggy and Ivan – at the Venchi bar.  So I got to have another nice conversation with them, and Ivan showed me photos of his little daughter and told me how he missed her.

The photos with Captain Massa were scheduled for 7:00 p.m. so I decided to go ahead and do that while I was there, and got another chance to talk with both him and Judith, my turtle-loving friend. 

Captain Massa 1

I hung around for the Gatsby moment, which lasted until around 8:15, and then went back to my cabin. I intended to change clothes and go get some coffee in the lounge and then change back into the flapper outfit and go back down to the Gatsby party at 10:30 in the Haven lounge. However, I was comfortable in the lounge that I ended up just fetching my Kindle and reading in “my” corner for an hour or so, then going back to the cabin to kick off my shoes and get into my pajamas and finish a few more chapters before bedtime.

Not very exciting, maybe – but definitely very relaxing. And relaxing was exactly what I was after on this cruise. Oh, and for those who have said they don’t do towel animals on MSC, well, ‘tain’t necessarily so – at least in the Yacht Club.  20180225_014457

I spent a little time on Facebook, and bid all my friends a good night from me and my elephant, as I looked forward to my second sea day on the beautiful Seaside, which would prove to be even better than the first.

A huge thank you to Dallas Smith for the great photos that he took of our Teppanyaki group and at the Cruise Critic Meet & Mingle. The bad thing about being a photographer is that you end up with few photos that have you in them, unless you resort to the dreaded “selfie” or can find someone else to frame the photo and push the button. That doesn’t always turn out so well – but Dallas is a talented photographer and was able to get some very nice shots, even of me. Smile  

 



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