This was my first time cruising with MSC. I wanted to try this line out because of the supposed innovative design of their new ship, the MSC Seaside, which sails year round from Miami to the Caribbean. MSC has a strong presence in Europe but their push into the North American market including very competitive prices and status match was the draw for me.
On my cruise ticket, it indicated a 3:10pm check-in time. We ignored it but didn't want to arrive too early and be stuck in huge crowds, so we arrived at the new cruise Terminal F at 12:15pm. Going through security was quick even though an agent stopped me and did his "first" manual inspection with another agent. We never drop off our luggage but rather carry on our bags to avoid any problems, so this was probably why they wanted to go through it. The line for checking in went fairly fast, lasting about 30 minutes. Even though staterooms weren't supposed to be ready until 2pm, we went to the aft elevators and straight to our cabin. Unlike other cruise lines, the hallways weren't blocked off and our cabin was ready, so we were able to drop off our luggage, which caught the attention of our stateroom attendant, Walter. He didn't seem to have any problem with it and introduced himself. He was very nice but hardly spoke/understood English.
Our stateroom 11260 was on deck 11, Flamenco Beach. At 161 square feet for a balcony cabin, it was a little narrow but I liked the interior design, which was modern with a predominance of shades of purple accented by halogen and LED lighting. The bathroom was smaller than what I have been used to but being only 5'6", I didn't have any issues. But I can imagine a much larger person would have a problem moving around in the shower and the sink jutted out in front of the toilet, so if you are tall, your right leg would have to move to the left. I think the layout was not thought out properly. When usually you would find the closet across from the bathroom door upon entering the cabin, in this case it was next to the sofa. Unfortunately, you could only access your hanging clothes from the left as you would only get a few inches of opening on the right. Furthermore, you only get a total of 5 small shelves and drawers. We don't usually pack a lot but I could see where this would be an issue for a lot of people. The bed was comfortable and for most of the trip, there was only a comforter on top. It wasn't until the last night that a top sheet magically showed up. Instead of a fitted sheet, they try to keep a flat sheet over the mattress with metal clamps, but they don't work very well and you will see exposed mattress by the morning. The balcony was about the same as what I was used to in terms of size, but I guess I misunderstand what steel balustrade meant: the emblem rising up the aft side of the condo-style section of the ship replaced a see-through panel. This turned out fine, especially in the mornings.
I loved the modern technology of the stateroom. Upon entering the stateroom, you have to insert your cruise card in order to turn the electricity on. The A/C and heat were very efficient and the thermostat was very accurate at reaching and maintaining desired temps. There were buttons in the room to display lights outside for the stateroom attendant: Occupied or Vacant, Do Not Disturb or Make Up Room. These worked really well and we were never disturbed unnecessarily and our room was cleaned in record time with the light on while out for lunch.
Considering the Italian background of MSC, I was excited about the pizza and pasta on this ship. The pizza was just okay as the crust wasn't very crispy and the sauce pretty bland. I had to try one of the breakfast pizzas with an egg on top, but the hard cooked egg on top didn't impress. In the Marketplace Buffet, the larger of the two that we predominantly frequented for lunch, most of the pastas were good but considering that they had trays and trays of baked pasta in warming ovens underneath the buffet serving areas, some of them were gummy. The standouts were the lasagna bolognese and ziti with meatballs. The best pasta can actually be found in the Ocean Cay specialty restaurant: the tagliatelle with forest mushrooms.
On most days (while in port), only the Marketplace Buffet was open for lunch. This also means it would get very crowded. And instead of a lot of variety, there were only 2 sides with the same sections: grill, carving station, pizza, pasta, salad, Mediterranean, hot dishes, soup, and desserts. Some dishes were good, some just mediocre. I didn't realize the main dining room Seashore restaurant was open on sea days, so I didn't get to try a sit down and be served lunch. Dinner in the main dining room Ipanema restaurant was probably the worst food I have had on a cruise ship. Dishes were mostly just lukewarm, very unimaginative, and poorly executed. The shrimp cocktail was literally 3 very small shrimp with a wedge of lemon (no sauces, not kidding). The pasta alfredo with a shell on prawn was inedible. The French onion soup tasted like canned with a circle of untoasted bread with cheese that struggled to melt on top. We only ate in the dining room twice, which was more than enough. I'm glad I changed our dinner restaurant as one night we walked by the Marketplace and saw through the window columns and columns of covered plates stacked at the buffet for dinner service. It seems like food isn't made to order but rather in advance and then suffers a long death waiting to be served.
We had the Trio Specialty dining package to avoid the main dining room, but some of the restaurants didn't fare that much better. The sashimi/sushi bar was great: fresh, big pieces of fish and a friendly Japanese chef. The Pan Asian fusion restaurant was just okay: the seared tuna was flavorful but the overcooked vegetables on the side of both our main courses seemed like a scoop out of a warming bucket. Many people complained about Ocean Cay; we even saw a couple get up from their table and leave the main courses of fish uneaten. Knowing this, we avoided getting any shellfish or scallops (heard they were overcooked and rubbery) and opted for the pasta dishes instead, the one with the mushrooms being the best, the clams, not so flavorful or spicy. At least the pasta was golden and homemade. The creme brulee was a travesty with the "brulee" being just a gooey mess of melted sugar, nothing to crack into. I was starting to get the impression that most dishes were made a long time ago and were just dying in a kitchen window somewhere. You would think that the Teppanyaki restaurant would be better being able to see food prepared in front of you. Unfortunately, Roy Yamaguchi should be ashamed as our "chef" was an inexperienced, shy guy who just consistently let our food die on the grill, overcooked with no fanfare to accompany it. Asparagus and small pieces of salmon on the grill for over 20 minutes, watching this unfold in front of us was sad. And forget about anything "flamed before you" as mentioned in their advertisement, as there were no flames or sliced and diced vegetables before your eyes. They bring in a tray of pre-cut veggies instead, only to suffer a worse death being overcooked along with the rice and eggs. The only good part was the filet mignon, which he managed to cook medium rare.
The best restaurant on the ship was Butcher's Cut. We had a table next to the open kitchen and there were several managers buzzing around and checking in on us, probably the best service anywhere on the ship (more on that later). At least here, the shrimp cocktail consisted of 4 huge prawns with an actual sauce. Everyone at the table had different types of steaks or lamb chops and everything was cooked perfectly. The menu looked good at Bistrot La Boheme, but opted out of dining there as the placement of tables out in the open in the atrium with a lot of foot traffic meant that hardly anyone actually ate there. We only had room service once but paying $3 each for 2 eggs sunny side up (one plate had egg whites that were not even cooked) on a slab of ham and english muffins that never saw a toaster was a joke.
There is where MSC fails miserably. After boarding the ship, we went to the Marketplace Buffet for lunch. Since no one came up to us at our table when we started eating, I was finally able to flag down a person wearing a bar service white shirt. Since our cruise included mealtime drinks, we both ordered a glass of wine; however, we were told that our drink package wasn't in the system. She suggested that we would be charged and then go to reception to have it taken off. I declined as I didn't think I should have to wait in line for drinks that should already be included. I pleaded nicely and she eventually caved and agreed to put them in the system at no charge. All the staff (except for the dining room for food, unbelievably) run around with tablet like devices for ordering drinks; however, there is so much tapping for very little result. Afterwards, I realized that we were assigned for dinner at the Marketplace "Restaurant" as per our cruise card. Since you can't reserve your dinner time or restaurant in advance, I realized that there were actually only 2 main dining rooms (Seashore and Ipanema) and figured that they just converted the buffet into a restaurant for dinner. So, I decided to make a visit to reception (guest services) after all. There was a very long line but fortunately, one of the Brazilian front desk agents came around the line to try and resolve issues. I explained to him that I didn't want to have dinner in the same place as was the lunch buffet and prefered to be in an actual restaurant but was told immediately that there was no difference. Upon insistence, he directed me to the Seashore restaurant to make any changes. There was a wait here too and they gave us a number in order to speak to one of two restaurant managers. Again, I was told the same thing that there was no difference but only when I said that I didn't want to eat at 6:30pm, being European, he agreed that it was too early and reassigned us to the Ipanema restaurant at 7:45pm.
Afterwards, we decided to make reservations for the specialty restaurants since I had pre-purchased the Trio Dining package on the MSC website almost a month prior. The restaurant coordinator, Jean Mae (one of only 2 crew members that really stood out), was very nice but said that there was no dining package in the system and there was nothing she could do except put in our reservations. So again, the next day we went back to reception only to wait a 1/2 hour to speak to gum-chewing Fabrizio who just stared at his screen for 5 minutes and then said "not in the system." He then said he would call "land" tomorrow and then call my stateroom with an update. That never happened. I even tweeted MSC who asked for my booking number but never responded after I sent them it in a direct message. Fortunately, later Jean Mae was able to add the Trio package; however, it was at a higher price.
Most of the time it would take forever to order a drink (20 minute wait), be it in the dining room, buffet, some lounges, and even at a bar. This ship is huge with almost 5,200 passengers but only 1,413 crew. That is a horrible crew to passenger ratio and it shows. The worst was the Marketplace buffet. Little did I realize until later that the black jacket wearing crew could get drinks but they never would go up to any tables and ask anyone if they wanted a drink. Even the bar service staff would walk by your table, avoiding eye contact so that you couldn't even flag someone down. I thought that even sitting at a table by the one bar in the Marketplace would mean better service, but no. I learned quickly that the only way to get a drink was to go up to the bar and just order from the bartender. This pissed them off but only fueled their anger with the service staff in white shirts. In fact, they didn't seem to get along and were openly fighting with each other and accusing one another of not doing their job. Most of the staff seemed barely trained, if it all, and would stand in the back corners not knowing what to do, hardly ever going to tables to pick up dirty dishes and glassware. It was almost as if they were told to wait until everyone leaves to finally clear tables and fill up their carts.
Our room steward was amazing though, always greeting us when we left and quick at cleaning our cabin. However, there is no number to call for service. On the second night before going to bed, I realized that there were no room service breakfast menus to hang out on the door. When I called room service, they told me I had to get one from our cabin steward. And when I clarified that there was no way to call them, they suggested I get him when he was cleaning another room or write a note. Stressing that it was late in the evening, they said I should call reception but having tried this earlier, I told them that if the line was busy, as it usually was, I would call them (room service) back. Of course, the guest services line was busy and I called room service back and spoke to the same guy. I told him the line was busy and I would keep calling him until I could get a menu. But since it was 11:30 pm, I insisted I needed one for tomorrow morning and they said I had to go to reception in person: really, go down to reception in my underwear at this hour?! Magically, a bunch of menus showed up under our door after I had already given up and was about to get into bed.
The ship is huge but fails on maximizing space for the number of passengers. They sacrificed interior spaces by scrunching in the middle for an outside promenade and cabana cabins that no one used much, so indoor hallways are narrow and bottlenecked with people at peak times. Some elevators were out of service during the entire cruise. There were also broken windows and a cracked speaker on top. I only saw a bunch of engineers/technicians on the last evening being directed by a few senior officers (why now at the end of the cruise?). Since the Yacht Club takes over almost the entire front of the ship, there is no way to even go anywhere in the bow of the ship except for the Metropolitan theater, which is extremely small (no balconies or 2nd level) for such a large ship. The decor is modern and exemplifies Italian design with lots of mirrors, halogen lighting, and shiny objects, but sometimes lack in functionality with uncomfortable chairs (no one hardly sat near the Champagne bar).
With the exception of the "doreme" dancing logos, the shows were some of the best I have ever seen on a cruise ship, at least the few that I was able to catch. The Metropolitan theater included a scaled down opera production of Madame Butterfly which was top notch. The singers and dancers were very professional in the other shows. There were always musicians and singers around the ship especially of note, those in the Seaview Lounge and atrium. The Forest Aquaventure pool area was really fun, being able to use a waterslide that jutted out over the side of the ship and another slide with a small boat/waterboard, which was free and uncrowded during port days.
Nassau was okay, has a nice walkable town with at least a couple shops with local crafts. But Jamaica is a dump, or at least the port of Ocho Rios is. There is no infrastructure when you get off (no shops or shuttle to town), just a crowded area for shore excursion buses and offers for taxis. I heard the walk was too long into town, which was just more vendors hawking you, so we turned around and headed back onto the ship. Grand Cayman has a nice public beach, only $5 each way via shuttle, but it is very crowded. Water was nice. Back in town where the tenders docked was just loaded with tacky souvenir shops with crap from China. We didn't get off in Costa Maya as we had been there before on a previous cruise and this time, 2 other mega ships were unloading their 5K+ passengers, only to be funneled into a very small fake village.
This was probably the first time on a cruise that I was able to sleep in on disembarkation day. There were very few announcements and no one knocked on our door. Luggage tags were based on deck number but we walked off at about the same time (9:30am) with no delay.
I really wanted to love MSC and the first of many new ships, the Seaside. Sometimes the technology was great: the app, stateroom controls, navigation maps around the ship. Sometimes it wasn't: the MSC website sucks (sometimes the booking would disappear along with the specialty dining packages available not to mention very bad navigation), staff weren't fully trained on their devices (a lot of tapping but mass confusion, such as which drinks were included or not in a package), connecting to the Internet. The gelato was just like being in Italy and the chocolates are heavenly. The modern style of the ship impresses but the size and layout is not functional. I thought that Yacht Club would be the only way to go on this ship based on other reviewers until we spoke to someone in the cruise industry actually staying in one of the suites. I changed my mind when he said the food was terrible there too.
Unfortunately, the negatives outweighed the positives. The death nail was the Voyagers Club "exclusive welcome back cocktail party" on the last day. Because there "were so many of us" they had to move the event into the Metropolitan theater, which ironically doesn't allow food or drinks anyway (another negative). It was hardly a party as all that happened was that the Captain and some officers bragged about the their upcoming new ships and how much they were looking forward to taking over their new market...three separate speeches each translated into 6 different languages. People were walking out in droves. To add insult to injury, you had to take your coupon for one sparkling drink elsewhere, probably why everyone was leaving. The last time I attended a Club party, I was serenaded one after another with trays of hot hors d'oeuvres and champagne. X marks the spot of my next cruise, for sure.
I called MSC and Patrice was very patient. She took the time to read through my booking notes (I guess it is just one giant paragraph that the system on the ship doesn't have access to) and find the problem. Apparently, when I canceled my shore excursions a few days before sailing, that agent canceled in error all of my pre-purchased items attached to the booking, which included the Trio dining package and 2nd Internet package. And no refund was issued at that time. I'm now waiting for it to be refunded in addition to my future booking on the Divina, which I cancelled.