Having been an avid cruiser for the past 30 years, it isn’t often when I get to say I did something for the first time when it comes to cruising. Well, the week of December 19-26, 2015, I did just that. I sailed on the big, beautiful MSC Cruise Lines MSC Divina on her holiday sailing to St. Thomas, San Juan, and Nassau round trip from Miami. It was my first time on MSC, and, of course, my first time on the Divina. I even purchased the MSC Premium Adult Beverage Package, which was the first time I’ve ever done that, too! It was a cruise of many firsts.
Getting to Know Divina
My initial impressions of the ship were that it was big and quite simple in its design. The exterior, while handsome, is mostly white with hints of Navy Blue and the MSC compass logo clearly visible. Embarkation was a smooth operation and the time from check-in to setting foot on the vessel was a mere 45 minutes. My wife, Nancy, and my mother, Joan, accompanied me on this voyage. All three of us veteran cruisers were impressed by how smooth and simple the embarkation process seemed.
Once aboard, we were directed to the Calumet Buffet area where the food orgy begins. This is one of the largest buffets I have ever seen on any cruise ship. Numerous serving stations and plenty of staff were ready to help you learn your way around. We found a nice table and grabbed a couple of salads and sandwiches to start. Salads were exceptionally fresh with nice crisp lettuce and plenty of dressing choices. The sandwiches were tasty enough for an embarkation snack. We even got to see the president of the line’s USA operations, Rick Sasso, as he made a quick tour of the dining area and skirted off to his next area of inspection. There is nothing quite like seeing the big boss walk through your ship before it sets sail to assure you that everything is humming along smoothly.
After our lunch we headed out to Le Sirene, a beautiful enclosed pool with a lovely bar. There we met Tonny from Peru, an excellent bartender who explained to me how the MSC Premium Adult Beverage program works. He took our drink orders and sent a server over to deliver the first of several rounds of premium drinks. No need to settle for “house” brands with this drink package. My simple “Vodka Tonic” became a Grey Goose Vodka and Tonic. Nancy’s Pinot Grigio became Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio. As the week went on and I tried different beverages at different bars, I found the Premium Adult Beverage Package to be worth its weight in gold. It also included delicious Segafredo coffee and coffee drinks, gelato, and several delicious Italian specialty pastries in the Piazza del Doge, a favorite gathering area for drinking, shopping and socializing in the center of the ship. I paid $427 for my beverage package. I totaled up my receipts when I got home and found out that I had actually consumed more than twice that amount! The MSC Adult Beverage Package is a “must” in my opinion if you are going to enjoy Adult beverages while on board and don’t want to worry about a bar bill at the end of your vacation. During the course of the week, I tried and enjoyed some wonderful types of vodka, including Grey Goose, Ketel One, Belevedere, UltimaT, and Beluga – a Russian vodka not regularly found on cruise ships. I even had a small taste of Johnny Walker Blue (another first). At $22 per serving, I was surprised it was included in my drink package. But it was!
By 2:30 on embarkation day, the cabins were ready. I had booked a Cove style balcony that was absolutely lovely. Large, spacious and modern, the cabin did not disappoint. The Cove balcony was another story and I cannot recommend this to anyone without realizing that the balcony is mostly enclosed by metal. Yes, there is a railing you can stand at but the placement of the cabin near the front of the ship on Deck 8 meant the enclosure was necessary to keep the sea spray and waves at bay while at sea. There was constant moisture on the balcony and the only time we found it useful was while in port although we really weren’t on the ship too much while docked in St. Thomas and San Juan. While it allowed us to sleep with the curtains open at night and gave a sense of the sea, the Cove balcony isn’t for us. Still, the price was the enticement for us to book this type of cabin and for what we paid, I can’t complain too much. Suffice to say, our next MSC cruise will not be in a Cove-style balcony.
For dinner the first night, we opted to eat at the Eataly Pizzeria. MSC has partnered with Eataly, a world-renowned culinary operation that has its roots in Italy and restaurants and stores around the globe. One of the more notable chefs involved in Eataly is Lidia Bastianich, who my mom adores (and more than once on this cruise, imitated), and Mario Batali, who I like. We had heard all sorts of things about the pizza here so we figured we would avoid the usual first-night craziness of the main dining rooms and we were not disappointed. The pizza here is very, very good. The pizza is prepared by a pizza chef as you order it. The chef is from Italy and speaks “poco” English. He hand tosses your pie and then tops it with love and pops it into his own pizza oven! That’s right, he has his own pizza oven onboard the ship! If you’ve ever had cruise ship pizza and wondered how they got away with calling it pizza after you finished, you need to try a pizza from Eataly Pizzeria on Divina. Toasted crust, not too thick, served still steaming from the oven. Mama Mia! It was so good, we went back twice more for lunch and once more for the final meal of the cruise where we devoured a meter-long (3.2 foot) pizza!
Life on Board
The Divina is a very large ship. It can be a little daunting to folks who aren’t used to modern megaliners but that being said, it offers all of the things you would expect in a large ship and a few things you wouldn’t. Cruising on an Italian line with a large international audience the first thing you will notice is that as an American, you may be a minority onboard. This sailing certainly acknowledged its U.S. guests by making announcements and such in English but you also heard Italian, French, German, Spanish, Portuguese, and other languages spoken by both guests and crew. Most impressive to me was meeting the Captain on the second night of the cruise. He spoke fluently in five languages that I heard and spoke perfect English to me when we met at his reception. It is one thing to know how to say “hello” and “goodbye” in several languages. It is quite another to be able to converse in so many tongues. Either brush up on your foreign language skills ahead of time or be prepared to be the “typical American” on board and speak only English. It is an international experience. I met passengers from Argentina, Chile, France, Italy, Germany, Switzerland, and U.K. while aboard. I met crew from Peru, Mexico, Italy, Philippines, Indonesia, India, Ukraine, Croatia, and other countries. Like I said, a truly international experience.
There is trivia (Mom’s favorite), there are exercise classes, pool games, kid’s activities, wine seminars, jewelry seminars, spa experiences, and much, much more offered daily to keep you busy. Not to be missed are the evening’s shows in the Pantheon Theater, which are sure to keep you entertained. The Pantheon Theater is one of the most beautiful cruise ship theaters I have even been in. Seats are comfortable and well arranged so there really aren’t too many undesirable seats in the theater. Standing ovations at the shows’ endings were routine as the level of singing and dancing was superb each night. Some folks are turned off by the lack of a live show band during these performances but I can assure you that the live singing is impeccable and the dancing and costumes were fine enough to be of Broadway quality. I have been on several cruises recently on other cruise lines where I have left the shows early because they were so bad. I wouldn’t dream of missing any of the shows I saw on Divina. Bravo!
If you follow cruise review websites like Cruise Critic, you’ll see a mish mash of reviews on dining aboard this ship. Some of the negative reviews need to be taken in light of what is actually happening here. I want to preface this commentary with the fact that as an avid cruiser, I have seen a marked decline industry-wide in the quality of cruise ship food. This goes for all of the cruise lines I have been on in the past few years including, Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, Princess, and Norwegian Cruise Line. That being said, I also regularly upgrade my dining to specialty restaurants. That is not because I am a foodie or snooty about my dining but because there are some amazing restaurants on these ships that you just can’t go to any other time than when you are on the ship. Missing these experiences is a mistake I am just not interested in making.
We ate dinner at the Villa Rosa restaurant on two nights. One of those nights is Italian Night and I highly recommend you do not miss this meal. Lots of great choices including an excellent Veal Ossobuco and a very good Chicken Scaloppini. I enjoyed the appetizers, side pastas, and more. The service is not what most Americans are used to and takes longer than most people like. The waiters are stretched too thin, in my opinion, and the table beverage service is limited. I solved that problem by simply slipping out and getting my own drinks from a nearby bar but there were others in my vicinity that just seemed disappointed. If you go on this cruise and simply go to one of the main dining rooms every night for dinner, my guess is you may be less than thrilled although I spoke with plenty of folks who said they always found something on the menu to eat and that the experience was OK overall. That is a less than glowing review, I know, but it was what I experienced. I had breakfast and lunch in the Black Crab Dining room most days and found both to be quite good. In fact, given the stories I heard of the Calumet Buffet during those hours, I would whole-heartedly recommend the Black Crab for breakfast and lunch whenever possible.
One night, we ventured to the Galaxy Disco Restaurant. Located midship near the top of the ship is this hidden gem of Mediterranean Fusion food. It is also open for brunch at times. For dinner, it was one of my favorite Divina experiences. Appetizers (crispy duck), salads, soups were all excellent. My Mom had a delicious beef tenderloin and I had a succulent lamb chop. Combined with excellent service and unparalleled views of the sea, this restaurant gets a strong recommendation from me. Also, very few people seemed to know about it. It is underutilized and offers a reprieve from the throngs of people you will find elsewhere around the ship. Later at night, the restaurant becomes a full-fledged disco!
Our other dinner meals were at the Eataly Steakhouse and the Eataly Italia restaurant. While neither would rate as one of my favorite specialty restaurants at sea, they both did a nice job of providing very good service and value for what was offered. The pastas were quite good at the steakhouse. I liked the bread and the dipping oil as an appetizer. The steak itself was good but unremarkable. In Italia, I had a very nice lamb dinner but my Mom ordered the fish and was greatly disappointed. They were both unusual experiences as the décor and atmosphere just kind of miss the mark in my opinion.
Daytime dining options are a different story. I had read many reviews of the Calumet Buffet so I wasn’t surprised to hear my Mom complain about the food quality and selection. To be fair, you couldn’t get me or my wife to eat at a buffet at sea or on land unless it was our only option. It has nothing to do with the food; I just don’t trust my fellow passengers touching the utensils that are used or touching the food itself. Other than the embarkation meal, I avoided the place like the plague. I went through one day to take pictures and I was totally grossed out by the mess left by passengers at tables, on the floor, and even on the windows in the buffet on this otherwise Spartan ship. Sorry, fellow passengers, you ruined this experience for me.
The Devil is in the Divina Details
Here are a few observations about things I saw or heard about while onboard and how I think the line could improve or modify to better accommodate the American cruiser.
Le Sirene is advertised as a soothing oasis but was anything but during the cruise. Yes, there were more than a thousand children onboard but they have the Aqua Park complex in the middle of the ship to enjoy. They need to be kept out of the pools and hot tubs that are for the adults to enjoy. My Mom took some pictures of a hot tub full of children here. Again, you can’t get me to spend time outside with children so I knew better than to ever venture towards the pools on sea days. Sun-seekers literally have no place to go on this ship where children don’t surround them. That’s a mistake, in my opinion, because many cruisers do not travel with children and they deserve their own place in the sun without the screaming and chaos that generally accompanies families.
I think the Calumet buffet needs an upgrade in both food and food handling. Yes, it is labor intensive to have the food served versus self-serve but the passengers are the real problem here. The buffet is so big; there are actually maps to show you how to get from one food station to the other! There is nothing wrong with providing a large buffet but the food and sitting area must be appealing. I did not honestly hear one of my fellow passengers have anything good to say about this buffet. I know the line spends a fortune on food and staff in this area but something different needs to happen here. It just doesn’t work as is.
My other general observation about the ship is that the traffic flow of people on Deck 7 is very confusing and congested. There are a variety of show rooms and lounges here with plenty of interesting entertainment but the fact that everyone on the ship needs to cross through here to get to dinner or the show on opposite ends of the ship is just bad planning. The traffic flow condenses to the width of one or two doorways at several points. Add in a few scooters, wheelchairs, strollers, and folks walking with canes and you have the formula for a perfect bottleneck. The area in front of the photo gallery is just as bad and maybe even a little worse. No solution to this, just an observation. Hopefully, more thought to people moving from end to end of the ship will be given to future MSC ship builds.
MSC (Mediterranean Shipping Company) is a large cruise operator and is a household name in Italy and Europe with a growing presence here in the states. If you’ve never been on an MSC Cruise or you don’t know anyone who has been on an MSC Cruise, you’re not alone, but that is changing. MSC has committed a lot of money and effort to the U.S. market. They have a new megaship, The MSC Seaside, which will be here soon and the MSC Divina will be cruising year-round out of Miami. Their pricing is competitive with other lines and their marketing efforts are ramping up. In other words, you are going to get an offer from an Italian that you may not want to refuse! We had a wonderful holiday vacation cruise with MSC. The Divina is one of the most beautiful and clean ships I have ever sailed. I had a pretty good idea of what not to miss and what to avoid on the ship during the sailing. I was blown away by the completely smoke-free and beautifully appointed casino. The staff members I encountered were warm and friendly. I had the best cruise ship pizza of my life and I got more than my money’s worth out of my Premium Adult Beverage Package. I was on my feet with my fellow passengers applauding the entertainment each evening. All in all, a thoroughly good vacation experience at a really good price. Is it for you? Maybe. Should you consider it? Definitely!
Would you like to see what I am talking about? You can view all of my photos from the cruise on Flickr. Head to https://www.flickr.com/gp/69524660@N07/zo4CV5