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Specific Cruise Reviews

MSC Divina Summary

We were on MSC Divina for Christmas, with calls in San Juan, Tortola, St Maarten and Nassau. This was our second MSC cruise, having sailed on MSC Seaside in May. I started doing daily posts, and I still have my random notes, but the overall impression is more important than the daily details. This was a good cruise badly marred by missed expectations.

MSC Divina is a beautiful ship. The layout is a bit quirky but it is easy to get around. There are four elevator banks where many mega ships only have two. There are lots of bars, and they are spaced where the music from one doesn’t interfere with the music from the next. The buffet is large, with good selections. It is a large ship, and it will feel crowded. The customers will be much more European than other lines, and much more multi-lingual. If you’re used to hearing only English, this can be an issue.

We were in the Yacht Club (YC), which is MSC’s “ship within a ship” concept. When you look at MSC cruise ships and procedures, they borrow heavily from other lines. They’re building big ships like Royal, they were pricing like Carnival and the Yacht Club sounds a lot like Norwegian’s Haven. We have been in the Haven on four ships in three classes (Jewel, Epic and Breakaway class.) Yacht Club is not the Haven. It’s not even close.

I’ve asked some more experienced MSC cruisers for their thoughts on Facebook, and it doesn’t sound like it was us. It sounds like we may not have understood how MSC operates butI believe that is incumbent on them to explain as they enter a new market. I did get the tired “you’re American” excuse, but that’s my point – MSC wants to succeed in the US market, so treating us all like Europeans is going to fail. It did this week.

One common explanation of the service is that all MSC ships are run as individual business units, so there can be “inconsistencies”. I was told Yacht Club on other ships was better than on Divina. That is a lesson I wish I had known before the cruise. I am not interested in spending money and then find out, “Oh, that’s the bad ship.” This is enough to prevent me sailing in the Yacht Club in the future. Anything that may or may not be worth the money is not worth the risk.

Another common comment is that the service is “European”, not “American”, with the implication that Americans are very needy, demand constant attention, and all eat at McDonalds. Basically, we have no class. I’ve been to Europe. I know how service worked in Europe. This service was not to that level. Furthermore, if I am told that my needs will be met, then someone asking me within a few minutes of my arrival if I would like a drink is not unreasonable.

The reality for me is that Europeans are very defensive about “their” cruise line, and all complaints are reflected back on the speaker. “You Americans don’t understand.” “Americans are so high maintenance.” “Americans are too touchy-feely.” If Europeans want to spend twice the fare for worse service, that is their prerogative, but don’t tell me I’m needy just because I expect a drink in less than a half-hour in a bar that only serves five percent of the ship. All that place has is drinks. Where is mine?

Each evening, we would go into the Top Sail lounge (reserved for Yacht Club guests), find a table, and watch as butlers would serve other tables. After ten or fifteen minutes (or more), one would eventually ask if we wanted something. It should not be incumbent on me to go find someone to ask for service. If I go to the bar to get my own drink, magically appearing and offering to carry it to my table is not helpful. So, how does this work? Why did others get constant service?

When I finally went to the bar one night, a butler magically appeared and said she would bring the drinks to our table. That is half-assed service. Perhaps that is European service, but then tell me, “It’s like Panchos. You have to get everything yourself, but we’ll bring refills.”

One person on Facebook said that he would order drinks at the bar, and a butler would bring it to him. I finally started just sitting at the bar in the morning for coffee. If that’s the system, then somebody needs to say, up front, “Just order what you’d like at the bar, and we’ll bring it to you.” Otherwise, if I see a lounge with an empty bar, people sitting at tables with drinks, and waiters (“butlers”) wandering, I’m going to assume table service.

The interesting part of just sitting at the bar was watching the interactions of the bar staff and the butlers. The butlers who may fawn over customers can be rude to the bartenders. Caste system?

I was sitting at the bar one morning, finishing a double espresso, and one of the butlers noticed, and said, “Would you like another?” I said, “Yes”, and she turned and barked “Double espresso” to the bartender – who was standing in front of me. He brewed a double espresso, took it to her and she brought it to me — four seats down the bar. How is this any better service than I could have gotten on my own? Where is the true value add?

Some on Facebook said they always smiled, and they got good service. This implies that we are not friendly. Yes, we did smile. We did say, “Hello.” I tend to say “Howdy” to anyone I pass, just because I’ve had too many family members attend Texas A&M. Now, did we spend hours discussing the staffs’ wants and dreams? No, and I shouldn’t have to do so for a basic level of service. Nobody on the staff knew our names. We had to ask our “dedicated” butler twice for extra towels. We didn’t even see him until the second day and he said they were short-handed and he was doing extra cabins. This is not my problem.

In retrospect, that first meeting should have prepared me for the week. If the first thing you are told is basically, “Expect poor service”, it will come true.

On arrival in the room, Virginia noticed what looked like a bloodstain on one of the pillowcases. She mentioned it to the room steward who was suitably horrified and replaced it – with another stained pillowcase. Who is bleeding in the laundry? Who is doing quality control?

Muster Drill was more organized than on MSC Seaside, but still completely unorganized. We did manage to sign in this time, but then we were asked where our life jackets were. We haven’t had to bring life jackets to a drill in ten years or more. I asked if I should go get them, since Virginia’s back was bothering her, and was told, “If anyone asks, just tell them you haven’t been to the room yet.” We were not the only ones without life jackets, but it did mean we couldn’t giggle and take selfies putting them on while the emergency information was being reviewed. If MSC ever has an emergency, it will be catastrophic. If the staff can’t handle a crowd in a drill, how will they handle a crisis?

San Juan (our first port call) was a debacle because we arrived late, and it was an evening call to begin with. The Cruise Director let everybody off the ship at once and then they had to try to get the excursions people off – and that blocked the doors so thoroughly that YC (“priority”) passengers could not get out. Again, crowd control. While we were standing in a crew corridor looking at the mobs of humanity, the port was closed when a Celebrity ship arrived. We almost missed a 7:30pm dinner reservation at a restaurant five minutes from port. We arrived in port at 4pm.

If you are going to sell priority embarkation and disembarkation as a perk, then those people need to go first. You don’t call the entire ship at once, especially when you’re late coming into port and people were freaking out about making it to their excursions. This was not a Yacht Club issue, I think it was a Cruise Director issue.

For Tortola and St Maarten, we had MSC-booked excursions, so we met by the concierge desk and were lead in groups to our excursions. It’s nice but I can find my excursion. I heard one man complaining about having to wait for the butler when he could have been outside at his tour already.

We had a junior butler see us coming back in St Maarten and he did escort us around the lines and onto the ship, past the hordes. It was a short port day and everyone was getting on at once. That was helpful. Our “dedicated” butler was nowhere in sight. However, there was a dedicated gangway for YC, so we could have found it ourselves.

In Nassau, we walked over to Senor Frogs for lunch. As the conga line wandered by, a bartender squirted sour mix from a ketchup bottle in my mouth, and our waiter was trying to avoid everyone since he was on roller skates carrying a tray of drinks, I realized what had been missing all week: fun. The Yacht Club was not fun, it was formal – but unwritten formal. It was the formal like having your grandkids at your Mom’s house, and watching constantly to make sure they don’t break anything. I hate formal. The Yacht Club is a bunch of Europeans pretending to be royalty. That is not me. I like butlers and service and high tea, but I don’t need to pretend to be upper class on vacation. I need to relax.

The food In the Yacht Club private restaurant is decent but the menu is very limited. While it changes each day, it is generally “meat in sauce”, “fish in sauce”, “risotto or pasta”, and “vegetarian.” It can get old quickly. We did have the restaurant manager preparing pasta every evening as a “special”, but if you’re on a low-carb diet, it’s really not the best thing to eat (it was delicious.) The lunch and dinner menus were very similar.

One day, I really didn’t want generic meat in sauce for lunch again – plus we were by the pool, in gale-force winds. My wife noticed a butler clearing pizza from a table, so we asked if we could just have pizza delivered to the One Pool lounge. We were told “no.” That is a word I did not expect to hear in an area where all my needs are met. Someone else had pizza, why not us?

We asked another butler later in the lounge (to see if it was policy or just a lazy butler), and he said, if one got it, everyone would want it (can’t you make more pizza?), it’s a lounge, not for eating (but they serve snacks), management didn’t want it (blame someone off the ship.)

At that point, YC completely failed at its mission. I wanted something easily accessible, I asked for something, they said “No.”

We got our Voyagers Club Diamond gift (drawstring backpacks) but never got our chocolate ships. We asked the room steward who said they were only for certain guests. We said “we are those guests” and he said he would ask the butler. (How did he not know we were Diamond guests? Somebody brought us backpacks as “thank you gifts.”)

The butler blamed the cruise consultant. The butler brought us another set of backpacks with the explanation that the cruise consultant missed some people on the list and others had not received it either. The ships then arrived at 8:10am on debarkation day.

We needed cash the last morning, so I went to ask the concierge if there was an ATM active on board. I had the question half-out when her phone rang, and she started what sounded like a personal call and walked into the office and closed the door. There was no backup at the desk.

This was not even bad service. It was negative service. This was “you are not important to me at all.” We were not made to “feel special.” We had a good cruise ruined by missed expectations.

  • I expect to meet my “dedicated” butler before day two.
  • I expect “dedicated butler” means a person will check in on you and see if everything is going well, and if you need anything.
  • I expect “priority disembarkation” means “first” or at least “after organized excursions.”
  • I expect to walk into a lounge and have someone come to take an order – especially if they are delivering drinks to a table next to me.
  • I expect to have a question answered if I have started the conversation. I don’t mind having the question interrupted, but I don’t expect to have it replaced by another conversation.
  • I expect reasonable requests will be met.
  • I expect some joy on a Christmas cruise.

We stopped at one of the bars one night on the way back from dinner, since the couple playing were doing Beatles songs. We sat at the bar, ordered drinks, and the bartender looked at my card and said, “Hey! My name is Kevin, too!” and gave me an exploding fist-bump. That may have been the first time someone used my name all week. Also, he was friendly – and having fun. What’s wrong with the Yacht Club staff?

Our last night on the ship, we went to the Butcher’s Cut (the specialty steakhouse) for dinner, since we get a free dinner as one of our Diamond perks. Virginia looked at the wine list and couldn’t find the Pinot Noir we had been drinking. She does not like most wine, so finding one she liked had been a minor miracle. She asked the waiter if they had it, showed him the photo of the label, and he said, “I’ll get it for you.” He went to the Yacht Club restaurant, got a bottle, and served us. That is the level of service I expected all week in the Yacht Club.

The Yacht Club was a huge disappointment and personally I think a complete waste of money. We had a better cruise on MSC Seaside in the Fantastica experience because we didn’t have many expectations and those were met or exceeded – with the exception of the sharps container issues. We have been in the Haven on Norwegian and the Yacht Club is not even close. This Yacht Club staff couldn’t meet basic Norwegian crew standards.

Was it bad? No, we’re still alive, we’re fed, we’re rested. Was it good? No, the service wasn’t anywhere near the level of expectation or even my level of tolerance. Was it worth the money? No. Do I recommend it for Americans? No. Do I recommend it for anyone who wants excellent service? No.

Confusion

Apparently, there is such a thing as too many cruises scheduled. This may not be the first time we’ve had this many cruises scheduled, and we have twenty under our belts, but I know it is the first time with this many cruises on this many lines. I’m getting confused.

When we decided to branch out from Norwegian, we did so with a vengeance. We now have four cruises on four lines in the next two years. After a certain point, keeping all the ports and ships straight is difficult, even with TripIt.

This year’s Christmas cruise is on the MSC Divina, in the Yacht Club. This will be our first non-Norwegian Christmas cruise ever (it’s our 11th Christmas cruise.) This was the year we finally price-compared and discovered Norwegian is very proud of their product. While staying loyal and being Platinum Plus are great, MSC status-matched us to Diamond level in their program and the Yacht Club was not much more expensive than a Norwegian balcony. Consider that for a second. A ship within a ship, with private bar, restaurant, pool, butler and concierge was only slightly more than an aft balcony. So, time to switch.

This cruise would create all sorts of planning because it was supposed to be our first MSC cruise. However, as some of you remember, we went on the MSC Seaside at the beginning of the summer to protect our status-matched Diamond (then Black) status, so now it’s our second MSC cruise and we’re not that panicked about it. (We probably should be.)

This will be our first cruise on the Divina, and our first in the Yacht Club. Even though we are in the Yacht Club, we received an invitation to upgrade. The lowest-priced choice was an Executive suite, which has a panoramic view. I’m pretty sure this means ocean-view or window. I’m not sure balcony people would give up a balcony for a bit more space.

Our second scheduled cruise is our third anniversary cruise (third cruise for one of our anniversaries), and our first cruise on Royal Caribbean. We really didn’t mean to make a tradition of anniversary cruises, but we had a vow renewal by the Captain for our 15th, and went with friends for their anniversary last year, since their anniversary is on Valentine’s Day (very romantic) and ours is on February 11 (it was a Friday), so when our 20th was approaching, we decided to try something new by sailing Royal Caribbean (going to ports we’ve visited many times.)

Never get married in February. It’s so close to Christmas that planning cruises for both tend to get intertwined. If the two cruises were on the same line, I’d be completely lost by now, instead of just confused. It also means your final payment is due just about the time you’re buying Christmas presents. Sorry, family.

We will be sailing on the Liberty of the Seas, departing out of Galveston, which means we can drive to the port. We saw the ship once, when we were taking a dolphin cruise around Galveston. The dolphins like surfing by the large ships. Galveston is the closest port to us, so we can drive pretty easily. The hotels are expensive, but not much worse than Miami, and the driving costs are enough less than flying to cover it. Plus, you don’t have to fly.

The only problem with Galveston is that most of the cruises from there go to the same Western Caribbean destinations: a port in Jamaica, Grand Cayman and Cozumel. Sometimes, Costa Maya. They are all fun ports, but we’re really going to see what Royal is like.

Christmas 2020 is already planned because we got invited to join some of our friends on their Christmas cruise. (Since we joined them on their Anniversary cruise last year and everyone survived, we thought it would work.) This will be on the Norwegian Pearl, which is thankfully not a megaship, and a ship we have sailed and enjoyed before. (I prefer her sister ship, the Norwegian Jade, but I will take any of the Jewel class over most other Norwegian ships.) It’s also a two-week cruise over Christmas and New Year’s, which is great for vacation, and also means we will see some islands we don’t get to visit often. Here’s hoping the itinerary doesn’t get changed in the meantime.

In May 2021, we’re going to do a partial transit of the Panama Canal on the Carnival Radiance. This is the third time we’ve scheduled a Panama Canal voyage, but I think we may actually make it this time. It’s a partial transit, so we round-trip from Galveston (one plus), and it also means you skip all the ports on the west coast of Mexico (a major plus, since Virginia has no interest and to me, those ports just add days that I don’t want to spend vacation on.)

Here’s why I think we’ll actually go this time:

  • It’s a partial transit. We will traverse the Gatun Locks to get into Gatun Lake, but that’s it. So, we’re not going from sea to shining sea, but we’re doing a 90-foot change in altitude while going through the lock. As a bonus, we’ll sail back through the lock that evening.
  • It’s much cheaper than other Canal trips we’ve booked. Part of this is because it’s a partial transit, but mostly this is because it’s on Carnival. Even with the spa balcony we booked, it’s still much cheaper than the least-expensive Norwegian transit we had ever booked.
  • Carnival Radiance will be almost a new ship. The Carnival Victory is going into dry dock this year and emerging as the Carnival Radiance.
  • We sail from Galveston. For some reason, the eight hours of so of round-trip driving time on I-45 is much less stressful than flying to Florida.

Now, we just have to double-check the excursions, to make sure all our ports are covered.

Planning Ahead – Comparing Prices

It’s been a busy few weeks around here, so please excuse the lack of posts (and follow on Facebook for other information), but I finally stopped to take a breath and realized how many cruises we have planned. I think it may be a record for us – four cruises on four cruise lines in the next couple of years (yes, we plan ahead…. a lot.)

Christmas 2019 is our first sailing on the MSC Divina. It was supposed to be our first sailing on MSC, but we had to go earlier to preserve our Black Diamond status. (See our MSC Seaside journey.) We are in the Yacht Club, their ship within a ship, because even though it is expensive, it was pretty much the same as a Norwegian balcony. (Yes, I think Norwegian is a wee bit overpriced lately.) It will be interesting to compare the Yacht Club service to the Haven on Norwegian.

February 2020 is our 20th wedding anniversary and we decided it was time to try Royal Caribbean, so we’re off on the Liberty of the Seas. This is our first Royal Caribbean sailing, and it’s sailing from Galveston, so we can just drive to the port. The itinerary is the “standard” Western Caribbean, so we’re not really going for the ports, we’re going for the ship. We will be in Cozumel for our anniversary, so I will be broke when I return.

Christmas 2020 is back to Norwegian and 14 days on the Norwegian Pearl. This should be a fun cruise, since we’ve done a similar Southern Caribbean itinerary before, and we’re sailing with friends. Plus, who doesn’t like Christmas and New Years on the same ship?

Then, in May 2021 – which may be the furthest out we’ve ever had a cruise booked (we can’t even check in online for over a year) – is a partial transit of the Panama Canal on the Carnival Radiance. This is a bucket list item for me, and our second Carnival Cruise. It will be an “almost new” ship experience, as the Carnival Victory is going into drydock and coming out as the Carnival Radiance in 2020.

I wondered about the differentials in cost between the lines – we could never find a Royal Caribbean cruise where I was willing to pay what seemed a premium – so I thought I would look at the per-day pricing. After all, a cruise ship is a floating hotel, so a cabin is just a room. How much does your room cost?

CruiseEmbarkDestinationLengthCabin Rate Per DayTotal Price Per DayNotesHoliday
MSC DivinaMiamiWestern Caribbean7 days$575$660Yacht ClubChristmas
Liberty of the SeasGalvestonWestern Caribbean7 days$408$378Balcony
Norwegian PearlMiamiSouthern Caribbean14 days$521$619Handicap BalconyChristmas + New Year’s
Carnival RadianceGalvestonPanama Canal9 days$278$394Handicap Spa Balcony

All these numbers are for two people. To try to get close to “apples to apples”, I excluded all the extra charges I could (we usually pre-pay gratuities and accept insurance) and any discounts, and used the base “cabin” fee from the invoice. I should note the Canal cruise has really high port fees. The total column is what we paid for the two of us, divided by the number of nights.

We know that MSC is trying to grow their US market, and their prices have gone up recently, but the Yacht Club over Christmas this year is about the same as Norwegian’s balcony over Christmas next year. (We’re actually in the Yacht Club because the price was not that much more than the price for a Norwegian balcony this year.) Perhaps Norwegian is a bit proud of their product? (This is why we have four cruises on four different cruise lines, instead of four Norwegian cruises.)

We're not going where?

There have been a couple of articles lately about a woman incensed at Norwegian Cruise Lines for completely ruining her long-planned birthday celebration by rerouting her cruise. It’s always interesting to me that the press covers them at all, because some of them know it’s a waste of time.

This will become even more of an issue for the entire industry now that all cruise traffic to Cuba has effectively been canceled.

Cruise lines do not always stick to the original published itineraries. Usually, this is weather-related, determined while enroute (Norwegian is famous for skipping its own private island, Great Stirrup Cay, where it tenders) and sometimes determined months beforehand – we rerouted from Harvest Caye twice because it wasn’t ready to open, and Hurricanes Irma and Maria rerouted our entire Christmas cruise in 2017.

The bottom line is that if you are specifically cruising to go to one special port, just go to that port. (If it’s one of the cruise lines’ private islands, you’re out of luck.) However, if your heart is set on going to Jamaica, just go to Jamaica for a week – don’t spend one day of a seven-day cruise in your “real” destination.

Cruise lines are regulated by the laws of the countries where they sail, and the laws of nature. If you always wanted to visit one place, just go there.

MSC Seaside – Summary

[Embark] [At Sea] [San Juan] [St Thomas] [St Maarten] [At Sea] [Nassau] [Disembark]
Some final thoughts (some possibly repetitious) from our first MSC cruise. Here’s a map of our journey.
Overall Impression: MSC Cruises wants to dominate the US market. They are trying to “Americanize” their existing product which has been successful in Europe for years, and they seem to have borrowed parts of each of the mass market lines in the US already: ginormous ships with bells and whistles like Royal Caribbean, a ship-within-a-ship concept like Norwegian, relatively affordable like Carnival.
They are still European, and that shows. (Well, much of the crew are Filipino, just like other lines.) If Europeans are tired of cruising near home and want to try sailing the Caribbean, my assumption is they will choose MSC Cruises, because it’s the home team. So, there is a mix of cultures on the ship, more than on the other mass market lines. If hearing languages you don’t understand bothers you, this is not your cruise line.
Dining: I thought overall the food was good. We ate more meals in the buffet than ever before and it had a decent selection. I could probably live on the pizza. My wife and I are trying to minimize the carbs and there were selections available that would help accomplish that. I’m not saying we always chose them.
I did hear someone ask where the “real food” was in the buffet. I found this hilarious, mainly because the tone was between anger and panic. If you don’t like multicultural dishes, you’ve never heard of veal scaloppine or other Mediterranean dishes and you don’t have an adventurous palate, this is not your cruise line. Look at the list of their international chef partners. If you haven’t heard of any of them, but you know who Guy Fieri is, stay with Carnival.
Late-night dining was a bit of a disappointment. They advertise the buffet is open 22 hours a day, but after 11pm or so (we were there after the late show), it was pizza and sandwiches. This is slightly better than Carnival because the pizza is better, but Norwegian has the Local (or O’Sheehans) which has a wider selection and it’s open 24×7.
The specialty restaurants were good but the meal plans all have a submenu of included choices, and you get one appetizer, one main with one side and one dessert. (In Teppenyaki, you pick your proteins and the rest is a set menu.) This gives you a much more limited selection than the menu shows. If you don’t like any of the options, you can replace it with a equivalent from the full menu at 50% off.
I liked the Butcher’s Cut steakhouse, but I will probably always upgrade since the meal plan choices were an 8oz filet, a sirloin or lamb chops. Ocean Cay (not to be confused with the deck named Ocean Cay or the new private island named Ocean Cay) didn’t have much on the menu that excited me. The was fish but not a lot of seafood. I would skip it next time. The Asian Market was very good, because as a “fusion” concept, you can order a complete dinner that is barely Asian.
We had the Trio dinner plan, which included one night at Ocean Cay, one at the Butcher’s Cut and one at the Asian Market. I prefer Norwegian’s plan where if you purchase three dinners, you can eat at the same restaurant three times if you choose. If the Trio plan requires me to have a meal at Ocean Cay, I need a different plan. There’s nothing wrong with Ocean Cay, the food and service were good, it just was a very limited menu. I had a variation on linguine with clam sauce, which was excellent but not carb friendly and it was the only main course that interested me.
We had one dinner in the dining room and the food and selection were good. I would just eat there, but after our experience with Freestyle on Norwegian, we weren’t looking forward to set dining times and assigned table mates. Of course, our table mates were lovely, and the food was good, so the fears may have been overblown.
On this itinerary, it’s easy to avoid the dining room – we had three nights with the Trio package, ate at Teppenyaki for 20% off the first cruise night, had a second (complimentary) dinner at the Butcher’s Cut with our a Black Card status, and were in port in San Juan one evening.
Entertainment: The entertainment was surprisingly good, which is to say, I enjoyed it. The shows were done by the same cast each evening, so each show was going to feature singers, jugglers, contortionists and acrobats, but each was entertaining and at thirty to forty minutes, the perfect length for the limited attention-span crowd.
There was even an opera matinee – a condensed version of Madame Butterfly. I can now say I’ve been to the opera, it was interesting and it only cost my forty minutes one afternoon.
The finale is a Michael Jackson tribute and regardless of what you think of the person, he produced some iconic music. Unfortunately, the music also had iconic videos, so watching the MJ impersonator dance while jugglers, acrobats, etc are sharing the stage did not always make sense because I was expecting the videos. It was a good show, but I thought Peter Punk, the show the previous night was stronger.
I now really don’t understand the complaints I read about the entertainment. Sure, it’s not Broadway shows, but it’s vastly superior to Carnival’s “make your own entertainment” game shows. Saying that MSC shows are “Cirque-esque” is a bit like saying the minor leagues are just like MLB, but it’s entertainment provided by professionals, and it is entertaining. If you don’t want to see the shows, there were musicians literally all over the ship.
Excursions: We booked all our excursions through MSC and were happy with all of them. In San Juan (an evening port call), we did an evening at Bacardi, which provided a quick history of rum, the history of the distillery and a discussion of the different rums they produce. Plus, you get a drink in the way in and the way out.
In St Thomas, we did a drive around the island with stops at the top of the second-highest mountain on the island and Magens Bay. We skipped the shopping and just took the ferry back to the ship.The driver/tour guide tended to repeat everything so I know Magens Bay beach is one of the top ten most beautiful beaches according to National Geographic.
In St Maarten, we were mostly concerned about times because we had a short day in port. The tour did take us over the whole island, and showed how much still needs to be done to recover from the hurricanes of 2017.
In Nassau, we did the Blue Lagoon island beach day, which is a good day at the beach in theory, except that you get into port late (scheduled arrival is noon) and you leave at seven, but we actually left early. So, with a half-hour to forty minutes each way on the ferry, and the last ferry that would make the ship’s all-aboard time at 4:15pm, it is hardly a beach “day.” This is the second time we’ve been to Blue Lagoon and we never got around to our included lunch either time. Snorkeling was fun. I’ll post the video eventually.
I was happy with the excursions. MSC doesn’t run them, but they seem to hire good companies that do.
Issues: There were only a couple of issues, but they both made Virginia unhappy and that can derail any future business. Our room steward did not know what a sharps container was. I would think he had served diabetics before and known their insulin needles don’t usually just go in the trash. I finally went to guest services where the woman who assisted me knew exactly what was needed, but later called to say they were out. She said the medical department would let us empty our portable sharps container there or the room steward could take it, have it emptied and bring it back. So, problem solved, but by asking two or three people over two days.
The second was Muster Drill. We attended and then got a letter from the Captain saying since we hadn’t attended, we needed to go to the makeup drill. I called guest services, told them we had attended, and they said ignore the letter. Good customer service, bad safety policy.
Muster Drill was very poorly run. I’m used to having a leader at each station and the leader’s job during the drill is twofold – to get people to sign in so they are counted as present, and to get people to shut up and focus. Neither was done. I was ready for an emergency because I knew where my muster station was, and I know how to put on a life jacket and follow instructions. I’m not sure all of my fellow passengers pass that test. Muster is a pain in the ass and a buzzkill, but it’s mandatory and the Concordia showed what happens if people don’t know where their muster station is or what to do when the general alarm sounds.
The only “mechanical” issue was the elevators which are the slowest known to mankind. By the third day, even rookies figured out to get in the first elevator that came along, even if it was going in the wrong direction because eventually it would go where you were trying to go.
Room service screwed up our breakfast delivery one morning and then told us the hot food we requested (at an additional charge) was no longer available because the galley was closed. This annoyed me because the delivery was late, so we discovered the problem late, but it was before hot breakfast ended. A customer-centric line would have sent a runner to the buffet to bring us the order. The rest of the time, room service worked, including producing a pot of coffee and a basket of pastries in six minutes. Again, Continental breakfast versus American breakfast.
Drinks: The restaurants serve bottled water by default, so if you ask for “water”, you have just purchased a liter of water. The only exceptions were the main dining room and Ocean Cay, which had pitchers of water. It’s possible there’s a code word for “tap water”, but we didn’t discover it.
In the buffet, there is the drink dispenser with lemonade, fruit punch, and undrinkable iced tea. There was water and ice in the ice machine. There is also a self-service soda (and beer and wine) machine. A 16oz soda from the machine is cheaper than a 12oz can from the bar.
Perks: Virginia and I are Latitudes Platinum Plus members on Norwegian, and we status-matched to MSC Voyagers Club Black a couple of years ago. Our Black status was about to expire, so we booked this cruise. Yes, we sailed to protect our status for our Christmas cruise. First-World problems.
We received more benefits with our Black Card from MSC than we get from Norwegian for being Platinum Plus. Both lines have priority embarkation, but with MSC, that means getting lead around the lines, checked in and boarded in record time. Disembarkation means an early exit but there is a color code designated for just Black members.
There was a bowl of fruit and a bottle of Prosecco in the room when we boarded.
We were invited to a Black Card-only cocktail party, which was attended by the Captain and senior staff. We received a free photo taken at the party. (The last Platinum Plus party we attended was a sales pitch.)
We were invited but didn’t attend the regular Voyagers Club party. From talking with the Captain at other parties, it sounded similar.
We each got a chocolate model of the ship.
We each got a free meal in a specialty restaurant from the meal package menu.
We each got an MSC ball cap.
The Cruise Critic Meet & Greet had free drinks and the Captain and senior staff attended. We all received a free copy of the group photo. MSC managed the party, I signed us up online and there was an invitation in our room when we boarded. On Norwegian, a Cruise Critic member has to drive the attendance and coordinate the event with the ship.
The Behind the Scenes tour included an MSC backpack and a glass of wine at the end.
That seems like a lot of swag for a week. Norwegian doesn’t really do gifts any longer and priority embarkation means you can go onboard whenever – but it took a bunch of cruises before one of our friends told us that. Norwegian gives the room a free meal in two of the specialty restaurants but the meals have limitations that are unique. The MSC limitations are the same as if you have the meal package, so it’s much easier to understand.
MSC Cruises may not care more about their repeat guests than Norwegian but they certainly act like they do.
Overall: I had a great cruise, and I think Virginia had a good to very good cruise. Nothing will ever replace Norwegian in her heart, but at the price differential currently, I would go on MSC Cruises any time, and it’s ahead of Carnival.
MSC Seaside was the largest ship we’ve sailed (I think) but except for the elevators, it didn’t seem overly crowded. The buffet was packed at times, but we always found a table.
I have a feeling many of the complaints aren’t driven by the crew, they’re driven by fellow passengers. (Someone told me when we met in the hallway that they were happy to find someone who spoke English. The crew all speak English.) If you don’t like “foreigners”, then first, you are an ugly American but secondly, don’t sail MSC Cruises.
This is not an American cruise line. This is a European company trying to attract Americans without alienating their European fans, and without having to run different ways in Europe and the US. That is a challenge, but I think they have made a good start.
We’ll be on the MSC Divina at Christmas this year.

MSC Seaside – Day 8 Disembarkation

O’Dark-Thirty: Ships should embark weekly at 11pm so we could get in at a reasonable hour. I feel for the people out partying last night. I was doing homework, and I’m whipped.
One loose end from yesterday: our dessert from the Butcher’s Cut was delivered. Well, mine was. Room Service didn’t have Virginia’s ice cream. When they called to explain, she ordered water and Coke Zero instead. The drinks were delivered with apologies for not having the ice cream. I think the drinks were comp’ed, because I didn’t sign anything.
7:00am: Last view from the balcony.

7:30am: Last moment of panic when I can’t find my key, just to remember that if I’m not in the dark, my key is in the slot by the door.
Virginia just explained the concepts of cruising ducks to the room steward who didn’t grasp a Sharps container. I fear for our duck in the safe.
7:40am: We’re being held up by the number of self-walk off passengers. This is better than “the ship has not been cleared” but not as good as, “we’re delayed, so the Swedish Bikini team is bringing everyone coffee.”
Did I mention I missed coffee in the room?
7:48am: First color called. We’re fourth, I think.

Sleepy Cranky People


7:58am-ish Group called. One more trek across the Seaside. Only a couple of “meant to do that” moments. I will miss the ship.
8:25am: Met Luggage Forward porter. If we never see the bags again, it’s because Virginia didn’t tip him.
8:28am: In the Uber, heading to FLL. MSC terminal has retina scan recognition so one stop, no passports. Customs is declarations only, no forms to fill out.
8:35am: Traffic jam. Did not miss traffic. This will make disembarking look even faster.
9:02am Exiting for the airport. So, for whomever will ask on Cruise Critic this week, no, you probably can’t make a 9am flight from Ft Lauderdale.
9:10am Check-in for flight.
9:25am: American won’t check bags until four hours before a flight at FLL. Yet another reason to fly Southwest whenever possible.
10:25am: Bored, bored, bored. In an hour, we can check our bags. That’s the only thing keeping me alive at this point.
11:20am: Still bored but ten minutes to go. Then, security. I never thought something would make me look forward to being able to go through security.
1:30pm: Have almost memorized which stations have working plugs or working USB plugs or both or neither. Yes, I am bored. Also, old people talk loudly and repetitively, so you don’t need to be that close to get a status.
Inbound plane should be here in about an hour. Please, Lord.
There are a crap ton of people at the gate for a flight that doesn’t leave for two hours.
2:00pm: Lunch time. Unfortunately, FLL Terminal 3 is a wasteland. We may be eating at the bar. Seriously, people in airports are in a hurry. Why are airports being clogged with low-quality, slow-service, expensive restaurants? Can’t we just have a McDonald’s or Burger King which isn’t the best, but it’s fast and consistent?
2:10pm: Case in point – Jack Nicklaus’ namesake restaurant. Potential customer asked if they have food to go. Greeter said “No, but if you sit at a table and order, you can ask for a to go box.” They left. $13 for a club sandwich. We’ll see how long it takes to get. Lobster nachos as a starter. I would only order lobster in an airport restaurant as my last meal, because it would kill me before the executioner could. At least, they have iced tea. I should have ordered an Arnold Palmer, just to see what they would do.

Sandwiches arrived almost immediately. I hope they were microwaved long enough.

$37 for lunch, and you feel obligated to tip because it was table service. It wasn’t bad, but, Lord, it wasn’t good. Airplane food is starting to look reasonable.
3:08pm: On the plane.
3:50pm: Climbing, on the way home.
4:00pm: Just found out on Facebook that one of our pirate ducks is retiring to England. It looks like that particular duck was found three times in two days, because the other finders rehid him. Most are still unaccounted. Waiting for news.
5:15pm: Preparation for landing. iPad stowed? Check. Tray table up? Check. Seat back up? Check. Seat belt fastened? Check. Now, I need to pee? Check.
5:20pm: Ears popped. I never had this problem at sea level.
5:30pm: On the ground. I need a cruise.
5:40pm: Stuck in the DFW penalty box, waiting for our gate to open up. You know, I have never heard a ship’s Captain say, “Uh, there’s somebody at our dock, so we’re just going to anchor out here in the bay until they can push back and get out of our way. Shouldn’t be more than about ten minutes.”
There are no airlines but American at this terminal. Why does this happen so often? Do they not read their own timetable?
I need a cruise.
5:50pm: Moved to a new gate. Yea! Gate has no crew. Boo!
I need a cruise.
6:00pm: Some times, after a week’s cruise and a flight home, you’re given a sign that you’re just a rookie traveler. As in, the men’s room by A16 baggage claim.
The trip is done.

MSC Seaside – Day 7 Nassau

9:15am: Leisurely morning, because it’s a port day, but we don’t get into port until noon. This is my kind of port day.

Received an email from one of our ducks, so that’s a couple that have been found. One had his photo posted on Facebook – the one I think was found, hidden again and found again in about four hours.
Today is the day I really miss having a coffee pot in the room. I may have to see if there is any cold caffeine in the minibar – which would imply someone actually restocked it.
9:30am Actively avoiding my homework at this point. We received luggage tags in our room last night. As Black Card members, we have priority disembarkation tomorrow at 7:45am. That is not my idea of priority. I have to go tell the Luggage Forward people when to meet us outside customs to collect our larger suitcases and start the shipment home.
10:00am Called Room Service and asked for a pot of coffee and a couple of cinnamon rolls.
10:06am Six minutes! Coffee is here. This is a world record for room service. I received a pot of coffee, two coffee cups, five croissants, two chocolate croissants, three cinnamon rolls, cream, sugar, butter and jam. Jackpot! Apparently, the problem all along has been Virginia’s weird-ass food orders.

11:30am-ish We are docked in Nassau. Our excursion doesn’t meet until 12:10pm. MSC excursions seem to meet after all the “must be first off” lunatics have fled the ship.
11:45am Done with half of my homework (the easy half.) Always have three hours on the plane tomorrow to finish.
12:10pm Apparently picked the most popular excursion in the history of Nassau. In a long, long line. Saw a woman put her excursion sticker between her boobs. Uh, White Trash? That is not a temporary tattoo.
1:00pm-ish Made it to Blue Lagoon Island. Paid extra for a clamshell for some shade, since the “natural” coconut trees had fairly pathetic leaves. We also rented snorkel gear, which requires a refundable deposit, but then you have to leave time for the refund transaction.
Claimed a clamshell while Virginia visited the little girls’ room. Was asked twice if I had rented the clamshell already. Much like Muster Drill, saying “Yes” was enough.
Managed to get some snorkeling time. Fish are very close in.
Got two of our six Bahama Mamas and the alcohol almost killed Virginia. Amateur. They are made with light rum, which as we learned from Bacardi rum class can taste more like alcohol than darker rum. Also, someone probably complained about watery drinks, so there be some rum in this, arrr!
After she poured hers out (travesty!), we returned the snorkel gear to get our deposit back and tried another bar. Virginia was still horrified, I thought it was tasty. She switched to fruit punch.

5:30pm-ish Back from the excursion. Greeted by a filthy room because I managed to leave the Do Not Disturb sign on. Apparently, it really is sacred, even though I’m pretty sure Marc the room steward saw us leave. So, I asked for some extra towels and we’ll let him deal with it while we’re at dinner.
7:00pm Called Specialty Reservations to move our dinner at the Butcher’s Cut, and was told, “No problem.” So, thinking it is a bit pricey down there. We’ll get there when we can, but we have to be done in time to get to Starwalker at 9:45pm. How else to finish a cruise than with a Michael Jackson tribute?
7:45pm Just remembered I have a $70 voucher for the casino. Cash it or lose it before we get 12 miles from Miami.
8:00pm 2 bags packed. Luggage tags done. You have to put a matching tag sticker on your cabin key. I’m thinking this is so the crew can recognize who overpacked. Virginia’s key is now difficult to read.
Both showered. 95% dressed. Hoping to make it to dinner less than an hour late.
Missing first of many pirate activities this evening. Pirate Night seems to be more serious than some of the other themed evenings.
8:15pm Dinner at the Butcher’s Cut. Meal plans get one app, one main, one side, one dessert. If you don’t like the choices available, you can swap for anything equivalent on the main menu for 50% off. (They also remind you that you can purchase anything you like for full price.)
The steaks on the meal plan are an 8oz filet, a sirloin or lamb chops. We upgraded to a Tomahawk for two ($98 list, $49 on the meal plan – I think.)

On our second bottle of water, so the steak may end up looking cheap. It did. I had a gin and tonic, upgraded to Oysters Rockefeller for an appetizer and Virginia had hot tea. The money I couldn’t figure out was the water bill.
9:30pm Checking out quickly before our show reservations are cancelled. Matre’d offered to have our desserts delivered to our room since we ran out. That could be interesting, since Virginia had ice cream.
9:40pm Watching people jockey for seats. It’s getting ugly.
9:45pm Good show. The issue with Michael Jackson’s songs is that the videos are iconic, as well, so adding or replacing items doesn’t jibe.
10:20pm Cashed in our casino “winnings.” Marc will be getting a tip after all.
10:25pm Hid the last two ducks. One was immediately found.
10:40pm Not the time to look at photos. Not that there is ever a good time …
Random Thoughts: I miss iced tea. No cruise line includes sodas, but most include water, tea and coffee. MSC has iced tea in the buffet out of a machine – which means it’s diluted mix and it is vile. I miss decent iced tea for free everywhere on the ship.

MSC Seaside – Day 6 Sea Day

7:00am Waiting for our breakfast delivery. I did the form last night instead of Virginia, so the question is – will we get another breakfast tower or not?
It’s gorgeous outside – it’s a shame it’s so damn early. The Behind the Scenes tour is 90 minutes away.

Morning


Just checked the WiFi because photos aren’t uploading. Except for a couple of hiccups like this, the WiFi has been solid all over the ship – and it hasn’t disconnected at random times. The only issue is that you can’t force a device offline from another device (which Norwegian lets you do.) So, if you leave your iPad online in the cabin, there’s no way to get your phone online until you go back to the cabin, get the iPad and logout.
You also can’t charge devices while you’re away, because the room requires a room key to turn on the power. I haven’t tried using my hotel key which was an old trick on Norwegian until they started enforcing “no bodies, no power” in the rooms.
7:30am Breakfast has arrived and a much shorter tower than yesterday. I am now in charge of ordering breakfast.

Just remembered I have homework due this week. What day is this?
8:00am Slamming down breakfast. Meeting point for the excursion is the theater, so that’s one place we’ve been before. However, it’s four decks down and that means the dreaded elevators. As slowly as Christmas came when you were a child, as slowly as five o’clock comes when you’re an adult, as slowly as Virginia gets ready in the morning, nothing is as slow as the elevators on this ship. Add in the staggering number of people who do not know “down” from “up”, and you are almost guaranteed to be late for everything.
8:20am Signed in. Waived. I don’t remember signing waivers before. Tagged. First question will be “Can you show me where coffee is made and can I have a large sample?” Second question will be “Why is the casino closed when were in the middle of the ocean?”

Seeing a lot of open-toed shoes down here. Waiting to see if there’s a shoe check. (Norwegian sent a woman back to her cabin to change shoes once.)
11:30am Tour wrapping up. With a glass of wine and snacks. It was a very comprehensive tour – I’ll add notes later.
Visited on the tour:

  • The stage, dressing rooms and sound control booth in the theater
  • The Yacht Club (marketing genius!)
  • The crew bar
  • The red and white wine cellars
  • The drink cellar
  • The galley storeroom
  • The laundry
  • The crew & passengers laundry
  • The print shop
  • The main galleys
  • Wine and snacks to end

We were each given a backpack at the end of the tour.
We’ve been on other Behind the Scenes tours, and this felt more detailed than others. It also cost less. We’ve never been allowed in the “private” crew area before. We’ve never heard the print shop mentioned although other ships must have one – that’s where the Daily Planner is created.
It’s interesting that there are two laundries, basically one for linens (towels, sheets, tablecloths, napkins) and one for clothes – staff and officers uniforms and guest laundry items. We saw the infamous machine that puts the semi-permanent tags on your clothes when you send them out. The crew can do their own laundry or some just pay other crew members to do it for them.
Only an Italian (or perhaps French) cruise ship would have separate wine cellars to keep red and white wines at serving temperature.
The genius portion of the tour was visiting the Yacht Club. I now wonder why Norwegian doesn’t think to show the Haven. “Here’s the private bar. Here’s the private pool. Here’s the restaurant – there’s no set times, just eat when you want. Here’s the concierge who solves all your problems.” Seriously? Look at all the room up here. Look at all the services. Why am I in the cheap seats? Brilliant marketing.
MSC crew doesn’t call the main corridor “I-95” like on other cruise lines. It’s the “corridor.”
12:15pm Lunch at the Seashore restaurant. This is our first non-buffet lunch. Another relatively small menu.
12:30pm Captain’s announcement – the first I’ve heard. Well, didn’t hear because it’s noisy in the restaurant and nobody else seems to care what the Captain has to say. The beginning was navigation information which very few of us care about so it generally gets drowned out.
1:00pm Photo Gallery. What exactly is in the package Virginia purchased?
2:00pm Cappuccino at the Seashore Bar. First drink at a bar all week that wasn’t comp’ed – and there’s no booze in it. (Virginia tells me before every cruise that she wants to spend some evenings at a bar listening to music and it never, ever happens. We will watch inane game shows. We will see shows. We will go to the buffet. We will have snacks at the 24-hour restaurant. We will never listen to music.)
2::45pm Naps and homework. I’m not napping.

MSC Seaside – Day 5 St Maarten (Abridged)

Crack of Dawn: It’s another early excursion.
7:00am Breakfast arrived – our second attempt at American breakfast. Thinking someone extrapolated three orders of bacon (Virginia meant “extra bacon”) into three orders of everything. This is a lot of eggs. I will just call it the “Breakfast Tower.”

Breakfast Tower


When you order “bread”, you get bread and not toast. When you ask for it to be toasted, you get bread. We did get jelly and butter this morning.
I have coffee, so I’m happy. It really is nice coffee.
They take the order form away after you sign it, so I can’t verify everything, but Virginia had bacon and eggs, and I have coffee, so I don’t care.

Morning in St Maarten.
We have our first trip to Maho Beach today, the beach where you go to see airplanes and not sand. We’ve been to St Maarten before, just never there.
7:55am Slamming down breakfast so we can head out. I thought I should post this for all the ladies desperately waiting for a photo of me in my Speedos.

You’re welcome.
8:35am Checked in for the excursion. No ponchos issued. Good weather ahead!
8:40am Excursion called. Right on time again. Wondering about the people who think MSC is inefficient.

(They did spell “St Maarten” incorrectly, but they knew one of the vowels was doubled.)
9:00am Survived the parking lot march. Driver saved the front seats for us. Sometimes, crying works. As the bus pulled out of the parking lot, an ambulance (with lights and siren blazing) was pulling in. I hope they weren’t coming for us.
9:20am Entering St Martin. Second country in one day. Time to switch from Dutch Gin to French wine.
9:30am Orient Bay Beach. Still rebuilding from the hurricane. Only two bars open. The tour doesn’t even stop. Very sad.

9:45am Driving through Grand Case. Rebuilding. Hurricane Irma was a bitch.
10:15am Marigot. Half-hour stop. Multiply souvenir total charges by two to get dollars spent per hour.
Virginia found the jewelry maker she couldn’t buy something from in 2015 because she ran out of cash. Same vendor, same location, same handmade jewelry – some still hand-colored by his girlfriend (not sure if she’s the same girlfriend.) So, something survived the hurricane.
Hurricane Irma is still the star of the tour, which is tragic. For islands that get almost all their supplies by air or ship, it takes a long, long time to rebuild, especially when most of the money is from tourists who don’t pay to see devastation. It’s not as bad as I feared, but it’s not as good as I had hoped.
11:15am Maho Beach. Plane landed as we were trying to park. Don’t think they have the same guarantee as Alaska whale watching.
Plane-watching at Maho Beach is like deep-sea fishing on other islands – you go when the tour times are, not when the planes actually arrive. So, Jet Blue arrived while we were a couple of miles away (but we saw it) and a commuter plane landed while we were in the traffic jam for the parking lot.
The beach is packed. We found two seats at a bar. All we had was plastic, but if the charge was over $20, they’d take it. Luckily, their signature drinks are $13 each.

Jet Fuel and Purple Nurple


YouTube has invented an entire generation that thinks an iPhone is the best possible way to capture anything and if it’s on a stick, you’re a serious photographer.
I’m pretty sure some of the people in the water are just trying to get other people out of their shot.
12:15pm Carousel Gelato Factory. Why wouldn’t a French-Dutch island have an Italian gelato factory? The Stratcietella was molto bene. Our driver told someone there’s one more photo stop and we’re heading back to the ship. (We sail at 2pm.)
12:30pm One last overlook of the Dutch side. Can’t see the ship. Hmm. Hope it’s further down the road.
Virginia just showed me her photo of what’s in a Jet Fuel. Glad I am not driving the bus. Wondering why I’m not asleep.
1:05pm The ship is still at the dock. Whew. So is the Allure of the Seas. That’s a lot of tourists.
1:45pm Back in the cabin.
2:00pm As suggested by a couple we met at the Meet & Greet, Virginia now has a redneck Sharps container.

2:30pm Finally saw our next door neighbors in the buffet this afternoon, just after I mentioned to Virginia that I hadn’t seen them on their balcony since the first afternoon during sail away when they were wearing matching “God is Good” t-shirts and Virginia decided to tell them about the bimbos on the Norwegian Bliss that had flashed a Coast Guard boat escorting us out of the harbor. Their response was muted “Tsk, tsk, the things people do”, but I figured the rest of the cruise, they’ve been down in the Chapel, praying for her immortal soul. So, I was glad to see them eating at last. Virginia is either saved or a lost cause.
5:00pm Attended our first MSC Voyagers Club party. Since we status-matched from Norwegian Platinum Plus, we are Black Card members (soon to be called Diamond members.) They are changing the name because “diamond” reflects all the values provided. It will also prevent angry people of all races and colors from yelling, “I’m Black, dammit!” at the crew.
The last couple of Platinum Plus parties in Norwegian were hosted by the Future Cruise team and were basically sales calls (with free drinks) but the MSC party invitation came from the cruise director and the Captain mentioned we’d have drinks again when he found out our status at the Meet & Greet, so I have higher hopes.
The Captain came by and said, “Hello.” He asked if we were on a back-to-back since he recognized us. He told the couple we were sitting with (Norwegian cruisers and in the Yacht Club this week) he would see them at the Voyagers Club party tomorrow. There’s another one?
Interesting to watch the senior staff all toast and sip with the Captain and then immediately have their glasses collected. Meanwhile, I had three sips of my red wine and was asked if I wanted another.
So, hearing the Captain speak about new ships and the new terminal is much more interesting than hearing a salesperson talk about cruises.
I had another Aperol Spritz after the red wine. I’m hoping we will see the vat of Aperol Spritz on the Behind the Scenes tour in the morning.
Also, the Captain was talking with other guests when we left. The last time I spent that much social time with a Norwegian Captain, I had paid to have him perform our renewal vows.
I have always said there are Captains who are ambassadors of the line and there are Captains who drive the ship. This is an ambassador – even if nobody ever introduces the rest of the senior staff.
6:00pm Had our photos taken on the Bridge of Sighs. This is a romantic bridge across the two towers of the ship. You can look down though the Bridge of Sighs ten decks or so. For Virginia, it is the Bridge of Screams. Mainly screaming, “Don’t look down!”
6:45pm More photos. I hate photos. Virginia has bad legs and a bad back, but she can stand for hours for photos that I can guarantee we will never buy. Ship photographers do the same poses regardless of the subject, so there are some standard poses I know one or both of us will veto. But, boy, can she stand a long time!
6:55pm (or so) Stopped by the photo counter to move the photos in my account to Virginia’s, since she has the unlimited package. Others have said this was very painful and this went easily, so I’m doubtful.
7:05pm Found the funny photographer. He’s the one who shot photos at the Black Card party, He thought our standard “choking” photo concept was funny.
7:30pm Dinner at Ocean Cay, the final specialty restaurant on the ship. Ocean Cay is also the name of one of the decks of the Seaside and the name of MSC’s new private island. Marketing needs to work a bit harder on the naming. We met a woman the other night who was extremely confused because Ocean Cay wasn’t on the Ocean Cay deck. Wait until she finds out Ocean Cay isn’t on Ocean Cay, the island, either.
This is a very small menu and if you are on the dinner package, even more so, because a number of dishes are excluded.
Crab cakes were excellent. The fancy pasta with a name Virginia didn’t recognize was basically linguine and clam sauce and I would order it again.
We both finished with pistachio ice cream. I’m afraid Virginia is going to try to smuggle some home in our suitcases.
9:45pm Tonight’s show is Fly. We missed getting to the theater in time for the XL seats. The MSC theater has comfy seats, but there are a couple on each side and in the front row that are seats and a half. So, if you feel squeezed in a regular seat, find those.
10:45pm Had almost enough luck in the casino to counter Virginia’s lack of it. Almost. The fun part of penny slots is hitting a 500 point win and seeing the lights and hearing the bells go off. The sad part is realizing it’s five bucks.
We found our invitation to the Welcome Back reception in the room. It’s tomorrow night, which means formal attire – it’s the second formal night of the cruise. See earlier tirade on the stupidity of formal night.
Random Notes: This was one of our shortest port calls ever. Because we’re calling on Nassau on Friday instead of just taking two full sea days to get back to Miami, we were in port in St Maarten from 7am until 2pm. Then, we head to Nassau, 940 nautical miles away – over nine times the distance from St Thomas to St Maarten. Probably not a good day to roll your own excursion.
The excursion we took was visiting ten points around the island and it was illuminating, depressing and hopeful all at the same time. The damage from Hurricane Irma was presented very matter of fact, not asking for help or sympathy, just the fact that hurricanes happen and damages result. We learned that September 5, 1995, Hurricane Luis hit St Martin as a Cat 5 storm. Twenty-two years and a day later, Irma hit. There is still damage from Luis. That’s how bad hurricanes can be in a relatively poor country that depends on tourism for most of their income.
We missed port calls on our Christmas cruise at St Thomas and St Maarten (among others) in 2017 because of Hurricanes Irma and Maria. There were people on Cruise Critic and Facebook bitching that their itineraries were changed because of the hurricanes. That was a trivial issue compared to what the islanders dealt with – and are still dealing with today.
Ironically, the best way to help is to visit. They need tourism. Sure, there are still some broken areas, but the islands are open for business. Take a cruise, take a plane, then take a tour and buy some rum. Buy a native a cocktail. Buy hand-crafted souvenirs. Eat in the restaurants, drink in the bars, sleep in the hotels. It’s certainly the most painless way to help your fellow man.
On my bitching about having to take photos every evening, I have been reminded that someone in my party who is not I bought the unlimited photo package so we get digital downloads of all the photos that are taken of us. This of course means we should take lots and lots of photos because otherwise the six that don’t suck are really expensive. It’s much better to have dozens of photos you’ll never show anyone, ever, because the cost per photo is lower.
We need to take lots and lots of photos because the photo situation is radically different than other lines. There is no photographer wandering in the restaurants every evening. (This is not a bad thing.) There are no photographers at the bottom of the gangway as you leave for excursions – this may be because excursion groups are formed onboard and then lead outside to the luxury coaches buses. The only way you seem to have your photo taken is to seek out a photographer or attend a party.
Someone in our party (not I) assumed MSC Cruises interrupted all your dinners and harassed you as you left the ship, and all those photos would be in the unlimited photo package. Oops.
I mentioned yesterday that our Kleenex holder had never been filled and today it was. That is an amazing coincidence or someone at MSC is reading this blog. If someone is reading the blog, I would like a Aperol Spritz delivered at 8am tomorrow, to take the edge off the early morning. (We have the Behind the Scenes tour in the morning at 8:30. So much for sleeping in on a sea day.)

MSC Seaside – Day 4 St Thomas

6:00am – Who booked an excursion the day after a port stop that lasted until 1am? We staggered out of bed, showered and headed for our 8am meeting. I missed my morning coffee since Virginia settled for a protein bar instead of going to the buffet for breakfast where she could have gotten me coffee.
8:00am Off to the buses. St Thomas doesn’t have buses, it has vans with open sides and bench seats. Also, very treacherous steps, especially when they are wet. It was raining, one of the first times we’ve ever had rain in the Caribbean.
MSC has one nice (and useful) bonus for their excursions – if it looks like rain, they give everyone a poncho as you check in. By poncho, I mean a trash bag with arm holes. I have not tried one yet, because “one size fits all” usually means “except you.” Still, it’s a nice touch. It also helps you find people from your ship at tour stops – just look for people in ill-fitting blue trash bags.
Onto the excursion – a scenic drive with a visit to Magen’s Beach and shopping. Our driver’s name was Francis. We had to know this because there were a bunch of red buses, so the way you find your bus is by knowing your driver. Finally saw Magen’s Beach, “one of the ten most beautiful beaches in the world according to National Geographic.” (We were told that a lot.)
Francis must have had a lot of old farts on his tour because he repeated everything twice. Everything. Twice.
This continued even after the first two rows of the bus started repeating the repetitions. “I think this beach was in National Geographic.” “Isn’t it one of the most beautiful beaches in the world?”
Lighten up, Francis.
There were beautiful views of clouds and fog all the way up the mountain.
9:00am We went to Mountain Top, the second-highest point on St Thomas (and the one with a very expansive gift shop) which gave a wonderful view of the tops of the clouds. The gift shop is world famous for its banana daiquiri. World famous for its banana daiquiri, the gift shop is on the second highest point on St Thomas.

While I was taking photos between rain clouds, Virginia was finding dog clothes. That’s how big the souvenir store is – they have pet clothes. I got myself a hat to help keep the rain off, so naturally the rain immediately stopped.
9:30am On the way down from the Mountain Top (which is the second highest point on St Thomas), we paused to look at the clouds blocking our view of Water Island, “the smallest of the US Virgin Islands.” I give Francis props for having the humor (and the balls) to stop at a photo stop that was completely fogged in. Well played, Sir.
After the mountain, we spent two hours at Magens Bay, “one of the ten most beautiful beaches in the world, according to National Geographic.” Virginia was feeling shaky, so we hit the restaurant. They were serving breakfast, which I found hilarious. I’m not sure why – I just think a burger stand on a beach (even one of the ten most beautiful beaches in the world, according to National Geographic) shouldn’t have separate services. Virginia wanted a cheeseburger and had to settle for an egg, ham and cheese sandwich. I will be forever grateful to this place, because although the waitress/cashier/runner seemed a wee bit stressed (“Customers? On a day a ship is in port?”), she had coffee. Blissful coffee. Wonderful coffee. OK, it was caffeine and I needed it.
After Virginia had breakfast, she felt guilty about taking up a table, so we had a Johnny Cake with ham and cheese, and I had more coffee.

Coffee. Coffee. Coffee.

I still can’t believe there isn’t a coffee pot in the cabin on the ship.

Are you going to finish that Johnny Cake?

There were birds everywhere, so we cleared off our table so they wouldn’t attack us.
We never made it into the water. There is something quite relaxing about watching people trying to have a day’s worth of fun in an hour, while enjoying coffee.
Looking down across the bay, I remember thinking, “This must be one of the most beautiful beaches in the world.” I’m not sure who would rank something like that.
After the beach break, it was back to town for shopping. Virginia was so tired she didn’t want to shop. This is a miracle on the order of the loaves and fishes. So, we wandered down the street to catch the shuttle boat that would return us to the ship.
1:00pm We joined the mob waiting for the boat. In the Caribbean, “return you to the ship” means “take you to the opposite end of the shopping strip mall conveniently located parallel to the dock.”
The boat ride was quick but I realized one of the advantages of traveling an international cruise line is that on a water taxi, diesel fuel and marine exhaust are not the most annoying smells. Aftershave and cologne are.
1:30pm Safely off the water taxi. Able to breathe again. Virginia needed a restroom. I know from experience that this needs to be played delicately, since we will be spending money in whatever establishment she pees in. (It’s like dogs marking their territory.) As God was smiling on me today, the two closest places were a sushi restaurant (never happening) and The Tap and Still (“Beer, Booze and Burgers.”)
The Tap and Still received two of the two votes in our group and was elected as the bathroom. As Virginia fled to make a deposit, I had a Captain Morgan & Ginger Ale, because I didn’t want to appear rude.

Captain & Ginger


Virginia came back and ordered Club Soda, so I was glad one of us was being really polite and taking full advantage of the facilities. In fact, I had another Captain & Ginger just to make sure everyone was happy.
This may be the time to mention that MSC doesn’t seem to have any Ginger Ale onboard, so I wasn’t really drinking, I was stocking up for the rest of the week.
We ordered lunch – which required us to fill out our own order blank. We turned it in (to the same bartender who made our drinks) and she handed it back because I hadn’t specified any toppings for my Patty Melt and all the toppings were included.
I had failed ordering.
I selected grilled onions, since they should be there, anyway, and grilled mushrooms because they sounded good.
It was. It was an excellent bar burger and fries.

I began to worry about the number of drinks I was having, so I ordered the locally brewed IPA. Very tasty.

At this point, I had successfully completed both tiers of the Tap and the Still. Virginia had another Club Soda because she was still rocking the “Too Cool to Drink” look. Nobody believes it in the islands.
We wandered down the street to the ship and passed Islands in the Sun – a boutique (an expensive souvenir stand) run by a lovely Indian gentleman. Virginia bought two dresses but didn’t get sucked into the high-quality, discount jewelry. She’s losing her touch, or he’s losing his.
Then, it was back to the ship, where we realized we only had two hours until dinner.
4:00pm Virginia was thirsty so she ordered water from room service. The boutique may have been cheaper. I know the drinks at lunch were.
Virginia is napping while I’m documenting. If I nap, I will forget this. That’s how good the IPA was.
I just had one of the Coke Zeroes. Mainly because I wanted to feel rich.
6:00pm Time for old folks’ dinner at the Butcher’s Cut steakhouse . Our waitress was the same woman who helped us book our dinners right after we boarded. Much bonding ensued.
The wall into the steakhouse is Asti Spumante bottles, which is interesting since it’s not on the wine list. Virginia saw the bottles and remembered her sister and (late) brother-in-law drinking it early in their relationship and requested a glass (I had to ask her the reason it was special because I didn’t know the story.) The sommelier apologized and said it wasn’t on the wine line, and suggested something similar. Virginia said it was a sentimental choice, and it had to be Asti, but to just skip it. She said it was surprising it wasn’t available since there was a wall of bottles entering the steakhouse. At that point, the sommelier said, “I don’t have it on the wine list, but it’s in the bar, so I’ll just get it for you.”
This at long last is how you solve a customer request. Tell them where it isn’t, tell them where it is, and make it appear.
So, after dinner, we each had a glass of Asti Spumante and toasted my sister-in-law and her late husband.
Virginia told me the story of them having it their wedding reception or on a date or some important date. She finally texted her sister for the story and it turns out two of her sisters drank it in Italy on vacation. So, celebrating a marriage, getting hammered on vacation. It’s the thought that counts.
What counts for me is the steakhouse team made it happen. The steaks were good, too.
8:30pm We had reservations for the show but skipped it. Long days and nights are catching up with us.
Back in the room, we found our invitation to the MSC Voyagers Club Black Party, perhaps another chance to drink with the Captain. We also found two MSC ball caps on our bed, which must be our Voyages Club gift (in addition to the chocolate ships.)
10:30pm We’re doing 9 knots. Somebody is trying to make 100 nautical miles take a long time.
10:45pm (prediction – it’s actually 9:45pm now) Tonight is the Country-Western party and Virginia got me a Texas flag shirt to wear. I wore the shirt to dinner because we’re going to be asleep before the party starts. In fact, Virginia’s snoring is distracting me while I’m writing this.
Random Notes: We got a statement for our minibar consumption. I think we’re supposed to do the forms but I never have. The minibar has never been refilled and it’s now clogged with the room service drinks we’ve ordered. I guess the Coke Zero we requested from our room steward will never arrive. At least he’s providing ice now.
There is a Kleenex holder in the bathroom that has never been filled. I’m not sure why it’s there. Maybe Europeans never sneeze.