Today—Tuesday November 19, 2013—the warm waters off Miami roll out the red carpet for a much-anticipated opening act. The MSC Divina is finally here.
Eighteen days after departing from Venice, the sparkling white, 1,094-foot Italian cruise ship will arrive in Miami’s cleverly named PortMiami to begin servicing the Caribbean on regular, year-round cruises to America’s favorite warm-weather neighbor. MSC is, in fact, launching the first of these cruises tomorrow (a three-day voyage between Miami, the Bahamas and Cape Canaveral from just $229). Time is not to be wasted when you’re changing the game.
That’s the message from their head offices, at least, but is there anything to it? To the less seaworthy, there certainly seems to be no shortage of giant boats in the Caribbean. Why would we need another one?
Well for starters, the number of people going on cruises each year is growing astronomically. Simply put, more people need more ships. (Side note on terminology: A ship can carry a boat. A boat cannot carry a ship.) Secondly, each cruise ship is vastly, infinitely different from all others it shares the sea with. It is a piece of art, a collaborative masterpiece, an almost living being that takes on the personality of its makers. (Another side note: According to the US Navy, references to ships in the feminine “she” grew out of early sailors’ dependence on their vessels for life and sustenance.) And so most importantly, the MSC Divina carries the soul of its European heritage—and that soul is arriving on the Caribbean cruise scene for essentially the first time.
My week aboard the beast came during one of its final European itineraries—out of Istanbul and up through the Aegean, Ionian and Adriatic Seas. What was needed in the way of a transformation played out before my eyes (and my mother’s, as she came along), as the ship tailored its amenities to better suit American travelers.
What we saw was a very tangible excitement percolating throughout the ship. The Italians, everyone agreed, were about to shake up the American cruise game. Many among the approximately 1,370 staff were in the final days of their contracts (some sadly were limited by their inability to acquire American visas, a necessity for virtual residents of a ship whose home port will be in Miami). Many among the crew that will serve Miami—hand-picked for their standout performances elsewhere in the greater MSC fleet—we picked up in ports during our journey.
After seven days that included dinner at the Captain’s Table, we left our temporary floating home with a distinct sense of what’s to come for interested cruisers. Here’s what to expect from the MSC Divina:
MSC—Italy in a ship
Mediterranean Shipping Company Cruises is the largest privately owned cruise company in the world. True to its name, its roots are in shipping, and it remains a subsidiary of the world’s second-largest shipping company by capacity. More importantly, the brand is definingly European. Though it is based in Geneva, Switzerland, it is by experience more visibly and proudly Italian.
Prior to today, the major cruise lines really competing in the Caribbean (Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Norwegian, Holland America) were all American-owned and/or -operated, and accordingly and less flexibly American in the cultures thriving aboard their ships. The Divina, then, is trying to introduce a whole new, less American-centric cruise option to the market. Realistically, the Caribbean draws Americans, and MSC wants Americans, but the clout behind the MSC name in Europe is enough to keep the guests, at least in the short term, more international.
The Divina employs natives of more than 50 countries, all of whom we found to be incredibly welcoming, engaging and perhaps best of all, very open with us. Most of the decision-makers (including the Captain, the Chief Engineer and the Cruise Director) are Italian by birth (the gregarious Captain said “Mama Mia!” at least once during our dinner together). The food is rich in Italian/Mediterranean options, especially with the addition of Eataly Steakhouse (an extension of the popular NYC line) and Ristorante Italia. The gelato is, according to USAToday.com, “the best at sea.” Pizza-making classes and lessons in Italian gestures (which we attended) are prominent, and partnerships with Italian brands like Segafredo, Nutella, Campari and Martini are ever-present. As in the Old Country, we found an appreciation for the finer things (food included) shared by all wandering the ship, whose elegantly designed interior (much of it dreamed up by the owner’s wife and which features 64,583 square feet of marble) is a step above the rest in its class.
For me, this was a big draw. My time on the Divina marked my first ever cruise experience, and now on the other side of it, I can still safely say a ship this size is not my preferred means of travel. But the international flair—best represented by the friendships we formed with guests from all over Europe—was a welcome surprise. The community found on a ship, in the shared experience of traveling and vacationing and adventuring with other people, is a big win for cruising, and having a more diverse cultural pool to explore made it that much better.
It’s not all Italian
Look, it’s not Sicily; the relaunched MSC Divina will be overwhelmingly American-friendly, even American-geared. It’s just Italian/European enough to give it something different from the rest of what’s out there. Almost across the board, in fact, the transformation has been one towards ensuring that we and our Canadian friends will be comfortable. For starters:
- English (the international language of the sea) will be the lingua franca, no longer sharing that honor with Italian
- US dollars (by way of your cruise card) will replace Euros as ship currency
- In-room television programming will be cutting some Italian nonsense and adding ESPN, CNN and more
- Nightly live entertainment programming will be more culturally balanced instead of Italian skewed (which it really isn’t already) thanks to the addition of an American Cruise Director to the team
- Smoking, which on my ship seemed to be permitted everywhere, will be banned except for in the Cigar Lounge and in some outdoor areas
- The outdoor screen on the 14th deck will introduce a new “al fresco” offering that will include classic films and NFL, NBA and NCAA games playing at different times during the day
Embarking and your Cruise Card
On embarkation day, you’ll have a specific window in which to arrive, go through what feels like too many steps and finally, your bags whisked away for later delivery, get your Cruise Card. Your Cruise Card is your identification and your form of payment on board (you link it to a credit card at check-in), and you should probably just have it with you at all times. Perhaps most importantly, you’ll need it to disembark and embark at ports, and also importantly, you can now use it at the casino.
Helpful tip: As we learned the hard way in Istanbul, on embarkation day you can’t re-enter the port after you’ve gone through check-in, so be sure you’ve done all you need to before boarding the ship. We’d allocated time for the Spice Bazaar and missed out, and a Greek family was unable to go back for some things they’d left in their car (which was sitting just beyond the fence at the dock).
Helpful tip: Check-in online in advance (up to 72 hours in advance of your call time) and save yourself some time at embarkation.
“A city that travels to other cities,” from the mouth of the Cruise Director, is the best description of the MSC Divina I’ve yet heard. It really is a beautiful ship, even to someone not in tune with nautical aesthetics, littered with outlets for your time, and it will put you up for about as cheap as you’ll find any cruise (about a third of the cost of a Holland America cruise according to a previously Holland America-loyal couple we spoke with).
And also, the ship is enormous. Here are the numbers:
- Length: 1,094 feet
- Surface area: 4,843,000 sq ft
- Gross tonnage: 139,400 tons
- Decks: 18 (14 for guests)
- Guest capacity: 4,345 (3,502 usually)
- Cabins: 1,751 (45 for people with disabilities)
- Crew: 1,370
- Elevators: 26 (17 for guests including 1 for the MSC Yacht Club)
- Voltage (in cabin outlets): 110/220 volts
- Maximum speed: 23 knots
- Pools: 4 (1 with sliding roof and 1 for the MSC Yacht Club; 12 whirlpool baths)
As noted already, your appetite is supposedly serious business on the MSC Divina. At least in the sense that there is always food available, this is true. The 14th floor Calumet cafeteria and its overwhelming, regenerating spread is included in your price, and it’s open (at least the sandwich station) until the early morning. There’s even one section just for small children featuring chicken fingers, fries, and fruit. Across the board here, the food is nothing to call Italy about, but the pizza at least is actually pretty good.
Helpful tip: Eschew the Calumet chaos for lunch and go to your assigned dinner restaurant for lunch. It’s included, and yet the majority of people didn’t seem to realize this was an option.
The included dinner is, as it is on most cruise ships, a very structured ordeal. There are two dinner times—6:00 pm and 8:30 pm—and you (and whoever you’re traveling with) are assigned one of them at either the two-floor Black Crab or Villa Rossa. They serve the same food at both, and you sit at the same table with the same server each night. The food is pretty solid, and the surprises are regular (birthdays with cakes, a baked Alaska procession, an introduction to the people powering your cruise, etc.).
Helpful tip: If you’d prefer to switch dining times, apparently you can. All you have to do is ask.
If you’d like a little more flexibility with your dinner, or better food, or both, you might consider abandoning your server without warning (that’s fine) and going to one of the other restaurants onboard, which do cost extra. Reservations are a good idea to be safe, but generally we found a quieter, more relaxing atmosphere when we took our appetites outside convention. Eataly Steakhouse (which just opened while we were there, ironically replacing a Tex-Mex restaurant) is a great bet, and word is Galaxy up on the 14th is as well (if not for the food, get a drink later and enjoy the views).
Helpful tip: To save time in the morning (especially before an excursion), you can have a light breakfast delivered to your room at the time of your choice.
A conversation about the MSC Divina will not go long without reaching entertainment—which is exactly how any walk around the ship will go, as well. This ship is absolutely overflowing with ways to spend your time. There’s a casino (which opens 30 minutes after the ship leaves port and stays open until roughly 2-3 am or whenever people are done), two small bowling lanes (little balls), a 4-D cinema (honestly not sure what that is supposed to be), an F1 simulator, foosball, ping-pong, pools, nightly bingo, a basketball/soccer court (the basketball hoop is a few inches too high, but at least in North American waters the European kids will understand the concept of not playing soccer in order to eat, or sleep, or whatever; they honestly were never not there), dance classes, cooking classes, wine tastings, and on and on.
Each night, a schedule comes out with, among other things, the next day’s schedule. As you’ll quickly learn, on the MSC Divina there is something going on (a class, a show, etc.) at every waking hour. I won a ping-pong tournament, which was well attended and very competitive. I’m not that good at ping-pong, so shouldn’t have beaten anyone I played except maybe the 14-year-old Swedish kid, but it happened, and it was a lot of fun.
Kind of like the nightly shows, which are absolutely the highlight of the Divina entertainment circuit. Each night, you can find most types of music in the various lounges—from classical violin pieces to jazz to Beatles covers—and most of the musicians, at least from what I heard, are very talented. The nightly stage shows, though, (with two performances each night) were on a whole different level.
I’d heard this before we actually made it to one (if you have the late dinner, you have to go to the early show, and vice versa). But I’m not a big appreciator of anything too close to musical theater, and so assuming that’s what awaited us in the massive Pantheon Theatre, I figured I’d go, be able to report on it, and find myself with an extra half-hour before dinner each night. Well, it turns out that everyone is the target demographic of these shows, because the only reason you could have left “The Can-Can,” our first, without a smile on your face is if you lost to me in ping-pong that day. And even then: Get over it and pay attention because that show is awesome.
“The Can-Can” was like a whirling, singing, well-paced cocktail of Cirque de Soleil, vaudeville comedy and burlesque, all rolled into about 30 minutes. And apparently it’s not even the best one, perhaps just third on the list beneath “Pirates” and a moonwalk-filled tribute to Michael Jackson.
The programming will have changed by tomorrow, but from my understanding those three shows aren’t going anywhere. And in any case, the full picture that emerges will still be at its heart an MSC-arranged powerhouse of nightly entertainment. Perhaps it’s the cruise line’s two in-house production companies that are to be credited, or maybe the tradition of skilled (even Julliard-schooled) performers that’s still untempered, but MSC must have the best shows on the sea.
This place is pretty amazing. It shares the 14th deck with a pool, several bars and the Calumet cafeteria, together a pretty hectic cluster mid-day. But at any hour (before 9 pm, when it closes) the spa feels like a different world entirely. The bustling and whirring of thousands of people has faded gracefully even before you’ve wound your way down the serpentine hallway. Inside Aurea, there’s a delicious spa bar with color-coded drinks, which apparently pair well with specifically designated spa treatments.
The list of ways to indulge in relaxation is as long as I’ve ever seen, but the treatment with Himalayan salt—one of the signature options here—and the standard Balinese massage (which a woman I talked to said was the best she’s ever had) are good bets.
Helpful tip: The daily program guides are pretty good about filling you in on special deals, but they don’t make it clear that the spa is always 30%-50% off on port days during the hours the ship is actually in port. There seemed to be a little more to it than this, and I got some diverging explanations, but as a rule of thumb: The less likely the spa is to be busy, the more likely it is to be discounted. Look into it.
All the way on the 14th deck, tucked behind the spa, is a fully equipped gym with a panoramic overlook of the ship and (mostly) the landscapes beyond. It’s a pretty invigorating place to get your blood pumping. There’s also a short jogging track.
There is a whole list of rooming options on the Divina, and all seem fine enough to me with the exception of the Inside Rooms. As the name implies, these rooms are on the interior of the ship and have no windows. They’re cheaper of course, but that to me would be a bummer. With that, I’ll also note that we did not have a balcony, or opening windows, in our Aurea Suite as our room was on the bow of the ship. This made my mother claustrophobic. This made me sad that my mother was claustrophobic, but also gave me the quite incredible views out in front of a 139,400-ton work of art cutting through everything in its path.
Helpful tip: Make sure to latch your bathroom closed at night, because otherwise it will swing slowly but creakily until you have to get up and shut it.
The beds were actually pretty great, and the pillows, surprisingly solid. And the blinds—just make sure to set an alarm, because with those things closed it may as well be Rjukan, Norway in December. They are insanely effective at blocking out light.
The MSC Yacht Club
It’s the “ship within a ship,” and really does feel like it. Nabbing a Yacht Club room (like the Sophia Loren suite) on the Divina will cost you extra, but if you’re looking for a little more service, peace or exclusivity aboard this beehive of a ship, it may be worth it.
With a balcony-or-more-adorned room or suite, the MSC Yacht Club experience is like having your name on every list on a good night out. There’s a private pool area (The One Pool) with two whirlpool baths on the back of the ship, and a private bar (The One Bar) to match. There’s the Top Sail Lounge, which serves a top-notch breakfast and Imperial Britain-style high tea each afternoon. 24-butler service is available with certain rooms, and complimentary wines, beers and spirits at all Yacht Club bars. The Club’s private restaurant, Le Muse, served possibly the two best meals (between the two of us) we enjoyed at sea.
The specific excursions available on our cruise, while probably the highlights of the trip, will of course not be available in the Caribbean. Instead of Dubrovnik and Ephesus, the Caribbean itineraries will offer such options as snorkeling trips, dolphin swims and adventures to hidden beaches and rum distilleries. They will be fun, I’m sure, but depending on what kind of traveler you are, there may be days when it’s better to explore solo.
The Excursions office is open until 10 pm each day and is worth stopping in, if only to get a sense of what’s available. We found the crew behind these desks to be very sincere in their recommendations.
Helpful tip: If you purchase an excursion, grab your tickets the night before so you don’t have to deal with the crowds doing the same in the morning.
Helpful tip: If you explore the port on your own, make absolutely sure to leave time to get back. If you aren’t back on the ship by call time, YOU WILL GET LEFT BEHIND. This is not unique to MSC Cruises but is a cruising reality. Don’t find out the way one Italian family did on our trip.
Helpful tip: At every port but one, we didn’t need to take our passports thanks to what I assume are border exemptions for cruisers (and some sort of advanced registration by MSC). On that one we did—Venice—the new instructions were not made very clear, and a few uninformed people were rewarded with some bonus, lengthy re-entry procedures. So make sure you have all the facts before you disembark.
There are already/still some really great deals to be had if you’re in the market for a Caribbean cruise. Check out all the MSC Divina itineraries here.