MSC Armonia has been sailing in the Caribbean for several years, but until recently, it primarily targeted Europeans; now it's drawing a North American crowd as well. A decently sized ship at about 2,500 passengers, MSC Armonia is smaller than most modern mega-ships and feels cosier than you'd think. Similarly, despite it being an older ship, the decor feels comfortable, rather than passe; imagine a high-end chain hotel that's become pleasantly worn-in over the years.
One of the best things about MSC Armonia, especially for social cruisers, is its passenger makeup -- a real melting pot of the world, with dozens of nationalities represented and a plethora of languages heard onboard. No matter where anyone is from, though, everyone is onboard to have fun. Cruisers have a real appreciation for the relatively small-scale size of the ship, which allows you, the crew and other passengers to get on a first-name basis quickly. Participation in group activities (from poolside aerobics to dance competitions) is overwhelming and the theatre is packed at night. MSC Armonia is also a particularly kid-friendly ship, packed with kids' clubs that benefit from brand partnerships including Chicco, the Italian baby care brand, and Lego, the well-known toy block manufacturer, both of which resulted in the creation of five separate onboard child care centres, kids' and teen clubs. For those who want to cruise on a ship surrounded by English-speakers, it's worth noting that all the announcements onboard are made in several languages (English, Italian, French, Spanish and German), which can get tedious at times. That said, English is the first language on MSC Cruises ships and we never had difficulty communicating. Crew quickly learned our names and even our favourite coffee and drink preferences. Special requests were handled with aplomb, and we found service to be quite friendly, if sometimes slow.
Daytime: Casual dress is appropriate on MSC Armonia for the majority of the cruise, including jeans and shorts in the main dining room.
Evening: On formal (or "gala") evenings, men should wear a suit or collared shirt and slacks, and women, a cocktail dress or other dressy clothing. Passengers who want a less formal dining experience on these nights can opt for the Lido buffet.
Not permitted: No swimwear or bare feet are permitted in indoor restaurants or buffets at any time.
Teatro La Fenice, on Decks 5 and 6, features six separate shows each week with two performances each night to accommodate both seatings in the ship's main dining room. But, since MSC Armonia carries about 2,500 passengers at a time and the theatre holds just 557 people, it can sometimes be a struggle to find a seat. For popular shows, some passengers end up standing or even sitting on the steps. Because so many different nationalities and languages are onboard, shows tend to be heavy on music and spectacle and range from dance and acrobatic acts to musical revues. Other shows include cabaret acts and concerts. The shows are a not-to-miss activity each night, with everything from strong-man acts to takeoffs on hits, such as "Dirty Dancing" and "The Addams Family," which sometimes went off-script hilariously. Teatro La Fenice is also used for daytime entertainment, such as a Master Chef competition, during which passengers, both children and adults, have fun competing, just like on the TV show. It's staged once during the cruise.
Daytime entertainment options on MSC Armonia are numerous. Active options include morning stretching classes and aerobics, as well as dance lessons in either the Armonia Lounge or Bar del Duomo. Soccer tournaments and other sports take place in the Sport Center at the back of the ship, on the top deck. More sedate options include trivia, arts and crafts sessions, bingo and other games in either the Armonia Lounge or Bar del Duomo. The business center on Deck 6 is used as a movie theatre. Usually, during the day, a family-friendly movie is played, with a more adult-themed movie at night.
MSC Armonia is not an early-to-bed ship; instead, passengers are ready to party late into the night. The Bar del Duomo and Armonia Lounge both play host to several well-attended evening activities, such as dance lessons with the entertainment staff or late-night bingo. The Red Bar on Deck 6 hosts a pianist most nights, with passengers listening to music while sipping a drink. For a ship of around 2,500 passengers, the casino -- Palm Beach Casino on Deck 6 -- is relatively small. The atmosphere of the casino is pleasant and open, with windows letting in natural light during the day, as opposed to the usual dark design of casinos where you never know what time it is. A semicircular bar in the forward corner looks out onto gaming tables and slot machines. Nonsmoking gamblers will be pleased that smoking isn't allowed.
The White Lion Pub (Deck 5): The English-style White Lion Pub is located between reception and the Teatro La Fenice, and is most heavily used before and after the theatre performances. The wine and cocktails are the same as elsewhere on the ship, but the menu offers many more beer options, including Newcastle Brown Ale, Amstel and Murphy's Irish Red on draught; more than 20 beer varieties in bottles; and a handful of beer cocktails. You can also order a few complimentary snacks here, such as spinach and artichoke dip and chips, to go with your drinks. Live music and a nightly trivia quiz are quite popular with passengers.
Cigar Room (Deck 5): Adjacent to the White Lion Pub is the simply named Cigar Room, the ship's smoking lounge. It's decorated in wood panelling and offers small clusters of leather armchairs and couches, seating 10 with plenty of standing room.
Bar del Duomo (Deck 5): This lounge features live entertainment and dancing later in the evenings. Red semicircular couches and tables and chairs surround the stage and a small, black-and-white marble inlaid dance floor. It was often packed for predinner cocktails and later in the evening. Seating at the back of the room is quieter, although it can be difficult to chat depending on the type of act that's playing. Featured activities, such as the "Majority Rules" game show and dance competitions with the theatre cast, bring plenty of people out later in the evening.
The Red/Rum Bar (Deck 6): This classy little cocktail bar, branded by Bacardi, features speciality mojitos and a pianist in the evenings. An enormous blown-glass light fixture -- which is stunning in presentation as well as size and (presumed) weight -- dominates the space. The bar is open to the corridors on each side and because of that has a lobby-ish feel to it, with chairs arranged around small cocktail tables and people milling about. It gets very busy in the later hours of the evening.
Armonia Lounge Bar (Deck 7): MSC Armonia's show lounge offers nearly double the space of the Bar del Duomo. This is where the secondary acts that don't play in the Teatro La Fenice are shown, as well as dance classes and the like. Passengers will find late-night cabaret, live musicians and bands, with music ranging from Latin classical guitar to European pop and dance music. During the day, you can also find books, board games and decks of cards to play with in a corner of the lounge.
Il Lido Bar (Deck 11): The ship's pool bar is open from 8 a.m. until late into the night and serves the ship's standard list of cocktails, wine, beer and spirits.
Starlight Disco (Deck 12): The Starlight Disco is the late-night dance venue onboard. Situated at the back of Deck 12, it's quiet during the day but offers nice views over the stern of the ship. Typically, the younger passengers onboard convene at the disco around 11:30 p.m., when the ship's DJ sets up to spin tracks, and the dancing goes on well into the night. The venue is open from 11 p.m. until the wee hours of the night.
MSC Armonia has a single pool deck (Deck 11), with two pools -- one family and one adult. The two whirlpool hot tubs in between are not big, but there is plenty of room for loungers, and the shaded areas along the outside of the pool deck have both tables (near the bar) and loungers for those who prefer to stay out of the sun. An enormous colourful, interactive water feature called the Doremi Spray Park is aimed at the children onboard. The area around the Doremi Spray Park truly feels expansive -- almost to the point of dwarfing the pools -- and it's hard to imagine it getting crowded.
Forget about over-the-top features that newer ships all seem to sport. MSC Armonia has pretty low-key recreational offerings. Apart from the pool deck and Doremi Spray Park, passengers can entertain themselves with shuffleboard, Ping-Pong and an enclosed sports centre on Deck 13 with a multipurpose court that has basketball hoops. The sports and activities on Deck 13 are generally open from 9 a.m. until 8 p.m., and equipment can be borrowed from 9 a.m. to midnight. Ask attendants near the pool or at the reception desk for gear.
Apart from the main pool deck, there is only one additional sun deck, located at the forward end of Deck 13. The Top 13 adults-only retreat is tied in with the MSC Aurea Spa onboard and entry costs $15 per person, per day. The space offers comfortable loungers, showers, whirlpool baths and a dedicated wait staff. You can rent cocoon beds -- pod-shaped wicker, rattan beds with a mattress and pillows -- for $40 per day.
Many of Armonia's services are located toward the forward end of Deck 5. Shopping (jewellery, clothing and accessories) is clustered around and just forward from reception, also on Deck 5. Moving toward the back of the ship, you'll find the photo gallery, shore excursions desk and the internet cafe, where you can purchase Wi-Fi packages. The cost of Wi-Fi packages is based on usage. When connecting to Wi-Fi onboard, you can stop and start your session whenever you need to use the internet -- and whenever it's available. As on most cruise ships, access can be spotty. An unlimited internet package costs $199, while a standard internet package for two devices and a 3,000MB limit is $99. A small corner of the Armonia Lounge is carved out for books in multiple languages, plus games and puzzles. There is no self-service laundry, but laundry service packages are available. A 20-item package costs $35.
The expansive spa is located at the front of Deck 11. Its light and airy treatment rooms are arranged around the exterior of the ship to make the most of the windowed views. The spa offers both single and couples massage rooms, as well as offering massages on their private island, Ocean Cay. A 50-minute, full-body Balinese massage is $165, while a specialized treatment like a papaya facial is $130. At the beauty parlour adjacent to the spa, you can get a manicure, pedicure and haircuts. If you're looking to dress up for a special night out, you can book a makeup artist session for $39. The thermal suite and relaxation area make up the rest of the MSC Aurea Spa and offers steam rooms, showers, sauna and thermal loungers as well as a heated relaxation area overlooking the sea. Passengers can purchase daily or full cruise passes. Anyone who purchases three treatments on the first day of the cruise also gets a full-week pass to the thermal suite thrown in for free. Additionally, passengers get access to the thermal area before or after a treatment (on the same day only). The spa's hours vary, but generally, it opens between 7 and 9 a.m. and closes between 9 and 11 p.m.
The ship's gym is in the spa complex and is free to all passengers. The sizable space offers a padded floor for aerobics classes, yoga and stretching. There are Technogym treadmills, stair climbing machines, exercise bikes, weight benches and rowing machines. Fitness classes include aerobics, yoga, spinning, Pilates, stretching and dance lessons. Classes cost around $15, and a one-on-one session with a personal trainer costs $35 for an hour. The gym is open from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Kids age 12 and under are not allowed. There is no complete walking or running track that goes around the entire ship, as is usual on most ships. Instead, there is a power walking track on Deck 12, but you do have to deal with your fair share of deck chairs and people lounging. We never saw anyone jogging; we suspect there are just too many obstacles.
Food onboard MSC Armonia is hit or miss, though plenty of passengers seemed happy enough with the offerings. One would assume that Italian food would be the star of the show at meals, but overcooked pasta on more than one occasion and sometimes flavourless sauces were a disappointment. Dishes, such as an excellent vegan burger served at lunch, were happy discoveries. Pizza, available at the buffet or as a delivery to your cabin, was a passenger favourite, as was the gelato bar. There's also not a wide variety of dining options, with just two main dining rooms (one of which is for suite passengers only), a buffet and one specialty dining venue. With advance notice, passengers with special dietary needs are accommodated with no problem. MSC Armonia carries prepackaged gluten-free products, such as snacks, cookies, croissants, sponge cakes and muffins.
Marco Polo (Deck 5)
Meals: Breakfast (B), Lunch (L), Dinner (D): Marco Polo, seating 1,060 passengers, is the larger of the ship's two main dining rooms. Tables seat from two to six diners, and seating areas along the outside wall are a combination of built-in bench seating, normal table and chair setups and semicircular booths that seat six. Breakfast and lunch are both waiter-served and open seating. For dinner, passengers dining in Marco Polo are allocated a set table and fixed dining time (early or late seatings are timed to coincide with the two evening shows in the Teatro La Fenice theatre) at 6:15 p.m. or 8:45 p.m. Breakfast offers eggs cooked to order, bacon, sausage, smoked salmon, cold cuts, cheese, fruit, yoghurt, cereal, pastries, bread, tea, coffee, hot chocolate and fruit juices. Lunch features a three-course menu made up of starters (soup, cheese croquettes, Greek salad), a main (typically steak, pasta and fish dishes -- hamburgers are always available and the vegan version is better than average), a daily special and desserts. Dinner offers at least three courses, as well, plus an always-available menu with options that include Caesar salad (chicken optional), grilled chicken breast, steak or salmon dishes served with French fries, baked potatoes or the vegetable dish of the day. Specials could be anything from roast pheasant to red snapper. Vegan choices are also offered and most special diets can be catered for onboard, but MSC advises cruisers to notify the line of any special dietary needs when booking their cruise.
La Pergola (Deck 6)
Meals: B, L, D: La Pergola, the second main dining room, seats 340 people and has open seating from 6 to 9 p.m. but is reserved for Aurea and Fantastica Suite passengers only. La Pergola offers the same menu as Marco Polo.
La Brasserie (Deck 11)
Meals: B, L, D: La Brasserie is MSC Armonia's buffet cafeteria set up at the back end of Deck 11. It holds just 290 people, so it can get crowded. La Brasserie stays open from 6 a.m. until 12:30 a.m. There's also a 24-hour coffee, tea and water station inside La Brasserie. For breakfast, the buffet offers both continental and cooked food, with all the usual options. In addition to the savoury options, there are also sweet breakfast items, such as pancakes, waffles and crepes. Lunch and dinner options include a salad bar, cold cuts, a carvery (for roasts), pasta and other hot dishes -- for example, curries or beef stroganoff -- along with fresh fruit, ice cream and a selection of cakes and other desserts.
Il Girasole (Deck 11)
Meals: B, L, D: There's plenty of protected outdoor seating in Il Girasole, just forward from La Brasserie. This nicely situated spot serves up hamburgers, hot dogs, pizza, fruit and desserts buffet-style and also has its own bar. Waiters patrol the area to serve drinks, but service can be slow.
Gelateria Italiana (Deck 11)
Meals: Gelato: Gelateria Italiana's hours vary quite a bit and you'll have to look in the daily program to see what they are each day. It serves up different flavored gelato and chocolate and vanilla soft serve ice cream in cups or cones.
Meals: B: For Aurea- and Fantastica-level passengers, a complimentary breakfast is included with your cruise fare.
Surf & Turf (Deck 6); $35 per person, plus a la carte options
Meals: D: Located in the space carved out of the back of the La Pergola suites-only restaurant, Surf & Turf serves exactly what its name says: lobsters, steaks and classic sides that pair with them. The cover charge includes a choice of appetizers, such as crab cakes and pork belly, entrees (filet mignon and lobster tail, rib eye, lobster thermidor) with two side dishes and desserts. Should you have room for more food, you can order extra for reasonable prices. Reservations are highly recommended.
Caffe San Marco (Deck 6); a la carte speciality coffee
Meals: Snacks: On the second level of the main lobby, Caffe San Marco serves extra-fee hot coffees, iced and frozen coffees and chocolate drinks, as well as free biscotti and pastry items. You'll also find alcoholic drinks, such as espresso martinis. The cafe is typically open from 6 a.m. until midnight.
Vitamin Bar (Deck 11); a la carte
Meals: Juices: The Vitamin Bar offers drinks made from fresh fruit and juices with the option to add additional vitamin boosters. Drinks cost just a few dollars, and hours vary day by day.
Room Service; $7.95 delivery fee and a la carte pizza
Meals: B, L, D: A hearty breakfast, such as omelettes and pancakes, is available and comes with a $7.95 service charge, as do lunch and dinner orders (though this fee is waived for any passenger who has booked the Fantastic or Aurea Experience). The standout item is pizza, which is delivered to your room in a pizza box, just like at home. Pizzas are available from noon to midnight and cost between $6 and $9.50. The menu also includes soup, sandwiches, salads, pasta, chicken, a cheese plate, a fruit plate and the dessert of the day. Room service is available 24 hours a day.
In general, cabins on MSC offer plenty of space and while serviceable and comfortable enough are not particularly special in any way. Most cabins come with two single beds (convertible to a king), bedside tables, a flat-screen television, a desk and chair, and a closet for storing belongings. Other amenities are a mini-bar (stocked with for-fee items), room safe, hairdryer and telephone. As is normal for an older ship, all the electric outlets and USB ports are located in one spot over the desk, and not next to the bed, which can be a bit of a hassle at times for two people with multiple devices that need charging. As for the beds, if you like a very firm mattress, you'll be happy. For those who prefer a softer mattress, the beds might be too firm for comfort. Bathrooms are fairly small in all non-suite cabins, and the small shower cubicle is divided from the rest of the room by a shower curtain on rails at both the top and bottom to prevent it from being clingy. (Showers in the balcony cabins have glass doors.) The bathroom setup is perfectly functional, but the funny, triangular shape of the shower cubicle makes it quite cramped. All showers and tubs have body wash/shampoo and conditioner dispensers mounted to the wall as well as wire racks to hold toiletries. In what we were told is a green initiative, cabins are not stocked with tissues, though you can request a box from your cabin attendant. Families and groups travelling together can take advantage of 10 interconnecting balcony cabins, 18 interconnecting suites and two designated family cabins that offer a separate sitting area with a pull-down bunk bed and a pull-out sofa bed. A large number of ocean-view and interior cabins onboard offer pull-down bunks as third and fourth berths. There are five accessible cabins onboard (each sized 225 square feet) that are located close to elevators, and have wider doorways and a roll-in shower for wheelchair accessibility as well as grab bars in the shower. They also feature lowered sinks and closet rods, raised toilets, amplified phones and close-captioned televisions. Unlike any other cruise line, MSC's cabins must be booked via a system of tiered experiences. On MSC Armonia the available tiers are: Bella, Fantastic and Aurea. Each level has its own set of inclusions (or as in the case of Bella, no inclusions), as well as designated cabins that can only be booked with that experience.
Interior: The 351 interior cabins measure 140 square feet and come with the standard amenities listed above.
Ocean View: These 399 cabins offer the same square footage and amenities as inside cabins (140 square feet), along with picture windows, but beware 64 of these cabins only have partial views.
Balcony: Balcony cabins, which only number 64, measure 172 square feet and have a 32-square-foot balcony furnished with a round table and two upright chairs as opposed to loungers. Floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors lead out to the veranda.
Suite: At 290 square feet, the suites are not true suites in that they don't offer a separate lounge area. They do feature extra storage space and a pull-out sofa bed. Balconies are larger than those in the standard balcony cabins, at 53 square feet, but similarly furnished. The most noticeable perk is the larger bathrooms, which have a tub in addition to the shower.