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MSC Musica

When MSC Crociere's Musica launched in mid-2006, there was a sense of breathless expectancy about the line's newest and largest ship. Among other things, would this grand addition, christened by no less a luminary than Sophia Loren, help MSC grab a larger slice of the English-speaking market in its native Mediterranean waters? Would it convince those coveted English speakers to experience a cruise line that proudly bills itself as: "Beautiful. Passionate. Italian."?

But first: Why would an Italian cruise line, on its home turf, care so much about attracting English-speaking passengers like us? As Nino Gaetano Fontana, Musica's hotel director, framed it on our recent cruise: "We operate in a global market today, and we don't have too much market share in England or the U.S. We're marketing to all English speakers. But it's important that they know we are Italians -- who speak English."

Cruise-wide, according to Fontana, MSC has doubled the number of English-speaking passengers in the last three years. By default, most of the line's Caribbean cruises cater to North American travellers. The real test lies in Europe, where Musica is based. On our Mediterranean cruise, off-season in January, 299 of the 2,500 passengers hailed from the U.S., Great Britain, Australia and Canada. Just seven of us were Americans. By far the largest group -- over 1,200 -- were from Germany. Surprisingly, only 205 were Italian. In all, there were passengers representing more than a dozen countries.

It's interesting math for the forward-thinking MSC, and for us it added up to this: The immaculate Musica -- loaded with special touches like a super-size movie screen over the pool; stylish cabins; sensational night-time entertainment; and one of the best Japanese restaurants I've ever been to -- is a terrific ship. It certainly stands up to the competition. But Musica's essence for us as Americans was the multi-cultural element, which added a dramatic and sometimes difficult dimension to the trip.

Here's why. While English is Musica's official language, as it is for air traffic, some things get lost in translation. When we reported our telephone wasn't working, the woman at reception was convinced we were talking about the TV or the Internet. The phone never did get fixed. During a bilingual shore excursion to Mount Vesuvius, the promised English version gave way disappointingly to German-only. Our English-speaking shipboard hostess -- each nationality has an appointed liaison -- told us she received emphatic complaints about the limited number of in-cabin films in English.

On the other hand, labels at the buffets are in English and Italian. When public announcements are made, they're delivered in five -- count them five -- languages. Except for the wine bar, where the menu is in Italian, all of the bar menus are in English. And, of course, each of us received a daily program in our native language.

But our international cruise experience left us with some lasting memories:

The elderly German woman who, in her shower cap, had a soak in the hot tub on the pool deck each morning at sunrise, no matter the chill factor.

Animated trivia contests played out in the Tucano lounge, nationality pitted against nationality (with questions such as: From which part of Jupiter's body was Minerva born? What's the name of the third Beethoven symphony? In the Bible, what was created on the fourth day?). Imagine that those questions were asked five times apiece -- in five different languages.

The Italian man who expressed displeasure that Italian isn't the preferred language.

That magic moment, after days of watching Euro-centric news, when CNBC Europe appeared briefly on our TV one night with, of all things, "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno." It nearly made us giddy.

The Northern Europeans, bundled up in jackets, hats and scarves, with faces raised to the sun from precisely-placed deck chairs.

The realization that, except for chatting with a woman from Wisconsin who has lived in England for 30 years, we never heard a single American accent the entire cruise.

Editor's Note: Prices onboard are listed in euros; the exchange rate we're using is approximately 1 euro to $1.30; check's currency converter for more up-to-date rates.

Europeans tend to dress up a bit more during the day, but jeans or shorts are still fine. Evening dress, announced in the daily program, comes in three categories: casual, informal and formal. Men will need a dark suit and tie or tuxedo for the formal nights. Women should have a cocktail dress or evening gown. On informal nights, men are asked to wear trousers and a jacket (no tie) and women, pants outfits or an "informal" dress. On casual nights, men can get away with jeans or slacks and a sports shirt while women are generally held to the "informal" standard.

When going ashore, passengers are asked to adhere to local customs. During the shore excursions in Tripoli, for instance, it was requested that passengers wear trousers and have their shoulders covered.

Entertainment on Musica hums, day and night. Typical of the daytime activities: jewellery-making class; Tango, Samba and Merengue lessons; cooking demonstrations; Italian lessons; bingo; trivia contests; art auctions; exercise classes (stretching, aerobics, jogging); and wine tastings.

Musica, musica, musica (er, music) is omnipresent, beginning at midday and lasting well into the night. Particularly popular are Los Paraguayos, a mariachi band, and the all-female Angels Quartet, which plays classical and romantic standards. Teatro La Scala hosts two shows each night, at 8:30 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. The shows -- "Celtic Spirit," "Le Cirque Immaginnaire," "Classical Concert with Angels Quartet" and "A Night in Paris" as examples -- are first-rate and not surprisingly, attract big crowds.

As for shore excursions, there are as many as five options at each port of call. In Naples, for instance, passengers can choose among tours of Pompeii, Mount Vesuvius, the historic city centre, Sorrento and the Royal Palace of Caserta. It doesn't get much better than that. What can be improved upon is the disembarkation process for excursions. In a word, it's bedlam. Basically, hundreds of people, speaking different languages, descend into the appointed lounge to retrieve from harried shore excursion staffers the coded badge that signifies which bus they are to board. Lines are long and patience short. This didn't happen at just one port of call; it was all of them. One possible solution: Deliver the badges in advance to the stateroom, which is how the shore excursion tickets are dispensed in the first place.

One of the things that pleased me most about Musica is that we were able to stick to our daily exercise regimen. In fact, we ratcheted it up a bit.

There's a walking deck on Deck 14, one level above the pools. A few of us would routinely arrive just before sunrise to walk or jog. It didn't take long to establish our own little subculture: Exercisers arrive first, then smokers, then photographers. By 7:30 or 8 a.m., the deck can get crowded with passengers and crew, so I was glad to discover that Deck 7, a little-used promenade deck, was far better than Deck 14 for serious exercising. It's also under cover, a bonus on windy or wet days.

The gym, small but sufficient, is open from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. There are six treadmills, eight elliptical and exercise bikes, and six weight machines. Next to the gym is a room reserved for spinning, yoga, body conditioning and Pilates, and lectures on hot topics like "Secrets to a Flatter Stomach" and "Eat More to Weigh Less." A few of the hour-long fitness classes, such as yoga, Pilates and spinning, cost 11 euros (about $14.50).

There's a pretty extensive fitness and recreation program: table tennis, table football, miniature golf, a golf simulator, shuffleboard and group aerobics, stretching and power walking. The big disappointment for us was the so-called tennis court. We had actually packed our racquets, tennis shoes and tennis togs -- no small thing when you're trying to adhere to the airlines' 50-pound-per-bag weight limit. As it turns out, the tennis court has no alleys, is shorter than regulation and has an odd fast-playing surface. Enough said.

Deck 13 has two pools and four hot tubs. Even with temperatures in the 50's and 60's, it was heavily used.

The spa facility, open most days from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., is terrific but unfortunately named. The Aloha Beauty Farm? Ouch. The interior, however, is luxurious: colourful tile, marble and, in some places, floor to ceiling windows. There are two Turkish baths, three hot tubs and two saunas -- all in a private atmosphere with a gorgeous view. The rates: 12 euros (about $16) for one hour; 30 euros ($39) for one day; 150 euros ($200) for the length of a 12-day cruise.

The Balinese-themed spa offers a variety of beauty and health treatments including a hydralift facial, seaweed massage, a lime and ginger salt glow, acupuncture, couples massage and an anti-cellulite treatment called ionithermie. And how's this for something different? An alpha relaxation capsule -- a combination of heat, vibration, aromatherapy and relaxation therapy -- which is supposed to relieve stress, muscle tension, weight gain and cellulite. Twenty five minutes in the capsule is said to be the equivalent of four hours of sleep. There's also a beauty salon offering manicures, pedicures, barbering, and teeth whitening, among other services. Spa prices aren't inexpensive. Best to check the daily program for the "only today" specials.

With 236,000 square ft. of public space, Musica is roomy. And, with interior design themes reminiscent of Art Nouveau and the 1930's Art Deco movement, it is also stylish.

The social centrepiece of Musica is a three-deck central foyer, with its whimsical yet functional visual signature: a white piano suspended on a clear platform over a waterfall. Shops, coffee bars, lounges, a cyber cafe, cigar room, art gallery, library and card room all spin-off of the foyer's grand staircase. This is where the reception desk, accounting office and shore excursion office are also located. Plush chairs at the base of the staircase on Deck 5 provide a great perch for people watching.

The shops, six in all, sell perfume, cosmetics, clothing, electronics and duty-free items that, we were surprised to learn, can be consumed onboard. The cyber cafe, cast in blue light, has 18 computers and often spotty Internet access. Overall, the connection is torturously slow and, at 3.33 euros ($4.40) for the first 10 minutes, it's pricey. Wireless cards are a better buy. The library, with titles and board games in five languages, has a scant three shelves of English-language books, mostly passenger cast-offs. Disappointing to us, there was no atlas or maps of the region.

One of the things Musica is not short on is lounges or bars. There are 11 of them. Il Tucano Lounge is probably the liveliest at night, and it's also where a lot of shipboard activities -- trivia games, cooking demonstrations, exercise classes -- take place during the day. The Blue Velvet Bar is quieter, and with its intimate seating area and handsome bar is a bit more upscale. The Crystal Lounge is the clubbiest of the three large interior lounges. There are also two bars on the pool deck, and just above them, is the Q32 Disco. Particularly nice is L'Enoteca Wine Bar, serving over 75 wines from provinces across Italy, Sicily and Sardinia along with Italian cheeses and cold cuts. Note: Musica is a "limited smoking" ship and each lounge is split into smoking and non-smoking sections.

There's a virtual game room, equipped with up-to-the-minute games. You've got to pay to play, though: 1 euro per game. There is also a large casino and Teatro La Scala, a theatre and music hall. Musica does not have a self-service laundry.

Musica has two formal dining rooms with early and late dinner seatings, L'Oleandro and Le Maxim's. Lunch is served in the dining rooms as well. Impressively, there are plenty of two- and three-tops. The dining rooms seem massive, but at our table for two, we felt quite cosy.

The food on Musica is uneven. I know this won't surprise folks at MSC. In fact, they're trying to fix it. But the truth of the matter is that a wildly successful entree one night -- the Sorrento-style pork piccatas with fresh tomato and mozzarella and the beef tournedos come to mind -- might be followed by a bomb: roast guinea fowl that's overcooked, grainy and almost inedible, or a dry and sauceless Indian beef curry. And, with the exception of the appetizers, which are creatively crafted, there's a "who cares?" element to the presentation. Offsetting that is top-of-the-line service from the waitstaff, who are both gracious and flexible. One night, for example, our waiter happily created an entree for me from two of the appetizers. Another time, he located a bottle of wine that wasn't on the menu.

As for the menus, they are robust: three appetizers; a salad of the day; a couple of soup choices; a pasta and risotto; four main courses; three vegetables; bread; and desserts. As if that weren't enough, each dinner menu features an international speciality; two vegetarian selections; two low-calorie alternatives; and, each night, a different offering from regions throughout Italy. Then there is the "Always Available" menu, which includes spaghetti and grilled chicken, beefsteak or salmon.

The wine list is also impressive at just under 100 bottles. Note: Musica offers an "MSC Wine Package" featuring various combinations of wine and bottled water, starting at 75 euros (about $100).

To its credit, Musica has an excellent alternative restaurants: Kaito Sushi Bar, which operates from noon to 4 p.m. and from 6 p.m. to midnight. I can't say enough about Kaito, which is priced according to item. Our lunch for two -- a seafood and vegetable tempura, chicken teriyaki and two glasses of wine -- was 30 euros (about $39). It's the same menu, lunch and dinner. Reservations are recommended.

Breakfast and lunch are served buffet-style in the Gli Archi cafeteria. You can get eggs cooked to order at breakfast. There's a fruit bar, a yoghurt and cereal station, an island with cheeses and cold cuts, and a bar serving up to a dozen kinds of bread. Lunch is something else: a hamburger and hot dog grill, a pizzeria, a wonderful salad and fruit bar and hot menu items such as roast veal, beef stroganoff, stuffed pork, meatballs, fried fish, Portuguese green beans, potatoes and zucchini. We found that by sticking to salads and fruit, you couldn't miss. A heads up: The two buffet lines, on either side of the cafeteria, have different offerings. Foolishly, it took us days to figure that out.

One of the nicer things about the buffet is the ability to dine outside on the pool deck. It's not nearly as frantic as the cafeteria, and with the strains of classical music piped in over a sound system, it can be quite enjoyable.

At 11:45 each night, there is somewhere onboard a complimentary themed buffet -- canapes, fruit flambe, pasta, crepes flambe, snacks. On certain nights in the Gli Archi cafeteria, as highlighted in the daily program, there's an a la carte pizzeria, priced per item.

Room service, consisting basically of light fare, is available 24 hours. Continental breakfast is served free of charge. Otherwise -- and this is more common on European lines than it is on American ones -- the seven items on the menu -- sandwiches, salads, a cheese and fruit tray, and the dessert of the day -- cost roughly 3 euros each (about $4).

Musica has 1,275 cabins, averaging 166 square ft. Eighty percent of the staterooms have balconies. Seventeen are equipped for people with disabilities. There are 18 suites with a private balcony. Heads up: Sophia Loren stayed in Suite 15020 at Musica's christening in Venice on June 29, 2006.

Our balcony cabin was typical of the majority. The drapes, chairs, duvet and plump, decorative pillows are outfitted in a handsome aquamarine and navy colour scheme. There's a mini-bar, flat-screen TV and safe. The closet is quite ample, and there's plenty of room under the bed to stow baggage. Even the balcony is stylish with two cream-coloured faux-wicker (rather than the customary plastic) chairs and a table. The bathroom, shower-only, is efficiently engineered with a surprising amount of shelving. Nice touches include white terrycloth robes, a daily delivery of ice and a fruit bowl upon arrival. Interesting, too, is what isn't here: hair conditioner, body lotion and a "Do Not Disturb/Please Make Up the Cabin" sign. The staterooms are quiet -- and the cabin service flawless.

Amenity extras in the suites include fresh flowers, wooden coat hangers, upgraded toiletries and a daily tray of canapes. Suites, not so important in Europe as they are for North American travellers, measure just 269 square ft.; they do have a king-size bed that can be converted to two twins, a spacious wardrobe and bathroom with tub.

The English-speaking channels on TV include BBC World (spotty), CNBC Europe (once) and EuroNews. During the cruise, we felt disconnected from U.S. news -- hard for news junkies like us. Every day brings a "new" in-cabin film, but most are at least two years old -- "Monster-in-Law," "Fantastic Four," "The New World" and "Match Point," among them.

Deck 5 - Grazioso
Deck 6 - Brillante
Deck 7 - Maestoso
Deck 8 - Forte
Deck 9 - Intermezzo
Deck 10 - Minuetto
Deck 11 - Adagio
Deck 12 - Virtuoso
Deck 13 - Vivace
Deck 14 - Capriccio
Deck 15 - Cantata
Deck 16 - Sport
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