The 2,150-passenger MSC Opera is one of four medium-sized Lirica-class ships, dating from 2004 (the others are Armonia, Lirica and Sinfonia).
MSC Cruises spent more than $200 million on Opera and the rest of the Mistral class during a two-year refurbishment program in 2014–2015 that saw a nearly 80-foot-long section sandwiched into the middle of each ship. The "stretching" procedure added nearly 200 more cabins -- 94 of which have balconies. During the refurbishment, the line also took the chance to update the spa and childcare facilities, as well as to add an interactive water feature called the Spray Park to the top deck.
Opera does have its limitations, however, not least the crush at peak hours at the buffet and the lack of dining options.
There are two formal nights on a seven-night cruise; otherwise, dress during the day is casual and, at night, is country club casual.
The Teatro dell'Opera is situated at the front of the ship across two decks. It's large, gilt and ornate with seating for 713 people. There are a variety of performances throughout the week, some a bit cheesy like a Dirty Dancing tribute and others revue-type shows, but when docked in Havana there is an absolute standout called Legendarios del Guajirito, by a group of musicians which include some original members of the legendary Buena Vista Social Club. MSC has managed to secure a weekly performance from these Cuban maestros in the main theatre and the show is a lot better than an overpriced shore excursion to the Tropicana Club. The only thing is, it costs, so there is usually a pretty small audience, which is a shame as there is lots of audience participation (on stage and in your seats), wonderful Cuban music and great dancing.
The theatre is little-used during the day, though there is the occasional show such as the end-of-cruise performance by the kids onboard.
During the day, many of the activities centre round the pool, with early morning aerobics, stretching, and a walk round the ship with the endlessly energetic entertainment team. You'll also find Bingo here, with the announcer repeating the numbers in all the languages represented; Sudoku and quizzes. On top of this, there are dance lessons, cocktail demos, table soccer and Zumba, as well as lots of impromptu music and pool parties. The exuberant entertainment team practically shame the guests into participating, acting as cheerleaders for enjoyment and inclusion. They may have to shout their instructions in five languages, but all the passengers get the meaning -- get up and dance!
Other day time activities include language lessons (Italian, of course, or Japanese), craft creations and card games, which take place in the Cotton Club. You'll find live music playing everywhere: at the pool, at the al fresco dining spots, during tea, in the main lounges on Deck 5 -- all performed by a talented group of musicians including bands, trios and pianists.
A 24-hour arcade with various video games is located on Deck 6, just outside the Teen Club and part of it, though open to all.
The poolside fun is not restricted to the daytime; dance lessons continue here at night, as well wonderful shows from Cuban locals (when the ship is Havana). Elsewhere, you'll find karaoke in Byblos Disco, as well as dance lessons and crazy competitions, often aimed at teens.
Med Pearl Casino (Deck 6): Roulette tables, blackjack, poker and Texas Hold 'Em competitions take place here daily. There is also a bar.
There's always something happening in the bars and clubs on Opera, and the ship has a fun, young vibe, with people eating late, drinking later and dancing until the wee small hours.
Piazza di Spagna Lounge (Deck 5): Large bar, which is popular for "meet the officers" events and after dinner drinks.
Sottovento Pub (Deck 5): Smokers rejoice (or non-smokers be warned), this English-style pub allows smoking on one side. It's dark, and has banquette style seating against the wall. There is a good selection of reasonably-priced international ciders and beers including stouts, pilseners and ales. You'll find Bucanero and Cristal, from Cuba, as well as Red Stripe from Jamaica, plus Heineken, Amstel and Sol. If you're feeling inclined, you can even order "Un metro di birra" -- a meter of beer -- which is 10 different draught beers of your choice for 22 euros. You can also order a limited selection of sandwiches and desserts here.
Aroma Coffee Bar (Deck 6): This is in a nice spot overlooking the atrium and does a small variety of free pastries and a wide variety of for-fee coffees and teas from a reasonable 1.40 euros for an espresso and 1.70 euros for a latte. Live music takes place here at night.
La Cabala Piano Bar (Deck 6): This is one of those "walk through" bars, with corridors on either side full of people heading to or from the theatre or the dining rooms. As such, it suffers from a lack of atmosphere. It is a small lounge sandwiched between the photo shop and the casino and has a small bar, banquette seating and as the name suggests, a piano which is played from 5.30 p.m. every evening. This is where the Black Card Holders (MSC's top tier loyalty club) meet once a cruise for drinks and the chance to meet with the officers.
Casino Bar (Deck 6): The casino bar.
Cotton Club Music Hall (Deck 6): This is a large lounge with a big dancefloor where ballroom and dance classes take place throughout the day. There is a piano, a stage and a bar. Live music takes place from 6:30 p.m. through to 1:30 a.m. It makes for a lot less frantic late-night spot for a drink and a dance (both in terms of crowds and music), than Byblos Disco.
Il Patio (Deck 11): Outside bar, part of the Il Patio buffet area.
Spinnaker (Deck 11): Pool bar. This is crowded all day and into the evening; head to Il Patio for quicker service.
Ice Cream Bar (Deck 11): Pool bar, serving a selection of delicious gelato and drinks.
Vitamin Bar (Deck 11): This is more of a pop-up bar (there are no seats), near the pool, serving a selection of for fee healthy fruit drinks from 4.50 euros.
Byblos Disco Bar (Deck 11): A large space at the aft of the ship, which is invariably full every night till the early hours. There's a circular bar, a big dance floor and DJ booth and doors leading outside, for a bit of warm Caribbean air. In the day it's not used, and is a lovely spot to relax or read, and has great views from its many windows.
There are two pools on the main pool deck on Deck 11 and two hot tubs, which is not enough for a ship this size. In addition, there is the Doremi Spray Park for kids, which was added in the refurbishment/stretching. There are plenty of sun loungers and on the starboard (right) you'll find the smoking area, which stretches for a good half-length of the ship.
Shuffleboard (Deck 12) and mini-golf (Deck 13).
The exclusive Top 13 Solarium is for suite passengers only, or for a 15 euros per day fee, which is a pretty good price. Up here, you'll find stunning views from the top of the ship, no problem getting a lounger, free water and cold towels and your own private bar and waiters.
At the aft of the ship, near the mini-golf area there is also limited sunbathing.
The hub of the ship is on Deck 5, where you will find the main reception, the shore excursion desk, the Voyagers Club (for Loyalty Club members) and a shopping area, with some high-end brand shops. There are more shops on Deck 6, including a logo shop and various duty-free shops, as well as the Photo Gallery and the Photo Shop.
Towards the front of the ship, you'll find a small library and an internet area with a printer, which is in scant use now that the ship has been fitted with bow to stern Wi-Fi. The Wi-Fi options are divided into three types -- Streamer, which is 69.90 euros per cruise, or 22.90 euros per day, for up to four devices; Surfer, which is 34.90 euros per cruise for up to three devices or 11.90 euros per day; and Social, which is 19.90 euros/cruise or 4.90 euros/day for a single device.
The MSC Aurea Spa (Deck 11) is lovely, right at the front of the ship with great views. It offers a wide range of massages and therapies but specializes in Balinese treatments offered by Balinese therapists. It also offers acupuncture and anti-ageing treatments, including facials which start at €90 for one session. It is, like all cruise ship spas, on the pricey side compared to land and note that a further 15 percent is added to your spa bill. However, there are plenty of discounts and specials offered throughout the week, especially on port days.
On the port side there is a large relaxation room, again with floor-to-ceiling windows, wicker chaises -- and peace and quiet, but bizarrely no water. In fact, there is no water anywhere, not even from a dispenser -- so bring your own.
The Thermal Suite features separate steam and sauna rooms for men and women and passes can be bought on a daily basis for 29 euros per person (39 euros/couple) or for 89 euros pp (119 euros/couple) per cruise. You also need to bring your own dressing gown and slippers/flip flops.
The spa also includes a salon for manicures, pedicures and hair and men's grooming (again look out for port offers)
The gym is located at the front of the ship and is integrated in the spa, so you access it through the spa reception area. It is a large space which takes up the front of deck 11, with floor-to-ceiling glass windows. There are weight machines, bikes, treadmills and a space with mats and a mirror for weights.
The gym offers a wide range of for fee fitness services including individual dance lessons for 35 euros/hour or classes of 5 for 10 euros/hour; yoga classes, pilates and stretching and abs.
There is a Power Walking track on deck 12.
Unlike other major cruise lines, where the cuisine is fairly uniform on every ship, food varies across the MSC fleet, and depends heavily on the executive chef on the particular ship. We're delighted to report that the exec chef on Opera, Giuseppe Matarazzo, runs a fine kitchen, and we were very impressed with the quality in all the eateries. Being one of the smaller ships, there are no speciality restaurants, just two main dining rooms, a buffet and a couple of fast food outlets. All the pasta, pizza, pastries and bread are made fresh onboard daily, which really raises the quality of the food on offer. We enjoyed delicious pastries in the morning, with fine Italian coffee; and excellent fresh bread at lunch and dinner, including rosemary-infused focaccia and outstanding tortellini, with walnuts, olive oil and fresh herbs.
There are two main dining rooms La Caravella and L'Approdo. Both feature traditional seating (set time, set tablemates) at dinner, though the latter also features myChoice Dining for passengers who have chosen the Aurea Experience. MyChoice Dining allows for dining between 7:15 p.m. and 10: 15 p.m., but it's advisable to ring ahead to advise the dining staff of the approximate time you plan to eat. MSC's dining experience harks back to a golden age of traditional cruising, so expect dancing waiters, birthday serenades and the Baked Alaska ceremony.
La Caravella (Deck 5): This is the larger of the two MDRs and is designed in a light green colour. Table sizes include for two and four and larger tables with banquette-type seating. There is a raised section in the centre and the ceiling is low, which gives a feeling of intimacy.
Breakfast: is served just in La Caravella. Breakfast is buffet style, with a range of cold cuts, fresh pastries, cereals, fresh fruit and hot food including eggs, bacon and sausages. There is tea and coffee served at your table.
Lunch: Lunch is served buffet-style and makes a much more civilized option than the stampede at the buffet. There is waiter service for drinks. The buffet is set up at one end of the room, and will include an appetizer which might be a seafood salad; a choice of meat, fish or veg for the entrée as well as a choice of sides and veg; followed by dessert.
Dinner: Menus at dinner offer six courses every single night, with appetizer, soup, salad, a risotto and pasta du jour, main entree and dessert. There is no "typical" night; every night is themed (Mediterranean, TexMex, Cuban), and you'll get regional specialities, which are often exceptional. On our Mediterranean night, we started with moules mariniere and a selection of Greek dips (hummus and baba ganoush), which were delicious. There were two soup choices -- a French fish soup or a spicy tomato soup -- followed by either a paella or a risotto. There were three main courses, all of which were delicious: a Tunisian couscous, with chicken and lamb; swordfish and sliced beef grill striploin which was melt-in-the-mouth cooked. Desserts included baklava and profiteroles. On other evenings, we enjoyed a rich and tasty chocolate mousse cake and crepe suzettes, which were light, caramelized and served with hazelnuts. There is always an ice cream selection.
It's worth noting, too, that the pasta and risotto selections are served in portions too huge to be considered a side order.
There is always a vegetarian dish to choose from the starters and mains, in this case, tasty chickpea falafels, with yoghurt sauce. You can also mix and match from an Alternative Choice (always available) menu which features entrees of hoki fillet, steamed or grilled chicken breast and a meat dish every night. There are also a couple of alternative starters to choose from, usually reflective of the region the ship is sailing in. The ship does cater for food allergies, but you need to advise ahead of time (as in before the cruise) to ensure you are catered for.
Service is excellent: attentive, friendly and knowledgeable, with preferred dishes and wine choices remembered.
There are two gala dinners every seven-day cruise which feature even longer menus, often from a celebrity chef. MSC has a link-up with Italy's equivalent of Gordon Ramsay, two-Michelin starred chef Carlo Crocco, who fronts Masterchef Italia and Hell's Kitchen Italia, who designs one of the dinners. On our sailing we had a delicious six-course menu, starting with shrimp cocktail, and followed by a lobster bisque, tortellini stuffed with asparagus tips and either a fillet of salmon or roast fillet of beef, followed by a chocolate cake.
There is an extensive wine list with an emphasis on Italian wines of course, but also plenty of choice from New World and other European countries. Glasses start at 5.50 euros, bottles at around 21 euros.
L'Approdo (Deck 6): The smaller of the two MDRs is designed in a soft colour palette, a kind of light red with lots of mirrors and lights; with a slightly raised centre and tables aranged around and along two separate corridors. The ceiling is very low, so there is no sense of grandeur as you might find in some MDRs. There are plenty of different seating options, with lots of tables for two.
It features exactly the same menu as La Caravella. It also has a separate section reserved for MyTime Dining.
Open: Breakfast (La Caravella only): 7:30 to 9:30 a.m.; Lunch: noon to 2 p.m.; Dinner 7:15 p.m. and 9:45 p.m.; and from 7:15 p.m. to 10:15 p.m. for myChoice Dining (L'Approdo only).
Le Vele (Deck 11): is the ship's buffet restaurant and it offers lido-style fare. Breakfast items feature the usual (scrambled eggs, bacon, hash-browns and breads). At lunch, there are two food lines (and a separate dessert and fruit station). Several salads, an array of cold cuts, hot and cold items, pastas, a carving station, a variety of fresh fruit, and some mushy, institutional desserts are available at lunchtime. Pizza and burgers are served throughout the day. Note: It gets packed quickly, with long lines forming at peak times, and it is sometimes hard to snag a table -- our advice: head outside to the Il Patio area, where there is a lot more seating. Open: 6 a.m. to 2:30 a.m.
Il Patio, located outside of Le Vele, offers al fresco snacking most of the day. On one side is the pizzeria, making fresh oven-baked pizza of at least four varieties and two pasta choices. The other side is a fast-food area, which serves in the morning as a made-to-order omelette and pancake station, and in the afternoons cooks up grilled burgers and hot dogs with fries and salads (with condiments). Open: Same times as above.
Room Service: Room service options include Caesar salads (with or without chicken), pizza (for a charge) and a sandwich. Breakfast is served from 7:30 a.m. to 10 a.m. and includes tea and coffee, hot and cold milk, juice, rolls and croissants and toast, and yoghurt, but no cooked food.
MSC Opera has just four main cabin types: Inside, Outside, Balcony and Suite, all of which are remarkably similar in terms of size and design. All share the following amenities: a safe, minibar, hairdryer (in the bathroom), two beds which can be made into a double, a desk, two bedside tables with fixed lamps, closets and flat screen TV. A few notes: The wardrobe space is generous in all cabin types, with plenty of hangers and drawers. The bedside tables also have plenty of space for books etc., and the beds are high enough to store your luggage under. TVs are not interactive (unlike on the newer ships), and have the following channels: BBC News, Rai 7, 24 French, German W America, TV Espana and Euronews. There is also a sewing kit.
Bathrooms are the same in all cabins (except the suites, which have baths): shower with folding glass doors, sink with a fixed glass shelf for toiletries and a small cupboard underneath; a soap dispenser, handrail, clothes dry string in the shower and luridly-coloured (sky blue and orange) generic bodywash and shampoo from fixed dispensers. There is also a shower cap.
MSC Opera has a number of purpose-built family cabins, as well as cabin types which would suit families including the 28 suites, which have a sofa bed; the new balcony cabins, which have a single Pullman; and a number of adjoining cabins.
The ship may be getting on a bit (2004), but you can't tell -- the Renaissance project in 2014/15 (in which an 80-foot section was added to the ship, adding 200 new cabins), saw a ship-wide refresh of soft furnishings throughout. As a result, cabins look and feel new. The style is elegant, rather than garish; with an emphasis on a darker color palette with curtains, carpets and chairs (think burgundies and purples).
Interior: There are 440 interior cabins, which are a bit on the small side at 140 sq feet, but a large mirror over the bed and plenty of lighting go some way to increase the feeling of space, as do the cheerful spreads, bedskirts, pillows and bolsters used in the rooms. The desk is a built-in corner desk rather than stand-alone, with another mirror.
Oceanview: There are 403 Oceanview cabins (64 of which have an obstructed view). The majority are 139 square feet, though there are a number family cabins which are considerably bigger at 236 square feet (see below). Features include a standalone desk at the side of the bed. They have large, oblong-shaped windows.
Balcony: There are 204 standard balcony cabins, all of which are a good size at 161 square feet. They are designed with a short corridor with wardrobes on one side (two for hanging, one for drawers and the safe); and the shower room on the other. The room is square, with a double (or two singles) bed; a floor-to-ceiling mirror opposite, a stand-alone writing desk and another large mirror and a chair. The balconies are bigger than many on modern ships, with enough space for two chairs (with leg room), and a large waist-height desk.
Of the 204 balcony cabins, 94 new balcony cabins were added in the refit, which are essentially the same as a standard balcony in terms of size and features, except in one respect: they have a Pullman on the wall, which means no large mirror opposite.
Suite: MSC classifies the 28 cabins (all on deck 12) as suites, though they are more like mini-suites as they have no separate bedroom, but a separate seating area with a sofa-bed. They come in at 270 square ft. (including the balcony) and feature an entry foyer, a walk-in wardrobe, a desk unit and a separate desk. The seating area also has a coffee table. These cabins are the only ones with a bathtub, and also enjoy various wellbeing products. There are just two Suite variations, at the front of deck 12. They are the same size and design as the others, but have a forward-facing balcony with stunning views.
Suite passengers enjoy the following perks: Priority boarding; free wellbeing products; complimentary dressing gown and slippers; all-inclusive drinks package; access to a private sun deck at the front of the ship. Perks also include a spa package with a spa welcome cocktail, a massage, tanning shower, private wellness consultation and unrestricted use of the Thermal Area throughout the cruise (available only for adults).
Family: There two family cabins, comprising a bedroom area and a living area with up to four beds, which are a good size at 236 square feet. There are also 88 adjoining cabins.
Accessible: There are four accessible cabins, all interiors on deck 9 and are 236 square feet. These have wide doors and no ridge at the base of the doorframe. Bathrooms also have wide doors and are fully accessible, with rails and a seat in the shower.