MSC Orchestra, which joined MSC's fleet in 2007, is the line's eighth ship. Like MSC Musica, its sister vessel, MSC Orchestra represents an evolutionary new design strategy for the line. It would be safe to say that with these two new ships (MSC Musica debuted in 2006), the cruise line is definitely ramping up to better compete with other European big ship lines, like Italy's Costa and Spain's Pullmantur.
MSC Cruises, which is based in Naples, was conceived with the premise of offering Europeans an affordable cruise vacation -- a concept that was fairly revolutionary in the late 80's and early 90's. Today, it competes primarily against Genoa-based Costa Cruises. And yet, it's only been building its own ships since 2003 when it introduced the mid-sized MSC Lirica. That ship was my first MSC cruise, and it's clear after my recent seven-night voyage on MSC Orchestra -- which is almost twice as big -- that the MSC onboard experience has greatly evolved.
First, however, if you don't know what to expect from MSC, I'll fill you in. The line has long been praised for its innovative and whimsical entertainment options (and still offers some of cruising's most fun activities), as well as its heavy emphasis on creating an Italian ambience (via crew and restaurants) that is reminiscent of upscale (not to be confused with luxury) hotels in Rome or Milan. MSC attracts a broad mix of primarily European passengers, and the number of languages spoken onboard reflects the line's wide geographic range (all major announcements are offered in up to six languages, even Japanese).
With the introduction of MSC Musica and MSC Orchestra, both measuring 92,409 gross tons and carrying 2,550 passengers (double occupancy), the line firmly into the big-ship, new-ship, moderate-fare game that's long been played by Costa, Royal Caribbean and Carnival, among others. It's interesting to note, however, that MSC does carry more passengers than the others. For comparison's sake, Royal Caribbean's Brilliance of the Seas is about the same tonnage -- but carries 450 fewer people. As such, ships are bulging with passengers in certain peak times, such as during European school holidays; MSC Orchestra consistently carried over 3,000 passengers during the summer season. And at peak times, beware: certain shipboard facilities, like the pool deck and buffet restaurant, can be incredibly congested.
Of course, one reason why Orchestra's space ratio is less than its competitors is its belief that all -- or at least most -- cabins should be standard size. Thus, there are just 18 mini-suites (and even those are not all that huge at 269 square ft., including balcony). On the plus side, Orchestra's itineraries are quite port-intensive, and so passengers are off the ship much of the time, only returning for a bit of relaxing and dining at day's end.
Actually, there are a lot of pluses to the MSC experience, as long as you don't mind the crowds. Indeed, English-speaking travellers who prefer a more European experience when cruising in Europe should, in particular, give the line a try.
Editor's Note: Because MSC Orchestra is Europe-based, all onboard prices are in euros (go to www.xe.net for latest conversion rates).
Many Orchestra passengers are first-time cruise travellers, and it didn't seem like they understood the dress codes on my trip. There were two formal nights and five casual nights, but passengers often chose to dress up more than necessary during a rather port-intensive itinerary. For men, it's really not necessary to bring a tuxedo, and during the formal evenings, jacket and tie seemed to be more the norm than suits.
It's recommended that passengers not wear any jeans, T-shirts, shorts or bare feet after 6 p.m.
The ship's entertainment is tailored to multinational passengers, so there are fewer acts that rely on the spoken word (such as comedians) and more that emphasize music. The expansive Covent Garden Theatre is the venue for daily shows, usually with two sittings, at 8:30 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. In addition to Las Vegas-style -- or should I say Paris-style cabaret -- the evening shows were wildly varied, featuring, for instance, a classical concert and a magic show.
Nightlife is hopping on Decks 6 and 7 with their clusters of bars and lounges. The Savannah Bar is the centre for silly game shows and bingo. The Palm Beach Casino, smaller than those found on U.S.-oriented lines, was rarely busy.
The aforementioned Amber Bar, which sells coffee and chocolate treats, and the Shaker's Lounge, with a huge dance floor, feature different styles of entertainers each night, from piano players to house bands.
Speaking of dancing, MSC Orchestra obviously tailors its entertainment offerings to people who love to dance. There are classes in everything from rock and roll to merengue to the cha-cha. Some are complimentary and are taught in the lounges (Amber Bar or Shaker's Lounge) during the day or early in the evening; a heads up, though: lessons related to the fitness program (Latin dancing was one I noted) carry a fee of 12 euros.
For the late-night crowd, there's a D.J. in the R32 Disco from 11:45 p.m. onwards -- being a European ship, the disco is open for all passengers 18 and over.
During the daytime, onboard activities are on the slim side. Aside from dance classes, you'll find quiz shows and game shows. There is no enrichment program.
While not revolutionary in options offered (there are no surf parks here!), MSC Orchestra's sundeck is well-designed and beautifully appointed -- two large swimming pools are each framed by a pair of Jacuzzis, and there's a teak deck area for pool activities and dancing. The downside is that on sea days the space is very congested, and it can be nearly impossible to find a lounge chair anywhere near the pools.
The pool deck is also fitted with a large L.E.D. screen, similar to those found on some Princess, Costa and Disney ships, but oddly enough, it was used not for showing movies but for showing the videos shot by onboard photographers (these are ultimately sold as souvenirs to passengers). The plan, however, is to show movies with a nominal fee, which will include headsets.
There is a jogging track on Deck 14, but it's rather unusable during the daytime as the space is also used for the sun deck. Other recreational features include mini-golf, paddle tennis, ping pong and shuffleboard. Passengers can borrow equipment at the reception desk.
The ship's Body & Mind Spa, which blends a fitness facility, beauty salon and spa, is a beautifully designed area with floor-to-ceiling windows. It's located at the best part of the ship (as is the case on most vessels), and fitness buffs can enjoy the view above the bridge when using treadmills, exercise bikes or weight machines. There are daily fitness classes -- such as Pilates, aerobics and Latin dance -- that cost 12 euros apiece (or 38 euros for four classes).
The salon offers the usual services -- haircuts, pedicures and manicures.
The Balinese-inspired spa provides a myriad of treatments, but as rates are euros, they don't come cheap. For example, using the sauna for an hour cost 15 euros, and a Balinese massage is either 120 euros (60 minutes), 95 euros (45 minutes) or 67 euros (30 minutes).
MSC's design approach with Orchestra (as with sister ships Musica and Poesia, which launches this year) is to create more smaller, cosier rooms than larger ones. The three-deck Covent Garden Theater is the biggest, and yet, despite two showings per night, it can't always accommodate everyone (though one of MSC's strengths is to offer a wide range of entertainment all over the ship, so in all honesty, not everyone was descending on the theatre at the same time, and finding a seat was only occasionally a problem).
L'Incontro, Orchestra's three-deck-high lobby atrium, which holds The Reception; the all-purpose purser's area, where you can buy Wi-Fi cards, borrow clubs for mini-golf and make reservations for alternative dining venues; and an onboard credit desk for issues relating to charges on your account or to simply settle it. Ringing the atrium on various levels are a tour office, duty-free shop, Internet Cafe and La Cubana Cigar Room; Decks 6 and 7 house most of the ship's public rooms.
The Internet Cafe was poorly operated. There is an immediate charge of 4 euros for the first 10 minutes, and then it's 40 euro cents for every minute afterwards. The Internet was fairly fast when it worked -- but when it didn't, the initial 4-euro charge applied anyway. When we were docked in Istanbul, the connection didn't work the entire day -- and yet no one could be bothered to put up a sign warning passengers (several of us, at the very least, wound up paying 8 euros for no connection at all).
Beyond the cafe, you can use your own laptop in many of the ship's public areas (buy a card at the reception desk), but there's no wireless in cabins (you can, however, borrow a cable from the front desk).
MSC Orchestra features a greatly improved range of dining options than its older fleet-mates though a majority of passengers still choose to dine in the main dining rooms, in which evening meals are set-seating, set-tablemates affairs. The simple reason is that all other evening options carry an extra charge.
Villa Borghese and L'Ibiscus, nearly identical in size, serve as the main dining rooms. Breakfast (from 7 until 10 a.m.) and lunch (noon until 1:30 p.m. or even 2 p.m., depending on the day) are open seating. Dinner, as mentioned, is not. Seatings take place at 6:15 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. So far, I have travelled twice on MSC ships, and I've had bad luck with table assignments both times. In fact on this trip, a Swedish couple who was at my table for four opted for a two-top, and so, travelling solo, I occupied the table alone. Changes happen, of course, in the fixed seating scenario, but what was disappointing was that the headwaiter neither noticed nor attempted to correct the situation. He never once even stopped by to say "good evening."
The ship's buffet venue is Cafeteria La Piazzetta. Breakfast is available from 6 until 10 a.m. It offers the usual suspects, from cereals to cold cuts and fruits to pastries, along with a made-to-order omelette station. Overall, the breakfast offerings satisfy American, European and British tastes. At lunch, the restaurant's open from noon until 4 p.m. (rather late for a buffet and much appreciated). The food offerings range from chicken, meat and fish entrees to a carvery station and from sandwiches to pasta and pizza. The extension of the lunch hours was a definite plus both in allowing for more flexibility and also in helping to disperse crowds (this eatery was easily overwhelmed at peak times, and there were more passengers looking for tables than were tables available). Fortunately, there are a fair number of tables in covered areas outdoors.
I found that it was better to try this casual dining option early -- or late. The layout is one culprit -- the buffet was designed with old-style counters (rather than action stations), therefore you have to queue at the beginning of the line and pass through all the options, from starters and salads to desserts, before you're done.
It's worthwhile to note that both breakfast and lunch fares offer excellent variety; check both sides of the buffet lines as sometimes items are different.
If experiences at the ship's standard dining rooms and buffet venue were less than outstanding, the ship's alternative options for evening dining, though levying extra charges, were quite an improvement. I loved the open-seating pizzeria and kebab service, offered in part of the Cafeteria La Piazzetta (which during the day is part of the buffet operation). Pizza and kebab are served nightly between 7 and 10 p.m., but prepare to pay from 5.20 to 9 euros for your pizza, calzone or kebab. Pizza was excellent; a favourite was the Orchestra, with tomato, mozzarella, Parma ham, rucola and parmesan cheese.
The Shanghai Chinese Restaurant is the best eatery onboard. An intimate space with no windows, it's open for lunch (noon until 5 p.m.) and dinner (7 p.m. until midnight). Its rather large menu consists of cuisine from various regions of China, including Cantonese and Sichuan (even the bar menu features Asian beers). The cost for my miso soup, Peking duck and half a litre bottle of beer was a reasonable 17.40 euros.
At times, service could be slow -- waiters apologized that service was hampered by a small galley -- but very attentive and knowledgeable.
Another excellent option was La Cantinella Wine Bar, which, oddly, acted as a sports bar as well. The wine bar -- well-stocked with some 60 different wines from all parts of Italy -- has a separate food prep area, and chefs prepared small bites to order, like foie gras and antipasto (a couple of times, a plate of cheese and cold cuts substituted perfectly for a heavier meal in the dining room).
Editor's note: The ship's wine sommelier (with experience from Disney and Regent Seven Seas Cruises) was very knowledgeable about Italian wines and quite enthusiastic about sharing his passion; he gave several lectures but was also frequently available for any questions or suggestions.
Room service features a simple menu; you'll mainly find cold sandwiches. As is customary on MSC, there's a charge of 5 euros. Supplementing the standard menu is a "special feeling" list of choices; you can opt for Foie Gras & Brioche (16 euros) and chocolate strawberries (11.50 euros) among them.
There are several coffee bars onboard, and except in the buffet restaurant during meal time, expect to pay for your cup of coffee. If the sweet offerings of Amber Chocolate Bar (sells pieces of chocolate, prices starting below 1 euro) are not enough, there's El Sombrero Bar and Ice Cream Shop on the sun deck. Ice cream comes in cones and cups, and flavours change daily. Charge is 1 euro.
MSC Orchestra (together with its sister ships) has 1,275 cabins; 80 percent feature private balconies. Standards balconies are fairly compact -- they come in at 164 square ft. (with 48-square-ft. balconies). Superior balconies are slightly larger at 191 square ft. (48-square-ft. balcony). Insides and oveanviews are even smaller at 150 square ft.
The cabin was beautifully appointed with red and black colour schemes with a double bed (that can be converted to two singles), a sofa, desk, mini-bar, a safe and a flat-screen TV. In addition to regular programming, pay-per-view movies were available; programs unsuitable for kids can be blocked.
The storage space is adequate, but one positive is that the suitcase fits under the bed. The shower-only bathrooms are also adequate and feature soap, shampoo and shower cap.
Some, including my cabin, have connecting doors -- a great family option -- but if you're a light sleeper, avoid these.
There are 18 larger suites though as mentioned; at only 278 square ft. (with 48-square-ft. balconies), they're a bit smaller than suites offered by other cruise lines. Beyond the extra space, the big differences include a separate seating area and bathrooms with a tub.