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MSC Poesia

Launched in 2008, 92,600-ton, 3,000-passenger MSC Poesia is the third of Italy-based MSC Cruises' four Musica-class vessels.

Tastefully exuberant decor -- brass handrails on the staircases, marble countertops at reception, a waterfall in the atrium, twinkling lights on the ceiling in the theatre -- means the ship is elegant but not boring. Its lounges (particularly the Zebra Bar, Il Grappolo d'Oro wine bar and Hitchcock Lounge) are charming, and the well-appointed, colour-splashed cabins make it feel more like an upscale hotel than a cruise ship. Of course, you'll still find the standard cruise-ship offerings like pools, nightly entertainment and kids' activities.

While the ship is lovely, what really sets it apart from other mainstream mega-ships is this: MSC is an unabashedly European line, and the approach to service, onboard vibe and passenger habits reflect that. North Americans shouldn't expect the usual, proactive service that many cruisers are accustomed to finding on Carnival, NCL and Royal Caribbean. While everyone, from cabin stewards to dining room waiters, is helpful and friendly, don't be surprised if you don't learn their names without asking or if you have to specifically request certain U.S. staples like in-cabin ice. You also shouldn't expect to be coddled; although all staff members we encountered aimed to please, we found that it wasn't the norm for them to anticipate our every need.

Poesia splits its time between Northern Europe and South American itineraries. You'll still find many international passengers, even when the ship sails from Fort Lauderdale, so expect all messages -- everything from muster drill instructions and daily programs to announcements from the cruise director -- to be delivered in at least five different languages: English, Italian, Spanish, French and German. (Note: During Caribbean sailings, currency onboard is the U.S. dollar. When the ship sails in Europe, the euro is used.)

Entertainment, some of which missed its mark, has to transcend various language barriers, so you won't find comedians or other similar performers. However, acrobats and jugglers achieve the balance flawlessly, and our jaws dropped more than once at their talents.

In general, the European crowd seems to take life at a much more relaxed pace. In that vein, dinners are eaten bit more leisurely, and portions are smaller than Americans might be used to, but that just means you'll leave feeling pleasantly full, rather than disgustingly stuffed. Plus, you can always ask for seconds, and the waitstaff will oblige. Another nice touch is that ship staff do their best to seat you with other English-speakers, so you won't have to fumble through meals relying on nods and gestures.

MSC offers excellent rates and deep discounts, but anyone expecting a Carnival-type atmosphere will be disappointed. It seemed the most notable takeaway from our time on Poesia was that people either love it, or they hate it, and we met a lot who fell into each camp. Some weren't happy with the service. Others disliked that the announcements took five times as long, due to the language issue. And still, others complained about all menu items that weren't hot dogs and fries.

If you're looking for an affordable sailing with an international flair without having to travel too far, this might just be the ship for you. However, it's important to understand what you can expect. Overall, cruises on Poesia aren't bad; they're just different.

There are two formal nights a week, and suits with ties is the norm for men, while women are typically found in cocktail dresses and shimmery eveningwear. Other nights are termed either informal (jackets and trousers for men and informal dresses or pants with blouses for women) or casual (collared shirts and trousers or jeans for men and dresses, pantsuits or sporty outfits for women).

The line does note that tank tops, bathing suits, bathrobes and bare feet are never allowed in any indoor restaurants or buffet areas, and no shorts are allowed in the dining room at dinnertime.

By far the most standout and popular entertainment are the shows that appeared nightly in the Teatro Carlo Felice on Decks 6 and 7, forward. If the theatre itself isn't awe-inspiring enough (purple carpeting and chairs with glittering stage curtains and shimmering ceiling lights that look like stars), the performances do a great job of dropping jaws. On two nights, we left scratching our heads, and the same group of singers and dancers did get somewhat tiresome after a week, but variety shows featuring jugglers, acrobats and the like were flat-out breathtaking. (On one night, during noticeably rough seas, one acrobat fell from a particularly high perch, dusted herself off and went right back to work to the applause of a gasping audience.) If nothing else, MSC does a great job of designing its entertainment around various languages; for example, you won't find comedians onboard, as they would have to perform in several different tongues.

Each night, cruisers can relax at Il Grappolo D'Oro with glasses of wine and mellow piano music. When it comes to dancing, the Le Rendez-Vous, Giada and Smeraldo Bars and Bar dei Poeti (Decks 5 and 6) offer well-known favourites, while the Zebra Bar (Deck 6) features international tunes. The Pigalle Lounge (Deck 7) also hosts Latin dancing and karaoke on select nights throughout each sailing.

We found the Hitchcock Lounge on Deck 7 to be one of the most underused and serene locations onboard. It's themed after famed horror guru Alfred Hitchcock, and it's bedecked with comfy green-leather couches, dark wood accents and its own bar. Although this was designed as the ship's cigar lounge, we never saw it used as such, and it lacked the typical smell of a place frequently used for smoking.

Younger passengers will find a DJ playing pop and hip-hop music in the ship's S32 Disco on Deck 14 (Pascoli Deck), aft. Besides the Zebra Bar, which (as you'd expect) looks like a zebra has been deconstructed then reconstructed, the disco is the hippest place onboard, with silver geometric seating, industrial-looking walls and tables, and crazy green-and-black geometric carpeting.

Other nighttime entertainment features dance lessons, games (trivia, scavenger hunts, hula-hoop contests, couples games) and movies on the pool deck. Themed events on our sailing included "Grease," "Toga Night" and "Tropical Party."

Deck 7 is home to Casino Royal, where cruisers will find a black and red theme with starred carpeting and crystal chandeliers. When it comes to game offerings, roulette, slots, craps and Easy Stud poker are the order of the day. Texas Hold'em is offered in the Poker Room throughout the sailing. Stairs lead down to the Zebra Bar directly below, but there is also a bar located in the casino itself.

Hourlong wine-tastings are offered during the day at Il Grappolo D'Oro wine bar on Deck 7 (Manzoni Deck, aft, port side) for an $18 fee, which includes samples of six different wines and appetizers (prosciutto, ham, cheese, breadsticks) with which a sommelier will instruct you to pair them. Our sommelier was extremely knowledgeable, and we think it was worth the price, whether you're a wine expert or know nothing but have always wanted to learn. A mini-tasting (three wines) is also available for $9.90.

Each morning, ship staff offer walking, stretching and aerobics. Throughout the day, passengers will find plenty of other activities to keep them busy, including Italian lessons; spa, culinary and cocktail seminars; bingo; casino gaming lessons; lectures on topics like Caribbean history and pirates; and wacky pool-deck contests (think sexy legs). Times and locations vary, but a complete list can be found in each day's program.

MSC also mixes themes throughout some of its sailings. Our voyage also happened to be a Baseball Greats-themed voyage. Although these are hosted each month throughout the ship's winter Caribbean season, they are unadvertised. The likes of Ken Griffey, Sr., Stan Bahnsen and several others led pitching contests, told stories and signed autographs for free during special sessions throughout the itinerary. (Imagine our surprise when we ended up sharing a cab with Art Shamsky on our way back from the beach in Jamaica.)

Also onboard were members of a Florida-based clown college, who were in attendance for a clown wedding on the ship. On one day, they offered a clowning seminar in one of the lounges, where they made balloon animals and passed out red clown-nose stickers to excited children (and adults).

MSC offers a decent variety of shore excursions, but they may not be quite as active as the ones you'd find on other lines. Some of the ones on our sailing included typical sightseeing tours, glass-bottom boat rides, zip-lining, snorkelling and horseback riding, among other things. Prices seemed to be about the industry average.

Aurea Spa, located on Deck 13, comprises a rich and soothing colour palette of earth tones, accented with marble countertops, black wicker chairs and hardwood floors. There are nine private rooms for services that include massages, acupuncture, and other body treatments. Also offered are steam baths and saunas (complimentary on Caribbean sailings but 16 euros per hour or 30 euros for the day on sailings in Europe), as well as for-fee thalassotherapy, aromatherapy, henna tattoos and tooth piercings (basically stick-on jewels that bedazzle your chompers). Salon services, including haircuts and styling, can also be booked.

Prices are as steep as those found on other ships, but we were able to snag a splendid half-hour long Balinese massage for $32 (including tip, which was not automatically included) with a port-day discount. Collistar, Kerastase and Biolage products are for sale in the spa, and you may or may not receive a product pitch. (One member of our party did; another didn't.) Feel free to politely decline. Inside Aurea, you'll also find refreshments at the beverage bar, which include fresh juices, teas and energy drinks that range in price from $1.50 to $4.50.

One strange thing we noted was the absence of restrooms in the spa itself. When we asked for one, we were directed to the pool deck.

The fitness centre, which branches off from the spa at the front of the ship, offers seven elliptical machines, seven exercise bikes and six treadmills, all of which come with iPod hookups and computerized settings in a variety of languages. There are also about a dozen Technogym weight machines, boxes for step aerobics and a small selection of free weights. Aerobics is offered each morning on the pool deck, but otherwise, there is no yoga, Pilates or spin. To use the gym, you'll have to sign a release form, and there is a maximum time limit of 20 minutes allowed on cardio machines. We often found the gym difficult to use, due to the heat; the floor-to-ceiling picture windows caused a bit of a greenhouse effect. Also be aware that, at certain times (even on port days), it can be difficult to find open machines.

Outside is where you'll go when you want to catch some sun or take a dip. There are two pools -- Coral Bay Pool (farther forward) and Cayo Levantado Pool (further aft) -- each of which is flanked by two hot tubs and surrounded by plenty of deck chairs. Near Coral Bay is the Pirana Bar, and just past Cayo Levantado is the Mojito Bar, where you'll also find ice cream and for-fee gelato in 16 different flavours.

For more active pursuits, passengers can head up to Deck 14, where they'll find a jogging track (closed during most of our sailing, due to high winds) and a shuffleboard court. A second shuffleboard area is located on Deck 15 (Alfieri Deck), along with a mini-golf course. With just five holes and no real obstacles, it's really more a putting green of sorts. Finally, take a trip up to Deck 16 (Sport Deck), and you'll be greeted by the Centro Sportivo, which features basketball and tennis courts. The Solarium is also on Deck 16, and it offers a pleasant, open, top-of-ship retreat that's not usually crowded. (Note: Although passengers of all ages are allowed at the Solarium, children will find it boring, as it's just an open area with loungers for sunbathing.)

On Deck 5, you'll find the Le Rendez-Vous reception area, where you can ask questions, book shore excursions and settle your onboard bill. There's often live music offered there throughout the day, and with its bright atrium, relaxing wall fountain, calming peach and teal tones and stunning staircases, it's a great place to people-watch. Also on this deck, you'll find (but hopefully never have to use) the ship's medical centre on the port side, forward.

If you're looking for the Poker Room, meeting area or ship shops, you'll find them all scattered throughout Deck 6. The Meeting Room meeting area is a nice touch, offering passengers a designated spot to find one another at a set time; a phone is also located there in case times haven't yet been arranged. In addition, you'll find playing cards, Sudoku puzzles and other fun things there throughout the sailing.

The shops on Poesia offer everything from candy and clothing to perfume and duty-free alcohol. Generally, a bazaar is held one day per sailing on the pool deck, offering deep discounts on various items like purses and jewellery.

Via delle Arti, or hall of art, consists of two golden passageways -- one on either side midship, surrounding the Card Room and Library. It took us a while to figure out why there's no actual art, but after a few days of passing by, we realized passengers are supposed to scribble drawings on the suede-like walls with their fingers. To us, this is one of the vessel's most whimsical and creative concepts.

The Card Room, gold in colour with an obvious card theme and several tables for game-playing, is immediately adjacent to the Library, which has a small selection of books in glass cases along the walls. Comfy leather chairs, dim lighting and its relatively quiet location make the Library an ideal spot for reading ... or inadvertent napping.

Also located on Deck 7 is the Cyber Cafe, which has 19 computers set up both in clusters and in individual stations. A printer is available, and to our knowledge, we were not charged a fee to use it. For Internet access, you'll incur a 99-cent startup fee and a fee of $5 for the first 10 minutes. After that, it's 14 cents per minute, or you can purchase packages that reach up to 500 minutes for a cost of $70. Overall, the atmosphere there is very yellow, which can make extended computer usage a bit hard on the eyes. As is the case with Web use on nearly all ships, pages may load slowly, so be patient. One of our dinner tablemates complained that one of the card readers stole his card, and he had to report to the front desk to get it back. Internet can be accessed from individual cabins but not wirelessly. Hookups are available next to each in-cabin TV, so if you're planning to bring your own laptop, toss an Ethernet cable into your luggage, too.

In addition, you'll find the Photo Arcade and Photo Shop located on this deck between midship and aft. There, you can arrange to have professional photos taken or view and purchase photos taken of you throughout the sailing -- dinner photos, photos with the captain and cheesy pirates, etc. Be warned that photo staff are very strict about passenger camera usage in that area.

Self-service laundry facilities are not provided, but laundry service is available for a fee, both for individual garments and as part of a "laundry pack" that allows a certain number of items for all passengers in a single cabin. Pressing and dry-cleaning services are also offered at a cost.

Dinner is served in traditional set-seating style in two main dining rooms -- Il Palladio and Le Fontane -- which each seat more than 700 diners at a time and offer identical menus. Passengers will have assigned tablemates at either an early seating (6 p.m.) or late seating (8:30 p.m.). Ship staff do their best to seat passengers according to nationality, so there should be no awkward language barriers while you're trying to make small talk. Tables range from two-tops to those that can accommodate nine. (Nine-tops can accommodate 10 people if necessary, but it's awfully close quarters.)

Le Fontane, located aft on Deck 5 (Petrarca Deck), is decorated in blue and dark-wood accents, offset by cream-coloured walls that offer sea views through large, round windows. Interior walls are painted with European landscapes depicting fountains and monuments. White tablecloths and flowers adorn the tables, which offer various arrangements, including booth seating.

Il Palladio, positioned aft on Deck 6 (Dante Deck), is mostly red in colour, accented with light-wood pillars, brass railings and grey marble. Seating is similar to that found in Le Fontane, and large, round windows offer sweeping views. One note: be careful of random, single steps at various locations. They're difficult to see, and we saw several folks trip on them each night.

Menus (your waiter will bring you one in English) change daily, but they always include the following categories: appetizers (calamari, fruit plate), soup & salad (tomato seafood soup, cobb salad), main courses (linguini, steak, risotto, salmon), and desserts & fruit (gelato, apple crumble, lemon cheesecake, baba). There is a decent mix of pasta, meat and fish dishes, as well as vegetarian options, so there's something for everyone. Generally, everything we tried on our sailing was fantastic. Waiters were attentive, efficient and friendly, but service wasn't excessive or over-the-top like it can be on some American ships.

Dinners are leisurely, and portions are smaller than Americans might be used to, but it makes for a better experience (and less regret, as you're not as likely to overindulge). If you'd like seconds, waiters will happily comply. Sometimes themed nights are offered; on our sailing, the third night was "Festa Italiana," which offered Italian food and decorations.

Casual, open-seating dining is available daily in Le Fontane for breakfast and lunch. Times vary according to the ship's port schedule, but they are listed in each day's program. Lunch items included mozzarella sticks, crab cakes, minestrone soup, Greek salad, Indian vegetable curry, veal parmigiana and rather tasty chicken paninis. Desserts included chocolate brownies and New York cheesecake.

Villa Pompeiana, aft on Deck 13 (Foscolo Deck), is the ship's buffet. It's open daily for early-riser breakfast, followed by regular breakfast, lunch and dinner. (Times vary and appear in each day's program.) This venue offers everything from pancakes, bacon and omelettes to a deli station and pizza. Of course, that's in addition to other standard buffet items like chicken, beef, pasta and desserts. You'll also find fruit, a salad bar and a beverage station. One section of the buffet is also open late at night for drinks and snacks. You'll find premade deli sandwiches and a rotating list of treats like crepes and ice cream throughout each sailing.

Kaito, the ship's fee-extra restaurant, specializes in sushi. Menu offerings are priced a la carte, and for a total of $18.50, we scored a cucumber roll, a generous portion of teriyaki chicken and some green tea ice cream -- all of which were absolutely fantastic. There's a relaxing ambience, courtesy of calming sage-green marble, dark wood and calming music. Reservations are probably a good idea, but during our lunchtime visit, it wasn't crowded at all. It's open from noon to 4 p.m. for lunch and again from 6 to 11 p.m. for dinner daily.

At the ship's Mojito Bar, near the Cayo Levantado Pool on Deck 13, you'll find amazing Italian gelato. Although it's for-fee, the large (three scoops) will set you back less than $3. There are tons of flavours, but you'll find 16 available at any given time. (If you're a fruit fan, try the banana or pineapple. For nut-lovers, the pistachio and hazelnut are must-haves. And, for the less adventurous, there are standard but tasty chocolate and vanilla options, too.) You'll also find soft-serve ice cream machines at both ends of the Lido Deck; oddly, they aren't available 'round-the-clock.

Room service, however, is available 24 hours a day, offering a limited selection of continental breakfast items, soups, salads and sandwiches. Soda, juice and alcoholic beverages can also be ordered; they will be charged according to the current in-cabin mini-bar pricing list. Room service is free on Caribbean sailings, but it's good to keep a few dollars on hand for tips. A small fee (roughly 3 to 5 euros, plus a 15 percent gratuity charge) applies to each room service item (excluding breakfast items) ordered on cruises in Europe.

Beverage packages come in four types: Cocktail Package (12 cocktails for $69.50), Peter Pan Package (10 milkshakes, mocktails, sodas or juices for $25), Teen Team Package (seven Red Bulls or mocktails for $45) and Large Draft Beer Package (14 14-ounce beers for $56.40). Although all-you-can-drink alcohol packages are no longer available for purchase once onboard, passengers can buy prepaid all-inclusive packages in advance for $61 per day. A 15 percent gratuity is added to all prices listed. If you normally drink a lot that's not water or iced tea, you'll come out ahead by signing up for one of these.

All cabins are decorated in cream, black and gold tones with major accents (curtains, carpeting, couches and chairs) in one of three colours: green, blue or red. Colourful art adorns the walls and adds to the hotel feel of the accommodations.

In terms of inside cabins, 275 of them measure 151 square feet each; there are also 12 wheelchair-accessible insides that clock in at 215 square feet apiece. Some inside cabins offer pull-down beds that fold out from the walls to accommodate one or two more passengers. All cabins have decent closet space, dual nightstands, vanities/desks, hair-dryers, in-closet safes and mini-bar fridges underneath small flat-screen TV's, which offer a ship information channel, a Web cam channel and lots of international music, movies and other programming in a variety of languages. There is also an Internet hookup near each in-cabin TV, but wireless connections are not available in cabins, so bring an Ethernet cable if you're planning to use your laptop.

Standard oceanviews (173) offer 183 square feet of space, while the two wheelchair-accessible oceanviews are 215 square feet. Each of these cabins has a large porthole window. Note that some may have obstructed views, and some also offer pull-down beds for additional cabinmates. All oceanview and higher cabins come equipped with a small plush chair, small glass table and ottoman.

More than 60 percent of Poesia's cabins feature balconies. These are divided into three categories: Standard Balcony, Superior Balcony and Balcony Suite. Each balcony includes two faux wicker chairs and a table.

There are 380 standards (161 square feet), three of which are wheelchair-accessible (215 square feet). Each balcony measures 38 square feet. Desk/vanity size increases, beginning with Standard Balcony accommodations.

Superiors number 432, none of which are wheelchair-accessible; they measure 191 square feet each, with 43-square-foot balconies. Our Superior Balcony room offered three tall closets (and two bathrobes) with plenty of shelves and hangers for clothing. Drawer space was also plentiful in the cabin's desks/vanity and dual nightstands. Additional storage space was available under the beds, which converted from a king to two twins.

The ship's 18 suites take up 269 square feet apiece, each with a 48-square-foot balcony. None are wheelchair-friendly. In addition to the above amenities, Balcony Suite passengers also get walk-in closets, sitting areas with coffee tables, sofa beds and bathrooms with tubs.

Some adjoining cabins are also available for families or other groups.

Bathrooms, which are cream in colour, offer adequate shelf space for toiletries. Bar soap is provided, as are shampoo and shower gel from in-shower wall-mounted dispensers. Beware of clingy shower curtains. One curious feature is a combination cigarette holder/ashtray next to the toilet.

Deck 5 - Petrarca
Deck 6 - Dante
Deck 7 - Manzoni
Deck 8 - Tasso
Deck 9 - Ungaretti
Deck 10 - Carducci
Deck 11 - Dannunzio
Deck 12 - Leopardi
Deck 13 - Foscolo
Deck 14 - Pascoli
Deck 15 - Alfieri
Deck 16 - Sport
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