When you book a cruise beyond the fleets of ships that provide a North American experience, be prepared to accept different vacation approaches to meals, entertainment, and expenses.
The rewards for such an adventurous spirit may be substantial, as the differences can be part of the fun.
For seven nights in November, I cruised the Mediterranean Sea on MSC Splendida, pictured right, off Naples, Italy. It's a grand new 3,300-passenger vessel owned by the biggest shipping company you may never have heard of. MSC, which owns cargo ships at work all over the world, also operates one of the most modern fleets of international cruise ships.
A few MSC ships sail out of Florida and elsewhere on the U.S. East Coast, and on these cruises the ships make some allowances for passengers who are more American than European. Most MSC ships, however, are based full time in Europe, where they cruise the Mediterranean year-round.
I chose Splendida because I had never sailed on a European ship in Europe and I liked the itinerary. We started and ended in Genoa, and did a port stop each day, including Malta and Tunis, which has been dropped temporarily from the itinerary due to the battles taking place in North Africa.
My review of MSC Splendida for Cruise Critic.
I was one of the few North Americans aboard. My dining room menu, my daily newsletter placed in the cabin and written messages all were in English. Table mates at an assigned dinner seating spoke English. The crew spoke English when talking to me. Other communications on the ship — from loud-speaker announcements to lifeboat drill — were in five languages, including but not leading with English. I didn’t have a lot of interaction with fellow passengers, as many of them didn’t speak English.
For instance, my best moments on Splendida were eating oodles of Italian pasta; sipping wine and snacking in the L’Enoteca wine bar and having dinner one night in L’Olivio Mediterranean restaurant, pictured left; losing a heap of dead skin, scraped off in a Balinese massage; shaking my head at the ridiculous production show in the Strand Theatre that was billed as USA night; laughing with four women from Scotland who were on their first cruise; soaking in a hot tub on a cold, misty evening with a group of strangers, none of whom spoke my language.
And yet, each of these favorite moments depended on my attitude, as they contained reasons to complain.
For starters, I found much of the food served on Splendida to be rather ordinary, but as soon I dedicated my eating to what Italy offers best, I enjoyed excellent meals, from appetizers to regional choices of pasta and risotto that changed daily.
My first reaction to a la carte charges in the alternative restaurants — outside the two main dining rooms where food is included in the cruise price — was that I was being nickeled and dimed, but as soon as I accepted the European method of charging for each item, I enjoyed a splendid evening in the wine bar, consuming tapas, and a gourmet meal in L’Olivio.
The Balinese treatment in the vast Splendida spa was different from the massage I thought I had booked, but once I lay back and let the expert take over, my body reacted joyfully to one of my best massages.
My assigned evening dining-room table of nine was cramped and was surrounded by big, boisterous families, but as we all relaxed and got to know one another, my table of four women from Scotland and two couples from England was enlivened each evening with tales from several cultures, including one couple who seemed surprised to learn that Scotland was not part of England.
As for the weather, November is iffy and was disappointingly cold and wet one evening, but an hour in the hot tub with strangers provided a warming soak. Hot water gurgling around me, I closed my eyes to listen to a collection of excited voices in foreign tongues and could only imagine their stories.
Then, there was Pointing Man
He was a white-coated waiter, one of a gaggle of white coats, each with some sort of an assigned task, stationed at open-seating breakfasts in the grand Villa Verde dining room. Apparently, no white coat would trample on the task of another.
The first morning, when I sat for breakfast at a table with a view of the churning sea through a big picture window, I motioned to the nearest waiter and asked for coffee.
That is how our relationship began.
When I requested coffee, the waiter pointed to someone behind me. Granted, had I been at home in a diner, I would have turned and motioned at the coffee man. But no, I was on vacation, and it was up to the white coats to serve me. Alas, coffee did not arrive, so I asked Pointing Man again. He pointed a second time to someone behind me.
I pointed back at Pointing Man. He pointed behind me. I pointed at the ceiling, and then pointed out the window. Pointing Man shook his head. Clearly, I would just have to wait until Coffee Man arrived because Pointing Man only pointed; he did not dispense coffee. Eventually, Coffee Man arrived. For several mornings, Pointing Man and I sparred, without accomplishment. I’m not sure what he thought of me. I considered him an entertaining character in the theater of Italy.
Yacht Club suites on concierge deck
If you want the European flavor of MSC, but not the entire experience of crowded buffet lines, competition for reservations and extra charges for various drinks, consider booking a suite in the Yacht Club, available on Splendida and its sister Fantasia, also cruising in the Med. The Club offers special services on a private deck much like the concierge floors at luxury hotels. Choosing the Yacht Club would raise the price of a cruise from about $125 per person per night for two people to about $300.
It’s the price of exclusivity.
Though breakfast is served daily in the Yacht Club, you might consider a morning visit to the Villa Verde dining room. Otherwise, you’d miss the opportunity to meet Pointing Man.
By the way, beginning this summer, all MSC ships, in and out of North America, will be equipped, 24 hours a day, with some North American favorites: ice, cold water, (American) coffee, decaffeinated coffee, and a selection of teas.
David Molyneaux writes monthly about cruising. He is editor of TheTravelMavens.com.