I'm a single woman, age 54. I've been on about a dozen cruises. Until last year, I traveled alone. Then I put a post up on CruiseMates and found Nancy, who joined me on the Pacific Princess to Bermuda and got hooked. We then decided to go on a JUGS group cruise for women (www.just-us-girls.org). I'd never been on one, but this one sounded interesting, and the rates were very good (cabins are widely advertised for under $800 per person for 11 nights, and AARP discounts are offered).
Melody is part of the MSC Cruises, an Italian line (www.msccruises.com/home.asp?lang_id=1) that has been operating passenger cruises in the Mediterranean since 1988 and recently entered the Caribbean market. Since 1970, it has been a cargo carrier as the name implies. Currently the line has three ships and is expecting a new one shortly. Most passengers are European and everything is in several languages.
Boarding and Initial Impressions
When we got to the terminal in Ft. Lauderdale, we received numbers for boarding and went to the seating area, which had a snack bar for those who were hungry/thirsty. Boarding began early, but progressed slowly. Much of the check-in was done by the cruise staff. A security photo is taken at the check-in counter, as is a credit card swipe if you want to use it for on-board purchases. A sign-and-sail card is given at another counter. For some reason, ours weren't there and we were told just to charge things to our cabin until we got them. Another member of the cruise staff showed us onto the ship, and a cabin steward took us to the cabin.
This cabin was laid out like the one we had on Pacific Princess, although it was about two feet wider. Almost automatically we went to the "same" beds we had on her, and settled on the same closets and drawer space. The bathroom was almost identical to Pacific Princess. The lighting in there was a bit better, and rather than cabinets on either side of the mirror, there were drawers beneath the counter.
The cabin had two closets and two sets of drawers, with more hanging space above one of those. It also had a desk, two extra pillows, and two extra blankets besides the ones already on the berths. An amenity basket had shampoo, small bars of soap, sewing kits and shower caps. These were replenished each time the cabin was made up.
Cabin lighting included a large, round fluorescent fixture on each side of the mirror over the desk, lights above the curtain covering the blank wall, a light in the entry area, and VERY dim nightlights near each bed. There was not enough light to comfortably read in bed without turning all the lights on, and even that wasn't great.
U.S. electric appliances work with an adapter. The one I had brought from home did just fine. Adapters are available at the purser's desk or from the cabin steward for those who didn't bring one.
There are deck plans and lists of what's where on all decks, but they haven't all been updated; a few things are incorrect. There isn't a Big Dipper Ice Cream Parlor (it's currently a bar); the arcade is closed; and what is supposed to be the teen club is the disco. Otherwise, this is very helpful if one bothers to look.
Also, there aren't a lot of elevators, and stairs don't necessarily go from "here" to "there". It all takes a bit of getting used to. Our cabin was well aft, on the Premier deck. If we wanted to sit on lounge chairs, the easiest thing was to continue aft and go up the ladders (that's nautical for "steep stairs") one or two decks.
There's a Sun deck, but not much there -- the bridge and a "jogging track" that is very narrow; I didn't see any joggers and very few walkers. Pool deck has two pools. The aft one had a large number of lounge chairs and there should never be a problem finding one. Exercise and dance classes were held out here. It was also the site of ping pong and two hot tubs. Fresh lemonade and orangeade were made to order here too.
Immediately forward from there were two bars -- the one that had been an ice cream parlor, all white tile, was on the starboard side, the Blue Riband on the port. This was the piano bar, and was often the setting for private parties and meetings.
There were seating areas on each side of the ship, one designated as the card area had appropriate tables, the other had white wicker ones.
That brings us to the mid-ship pool. There are tables and chairs here (linen clothes over the tables at mealtimes), another bar, and bingo was held here, as were assorted games, arts and crafts and various musical entertainment. The larger buffets were here too, and so was 24-hour coffee and tea. The main buffet areas were inside -- matching ones on each side of the ship. Beyond that, the Sunrise Room was a lovely dining room. Breakfast, lunch and tea could be brought there to enjoy, and there was live classical music at tea-time. Just outside was an outside walkway below the bridge.
Down below was the Lounge deck, home to Club Universe (the main show room) and Junkanoo (a secondary show room), the shops, and the casino. Aft was an outside lounge area where I was most likely to sit. Below that the cabin decks (Premier deck also has the Purser's office and the tour desk. The restaurant was a couple of decks lower, and that was where we debarked most days. When we had to tender, we used the Bahamas deck, one more down.
The food is "good," sometimes better than good, with a few differences from what seasoned cruisers might expect.
Breakfast and lunch are available either at the buffet or open seating in the dining room. The menu does not change daily, nor do the buffet offerings. There's no omelet station at the buffet, although fried eggs are available in addition to the usual scrambled, along with a variety of baked goods, fresh and canned fruit, cheeses, bacon, sausage and cold meat selections, cereals, assorted teas, coffee, and hot chocolate. The dining room had omelets, French toast and pancakes. Croissants were available until 11 a.m., then nothing until lunch.
Lunch in the dining room is a dinner, and as such there is little difference from supper (the evening meal) -- appetizer, soup, pasta or risotto, entree, dessert. Tea is offered at 4, with sandwiches and sweets (this is NOT a traditional English tea).
There's nothing between tea and supper. Since we had late sitting, that meant 8:15. There was a late night buffet at 11:30 with various themes. One night it included a galley tour. Generally speaking, there were three appetizers to chose from, two soups (never saw any cold ones), one pasta, one risotto, five or six entrees and for dessert a cake, an ice cream and a sherbet as well as fresh fruit and cheeses. My personal favorites included several of the risottos, cakes and the beef Wellington.
Beverages are less expensive than elsewhere -- soda or beer less than $2 a glass, and lots of moderately priced wine, although many choices weren't available.
You could order free continental breakfast in the cabin by indicating your choices and hanging them on the doorknob before retiring. Other room service items included sandwiches and salads, for a fee of $2.50. We guessed that the fee was more a service change since many passengers were from a background that tended to not tip.
Where We Went
This was an 11-night cruise, so we went a LOT of places, including two ports I'd hadn't visited previously (Grenada and St. Lucia). Because the cruise starts and ends on different weekdays each sailing, it comes to different ports on Sundays and some islands pretty much shut down on Sunday. We were in Antigua Sunday, and most things were closed. It seemed like every day I was looking at the same "junk," just with a different name on it. And being hawked by what almost seemed to be the same people. It made me very sad.
Our first port was Nassau (a very short stop); other ports included Tortola, Antigua (after which we cruised past Montserrat -- the first time I saw an active volcano), Grenada, St. Lucia, St. Bart's and San Juan (where U.S. Immigration came aboard and we all had to clear before anyone would be allowed off of the ship). After San Juan there were two days at sea.
I did not take any of the ship's tours, but spoke to people who did. The overall impression was that the people who had arranged for their own tours or cabs at each port were better pleased with the experience.
It's pointless to compare Melody to ships run by American companies. This is an Italian ship, run by an Italian company that is trying to break into the American market with some interesting results.
Only a year ago, crew members were reported to lack the ability to communicate with English-speaking passengers. Now they are actively learning American slang!
The cruise staff is called the "Animation Team," just like at Club Med. They are a hard-working, talented bunch. We first met them at check in but saw them daily. They ran the games (in as many languages as necessary) and performed in skits...very good ones! They sang and danced, led exercise and craft classes. And before the shows most evenings, danced with the passengers! No aging dance hosts for MSC -- lively young men and women danced with "us".
These were not the main entertainers, though. Again the language situation (not fair to call it a "barrier") had an interesting effect. Yes, there was music and singers. But there were fewer vocals than on other ships and no standup comics. We did see a pair of magicians, a strongman and his assistant, a Flamenco group, a contortionist and the thong-clad Fascination Ballet. Shows were various combinations of their (and the Animation team's) talents. They were as good as most of what I've seen on other ships.
There were three formal nights, one informal. The rest were casual although one did also say "or Masquerade." This information was not given to the American passengers in advance. Some Europeans wore costumes that evening.
The Master of the ship seemed to be a pleasant and charming man. We saw him around and he always made time to exchange pleasantries. His welcome and farewell speeches were done in all five languages, although a couple he had to read. Which of course brings me to Ketty, the Cruise Director. She is fluent in at least five languages! Watching her introduce an act was amazing... a few sentences in one language and then move on to another, until she was finished.
There were four shops aboard. The photo shop did print some pictures, but most were put on disc and could be viewed on a computer screen. Boarding photos were $6.95, large formal portraits $10.95. There was also a small album for $15 with several pictures of the ship as well as a couple of video options. Of course there was a jewelry store. Several in my group purchased Murano glass jewelry. Watches were about $40, pendants from $8 up. What was called the Perfume Shop also had cosmetics and sundries.
Last but not least, the Boutique. Besides the expected clothing, snack items, liquor and smoking items were available. These were given to the purchaser at time of sale and could be used in the cabin during the cruise. Very little in the way of logo items were available, to my chagrin.
Music was available in the cabin -- two channels of it, with a third for announcements. There is no music after 10 p.m. Television does not have a web cam (I missed that since we had an inside cabin). We did usually have CNN, TNT, the Discovery Channel and several movies. Most movies had titles, but that didn't mean that one of the languages would necessarily be English!
Within a short time of boarding I noticed several very attractive, nicely built young men in dark suits wearing earphones walking about the ship -- the security men. I dubbed them the "Israeli Security Hunks" and several other people adopted that name for them. I also heard someone call them the Bourne Identity because they didn't seem to walk, but glided around the place. Whatever, they gave a great sense of security.
Towels were great! "Hand" towels were large enough to wrap up my hair; bath towels were what we would call bath sheets. Paper products, while made in the U.S., were rough. Okay for such a short period, but nothing I'd want to use at home.
The Purser's Desk was always open, people there always pleasant. But other office facilities had limited hours. MSC is apparently very good to its employees! They don't work the hours we've all seen on other ships... and it shows. The more demanding passengers will get frustrated by not being able to get to the man who exchanges money whenever they wish, for instance. But the more relaxed among us recognize that the crew is happier and better rested.
The questions people ask are "Would you go again?" and "What advice would you give to someone else taking this cruise?"
To the first... of course I would go again! To the second... since this is an 11-night cruise, it leaves and returns on different days of the week. I'd try to avoid Sunday for either. Another thing is that there is a $100 per person AARP discount, but there seems to be a problem getting it. Be persistent. I'm going to be, but I know that it will pay off.