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Old July 7th, 2009, 01:52 PM
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Paul Motter Paul Motter is offline
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Default Day 5 lisbon

Today we are in Lisbon, which I have already seen a few too many times before, and so after a quick jaunt ashore I quickly returned to the ship. I have to say that something about the way Splendida was aligned at the Lisbon dock made her look unusually attractive to me this morning. She is a beautiful ship inside but I especially like her lines from the outside. She is a big 133,000-tons, bigger than Celebrity Solstice and almost in the Royal Caribbean Voyager category where size is concerned. But she does not feel anywhere near that big inside or out.

Studying the frame of this ship you see they could have built it much wider, but they chose to widen the promenade and pool decks, while the stateroom decks actually recede from the outer edges of the hull. It is a pleasing design from the outside with sensible balance and proportion, unlike Solstice, which appears to have deck upon deck packed precariously on top of the hull.

Let’s talk about food, because I had seen a few complaints from readers before I left. Talking to the MSC food services manager, we discussed how the dining room aspires to present a different region of Italy every night on a seven-day cruise. The food is prepared Italian-style and offered with Italian service, according to MSC.

Unfortunately, I heard the following refrain more than once, “when Americans hear ‘Italian’ they think ‘Olive Garden’.” Personally, I don’t like Olive Garden and I have to say I found this attitude a little defensive. “This is the real pizza, we invented it, why do Americans want everything to be just like it is back home? Why don’t Americans want to try new things?” I was asked.

I had to protest just a little. Americans are very willing to try new things, but if they try it and still don’t like it, it isn’t because we are missing a culinary gene. One’s palate is a personal and cultural development largely guided by a lifetime of experience. Maybe the Italians invented pizza, but they didn’t invent Chicago deep-dish pizza. “Italian” pizza is tomato paste on barely cooked dough with softened (not fully cooked) cheese. We like spicy sauce over crunchy dough and stringy hot and chewy cheese.

That being said, the pizza onboard is better than I have had on other European ships. It is served piping hot and has crunchy, chewy dough. It isn’t exactly American but it isn’t that much different.

So, the good news is that this somewhat bristly attitude by management was not reflected in the quality of the food on MSC, largely because the Germans, Brits and French are just as picky about their food as we Americans. The result is a fantastic array of the best of all the major European cuisines; German sausage, Italian pasta, French entrecote, British ale and American cheeseburgers.

For breakfast and lunch you might as well eat in the buffet where the selection is amazing. Steak, hamburgers, hot dogs, 5 kinds of pizza, pasta selections, salads, fresh fruit, desserts.

You will not find free ice cream on board except for dessert in the dining room. But there are two Gelato bars, each with a dozen different flavors. It is delicious and well worth the 1.50 Euro you pay for a serving. Drinks are all extra-charge for lunch and dinner – even water. It is bottled water but it does not taste any better than tap water. You will pay .40 Euro for about 10 oz of it, or 1.50. Euro for a 24 oz bottle. But don’t despair, you can still find free water with ice if you help yourself, just go to the ice machine and for glasses, ice and a water dispenser.

No, you cannot get free iced tea or lemonade in the buffet area. The iced tea that is available is a small can and it will cost you about $2.80. Keep in mind, this is only in Europe. When MSC ships come to the Caribbean they do offer free iced tea with all meals. Also, coffee and juice is included with breakfast buffet at no extra cost in Europe and with all meals in the Caribbean.

In the dining room for lunch you will find a few special entrees, such as mussels gratinato. The service is very good during lunch. For example, when my plate of mussels arrived with but four mussels my waiter asked if I would like more and immediately brought me a second plate with a double sized portion. However, don’t bother going to the dining room to order the same food they have in the buffet area. It is hotter and fresher upstairs where they roll it out more quickly.

Kids – tons of things for kids to do. In port and at sea the children’s programs are very active throughout the day including meals. They have a water slide and special pool area with water effects. There is a teen disco and a fairly large video game area – not like RCL, but OK. They DO have two lanes of bowling (3.00 Euro for five frames) and two different Grand Prix simulated offerings. One is a full-scale grand prix racecar one can sit in and drive a virtual course on a video screen in front of the car. Only one driver can go at a time (cost 9.50 Euro). The other offering is a 3d movie in a special theater. There are only 10 seats in two rows directly in front of the movie screen. The seats move along with the 10-minute movie action and the sound system is solid enough to rattle your bones. Cost: 8 Euro with 3D glasses included.

So, is MSC suitable for Americans? I have to say I am truly pleasantly surprised at the quality of this cruise line. Cruise ships are primarily about three things; food, service and decor. There is not one area where I did not feel it was better than I expected. And I want to be perfectly honest about this, I KNOW the difference between bad and good.

I just told you about the food. There are times when you will be disappointed but they are not insurmountable by any means. I found the selection of food to be a huge bonus, hot burgers, pizza (better than the typical Italian pizza I described above), hot dogs, steak, fantastic pasta, etc. As for dining convenience, this is a big ship, but it has two dining rooms, ample seating in the buffet area and always plenty of stations open. The alternative spots; Santa Fe Café and L’olivio each have dozens of tables. The menus are a la carte in both restaurants and one can dine in either very reasonably. An appetizer alone is enough for a meal.

As for service, I expected somewhat slow and indifferent service, especially because I only speak English. In fact, most of the staff speaks English very well and they were always very willing to go out of their way to help me. Not once did I ever receive a brush-off as I had heard can happen. Our waiter was most accommodating and my butler made it a point to learn my preferences so by day three I didn’t even need to put out a breakfast card anymore. My coffee, rolls, yogurt and milk were always delivered exactly at 8:00 am every morning.

Here are the drawbacks, room service, shows and smoking.

The shows feature a very large cast (16) including four singers with excellent voices. The singers are so talented one might think that is all Europeans care about. Instead of a singing duo, man and woman, they have two singing duos – whereas most US-based ships have one singing duo (a man and woman) and an adagio dance couple. This cast has “dancers” but no professional solo dancers. The choreography in the show was just plain weak, as were the lights and sound. OK, having worked in the theater, including cruise ship shows it is a far too easy for me to pick these shows apart. But on the level at which I enjoy any cruise show, special effects, excellent scenery design, well-lit stages energetic choreography and variety in pacing, the show was a letdown. The four singers are very talented and execute their parts perfectly, I just can’t say there was anything else about the show I liked.

As far as cigarette smoking goes, I do not mind it but I realize many people do. Nowhere did I find the smell of smoke unbearable. If you do, it is very easy to avoid those areas since it is limited to a few rooms and always just one side of those rooms. I am told each smoking allowed area has a one-way airflow system to remove the smoke. It does seem to work. Basically, if you stick to the starboard side you will hardly ever even be aware people are smoking on the ship. In addition, by far the most popular place for smokers is outside by the pool on the port side only. Naturally, you will see a lot of smokers there, but not breathe it in. You may smell it in the hallways since people might smoke in any stateroom on the ship. But for the most part I am not aware of smoking at all on this ship 90% of the time and the 10% is only because I am not consciously trying to avoid it.

Room service is not a plus here. In Europe they do charge for anything room service delivered to the room. This is a European thing – good restaurants are rare in Europe and very expensive. As a result, the Europeans want to get out of their cabins and eat in the dining room. Room service is simply not a high priority on European ships. In the Yacht Club cabins there is no charge for rooms service, however. Still, the room service menu is also very limited; soup, a club sandwich, cheese and crackers and not much more. That’s it.

So, now you know the bad. That being said, if the price is right you can certainly get past the drawbacks. And if you are a dining room loving, smoking European then this is the ship for you. Keep in mind, when you sail on MSC in Europe you are experiencing cruising the way Europeans want it. None of this means MSC is not a quality cruise line, it just means MSC is a cruise line that caters primarily to European tastes.

This is a very well run mainstream cruise line for Europeans. MSC is an independent company, not owned by any American parent company. Like P & O the company is mostly in the cargo business, both ships and docks, and they expanded into passenger ships in a big way starting just about 10 years ago. The president of MSC America (representing the European ships in the U.S.) is Rick Sasso, who was the president of Celebrity Cruises for many years before being acquired by Royal Caribbean and a few years after.

I would compare MSC most closely to Princess. These are big ships that manage larger crowds very efficiently. You won’t feel like a number on these ships, nor will you be faced with long lines.
That’s all for today.
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