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Old July 10th, 2009, 09:11 AM
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Default Worth Every Penny

We have had four port days in a row so I am a little behind on my cruise log. Lisbon is old hat to me and the dock is too far from anywhere special. MSC ran a shuttle to place near a good shopping area; price 9 Euro roundtrip. This was worth the cost although a taxi would probably be cheaper if you knew where were going.

The nest day we were scheduled for Mallorca, but not to arrive until 3:00 PM (we arrived a little early). The Splendida sister ship, MSC Fantasia, was also in port there. That ship debuted just about six months ago, so it was quite a celebration for MSC brass to have them both together.

The late arrival gave me a chabce to try to other alternative dining spot onboard, L’Olivio. This is an Italian company and this is an Italian restaurant. For regular customers the menu is a la carte, unusual for a ship restaurant. The other alternative spot, Santa Fe, is also a la carte pricing. The difference is that L’Olivio is included in the cruise fare for Yacht Club passengers, as I am lucky enough to be on this cruise. In fact I have one of the bet suites on the ship and there is a possibility it will even go to Sophia Loren when I move out tomorrow morning. I will stay onboatd but my time in the Yacht Club is coming to an end.

Just a word about how lucky I am. I cover cruise ships for a living. Cruise lines often give me nice cabins because they want me to write about them. Suites and nicer cabins on cruise ships sell out first, and obviously a cruise line makes far more money per square foot with a suite than a standard inside cabin.

I do so appreciate what I get, and I never take anything for granted. I often feel guilty about being so lucky, and the truth is that I try to help out our staff when I can by making sure they get a cover a cruise ship once in awhile. All that aside, rest assured that when I cruise I am doing research, but it is awfully fun to do this kind of research.

So, yesterday we (I am traveling with another US journalist) tried L’Olivio and I have to say it is one of the best alternative dining spots I have ever experienced, on a cruise ship or anywhere. I have been to excellent shipboard restaurants on Carnival, Princess, Celebrity, and NCL… but the food in MSC L’Olivio was outstanding, and all things considered not overly expensive.

Yacht Club people get a menu with no prices showing, but the average appetizer is three to seven Euro. I had a tuna carpaccio (about 4 Euro) that was outstanding. But the coup de resistances were the entrees. First I had the lamb chops; so tender they almost melted in your mouth, three chops in a bed a couscous filled with vegetables. My friend had the seafood couscous, which I did not realize was mostly a large lobster tail with shrimp and other bits of seafood mixed into the dish. When I saw what he had, I had to order it as well. The price for the lamb chops was just about eight Euro, while the lobster was eleven.

All you need to see are the pictures to appreciate how these are prepared, and imagine that they taste as good as they look.

Finally came the dessert. The truth is that you will not find great desserts on MSC unless you pay a little extra for them. The dining room desserts are mostly cakes or mousse, that don’t quite live up to their descriptions. But pony up three to five Euro for a special dessert and you will be so glad you did. They are delectable and very generous in size, three people could share many of them, at least two people.

And with that I want to bring up the subject we all know too well; “nickel and diming.” In the case of this ship there are charges Americans are not used to, and MSC does not charge for them when sailing in the Caribbean, such as room service items (also a la carte). I fully understand that small charges on cruise ships are a sore spot for many cruisers. In the case of MSC I just want to say “get over it and enjoy your cruise.”

The point is this; if there were no surcharges the cruise would cost more. This is a value cruise with seven days in Europe going for well under $1000 per person in many cases. Once in awhile you will be faced with the choice of either paying a small amount or not having something you want. Pay the money – what you get is more than worth the cost.

For example, the gellato onboard is homemade and just fantastic, better than any I have ever had in America. The pistachio tastes like it is made almost purely from macerated pistachio nuts with cream and sugar added, plus whole nuts, of course.

Another example; Last night we were in Mallorca until midnight. Mallorca is the European Honolulu with a maze of shopping streets that will leave wondering which way is up. If you find a shop you like, buy something while there the first time, you will never find it again.

I did not get back to the ship until 10:00, and even though the late seating of dinner was just starting I had no one to eat with. So I decided to wait until the midnight snacks they still offer on MSC (many cruise lines no longer offer late night snacks). But I couldn’t hold out.

The concierge told me the sports bar actually serves food until 4:00 a.m. I had missed this on the program due to European time listings being in 24-hour clock format. I actually thought it was a misprint. I went there and found they have a complete menu at extraordinarily reasonable prices. This is not nickel and dining, this is a service I needed and fully appreciated.

They offer “three mini hamburgers” of beef, pork and chicken, with fries, for just 2.50 Euro. I ordered this thinking they would be like sliders. No, this was more than enough for a meal. I also had ordered a pasta and cheese, just 1.50 Euro. This was like a “boutique” macaroni and cheese plate you would pay $12 for in the States as an entrée at an Italian restaurant. Just over $2.00 U.S. – some people would “nickel and diming” but for the quality of that food at that price, I say “fantastico.” I could not possibly finish either dish, there was so much food. I would eat there again for dinner happily.

Now, for a drawback; as I noted this is a megaship of 3300 capacity and room for some 700 more. There are a ton of children onboard and my guess is that the ship is well over 100% capacity. Remember that the cruise business in Europe is stronger than ever and ships are sailing full.

Getting off the ship in Mallorca, even with three gangways, was a nightmare, The lines were very long and I believe everyone wanted to get off at the same time. The lines at the gangway were hundreds of people long. In the end it only took about 10 minutes to actually get ashore, but I don’t remember ever seeing a line that long except when there were tenders. The ship was docked.

Now, here is an interesting turn of events. We were scheduled to call on Marseilles at 3:00 this afternoon. I saw no mention of tendering, but as we approached I could see there were three ships in port ahead of us, including Independence of the Seas again. The wind is very strong today, so much that the top decks are devoid of sunbathers, and people with baby carriages who walk out there almost get blown overboard.

An announcement just came on that the ship would not stop in Marseilles – tendering would be impossible in this weather. I imagine even docking would be difficult with wind like this. So, we are headed to Toulouse instead of Marseilles. Personally I am very happy. I have been to Marseilles and have nothing to recommend about it. I know nothing about Toulouse, however. We will be there from 6:00 PM to midnight.
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