MSC Cruises first dipped into the U.S. cruise market when it brought MSC Divina to Miami in 2013.
Yet, many American cruisers probably aren't familiar with the MSC Cruises despite nearly three years of voyages from Miami with the 4,300-passenger MSC Divina. The company is working hard to change that and has designs on becoming one of the first lines you consider when thinking about sailing away for a vacation to the sunny Caribbean.
I was onboard for a weeklong cruise and got a feel for the ship, which combines elegance and energy to create what I consider a classic cruise experience. My brother Bart joined me on the sailing, and we had a week of dancing, eating, partying and laughing on a voyage packed with passengers from all over the globe doing the same.
The passenger mix on MSC Divina draws from a wide range of nationalities, and I love the international feel of the cruise. About 65 percent of the passengers on my sailing were American, and all announcements are in English. But the ship is full of travelers from Europe, Central American, South America and Asia, as well. And the crew hails from 52 countries.
It's this blend that make MSC Divina so special. The mix of cultures and energy made it more fun, especially as I was dragged reluctantly to the disco on the second night and soon found myself drawing on the passion and smiles of families and friends swaying and celebrating together till well past midnight. We saw youngsters dancing with grandparents, celebrating birthdays, weddings, engagements, graduations . . . and life in general . . . on this joyful trip.
The entertainment on MSC Divina was mostly about people mixing together and having a good time, going to the amazing shows, hanging out in the gorgeous lounges (enjoying cocktails and live music performances) or singing and dancing under the stars during the "White Party" or karaoke night. I had never seen such participation numbers in these types of events on any recent cruise.
You won't be overwhelmed by the number of activities onboard. No rock climbing wall. No ziplines. No gimmicks.
You can cool down on the one gentle waterslides, try your hand at the challenging Formula One race car simulator or escape to another world in the 4D Cinema, which takes you along on a twisting and turning ride on a roller coaster, a rocket car race or several other virtual programs.
The Sports Bar offers a couple of "mini bowling" lanes and plenty of flat screen TVs for events (the Euro soccer tourney during our cruise meant this bar was often packed at game time). The American-style bar also offers standard bar menu items such as burgers, wings and nachos priced a la carte.
Also, recently released movies are shown nightly on the big screen poolside. But the main theater shows set the tone. MSC Divina has a stable of versatile and tireless performers who put on six different shows during the weeklong cruise. The same singers, dancers, jugglers, acrobats and tumblers produce the most incredible entertainment two times a night, all performing a variety of roles in the extravaganzas -- even as magicians. I got exhausted just thinking about how much energy this takes. Plus, some of these same people were participating in the matinee opera performance of La Traviata and showing up at midnight for dance parties and other events.
They were truly the backbone of the overall entertainment experience, and the consistent standing ovations showed the audiences appreciate this. All of the shows are wonderful, and the 1,600-seat Pantheon Theater (the biggest on a cruise ship) is almost always packed. But be sure not to miss the Michael Jackson tribute show!
MSC Yacht Club
A "ship within a ship" cruise experience is available, too. MSC Yacht Club is a more private and luxury experience. This comes at a premium price, of course. But you get a private pool area, butler service, a VIP concierge lounge, included drinks package, exclusive restaurant and embarkation and disembarkation priority. It's essentially a more-inclusive package that allows you to get away from the crowds if you prefer.
We used a day pass to try it out. Limited day passes for MSC Yacht Club are sold onboard (10 available per day) and cost $110, which includes drinks, breakfast and lunch buffets and dinner at the club's exclusive restaurant Le Muse. It's a nice change of pace if you want to treat yourself to a little splurge.
MSC Divina is a large cruise ship, so we had to find a rhythm to our day. This is how it goes for most cruisers. You settle in to a schedule, learn your way around and find your favorite spots. That's why I love this type of vacation. It's all about choices, and this ship offers something to make all types of travelers happy.
Bart and I explored the ship on our first day and immediately noted its glamorous feel, with all sorts of carefully curated touches like the Swarovski crystal staircases in the centrum area of the ship, the marble floors and mirrors and glass everywhere in sight. The Golden Jazz Bar became a favorite nightly hangout, with its comfy chairs and warm amber hues.
Our daily ritual started with a workout at the gym. It's a full-fledged fitness facility with spin classes, other classes and training sessions available for a fee, as well as all the cardio and resistance-training equipment needed for a good workout. This space was almost always filled each morning. The average age on MSC Divina is young compared with other cruise lines, making the gym area one of the busiest I've seen at sea.
One morning, we signed up for the AquaCycle class. This is a spin class on a bike submerged in a pool. You heard that right! MSC Divina offers the only such class on a cruise ship. It costs $15, lasts 45 minutes, is challenging as heck pedaling against the water resistance and is a fun workout. Classes take place in the aft Garden Pool, and the other passengers graciously stepped out of the water for a bit while we took our class -- with many of them sticking around and casting curious glances at the kooks who would want to put themselves through such an ordeal instead of just relaxing in the sun and enjoying a swim while we sailed toward Saint Maarten.
Bart and I also made sure we got ample pool time at the Garden Pool area at the extreme aft of the ship. Because all pools on MSC Divina got really busy, we usually were able to find a lounger and some shade by mid-afternoon (I don't seed to lay out all day, so this works fine for me; you have to get out early to claim a lounger to start your day, especially sea days). A few cold beers or frozen cocktails, and we were really living the cruising dream, laying back and relaxing, taking a few quick dips in the pool and watching the calm blue ocean all around.
Our evenings brought dinners in the main dining room, where we received friendly service from staffers who quickly learned our preference for Stella Artois over the wine offerings.
Speaking of wine: MSC Divina offers a wine-blending class, and we gave it a try. I'm not a big consumer of wine but this was a really fun and social experience. We carefully crafted our own blends using beakers, tubes and droppers to precisely measure our formulas. As budding vintners, we used the pure cabernet, syrah, malbec and zinfandel to create our wines. My best blend was 40 percent zinfandel, 40 percent cab and 20 percent syrah, by the way. The class is $45 and you get a bottle of your favorite blend, complete with a label and the name you pick for your creation. (You can purchase more, including blends your friends created.)
Perhaps my favorite meal was our lunch at La Cantina de Bacco (fee). Bart and I shared a "meter of pizza" and a "meter of beer" with new friends onboard -- and it was an especially delicious combo. This is the best pizza I've had at sea, and you can try varieties like four cheese, margherita, spicy (with hot salami) or create your own.
Before or after dinner, we would take in a show in the theater and then move into a lounge for cocktails. This is normally when I would call it a night, after a post-meal social drink. Not so fast on MSC Divina. No, it was time to head to the Galaxy Disco around midnight. I was shocked the first time up there to find so many people just getting started. The dancing went till 2 a.m. and beyond for dozens (although it was mostly teens to early 20-year-olds by the 2 o'clock hour), and the party atmosphere was contagious.
I couldn't keep that pace every night, but I did repeat this sequence at least three times during my week onboard. No too bad for an old guy.
We sailed with 4,200 people, and more than 700 were children. MSC Divina is ideal for first-time cruisers, families or veteran cruisers looking for more choices. It's especially family friendly and offers aggressive pricing. I have found recent listings for as low as $399 per person for an inside cabin for a week. In addition, kids 11 and younger sail free when staying in the same cabin as their parents. Also, MSC Cruises matches other lines' loyalty program status and gives discounts for military members, civil servants and teachers.
At these starting prices, with the additional promotions available, I find it hard to believe you can get as much value out of a cruise vacation anywhere else. It's obvious that MSC Cruises is working hard to entice you to come onboard for a sailing to see for yourself.
More about MSC Cruises
The world's fourth-largest cruise company developed in the Mediterranean with a heritage as a cargo shipping company. MSC Divina is one of 12 cruise ships for the line, which has plans to launch 11 more in coming years -- including MSC Seaside and MSC Meraviglia in 2017. MSC Seaside will come directly to Miami in December 2017.
Disclaimer: I was a guest of MSC Cruises for my sailing, but all opinions, as always, are my own.
Thanks for reading and travel happy!