Tag Archives: msc cruises

CHANGING THE PLOT; WINTER CRUISING’S SHAKE UP

MARCO POLO
CMV’s popular Marco Polo is a veteran of the winter cruise circuit

Cruise ships and sunshine; the two go almost hand in hand in popular perception, just as they always have. Broad, sun splashed lido decks full of people soaking up the indolent seagoing lifestyle, has been at the heart of cruising’s grand, global pitch since the early 1920’s.

But that is now starting to change over the winter months…..

These days, many people are simply put off by the perennially overcrowded winter Caribbean cruise circuit, with it’s flotillas of vast, floating leviathans routinely descending on the same, cowed, cluster of islands. And the idea of flying long haul in advance certainly puts off many other people these days, too.

The result is that many cruise lines are now getting really creative with winter itineraries. And warm weather cruising-even in the depths of a European winter-is by no means the Holy Grail that it once was.

The Mediterranean is now a full on, year round cruising destination. Both MSC Cruises and Costa have a robust, year round presence in the seven to twelve day cruise markets in the region, with cruises that sail from Barcelona, Genoa and Venice, among others. Short flight times, together with much less crowded tourist sites, both make for quite impressive plus points. And, while the cooler temperatures may not fire everybody’s enthusiasm, the region in winter is still generally sunny, with clear visibility to boot.

Of course, the true, die hard sun worshippers can still set sail for the Canary Islands. You can neatly avoid the joys of a winter time Bay of Biscay buffeting by flying to join your ship at any one of a whole raft of Italian and Spanish embarkation ports, and then sailing from there. And many of those same ports also benefit from having frequent, good priced air lift from the UK and mainland Europe via a string of no frills, budget airlines.

Most unexpected, however, has been the slow but steady growth in winter cruising to the Baltic, North West Europe, and even Northern Norway. Round trip sailings from the UK on lines such as Cruise and Maritime Voyages, Fred. Olsen, P&O and even Cunard, can take you to some amazing, pre-Christmas market cities such as Copenhagen, Hamburg and Oslo. You can count on bitingly cold days that are still quite often blessed with amazing clear visibility. Crowds are much thinner, and you also get a much different, calmer take on cities than the crowds which flock to those same streets and squares in the long, light summer nights.

Another growth area is in cruises to witness the bone chilling, ethereal flourish of the Northern Lights, the spectacular natural panorama that quite literally lights up the skies of North West Norway during the long winter months. Both Fred. Olsen Cruises and Cruise and Maritime Voyages have found these cruises to be slow but consistent growers over the winter season.

Growing numbers of people each year are now more willing than ever to eschew that once mandatory winter sun tan for a raft of more eclectic, arcane adventures at sea. The convenience of home port departures, coupled with good pricing and fuelled by simple, neatly tailored marketing, has created a series of natty, nicely packaged travel options for the winter that are guaranteed to pique the curiosity of today’s most avid cruising fans.

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MSC TO SHOWCASE FOUR MEGA SHIP DEPLOYMENT TO THE WESTERN MEDITERRANEAN FOR 2019

BELLISSIMA
Artists’ impression of the new MSC Bellissima

While it should be no surprise to learn that the ever expanding MSC Cruises will feature a four strong mega cruise ship line up in the Western Mediterranean over most of 2019, it has to be said that the coming season’s line up is unquestionably the Italian operator’s strongest ever in the region, as well as being the most amenity laden.

It showcases the newest ship in the fleet-the 177,000 ton MSC Bellissima- as well as the MSC Seaview, MSC Divina, and the popular MSC Fantasia.

These four ships will operate variations on the popular, seven night Western Mediterranean cruise circuit from April through until late October. Collectively, they will give MSC a stunning total passenger lift of 19,000 people per week, each week for the better part of over thirty weeks in all. That’s a truly staggering logistical exercise, in and of itself.

It’s also noteworthy that these larger, more amenity laden ships are deployed on the routes where facilities and port infrastructure are, on the whole, much better and more extensive than in, say, the Aegean market. And, with a far larger passenger volume to embark and disembark for each ship, this makes simple common sense, as well as being good business for MSC.

Take a look at those Aegean ports for a moment, if you will. Many cruises sail from Venice down to Croatia and the Greek Islands using smaller ships such as the MSC Lirica, MSC Sinfonia, and the larger MSC Poesia. Here, prime destinations such as Dubrovnik, Mykonos and Santorini are, often of necessity, tender ports in the high season. As a whole, they are easier to access by smaller ship; hence in part at least MSC’s decision to deploy the larger ships on the seven day ‘Meddy-go-round’ circuit out of Italy,. France and Spain.

One of the great advantages of such deployments for potential cruisers is the fact that they can board any one of these gigantic, seagoing cathedrals across a raft of different ports. MSC generally allows  embarkation from Rome’s port of Civitvecchia, as well as Marseilles and Barcelona, as an alternative to its main embarkation port of Genoa. In general, each of the different seven night itineraries will allow for at least one full day spent at sea.

Between them, these four huge, floating theme parks offer MSC’s typically sumptuous style and flair across all of the major highlights of the Western Mediterranean. From family friendly accommodations to the hushed, expansive inclusiveness of the MSC Yacht Clubs featured aboard all four ships, the line offers an unparalleled range of Italian accented cruising fun and finesse, served up with a series of world famous, legendary sights and experiences as fabulous focal points.

Let’s look at some of those itineraries as they currently stand. Alternative embarkation points are highlighted below;

MSC BELLISSIMA

The company’s new flagship will arrive in the Western Mediterranean, fresh from her spectacular christening ceremony in Southampton on March 2nd. She will carry a maximum of 5700 passengers on each sailing.

Weekly departures from Genoa to Naples, Messina, Valletta, Barcelona, and Marseilles.

MSC SEAVIEW

Catering to some 5179 international passengers, MSC Seaview offers week-long forays from Genoa to La Spezia, Civitavecchia (For Rome), Cannes, Palma de Mallorca, Barcelona and Ajaccio.

MSC DIVINA

The 4200 passenger MSC Divina begins her summer season in April, and offers sailings from Genoa to Civitavecchia, Palermo, Cagliari, Palma de Mallorca, Valenica, and Marseilles.

MSC FANTASIA

One of the staples of the summer Mediterranean circuit, the 3929 passenger MSC Fantasia sails from Genoa to Marseilles, Palma de Mallorca, Ibiza, Naples, and Livorno (For Florence, Lucca and Pisa)

All in all, quite a banner year for the ever expanding MSC in what remains it’s quintessential core market.

 

MSC FANTASIA- SOME FIRST IMPRESSIONS

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Plaza Roma aboard the MSC Fantasia

Having just returned from a week on the MSC Fantasia, I have no hesitation in saying that this is quite simply one of the most stunningly appointed vessels that I have ever sailed on in three and a half decades of cruise and ocean liner travel.

She’s a big girl- 133,000 tons, and capable of carrying more than 4300 passengers. But the interior design and lofty ceilings combine to create a sense of casual, spectacular luxury and space that makes such numbers seem impossible.

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Part of the magnificent staircase

Fixtures, fitting and furnishings are of a quality and scale that would enhance any old style, luxury ‘grand hotel’ from history. It would be so easy to imagine Audrey Hepburn strolling down the magnificent, Swarovski crystal studded staircases that link the various levels of the stunning atrium. And it would not be overly fanciful to imagine the dapper little Hercule Poirot hunched delicately over an early morning espresso in Il Cappucino, the bar overlooking the lobby.

Of course, MSC is a very European product, and this is reflected in the scale, style and entertainment on the ship everywhere. But the real entertainment is actually the ship itself- from any angle, she is a true superstar.

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Il Transatlantico, the piano bar

Whether you’re enjoying piano music in a lounge themed after the classic Atlantic liners of the thirties, or partying in a sixteen story high glass disco that looks as if lifted intact from the Death Star, the whole vibe of the ship is very multi national. The currency on board is the euro; the ice cream truly, magnificent Italian, and impossible to resist.

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Lido deck on the Fantasia. The large complex to left and right centre is actually the ship’s disco

MSC Fantasia is as much multi generational as multi national. Large, extended families come on board and party until the small hours. On deck dancing and participation games are the norm. Some find it cheesy, but many more love it. And the participation was enthusiastic and, ultimately, contagious.

Food is geared across this base range of clientele, from English to Italian, to German and French. Mexican and oriental offerings proved a welcome surprise to even this crowd, but the room service menu- like continental breakfast- incurs a small service charge, just as in any European main land hotel.

Similarly, the extra tariff restaurants are priced per menu item, a la carte, rather than on the one blanket price so typical of other mainstream lines. Never for one moment can you forget the essential, pan European nature of the MSC product.

At times, the noise seems inescapable. It’s an exuberant, bubbling torrent of excitement, enjoyment and indulgence that can be just as marvellous as it can sometimes be maddening, depending upon your mood. And yet…..

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Med sunset from the MSC Fantasia

Sitting on the breeze kissed terrace of the Lido di Catalano at sunset. listening to a solitary, live sax player as the flaring red ball of the sun falls into what resembles a sea of blazing straw, you just know that there is absolutely nowhere else you would rather be right at that moment. My week aboard this extraordinary floating resort- where the indolence of the Riviera meets the elegance of the Ritz- was full of just such stunning little vignettes.

The soul and spirit of la dolce vita is very much alive and well. It’s all at sea.

CUBA CRUISING IN CONTEXT

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Cuba cruises are on the horizon for more players than ever from 2017

Without doubt, one of the defining memories of Barack Obama’s second term as US President will be the sudden, long overdue rapprochement with Castro’s Cuba. All of a sudden, more than five decades of mutual fear, suspicion and name calling seem to have collapsed as completely as the Berlin Wall of old.

Now the cruise lines are looking to get back into Cuba, and how. And, with relations between the two countries warming almost daily, it is only a matter of time before Cuba becomes as subsumed by contemporary cruise culture as every other island in the Caribbean. My advice? Get out there now.

As things stand, these are your current cruising options if you are a European citizen, intent on seeing Cuba.

MSC Cruises will operate the 60,000 ton MSC Opera on year round Cuba cruises, centered on Havana, for the 2017 season. Each voyage features at least a two night stay in the Cuban capital.

Come the winter, sister ship MSC Armonia will also offer a similar season of seven night cruises, again centered on Havana, before the ship returns to Europe in the spring.

Both of these ships offer a large number of balcony cabins, great entertainment, as well as multiple dining venues. But if they seem a little big, other options are available.

For the last several seasons, Celestyal Cruises have operated a winter programme aboard the intimate, 24,000 ton Celestyal Cristal. Originally sailing under charter to a Canadian outfit called Cuba Cruises, Celestyal saw massive potential in being the sole operator.

Thus, they bought out the Cuba Cruises stake, and continue to use Celestyal Cristal on the seven night runs. Again centered on Havana, the size of the ship allows the company to offer the most destination intensive programme of all Cuba bound ships.

While relatively intimate, a recent refurbishment updated the Celestyal Cristal with refreshed public rooms, and a number of additional balcony cabins. And, as of next year, the ship will be sailing Cuba itineraries year round, instead of returning to Europe each spring.

Carnival has also introduced fortnightly sailings on it’s new Fathom offshoot. Making a week long circuit of Cuba from Miami, the 4o,000 ton ship offers what is claimed to be a truly immersive local experience. Passengers can opt to learn how to make cocktails at bars ashore, or engage with local artists, musicians and families, in an environment intended to benefit both the passengers and the local community. It will be interesting to see just how this new genre of ‘eco-cruising’ ultimately plays out.

Perhaps most evocative of all, Star Clippers will offer a series of sailings between Havana and Cienfuegos over winter 2016-17 on the 3,000 ton, four masted Star Flyer. Carrying just 170 passengers, this awesome seagoing cathedral offers a series of seven, ten and eleven night sailings that-like many of the other cruises listed here- also call in at Grand Cayman. And, while the idea of a Cuba cruise is exotic enough in it’s own right, the lure of seeing this sultry island under full sail is something else again.

EMPRESS OF THE SEAS
The Empress of the Seas

What else might be coming? I would put money on it being only a matter of months before Royal Caribbean enters the ring. The line has just resumed sailings with the 42,000 ton Empress of the Seas from Miami, after that ship had spent the previous eight seasons in Europe sailing for the Spanish operator, Pullmantur.

Currently, the ship is slated to sail three, four and five day sailings to the Bahamas and Caribbean from Miami, but she is also the perfect size for a resumption of Cuba cruising. All of the ‘big’ companies in the cruise industry- notably Carnival, Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean- are currently hampered in the Cuban market by the sheer size of most of their vessels. The long neglected infrastructure of Cuba is simply incapable of handling such giant ships.

Hence the sudden return of Empress of the Seas, a ship that operated successfully for many years on the New York to Bermuda run, where similar size limitations then applied. I would not be at all surprised to see this spiky little ship placed on a round trip, weekly service from Miami, with up to three full nights’ docked in Havana itself. If this does indeed materialise, I would expect it to be a year round service as well.

Invariably, Cuba will adept to accommodate the latest and largest of the all singing, all dancing, Vegas-at-Sea style resort ships. When that eventually happens, it is highly likely that Cuba will become as much a Caribbean staple circuit as Cozumel, Saint Thomas and Antigua.

Interesting times, for sure, Al always, stay tuned.