"This experience onboard," my husband Teijo says several days after we embarked on Fantasia, "is better than on Silversea."
It's not often -- or perhaps ever -- that MSC Cruises, the big-ship, value-for-money cruise line, is positively compared with the likes of Silversea Cruises, Seabourn, Regent Seven Seas Cruises or Oceania Cruises -- all among the trendiest of luxury lines. But, on this cruise, we've been "members" of MSC Fantasia's Yacht Club, the line's interpretation of a ship-within-a-ship concept, and the experience has been five-star-worthy, all the way.
The idea of cruise ship "boutiquing" is just starting to catch on. It was pioneered in the contemporary arena by Cunard's Grill-Class in an effort to appeal to luxury-minded travelers who want all the amenities and options of a big ship without the resulting mass-market hassles. NCL launched the Courtyard Villa concept, its own version, a few years ago.
The offerings by Cunard -- and now MSC (on Fantasia only; sister ship Splendida will have the Yacht Club when it debuts this summer) -- are different from the extras, like butler service and a concierge lounge, bundled into higher-priced cabins on lines like Celebrity Cruises, Holland America and Royal Caribbean. This experience is genuinely like being on a small luxury vessel. There are a lot of perks and extras, from private bars and dining to priority embarkation and concierge services. In many cases, these passengers even have their own pool areas -- so there's no need, even on sunny sea days, to fight for a lounge chair or wait in line for a hot dog.
And yet, at the same time, you have access to all the best big-ship stuff, such as kids' programs and a variety of entertainment and dining venues. It works beautifully onboard. But the Yacht Club is not without its controversies. We have heard complaints from Yacht Club passengers about the cabins. While the range includes everything from standard verandah staterooms to the spacious royal suites, a significant number do not actually have balconies (picture windows predominate) because they face directly forward. It seems odd that, on a ship with one of the industry's highest ratios of accommodations with private balconies, passengers booked in some of the more expensive cabins actually go without.
Interestingly, Queen Mary 2's Queens Grill, its top category, has a similar issue; some of its nicest suites face forward, into the teeth of the wind.
Another point of contention on Fantasia -- for those passengers not cruising in Yacht Club staterooms -- is that the exclusive areas, such as the sprawling Top Sail lounge and eatery (located on many ships where an observation lounge would be) and the private pool/whirlpool area on Deck 18, occupy prime, front-of-the-ship real estate. As a result, there are no public spaces open on the bow. There's a bit of grumbling about that, and it's understandable.
Beyond these flaws, Yacht Club is an exceptional concept on this ship. Yes, passengers staying here pay three, four and five times the going rate, but the extras and perks -- that go beyond even those offered by Cunard in its top categories -- make it a splurge with value.
Would you pay a premium to cruise in "yacht club"-style ambience? Tell us here.
If your kids are coming onboard Fantasia and expecting a Royal Caribbean-style experience -- surf park, ice skating rink, sprawling facilities, fast food eateries and sea days that are chock-full of activities -- this may not be the ship for your family. The program, divided into four categories (under 3, 3 to 6, 6 to 12 and 13 to 18), is more limited. There are some kid-friendly features, like a sports court and a small, corkscrew water slide, but there's nothing elaborate.
And yet, here's what's impressive: Wandering around the pool deck on a sea day on Fantasia, I don't see any kids. There is no one causing the kind of havoc I've experienced on other cruise lines. They're clearly engaged; Davio, a passenger who hails from Sarajevo and whose teen daughter is in the program, told us she was having a ball. One major appeal, especially for teens, is the chance to meet others from different countries. Another difference I've noticed here -- and it's important to remember that we are cruising in what would be considered "off season" (rather than during school holidays) -- is that, aside from the older teens, you see a lot of families doing things together, whether it's playing board games in the sports bar, swimming or dining...
...or, as we experienced this morning, taking in a movie. But this isn't just any kind of flick. Fantasia's 4D XD Theater offers a "motion ride experience." It costs 6 euros for about a five-minute showing, and the "ride" varies, from "Haunted Mine" to "Cosmic Coaster." It's more like a ride in an amusement park than a film; indeed, you're advised to strap yourself into the space capsule-like seat and to hold on to the handles. It's good advice.
During Cosmic Coaster, a cross between a scene from "Star Wars" and some kind of "Jetsons" car rally, the seat moves, shakes and jolts you; a fan blows wind in your face; and the sound level is deafening.
The kids loved it, though I'd suggest you try not to visit the 4D theater immediately after a large meal.
Speaking of kids, for the child in all men, the other major attraction in the Virtual World center on the ship is the Formula One racecar simulator. You climb into a real (though modified, naturally) Formula One-style car and choose from a variety of race courses, from Monza and Monte Carlo to Montreal. The car shakes and jolts obligingly, as drivers maneuver the steering wheel, which is connected to a computer program that displays progress on a big, color screen.
--Photo of 4D cinema is courtesy of Heinbloed.