My wife and I decided to do our first ever cruise as we were celebrating a special birthday. We got a great deal through a tour operator for this seven night MSC cruise from Miami to Costa Maya, Grand Cayman, Ocho Rios and Ocean Cay following a four night stay in Las Vegas. Because we booked the Fantastica Balcony package we were given the Premium Drinks package with it. Considering the prohibitive cost of buying this package, getting it as part of the deal was a great bonus for us - well done TourAmerica.ie!!!
Because this was our first cruise and my obsession with planning we did a lot of research in the 11 months between booking and embarking. MSC seems to get a mixed response from reviewers but I found this was the case with every major cruise line so don't let that put you off. There are some great cruisers on these boards and on the TripAdvisor forums who were very helpful and generous with information for us.
Stating with the ship layout and look - it is very impressive. The central atrium with it's bar and sparkly steps is a fine centrepiece. Plenty of guests had their photos taken on those steps (especially on the formal and dress up nights). There is a lot of the ship and so worth an exploratory walk or two on the first day to get your bearings. Theatre is an impressive size, casino is a decent size for a ship and there are dozens of bars and lounges. Decks 5-8 and 16-19 are where you will spend most of your no-cabin time as this is where the buffets, restaurants, bars, reception, theatre, shops etc. are. In between are the cabin decks. There are plenty of pools, and loungers, outside chairs for those who like to swim/sunbathe. This sin't for me but my wife wanted a morning in the sun and we didn't take long to find a free lounger for her (and this was on a sea day so everyone was on board). If you are bringing kids (and I think you are crazy to do so) there is plenty for them to do.
Embarkation: Our biggest issue. We were not waiting for too long after the burly Miami porter who took our cases straight from our Uber and advised us to tip him. When we got to check we had an issue. The guy seemed annoyed we had not filled in the 'have you visited China' form properly and then forgot to actually take it. He also informed us we had a different cabin - this was after we had been sent our bag tags and attached them to our cases which were already gone. He seemed incredulous that we would even question this - i was concerned that the cases would go to the wrong room but he didn't seem bothered and told us to advise guest services when we boarded. We queued with the others are reception (very busy for the first two days - try and leave it longer before you visit if you can) and were told by the guest services woman that of course our bags would get to the right room - to be fair she was lovely and also sorted out our credit card for us at the same time so we didn't have to later use one of the machines to do so. However she was very wrong about the bags. Everyone was told bags should be at your cabin around 2pm - no sign of ours. We went and got something to eat and a drink and had an explore - still no bags. I rang down to reception - eventually got an answer and was told there were delays and we would get them soon. Still no bags. As we knew our previous cabin number we decided to go and see for ourselves if they were delivered to the wrong cabin - one case was outside this room so I spoke to a nearby worker and he told me the other one was probably sent back to reception as the guests in that cabin said it wasn't theirs. While we wondered why they didn't say that about both of our cases, we at least had one and took it down two decks to our own room. This journey was made more difficult by the fact that our lovely and expensive American Tourister hard shell case had obviously been dropped from a big height because we had an open crack in one side of it damaging the wheel and a large dent in the other. I rang reception again now informing them that we found one bag and did they have the other - also told them about the damage. U was told to come down to reception to see if they had the bag or else it would be delivered to the room. I headed down the 8 decks to reception -the queue had about 50 people so I went back up hoping it would be delivered after all .No sign of it by 730pm so rang again - this time (and for the first time) I was informed there is another place on deck 5 where lost and confiscated luggage is kept so i headed down again and lo and behold here was our other case - this one wasn't damaged but the tags were gone so it had ended up down here. I am guessing the tags went in the same way our other case was damaged through absolute carelessness either thanks to our burly Miami porter or when loading on to the ship (glad I gave that tip now). Eventually got to make our complaint about the damaged case on the third day when reception had died down a bit - the woman who dealt with us was lovely and advised it is quite common. They offered us
€100 ship credit in compensation which I thought was great (less than the cost of the case but I had only expected some sort of form we would have to give to our insurance to claim back later. She also advised to check out cases on our stops as we may get a cheap one to tide us over. We found some but were not happy with the quality so struggled home with our broken one.
The Cabin. We had a 'Fantastica' balcony room. I was impressed by the size judging by the reviews I read complaining about the size. I found the shower fine (many complain about the size but I am over 6 ft and not skinny and did not have an issue). Bed is really comfy and very large and you have a sofa too. We stored one case under the bed and another between sofa and wardrobe so they were no in the day. We brought far too many clothes but still managed to find hangers and drawer space for all of them. TV should not be required much but you have some news channels, food network, ESPN Caribbean and TCM (I find it nice to fall asleep watching a classic movie after a busy day). one excellent part of the cruise was our cabin steward (not sure if that is the correct term), Rose. She was really friendly, introduced herself on the first night and was exceptionally good at her job. She even left a lovely little towel elephant on or bed on my wife's birthday.
While discussing the staff, I have seen a lot of reviews saying the staff are aloof and unfriendly - certainly NOT the case. For the most part (very few exceptions), the staff were extremely warm and friendly.
Another common complaint from the reviews is that bar service can be slow. Sometimes this can be the case when it is busy - they are not great at knowing who should be served next (I made the mistake on my first day of advising them the English bloke beside me was ahead of me and did not even get a thanks or a look from him (so every man for himself after that). The drinks available on the premium package are excellent and although there was a mixed skill level when it came to making the cocktails, it was generally high quality and very friendly. They also have table service in a lot of the bars so this can help avoid the wait. Anyway you have a lot of bars to choose from so if one is busy (or has a really loud, drunk and obnoxious American woman holding court) you can always move to another one close by.
If we did not have the Premium Drinks package I may not have enjoyed it as much - we both like a drink and as mentioned before I think buying this package is very expensive and the package below is very restrictive. Favourite bars were the piano bar (nice bit of music every evening/night) and the Sports Bar (nice booths for watching sport - unfortunately it only ever seemed to be basketball or golf that was on). Best service was in the casino bar - we got to know one of the girls there and she was great - knew our number so we didn't even need our card when she was on. The main atrium bar has music every night and sometimes a high cheese factor and also the Haven bar seems to be very interactive with a lot of dancing, gameshows and karaoke. If you don't like all of this the Sports Bar, Piano bar are the bars for you and the otehr music does not overlap. The smokers have their own bar outside if that is your thing.
I mentioned the high cheese entertainment - some of it was quite bizarre. One night they had various characters in movie get up dancing and singing and mingling with the crowd. This is fine if you like that type of thing but one of them was done up as Hannibal Lechter strapped to a gurney (not really sure what was going on with that or how he was supposed to dance - we did not hang around to find out. We attended two shows in the theatre - the adult improv (decent enough) and what was called 'The Dream' which was billed as songs from musicals but was more like a song and dance pop cheesefest. The acrobats and dances were excellent but it is not my thing.They have plenty of shows and plenty of room - they also have bingo every day (you pay for), quizzes and shop sales.
Plenty of reviewers (especially Americans) seem to have had nightmares with the buffets (there are two on the seaside - we mostly used the larger one on Deck 8). To be fair if you are expecting orderly queues and politeness you are better off out of there - it can be quite a cattle market. My best advice - our American friends need to be a little less polite and our continental European friends need to respect other people's space a bit more. The food I thought was OK - the everyday stuff was as bland as you would expect - burgers hot dogs etc. but I did think the changing ethnic menu was really good. Had a really nice Thai Green Curry one night, Indian butter chicken another and a lovely Jamaican stew on another - these were easily the best parts of the buffet. I read a lot of people saying the food didn't change - well it did every evening. The breakfast was hit and miss but fine. There are plenty of healthy options for breakfast and dinner. Had the pizza on the first day expecting an Italian company to have lovely Italian style pizza but it was awful - had the taste and texture of a frozen pizza so stayed away from it until our last night when i said I would try it again and this time it was as expected - delicious thin crust pizza.
If you don't like the buffet you have the complimentary restaurants for breakfast and dinner or the specialty restaurants (pay extra). We tried the complementary restaurant for dinner once (our sitting was 930 and we had generally already eaten by then). It was fine. Good quick service, three courses were good - New York strip was good but not great. I would not put it way ahead of the buffet to be honest but if you hate the buffet it is fine. Fr breakfast, it was very similar fare to what was available in the buffet.
We used the specialty restaurant 'the Butcher's Cut' one night - this was a steakhouse and was I think $47 per person for three courses. This really was worth the money - the steak i had here was way above the quality in the free restaurant and because the room is smaller and less busy it is just a nicer place to eat.
Excursions and off-ship. Costa Maya in mexico was first stop. We had an external excursion planned with Tucan tours. Because it was external you had to walk quite a bit to find it but the tour itself (to the Mayan ruins at Chaccoben) was very good and worth the money. They take you back to the port and then on to beach for an hour if you wish. We did go down to the beach and had a couple of beers but you get hassled relentlessly by people trying to part you with your money all along the little strip at the beach.
Second stop was Georgetown in the Cayman Islands - for this day we chose an MSC excursion as you have to get a boat to the Caymans rather than just walking off the ship as at other ports and I had read if you have an MSC excursion it is less hassle (this seemed true). The excursion itself (georgetown and the whitehouse) was a big waste of money. Driver was good but the trip itself is a trip to what is basically a resort type shopping area with a trip up to the highest point on the island - basically a few flights of stairs up to a viewing area where you get a view of rooftops .Then you are taken to the Tortuga rum factory - this is a total toursit trap but the rum cake and different rums are lovely and well worth picking up. You are then taken to the White House resort - an exclusive type resort on the beach where you have a couple of hours and a lounger on the beach. You do not even get a drink or a snack here - you have to pay (and it is far from cheap for a pretty rubbish cocktail). It is a lovely and very small private beach but for $80 plus per person i would expect a lot more from an excursion.
Third stop was Ocho Rios in Jamaica - we did not do an excursion here, but instead took a stroll around the town. Again you are constantly hassled by people trying to sell you things, begging or offering taxis but it is still worth going to the town. Found a nice place to eat and a good bar.
Fourth stop was Ocean Cay - the MSC private island in the Bahamas. Unfortunately because the weather was going to be bad the day was cut short from on board at 1125pm to on board at 230pm but it is a lovely spot and you can use your card for drinks and food here. Beaches and sea are lovely and plenty of loungers etc. We did not do any of the paid activities but had a few drinks at the Hemingway bar over at the fake ligthouse which is a really nice spot for a drink or two.
Having already been in Vegas it is probably no surprise we spent a fair bit of time in the casino. It may be a surprise that we won and actually won well - I cam back from this 2 week holiday with more cash than I left with thanks to a couple of nice wins.
Disembarkation - we chose to take our own cases so we could leave early and not be waiting around for them to lose or damage our reaming good case. This was a fairly painless procedure.
All in all a really good time was had. Great ship, great staff, good food but the MSC excursion and the bag issue were the only downers. Would definitely go again.
Really good size with comfortable bed. Balcony nice to sit out on and watch the sea. Bathroom small (obviously) but I didn't have an issue with the shower size and I am not small.