MSC Meraviglia is by far the biggest ship the line has launched -- and the fourth biggest in the world. The 171,598-ton, 4,475-passenger ship marks the start of a massive (nine billion euros) ship-building program that will see a megaship launched each year until 2022 (in fact, there are two alone in 2017 -- MSC Seaside, a new class of ship, launches in December 2017).
Long dominant in Europe, South Africa and South America, MSC Cruises is consciously -- and cleverly -- positioning itself to try to gain a greater slice of the North American market. After two seasons in Europe, this ship will head to Miami, where it will homeport in 2019.
MSC has always emphasized the "Mediterranean way of life" tag for its ships, but Meraviglia marks a move away from strictly that with some international (North American) concessions. Everything is in English (signage, first language, announcements); there are two new restaurants -- a teppanyaki and an American steakhouse -- and a Cirque du Soleil at sea.
So the big question is: Does it work?
The answer is a resounding yes. Meraviglia boasts concepts similar to those made popular by other lines -- the aforementioned teppanyaki restaurant (Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal's Oasis-class ships); a central promenade that is almost a carbon copy of Royal Caribbean's Quantum-class ships; a high-tech theater that looks like Royal's Quantum-class Two-70; duplex suites (Royal) and so on. Then it sprinkles its own touches -- the extraordinary Yacht Club, possibly the finest key-card-access suite enclave at sea; a chocolate shop and cafe; a link up with LEGO and Eataly and that MSC signature -- genuine Swarovski crystal studded stairs, which form the centerpiece of the main atrium.
But none of it jars. And it so easily could. Despite the sheer number of passengers, we never witnessed pinch points onboard; there is always a venue or a spot you can go to get away from the craziness. And if there is one criticism, it's just that: Everything is kept at fever pitch, from the pool parties all day and most nights, the clubs, the parades and the shows -- it's nonstop. But hey, if you like that, then this is the ship for you.
The line has also improved significantly in two areas in which it often came in for criticism: food and service. It's linked up with a couple of name chefs (Carlo Cracco and the chocolatier Jean-Philippe Maury); and has clearly been working hard on training. We found service universally of a high standard.
The ship is also the most technologically advanced in the fleet and sees the debut of MSC for Me, an app that will store all your details and preferences and allow you to make reservations in restaurants and shore excursions. The ship also has RFID wristbands, which will eventually replace cruise cards and allow you to get into your cabin and make onboard purchases.
All in all, MSC Meraviglia is a really well thought out and considered design, which takes the best of the brand and adds an international edge, with great success.
The ship will be Mediterranean-based until 2019, and the make up reflects that. It also (unlike many lines) embarks and debarks in most ports, so expect Italians, Spanish, French, Portuguese, German, Austrian, Dutch, Irish, a few Brits and then some unexpected nationalities, such as Japanese and South Africans. There are very few North Americans. The average age is around the early 40s for adults, though with the strong emphasis on family expect literally hundreds of kids during school vacations, all of which are extremely well catered for. The only thing that an American or Canadian (or indeed a Brit) might find jarring is the fact that there are no bedtimes for kids, nor adult-only areas: Children are up until all hours, roam the ship unchecked and will be in the disco until closing time, which can seem odd.
All announcements are in five languages: English first, then Italian, Spanish, French and German.