The MSC Divina is a brassy, voluptuous ship — thousands of Swarovski crystals embedded in glass stairways, crystal chandeliers, an infinity pool, Italian-style fountains and sculptures, tiny jewel-like lights in the ceilings, lots of curves where other ships have straight lines — even a sexy red suite designed by Sophia Loren, godmother of the MSC fleet.
Divina’s heritage is mixed, but the effect is all Italian. And who doesn’t love Italy?
MSC Cruises, which has been running seasonal Caribbean cruises out of South Florida for a decade, last month moved the MSC Divina to PortMiami, where it will do Caribbean cruises year-round. It’s the first time MSC Cruises has stationed a ship permanently in North America.
Launched in Europe in spring 2012, the MSC Divina is 1,094 feet long with 139,400 gross tonnage and has 1,751 staterooms that hold 3,502 guests at double occupancy. It’s very close in size to the Royal Princess, slightly larger than the Carnival Breeze.
The MSC Divina arrived in Miami Nov. 19 and is now sailing weeklong cruises from PortMiami. Its owners are hoping they found the right balance of Mediterranean ambiance and North American taste to distinguish the ship from its better-known — and especially at this time of year, numerous — competitors.
Strictly speaking, MSC Cruises and the MSC Divina are not Italian. Company founder Gianluigi Aponte is Italian, but the Mediterranean Shipping Co. is headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland. The MSC Divina was built in Saint-Nazaire, France.
But the company calls itself an Italian cruise line, and a cruise on the MSC Divina has an unmistakably Italian feel.
Some of the ship’s features and services have been modified to appeal to American tastes, said Richard E. Sasso, president and CEO of MSC Cruises USA. “But we will never change the heritage, that slow Mediterranean way of living,” he added.
In the 10 years that MSC Cruises has been sending ships to Miami for the Caribbean season, the line has had to compete with vessels bristling with new architectural features, especially recreational elements such as rock-climbing walls and surf pools, but also more restaurants. “Every year we were trying to catch up,” Sasso said.
So when MSC decided the market was ripe to base a ship here year-round, it chose the MSC Divina, one of the newest vessels in its 12-ship fleet, because it has the “hardware” that American passengers have come to expect, he said — lots of balcony staterooms, a big water slide, more alternative restaurants.
During that decade of part-time residency, MSC executives also noticed a few things that Americans don’t like and toned down some of the ship’s overtly European characteristics
Smoking is allowed in fewer places. More brands of beer and soda are available. Most announcements are made only in English rather than in Italian, French, German and Portuguese, too. American favorites were added to menus, and in some musical productions, songs familiar to the U.S. market were substituted for less well-known ones. A large movie screen was added on the pool deck.
“We need to make sure we communicate in an American way. ... You can never afford to have someone misinterpreted,” Sasso said.
Katie Speer, a travel agent in the Tampa Bay area, said the ship’s Italian character will appeal to “a client that has maybe traveled and knows that the world isn’t Americanized everywhere, who wants something a little different, who is more worldly.”
In putting together a 1,400-member crew, priority was given to staff who spoke English or had already worked in the North American market. Staff got intense training in American culture, said Ken Muskat, senior vice president of sales and marketing. For example, he said, Americans sunning themselves on the pool deck like to have drinks brought to them, while Europeans don’t like the intrusion and are more likely to get a drink themselves. The wait staff was instructed to circulate among sunbathers and offer drinks.
How will the MSC Divina compete with the large Caribbean fleet and better-known brands? Price, Sasso said. “Because we are not known, our prices are also under what it’s worth. … When you’re the new kid on the block, you keep the prices a little lower. It’s a best-value proposition.”
A check of prices at cruise.com found seven-night cruises on MSC Divina in March in an inside cabin starting at $649 per person double occupancy, while balcony cabins start at $849 per person. By comparison, similar cruises from Miami or Fort Lauderdale in March on Carnival and Norwegian ships (except the new Norwegian Getaway) are cheaper, while cruises on Celebrity, Royal Caribbean, Holland America and Princess are more expensive.
On its first cruise out of Miami, the MSC Divina carried mostly travel writers and travel agents for a three-night introduction to the ship. A preview cruise may not be representative of the usual cruise experience, but here are some first impressions.
The MSC Divina has a classy ambience, especially if you start at the center, a piazza with a double Swarovski staircase, a golden glow, perhaps a piano player or a classical quartet, and several elegant lounges (my favorites: the Black & White Lounge and Caffè Italia).
In some ways, it is an old-fashioned ship, with elements of classic decor, an emphasis on traditional assigned-seating dinner, fewer gee-whiz features than most of its competitors and old-school entertainment. It has a dress code — no jeans, shorts, T-shirts or bare feet permitted in public spaces after 6 p.m. With dark wood, a few fountains and statuary, and no belly-flop contests, the pool deck is celebratory but avoids the PAR-TAY! atmosphere found on some ships.
As on so many cruise ships, it takes a few days to get oriented to the Divina, which needs better signage. It’s often difficult to get from one end to the other without running into a dead end or going up or down a floor or two. Around the ship are sculptures, attractive lighting, stained glass and mirrors — so many mirrors that passengers were recounting stories of which ones they had collided with. But they loved the Swarovski staircases; at all hours, it seemed, someone was getting their photo taken on the stairs.
With many new crew members, service isn’t going to be perfect, but I encountered some bad stumbles. A dealer running an exotic variation of blackjack didn’t understand the rules and made the wrong payouts. One of the Eataly restaurants accepted a dinner reservation for three, then called back hours later to say it didn’t have a table for us. And in the MSC Yacht Club, which brags about its “personal butler” service, I didn’t meet my room steward until the third day, and then accidentally; usually a room steward makes an effort to meet his guests within 24 hours.
While many lines are moving away from the emphasis on a main dining room, the MSC Divina has kept its traditional dinner service — two seatings with assigned tables for the duration of the cruise — and offers just a few alternatives: Eataly Steakhouse, Eataly’s tiny (30-seat) Ristorante Italia, Galaxy nightclub and restaurant with fusion cuisine (all for an extra fee), plus Le Muse restaurant for Yacht Club guests, a pizzeria and the buffet.
“There are a lot of people who want ... the traditional seatings,” Sasso said. “Our alternatives allow that to be viable. If you don’t want it, you go to the buffet or Eataly or Galaxy.”
Food got much of the attention as the MSC cruise experience was modified for the American market. Shrimp cocktails were added in the main dining room, chicken wings in the sports bar, frappucino was added to the coffee menu. Overall, however, the theme remains Italian, with a pasta and risotto course in addition to a meat course at dinner. Breads and pastas are made daily on the ship. Pizza is served at two locales, and there’s a gelato bar.
Our cruise had some uneven results, but they may have been growing pains that have been worked out by now. Most of our dishes for our group of four in Le Muse, the Yacht Club restaurant, were very good, but I had a tough steak. Food in Eataly Steakhouse was a big hit — well chosen recipes, well-cooked food. In the Black Crab, one of the main dining rooms, all three people at my table who ordered the fettucine Alfredo set it aside after a few bites, saying it wasn’t good. I heard a number of complaints that food in the buffet and main dining room was bland (although Muskat said some of the most positive comments he’s heard have been about the quality of food in the main dining room).
Some of the ship’s most distinctive features:
• The MSC Yacht Club, with 69 suites, an exclusive area of the ship with larger staterooms, concierge service, and a pool, lounge and restaurant open only to Yacht Club guests.
• Visible places for Italian brands including two restaurants by the Turin-based Eataly chain; the Caffè Italia coffee and chocolate bar by Segafredo Zanetti; Nutella Corner serving crepes filled with the hazelnut spread; and the Disaronno Contemporary Terrace, with a cocktail menu based on the amaretto liqueur.
• An infinity pool that looks like a swimmer could float off the rear of the ship; the pool is also the site of the first Aqua Cycling classes at sea. The ship has four other pools, 12 whirlpools, a water slide, and the adults-only Solarium on the top deck.
• Two simulators — a roller-coaster and a Formula One race car.
• Eighteen bars and lounges including a sports bar with a two-lane bowling alley, the Cigar Lounge, the Jazz Bar with dueling pianos and a wine bar.
• Aurea Spa with a beauty salon, fitness center, barber shop and medical treatments, as well as massages and other pamperings.
• A “sports arena” for tennis and basketball and scaled-down stadium seating. Miniature golf, shuffleboard and jogging track.
• Several areas for kids, including a small water park, Blue-Smurf-themed treehouse for the young ones and video arcade and clubhouse for teens.
• The Pantheon Theater, which offers a different show every night of a seven-night cruise (including a pirate show, acrobatics/circus show, and a Michael Jackson tribute), a daytime show for kids, and coming in January, an afternoon opera.
• The Divina has 1,751 staterooms, 70 percent of them with balconies. Square footage within each category varies, but typical sizes are 172 square feet for an interior cabin, 185 for oceanview, 194 for balcony, 292 for a balcony suite and 316 for Yacht Club Suite. Except for the top-end staterooms, décor and amenities are standard-issue.