Well, as date nights go, that one was pretty extraordinary.
I can’t take credit. It all has to go to MSC Cruises and the incredible MSC Orchestra, newly arriving in Durban Harbour and ready to begin her inaugural South African Season. We have the privilege of her presence in our waters, up and down the Portuguese Coast and surrounds, until April next year.
Full Disclaimer: I’ve never fancied cruising. I’ve always questioned why so many of my clients would willingly embark on one – willingly board a floating hotel-and-shopping mall with 3000+ strangers and no way of escaping for an extended period of time. That was my entire impression of a cruise (without ever having gone on one), and it has always been at the bottom of my travel plan list.
I’m very happy and willing to conceded that I was completely wrong. I could definitely enjoy a cruise! Especially one aboard this ship – she really is beautiful. MSC seem to have tried to cater to everyone and, by and large, they’ve managed it. Thus families with children of all ages, families with no children, couples, singles, party animals, just-chillers, pensioners, gamblers, shopaholics, avid sports enthusiasts, avid cocktail enthusiasts, music-and-theatre lovers and yes, even reluctant travel-trade cynics like me, can find a comfy niche for themselves aboard her 16-floor, 3200 berth buxomness.
Mine would be the library. Did I mention they have a library? They have a library.
They have a library, a card room, a photo gallery, an art gallery, a casino, a massive theatre, a disco, a little-kids area, a junior teen club, a senior teen club, a video games room and an adults-only deck. They have 3 pools, 8 jacuzzis, a tennis court, a fitness centre, a sauna, a steamroom and a Spa. They have 6 restaurants, a cigar bar, a wine bar, gelato bars, pizza bars and cafes scattered throughout the ship.
Oh, and the food. THE FOOD! On my first trip to the buffet, I got stuck at the salad bar. They had artichokes and I have an artichoke problem. The problem is that I cannot afford to eat marinated artichokes at every meal, so I made up for it by eating all of MSC’s. I’m not even sorry. Hubby fell upon the fresh fruit selection with equal enthusiasm and we munched happily through our first course before heading back to explore a little more. There was plenty on hand for every palate. Pizzas, pastas, tagines, curries, hamburgers, hotdogs, carvery, seafood, veggies of all descriptions and Mediterranean cold cuts, olives and cheese proudly promoting the best of Italian cuisine. There’s an old joke in cruising circles about taking people on as passengers and offloading them as cargo. I get it now.
Our stateroom was an Oceanview cabin, meaning that it has a porthole. It was spacious and comfortable – certainly no less spacious than the average Holiday Inn room and a bit bigger than a few other brands I could name. We were given (and took) the opportunity to view a variety of staterooms to compare. The 4-berth inside and oceanview staterooms contain a large Kingsized bed with two pullman beds above them – perfectly adequate for a family of four, especially if you’re just sleeping there. I liked the Balcony Suite, as the idea of having a little space to sit and watch the world go by appeals to me. The Suites contain a king-sized bed, a double sleeper couch and a balcony – plenty of space for even the most claustrophobic cruiser. I was particularly impressed by the handicapped room, which is huge with two single beds (or a king-sized double) and fully accessible roll-in shower.
After our self-guided cabin tour, we went on to explore the rest of the ship. I was pretty impressed by how well she absorbed over 2000 people. I honestly expected every deck and every facility to be crowded, but they weren’t. The pools and bars were the busiest places on the ship, but not so as to be unpleasant. There’s so much floor space that I can well imagine how 3200 people manage to enjoy themselves without constantly bumping elbows. Another cruise-myth of mine, busted!
Before the gala dinner, we were treated to a Trade introduction to the ship and MSC’s future plans (New Cruise Terminal – so exciting!), and then a cocktail reception and theatre show. World-class entertainment by some very, very talented performers. The acrobats had my heart in my throat – a stunningly athletic and stunningly beautiful display of grace and agility at a mind-numbing height. The salsa dancers sparked (as any good Latin dancer can) a genuine belief in me that I could probably salsa, if I tried. Until they started throwing each other into the air, that is. Some people sang, the rest danced and I counted 8 costume changes before I lost track – all in all a very diverting show. Crucially, it wasn’t over-long either. Just on an hour, and then it was time to eat again. Perfect.
After dinner (which took a tad too long, but they we’re serving over 2000 demanding travel and media folk, so we’ll forgive them), there was a full night of entertainment planned for the multitude of lucky guests MSC graciously invited to attend the launch. As grateful as I was for the opportunity (and the fact that, unlike many of these events, I could take hubby with me), it was time to call it a night. So, I can’t report on Mi Casa’s set, or on Pascal and Pearce. I know that the ship rocked out all night long and, going by the raucous laughter heard dimly through cabin walls much, much later, great fun was had by all who attended. I saw a fair few sore heads disembarking the next morning – always a sign of a thoroughly-successful Saturday night. We skipped breakfast too (literally couldn’t eat anything else after the indulgences of the day before), but I was assured that MSC put on a very decent spread.
As I write this, she’s sailing up the coast on her first official outing as South Africa’s only cruise option. I’m a little envious of those on board, and I now understand why my cruise clients are so quick to book their second cruise right after returning from their first. As a holiday option, it’s affordable, comfortable and accessible. All the big boxes (food, entertainment, comfy bed) are checked, and there’s enough to do aboard to give everyone the chance to have the kind of holiday they fancy. That’s pretty impressive for a floating hotel you can’t escape!
Given the chance (and I plan to ensure it), I wouldn’t want to.