"And now for something completely different..."
The lead-in from the old "Monty Python's Flying Circus" television show kept repeating itself in my head as the shuttle made its way from the airport to Port Everglades and Opera, a new ship from MSC, the Italian company just breaking into the North American market. I knew that there would be differences from the usual cruise experience, but I didn't know exactly what they were -- or how they would affect my week onboard.
Certainly, the walk from the gangway to my cabin produced no surprises; the mid-sized ship, which holds 1,750 passengers, was obviously new, with an Italian-moderne-meets-Art-Deco styling that is both elegant and appealing. And my cabin, while small, was efficient and cheerfully decorated, with all of the accoutrements one expects in a modern ship's stateroom.
No, the differences were not in the physical aspects of the ship at all but they became apparent to me as the week progressed.
The major difference? There is a spirit that pervades Opera, an unmistakable Italian bonhomie that is fostered at every turn by its officers, crew and incredible Animation Team -- the equivalent of a cruise director's staff. Good cheer, good food and good company are the order of the day. Entertainment starts in the morning and lasts through the night. Mealtimes are festivals of hearty food and, while a few concessions have been made for the North American palate and dining styles, reflect the Italian kitchen as well as its culture.
The ship, the second of the fleet to venture into Caribbean waters (MSC Lirica debuted in 2003), sails alternating Eastern and Western Caribbean itineraries in the winter months and the Mediterranean in the summer. For the most part, North Americans choosing a European itinerary on MSC Opera will be able to experience Italian-style cruising at its purest.
Ultimately, the multiple languages spoken (and the announcements, blessedly rare, are offered in five of them) make this a genuinely multinational experience. In the Mediterranean, of course, the ship reverts back to its Italian roots and North American guests have to adapt to the ship's style rather than the other way around.
Opera's La Carvela and L'Aprodo are its two main dining rooms, featuring traditional seating (set time, set tablemates) at dinner. After some initial burps and hiccups in the restaurants, the servers seem to have settled into a consistent routine, with very little waiting time, attentive service and an appreciation for the way North Americans dine. The menus definitely have an Italian flair and what's ironic is that the only menu items not particularly appealing were geared specifically to North American tastes (better to stick with the Italian specialties, even if they are not what you have come to expect from your local pizzeria or trattoria, such as gnocchi).
Breakfast is served (traditionally) in both dining rooms; the start and end times are staggered by half an hour (one opens earlier and closes earlier); the schedule is in the daily itinerary.
Menus at dinner offer six courses, with appetizer, soup, salad, a risotto and pasta du jour, main entree and dessert. The selections were so varied it was hard to choose, and note that the pasta and risotto selections, meant to be part of the meal, were served in portions too huge to be considered a "side order."
On occasion, Mario, the cheerful Maitre d'Hotel, will be cooking a specialty near the entrance of the dining rooms -- something that is not on the menu. I was lucky enough one evening to be presented with a small plate of his sauteed grape tomatoes and escarole, made with croutons, garlic, olive oil, fresh parmesan and basil, and I was in garlic heaven for days afterwards.
Le Vele is the ship's buffet restaurant and it offers lido-style fare. Breakfast items feature the usual (scrambled eggs, bacon, hash-browns and breads). At lunch, there are two food lines (and a separate dessert and fruit station). Several salads, an array of cold cuts, hot and cold items, pastas, a carving station, a variety of fresh fruit, and some mushy, institutional desserts are available at lunchtime.
Il Patio, located outside of Le Vele, offers al fresco snacking most of the day. On one side is the pizzeria, making fresh oven-baked pizza of at least two varieties plus cheese on any given afternoon (no requests, you get what's on the menu for that day). The other side is a fast-food area, which serves in the morning as a made-to-order omelet and pancake station, and in the afternoons cooks up grilled burgers and hot dogs (with condiments).
There is some sort of gala buffet every night of the cruise at or around midnight (with the exception of the first and last night, when servers wander the lounges with elaborate hors d'oeuvres on trays). Especially don't miss the Magnifique Buffet. It's an extravaganza with a definite European twist. Here is a reggae band crafted from fruit! And the Leaning Tower of Pisa created from Parma ham! A tower of climbing lobsters! And a scaled replica of the Opera made of various Italian cheeses! It's worth going even if you can't manage another bite; consider it the equivalent of another entertainment offering.
Room service options are scant, with Caesar salads (with or without chicken) and a sandwich being the only daytime offerings, plus fruit "drinks," coffee, tea and cheesecake. Breakfast is limited to hot drinks, cold milk and juice, rolls and croissants, and yogurt.
Smoking is not allowed in any of the restaurants.
Note: There are a couple of times during the day when nothing is available for an hour or two except room service. My suggestion? Walk around the ship a couple of times, go play mini-golf, have a vigorous swim or a steam and sauna, and go to line dancing at the pool. The food assault will start again soon enough and you will, after all, need extra room for that risotto.
One of the benefits of minimizing atrium space and eliminating two-level dining rooms is that usable space seems to expand. MSC Opera has what seems like an inordinate amount of public area to enjoy, made to feel intimate (even though some of the rooms span the width of the ship and are quite large) by low ceilings and the use of banquettes, cafe tables and chairs. During the day there is a wonderful deck to use behind the disco, perched over the stern's wake and quiet with covered tables and plenty of chairs.
There is a flashy disco on Deck 12 aft which gets going at around midnight and, like the Energizer bunny, keeps going, and going, and going...
The casino gets quite lively at night, but is very short on slot machines. There is plenty of space to add more, and considering the four-deep lines waiting for an available machine, the ship could substantially increase its revenue by accommodating the gamblers just itching to donate to the bottom line.
There are a series of shops surrounding the "plaza" on Deck 5; alas, the shopping experience on Opera is a non-starter with scant variety of merchandise that's whoppingly overpriced (even the duty-free items are about 25 percent higher than on other ships or even in stores in port).
The Internet Center is modern, convenient and well-located and uses an ingenious system for access: Just insert your room key card into a little box and you are online. Unfortunately, it is horrendously expensive and incredibly slow (check e-mail while in port).
Keeping things simple, there are only four cabin categories: insides, outsides, balconies and mini-suites. The inside cabins, outsides and those with verandahs are all the same size -- in a word, small (at 140 square ft.). The clever use of mirrors and ingeniously designed storage areas mitigate the petite size of the accommodations, as do the cheerful spreads, bedskirts, pillows and bolsters used in the rooms.
I was in a standard balcony room that had a small but cozy feeling, especially with the real lamps at the bedside and the fact that the table on the balcony was really a table.
The shower-only bathrooms are small but quite functional, with great water pressure and plenty of hot water. Shampoo, shower gel, soap, a sewing kit and a shower cap are included amenities.
The mini-suites are larger tt 270 square ft. (including the balcony) and feature a seating area, entry foyer and a bathroom with a tub. But book ahead for these -- there are just 28 mini-suites on MSC Opera.
All staterooms have mini-fridges (stocked; check the prices before you munch), remote-control satellite television, nice closet areas with plenty of hangers (mini-suites have walk-in closets) and several drawers.
One important note: The standard balcony cabins, located on Decks 9 and 10, aren't necessarily kid-friendly because the verandahs are enclosed only by widely spaced metal bars. Make sure you ask the staff for a custom-made netting which can be stretched across.
Ship-of-Shame Note: There are only four handicap-accessible rooms and they are all insides. The ship otherwise has made few concessions to the physically challenged.
MSC Cruises' oft-confusing tipping policy stipulates that gratuities are not necessary (though passengers are encouraged to leave additional amounts for exceptional service). In general, plan on leaving the industry average $10 per person, per day.
An automatic 10 percent gratuity is added to bar bills.
|Fitness and Recreation|
The spa may suffer the unimaginative name of The Health Center but it is lovely, specializing in Balinese treatments offered by Balinese therapists. Treatments are a bit pricier than the norm ($149 for a 60-minute massage) but there are discounts and specials offered throughout the week, especially on port days.
On the port side there is a large relaxation room, again with floor-to-ceiling windows, wicker chaises -- and peace and quiet. There are steam and sauna rooms for both men and women, generously sized and free of charge. A small workout room is located at the bow. Classes in "yogalates" and Latin Dance are offered for a small fee.
The pool deck has two pools and two hot tubs.
There is a small mini-golf area at the very top of the ship and recreational activities, such as line dancing, at poolside.
Opera is relatively family-friendly, especially during school holiday times. Its kids' facility is called Buffalo Bill and children are grouped in three categories (3 - 8, 9 - 12, and 13-plus). Activities include themed parties, pool and sport games, arts and crafts, treasure hunts, mini disco and water games.
In the Caribbean, Opera's demographic is predominantly North American, with about 30 percent of passengers hailing from Europe. Expect the reverse in Europe. The cultural differences are fascinating and fun. You never know what response your "good morning" will get ... it might be a Texas "Howdy!" or a "Guten tag" or "Buenos Dias," "Buon Giorno" or "Bonjour." That's one of the things that make this ship special.
Ages range from families with young kids to seniors with walkers.
There are two formal nights on a seven-night cruise; otherwise, dress during the day is casual and, at night, is country club casual.
It's in its entertainment offerings -- day and night -- that MSC Opera really shines. The fun comes in two flavors. First are the professional production shows, individual performers and incredible musicians. Then there is the wacky world of the ship's Animation Team, a troupe of young, hip, funny, charming and possibly certifiable "camp counselors."
During the day, activities include language lessons (Italian, of course, or Japanese), tango classes, craft creations, contests, games, and live music playing everywhere -- even during the daytime! You'll hear tunes at the pool, at the al fresco dining spots, during tea, in the main lounges on Deck 5 ... all performed by a sundry group of musicians including bands, trios and pianists.
The nightly production shows are jazzy, colorful and exuberant, whether it's a "Night in Paris," a "Grand Gala" or guest talent show (there is no live music in the theater -- it's recorded, but it doesn't distract from the show). Magicians interact with the audience and singers serenade.
The Animation Team practically shames the guests into participating, acting as cheerleaders for enjoyment and inclusion. They may have to shout their instructions in five languages, but all the guests "get it." Bingo is a hoot, with the announcer repeating the numbers in all the languages represented. "Number eight! Numero ocho! Acht! Huit! Otto!" The Mr. and Mrs. Opera contests are so funny that it's hard to remain upright because you're laughing so hard.
A 24-hour Virtual Reality arcade is located on Deck 12 near the Byblos Disco.
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