The first thing you want to know about the stylishly big, bold and brash MSC Splendida, which debuted in 2009, is that this mainstream ship is European in style, food and language. A voyage on the 3,274-passenger Splendida in the Mediterranean will not be a typical North American Caribbean cruise. It is a good option if you want to cruise with Europeans, so that your experience aboard ship is as European as your time ashore.
For starters, English-speaking passengers are in the minority on Splendida, as they are on all MSC ships in Europe. So don't count on a lot of interaction with fellow passengers, many of whom may not speak English. Your menu, your daily newsletter and written messages all will be in English. Your tablemates at an assigned dinner seating will speak English. The crew will speak English when talking to you. But other communications on the ship -- from loud speaker announcements to the life boat drill -- will be in five languages, including but not leading with English.
On Splendida, you also may feel nickel and dimed when asked to pay for water and coffee, room service, ice cream and hanging around the spa. However, Europeans are used to paying for these items. (In North America, MSC ships change some pricing policies so Yanks are more comfortable.)
All employees I met aboard the ship were friendly and attempted to fulfill my requests. Their style was European, in that little effort was made to anticipate a need or to notice if something might be awry. So don't expect to be coddled or for the staff to notice that you have a problem; you'll need to be more proactive, but the staff will respond.
MSC has built a modern cruise fleet, and Splendida reflects the evolution toward prettier and more innovative ships. The ship is well designed, with fine materials, quality artwork, and good fabrics in grand public areas and in the cabins, 80 percent of which have private balconies. The ship serves middle-class Europeans, and is well priced to compete with other mass-marketed, mainstream ships in Europe.
Passengers who prefer a more exclusive atmosphere can book a cabin in Splendida's Yacht Club, which offers many of the services associated with concierge floors in luxury hotels. While the Yacht Club is pricey for a mainstream ship -- with fares two to three times higher than the standard cabins -- it got high marks from passengers on my cruise, and Cruise Critic members online have praised the Yacht Club experience. Noteworthy amenities include butler service, a private sun deck with pool and whirlpools, and an exclusive lounge offering concierge services, and light meals and free drinks throughout the day.
This is a big and bold ship, with lots of marble and quality fabrics throughout. It's so big that the mid-ship stairwells reminded me of a major city freeway, with several fast lanes in the middle, and a separate set of slow lanes on either side. I never made it to the middle of the stairwell freeway, which often was full of groups of people moving lickety-split between the primary cabin decks (8 -13) and either the eating, drinking and entertainment on Decks 5 -7 or the sunning, swimming and casual buffets on Decks 14 -18. I preferred to skip the frenetic space of the central stairwell and walk more slowly up and down in the double set of stairs on my side of the ship.
With 3,274 (double occupancy) to 3,900 people (max occupancy, lots of kids) milling around, the ship sometimes feels overcrowded, especially at breakfast and lunch in the cafeteria, on the open pool deck during sunny days, in the covered pool area on cool days, and around the entrances to the main dining rooms the moment doors open for dinner seatings.
The most popular gathering area is La Piazzetta, an interior courtyard with ceramic tile benches and a flowing fountain on Deck 6. Nearby shops include men's and women's fashion boutiques, and stores for jewelry, logo clothing, and a full range of candy, liquor and tobacco. The ship is wired for Internet, and the Cyberlibrary on Deck 5, with computers for passenger use, is staffed for help at midday and late afternoon.
Of Splendida's 1,637 cabins, 80 percent have private balconies. There are also 43 cabins that accommodate passengers with special needs. Interior cabins spread throughout the ship measure 172 square feet. Outside cabins with a window -- on Decks 5, 8 and 13 -- vary from 185 to 218 square feet.
Balcony cabins are roomy at 194 square feet, with a balcony at 42 square feet. Mine was designed in a series of tasteful reds, from bedcover and trim to drapes, couch and pillows. At the foot of the bed was a wall-to-ceiling mirror nearly as wide as the bed. I had a small desk with a square backless seat, a small refrigerator and small TV mounted near the outside wall. Balcony furnishings included two chairs and a small table. The closet was plenty for hanging clothes for two, with two shelves and six drawers. There were lights on either side of the bed, but they could not be directed toward anyone reading in bed.
The bathroom was equipped with a shower -- sufficient for a person of average size -- with shower gel and shampoo in a dispenser. The room had three shelves, as well as room beneath the basin for storage.
Suites come in five categories. Balcony suites, at 292 square feet, are about one-and-a-half times the size of standard balcony cabins, with a balcony of 61 square feet. Standard suites range from 236-285 square feet, with balconies of 42-61 square feet. Deluxe suites, which have no balcony, are 223-316 square feet. The largest suites, Executive and Royal, range from 356-571 square feet. All but two have balconies, of 61 - 172 square feet.
The largest of the suites are included in the Yacht Club, which has 71 accommodations on the ship's highest decks. (Once there were 99, but MSC has eliminated cabins on lower decks from the group.) Yacht Club cabins are set apart, with their own special check-in; a butler; free laundry; a private swimming pool, whirlpools and sunning deck; a concierge lounge open and staffed 24 hours with light meals at breakfast, lunch and dinner, as well as snacks and free water, wine, beer and coffees. Yacht Club passengers may eat lunch and dinner in L'Olivo alternative restaurant at no charge.
MSC sells lots of cruises to families -- children who are the third and fourth passengers in the cabin sail for free -- and even in November there were groups of children all over the ship. MSC offers programs for young children, divided into age groups of younger than 3, ages 3-6, ages 6-12 and ages 13-18. However, they are not as equipped with such amenities as science labs and sports facilities as programs typically on North American ships. The young children have their own supervised pool (Piscina Bambini) and the teens their own waterslide, the Tobaga, on Deck 15.
A gratuity charge of 7 Euros per person, per day, is added automatically to your bill. In addition, a service charge of 15 percent is added to restaurant and bar bills. The currency onboard is the Euro.
|Fitness and Recreation|
The vast Aurea Spa complex includes a gym, sauna, steam room, thalassotherapy rooms, a Turkish bath and 15 massage rooms where the staff specializes in Balinese treatments. A Balinese massage will begin with scraping of dead skin from limbs and back, and continue with muscle massaging as deep as you would like, in the usual places, with plenty of warm oil.
At Aurea's entrance is a spa bar, offering juices and healthy snacks for a fee, though it was empty most of the day on my cruise. I sat in the bar, waiting for my massage, as the quiet rooms, as well as changing rooms inside the spa, were available only at an hourly charge.
As on many ships, passengers may want to shower in their cabins and walk to the spa in their robes, as they will be led directly from the reception area to their massage treatment. Also, you may want to carry a written list of medications that you take, as massage therapists often ask about this.
Spa prices in Europe, in euros, seemed higher than prices in North America, but ads in the daily newsletter, placed in your cabin, provided significant savings. For instance, a body scrub, with 30-minute foot and body massage, along with an hour in the spa thermal area, typically cost 152 euros, but the special price one day was 99 euros.
As with most spas at sea, be prepared for a sales pitch about health and beauty supplies by the spa staff.
The gym is well equipped with treadmills, exercise bikes and weight machines. Outside, there's a court for basketball and tennis, and a jogging track on Deck 15 that circles above the pool area on Deck 14.
The pool decks, 14 and 15, feature a magrodome (a retractable glass roof) over one pool, a big hit on Splendida just as it was on sister ship MSC Fantasia. It was added so passengers could swim during winter season in the Mediterranean, when the weather often is too chilly for such activity outside. Outdoors on Deck 14 is the Aqua Park, with spraying fountains and water jets. A second pool, the Playa del Sol, is on Deck 15. If you like to soak in a hot tub you are in luck. The main and aft swimming pool areas each have two whirlpools, and the forward pool area with the retractable roof has three more.
Most of the passengers aboard Splendida are from Europe. It's a popular ship for families on vacation from France, Spain, Portugal, Germany, the United Kingdom and especially Italy. You'll meet some singles, but a majority seem to be families or couples.
While meeting people from other parts of the world is one of the great joys of travel, some of the cultural differences have been known to be irritating to North Americans. They often have trouble getting used to the unwillingness by some Europeans to get in line, who push their way to the front instead of waiting their turn. Also, the more prevalent cigarette-smoking can be bothersome to people used to restrictions on indoor smoking in restaurants and other indoor establishments. On MSC's Europe cruises, cigarette smoke seems to linger near doorways and in other public areas, despite rules about passengers smoking only in designated areas, usually on the starboard (right) side of the ship.
The MSC Splendida daily newsletter explains the three evening dress code options. On Gala nights, men are encouraged to wear a tuxedo, dinner jacket or lounge suit, with evening or cocktail dress for ladies. Informal nights mean jacket and tie for gentlemen, cocktail dress for ladies, and no jeans. On casual evenings, men can be comfortable in sports shirts, trousers or jeans, and women don skirts, slacks, sweaters or blouses.
On a one-week cruise, two nights were designated as formal Gala nights, and some passengers dressed up, though many did not. Many passengers dressed casually, no matter what was recommended for the evening. For some men, formal night meant untucked shirts and no tie, while the women tended to dress a little nicer.
With passengers speaking five different languages, most entertainment does not focus on words. Shows are mostly musical productions, with occasional performances by perhaps an acrobat, juggler or mime.
One night in the Strand Theatre, the two-deck main show lounge, was dedicated to a show called "Sam," billed as being about the U.S.A. It was a show about historical moments in American history as they were seen in stage presentations, such as singing cowboys and Indians. The Europeans I asked thought the show was okay but ordinary. I found it silly, like watching a television show from the 1950's.
More than a dozen bars and lounges onboard include venues for piano music, jazz and Latin dancing. Because so many of the passengers eat in the main dining rooms, at either the early or late seatings, the public areas are not overly crowded during the evening. Each day, Splendida offers live music in the wine bar (L'Enoteca), the courtyard (Piazzetta), the piano bar (La Prua), the Purple Jazz Bar and the Aft Lounge, as well as dance lessons and late night disco music with a D.J. Most evenings, Decks 6 and 7 were hopping, especially as the late-seating crowd finished dinner about 11 p.m. Bars were open until 1 a.m. and the Club 33 Disco Bar even later.
You may entertain yourself in the games arcade, or head for the Formula 1 racecar simulator and four-dimensional cinema. The simulator was under repair, so I chose the 4D Cinema, where the feature attraction was falling through a mine shaft. For 7.90 Euros, I was strapped into a bright yellow seat, handed a pair of 3D glasses, and turned toward a screen for a simulated ride on a rail car that went careening through a gold mine shaft.
"How long will it be?" I asked the attendant. "About 8 minutes," she said. "Any more, you are going crazy." I did not go crazy, but was ready for the end after bouts with broken tracks, flying, bats, falling timbers, water and close calls with cavern walls. I was entertained. By the way, the fourth dimension is your moving seat, which is not nearly as rough as any roller coaster.
Daytime activities led by the cruise staff ranged from mambo and salsa dance lessons in the Aft Lounge to games in the Club 33 Disco and a late afternoon stretch class, all at no charge. While I found some of the games confusing because of all the different languages (I had no trouble with bingo), the participants were welcoming. If you want to learn the mambo with strangers who will never see you again, this is the place.
Shore excursions at various Mediterranean ports were mostly group tours, at about 50 Euros or more. They were well run with tour guides who spoke the languages assigned. When I was required to return to my cabin for my passport in Tunis, I missed my tour bus, but the tour operator onshore provided a car and driver to take me to the tour's first stop so I could rejoin my group. I was impressed.
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