In our continuing series of posts on cruises, we share advice on how to get the most out of a family vacation at sea. For more on great family cruise vacations, see our Spotlight On: Norwegian’s “Epic” and Family Cruising in the Caribbean and Family Cruise Advice From the Cruise Guru: Kid’s Clubs.
This post comes to us courtesy of David Yeskel, “The Cruise Guru”
With the rise in popularity of multi-generational travel, major cruise lines have had to notch up the quality of their onboard youth programing in order to maintain parity with the competition. And while most mass-market lines (Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Norwegian) are well-known for their quality kids clubs, there is a lesser-known competitor now making waves in the North American cruise market. MSC Cruises, a large, European company with a small-but-growing North American presence, will homeport its stunningly beautiful MSC Divina in Miami for year-round sailings to the Caribbean beginning this November. After two years of sailing seasonal voyages from Miami while refining the onboard experience for North American guests, it is clear that MSC has now found the sweet spot with a cruise experience that’s a true differentiator in the 7-day Caribbean market. While North Americans typically represent up to 70% of passengers on Divina’s Caribbean sailings, Europeans round out the base, creating a multi-cultural, melting pot atmosphere that benefits and enriches all family members. And MSC tries harder to win family business with their unique-to-the-industry Kids Sail Free promotion, which applies to most sailings and allows up to two children (11 and under) to sail free in the cabin with up to two paying adults.
Compared to competitors’ similar-sized megaships carrying 4,000-plus passengers, Divina feels smaller, thanks to her Italian designers’ knack for creating elegant public spaces that are rich without being vast. Like the Swarovski crystal-lined staircases that grace her main foyer, Divina is classy but never flashy.
Since MSC tabbed Divina as its “North American-facing” ship (regardless of where she sails), her onboard experience is now a bit more familiar to us, while still retaining just the right amount of Mediterranean charm. Except for safety-related info, announcements are in English only; dining times have been adjusted earlier; smoking areas are limited; protein portions are larger; and recognizable comfort food dishes have been added to menus.
But Divina’s finest attributes aren’t targeted to a particular passenger demographic. Menus in the two main dining rooms (fixed seatings at 5:45 and 8:30) feature at least two daily pastas, which, like all 8-10 pastas served onboard every day, are prepared and sauced superbly. As you’d also expect, pizzas, breads, and cheeses are standouts. Just as the ancient Romans were entertained after their copious feasts, Divina’s guests are treated to what could arguably be called the best production shows at sea. The seven unique productions are non language-dependent musical experiences that combine acrobatics and other innovative elements with a level of talent, creativity, and artistry not typically seen at sea. Ubiquitous musical acts in the lounges are also of high caliber.
Kids club programming is segmented by age tiers, with I Puffi (The Smurfs) and the DoReMi musical mascots leading the way for the younger set, while the tweens and teens mingle in Graffiti. The supervised kids club activities are free and generally run from 9:00 AM – 12:30 PM, 2:30 PM – 5:00 PM, and 6:00 PM – 11:00 PM on sea days. Club hours for days in port vary, with fewer activities scheduled. Parents especially appreciate the evening club hours, as they can enjoy a relaxed, multi-course dinner while their kids are ably entertained by the youth staff. Partnerships with LEGO and Chicco also help parents entertain toddlers and babies. And all ages aboard Divina enjoy the 4D Theater, F1 driving simulator, mini bowling alley, and water slide.
Despite MSC’s focus on delivering a recognizable experience for North Americans, guests aren’t fed a steady diet of steak, baked potatoes, burgers, and fries. While those standards are offered, Divina’s menus still hew more towards the Med than the Midwest, while ultimately pleasing most palates. The ship’s casual buffet fare reflects a more Mediterranean influence with a wide range of pastas, salumi, cheese and breads. Those expecting standard cruise breakfast options at the buffet may be surprised by the lack of an eggs-to-order/omelette station and smoked salmon, as morning fare skews lighter with fruit, rolls, prepared egg dishes and cereals. A pancake, waffle and French toast station, however, stands nearby for those in need of familiar comfort foods.
The alternative, extra-charge Eataly Steakhouse – featuring products sourced from Italy – is a prime example of the line’s focus on its heritage. The experience here, typified by rustic dishes expertly prepared and served by an all-Italian staff, reaches a level of perfection that other cruise lines’ ethnic specialty restaurants aspire to, yet rarely achieve.
Notwithstanding MSC Cruises’ focus on appealing to U.S. vacationers, this isn’t a cruise for ethnocentric Americans who want their everyday experiences reflected onboard. Instead, it’s the right fit for slightly more sophisticated travelers who would appreciate a taste of the Mediterranean and its people – much closer to home.
David Yeskel is a veteran travel journalist and the go-to expert for all matters relating to the cruise industry. Over the past 20 years, he has been praised for his outstanding cruise industry coverage for Travel Weekly, TravelAge West, CruiseMates and Tours.com. He is intimately familiar with the vacation options offered by all of the major ocean-going cruise lines and is able to differentiate each line by its level of quality, dining options, entertainment, on-board atmosphere, passenger demographics and ratings. Follow David Yeskel, aka The Cruise Guru, on Twitter at CruiseGuru
All Photos courtesy of MSC Cruise Lines, except lead photo, courtesy of David Yeskel.