As previously published on Canada.com
For many Canadians, taking a cruise can be pretty standard. You take in a show, swim at the pool, stop briefly at some ports and eat yourself silly on food that never lives up to your expectations.
On the competitive sea-scape of cruises based out of Miami, there is one that is making quite a name for itself, and is considered the new kid on the block in North America.
And doing things radically differently.
MSC Cruises, known mostly for its European runs, increased their presence in the US in 2013 by bringing one of their ships from their fleet of twelve, the MSC Divina; to sail year round out of Miami, on a variety of Caribbean cruises.
The MSC Divina, which was christened in 2012 by legendary actress, Sophia Loren, has a sleek and sophisticated style, giving it an immediate stand out quality to other North American cruise lines in port.
The price point for cabins on the Divina are extremely reasonable compared to other cruise ships, and MSC has been offering specials each month to encourage North American travelers onboard. The cabins are spacious and beautifully decorated.
On boarding the Divina, guests are instantly drawn in by the two dramatic Swarovski crystal staircases, and the classical quartet to welcome them.
The staff are keen to ensure guests find everything they need the first day, with people posted on every floor and available for questions and directions.
But what makes MSC Divina truly special, is its Captain, Pier Paolo Scala.
His desire to be close to his crew and guests on board is evident, taking every opportunity to be visible and accessible.
He is charismatic, open and willing to give his time freely to those looking to meet him.
He takes his job seriously as a captain with more than 20 years of experience in the role, and has dedicated his life (along with his expecting wife, who travels with him) to being at sea.
It’s clear he loves what he does, and it has trickled down to the thousands of staff onboard, who also love what they do.
As a result, it makes guests love being onboard, too.
It’s a simple concept, but one that appears harder to enact than you would think.
While service standards in the cruise industry seem to have hit an all-time low over the years, MSC appears to be leading, with its passenger engagement and services.
With an Italian vessel, passengers won’t be disappointed in the selection of food onboard.
These include the upscale Ristorante Italia and Manzo, a spectacular regional steakhouse, Eataly, which MSC has partnered with (it’s created by famous chefs Mario Batali, Lidia Bastianich and Joe Bastianich).
It’s an Italian specialty market and restaurant all in one, where guests can purchase authentic Italian food and artisan products.
The Calumet and Manitou Buffet restaurants are great choices for breakfast and lunch, and are ideal for a relaxed evening dinner.
All of their baked goods, including pizza, are made fresh on board, and not to be missed.
The Black Crab and Villa Rossa are MSC Divina’s main restaurants with large variety of menu options. Both are very elegant and the level of service and attentiveness by staff is impressive.
The vessel can accommodate 3,502 guests (1751 staterooms), and has seven restaurants, five swimming pools, theater, Internet café, conference center, gym and spa along with 18 bars and lounges.
One of my favourites, was the sports lounge, where guests can enjoy fun food including wings and chicken nuggets surrounded by big screen TVs and a bowling alley. This was a definite hit for both the kids and adults onboard.
In the evenings, the entertainment is top notch with shows that included Wonderland, Witches of Paris, and my personal favourite; Starwalker, a tribute to Michael Jackson.
The actors are incredibly talented and fun to watch.
The guests on board loved the shows so much, that a standing ovation happened each night.
Throughout the ship there is entertainment to be found at every corner. The cruise director, Andre Schlemmer, has made it that way on purpose.
Whether you are enjoying a specialty coffee or gelato in Piazza del Doge, where lively music and dancing can be found; or having a martini and listening to the ’60s music in the Golden Lounge, or dancing until the wee hours at a disco party in Galaxy.
There is never a spot where you can’t find fun.
Many daytime activities are scheduled poolside with morning aerobics, trivia-time, dance lessons, crafts classes and Italian language lessons.
Some of my other favourites included the baseball pro activities, where guests receive tips from the pros on hitting, fielding, base running and strategy.
There is a question and answer period with some of the baseball greats and a complimentary autograph session with all the stars. Each cruise has different baseball stars, but the host and MC for each cruise is former Yankee star, Stan Bahnsen.
A class on blending wines is offered for guests who want to try their hand at learning their palate and understanding how to blend wines. Participants can create and label their own wine to take home, or drink on board. It’s a unique class that is offered by Mary and Peter Lichty who provide a fun and relaxed atmosphere for guests.
A really unique activity to try is aqua-cycling, which is held at the garden pool. Guests have to sign up to participate and pay a small fee, but it’s the newest fitness craze, and the first one offered at sea on the Divina.
The bikes are under water, providing a natural resistance and great cardio workout, as you cycle to upbeat music.
The ports of call the MSC Divina visited during our trip, included Sint Maarten, Puerto Rico and the Bahamas. For each stop, guests are able to pre-arrange activities for the day.
I arranged a sight -seeing, shop and beach get away in Sint Maarten, a San Juan panoramic and Bacardi tour in Puerto Rico and enjoyed the water activities in Grand Turks.
All of the activities were well-organized, and extremely reasonable in price ($30-$35 per person).
Elegance and affordability along with service and excellence, can all be found on MSC Divina.
For a new kid in North America, it’s navigated its way in to a class all of its own.
Sophia Loren must be one proud godmother.