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Photo courtesy MSC Cruises
With fall comes the return to the archetype of cruising: the Caribbean cruise. With its crystal-blue seas, warm temperatures, and myriad of destinations, the Caribbean is a no-brainer for North Americans and even Europeans looking to escape the winter snow and rain. Unlike Alaska, cruise lines don’t have to convince people to cruise the Caribbean – they already want to.
One cruise line, though, is again going that extra mile this year and trying just a little harder than everyone else. In fact, this particular line has been trying hard to make significant inroads into the Caribbean market for a few years now – offering up their newest vessels, theme cruises, attractive pricing and unique itineraries in order to sway North American cruisers away from their usual favorites. We’re talking, of course, about MSC Cruises.
Currently the third largest cruise operator in the world, Naples-based MSC Cruises has embarked on a rapid program of expansion since the introduction of MSC Lirica in 2003. Since then, MSC has built six stunning new vessels, ranging in size from the 89,600 GRT Musica class ships to the lines award-winning 135,000 GRT Fantasia class vessels.
To put all this in perspective, not even Norwegian Cruise Line, who publicly embarked on a campaign to have the youngest fleet in the industry back in 2001, can match the incredible progress of MSC.
In 2008, MSC sent MSC Orchestra to the Caribbean, marking the first time a Musica-class vessel had deployed to North America. The ship arrived in Ft. Lauderdale on Jan 2, 2009 to much fanfare and press, and set off on its first cruise – a 2-day jaunt to the Bahamas and back.
Simply put, the first voyage was an unmitigated disaster. The ship arrived late, passengers arrived at the terminal as early as 10am only to discover the earliest check-in would begin was 4pm, and to top it all off, the computer systems at the terminal crashed.
Once onboard, passengers found a litany of additional items to complain about: a largely indifferent crew bickering amongst themselves and the passengers, cabins that weren’t ready, lack of free water in the dining rooms, and a mandatory lifeboat drill that was pushed back to 8:30am the next morning, requiring passengers to be up before 7:30am. A few even bemoaned the lack of towel animals and pillow chocolates. All parties involved wrote it off as a ‘nightmare.’
Hindsight, of course, shows us it was just as bad for MSC as it was for their passengers. What should have been a celebratory occasion turned into total chaos in the span of a few short hours. While the next Caribbean voyages proceeded without incident, the damage was already done. Passengers on future voyages bailed out, and despite the positive comments that slowly started trickling in on CruiseCritic, and the personal attention that the line’s North American President, Rick Sasso, gave the matter, the Caribbean season didn’t exactly end as MSC had hoped.
MSC, however, has picked itself up and dusted itself off, and is ready for another go. Passenger’s main complaints – lack of free water and beverages – will be remedied, with free water available during dinner on all North American voyages. Dining times will be adjusted to better suit North American cruisers who are more accustomed to eating earlier than their European counterparts. Food will be adjusted to be just a little ‘more American.’ A bevy of soda, wine and beer packages will be offered. And MSC will start the 2009 Caribbean season off with a new ship: MSC Poesia.
Things MSC did right in 2008: there were no complaints about the ship, which by all accounts is amazing. Entertainment was likewise a high-point, and by the end of the Caribbean season, reports of stellar service became commonplace. It’s important to remember: the season for the crew started off just as badly as it did for the passengers,with one chief difference: the passengers got to get off. The crew did not.
So why should a North American cruiser consider MSC? First and foremost, because the line has addressed the main source of complaints that arose from last year. Secondly because they offer a superb product that, while different from many North American offerings, still offers a tremendous cruise value. Last but not least, because they are trying damn hard to make this work – offering rock-bottom prices on some sailings and theme cruises on others to entice passengers.
It is important to remember, this is a European cruise line. The food you’re going to eat here is not what you’d find at The Olive Garden. Europeans by and large like a huge diversity in their food which can overwhelm passengers not accustomed to this. Sure, they may not give you towel animals, but is that a deal-breaker? They’re not Carnival, and that should be part of the appeal: they represent another choice, another option for cruisers looking to expand their horizon.
And they’re trying to make sure that the 2009 Caribbean season is their best yet. Not content to rest on their laurels, they are also sending MSC Poesia back across the Atlantic to operate their first ever Canada & New England cruises in September 2010.
For more information, visit the MSC Cruises website.
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