We’ve never been cruisers. As couples adventure travelers, we kind of wrote off the big Caribbean cruise liners. With thousands of people on board, we figured there was a slim chance the food would be fabulous, the spaces be sophisticated, the service be attentive, or that a ship could offer the culture and adventures we crave. So when MSC Cruises chose travel influencers for the maiden voyage of their MSC Seaside, they knew it would be hard to woo skeptics like us…but that their new ship would be up to the challenge.
We’ll admit, when we took a look at the sexy ship renderings and the history of MSC, we were intrigued. MSC is owned by an Italian family with a history of sailing that dates back over 300 years. They’re the leading cruise line in Europe but only recently set up a home port in the U.S. For their newest ship, they built the prototype like a seaside promenade with cafes, shops, condo-style suites, and more outdoor space than any ship in their fleet. It was made to bring guests closer to the sea with glass catwalks, panoramic elevators, and decks that encircle the ship. And for looking so posh, we also couldn’t believe rates were starting at $439!
The MSC Seaside will exclusively sail in the Antilles and Caribbean. But to get this prototype from the shipyard in Italy, it embarked on a voyage around the Mediterranean and across the Atlantic to meet us in Antigua and Barbuda. Our ship left at 5pm so we spent the day exploring Antigua’s historic English Harbour and the UNESCO Heritage Nelson’s Dockyard. We wandered the gorgeous Georgian-style naval buildings (in continuous use since 1725!), ate curried pies at the island’s oldest bakery, and hiked out to the cliffs of Fort Berkeley for an overview of the islands and seas ahead of us.
We entered the heart of the ship, a grand three-story atrium with sleek bars, a stage for live performances and a Swarovski-crystal staircase interconnecting them all. We took the glass elevators up to the 15th floor, building anticipation for the views from our balcony. On a ship that offers 113-square feet of public space per guest, the standard balcony room was perfect for us, but for those that want more exclusivity, there’s the Yacht Club. This wing of the ship has 90 plush rooms, each with 24-hour butler service and access to a private restaurant, pool, lounge, and dedicated concierge. Even if you can’t spring for a whole week at the Yacht Club, we liked that the ship had lots of opportunities to make the cruise experience more intimate, like day-passes to the Solarium pool area, Aurea spa, and plenty of romantic restaurants with tables for two.
Our fears of a buffet for thousands were assuaged when we went to breakfast at The Marketplace. The space was modern and airy with huge windows and outdoor seating to take in a wide-range of yummy dishes. For a quick bite, we would stop here or the Venchi gelato and espresso bars (remember MSC is Italian, they don’t mess around with this stuff). While the food was quite good at the main Seashore Restaurant (especially on “Elegant Night” when celebrity restaurateur Joe Bastianich’s signature dish is on the menu), the four specialty restaurants are where it gets next-level. We wouldn’t have thought a James-Beard Award-winning chef would open a restaurant on a cruise ship, but Roy Yamaguchi crafted MSC’s Asian Market Kitchen! We sat at the sushi bar for a cooking demo by the master himself and then enjoyed the theatrics and grilled seafood delights at his Teppanaki grill.
We weren’t sure if being on the open sea for two days would get boring, then we got the daily program delivered under our door. It had over 60 different activities throughout the day—mini golf, Italian lessons, chacha, Tai Chi, jazz performances, stand-up comedy—you name it. Plus, there was all the fun stuff happening at any given time, like the multi-story water park, XD cinema, full-length bowling alley, sports court, six swimming pools, and the longest zip line at sea. With all the activities available, we sometimes had to remind ourselves to simply gaze at the scenery of blue sea, distant islands, and soaring birds.
For utter relaxation, we booked appointments (with their handy MSC for Me app) at the Aurea Spa. MSC is known for their authentic Balinese spa (all their specialists are actually from Bali) but the Seaside’s is their most expansive yet, at 25,941-square feet. Some people literally cruise for their wellness center and medi-spa services (everyone will just think you look “refreshed” from a week at sea—very clever.) Mike had his first facial and I opted for a lovely Himalayan salt scrub, then we reconvened for a Balinese couples massage and to enjoy the steamy, hot, and cold stations of the thermal area.
With 20 bars, a 934-seat theater, 8 music venues, and a club with a 1958 Chevy-turned-DJ booth, it’s pretty hard not to have a fun night out. We loved getting a drink at the Champagne Bar or Forest Lounge, then heading to a pre-dinner theater performance. We were surprised how pro these productions were, with original music, impressive choreography, and 1,200 costumes on hand!
When there is enough entertainment for weeks on board, it’s easy to forget the origin of cruising…the chance to explore new countries and far-flung islands! We were so excited to find out that Puerto Rico was on our route. In the wake of Hurricane Maria, many cruise lines have cut this U.S. territory from their itineraries. MSC on the other hand, made supporting them a priority—from sending shipping containers of relief supplies to keeping San Juan as a regular stop on its East Caribbean routes.
To explore the city (and all ports of call), MSC has tons of excursions to meet a variety of interests: culinary, culture, active, wellness, and family-friendly. We opted for the “Old San Juan Historical Walk & Coffee Tasting” and were so relieved to see how intact and gorgeous the city looked! Our tour guide was fabulous, from his knowledge of history to his honesty about the hurricane devastation (around 50% of Puerto Rico is still without electricity and it could take years to get their farmland back to normal.) That said, we were dazzled by the colonial city and resilient spirit of the Puerto Ricans, including our local friends Jaime and Tania, whom we hung out with until the ship’s 2am departure.
Cruises are perfect for families… and as a kid-less couple, this is what worried us! On MSC, children under 12 travel free and kids clubs are included, and with this we envisioned a ship overrun with screaming children, outdoor space covered in playgrounds, and cartoon-themed decor all over the place… but no. The Seaside has fabulous (hidden) kids clubs for five different age groups, ranging from 1-17 years old. Plus, they are open until 11pm and have babysitting services available until 2am, which is something couples—with and without kids—can greatly appreciate!
After plying the Mediterranean, Atlantic, and Caribbean Oceans, the MSC Seaside completed its maiden voyage to its home port of Miami. MSC pulled out all the stops with a naming ceremony hosted by Mario Lopez, ribbon cutting by Sophia Loren, speeches by Dan Marino and the mayor of Miami-Dade county, and performances by Ricky Martin and Andrea Bocelli! Bocelli performed with the Voices of Haiti choir as a way to celebrate a new partnership with MSC and the Andrea Bocelli Foundation—an initiative to aid children in one the world’s poorest nations. Celebrities and the who’s-who in travel were in attendance for the event and festivities that continued on every deck of the ship.
Of course, we were impressed by MSC Seaside’s star-studded party, James-Beard chef, decadent spa, and record-breaking zip line, but the spirit of the boat was the biggest surprise. We met Executive Chairman Vago (of MSC’s founding family) and the charismatic Captain Scala, spent five days with the team from the European headquarters and their ship staff from 60 countries. MSC didn’t feel corporate and the Seaside wasn’t cookie cutter, it was the kind of cruise we’d actually go on.
This article originally posted on Travelocity.com. Check them out to book the MSC Seaside cruise for under $75/night.