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Gary Thompson

Age: 69

Occupation:Retired CEO

Number of Cruises: 14

Cruise Line: MSC Cruises

Ship: MSC Opera

Sailing Date: n/a

Itinerary: Eastern Caribbean

My love affair with cruising started with my first cruise in the mid-80’s and continues to this day. Our experience, prior to the cruise on the MSC Opera, was limited to the Norwegian Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean Cruise Line and the Princess Lines. We have never cruised for less than seven days with our longest being a 13-day trans-Atlantic cruise 9 years ago.

We are always on the alert for outstanding fares, so when we read about this opportunity for a 7-day cruise in the Arthur Frommer’s Budget Travel Magazine through for only $465 we had to check it out. As it turned out our cruise price was $525 each, and that included all taxes and port charges. Obviously it did not include transportation to and from the ship.

Rather than purchase trip insurance we booked our flight a day early to avoid any possible weather flight delays. The representative from the La Quinta Inns and Suites picked us up at the airport and transportation to the ship was provided the following day. There were no problems and this was we were sure that our luggage made it to the ship with us.

The boarding process was easy and without unusual delay. Since many of the passengers were from Europe, who had to provide more documentation, some lines moved slowly and, with my experience with always being in the slowest line, we changed lines twice before finding an agent who had no one waiting. This process could be expedited if they instituted the “one line leading to the next available agent” process found in most banks today. Since we were early, it was not a problem but I am not sure how it was when more passengers arrived nearer the sailing time.

Having learned how to pack wisely, we each had one carry-on piece of luggage and a back pack, leaving only one larger suitcase to be delivered to the cabin. After the obligatory arrival photo we were greeted and a nice young lady showed us to our cabin. I think she was one of the dining room staff because we took the “scenic” route but it wasn’t much of a delay.

Having booked with a consolidator, we did not pick our cabin in advance. It was an outside cabin on the eighth deck and much better than we had believed that our $525 each would have purchased. The large window provided a nice view and was equipped with double window coverings in case we liked to sleep late…or in the afternoon. It was similar to what we have come to expect as far as size is concerned…perhaps a little larger.

There was the most storage space that I can ever remember having at our disposal and we were unable to use it all. The hanging closet was equipped with 18 “suit” type hangers, which is the most I have ever seen in a cabin. We have learned to pack 10 or 12 plastic hangers to supplement what is provided but they were unnecessary this time.

The bathroom was pretty standard with the shower curtain everyone hates…the one that loves to grab onto your leg and hang on like the dog your grandpa had on the farm when you visited as a kid. The towels were wonderful and the toiletries were what one would expect. The only limited drawback to the cabin was the carpet. I hope MSC is getting some refund because the cabin carpet was of poor quality. The result was that it was “balling” and often looked less than clean. We didn’t notice this carpet problem in other areas of the ship. It wasn’t a problem for us but did detract from what was otherwise an outstanding room.

The television was what one would expect…nothing to brag about but why is that important on a cruise? Being a typical American I like to stay current on the news and, as I would find out, the television was totally devoid of news…at least in English. Part of the way through the cruise I did finally find a news program but it was from in Italy and I do not speak Italian! I would love to see them put in FOX News…heck, I would have even been happy with CNN!

To be fair, they did provide brief written summaries of various newspapers at the information desk every day. They covered the USA, Canada, England, France, Germany, and Italy, in their own languages. It was interesting to compare the three English language presentations of the news and see just how limited the American world view is.

Before we could unpack our small bags our larger suitcase arrived and we quickly settled in. My wife was tired and took a short nap while I went out with the visual layout of the ship provided and checked out what was available on the various decks. It was a medium sized ship with plenty of amenities provided in a limited space.

After returning to the cabin, I gave my wife the tour of the ship. She tends to be challenged when it comes to directions but, by not bothering her with areas which were of no interest to her, she was able to navigate very well during the entire trip. In our cabin we had found a card informing us of our dining room table number and that we were scheduled for the second seating. We had requested first seating so we went to the area where changes were being made. It appeared that we were not alone. It was a slow process as each person went to a table where they explained their problem and three of the ships staff looked through their records and then at a plastic chart of the tables. When the problem was solved, one person wiped off the wrong information, replacing it with a grease pen.

I suggested that a computer program could expedite the process but, from the looks I received, I wondered if they thought I was from another planet. We requested a table for a total of 6 to 8 people. We like to interact with people and know that when there are only two couples who don’t know each other, it doesn’t always click. We ended up at a table for 8, but only four of us were present the first night. We looked forward to meeting the other couples for a night or two before we decided that our table of 8 was going to be a table of 4. As it turned out, we were quite compatible with the other couple and found their dinner company very interesting.

During our first tour of the ship we stopped by the Le Vele Cafeteria for a light lunch. Having cruised before we know the potential for overeating and that challenge was present throughout the cruise. We ate all but one of our breakfasts in the cafeteria along with our lunches. Just outside the cafeteria was the Il Patio Open restaurant where we sometimes combined the two facilities to take advantage of the best of each.

After more exploring and then returning to the cabin to regroup we had the compulsory emergency lifeboat exercise, which was done professionally. It was more “relaxed” than any we had taken part in before. No one took any kind of attendance to make sure that everyone was present. I can remember on other cruises where delinquent passengers had been rounded up and made to take part in a make-up drill the following day. I liked the Italian way better!

After freshening up we went to the L’Approdo Restaurant for dinner. The L’Approdo was the smaller of the two but I am not sure that made any real difference. Since all that I had read about the staff before our cruise had indicated that they were all from Italy, I was surprised when I asked our waiter his name and he responded, “Daniel,” and I commented that I didn’t know that was a common Italian name. He responded that he wasn’t Italian but Bulgarian. As time went on I found that, except for the “professional” crew, there were about as many different countries represented among the staff as the other cruise ships we have taken.

It took Daniel a few days to warm up to us. I found his cool attitude to be similar to that which I had experienced when I visited Russian about 10 years ago. We pursued Daniel and soon he warmed up and a basic friendship developed. From the start he was a very competent waiter, but it was more pleasant as he got to know us better.

While the dinner experience was satisfactory, I must say that the food did not live up to the generally established industry standard of the other cruise lines we have had. The fresh baked breads were to “die for,” and I cannot comment about the special pasta dishes offered because I didn’t want to fill up on pasta but I assume that they were good. The deserts were very good but we always followed the suggestion of Daniel.

I think that this was the first time when the lobster was thermidor and no snails were offered…even cleverly disguised with the French word that I can’t spell. Even with these drawbacks, I would rate the evening meals a strong “B,” but it along with the ports of call, were the only real drawbacks to what was otherwise an “A” cruise.

Since most of the passengers were from Europe, the second seating was the most popular but there was a two and a half hour delay between the first seating and the second. On other cruise lines I have felt pushed to complete my meal and get out of the way so they can set up for the second shift…not so on the Opera. There was adequate time for a leisurely dinner and coffee.

The evening theater entertainment was the best I have ever experienced on any cruise. A few of the costumes in the dance numbers were a little skimpy for my liking but that did not distract from the quality of the talent. The acrobatics, magician, comedians, and other entertainers provided top quality shows with great diversity.

I must confess that the one night, when the violin and piano musicians performed at a later hour, we did not attend. If I had to do it over, I would have had a cup of coffee with caffeine and gone. The Italian tenor, Enico Scotto was outstanding. It was amusing when, after his performance when we were in the elevator my wife asked a couple what they had thought of the performance and the lady said that it was “too loud and she couldn’t understand anything he sang!” Duhhh…like it was in Italian!

One distraction was, since many language groups were present on this cruise, the entertainment director had to translate her welcome and introduction at each evening’s presentation in English, French, German, and Italian, which could become a little tedious for impatient Americans were we think everyone should learn English. When one listened as Cruise Director Ketty’s flawlessly flowed from one language to another without stopping, it was a unique form of entertainment of its own.

Given that all other cruise lines that we have been on have countless public address announcements day and night, I will trade the multi-language show introductions for the total void of intrusive announcements we avoided on the Opera. Over all I felt that the staff treated the passengers more like responsible adults than on other cruise lines. When you purchased a shore excursion you were told where to be and when, but then it was up to you. The same can be said of how we were not hounded by the bar attendants or shop keepers.

It was almost as though they didn’t really care of you did anything that you really didn’t want to do! The casino was off of the main thoroughfare and wasn’t all that busy. Bingo, I am told was very low key and inexpensive. The fact that the calling had to be in all of the languages present may have lowered the attendance but I didn’t hear anyone complain.

There was more smoking that you would find on most ships where Americans are in the vast majority but it was not a problem and I don’t like being assaulted by second-hand smoke. I don’t remember ever having to change my location to avoid smokers. There were places where smoking was permitted and I simply avoided them. No problem

I should mention that, a best guess estimation of the make up of the passengers would be about one third Italian, one third French and German, and one third from the U.S., Canada, and England. It was possible to sit on the deck for an hour and never understand a word that was said around you. If you are only comfortable with Americans this can be unsettling but we thoroughly enjoyed the cross-cultural experience.

I was not surprised to find that the vast majority of the passengers were over 60…some well over, but I was surprised at the number of European couples who were traveling with their small children…some of whom were babies. Some parents were even more oblivious to how obnoxious their children can be than some American parents I know. There was one “mouse pack” of little girls, ages about 6 to 10, who thought the cruise had been arranged just for them and no one told them otherwise. Not a big problem…just a minor annoyance.

Since we both like to start our day with a time of reading and spiritual reflection, we were very surprised to find that the ship had a “quiet room.” It was located at the very front of the ship next to the work out room. It had floor to ceiling tinted windows and was equipped with comfortable chairs and lounges. Quite music was available and it was a unique highlight of the cruise for us. The only drawback was that one of the entrances was from the workout room so, when that door was opened, the sounds of the loud, lively music were disruptive. The first few days a number of people would come in to check out the facility and then quickly leave. As the week passed it was far more of a genuine quiet room. Since there is a second door from the Spa area the door from the work out room could be eliminated.

Since we have been on a number of Eastern Caribbean cruises we did not depend on the ports of call to enhance the cruise. However, we did feel that the ports of call were a weak part of the cruise. Perhaps it is because MSC is the new kid on the block that their options are limited but arriving in Puerto Rico at 7:00 in the evening and then leaving seven hours later makes it attractive only to those who might want to take in the nightclub and bar scene.

The berth in St. Thomas was far from the town and unattractive. That part of the port is being developed and in a year it will be more than adequate. St. Croix is still off the beaten path offering very little to visitors. Nassau was a rainy day but that wasn’t the fault of the cruise line. The port area is pretty typical and not very attractive. It isn’t a bad place to pick up some last minute overpriced items for those still on your list. As you can see, when it comes to ports of call, these left a good deal to be desired.

Tipping on the MSC Opera is still confusing. You are told in writing and in person that tipping is not necessary but the message is, rightly so, that it is a reasonable expectation. While nothing is expected we were told that $5 per person per night was reasonable for our waiter and room steward. That is higher than the $3.50 we have been told in the past on other lines. There was also the suggestion that we give our dinning room tips to the headwaiter to distribute them. Sure…I have that kind of faith! We tipped our room steward, waiter and his assistant a little better that our “standard” because they were above average.

On a personal note, I wish that cruise lines would just pay their staff a fair wage and then charge the appropriate amount to their clients. Then passengers could really tip for special services rather than feel guilty over the plight of people from third world countries who are trying to obtain a basic standard of living.

Overall we were we were well pleased with the staff. The officers seemed a little aloof, perhaps reflecting a European attitude of how “professionals” should conduct themselves. While the bar staff were not pushy, they were friendly. I don’t think enough could be said about the Entertainment Team. Their energy and creativity were boundless and added a real spark to all that they were involved in. Two American Social Hostesses, Vanessa and Amanda were great when it came to bridging any cultural misunderstandings. I think we have already stated our pleasure with our dining room and cabin staff.

Disembarking in Fort Lauderdale was easy. We had a flight that left at 11:30 AM and were scheduled to be in the fourth group to be allowed off of the ship. I think that initially a large number of people got off out of turn because it took over 30 minutes to get the first group off. We decided to get off with the second group and when asked what our group color was, I told the truth and was told that was no problem. We caught a taxi for the 10-minute ride to the airport, which cost about $15 including the tip. We made the flight with no problem.

In conclusion I would say that probably the MSC Opera is not for everyone…especially for the American who wants everything to be “made in the USA.” For those who like to be stretched and enjoy new experiences and cultures…go for it!

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