The first weekend of March 2019 heralded the 4 day, 3 night Launch Event celebrations for MSC Bellissima (literally translated as ‘beauty’). She is the largest ship to date to be christened in Southampton, by Godmother Sophie Loren on 2nd March. Headline acts included Holly Willoughby as MC, Andrea & Mario Bocelli and sets by Nile Rodgers & Chic and Craig David. My invite was for 3rd March and I couldn’t wait!! The last MSC inaugural celebrations I had attended was for MSC Magnifica in 2009, so I was interested to see how far MSC had progressed in 10 years.
MSC Bellissima is the 2nd Meraviglia class ship. Weighing in at 171,598 tonnes, she is 315.83 m long and 67 m wide. She has 19 decks (seven of which are solely accommodation decks) carries 5686 passengers and boasts 20 bars/lounges and 10 dining venues. 70% of the 2217 cabins have balconies and there are 33,000 sq m of public space on board. There are 4 pools, including one with a retractable roof (Grand Canyon Pool), as well as one for sole use of Yacht Club guests, along with 9 whirlpool/Jacuzzis and an adult only Top 19 Exclusive Solarium (on deck 19). The pool areas are situated on decks 15, 16 and 19 and collectively provide loungers for 1131 people. As with most big ships, this can create quite a busy and crowded area when a large number of guests are looking to spend time on the upper sun decks. Hence the need for ships of Bellissima size and bigger, to offer multiple alternative activities inside. The exclusivity of MSC’s Yacht Club and MSC’s port intensive itineraries with less days at sea, also help, but it is quite a juggling act when sea days offer time to relax on board with a drink, spend time in the casino and browse the shops.
I arrived at Southampton and after a seamless check in, went to my cabin – an outside cabin with an obstructed view on deck 8. Not what I call an obstruction at all – if I looked downwards and seawards I did get the orange top of a lifeboat, but there was nothing obstructing my view towards the horizon. All in all there are more than 10 different types of accommodation over 4 fare experiences (Bella, Fantastica, Aurea & Yacht Club), but not all cabin types are available within each fare, eg. Suites are only available with Fantastica and Aurea experiences, Family cabins with Fantastica only and Ocean views and Interior cabins with both Bella and Fantastica experiences. All the cabins and suites are of an adequate size, ranging from the 12 Interior Single (studio) cabins (130 sq ft (12 sq m) so larger than NCL’s studio cabins (100 sq ft) and with a 140cm bed) up to the (2) Royal Suites in the Yacht Club (730 sq ft (65 sq m) with a 430 sq ft (40 sq m) balcony), each with a 6 seater dining table and whirlpool bath.
The Interior cabins (628 in all) are 180 sq ft (17 sq m) and seemed roomier than my Ocean view cabin (136 in total) – suggesting that I perhaps had one of the smaller size ocean view cabins (160-270 sq ft (15-25 sq m). My cabin was an adequate size, but the shelf space for toiletries in the bathroom was a little small and there were no chairs in the cabin – just a vanity stool and another small stool. There are 1250 Balcony cabins (185 sq ft (17 sq m) with 45 sq ft balcony (4 sq m) and 34 Angle Balcony suites with a large corner balcony each and a whirlpool bath. All Suite accommodations benefit from a larger bathroom and each has a bathtub and shower arrangement. An attractive feature and unique to ‘Bellissima’ are the 8 Duplex Suites (bookable as an Aurea experience) which have accommodation over 2 levels comprising a double sofa bed on level one and a master bedroom on level two. The suites measure 400 sq ft (37 sq m) with a 245 sq ft (23 sq m) balcony, complete with a private whirlpool. There are 2 bathrooms – one with a bath tub and the other with a shower, as well as 2 walk in wardrobes.
Bearing in mind MSC’s family friendly pricing policy, I was especially taken with the Family cabins – there are several modular combinations of interconnecting cabins (utilising suite, balcony and ocean view configurations) which can sleep up to 10 people in total, but even if only one cabin is required there is a lot of room – there are 2 bunk beds with a curtain to separate them off from the main cabin (quite appealing to young children I would think) as well as the main bedroom area complete with a large sofa and plenty of floor space. Some of these cabins have a shower in the bathroom, others a shower over a bath tub.
Conversely, the adapted cabins were not overly large measuring from 220 sq ft (20 sq m) for a balcony cabin, but some did have an additional pullman bed which offers a nice touch for families. There is one Yacht Club deluxe suite, 32 balcony cabins and 22 interior cabins available for disabled guests.
Finally there is the Yacht Club – MSC’s ship within a ship experience, which appears on NCL ships as The Haven and The Grills on Cunard. Currently available on Bellissima, Seaview, Seaside, Meraviglia, Preziosa, Divina, Splendida and Fantasia, it is a private enclave at the top of and forward on the ship. Guests here benefit from 24-hour Butler service, a Nespresso machine in each suite, all inclusive dining in the exclusive Yacht Club restaurant, unlimited drinks (even from your mini bar) and exclusive lounge/deck areas like the panoramic Top Sail Lounge, The Yacht Club Sundeck and Bar (exclusive solarium area), The Yacht Club Grill and The Yacht Club Pool (also with 2 whirlpools). There are 77 deluxe suites in the Yacht Club (305/ sq ft (28 sq m) with a balcony measuring 55 sq ft (5 sq m) and 15 interior suites (180 sq ft (17 sq m).
Big ships also mean the provision of more and diverse dining venues. I was fortunate to be able to visit most of these during my time aboard:
The self service restaurant (The Marketplace Buffet, with seating for 1298 people) offered a choice of lunch time and evening meal dishes commensurate with other cruise lines, but I felt excelled with the late night pizzas and other snacks on offer, including a charcoal (black) dough pizza, as well as a breakfast menu with a larger selection of hot cuts than I have seen previously and some different additions in the form of caramelised bananas to go with the waffles and pancakes, as well as freshly poached pears and apples. There is also a designated area (with appropriate food choices) for families to eat together – Marketplace Family & Kids, as well as open kitchens and a Mozzarella cheese making area. Generally speaking the self service restaurant is the best place for fresh pasta on an MSC ship – which you may think is a given for an Italian ship - but in the main restaurants, disappointingly, I have only ever been offered dried pasta in a dish. Again, whilst on board the lunchtime menu in the main restaurants (Il Ciliego/ Le Cerisier (820 covers), The Lighthouse (730 covers) and Posidonia (604 covers) had more choices than the evening meal, where there was a choice of only two dishes (rather than the more usual 3 or 4), with courses quite heavily based on fish.
However the Italian bread varieties that were served with dinner were on a par with what I had eaten previously in Royal Caribbean’s Portofino, Italian speciality restaurant. MSC have raised the bar on Bellissima with regard to the range of speciality restaurants available – there is a new restaurant concept, HOLA! Tapas, on deck 6 (56 seats), from Michelin star Chef Ramón Freixa, where the focus is on shared plates that celebrate “the Mediterranean way of life”. Next to it is Jean Philippe’s ice cream parlour and creperie, with Jean Philippe’s chocolate factory and café (seating for 80 people) opposite. Here you can create customised chocolate bars on tablets. Further down on the port side is the French restaurant L’Atelier Bistrot with 80 seats, which is also open for Parisien style breakfasts. On deck 7 you will find The Butcher’s Cut – an American steakhouse, seating 82 people, with Kaito Sushi Bar (26 seats in this Japanese restaurant) and Kaito Teppanyaki (30 seats with 4 cooking stations) opposite. The filet mignon at the Teppanyaki bar was amongst the best I have ever tasted. In a nice touch, the restaurants on deck 7 also have pavement/outdoor style seating, with a view over the Galleria Bellissima. Speciality dining supplements range from €26-€39 pp, although it is possible to buy a discounted dining package. Completing the eateries is The Carousel Lounge – the venue for the Cirque du Soleil dinner shows. There is restaurant seating for 92 people here. Yacht Club guests can enjoy an exclusive menu created by renowned German chef Harald Wohlfahrt, whilst a new celebrity chef partnership has been announced with Raymond Blanc. Both chefs will have dishes featured on the Elegant Dinner menus.
The beating heart of the ship is the impressive 2 deck high promenade area - The Galleria Bellissima (running for 96m on decks 6 & 7). It is reminiscent of, but a more ‘vamped’ up version of the Royal Promenade found on Royal Caribbean Voyager Class ships (and larger classes). It is covered by the largest LED Dome at sea (reputedly as long as a football field) and has screen scenes which change every 30 minutes. Several time each evening there is The Dome Show - a light and sounds screen show with themes ranging from natural wonders to time travel and from monuments to wizardry. Whist I was on board I saw the Dome depicting Union Jacks, a Pandora/Avatar style blue flower scene, pictures of Renaissance art, the sky at night and even a live montage of Craig David’s set. I could have sat and watched it for a very long time. Galleria Bellissima also has shops along it (selling over 220 top brands including British stalwarts like Radley and luxury biscuit manufacturer Cartwright & Butler), 7 bars and all the eating venues described above. MSC’s signature Swarovski crystal staircase takes pride of place, spiralling up 2 decks, from the base of the Infinity Atrium - 96 steps, shimmering with more than 61,000 clear octagon and pear shaped pieces set in mirrored glass steps. All in all it’s the hub of the ship and a great area for people watching and taking in the light shows.
It also provides the mid ships locations for 5 of the ships bars – The Edge cocktail bar, The Bellissima Bar & Lounge, the Champagne Bar (offering up to 20 brands of champagne), the Masters of the Sea Pub (a classic British pub with a choice of 47 beers) and the TV Studio & Bar (a multi purpose broadcast studio with a dance floor where you won’t miss out on any televised sporting event). There are an additional 5 bars on the pool decks. One of my favourite venues was the Sports Bar on deck 16. Although it is part of the Sportplex area of the ship complete with a 208 sq m arena suitable for tennis, basketball, volleyball and 6 a side soccer, 2 F1 simulator cars, 2 full size 10 pin bowling lanes, a 4D interactive cinema experience (where you shoot targets with lightgun blasters in one of 3 different feature shows), a VR maze and with a games arcade nearby, it was the quietest bar on the ship. I do admit there were no children on board, whilst I was there, so it may be very different on an actual cruise!
One deck up you will find the magic world of Doremiland (aka the Kids & Teens programme on board). Situated on deck 18, there is 700 sq m of space dedicated to 5 different age groups – Baby Club Chicco (for babies and toddlers under 3 years), Mini Club (3-6 years), Junior Club (7-11 years), Young Club (12-14 years) and Teen Club (15-17 years). Partnerships with Chicco and Lego, include the Doremi Lab ( a magic Lego Game room complete with its own 3D printer) and the family orientated Doremi Studio (a TV studio/games room featuring family based activities). These include ‘Masterchef at Sea Junior’, the Kelly & Kloe Family Game Show and the Dorebro Sport Family event. The Youth Staff with MSC will also look after children at meal times (either after kids have finished their kids menu dinner, so allowing parents to complete eating at leisure or even escorting children to the Kids Corner in the Marketplace Buffet for an adult free meal) and unlike many other cruise lines will also look after children whilst parents go ashore on shore excursions.
The young and those with a head for heights may also fancy a trip to the Arizona Aquapark complete with 3 twisting water slides and the Himalaya Bridge (an 82m long suspension bridge, 200’ above the sea), as well as a selection of pools including the Horizon Pool (watched over by a large be costumed posing lady sculpture) and the Atmosphere Pool (complete with playful fountains and a large ever changing LED screen, showing scenes from around the world). Both pools have enough open deck space around them to be utilised for deck parties, sail aways and dancing under the stars.
One of the problems of providing entertainment on a ship that has a truly international, multi languaged clientele is offering something that appeals to everyone. Consequently this needs to be more of a non verbal nature, although musical elements transcend languages too! Bellissima does have its own entertainment company, who delivered their show ‘Pink’, in the London Theatre, when I was on board. The theatre seats 975 people and there will be 6 different shows each week, with 2 performances each night. Whilst it was on a par with some of the other main stream cruise lines, it certainly did not ‘wow’ me like the Broadway musicals type shows currently on offer on Royal Caribbean and NCL ships do. This will be left to the most obvious entertainment partnership that MSC could have - the predominantly mute show concepts offered by Cirque du Soleil. Two brand new exclusive shows will be on offer in the purpose built Carousel Lounge – up to 12 times per cruise, in what is a 400 seater, technology packed venue with a rotating stage. They are Syma (Sail beyond Imagination) which tells of the epic journey of a young sailor, featuring immersive video images, an original set design, bioluminescent lighting and acrobatic feats and Varelia (Love in Full Colour) which offers a futuristic twist on a traditional medieval tale, tracing the arduous course of an unusual courtship between a princess with violet skin and a blind hero. It is full of acrobatic feats, a laser show and another unique set design. Completing the entertainment line up on Bellissima are 24 musicians providing more than 300 hours of live music each cruise – for example, in the TV Studio and Bar (also used as a comedy and karaoke club), the Sky Lounge (piano bar) and the Bellissima Bar & Lounge (with a dance floor) and the DJ up on deck 18 spinning discs (or the modern equivalent) in the Attic Club.
Forward of the Carousel Lounge on deck 7, is the Imperial Casino – with 153 slot machines and 14 gaming tables, offering roulette, Black Jack, 3 card poker and Ultimate Texas Poker, there are 600 seats over its 1400 sq m area.
Completing the ‘entertainment’ on board is the MSC Aurea Spa, Thermal area and gym. The large spa area (110 sq m) also on deck 7 has 20 treatment rooms and offers over 160 different treatments, along with a hair salon, barber’s shop, manicure & pedicure salon and beauty shop. The Thermal area includes Finnish classic and soft saunas, Mediterranean baths, a salt relax room, a blower pool, emotional showers and water benches. Meanwhile the gym is midships on deck 16 (close to the Sportplex) and whilst offering the usual array of machines, fitness equipment and classes, was not overly large for the size of ship. An added bonus is the 328m power walking track outside on deck 16.
Undoubtedly MSC are making a statement with their new ships and this extends to the technology available as well. Disney were perhaps the first holiday/leisure company to successfully use apps and IT to tailor guests experience before, during and after the event, but other companies like Tauck and cruise lines like Princess (Ocean Medallion) have followed suit. The MSC for Me app allows guests to check in, open their cabin doors electronically, book seats for shows or dinner (both pre and during their cruise), communicate with friends whilst on the ship and access other digital channels. As a result, this should enhance and speed up the embarkation process, especially as it is possible to register your credit card at ATM style machines whilst actually on board Bellissima, prior to making any onboard purchases. Dotted about the ship and interacting with the app are 94 interactive screens, 195 information screens and 57 videowall monitors, as well as the TVs in each cabin. In an industry first (to be rolled out onto new ships and introduced fleetwide by 2024) Bellissima has also installed Zoe in each cabin. Developed to work with MSC for Me, Zoe is the world’s first Artificial Intelligence (AI) cruise assistant (available in 7 languages). It is voice activated, developed in association with Harman International (a Samsung subsidiary) and able to answer any one of around 800 ship related questions, asked in up to 30 different accents. It works in a similar way to an Alexa/Amazon dot.
Zoe cannot make bookings however – so remember to download the MSC for Me app prior to departure as MSC offer discounted rates for pre booking cruise additions like drinks packages, themed restaurants, spa treatments, shore excursions and wifi packages. MSC have recently revised their drinks packages and these now include, the following (although there may be some adjustments dependent on itinerary):
Easy Package – unlimited consumption of alcoholic drinks up to €6/serving
Premium Package - unlimited consumption of alcoholic drinks up to €10/serving
Premium Plus Package - unlimited consumption of any alcoholic drink
Non alcoholic Package – for adults
Non alcoholic Child Package – for children
MSC is an Italian company operating within 75 countries. Many internationally positioned cruise lines offer different campaigns in different countries –as do MSC, offering specific policies in line with local regulations, but idiosyncratically, they also charge different amounts for drinks packages depending on where the ships sail and exclude/include gratuities within the cruise cost – this will be an inclusion for UK booked guests from 2nd April 2019.
Only their on board fare codes/experiences are universal. To reiterate these are: The Bella experience operates in a similar way to Saver fares with P&O or Cunard, ie. you cannot choose your cabin number or dining time. Fantastica is the same as Select fares with P&O or Cunard, where you can choose your cabin number and dining time (a choice of either of the fixed dining times or Flexi/Your Time dining). The cabins are more mid ships positionally and on the upper decks. The Aurea fare code can be likened to Aqua Class on Celebrity ships – based on the Fantastica fare code but with the addition of Flexi/Your Time dining, unlimited drinks (as per the Easy Drink package) and priority boarding, there is also a spa package (complementary massage, tanning shower etc) and complementary access to the Thermal Area (adults only) and the private Top 19 Solarium area. Yacht Club inclusions have been described earlier.
Just bear in mind the small caveat in MSC’s Ts & Cs which allows them to change your cabin without warning, despite you having booked a specific cabin number (ie. for all cabins other than Bella types).
Travelling with MSC can be likened to taking a immersive Mediterranean holiday on shore – English will never be the first language you hear and evening meal times are likely to be later than usual on cruise ships (typically 7.30 pm for the first sitting and 9.00 pm for second sitting). Consequently, evening entertainment can go on long into the night, giving the ship a lively feel. This may also be the result of MSC attracting a younger demographic of cruisers, as well as their generous children’s pricing and facilities attracting the family market. With MSC it is always possible to compare different facets of their cruise operation with their rivals and find that they do not score as highly comparatively, but when considering the overall package on offer (including their good pricing) they are hard to beat. MSC Bellissima maybe aimed primarily at the family market, but I would not hesitate to travel on her without children. She truly is #beautyatsea.