Life Travel

MSC Cruises brings Mediterranean flair to the Caribbean

Robin Robinson.

By Robin Robinson, Toronto Sun

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MIAMI -- As cruise ships go, MSC Divina could be described as a long cool drink of water -- 333-metres of nautical style and grace.

Glitzy but not gauche, ornate but not overdone, the Italian cruise liner even has an ultra-glamorous suite named for its ultra-glamorous godmother, Sophia Loren.

But thinking back to a recent cruise aboard Divina what pops into my mind immediately is food -- specifically Italian comfort food. Hot fresh thin-crust pizza, homemade pasta, crusty bread, icy-sweet gelato and perhaps the best cappuccino afloat.

When MSC Cruises began sailing from Miami a few seasons back, the company was anxious to make a good impression on the North American market, and to differentiate Divina from other ships of similar size.

At the time, most North Americans were not familiar with the family owned Italy-based cruise line so MSC played up its "Italian difference."

I was curious to see if there really was a discernible difference when I boarded Divina last month for a seven-night Caribbean cruise. The itinerary's three sea days -- between port calls on St. Maarten, Puerto Rico and the Bahamas -- would provide lots of time to soak up the flavour of the ship, which accommodates between 3,500 and 4,300 guests and 1,388 crew.

The verdict? While Divina has all the bells and whistles today's cruisers expect -- pools (covered pool, infinity pool, garden pool, whirlpools), waterslide, spa, gym, kids clubs, production shows, glitzy casino, multiple restaurants and bars, F1 simulator, mini-golf, boutiques and more -- it also has an Italian sensibility most noticeable in certain areas.

FOOD AND DRINK

Who doesn't love pizza and pasta? Each day, Divina's two buffet restaurants -- the side-by-side Calumet and Manitou -- serve four to five different kinds of pizza and several different pasta dishes. These staples are always hot and fresh at peak times as guests gobble them up as fast as chefs can make them. Hanging hams and salami alongside platters heaped with prosciutto and wheels of tasty Italian cheese create more Italian ambiance.

The wide variety of quality food -- especially at breakfast and lunch -- will keep even fussy diners happy and puts Divina's buffet restaurants among the best I have sampled on a ship this size. (The buffets are quite busy at peak times, so pass tables near the entrance and go further in, or plan to go at slightly off-peak hours.)

In the Black Crab and Villa Rossa dining rooms, pasta courses such as pumpkin-stuffed ravioli or tagliatelle with porcini mushrooms are on every menu, along with risottos and traditional cruise-ship dining staples -- grilled Angus steak and lobster tail, prime rib roast, herbed rack of lamb, broiled salmon, roast turkey and the like.

Any Italian chef worth his mozzarella will not serve bad pasta, so more than 70% of the pasta served on Divina is made fresh in a giant-sized pasta machine that Karen Kruger of Tour Services points out during a tour of the spotlessly clean galley. Almost all of the bread, rolls and desserts are also made from scratch.

More Italian flavours are found at La Cantina di Bacco, a rustico wine bar-pizzeria where you can nibble on a plate of antipasto and sip Italian beer or wine while watching the chef expertly spin pizza dough in the air before loading it up with fresh toppings and popping it into the pizza oven. All of MSC's 12 ships have at least one master pizza maker.

Among Divina's specialty restaurants, the standout is Eataly. MSC partnered with the Italy-based food emporium, which also has outlets in New York and Chicago, to create a little Eataly at sea.

The floating version includes the Eataly Steakhouse, which seats 100, the fine dining 24-seat Ristorante Italia, and a shop selling artisan foods such as olive oil, pesto, balsamic vinegars, etc.

We dined at the steakhouse, where decor is modern but the food, wine and service are all Old World exceptional. This was my favourite dining experience of the cruise.

Others in our small group of travel writers thought the innovative tasting menu in the Galaxy restaurant was the best meal of the trip. I found the portions there a little too large for a tasting menu, and service a tad slow. But the glam room at the front of the ship, which doubles as a disco, certainly offers the best views.

Coffee is the kickstart to most of our days, and the capper to most of our meals.

I love Italian coffee, which tends to be strong and smooth but not bitter. MSC's house brand java is Segafredo -- a partnership with the Italian coffee giant -- so, to my taste, the coffee served in the buffet is a notch above that served on many large ships.

Those who like bolder coffees may not agree. But all coffee lovers will embrace the aromatic barista-made cappuccinos, espressos, machiatos, and the like served at the Cafe Italia coffee bar.

Other Italian specialties on board: the Nutella crepes corner, the poolside Venti gelato stand, the Martini menu in La Luna piano bar, Disaronno liquers in the Garden Bar, and Campari cocktails in the Divina Bar.

AT THE HELM

When not on the bridge, the ebullient Captain Pier Paolo Scala is very visible around the ship. He mingles easily with guests during the Captain's dinner, the Captain's cocktail party and the well attended Q&A With The Captain, which is held once per cruise.

During the information session, passengers pose questions on everything from safety to smoking to environmental policies. Scala answers all questions directly.

And while he enjoys meeting and greeting guests, "safety is always No. 1," Scala says.

The captain, who has 20 years experience on cruise ships, also explains how regulations require that ships stick to a "prescribed course," that can only be changed after notifying officers and head office.

An example of changing course came when our beach day at Great Stirrup Cay in the Bahamas was cancelled because stormy weather would have made tendering to shore impossible. Scala arranged for Divina to call at Grand Turk in Turks and Caicos instead, where there is a permanent cruise centre with a pier, shops, restaurants and beach facilities.

Scala is also very plugged into Twitter (@ppscala) and invites feedback from passengers on what Divina is doing right as well as areas that need improvement.

"We do everything to make guests happy," he says. "When we see guests going home happy, it's a matter of pride."

SHOWTIME

Nightly shows are staged in Divina's glittering 1,600-seat Pantheon Theatre. During our cruise, these included the Wonderland extravaganza, the Starwalker Michael Jackson tribute, a French-style cabaret show, Pirate Tales, and a Frank Sinatra review.

The visually stunning productions feature talented singers, classical and contemporary dancers, high-energy gymnasts, acrobats, contortionists, jugglers and more, performing some interesting physical feats given the often indiscernible but ever-present motion of the ocean.

Lead dancer Antonio Lazaro, who plays the Mad Hatter in Wonderland, says any move that involves a jump is a challenge.

"Timing is crucial," Lazaro says. "You always have to think in the air about where -- and when -- your feet will make contact with the floor."

Interestingly, there is no bar service in the theatre, perhaps reflective of different cultural attitudes toward entertainment.

After dinner, singers belt out popular tunes in dance lounges around the ship. Most afternoons and evenings an excellent classical trio performs in the sparkling central atrium on Deck 5; one afternoon there were operatic selections from La Traviata.

DIVERSIONS

In addition to pool games, dance lessons, sunset sailaways, bingo and the like, Divina has several wine-related activities.

We took a Winery At Sea class during which participants taste different varietals then experiment with wine blending.

With expert guidance from onboard winemakers Mary and Peter Lichty, you perfect a personal blend, give it a name and have it bottled. One bottle of your wine is included with the class, which is a bargain at $40. Additional bottles can be ordered for $20 each, and your formula is kept on file.

While you will likely learn something about wine, the goal is "just to have fun," says the down to earth Mary Lichty, who adds there are "no right or wrong answers in this class" and the "only palate you should care about is your own."

When not at sea, Mary works at Raymond Vineyards in California's Napa Valley, where she also leads wine blending courses.

I christened my blend of syrah, merlot, cabernet sauvignon and malbec Divina Divine!

DESIGN

With acres of marble, brass, mirrors, crystal staircases and a stone piazza -- Divina could have been gaudy but instead she's glamorous.

The show-stopping twin Swarovski staircases, from the 5th floor atrium to the 7th floor, ooze bling with each glass step filled with sparkly crystals! Wow.

We couldn't tour the Sophia Loren Royal Suite as it's almost always occupied. But we are told it is finished in rich reds and has a reproduction of the film star's dressing table as well as other items selected by her.

We did enjoy checking out La Dolce Vita: 1950-1960. Stars and Celebrities in the Italian Fifties, though. The exhibition of 84 vintage images is on display around the ship through 2014.

AUREA SPA

Of course, Divina has a beautiful spa with a full range of body and beauty treatments, and wellness services including acupuncture.

Unlike many cruise lines, MSC runs its own spas and does not contract out the services, says Paola Smorra, the spa director.

Smorra says in general, massage -- particularly hot stone massage -- is very popular with North Americans, while beauty treatments -- especially facials and anti-aging treatments -- are most popular with Europeans.

The spa's signature Aurea Del Mare treatments use elements drawn from the sea, including shells and marine oils in massages, facials and thalassotherapy. There is also a spa menu for teens, Smorra says.

The oceanview fitness centre has every exercise machine you might need to work off all that pizza and pasta, and classes, including yoga and aqua cycling.

SPIC AND SPAN

From the galleys to the garbage room, from the public areas to the crew areas, Divina is spotlessly clean. Passengers can see for themselves during a behind the scenes ship tour (about $50 per person) offered twice per cruise.

NEED TO KNOW

To mark National Cruise Vacation Month, MSC Cruises has several offers for residents of Canada and the U.S. These must be booked by Oct. 31 and apply to select ships and cruises in the Caribbean and Mediterranean. Deals include:

-- Balcony staterooms at ocean-view rates, plus kids aged 11 and under sail free.

-- Guests who upgrade to MSC's new "Fantastica experience" get a complimentary drinks package (12 vouchers), choice of a premium location stateroom and dining time, and additional goodies.

-- An extra offer provides pre-paid gratuities on all Divina seven-night Caribbean sailings between Oct. 18 and Dec. 13.

-- For full details on MSC Cruises, visit msccruisesusa.com, call 1-877-665-4655 or contact a travel agent. Ask for "CLIA National Cruise Vacation Month" promotion when booking.


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