American travelers don’t always like the cultural differences of the European-style cruise experience.
First, English isn’t the primary language spoken on board, and then there are the cultural difference in such things as late dining and activities.
But the Italian-based MSC Cruises is coming to the Caribbean with a modified Mediterranean-style of cruising that they hope will have the right mix of European and American-style to appeal to the U.S. audience.
Still little known among Americans, the cruise line last month launched the 1-year-old MSC Divina -- its newest and largest ship yet to sail Caribbean cruises -- from Miami for the 2014 winter season.
The 4,345-passenger, 139,400-ton Divina is the largest vessel in Genoa-based MSC Cruises’ fleet, a small 12-ship subsidiary of one of the largest cargo companies in the world: Mediterranean Shipping Company.
The cruise line is doing many things to make Americans feel more welcome. First, English is spoken exclusively unless the entire ship needs to be addressed. (Fire drills will be in five languages, but English first.)
Also, for budget-conscious travelers, the prices can be very affordable. A 7-day voyage to the Caribbean can be as low as $469 per person.
Rick Sasso, MSC’s chief of American operations, said the goal for Divina is to offer the “Mediterranean way of life” for Americans, by “enjoying the moment” and by doing things in a “slow and languid” manner.
Will this strategy work? The cultural differences and expectations between American and European cruisers are subtle, but they still matter. Other ships from both MSC and Costa have tried this before, with varied results.
Sasso believes the Divina, with its state-of-the-art features, new staff, new stage shows and all the latest technology, will make the sale. But the staffing is a challenge. Working for gratuities is less common in Europe, so service can be spotty; many cruisers in Europe accept that as normal, but in the Caribbean many Americans will find it frustrating.
Divina is a lovely ship, with a wide variety of contemporary décors in a number of public rooms. The atrium is framed by four separate staircases made of Swarovski Crystal, sparkling like diamonds in the special lighting. There are many compelling original works of art throughout, including a dedicated statue gallery with large pieces in the style of Portuguese master sculptor Fernando Botero.
There are extensive dining and entertainment options, children’s programs with water slides, spa and gym facilities, pools and hot tubs and plenty of deck space.
Dining Euro-American Style
Instead of the now ubiquitous “open-seating” dining most contemporary cruise ships offer, Divina offers only early and late sittings at 6:30 and 9:00 with assigned tables and the same waiter every night. The dinner hours are longer and later for the benefit of the Europeans on board.
Sasso encourages Americans to accept this as the “Mediterranean-style slow living” way of cruising. But just in case some Americans do not see it that way, Divina picked up many new crewmembers just before the ship landed in Miami, many of them with previous cruise experience and most with a good command of English. They will speed up the dinner service if they sense the patrons are not happy.
The ship’s Lido buffet area is open 20 hours per day, but the availability of quality food is unpredictable. The selection can be surprisingly varied and extensive at times, or sadly limited. A key alternative if you want dinner before 6:30 p.m. is the always-open Sports Bar with delicious hamburgers, fish and chips and other dishes at very reasonable a la carte prices.
Other specialty dining options include the steakhouse “Eataly,” based on a well-known Manhattan Italian restaurant and deli-market from Chef Mario Batali. Half of Eataly has a la carte dining and is open for lunch and dinner; the beef is Black Angus from Kansas, and it’s delicious. The service is typical Euro-style -- slow but with very knowledgeable and interactive waiters and sommeliers. One downside is the acoustics; it’s a loud dining experience. The other half of Eataly is a small, $34 per person, prix fixe fine dining area called Ristorante Italia, where the pre-set menu changes nightly.
There is also a separate Eataly-affiliated pizzeria next door where deliciously prepared hard crust pies cost $8.50 to $13 and are enough for two people.
The staterooms have familiar tubs and king-sized beds. There is pay-per-view television available, but it is pricey -- $16 for a new release movie like Django Unchained. Unfortunately, the TVs are small and in some rooms too far way to watch anything, let alone a pricey movie.
MSC does not charge passengers booking from the U.S. for room service on Divina, except between 11:00 pm and 6:00 a.m. People who book from Europe, however, will be charged for the same service, which does seem unfair. It is just $3.50 per sandwich or tray of fruit all day long, and everyone pays for freshly prepared and delivered pizza from Eataly.
Passengers who want drinks and special service included can try the “Yacht Club” suites, which share a private dining spot called Le Muse, an exclusive sun deck and a private clubhouse with an open bar and free snacks day and night. The Yacht Club staterooms are plush, but small for suites. They come with butler service and a “no-charge” mini-bar prefilled with beer, wine, spirits and snacks.
The main theater stage shows are visually complex, some with huge casts of some 20 diverse singers, dancers, contortionists and gymnasts. These are the same shows the line presents in the Mediterranean, which means big visual content over anything resembling a thematic plot.
Other entertainment options include large live dance bands, classical music quartets, jazz duets, disco-style dancing and the sports bar. For kids of all ages there is a “4-D Movie Theater,” where you strap into a movable bucket seat, wearing a pair of 3-D specs, and watch an 8-minute movie simulating a roller-coaster ride through the Grand Canyon and outer space. The chairs shake, the winds blow and the sounds shatter your eardrums. The cost is $7.00 per person.
Divina is a beautiful new cruise ship that offers something new and different in the Caribbean. At the very worst, travelers may not love the food or service at times, but at other times you just might discover an authentic European cruise experience with romantic undertones you never expected.
Paul Motter is the editor of CruiseMates.com, an online cruise guide. Follow him on Twitter @cruisemates.