THE AGONY AND THE ECSTASY

A review of a cruise on MSC Meraviglia – The Yacht Club Experience

Maybe is not the usual headline for a cruise review but, for sure, those lovers of old blockbusters amongst you will recognise the name of the 1965 American film directed by Carol Reed, starring Charlton Heston and Rex Harrison and based on Irving Stone’s biographical novel. My Mediterranean cruise on board MSC Meraviglia at the end of 2017, beginning of 2018 was an odd mixture of success and failure, original and “déjà vu” … agony and ecstasy.

Launch in June 2017, MSC Meraviglia, triggered an impressive hype in all on-line channels, bloggers and traveller from all around the world jumping to praise the “Wonder” (the English translation of Meraviglia), a ship created to amaze with her contemporary design and feature-filled decks plans. Hailed as the largest cruise ship ever to be built by a European cruise line, accommodating more than 5,700 passengers, the 13th ship in MSC’s fleet made its debut in grand fashion after being named by screen legend Sophia Loren at an extravagant ceremony in the French port of Le Havre. The statistics are impressive. The 171,598 gross tonne ship is 315 metre long, 65 metres tall, and carries up to 5,714 guests at a time. MSC Meraviglia is one of the largest family-friendly vessels afloat.

Therefore, when I secured a booking for an YC1 cabin on the New Year Eve Meraviglia’s cruise the excitement and expectations hung in the air, I could have sliced it with a knife. On the last day of 2017, flying between Gatwick and Genova I couldn’t stop thinking how lucky I was to spend “la vigilia di Capodanno” on board of the promised floating wonder of MSC.

The first sight of MSC Meraviglia was really impressive as she was dominating with her majestic figure the dock of Genova Cruise Terminal, bigger than other MSC ships I’ve been travelling on. As always, when travelling with MSC the check-in for Yacht Club passengers was flawless: my luggage was taking care of right from the moment when I stepped out of the taxi, I had time to relax before boarding the ship in an intimate dedicated lounge in the terminal with a glass of Prosecco and sweet treats and I was escorted directly to the Yacht Club Concierge on the 16th deck by a charming butler. I didn’t care too much about the quite hectic passage from the Terminal to the Concierge just because our escort was performing an amusing and well conducted “small talk”, perfect for moving our attention from what was happening around me. For sure MSC didn’t planned for Meraviglia the same shortcuts like on other ship, to help YC guests to avoid lines, overcrowded lobbies and elevators

Click here to watch a video about embarkation on MSC Meraviglia in Genova

On my previous cruises with MSC (3 on Preziosa, 2 on Splendida and 4 on Fantasia) the first WOW moment when stepping in the Yacht Club was the Concierge area: the spacious lobby, the luxurious decor, the lights, the Sky Eye and the Swarovski staircase creating the perfect ambience to suggest a  luxurious exclusive space. On MSC Meraviglia this wow moment is lost: the Concierge reminded me of a reception in a small 3 star hotel in a London suburb, the Swarovski staircase gave me the feeling that the budget ended before the work was done and the lack of space and light made me think that we entered the back office of the Yacht Club instead of the reception area. Later I will realise the physical dimension of this lack of space when waiting for an available Concierge I had to wait under the staircase due to the lack of space, missing so much the comfy and elegant sofas from the other smaller and less glamorous sisters of Meraviglia.

Fortunately, I saw friendly familiar faces from other voyages and their “welcome home!” made me feel that I was finally back in what I love so much on MSC: The Yacht Club. But I was brought back to Meraviglia reality when being escorted to my cabin, an YC1 on deck 15th I had to squeeze again in a narrow passage under the main staircase (this section without the famous crystals) to access the corridor. While I understand perfectly that in the cruise business fitting as many passengers as you can on a cruise ship is one way to maximise profit, I still don’t understand why the highest paying guests on board need to experience this trend. When Royal Caribbean or NCL started sailing the big girls (Harmony of the Sea or Norwegian Escape) the guests in suites, paying triple or more than the price of an interior or ocean view weren’t touch by the “fill the space to the limit” trend. In hospitality business, space was always a sign of luxury. In all my previous MSC experiences, Yacht Club, this ship within a ship, was an exclusive haven of refinement, a real place where you can savour exclusivity and privacy in a world of choice. How can this apply to an interior cabin located in YC on MSC Meraviglia? It’s hard for me to understand the concept, despite the fact that I understand the reason.

The first “déjà vu” was my cabin, an YC1, 1502 which looks more like a hotel room than a ship accommodation. The inspired layout of the furniture, eliminating unnecessary elements and playing smart with the colour scheme reminded me of the same successful experiment done by Celebrity with the Sky Suite. YC1 is a comfortable and generous living space on board MSC Meraviglia exceeding similar on-board accommodation on NCL, Costa or Royal Carribean. To be honest the YC1 cabin on board MSC Meraviglia seemed to be more spacious than the QV5 on Cunard’s Queen Victoria. Of course is still  odd that the YC1 cabin is called a suite, when a suite in any types of public accommodation denotes, according to most dictionary definitions, connected rooms under one room number. In reality YC1 is just a cabin, indeed larger than inferior grades, but still a cabin, or to be posh … a stateroom.

Click here to watch a video about YC1 cabin on MSC Meraviglia

The cabin had couple of modern touches, updates which bring MSC in line with the competitors: electric switches next to the door which say to replace the old fashioned hanging signs “make up room” and “do not disturb), the A/C linked to the key slot and the balcony door to control the energy consumption,  reading lights on either side of the bed which gave bright light in a concentrated zone, fully articulated, operated by touch sensitive on/off switches. and of course, another “déjà vu”, the ‘connected’ guest experience digital innovation programme “MSC for me” via a huge flat monitor.

“MSC for me” is brilliant! The programme is a multi-level technology platform that has been designed to improve the quality of cruise holidays on an individual base. Is a user friendly digital multi-channel experience available through mobile apps, interactive cabin TV screens, public interactive on-board screens and wearables providing guests with over 130 smart features geared towards a fully optimised holiday experience. These include a dedicated app to help guests tailor their holidays at any point on their journey, whether they are booking their excursions prior to embarkation or a speciality restaurant whilst relaxing by the top-deck pool. Meraviglia has 16,000 points of connectivity, 700 digital access points, 358 informative and interactive screens, and 2,244 cabins with RFID/NFC access technology. I used it couple of times whilst on board and I can say that Royal Carribean and NCL are one step behind, while HAL or Cunard are still in another century.

Another big change inside of YC1 cabins was the bathroom. MSC never match the size of the bathrooms on similar grade cabins of the competition. But on MSC Meraviglia the bathtub vanished without a trace. I am not a big fan of bathtubs and the mini wet-room with a glass panel and the two shower heads (the standard wall mounted spray head and the large overhead “Rain” shower fitting) was more than enough; but once again a “suite” deserve at least a bathtub if not a whirlpool tub like NCL or Cunard provide in their Heaven or Queens Grill suites.

For me the biggest issue was the storage space. There was only a shrink full double wardrobe, for hanging clothing, and a half width cupboard with 6 shelves, in the small vestibule outside the bathroom door. Whoever designed the cabin thought that everybody on board is flying Ryanair hand luggage only.  I know that I am. Most of the time, exaggerated and never travel light but, for God sake, for a 7 days cruise you need at least a change of clothes per day! And if you multiply that by 2 passengers per cabin, one of you will made the sacrifice to use the suitcase under the bed as an extra storage space. And at the end of the day, at least on board MSC ships, despite of an inexistent dress code, dressing smart for dinner is my way to respect and appreciate the crispy, perfect appearance of the crew. My solution was a little bit extreme but worked with the great help of the Concierge: I booked an interior studio on the 9th deck and use it as a walking-in wardrobe. As I said extreme but necessary!

I wonder how many extra cabins/wardrobes Sophia Loren, the Godmother of the ship, needs if she decided to come in holiday on MSC Meraviglia? Of course, she will have a Royal Suite. I travelled in YC3 cabins on other ships and indeed is an amazing experience. I wanted to repeat on board Meraviglia but unfortunately nothing was available for the end of 2017 or even in the entire 2018. Is not due to the price of special offers, you will pay almost double than the price for a normal YC1, is just because they are only 2 YC3 on board. Where’s the logic in this design decision? Instead of placing in YC more expensive cabins for a market keen and able to pay a good amount of many for their luxurious holiday and as a chain reaction spending more money on board, you choose to squeeze 10 “inside Yacht Club suites” which sounds worst than the virtual windows in inside cabin on board Royal Carribean! And on top of that the beautiful duplex suites are not part of the Yacht Club despite the fact that they are more expensive than the YC interior. Once again where is the logic? I did the maths to prove my point but is not the time and place to do it again!

While the MSC Yacht Club is considered a “private oasis of luxury and amenities,” it’s the Top Sail Lounge that could be considered social central.  It’s here that you can meet up with friends, old and new, and have a drink, relax, and take in the view. On all other MSC ships Top Sail Lounge acted as a magnet for all guests with its great view, top notch service, and convenient proximity to all YC cabins. Meraviglia missed again the chance for another wow moment. The lounge is smaller, making room to more cabins in Yacht Club, with less space for guests, which made it overcrowded on sea days when the weather is not at it’s best or embarkation/disembarkation days. And don’t forget that on a MSC ship every day is an embarkation/disembarkation day! Less choice for breakfast or snacks, less attention to details in the way how the food and the drinks were presented and a less attentive service made me to spend less time here, despite the fact that on Splendida, Fantasia or Preziosa I would love to move my bed in the lounge!

MSC is one of the few cruise lines which take guests’ feedback very seriously. And was a pleasant surprise to discover that on MSC Meraviglia the restaurant dedicated to YC guests was included in the layout of the Yacht Club, placed on the 18th deck with stunning views in front of the ship. The new design was another success: the colour scheme, lights and deco follow the idea of a sleek modern restaurant, with an understated elegance like on Viking ships or the Luminae restaurant on Celebrity vessels. Even the menu was improved. Gone are the old 6 or 7 courses with a choice of 2 or 3 items in each course, and in are 3 course menus with 6 or 7 choices in each course, which give the chance to the Chef and his team in the galley to focus more on quality and presentation. And, as fussy as I am with food, I can say that each dinner was a success.

The service in the restaurant still have PLENTY of room for improvement. Everybody attitude remind me of a corner pizzeria in touristic area of Naples where a returning customer is not a goal but a miracle. Mirroring the attitude of the Maître D’ the waiters were running chaotically around with no time for an expected high-class service. Fortunately, the Sommelier balanced the entire service experience with his manners and knowledge. Maybe MSC must re-asses the distribution of the waiters in Yacht Club restaurant, this time based on skills and not necessary nationality.

The One deck – the outdoor area of the Yacht Club is another massive success on Meraviglia. Having the advantage of a bigger size the layout of this space is amazing, a perfect retreat in open spaces if you want to escape the indoor. A dedicated bar area, one for breakfast and dinner, a decent size paddling pool, secluded cabanas which can be booked and on top of this a flawless high-class service made this place one of my favourite destination on board. There is a noticeable flaw in the “One Deck” in that there are not enough loungers available to accommodate all the YC guests on a sunny sea day. This is a major failing by MSC in the planning of the use of the space in the Yacht Club. I was sailing in January when, in some day, I was alone on The One deck but, I can’t stop wondering how this place will look on a sunny sailing day in July or August and if you will find any difference between this area and the overcrowded with sunbeds and pizza slices in the hot tub around the main pool.

Click here to watch a video about The One Pool & Sundeck YC area on MSC Meraviglia

The biggest asset of MSC Yacht Club product is the excellent staff; from butlers and concierge to barmen and assistant butlers everybody works with an incredible dedication to make the Yacht Club product better and more valuable than initially designed. The YC team is the main reason why the entire product is so successful and returning customers sometimes are very forgiving when the company cuts some corners.

But expanding the Yacht Club at the size on MSC Meraviglia comes at a price: sometimes is not enough staff and not enough time to offer the expected and promised personalized experience and the lack of experience at the management level creates space of failures.

And I will give two examples. For New Year Eve a lavish party with oysters and champagne was organised for the countdown moment with music, officers and social hosts dressed to impress and ready to create the perfect atmosphere for a memorable year change. Everything was planned with a huge attention to details except one single but major element: sending invitations to the guests. I was lucky popping in the lounge half an hour before midnight to have a pre-party drink to discover the amazing event. Other guests realised that the next day and wasn’t a great feeling for the beginning of a new year. I wonder how much experience or common sense you need to realise that the most important ingredient for a successful party is to have guests who attend the event.

Maybe was just an on-off slip but guess what? The entire story was repeated couple days later: in the early evening wearing a pair of shorts, t-shirt and some trainers I enter the lounge for a quick drink before getting ready for dinner. Big surprise: a group of smiley, elegant dressed social hosts greeted me at the entrance, one of the butlers placed on my table an exquisite cocktail while another one was tempting me with a tray full of delicate canapés. Asking around I found that the Capitan and the Yacht Club Director organised a cocktail to thank all guests in YC for their return business and support – a great and thoughtful idea applied by other company as well. But again, somebody, somehow forgot to invite the guests – the reason to spend a lot of money and energy.

This time I didn’t fight the feeling of “party gate-crusher” and I left. I don’t know about you, but I learned for my mother that you don’t go to a party uninvited and on top of that a “cocktail party” required as a sign of respect for your host a “cocktail attire” and not a pair of shorts and an afternoon t-shirt! The Capitan didn’t show on and later the Concierge apologise and was giving me the excuse that the cocktail was mentioned in the daily program printed especially for the YC guests. 100% correct, it was there but, in case if you were a dedicated reader of the publication, you will need great skills to find the mention written with letters smaller than the ones announcing some kids activities or another discount in the on-board shops.

Don’t get me wrong: I like MSC and I am in love with the Yacht Club product. Maybe all the reviews I read about Meraviglia were driven by personal reasons (how you can write bad when the cruise line paid for your holiday) or maybe the Yacht Club feels different when the ship is docked during a media guided tour. My feeling was that in Meraviglia case MSC sacrificed the luxurious and personalized YC experience, so perfectly created on other ships,  on the altar of financial motivations.

The high class service from the beginning until the very end of the cruise is one of the many reasons why a cruise in a suite on the MSC Yacht Club is well worth it.  Being a fan of a luxury driven vacation, I consider that Meraviglia was not exactly my cup of team and I am happy to return to one  of the Fantasia-class ships  having already booked this year one cruise on Divina, two on Preziosa and one of Fantasia.

~ by leonard69 on February 13, 2018.

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