THE FORGOTTEN SPLENDOUR 11 days on MSC SPLENDIDA

In the last couple of years I was lucky enough to travel on all new MSC ships from Meraviglia and  Meraviglia-Plus class cruise ships. Therefore, for my 48th voyage with the Italian cruise line I decided to jump back in time and return to one of my favourite Fantasia class cruise liner: MSC Splendida. And, I have to admit, without all the gimmicks of the new ships, the experience was far above all my expectations.

The Fantasia class is a class of cruise ships, operated by MSC Cruises. At present, there are four active Fantasia-class cruise ships, the lead vessel, MSC Fantasia, MSC Splendida, MSC Divina and the MSC Preziosa, which are built by STX Europe in St. Nazaire.

MSC Splendida was built in July 2009 with an investment of $550 million.

The ship was launched from the shipyard on 18 July 2008. She began her sea trials on 21 May 2009 and completed them on 27 May 2009. embarked on her maiden voyage on July 4, 2009 and returned July 11, to be officially named on July 12, 2009, in Barcelona by Sophia Loren, her godmother. Originally, she was to be named MSC Serenata, but the name was changed in May 2007 to MSC Splendida “to reflect the ship’s beauty and elegance”. The name had been changed in response to the enthusiastic reaction of Raphaela Aponte, wife of cruise line owner Gianluigi Aponte, to the designs prepared by architect De Jorio

After getting “lost” so many times on the big MSC ships, being on Splendida was like being back “home”. The ship has a really inclusive feel, with a very friendly atmosphere, offering stylish luxury and being a beautiful destination in her own right. Splendida has 14 public decks (each bearing the name of a famous Italian artist) connected by 25 lifts, with a wide range of bars and public areas and it never feels overly crowded (aside from in the main buffet at certain times of the day). There are some gorgeous public spaces, such as La Piazetta, which resembles a quaint Italian square, and the central hub of the soaring atrium, with its sweeping, glittering staircases (25,000 Euros each step!), crystal-studded piano, water feature and glass-sided lifts.

On any MSC ships, embarkation for guests in Yacht Club it is always the starting point of a long line of great memories and experiences. This time, in Barcelona a little hic-cup marked the embarkation: due to some bad weather the ship was delayed and unfortunately the staff in Barcelona Cruise Terminal didn’t have or didn’t want to give any information of an ETA. Minute after minute more and more passengers arrived at the check-in area to discover that was no ship to embark and nobody keen to give any kind of information. Fortunately for myself checking www.seascanner.com and using some leftover rum from a duty-free shopping filled in the waiting time. When finally, the ship was docked and the Yacht Club team took over the embarkation process, normal operation resumed: check-in the luggage and the cruise tickets, waiting in an elegant lounge for the results of the lateral flow tests and being escorted by one of the butlers straight to Yacht Club after skipping all security or boarding lines. Even the elevators will give you priority access when using your YC cruise cards. The efficiency of the embarkation was the first sign that I will be travelling in an excellent managed Yacht Club.

Originally, I booked for this voyage a YC1 cabin – Yacht Club Deluxe Suite but, during embarkation I heard that one of the Royal Suite was vacant and therefore I requested at the Concierge a quote for a possible upgrade. 5 minutes later the 3000 Euros for two was paid and 10 minutes later, entering Royal Suite 16007 I discovered that my luggage was already in the room. That’s what I called Yacht Club efficiency!

The Royal Suite on board MSC Splendida doesn’t have the space or the add-ons (large balcony with dining area, outdoor jacuzzi or remote-controlled curtains) found on the biggest ships. But has a charming comfy unparalleled luxury. The 36 m² room with a 16m² balcony was located on the 16th deck (Michelangelo) has a separate living area and dining room, a large bedroom and a bathroom with bathtub and shower. The walk-in wardrobe and the generous vanity area gave plenty of space for my 5 suitcases. The only weird feature was the balcony, kind of half rounded, protected by glass screens and a “ballet barre” reducing the usable space. But, taking in the account that the room is located in front of the ship where the winds can be quite strong, make all this features if not understandable at least functional. But the general feeling was of an elegant, luxurious and generous space featuring rich brass and lavish wood-effect finishes and a easy on the eye muted colour scheme.

Part of the exquisite Yacht Club package is the 24 hours service of a butler. It was always one of the highlights of any cruises on MSC. This time the experience was elevated to a completely different level.  Nurus was the quintessence of a perfect butler. His professional and attentive nature, the innate level of empathy and interpersonal skills, the pristine personal presentation add an incredible value to my experience on board MSC Splendida. Nurus tact, diplomacy and discretion were part of his daily routine and he was “there” 2 minutes before I needed him, with a kind of annoying intuitively pro-activity. It is not easy to maintain 24/7 an unbiased and prejudice-free disposition, but for Nurus was part of his genuine dedication. But maybe the biggest impact on me was Nurus and his excellent jr. Butler Rois attention to details: from the TV screen left on during the turndown service on the night when was a time change, to the perfect aligned chocolate, water and “good night” note beside the bed or the funny balloons added to my delivered laundry. While always available, Nurus and Rois were never intrusive or bothersome. Whether replacing items from my complimentary mini-bar or just choosing a different pillow from the pillow menu, they were delightful, polite and intent on doing their genuine “butlering.” Despite my protests about not having to re-tie the sash on my bathrobe that Rois neatly hangs up every morning, he happily went about his tasks.

Nothing was to much trouble and everything was perfect.

On Fantasia class ships, the restaurant dedicated to guests in Yacht Club is place in the aft of the ship, exactly in the opposite part of the vessel where the suites are. I never found this a disadvantage. More than the I do like a walk before dinner feeling the vibe of the evening or the fact that after dinner all the venues with the parties and the great cocktails are closer.

L’Olivo – the dedicated Yacht Club restaurant on MSC Splendida, creates, from the deco point of view a very Mediterranean atmosphere. The elegant room has the feel of a pavilion, with green and gold chairs, arched trellises beside the windows and draped curtains. There are plenty of tables for two, or diners can choose to sit together at larger tables. This beautiful a la carte restaurant occupies a prime position overlooking the Playa Del Sol swimming pool and aft of the ship.

In the recent years MSC stepped up their gam in the cuisine department with a more than obvious improvement in quality, presentation, and variety. I am sure that you read already my recent Yacht Club gourmet experiences on board MSC Virtuosa and MSC Seashore.

Unfortunately, on board MSC Splendida the L’Olivo restaurant was the weakest link. Almost everything, even the items in the “always available” section of the menu was just plain ugly food. You know the kind I’m talking about: Undercooked. Overcooked. Burned. Mystery meat lurking in an weird plate design. An unnamed vegetable weeping at the bottom of the crisper. The leftover cup of grayish, congealed gravy. Once again, this was my 9th cruise with MSC in 2021 and the menu didn’t change. On Virtuosa, Grandiosa and Seashore I ordered this year from the same menu and what’s arrived on the table was a fresh, vibrant and rich. I could marinate in these all day. Pun intended.

In L’Olivo the food on the table was an “expose” of the very best of “worst food” descriptions you’ll find! Adjectives like grisly, gloppy, withered, rubbery, curdled, perfectly describe a food that, to put it kindly, is beyond its prime. Funny enough, on other MSC ships the Chef takes pride in his culinary exercise and , at least twice a cruise, coms in the dining room to collect compliments or, more important, feedback. On L’Olivo in 11 days I never meet the chef once. Maybe he was to busy to add more cm at the distance between his cooking style to the expected Yacht Club dining experience.

But the most annoying thing was a massive disjunction between the food and the service. Maitre D’ Vincenzo and his team of waiters and assistant waiters provided for every breakfast, lunch and dinner an excellent service, efficient, polite, friendly trying hard to elevate, from below the sea level the gastronomic experience. Having Vincenzo as a Maître D’, Davide as a Sommelier and Giovane as a waiter made me feel guilty that 3 or 4 times I had to escape the gastronomic torture and run to a speciality restaurant or order in my cabin one of the excellent MSC pizzas.

As an alternative dining MSC Splendida has only 2 options: a steakhouse and sushi restaurant. But both of them are not to be missed.

Sea Pavillion Hot Pot by JEREME LEUNG offers creative combinations of modern Chinese dishes and classical Chinese provincial, all signature of Chef Jereme Leung’s cuisine. Highly respected by numerous international food critics, Chef Leung is an expert in all four schools of Chinese cooking – dim sum, barbecue, wok cooking and knife work and received the prestigious Five Star Diamond Award in 2000 and 2008 from The American Academy of Hospitality Science, naming him one of the “World’s Best Chefs.” He has also appeared as the Chief Judge on MasterChef China. During her deployment in Far East MSC Splendida offered here the popular “hot pot” dining style but after the forced return in the Med the menu was readjusted to European taste including a large and delicious variety of sushi. Everything was so fresh that it was melting in my mouth! From the breezing scent of the sea, crafting patterns of good omega fats, those handmade drops of exactly-mouthful sushi rice, and when was touching my mouth, it was like melting blended to my tongue, accompanying with the taste of the blue world as such you are swimming with those fish! Sounds OTT but that was exactly my feeling. And add to all of this the superb service and realise that a dinner to Sea Pavilion it’s a must when you are on board MSC Splendida. A piece of advice: the portions are huge and don’t make the same mistake like me and order 2 x tasting menu (29 Euros/person) + another 3-4 extra dishes. You will end with a doggy bag sent to your cabin.

The other speciality restaurant on board MSC Splendida, it’s the, already famous, “Butcher’s Cut”. The only oddity was the location: the speciality restaurant took the place of the former a la carte Santa Fe Tex Mex  and the giant cactuses and horse-drawn cart hardly balancing from the deco point of view the steakhouse style additions. Butcher’s Cut for dinner is great for true steak lovers. Diners can start with appetizers like a classic Caesar salad, oysters Rockefeller, foie deviled eggs or caviar. Just don’t fill up, as the steaks are the hero here. Choose from cuts like a filet mignon, ribeye or 38-ounce dry-aged tomahawk (for two) and consider a surf add-on of your choice. Desserts include New York cheesecake and lava cake and the restaurant features an extensive wine and cocktail list. No surprises here, everything was fantastic: rich, perfect slightly sweet flavour with a smooth texture bone marrow, the tender, flavourful, juicy, and cooked to perfection filet mignon and the incredibly rich & decadent lava cake. And a perfect service matched perfectly this gastronomic celebration …TWICE!

Based on my previous pleasant experience with the buffet option on Virtuosa and Seashore I tried couple of times this culinary alternative on MSC Splendida. And it was another “button badge” for the “old lady”!

Bora Bora on deck 14 is the main buffet, offering casual dining and is open 24/7 for self-service coffee, tea, water and ice, and moves from breakfast through lunch and dinner with other items in between, without a break. The buffet is conveniently located next to the Aqua Park, making it easy for passengers to pop in and out whenever they’re feeling peckish. It’s a huge space — taking up around a third of Deck 14 — and the size, and choice of food, can seem overwhelming the first time you visit. It is also fairly noisy and hectic at busy times. Many people unwittingly end up sitting in the neighbouring Pago Pago buffet as the two areas blend into each other and seem like one vast area, particularly during breakfast and lunch.

Running on from Bora Bora, the smaller Pago Pago buffet occupies a position at the aft of the ship and is the place to go to try and avoid the crowds. Open at the same times as Bora Bora, it also offers complimentary 24-hour tea, coffee water and ice along with a smaller selection of hot and cold food than the neighbouring space. There is really a free-flow of movement between the two eateries as passengers wander around looking for what takes their fancy, and many diners sit in Pago Pago if they can’t find anywhere to sit in Bora Bora. Heed the advice of the waiters and head right to the back of the ship and you will invariably find empty tables.

Although they have to rush around when the buffet is packed during the main mealtimes, members of the buffet staff are very friendly and efficient and do a great job of keeping on top of drinks orders and clearing and cleaning tables. On MSC Splendida the buffet is surprisingly good. One reason for this is the vast selection of foods required to satisfy the palates of so many different European cultures. Breakfast is a perfect example, one will find flaky croissants, fresh omelettes, juicy German sausages and English bacon. I have never experienced a buffet area where they managed to keep the food so warm, which is a significant but often under-appreciated accomplishment on any cruise ship. It’s something that the Chef in L’Olivo didn’t learn … YET!

Deck five foreword features the beautiful Strand Theater, one of the most functionally perfect production showrooms I have ever seen at sea. The floor is perfectly designed without a single pole to block the view and raked over two decks so viewing from every row is perfect. The sound is acoustically balanced with special design treatments. Avoid the balcony seats on deck seven if possible, however. Glass railings block the view and the sound system, vastly diminishing the experience.

As I am not a big fan of cruise ship shows the only time when I decided to step in Strand Theater was one afternoon when was schedule a very interesting opera recital. MSC is the only cruise line including in their entertainment schedule opera and I already saw carmen and La Traviata on board. This time the choice was interesting, maybe a little bit to “sophisticated” featuring Puccini Mascagni and Lehar instead of the expected Verdi or Strauss.  But the vocal and instrumental performance was magnificent.

The Splendida offers ten different bars and lounges, each of them unique, and most situated on decks five, six and seven. There is a small atrium only three decks tall with the reception desk, shore excursions and other passenger services on the ground floor. Deck six contains one of the most beautiful public rooms on any ship, La Piazzeta. This small courtyard resembles a village square in Tuscany. There are ceramic tile benches surrounding a beautiful flowing fountain. A person can sit here and relax with a cafe mocha and gelato. You will also find the cigar lounge and the main bar in the atrium called L’Aperitivo nearby. The Royal Palms casino offers blackjack, poker, plenty of slot machines and of course roulette. You will not find craps tables which are an American pastime.

On deck seven, you will find the wine bar L’Enoteca for tasting vino by the glass along with food pairings from around the world. Also on deck seven you will find live music every night   in the La Prua bar (with some interesting mixology offers) and the Purple Jazz Bar, featuring live dance music and karaoke in some nights. The Aft Lounge is another showroom in the stern with seating for hundreds of people and a large stage facility. The Sports Bar has the two-lane miniature bowling alley.

On MSC Splendida the main pools are on Deck 14, where the covered L’Equatore pool leads to the Aqua Park — the main outdoor hub. The covered pool, which has three hot tubs, is the quieter of the two. It is surrounded by tables and chairs, with loungers on the mezzanine deck overlooking the pool. On sunny days the Aqua Park is the main gathering spot and is a very lively area with piped music playing throughout the day and night, along with live music events such as themed pool parties, including the famous White Party. The main pool, which is 5ft 10in deep, is surrounded by decking, smaller splash pools, spraying fountains, water jets and two whirlpools. (Two more whirlpools are situated immediately above on Deck 15). The area nearest to the pool is surrounded by plenty of loungers, and tables and chairs are situated under a covered area at both sides of the ship. There is a smoking area in the Aqua Park. Adults in search of peace and quiet can head to Playa del Sol, a lovely area overlooking the stern of the ship on Deck 15 that few passengers seem to discover. The mosaic-tiled pool area, which has a hot tub is surrounded by loungers, tables and chairs.

On deck 14, the bow is dominated by the elegant Aurea Spa and Fitness Center. Unlike spas on many of the large ships, which are managed by external spa chains, the Aurea is run by MSC and specialises in Balinese spa treatments which offer something a little bit different from the norm. Next to the spa reception is the Aurea Spa Bar, open to anyone, which can be used as a relaxation area before and after treatments. The Jean Louis David salon, part of a well-known hairdressing chain in mainland Europe, is located at the entrance to the spa complex. It offers cutting and styling services for men and women, again using a variety of different products rather than one particular brand. The gym, carefully hidden behind the spa area, has a limited number of treadmills and Nordic machines as well as state-of-the-art progressive resistance apparatus. The panoramic views are impaired by sloping shaded screens on the outside deck, nevertheless it’s still a great spot to work out. Despite that for guests in Yacht Club will take you directly to the gym and spa area, I didn’t manage to find the right motivation to work out … in the last 10 years!

This journey was my 48th on board MSC cruise ships, and all 48 in Yacht Club. The Yacht Club isn’t a loyalty program and it’s not just a set of suites. The Yacht Club is what MSC Cruises calls “a ship within a ship.” It’s a luxury experience that takes your cruise to the next level — and if luxury experiences are something you value as a traveller, you’ll definitely want to pay the extra cash needed to be a member of this exclusive “club.”

On newer ships the considerably large spaces in Yacht Club and the quite big number of passengers brought the risk of loosing the “exclusive” feeling of such a product. You need an excellent service with high standards – like on my voyages on Virtuosa and Seashore to avoid the feeling of “main cruising” as I experienced recently on Grandiosa.

On MSC Splendida is no space for such risk. First of all because Yacht Club due to size and configuration retained the feeling of privacy and exclusivity. Located primarily in the bow on Decks 15, 16, and 18, the Yacht Club offers suites with butler service plus a private concierge lounge; the elegant Top Sail Lounge, with wide windows facing the horizon; a private outdoor area with a pool, two whirlpools, a sundeck, and a bar. All in all, the Yacht Club is one of the most luxurious experiences at sea.

On Splendida the YC Team know how to create the feeling that you are unique and the most important on board. Imagine having your own private lounge where you are greeted by name upon entering. Or a lovely tea-time to relax and unwind after returning from a busy day spent on shore? Wouldn’t it be nice to stretch out on a deck chair that you didn’t have to “stake out” at 7am? Your private sunning and pool/whirlpool area is accessible only to Yacht Club members. Yes, this is all possible.

Top Sail Lounge – the dedicated lounge for Yacht Club passengers has one of the ship’s premier locations — at the absolute front of the ship, with panoramic views from the slanted windows. The multipurpose space is the perfect place for a quick continental breakfast in the morning or a pre-dinner drink and a cocktail in the afternoon. And at night, the live music was a perfect companion next to a great cocktail made by Rennan. The Jr. Butlers and bartenders in the lounge were absolutely amazing and, only after one day they will remember exactly your favourite drink or snack. Beatriz, Teddy, Paula, or Andressa will always remember that every morning I start my work at 6.30AM, in the lounge with my laptop and a double expresso with ice, a Coke Zero and a Bloody Mary. The only day when I decided to stay longer in bed, the panicked and ask the Concierge if I was OK.

A special Concierge service is on duty 24 hours a day in the Yacht Club, to interface with your butler and to make sure all of your needs are met in a timely manner. Joel, Patricia, Dimitri, Caroline, Vinicius and Marija are your best friend during your cruise taking away the stress of bookings on-board for spa, restaurants or excursions. And everything was smooth and stress free under the excellent leadership of the Head Butler Jean Baptiste Dominitchi. And they are excellent confidents when you need somebody to talk to at 3AM.

On the 18th deck a private outdoor area with a pool, two whirlpools, a sundeck, and a bar are accessible only for guests in Yacht Club. I am absolutely in love with this space and to be honest I didn’t miss the huge number of sunbeds or larger pool on the bigger ships. The design of the One Pool area re-create outdoor the indoor privacy and exclusivity. Indeed, the bar and the buffet are not at the level of those on Virtuosa or Seashore due to the limited space and smaller galley, but the service was impeccable. Renan, Stavros, Reynaldo and the delightful Melissa brought outdoor the stylish service of any exclusive pool Bars on shore. And as an unforgettable memory, the alfresco pasta station with delicious everyday changeable receipt was a strong competitor L’Olivo restaurant during lunch.

Of course, after experiencing the new breath-taking, ultra tech, modern new MSC ships, I realised that for the crew on board MSC Splendida the work to “wow” guests in yacht Club was 1001 time harder. The attention to details, the passion for pampering the guests 24/7, the ability of making everybody to feel special, unique, the talent of cruise experience like no other all of this can be achieved, of course working hard but, more important having a leader who “practice what one preaches”. On any MSC Yacht Club, the YC Director has a capital role in how the game of privacy, luxury and pampering is played. And I am going back to my “far above expectations” trips on Virtuosa and Seashore and the “meh” Grandiosa one.

On MSC Splendida, Iancu Ravdan mixed a solid profession experience and a genuine passion for excellence with charisma and a very approachable “to do attitude”. From early hosur of the morning until late after midnight, from the Top Sail Lounge to the L’Olivo restaurant Iancu was “walking the talk”. Supervising, coordinating, planning but at the same time, if needed, moving sunbeds or helping the waiters, the Yacht Club Director was indubitably the architect, the mind behind the success of MSC Splendida Yacht Club.

After 48 cruises with MSC I am undoubtedly sure that the biggest asset of the cruise line is THE CREW. On MSC Splendida from the pool boys and bartenders to the officers and butlers everybody was using the brilliant basics of the cruise liner to create magic moments, devoted to the corporate slogan “Your relaxation, our dedication!”. And they managed somehow in a busy schedule, in a very difficult year for cruising industry to include each and every guest on board the wonderful MSC Family.

Those 11 days were indeed an eye opener on the unquestionably beauty and uniqueness of the MSC fantasia class ships. MSC Splendida was a brilliant reminder of the famous “Size doesn’t (always) matter. It’s all about the heart.”

And here I am with wonderful memories from my 48th cruise with MSC and getting ready for number 49, this time on MSC Magnifica, a non-Yacht Club ship.

So stay tuned and keeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep cruising!

~ by Leonard69 on December 4, 2021.

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