Finding the intimacy of a yacht on a large ship
As soon as we stepped out of the taxi at the port in Barcelona to embark on our Mediterranean cruise, Vishesh, the stately head butler of the Yacht Club on the MSC Divina, greeted us warmly by name. He led us to the check-in desk inside the terminal as our bags were whisked away.
At the desk, we were offered a drink, photographed before receiving cruise identification/keycards, and introduced to our cabin butler, Edwin, who took over from there. He led us to the Yacht Club reception desk on Deck 15 of the ship. Unlike the lengthy check-in process typical on most large ships, this one took no more than ten minutes from start to finish.
Edwin introduced us to the concierge and led us to our cabin, where a complimentary bottle of chilled Prosecco was waiting, and our bags arrived simultaneously with our bodies (also unusual on large ships).
The Big Ship
Not well known to the North American market, Naples-based MSC is the only privately owned Italian cruise line. Launched in May 2012, Divina is the company’s newest in a fleet of 12 ships. Divina has two sister ships in the same Fantasia class: the MSC Fantasia and the MSC Splendida, launched in 2008 and 2009, respectively. Each of these ships offers an exclusive enclave of Yacht Club suites.
Although not a megaship, Divina would definitely be classified as a big ship. It is 333 meters (approximately three football fields) long spread over 18 decks. It can accommodate some 4000 passengers and 1300 crew, and has multiple restaurants, coffee bars, cocktail lounges, shops, and indoor and outdoor swimming pools and whirlpools. It also has a full-service spa, gym, cybercafé, 1600-seat theater with lavish nightly shows, lectures, 4D cinema, Formula 1 simulator, water slide, bowling alley, discotheques, power walking track, and more.
The dramatic mauve and black onyx décor of the ship’s six-level atrium is accented with sparkling stainless trim, cylindrical glass elevators, and solid-glass steps embedded with dazzling Swarovski crystals. The boat is kept immaculately clean throughout and looks brand new, even in areas that are in constant use. The boat was remarkably stable, too, even in bad weather.
The Ship Within
The Yacht Club, MSC Divina’s “ship within a ship,” is targeted to cruisers who prefer an intimate, small ship experience, without having to give up the amenities available on larger vessels. The experience is distinctly different from the rest of the ship: There is more space, privacy, pampering, and personal service, akin to the perks associated with a concierge floor at a five-star luxury hotel.
The Yacht Club is located on portions of three decks: Decks 15, 16 and 18, all towards the bow of the ship. (Similar to buildings in the U.S. without a 13th floor, there is no 17th floor because Italians consider the number 17 to be unlucky.) The three-floor enclave with 69 suites in total has its own eye-catching spiral stairway with Swarovski crystal steps and an exclusive elevator that provides private access to the spa. Club entry is restricted to “members,” accessible only with their keycards.
The club’s virtual living room is the spacious Top Sail Lounge and Bar on Deck 15. Furnished with curved brown banquettes and loveseats, it has a serene ambiance, which is never crowded and has unobstructed, 180-degree views of the sea. Waiters circulate offering guests hot or cold drinks or snacks. A circular concierge desk (staffed 24/7) is adjacent to the lounge.
On Deck 18, guests can swim in the private pool or use two dedicated whirlpools. Lounge chairs are always available on the sundeck, and they are more generously spaced compared to those elsewhere on the ship. The Yacht Club-dedicated La Muse Restaurant is located on Deck 15 at the ship’s stern.
While excursions, spa treatments, and transportation to and from the ship are extras, passengers aren’t nickel-and-dimed for bottled water, sodas, specialty coffees, cocktails, or wine with dinner. The premium you pay for the luxury of the Yacht Club (approximately twice the cost of a regular balcony suite) translates into more comfortable cabins, no loud announcements, no crowds at the pool or sundeck, no lines or waits, higher ratios of (better trained) crew to passengers, and hassle-free embarkation and disembarkation. For example, each butler serves only four guest cabins, not only responding to but also anticipating requests. On the rest of the ship, a steward is responsible for as many as 20. In fact, crew goes out of their way to anticipate and respond to any reasonable request.
We stayed in Cabin 15013, a deluxe suite, and the most affordable of three stateroom categories in the Yacht Club. The room wasn’t as spacious as some suites on small luxury ships but it was comfortable and didn’t feel confined because of its design and use of mirrors. Larger suites with pullout couches were available to accommodate small families.
Our room was attractively furnished with mauves, browns, and dark woods. It included a sleeping area, sitting area with a desk, walk-in closet with ample drawer space, and sliding glass doors leading to a balcony with two chairs. The in-room safe was at eye-level and easy to access.
The bathroom had a single marble-topped sink, attractive hardware, sufficient shelf and cabinet space, and a combined shower/bath with a half-glass panel that kept water in and allowed light inside. Toiletries were MSC-branded rather than luxury brands.
Housekeeping services in our cabin were flawless over the 11-day voyage. While the ship didn’t have a self-service laundromat, laundry could be sent out for washing and ironing, and returned the next day at a reasonable cost (30 pieces for 25 Euros).
Guests in the Yacht Club can eat all their meals within the club, totally bypassing the traditional buffet lines and main dining rooms. The Top Sail Lounge serves buffet breakfasts and lunches, traditional high tea service, and small plates accompanied by soft drinks, bottled water, wines, beers, cocktails, snacks, and excellent specialty coffees throughout the day. (At no additional charge, except for premium wines and liquors). The lounge is conveniently located only steps away from the cabins, so it is an inviting place to sit, chat, read, or listen to soft, live piano music.
Breakfast, lunch and dinner are served at La Muse, the peach-hued formal restaurant, which has two fixed seatings. The room is shaped in a long arc, allowing plenty of space and privacy between tables. Overall, the entrees were somewhat limited in number compared to other cruise lines. Traditional southern Italian dishes, including fresh pastas, were the most appealing and tasty choices; continental dishes were often disappointing (either overcooked or of poor quality) and not up to par with luxury cruise dining, although the wait staff was professional, engaging and solicitous.
One logistical drawback is that La Muse is located at the opposite end of the ship from the Yacht Club. This means that guests need to trek through busy (and often smoky) bars, lounges, and shops on Deck 6, or follow the narrow labyrinth of cabin-lined hallways on Deck 13 to get there. Perhaps, the boat’s architect intentionally chose this location to help passengers work off a few calories before and after dinner.
Weather permitting, a lovely, hot and cold lunch buffet with waiter service is set up daily on the Deck 18 sundeck, just steps from the pool. Drinks are also available throughout the day at the pool bar.
The minibar in each cabin is generously stocked with complimentary juices, spirits, soda, bottled water, and nuts—and a fresh fruit bowl is replenished daily. Another minor disappointment: 24-hour room service is also limited in terms of menu choices and doesn’t offer course-by-course delivery.
Wherever you turn, Yacht Club crew is there to greet you or extend help. The butler assigned to each stateroom makes sure the guest experience is seamless. Instead of having to call an anonymous reception desk for problems or requests, the butler is unobtrusive but always available. He can help guests unpack, connect to the Internet (which, incidentally, was the best Wi-Fi connection we’ve ever experienced on any ship), or make reservations for activities on the boat, or for excursions or transportation on shore.
On port days, the butlers accompany small groups of guests off the boat and directly to the doors of waiting vehicles so there is no confusion or long waits in the disembarkation process. Unfortunately, the small feel of the Yacht Club is totally lost and forgotten on excursions. Although well-organized and on time, tours tended to be comprised of large groups from all areas of the boat, with guides simultaneously explaining sights in more than one language.
Is the MSC Yacht Club for You?
With a predominance of European passengers on board, Divina is staffed by a multilingual, international crew fluent in five languages, English, German, Spanish, French and Italian. But the ship’s service, style, and décor are decidedly Italian: Most of the food is provisioned in Genoa; the pastas, espresso and cappuccino are heavenly; and it’s hard to resist the piece of Venchi chocolate left on your pillow each night.
In terms of age, MSC cruise passengers skew about a decade younger than many other lines. (Children, ages 11 and under, cruise free and children under the age of 17 sail at a reduced rate.) Several young couples in the Yacht Club raved about the ease of cruising with small infants, being able to retreat to the comfortable, crowd-free Top Sail lounge for a bite between meals, or being able to call a butler to warm a baby bottle. Four complimentary kids clubs (each geared toward different ages) allow multigenerational families to enjoy the solitude of the club while older children are well cared for and entertained.
For today’s value-conscious traveler, the Yacht Club offers the feeling of a luxury small ship with all the advantages of large vessel cruising. And each time you use your keycard to enter, you’re reminded that you’ve found a yacht-like sanctuary away from the density and anonymity of a large ship.
IF YOU GO
Visit the website of MSC Cruises for more information on ships, itineraries and prices.
[This article was previously published in The Huffington Post on January 28, 2013.]
*Read my colleague Janice Mucalov’s article on “ship within a ship” cruises on Sand In My Suitcase.