At 108,736 feet long and 181,541gt, MSC Virtuosa is the joint-largest ship in the MSC Cruises fleet, alongside her sister, MSC Grandiosa. This status will be eclipsed in 2022 with the launch of MSC World Europa but for now, the second of the Meraviglia-Plus class ships is enjoying significant acclaim.
One meaningful milestone and two very visible interior innovations are justifiably earning headlines for MSC Virtuosa. Her maiden voyage on 17 May also commemorated the restart of cruise operations in the UK, fortunate timing for MSC Cruises as it has led to substantial extra PR coverage for its newest ship. This was a just reward for the company’s leadership in building a set of protocols that has made safe cruising possible during a pandemic.
It’s hard to measure the significance of this sailing for an industry that has been crippled by the long suspension of services. The UK is a key source market and global industry confidence will be buoyed by recent successful cruises, with passenger feedback reportedly very positive – guests are seemingly undeterred by the little extra effort required to cruise in a Covid-19 world.
Inside MSC Virtuosa, running the length of the promenade, the 93-metre-long LED screen ceiling is a big wow for passengers – most stopping to watch when the digital dome shows play. While we’ve seen this feature on other ships in the fleet, it remains an innovation worthy of the attention it garners onboard.
The second innovation is entirely new to MSC Cruises. Rob is the humanoid robotic bartending host of the Starship Club, a venue rich in state-of-the-art technology including a digital art wall, framed holograms and a 12-seater interactive table that takes guests on a personalised galactic tour, tells them their horoscope and encourages them to battle galactic enemies. Plus, the cocktails are first class.
Throughout the ship, the transitions, sense of arrival and first impressions for each venue are all well executed – delivering distinct designs appropriate for each room without clashing or stumbling off-brand. Wayfinding and signage throughout the ship is crisp and the intelligent lift technology makes moving from deck to deck a pleasure, though the smaller lifts with sea views are even more joyful.
The cabins are a triumphant combination of the oldest interior design conundrum, finding pleasing form alongside thoughtful function. Floor and wall coverings in the public thoroughfares are uniformly smart with good colour and pattern choices. Lighting, especially in the entrances to the dining rooms, is excellent and the furniture selection throughout the ship is impressive, if occasionally a little oddball – the chairs in the Champagne Bar for instance.
The main open deck is pleasingly open. It is free from the gimmicks that can clutter cruise ship decks, giving room for more sunbeds that will be needed when sailing at capacity in sunnier climates. During these limited capacity sailings too much space in some venues did inevitably lead to a dilution of the atmosphere, but this buzz will return as passenger numbers grow.
A reduced colour palette and quality materials are used to good effect in the MSC Yacht Club. Wood, marble and Swarovski crystal stair steps are framed with highlights in the company’s navy blue, elevating the design aesthetic to the desired premium standard.
Other examples of impressive interior design not already mentioned include: Indochine, a classy fusion of Asian and French themes to match the menu; MSC Aurea Spa, a truly serene entrance and comfortable reception to set the desired mindset for the experience within, enhanced by an impeccably crafted corridor to the treatment rooms; MSC Yacht Club Restaurant, exquisite furniture and tableware choices in a room set out to maximise the impact of a very wide sea view; Attic Club, noteworthy for its contemporary styling and clever use of a small space; Virtuosa Boutique, evidence that practical shopping and chic design can be happy bedfellows; and Starship Club, a perfectly imagined design for an out of this world adventure.
Design criticisms are small and hard to find. The whale that greets MSC Yacht Club guests on entering the pool deck is too caricatured for an otherwise refined space, while the mirrored helix infinity sculpture at the aft-end of the Promenade is a missed opportunity for greater drama as it gets uncomfortably lost alongside the chromed staircases and handrails. The brown carpet in the otherwise excellent adult-only Sky Lounge is a distraction from the incredible panoramic outside view. Passengers may not be put off by the poorly written and smudged chalk advertising board outside L’Atelier Bistrot but it sets an amateur expectation for what is in fact a very good venue. And the artwork in the cabin corridors is perhaps a little monotonous, but anything more interesting might create blockages in the passageways. However, as with all design commentary, these views reflect a personal taste that others may find more palatable.
Good food is a cruise staple and MSC Virtuosa doesn’t disappoint in this regard. A positive outcome of the pandemic is the implementation of pre-prepared plates in the buffet. Not only is presentation much improved but food wastage will also be dramatically reduced. I hope that this change remains when the current health risk subsides.
The main restaurants provide a varied menu from quality ingredients and feedback from personal enquiries was mostly very positive – one passenger remarked that it was “the best cruise food around”. Of course, the standard increases further in the speciality restaurants. The dining trilogy, which includes Indochine (traditional Vietnamese with a subtle French twist), Kaito (sushi, sashimi and tempura) and Butcher’s Cut (beef, any way you like it), are all exceptionally good and excellent value as a package offer. The kidney bean desert in Indochine caused quite a stir in our group, utterly bizarre on my tongue but nevertheless a unique experience which I hope MSC Cruises is brave enough to keep!
The trilogy can be upgraded to a ‘Finest Four’ to include Hola! Tacos & Cantina, which offers Mexican street food, including tacos, nachos, empanadas and tamales. But dinner in the MSC Yacht Club is the ultimate upgrade, albeit one that is restricted to those accommodated in this exclusive area.
I confess that my appreciation for an English pint prevented me from being very adventurous when seeking a bar pit-stop. The Masters of the Sea pub had everything that I was looking for in a traditional old English-style setting. A rare deviation to the Sky Lounge was rewarded with good views over the pool deck (and a Guinness) and a compulsory visit to the Starship Bar presented an occasion to witness Rob’s dexterous mixology display.
Cruise ship entertainers generally get a poor rub and an onboard role on their CV can be a career killer. Happily though, my experience on MSC Virtuosa was much more positive. Of the four shows that I went to, only Rikki Jay didn’t live up to his billing as a funny man. Soul Sisters and Big Apple both delivered impassioned vocal performances, but the highlight was undoubtedly ‘Le Ciel de Paris’, a fast-paced vocal and dance tribute show.
The well-being and leisure facilities are individually and collectively very good. The Aurea Spa is a calm oasis, necessarily situated at the opposite end of the ship to where the noisier and more physical activities are homed. The most impressive leisure facility is Sportplex, sadly under-used on this cruise due to the health and safety protocols, but basketball, tennis, football and volleyball will be popular here when normal services resume. I suspect the gym may prove to be a little small for the European market where fitness has become a lifestyle for many, unlike my own fat-busting necessity.
Young families are well-catered for through the usual selection of baby, junior and teenager clubs and their separate club rooms are ingeniously presented and well-equipped. The Drone Flying Academy will be a huge hit with children, less so their parents, who’ll be left with a legacy that will trash treasured heirlooms back home
The open deck areas are spacious and well-appointed, benefitting from a restricted selection of activities that can sometimes clutter the visual appeal and frustrate passengers that might be seeking a quiet sanctuary. But sunshine thrill seekers can still find some adventure in sliding around the Savannah Aquapark or climbing the Himalayan Bridge on the uppermost aft deck.
The record-breaking onboard retailing offer is also impressive. You can read more about this in my earlier overview of the onboard shopping experience.
MSC Cruises excels in service delivery and MSC Virtuosa continues this tradition. Typically, cruise passenger feedback forms are filled with praise or complaints about service levels, but MSC Cruises predictably scored highly on the first metric. During these revenue-challenging times the brand should package and sell whatever magic dust it sprinkles over the crew to ensure it sustains such high standards.
As each cruise comes to an end additional stringent Covid-19 prevention measures come into effect, Deck 12 cabins will likely be unused for a week while they are subjected to a vigorous cleaning programme. Other rotations, like changing the main dining rooms, and protection protocols will ensure the health and safety of future passengers.
Isolated cases will likely occur on cruise ships in the months ahead, but passengers will be in safer hands at sea than they are in other hospitality accommodation. And onboard MSC Virtuosa, everyone will rejoice the many magical memories and truly appreciate a much-needed break from the anguish that’s prevalent in these troubling times.