November 01, 2016

Ocho Rios and Grand Cayman

We arrive in Ocho Rios on time at about 9:30. We are the only ship here as I think the port is only capable of handling one ship at a time. The weather is perfect with temperatures expected to be in the middle 70's. There is a brisk breeze which makes being outside very comfortable.

I elect to stay on board and take some pictures around the ship, and check out the pools. I am surprised how few passengers stay on board. I doubt if there are 50 left on the ship. The pools don't work for me. They all require climbing down a ladder to enter the water I won't take the risk of a slip or fall. Additionally one of the main pools has a sign indicating the water temperature is 72 F. A little cool for my taste.

The crew has a life boat drill, and launches about half of the lifeboats. It may be done this way on other ships, but they use some of the staff to simulate a group of passengers moving from the muster stations to each appropriate life boat. The captain personally inspects each boat, and checks that the proper staff members are at their appropriate stations. Everything appears to go smoothly.

As to be expected, only half the buffet is open for lunch, but there is no signage indicating what is open or closed until you arrive at a particular food station and find it bare. What food is available has been sitting a long time. There are few passengers, and the food warmers under the serving pans don't work. (According to buffet manager.) Though the presentation is excellent, the food quality is very poor. The freshly cooked pizza slices are colder than the self service plates, the pasta dishes have been sitting for hours, and not a single prepackaged hamburger or hotdog has moved in the 30 minutes I sit nearby.

My table in the dining room is set for 6, but so far there have only been 4 of us each night. My three table mates are from England, and this is also their first time on MSC. So far they haven't been pleased, and have sent food back every single night, either because it is cold when served, or just wasn't cooked. I agree with them on the cold part, but have refrained from asking for a new plate.

One thing I haven't quite figured out yet. Like all cruise lines, they sell beverage packages to guests. I seldom do, but not getting free drinks during happy hour I purchase a small package that is good for a given number of drinks, ice cream, sodas, and maybe a few other options. I ordered online before boarding the ship to save about 35%. When I arrive on the ship, I am told to go to the casino bar to pickup my beverage package. I am then given a booklet of coupons which I would expect are to be used to for purchase. Well almost. At each purchase I give the server a coupon, my room key, and then have to sign the charge slip which has a balance due of zero. Now you might expect this is a way to give a tip to the service person, but there is no space for a gratuity, and several times passengers have been specifically told not to tip individuals.

The show tonight is the same performers, but a different show. Very appropriate for Halloween, "The Witches of Paris". Again very good and a definite step up from the entertainment on many ships. Parts of the ship are appropriately decorated, and late in the evening there is a Halloween party for those so inclined. It is scheduled past my bedtime.

We arrive at Georgetown, Grand Cayman at 8:30. The Freedom of the Seas and Disney Fantasia are moored nearby. There is no cruise ship dock here, and everyone tenders to shore. After finding a ham and egg sandwich cold, and a doughnut with frost in the center, I decide to go ashore to get a relatively tasty lunch. Unlike every other cruise line that stops here on a regular basis, MSC uses life boats for tenders instead of using the tenders from shore side. It takes over two hours to get all the passengers to shore for their excursions. Being a black level customer I am given priority boarding on a tender if I choose, but instead just wait to be one of the last to leave the ship.

The weather here is perfect. The high is expected to be 77, there is a brisk breeze, but with a possibility of a scattered showers later in the day.

As our tender ties up and I am waiting to go ashore, a harbor patrol boat approaches with flashing lights. Heated words are exchanged with the tender driver, I don't know what was said, but the harbor police were not happy. Was our tender driver speeding?

One of the closest food places I spot is the Hard Rock Cafe. I slowly find my way and go upstairs for lunch. I didn't think I would ever say a cheese burger from Hard Rock Cafe was good!

Back on the ship I catch up with writing this blog. At 5:00 there is a special reception for the "Black" level members of the Voyagers Club. It is being held at the piano bar. I will go if for no other reason than to see how many there are of us. Other benefits of being Black Level include: Expedited terminal check in; two fruit baskets in my cabin upon arrival; a bottle of wine, which I will carry home; a plate of chocolate dipped fruit; and discounts on stuff I never buy like spa treatments, jewelry, and tee shirts.

The piano bar area is like the jazz band area. Passengers have no choice but to walk thru the room. As I arrive, my name is checked off the list of about 100 passengers expected. We are offered drinks, and everyone is given a chocolate ship that weighs about a pound. I am going to try and get it home without melting in the car. Various staff members talk with everyone present, many are like myself, cruising with MSC for the first time but being a "Black" level because of their reciprocity program. Personally I think a smart marketing move to attract frequent cruisers. Many passengers voice feelings similar to my observations. Poor food quality and a very difficult ship for the physically challenged to move about.

We are told again about all the ships in the pipeline with one twist. They are all being purchased for cash in the bank, funds accumulated from from the revenue generated by the 500 freighters, tankers, and container ships the company owns. And yes the company is husband, wife, and several children.

My table mates are over 20 minutes late again tonight. I elect to not have an appetizer, and my entree arrives at the table before they even get their menu.

Skipping desert as I often do, I excuse myself when finished and take the opportunity to walk thru the buffet. It is surprisingly empty. 50 passengers at the most, with many eating pizza. The other selections are very limited. I will continue to endure the dining room.

I talk with a fellow passenger from Germany and learn the reason for so many Europeans on the ship. This is a Holiday week in much of Europe. Something I need to be conscious of in the future.

I finally run into a passenger I know. We think we met about 4 years ago on the Celebrity Equinox. He and his wife are in a suite and there is a special dining room just for suite guests. They experienced poor service and cold food and then tried one of the specialty restaurants and found it no better. I guess this is a common theme on the Divina, maybe the owner likes the food service this way.

I skip the main show tonight, "A vocal Presentation of Italian Classics". We arrive in Cozumel tomorrow morning at about 10:00.

Day at Sea

As we leave Miami, the wind is quite strong from the North West. There are periods of rain, and the ship exhibits a little motion throughout the night. We are headed South of Cuba and then West to Ocho Rios, Jamaica. During the day we can see Cuba off our starboard side. We are told that MSC will soon have a cruise ship berthed in Cuba, the first line to do so.

The weather is quite pleasant all day with a few clouds and the wind gradually decreasing. The seas subside to under 4 feet.

My cabin is adequate, and free of machinery noise. I'm on deck 12, the last inside cabin at the extreme aft of the ship. Storage space is good, and everything is clean. The shower is unique. On past cruises I have had showers with curtains, showers with a single hinged door, and showers with rolling circular doors. This shower has two hinged curved doors that swing both in and out of the shower. Unfortunately the doors don't meet properly, and no matter how I try the floor becomes flooded with water, as any water that hits the door runs to the outside of the shower. In addition the bottom lip around the shower is just placed on top of the ceramic tile in the bathroom. I suspect there are some cracks in the joints.

I spend much of the day exploring the ship. I soon have formed some opinions. The ship is what I would describe as modern elegant. I think MSC must have an interest in a glass company based on all the glass and mirrors throughout the ship.

Corridors zig and zag about the ship, the floor goes up and down, sometimes with a step, at other times with a sloped section. In general the passageways are quite narrow compared to other modern ships.

The main theater is quite large, and was designed without offending columns to obstruct anyone's view. However there are only a handful of seats that are accessible without climbing or descending stairs. Most people sitting in the balcony, unless they are very tall, have to look thru glass panels to see the performers on the stage. Some of them distort the view. Personally, being of shorter stature, not only do I have the glass panels to contend with, but two inch chrome bars right at eye level. I quickly learn the balcony is not for me.

Other venues throughout the ship have their own quirky characteristics. At the jazz bar traffic coming or going to the theater walk between the performers and the audience.

The piano bar primarily has sectional couch seating arranged in large semicircles. Each couch large enough to hold 20 people.

Seating near the Atrium is the most comfortable of any of the venues.

Late in the afternoon passengers that are cruise critic members meet with several of the staff. There are only 4 passengers and we have pleasant conversation with the purser and the assistant hotel director. They were prepared for a much larger crowd, and as a result we each could have had 20 drinks and there still would have been some left over. One tidbit of note, MSC has ordered a ship that will hold over 7500 passengers, 1 of 13 scheduled to be completed in the next six years.

At dinner, the menu is very limited for formal night. The "classic menu" items are not offered tonight. My earlier assumption is proven inaccurate. 4 of the 5 items contain fish or seafood. Had I checked the menu earlier, I probably would have gone to the buffet. I ask Sophia for the steak without the shrimp. She assures me they are not cooked together and she can do it. She also shares she is allergic to seafood herself, and clearly understands my concern.

While waiting for our food another waiter trips a few feet from our table where the tile on the floor is about half an inch higher than the adjoining carpet. It takes an hour before someone arrives with a broom and dustpan to clean up the broken glass. In the meantime they just covered the mess with a couple of chairs.

After dinner I listen to the jazz group for a little while on my way to the main show. Being formal night, during the first 20 minutes we are introduced to many of the officers. The captain also welcomes the passengers in about 15 different languages. He shares that the passengers come from 86 different countries. Only about 600 of the 3900 passengers are from the US and Canada, and I suspect many of them don't speak English. On my visits to foreign countries I always have heard more English spoken than I do here.

The show is very good, a combination of dance, singing, acrobatics, gymnastics, etc. The showroom is about 75% full, not unusual for the second show. I stop and listen to the jazz group for awhile after the show.

Tonight we set our clocks back and hour, and therefore will arrive in Ocho Rios an hour early tomorrow morning.

Boarding MSC Divina

It is Saturday October 29th. I actually packed yesterday as I need to drive to Miami to board the MSC for a week long cruise to the Western Caribbean. But I am getting ahead of myself. I need to start many months ago after my daughter Adrienne and her husband Steve told me they were taking a transatlantic repositioning cruise on the Harmony Of The Seas from Barcelona, Spain to Port Everglades. She approached me with a sincere idea. Since I am always looking for an excuse to cruise, why don't I book a cruise that arrives in Fort Lauderdale the same day, and we can ride together back to Clermont?

Yes, this is a good excuse for a cruise, and it will save her $50 or $100 in not having to rent a car. Now, never mind what my week cruise will cost to attain this saving. Pretty smart on her part.

Since this was over 18 months ago, I didn't get serious about finding a cruise for many months. When I did start I was at first surprised to learn the Harmony is the only major cruise ship arriving at Fort Lauderdale on November 5th. Despite my initial surprise, it does make sense. This is the arrival of a major new cruise ship to Port Everglades, and there will be many festivities to celebrate the occasion. Likewise, if I were a captain of a competitor cruise line I would enjoy disrupting the festivities by pulling into port right in front of the Harmony if I could. Ultimately this led me to look at the Port of Miami. The MSC Divina was my only choice. Several friends have been on the Divina and enjoyed it, I booked a week and after disembarking will drive to Port Everglades to find my passengers from the Harmony.

The drive to Miami seems very long even though it is only just over four hours. As everyone has experienced, my GPS took me into a dead end parking lot instead of to the Port. A little extra driving around downtown Miami and I arrive at the port parking garage. Empty spaces are abundant, I choose a spot on one of the upper floors near the elevator. It is only about a two block walk to the terminal. The facilities in Miami are much smaller and more compact than Lauderdale or Canaveral. This probably has led to being well staffed, and it is a near continuous walk for the entire process. I say near, as is usually the case my new body parts trip the metal detectors at security. A quick explanation and quick hand scan, and I am on my way.

I miss the line for priority check in, and go through the general boarding line. A little further to walk, but very little additional time. MSC is the only cruise line I know of that recognizes priority levels of competing lines, and enrolls new customers at the equivalent level in their rewards program. My first cruise with them, and I am at highest level, black.

The first spot of congestion is just inside the ship at the end of the gangway. There are about a dozen employees soliciting the boarding customers to buy drink packages. Now every cruise line does this, but usually not is such a way that it blocks entrance to the ship. I work my way to the elevators.

I don't expect my cabin to be ready for about an hour. I head to the ever present buffet for lunch. The choices are extensive. A carving station serving a round of beef, dozens of cold cuts and cheeses, many kinds of pizza, a complete salad bar, a pasta bar, and of course the ever present hamburgers, cheeseburgers and hotdogs, but not piled in a steam table pan but made up on a bun and either wrapped or in a cardboard serving container. I have a small serving of tortellini, while I wait for my cabin. The flavor is good, but it barely warm. An indication of things to come? Surprisingly I see a few empty tables available at all times, unlike many other ships on the day of embarkation where seating is scarce.

The cabin is spacious enough for me with plenty of storage for a weeks worth of clothes.

At about 4:45 we have our muster drill. Only passengers that have just boarded are requested to attend. If for some reason you can't attend, let them know and they will send someone to your stateroom to instruct you. Since we don't sail until 7:00, some passengers arrive too late for the muster drill and they are requested to attend a muster drill the next morning.

Again being an Italian line instead of an American line they do things different. We are asked to bring our life jackets with us. All muster station assembly areas are indoors. There is enough room for everyone, standing if not seated. Instructions are repeated in 5 languages which makes the process quite long. Even though we have our life jackets, we are not asked to put them on, but many passengers do. It is quite obvious that it is the first time many of the passengers have ever touched a life jacket. After about 45 minutes we are all dismissed, I wait for 5 minutes for the elevators to clear.

I am scheduled for early dining at 6:00. The server is anxious to take my order and get started, so my appetizer comes before my table mates even arrive at the table. Yes, they are late, having cruised only once before they didn't understand that a 6:00 PM dining time meant that they are expected at the dining room at 6:00, not anytime after 6:00.

The first night menu is more limited than what I experience on most other cruise lines, but the choices are good and my first nights dinner was edible if not great.

At one point the head waiter stops at the table and immediately begins to apologize for the service. He explains that much of his staff is new, and they haven't quite got it figured out yet. I had noticed but didn't say anything. Sometimes I am told I am too critical and will try to wait a few days before forming opinions.

Unlike most other cruise lines, the waiter is responsible for everything. Bar drinks, wine, bread, water, etc. She has an assistant that helps clear dishes. I think the menu is split into two parts like the other cruise lines, the "classic" section that is available every night, and the featured section that varies each day. I have to say "think" as the waiter shares no information with the passengers. More attuned to just doing her job than chatting with the guests.

At 8:00 PM there is the one show for all guests. The first 15 minutes is spent introducing some of the entertainers and the sales and entertainment team. This is followed by several numbers from the entertainers. Some of the songs are in Italian (I think). The show is short as many guest are due in the dining room at 8:30.

Off to the cabin about 9:00. Tomorrow is a day at sea.