MSC Grandiosa Ship Review

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Southampton Nov. 2019 (City cruise terminal)

Introduction

The Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC) is cargo shipping company, of Italian origin, founded in 1970. In 1989 MSC branched out into operating cruise ships (MSC cruises). Today (2019) they are one of the world’s leading container shipping lines and have some 470 cargo vessels. They have rapidly expanded their cruise fleet and currently have 17 vessels, which currently makes them the world’s fourth biggest cruise line. They are likely to be the third biggest, if their expansion continues to outstrip NCL’s.

There was a time that only RCI and Carnival Cruises built Mega-cruise-ships, that could truly be considered ‘floating resorts’. A little later came NCL, but now MSC have joined the big league.

I have cruised with most of the major cruise lines, but never with MSC before.  I took a two-night cruise on MSC Grandiosa (part of her inaugural cruise) in November 2019. She was fresh from the Chantiers de L’Antic shipyard in Saint-Nazaire, France. She was repositioning to the Mediterranean, via Hamburg and Southampton.

Caveat: Grandiosa is a very big, brand new cruise ship, with many new crew members.  The ship was also probably not sold at full passenger capacity. I was also only on-board for a relatively short period of time. My comments are based on what I experienced under these circumstances. Therefore, I cannot claim to know everything about the MSC experience or how this ship will normally operate, once in regular service.

I do not have time to describe every cabin grade, public room, dining room, café, shop the sports, entertainment facilities and other services on-board. You would not have time to read it either,  if I did.

Embarkation

In some cases, cruise ships today can carry twice as many passengers than they did fifteen years ago, yet many cruise terminals have often remained the same size. However, I’m pleased to say that Embarkation for Grandiosa, in Hamburg (Buchheisterstraße 16) was relatively smooth. It took me about 45 minutes (with no priority status). However, I doubt if this ‘shakedown’ cruise was being operated at full passenger capacity.

The Ship

I can’t think of many things more exciting than boarding a ship that you never been on before. This is especially true about big modern ship which often have public rooms and facilities that can be quite breath-taking.

The ship is VERY big. Her design is not unlike RCI’s Quantum+ class ships and NCL’s Breakaway+ class ships. In fact, she has some design aspects borrowed from RCI and NCL. At 181,541 gross tonnes she is just a little bigger than those two classes of ships. She can carry 4,842 passengers at double occupancy, but a maximum of 6,334. This make her one of the world’s biggest ships (2019).

It is quite surprising how far it is and how long it takes, to walk from one end of a passenger deck to the other end. She can certainly make your legs ache.

Much of the ship’s decor was quite tasteful although the sparkly Atrium with Swarovski Crystal staircases and the Casino were more over the top.

The pubic decks span 5 to 19, with no deck 18 (that’s 13 decks in total). Decks 8-14 exclusively house cabins, decks 6 and 7 are purely public rooms. Each deck is named after a famous artist: 5 Caravaggio, 6 Leonardo da Vinci, 7 Michelangelo, 8 Monet, 9 Van Gogh, 10 Mirò, 11 Dalì, 12 Raffaello, 13 Goya, 14 Magritte, 15 Cezanne, 16 Velàzquez, 18 Gauguin and 19 Degas.

Reproduction art  (or in the case of Dali, art ‘in the style-of’ featuring dripping clocks and MSC cruise ships) line the corridors and public rooms.

However, the ‘Atelier Bistrot’, the French alternative restaurant on-board, has the ‘Art Wall’. This is a collection of 26 original drawings from the French master, Degas. These are his of his favourite theme of ballet dancers. (I believe these drawings are on loan, so will be removed in the future).

Some of the 26 Degas sketches

The ship has two main stair/lift towers, which means that it can often be a very long walk, to the nearest lift. However, there are two smaller panoramic lifts port and starboard, with Seaviews which are between the main two towers. The main lifts are large and relatively fast. They are intelligent – you press a button on a key-pay to call the lift and it indicates which lift is next going to your desired deck.

There are two main entertainment lounges: The Theatre La Comedie at the bow (800 seats), which is a conventional theatre and aft the Carousel lounge, designed specifically for Cirque du Soleil shows. It has 120 seats for dinner and 290 seats reserved for drinks. The Cirque show has a fee,  depending if you choose a meal or just a cocktail.

Both venues are quite small for such a large ship, but the guests are expected to be spread between the various dining rooms, and the twenty lounges and bars.

There is a three deck Atrium called ‘Infinity’ which is very silvery, reflective and sparkly with a number of Swarovski Crystal staircases. This leads to ‘Galleria Grandiaso’ which is a street within the middle of the ship, rather like RCI’s “Royal Promenade”. The main difference is that it does not have any cabins overlooking the ‘street’, but it has an LCD ceiling which constantly displays different designs. It’s rather like Las Vegas’s ‘Freemont Street.’. This is a very attritive feature that RCI missed the boat on, so to speak.

Infinity Reception/Guest Service is located at the bottom of the Atrium. (One hopes that is not called Infinity because of the infinite queues in front of it?)

I must admit that I lost my temper while queuing for the reception desk. I’m not very patient and MSC operated a strange system. We all queued in line and awaited our turn at the desk. However a wondering member of staff would occasionally pick somebody from the back of the queue and either deal with their issue there and then or take then to the reception desk. They would often get their issue resolved before the people in front of them queuing. How unfair is that?

The ‘Galleria Grandiosa’ is lined with shops, cafes and bars and has an Italian feel to its design and décor. The ‘Jean Philippe Maury Chocolat & Café’ had many particularly tempting chocolates for sale, made fresh by Chocalatiers, working behind glass. They even sold a chocolate scale model of the ship!

The Grandiosa Bar & Lounge in the lower level ‘Galleria Grandiosa‘  (deck 6) was an open plan night-club and was the ships liveliest bar each evening. Music (sometimes live) and lots of dancing took place. It seemed very popular with non-English speakers, who preferred the more sedate ‘Masters of the Seas’, the English pub above in the upper level of ‘Galleria Grandiosa‘.

Some English pubs, on other ships that I’ve cruised on, can feel a bit fake like a Disney version of a British Pub, but this one felt pretty authentic to me. Most importantly, British draft bears were served.

However, Galleria Grandiosa has no windows or natural light, so is very ‘inward’ focused. Nevertheless, it is a great focal point for the ship and offers “somewhere to go” almost like visiting a real ‘high street’.

Cabins

MSC’s cabins are grouped into four grades of experience: 1) Bella, 1) fantastica, 3) Aurea, and 4) Yacht Club. 

In general as the cabin  get more expensive, they get bigger. However each of the four grades comes with an increasing number of additional perks* – the pinnacle being the Yacht Club cabins within the private ship-within-a-ship complex. *(See the MSC web site/brochure for a full explanation)

Standard Balcony Stateroom (Bella Experience)

The standard cabins (inside, seaview and balcony) were all very similar to every other big modern ship. The fitted furniture had a grey wood finish, which felt a little cheap, reminding me the fixtures in a caravan.

There is an inside grade cabin called “studio” which has a double bed, but is VERY compact. This is similar to NCL’s studio cabins.

I did inspect some higher-grade cabins, including a “Duplex” (two floor) cabin at the bow. Interestingly the upmarket cabins had the same grey wood fitted-furniture. They also often had the same bathroom modules. They were of course bigger, but did not feel any more luxurious to me.

I was allocated a standard balcony cabin grade B1, 11279 (Bella experience), at the rear of deck 11. Not surprisingly some sea movement could be felt, but we were on the North Sea in November.

The balcony cabins are very comfortable, but long and thin, as is the new trend. The mattress/bedding/pillows were all very good and the shower was very powerful, with glass door. I did note the cabin had European and US plus sockets (+shaver socket) but no UK sockets. The cabins have a grey and purple colour scheme.

The cabin TV’s was interactive, but mine did not always work properly. I though the pay-per-view movie feature is an insult to a fare paying cruise passenger (7 Euros per movie).

The corridors are tasteful (cream walls and purple carpet) or very bland, depending on your viewpoint. Mazak (often Jazz) was played in the corridors until midnight which I found annoying. (I could actually hear it in the cabin bathroom).

Studio Stateroom

The Safari Solarium

This is a very nice double-height space, located towards the ships deck 15 and 16. It of course has a pool, hot-tubs and a glass retractable roof. The decor and some statues were African wildlife orientated.

There is some bamboo-style (plastic) seating, a bar on the upper level and two table-tennis tables. I’m not sure about the logic of having table tennis in what should be a tranquil area. Although it is pretty echoey space, so is unlikely to ever be really tranquil.

Le Grand Casino and Aurea Spa

I don’t partake in either of these facilities on-board ships, but I appreciate that they are both very popular facilities and extremely lucrative for the cruise lines.

The Casino, located aft of the ‘Galleria Grandiosa’ (deck 7) is extensive and very has much ‘glitzy’ red décor,  Las Vegas style. There are of course numerous slot machines and gaming tables. Unfortunately smoking is allowed in the Casino.  The Aurea Spa is equally extensive, being located forward of the ‘Galleria Grandiosa’. I had a quick tour of the Spa. The combination of low light and rock-like-walls make it feel like a complex of caves. It is certainly the most atmospheric Spa that I’ve seen. There are numerous hot and cold treatment rooms, pools and showers.

There is a grade of cabin called “Aurea Suites” which have spa packages linked to the fare.

The Yacht Club

I have not cruised in the Yacht Club or been able to visit it.

Unfortunately, MSC do attract many mediocre and even poor reviews, from passengers. However, everybody seems to agree that the MSC ‘Yacht Club’ experience is very good, if not excellent.

The Yacht club is a ship-within-a-ship experience. It is located at the front of the ship, perched high on decks 16 – 19. The forty cabins are served by a private pool, lounge, bar, restaurant, solarium, whirlpool and sundeck. Curiously four cabins are inside cabins, but of course quite spacious.

High-Tech

Grandiosa has a lot of high-tech.

In my opinion, any device that can prevent you from having to queue at reception or at an excursion desk, to get a statement, book a trip, restaurant and/or entertainment etc. is great news. However, does MSC’s high-tech actually work?

Zoe the in cabin personal assistant is almost totally useless. It is an expensive gimmick.

I asked her a number of questions. The only one that she could answer was “How old are you?” She replied that she was constructed in 2018. So where has she been for a year? On the shelf maybe, so to speak?

I asked her could she paly me some music, she said “No, turn on the TV”.

I asked her for an early morning call, she said “No, use the phone”.

I asked her where I could eat and what entertainment is available and she said “Look in the daily programme”. Well that’s what I always used to do!

The MSC web site, which I used at home to check in, did not work particularly well either.

The App (called MSC for me) which you can download to your smartphone, did not work properly and neither did the LCD touch screens around the ship. These screens contain a information, deck plans and the daily programme etc. They allegedly give you the ability to book alternative dining, excursions and shows etc. You had to keep thumping the touch screen hoping that it might respond.

The cabin TV’s were also interactive, allowing you to book show, dining and check your balance etc. However mine did not work properly. (Isn’t a touch screen in a public place a possible Norwalk virus transmission risk?)

Given the number of gadgets available (Zoe, App, cabin TV and interactive screens) cruise information could be hard to come by. There is NO SUBSTITUE for a Daily News sheet left in your cabin. This is a tried and tested method of information dissemination.

Frustratingly, If you queued up at reception and asked to book something, they would say use the App or LCD screens. Zoe also often said use the App or the LCD screens.

Infinity Reception

Dining

I did not see a definitive explanation of the dining procedures. However, it appeared that passengers were booked on an early (6.30) or late (8.30) sitting in one of the 3 (?) ‘inclusive’ dining rooms, all sharing the same menu and same kitchen. The buffet was also available for free, but all other 7 alternative dining rooms carried surcharges.

This is very similar to RCI’s system. In contrast NCL offer a flexible arrangement (Freestyle) in all of their dining rooms – drop in when you like to eat, within core hours.

I was allocated a table for four in the ‘Purple Crab’. Although pretty large it felt smaller than it actually was. (All the dining rooms are single high, so not really ‘wow’ spaces).

The included evening meal food was only three courses. The daily choice was good, but the meals were mediocre. Although it was probably on a par with RCI’s and NCL’s included food. After all, if they made the included food too good,  passengers would not visit the many alternative surcharge venues.

Brits were served tea or coffee at dinner as a concession to British tastes, although they served it before the sweet.  Brits also got free mineral water in the main dining rooms (but not in the buffet – go figure).

The inclusive breakfast and lunch in the inclusive dining rooms were often better than Dinner.

The dining room staff were generally very professional and very friendly. They clearly were not rookies serving my table. I was pretty impressed.

Jean Philippe’s Chocolatiers

The Marketplace buffet is on deck 15 had nice sea views and is enormous, which is good news. It needs to be,  to serve such a big ship, with a high passenger capacity. The range of food was wide and included fresh pasta and pizza of course. They also have a mozzarella making machine behind glass, which I’ve never seen before on land, let alone on a ship. In fact I did not know a machine was required? I always thought that mozzarella grew on trees or maybe came out of cows.

Mozzarella making machine (Courtesy Harry Hastings)

For those interested in the minutiae: the mugs were china, the plates were plastic, trays were not used. The English Breakfast tea-bags were very weak, I required two per cup. The coffee from the self-service machine was not great.

In terms international food choices there is always Pizza, Pasta, Tapas, and a Teppanyaki & Sushi Bar. The “Butchers Cut” offering American style steaks.

Cirque Du Soleil

The carousel lounge is at the aft of the ship (double height occupying decks 7 and 8) looks very futuristic. The lounge is in a similar location to RCI’s Quantum class 360 Degree lounge. The Carousel is ‘in the round’ (with a central stage). It was specifically designed for two original Cirque Du Soleil shows, who MSC have a partnership with. Grandiosa offers two Cirque shows: ‘Cosmos’ and ‘Excentricks’.

I can’t tell you if the show was any good or not. Even though I had booked for the ‘Cosmos’ show several weeks in advance, via the MSC web site, the show was cancelled on my cruise. Apparently, it was still in rehearsal. Why? This is not the first MSC ship to have this lounge and offer Cirque shows. It’s not as if the ships launch date was a surprise. They have had a couple of years to prepare and rehearse the shows. Fancy building a multi-million-dollar machine, inviting the press, travel agents and influential passengers – then cancelling your signature show. How disappointing!

MSC did manage to put on a show in the main theatre called “Wonderland”. Although only 35 minutes long this was of a very high standard, complete 24 performers. It included ballet dancers and opera type singers, singing mainly songs from Andrew Lloyd Webbers show ‘Phantom of the Opera’ . However, if you were not familiar (or did not like) the Phantom, you would be in trouble! Unfortunately, the show used taped music and not live musicians.

Wonderland (Courtesy Harry Hastings)

Open Decks

The promenade deck on 7, runs port and starboard and is purely for lifeboat access. There are 10 big lifeboats on both the port and starboard side. Any Seaviews are largely obstructed by these life boats. It’s not a good place for passengers to enjoy.

My cruise was cold and wet. The pool deck (15) featuring the ‘Atmosphere Pool’, had the now obligatory giant monitor above the pool. The pool deck appeared to be extensive when empty, but only occupied about 40% of the deck space. The ‘Marketplace Buffet’ (aft) and cabins (Forward) occupy the rest of the deck. Given the passenger capacity of this ship, the pool deck is never going to be big enough, even if only 30% of the passengers decided to sunbath simultaneously.

The upper level of the Sundeck (16) sees the rear of the deck occupied by an Aqua park with water slides and a ropes-course, called ‘Himalaya Bridge’.

There is of course the now obligatory giant monitor above the pool.

Kids Stuff

The aft of deck 16 is occupied by the facilities for young peoples (and the young at heart) which are extensive. These include an impressive ‘Sportsplex’ (an indoor basketball/football court), two full sized bowling lanes, VR Maze, games arcade Interactive Cinema (for 10 guests) and two Formula 1 racing car simulators, which were not working – another high-tech. fail.  I believe some of the latter facilities attract additional fees to use them.

The Gym is also located near these facilities, but free to use.

Some great art work (think about it!)

The Crew

The bar staff always seemed overstretched (slow), which seems to be the case on most big ships. I do wonder how they would cope if the ship was at full capacity? (Maybe the crew were also not at full capacity?)

The dining room and buffet waiters that I encountered were all very friendly and very well trained.

However, in general the staff were quite aggressive in marketing alternative dining packages and drinks packages and would cold-sell to you as you walked around the ship. However, ask them a question like “When is the lifeboat drill” and most did not have a clue. This says a lot about MSC’s staff training and focus.

Lifeboat Drill

On the subject of the lifeboat drill: on-board todays biggest ship the passengers are just required to assemble in one of the many lounges. They are not even required to take a life-jacket with them. This is now considered a trip-risk.  Grandiosa is no exception. The life-jackets are given out at the muster-station.

I knew what my muster-station was, but I was not clear how to get to it. I asked the crew member in my deck corridor, who was wearing the official tabard and he simply shrugged his shoulders. He did not know. A second crew member was also uncertain,  but a third was holding a map and was able to direct me. Now I know that it’s a brand new ship, with a brand new crew, but I have never experience such poor safety training on other new ships.  Rapid evacuation on such a big ship could be a matter of life and death (MSC management take note).

On-Board Atmosphere

When MSC ships operate in the Mediterranean they attract a lot of Spanish and Italian passengers. However, they offer a multi-national product and also operate ships form non-Med ports, such as the US and occasionally the UK. This obviously changes the passenger mix and feel. For my cruise there were many Brits, Germans and some Americans onboard, along with some Mediterranean passengers.

British reviewers of past MSC cruises sometimes comment on the clash of the different nationalities on-board: “Noisy Spanish”, “Italians failing to queue” and “Too much pushing and shoving”. However other commentators feel that the international mix of guests is very positive and works very well.

The crew generally speak very good English. It is worth noting that announcements are always in multiple languages and the entertainment does not tend to be language based, although songs are often in English. Many of the names of the on-board venues are in English, so the ship did not feel ‘foreign’ to this Brit.

Live music was regularly provided in the Atrium and at various other locations around the ship. There was even a ‘White Party’ in ‘street’, Galleria Grandiaso. (NCL have had ‘white Hot parties; for years!)  Singers sung on a bridge overlooking the street. (It did concern me that the performers singing/dancing/jumping on a portable stage-riser, with their bodies well above the safety rail of the bridge. Given the fact that a ship is a moving vessel, this is a foolish practice).

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Grandiosa, Hamburg Nov. 2019 (courtesy MSC)

Conclusion

MSC Grandosa is definitely ‘Grand’.  She has all the advantages and disadvantages that such a big ship brings. In short, the choice of dining venues, bars, entertainment and sports facilities is very wide. However, the ship feels like a “City” not a “Home”. Terms like “friendly” and “intimate” do not apply.

At least the ship was finished. The hardware, design and facilities were all very impressive, but there were some organisational issues and poor dissemination of information to passengers. Much of the high-tech was at best very inconsistent, or at worse, useless. Is this perfectly understandable for a brand-new ship or totally unacceptable? I will let you decide.

Grandosa is clearly aimed at multi-generational families. MSC are in direct competition with the likes of RCI and NCL, although these two companies have the experience of operating mega-ships for many decades. MSC are the new(er) kid on the block.

In fact, the on-board experience felt rather like RCI or NCL, but with a more international flavour, rather than an American one.

There were a multitude of opportunities to open your wallet for alterative dining, drinks packages and high-end shopping. There were all pushed a little too aggressively for my liking.

I would not rule out trying MSC again. In fact if I wanted a ‘big ship’ experience and MSC, RCI and NCL were all offering newer ships from the same port, same itineraries, I’d simply pick the cheapest fare, which may well be MSC at present.

(Thanks to cruise.co.uk for giving me the opportunity to try MSC & Grandiosa.)