MSC Opera – Introduction
It’s finally time for our second cruise of 2015. It’s been a long, hard 10 weeks work-wise since we disembarked our last mini cruise on Ventura and we’re all ready for some well earned rest and relaxation. As usual I’ll be posting on a daily basis and will add photos later, on our return.
We’ve booked a 14 night Greek Island cruise aboard MSC Opera to Piraeus, Mykonos, Santorini and Cefalonia which also visits Istanbul in Turkey, Bari in Italy, Sochi in Russia, Constanta in Romania and Dubrovnik in Croatia. It’s a fantastic itinerary and only features two ports we’ve visited previously.
Back in January when I was researching our summer holiday options I’d priced up a Med cruise with both P&O and Royal Caribbean. The prices were ridiculous, over £8000 for a family of three in the summer holidays for very similar itineraries to those we’d sailed before.
My little boy Finn is obsessed with Greek Gods (thanks to the Percy Jackson books he is reading) so we started looked at land based holidays in Greece. The options available looked expensive and the resorts less than impressive. I was also feeling a little nervous about 2 weeks in one place – cruising really does spoil you with a different destination most days. We decided to look at Greek Island cruises as an option and I found this itinerary on MSC Opera. To my delight it was an absolute bargain, two weeks in late August for less than half the prices P&O and RCI were charging. We’ve sailed MSC before on MSC Divina so we know what to expect. The entertainment isn’t quite RCI standards and it’s very international with multiple nationalities on board and announcements in 5 languages but I like the cosmopolitan feel and the food and service is fantastic. I’ve never had a bad cruise or a bad day at sea so I’m confident we’ll have a great time in the knowledge we got a bargain.
Opera has recently had a major dry dock makeover and MSC have undertaken a 200million Renaissance programme to transform 4 of their Lirica class ships. They have cut the ships in half and added a new section providing an additional 197 bedrooms, redesigned the restaurants and bars, given the kids club a makeover to a Lego theme and added a spray ground for the children. Finn is very much looking forward to those and I’m just hoping they’ve welded the sections back together properly!
The ship departs from Venice so we flew in from Manchester via Jet2 yesterday. There was a lengthy wait at bag drop at Manchester but the flight was fairly painless and almost on time. I booked a private water taxi transfer from Marco Polo airport and so recommend this as it was an amazing way to arrive at our hotel. I booked online in advance and it cost around 100 and we were met at arrivals by a member of staff holding a sign with my name. She escorted us for the 5 minute walk to the pier and we boarded a waiting Vaporetto speedboat which took us through the city to our hotel for the night, the Hilton Molino Stucky where we disembarked at their pier.
Venice is not a cheap city and when I was looking for somewhere to stay even the 3 star hotels were expensive so I decided to spend a little extra to start the holiday in style. I booked an executive room at The Hilton which included access to the lounge with complimentary breakfast and drinks and snacks.
The Hilton Molino Stucky isn’t actually in Central Venice as it’s on Giudecca island on the other side of The Grand Canal but it’s a spectacularly converted flour mill and has an amazing roof top pool and bar. It offers a shuttle water taxi service that runs regularly day and night but as we’d visited Venice on a previous cruise and seen the main attractions we decided to stay and enjoy the hotel and it’s facilities.
Our room was lovely with a bedroom and lounge area, robes, slippers and more toiletries than even I could use in one night. We grabbed our swimsuits and went to the roof top pool which is a lovely space with spectacular views of Venice and St Marks Square. Finn and I enjoyed a dip where he swam his first ever full length and then it was time to change for dinner.
We’d booked a table at the hotel’s casual restaurant Bacaromi for 7pm but there is also another fine dining restaurant and a pizzeria to choose from in the hotel.
Ahead of dinner we popped back to the exec lounge for a cheeky glass or two of free red wine as a pre dinner aperitif. As a bottle of wine is 40 that’s quite a saving!
We then enjoyed an excellent meal in the restaurant, Andy had suckling pig and I had a mixed grill washed down with a bottle of house red. There wasn’t a kids menu but the staff happily provided a simple spaghetti Bolognese for Finn followed by ice cream and strawberries. Service was great and the bill was around 140 – not bad for Venice and thankfully that’s the last food we’ll be paying for for a fortnight! Exhausted after our early start we opted for on an early night and went off to bed looking forward to boarding MSC Opera tomorrow.
MSC Opera – Day 1 – Embarkation
The Hilton Molino Stucky is virtually opposite the cruise port and our day began watching the MSC Opera dock from our hotel bedroom windows, the perfect start to embarkation day.
The hotel offers a very civilised check out time of 12 noon so following breakfast we booked a water taxi transfer to the port for midday. We had a leisurely morning including a trip to the roof top pool to get a better view of our ship. The MSC Opera looked bigger than I expected although it’s actually one of the smaller ships we’ve sailed on with just 2600 passengers after the re-fit.
At midday we boarded our private water taxi which cost 70 for the short ride to the terminal. There is a public water bus available that costs around 15 each but we decided the taxi would be quicker and worth the extra investment. It certainly was as the water taxi sailed us right around the MSC Opera giving us a perfect view of the ship and some great photo opportunities.
We docked at a pier which looked like quite a distance from the cruise terminal however we were met on arrival by MSC staff who checked our tickets and whisked our cases away. We then had a 5 minute stroll with just hand baggage down to the check in area.
We’re sailing Aurea Class which includes priority check in, all inclusive drinks, freedom dining in a separate restaurant, one free spa treatment, access to the sauna and solarium, a welcome cocktail and room service as perks. There are other classes such as Bella which is the basic fare with allocated cabins or Fantastica which gives you a choice of cabin and choice of dining. On some MSC ships there is also Yacht Club which is a ship within a ship concept with suites and butler service.
We used our priority check in and were quickly on board and enjoying a glass of red on top deck in no time. I’m grateful for the all inclusive drinks package and intend to make full use of it however the drinks prices looked reasonable at just 5 for a glass of wine. We are on the Allegrisimo package which includes a choice of wines including a sparkling one, draught beer and a huge range of cocktails and spirits. I was pleased to see that Finn’s package includes cones or cups of ice cream, smoothies and milkshakes as I’d expected to spend a small fortune on those on board. There is a premium drinks package we could have upgraded to had we wished which includes mini bar and coffees but I didn’t think it worth the extra cost, we’ll just walk to the bar!
First impressions of the ship were great, it’s very stylish and understated and much less garish than some of the American ships. Carpets and furnishings are all spotlessly clean and new following the refurb. I’d watched some old YouTube footage before we sailed and I was a little concerned it might feel dated or tired but it really doesn’t, it’s a very pleasant looking ship.
We had a quick explore of top deck which included a trip to look at the buffet. We weren’t planning to eat as we were still full from breakfast but the food looked so good we just had to sample it. The buffet spread is fantastic, very Italian with beautiful antipasto, breads and pastas. I enjoyed some freshly roasted beef with potatoes, Andy sampled some cured hams and then a bowl of soup. Just outside the main buffet area is a pizzeria and pasta restaurant and a burger bar. Finn had a hot dog and fries which he scored 10 out of 10.
It was soon 2pm so we went to our room which is on the 9th floor mid ship with a balcony and is one of the new cabins that were added in the extension. The cabin was bijou and compact but big enough for the three of us with a pull down single bed which Finn adores that sits over our double. There’s a compact bathroom with a good shower and a decent hair dryer. Storage is ok, probably fine for a one week cruise but a little challenging for a fortnight. There’s also a flat screen TV, a good size balcony and a mini bar so should be a great little home for the next two weeks.
Our cases began to arrive so I did the unpacking then it was time for the muster. I wasn’t looking forward to an explanation of how to put your life jackets on in five languages but it was quick and far less painful than I’d feared. We were soon back at our room when Finn decided he wanted to sample the Spray Ground children’s water park area. We put on our swimwear and went up to top deck as the captain sounded the horn and we sailed out of Venice along The Grand Canal with St Marks Square on one side and our hotel on the other. It really is one of the most beautiful sailaways ever.
We changed for dinner which had a casual dress code and made our way to L’Approdo our allocated restaurant. We’re on anytime dining as we are Aurea Class but all other passengers dine at either 7pm or 9.30pm. We went at 7.30pm to allow the initial rush to subside and were quickly seated at a lovely table for three at the aft of the ship near the rear windows where we could watch a spectacular sunset over the ship’s wake. It was a fairly limited menu with just 3 or 4 choices across 5 courses including a pasta course and a salad course but there’s the usual ‘always available’ menu of classics in addition. The kids menu was good and Finn enjoyed a pizza starter then meatballs, which were both delicious and of a standard I’d be happy to get in Jamie’s Italian! I ordered a tomato soup, skipped the pasta and salad and then had a Veal Palliard followed by Limoncello cake, which was amazing. Andy sampled his first ever sushi with a Californian Roll then had a different Veal main course served with potatoes and mushrooms. The food was excellent, service great and the wine was flowing, it was a lovely first evening aboard. It’s worth noting the portion sizes are quite small because most people will take the full five courses. We certainly weren’t complaining as we left satisfied and full.
We had a quick explore of deck 5 and 6 where the majority of the bars and shops are, I did a little retail therapy and then it was time for a quick nightcap in the ‘pub’ on board while we watched a duo singing. A lovely end to the night.
MSC Opera – Day 2 – Bari
The Opera seems a very stable and quiet ship with none of the noise or vibrations that you sometimes experience at sea and we had a great nights sleep ahead of our first port of call, Bari in Southern Italy. We weren’t due to dock until 2pm and the later arrival time meant we had a half lazy sea day then a bit of an explore ashore.
An al a carte breakfast is one of my highlights of cruising and any mum will know that a buffet with a child can be a far from relaxing start to a day! The table service breakfast is served in La Carvella, the main restaurant which was busy but there weren’t any queues and we were soon seated at a table for 3 enjoying orange juice. There was actually a small buffet section at the front of the restaurant with pastries, fruit, yoghurt and cold meats however we chose from a varied menu including English breakfast, pancakes, waffles and daily specials. The breakfast was excellent although portion sizes were quite small but you could order as much as you liked. For those who want self service the buffet on deck 11 serves daily till 10am.
After breakfast we explored decks 5 & 6 properly and discovered Aroma coffee bar where I had my kind of caffeine hit, a diet Pepsi. Then it was time for top deck as Finn was keen to go swimming. We had a look around and found the mini golf course but couldn’t see where you got the balls or clubs from, then we visited the Lego themed 7 -11 kids club although the children and staff were all out on an adventure somewhere. It looked like a great facility and has lots of free to play Lego video game consoles which are all important if you’re a seven year old boy!
It was 10am but there were still plenty of spare beds and we found two within sight of the Spray Ground where Finn ran around happily squirting and splashing for an hour. It’s one of the new additions to the ship and with just a few inches of water and a non slip surface it’s relatively safe for keeping kids cool and occupied while parents relax. I also took Finn into one of the two pools which were busy but refreshing however they’re 5ft 5 inches deep in the shallow end and there aren’t any lifeguards so you may need to swim with your kids or keep a close eye on them.
Soon it was lunchtime and we sampled the al a carte option again in La Carvella where they serve Pronto Bistro lunch. There’s a buffet area for starters, salads, breads and desserts and your waiter serves the drinks and main courses. I had a starter of pasta with sausage and fennel which Finn also had as a main course and Andy put together a salad of rocket and cured meats with a drizzle of olive oil. For mains I had turkey stuffed with ham and soft cheese and Andy had beef in a peppercorn sauce with broccoli, all washed down with a few glasses of very good red wine. The food is outstanding as you maybe should expect from an Italian line and I think the quality even surpasses Royal Caribbean so I might well be gaining a few pounds while I’m onboard. Finn managed a chocolate brownie for dessert and as we were finishing lunch we were arriving in Bari, perfect timing.
We strolled through deck 5 to the Sottovento Pub to get a drink before going ashore. The bar team were creating cocktails apparently for the ship’s Christmas menu and invited us to sample them free of charge. Well it would have been rude not to so I had a delicious chocolate and raspberry martini, thank heaven I’d declined dessert!
We grabbed a few Euros and disembarked. As we were leaving the terminal there was a desk selling tickets for the shuttle bus, I went over and saw it was 8 return per person. I was about to purchase them when Andy spotted that the town was only 5 minutes away so we decided to brave the heat and walk. It was the right decision as it was a very easy stroll. At the entrance to the port there were the usual hop on hop off bus, tourist road trains, bike hire and what looked like a fun rickshaw tour option available. We walked on into the old town, through narrow labyrinth style streets with beautiful old buildings giving lots of welcome shade and stumbled across a square lined with bars and pizzerias where we sampled a glass of local red at just 3 each. Apparently Bari is famous for it’s Gelato and the square had an ice cream parlour so Finn and I sampled a small ‘piccolino’ cone at 2 each which were delightful and plenty big enough.
It was incredibly hot so we decided to make our way back to the ship and wandered along the sea front to the port where we were soon back on board. Bari was lovely, much nicer than I thought it would be looking at the industrial area we’d docked in. I do love the destinations where you can just wander ashore for a stroll, a drink and an explore. Several passengers were also embarking / disembarking here so I suspect that’s the predominant reason it’s a port of call however we really enjoyed our afternoon here.
Finn was desperate for another swim so I took him up to top deck where I could sunbathe while he splashed in the Spray Ground. There was just time for a quick shower and change ahead of another casual dress code dinner back in L’Approdo where we were seated at the same table with views of another beautiful sunset. We decided to dine the Italian way and attempt the full 4 courses. We both started with Tuscan Bean soup, I then had a cheese and pear risotto and Andy had a prawn spaghetti and for mains we both had a herb crusted rack of lamb. Finn said it was the best kids menu ever as he had pizza to start followed by hot dog and orange jelly for dessert. We were beaten at three courses so declined dessert but Andy managed a little from the cheese board. Again the food was outstanding, the service great and the wine flowing. Another fabulous meal on board.
To end the evening we visited the main theatre Teatro Dell ‘Opera. MSC have a great system on board with two screens near reception where you can scan your sea pass and reserve seats for one of the three show times. This saves you having to get to there too early and allows you to enjoy dinner without the worry of not getting a seat. You simply turn up 5 or 10 minutes before and staff scan your cards as you enter. It worked really well and I think the other cruise lines should consider this as it’s a far better system than joining a queue and taking your chance.
Tonight’s act was a ventriloquist, The Thousand Voices of Claudio. I’m not a huge fan of this kind of entertainment but Finn had seen a preview on the TV on the day we boarded and wanted to see the talking dog. It wasn’t the greatest show I’ve ever seen, in fact I never want to see a ventriloquist performing in 5 languages again but elsewhere onboard there seems to be lots of other options including musical duos in most of the bars each night. With the show over it was time for a nightcap and bed ahead of a lazy sea day tomorrow.