Theres a new trend for luxury, boutique hotel style cruising – an exclusive ship within a ship concept – which offers additional perks, private spaces and gourmet cuisine for travellers prepared to pay a premium.
Traditional luxury cruise lines like Silversea, Seabourn, Cunard or Crystal offer a 5 or even 6 star standard but these aren’t particularly family friendly therefore the more conventional cruise lines are tapping into a growing market for luxury family cruising. NCL offer their Haven area and MSC have the Yacht Club. Royal Caribbean also provide exclusive lounges for suite guests, lunch in a private restaurant and a reserved area on top deck.
I thought it may be helpful to share our recent experience of sailing the Caribbean in Yacht Club on MSC Divina during Easter 2014.
At the beginning of the year I was doing some holiday research but mindful that as were limited to going away during school holidays it pays to plan ahead to ensure availability and get the best prices. I was looking for a fortnights cruise over the Easter half term break but as the weather is distinctly cool in the Mediterranean in April it made sense to look at a long haul fly cruise. I quickly realised that my options were limited if we wanted a 14 night holiday that fitted our dates. It was either an NCL cruise or the MSC Divina, both out of Miami. We’d never sailed MSC before but the itinerary was much better than the NCL option and it included a stop at Tortola (our favourite ever cruise destination so far) that would allow us to re-visit what may possibly be the worlds most beautiful beach at Virgin Gorda / Devils Bay.
When I was booking I asked my travel agent (Cherry at cruise.co.uk) whether there was any Yacht Club availability but sadly they wasn’t so we booked a standard balcony and the holiday countdown began. A few weeks later to my delight I had an email from Cherry to say a Yacht Club suite had become available for a £700 upgrade. Wed booked a drinks package which cost only £50 less that that and as the Yacht Club area was all inclusive we were able to cancel it so it was a no brainer. We upgraded and I spent hours researching Yacht Club perks online!
Yacht Club is like a private members club within the ship with approximately 60 suites within a self contained area. Guests enjoy a butler service with each butler taking care of just four suites to help with any guest requirements. There’s also a private and elegant pool deck called the One Pool which is solely for Yacht Club guests and is located in prime position at the front of the ship with a complimentary buffet and bar service, private pool, hot tubs and an abundance of upmarket sun loungers.
Yacht Club guests can dine in Le Muse, an intimate 100 seater at the rear of the ship that serves Italian fine dining paired with equally fine wines and is open for lunch and dinner daily. The Top Sail Lounge is the Yacht Clubs impressive panoramic front facing lounge in the same area as the suites and the One Pool and serves a full and complimentary bar service day and night, continental breakfast in the morning and canapés throughout the day. There’s waiter service and a pianist here most evenings. A concierge reception area is at the heart of Yacht Club where staff are present 24 hours a day to deal with any questions. They provide a free digitally printed newspaper of your choice each day if you want one and manage excursion bookings, dinner reservations and anything else you may need. The whole of Yacht Club is accessed using a swipe card key which can even be used to override the lifts if you’re feeling ruthless. Yacht Club guests also benefit from priority boarding and tender services.
We were excited about a VIP style cruise and were really looking forward to two weeks of being pampered and spoiled, although we were a little uncomfortable about the butler service as it can seem a little demeaning but apparently they’re well trained and relatively well paid for their role. I decided we’d just minimise our demands, I certainly wasn’t going to let him unpack our cases for fear of him seeing my less than Yacht Club standard smalls!
Our trip was a fly cruise with flights arranged through MSC with British Airways. We live in Manchester and the ship departs from Miami but somehow there are no direct flights from Manchester so we had to arrange our own transfer flights to and from London. We stayed overnight at Sofitel Heathrow to avoid a really early start. I contacted MSC to try and reserve our seats on the plane and was told we couldn’t which concerned me as we were flying with our 6 year old son and I wanted to ensure we were all sat together. I then tried British Airways and cruise.co.uk both of whom couldn’t help either. This was frustrating as nobody was able or willing to help. We arrived at the airport to check in and discovered our British Airways flight was actually an American Airlines flight which may explain why we couldn’t reserve the seats. We got sat across an aisle from each other so sort of together but not ideal. The whole pre-flight and check in thing was way too stressful and it wasn’t the best start to the holiday.
A long but okay flight later we arrived in Miami, disembarked and joined the longest queue through immigration weve ever seen. I realise this isn’t MSC’s fault but it certainly puts me off fly cruises from the US in future! We queued for over an hour and finally made it through to find our transfer. We met an MSC rep who told us we’d just missed a coach so we waited a further 30 minutes before the next one that did a tour of what seemed to be all the other terminals until we finally arrived at the Divina check in an hour later.
Arrival was equally painful and chaotic. Before travelling we’d watched several videos online of Yacht Club which showed a VIP welcome, cases being whisked away and a butler escorting you onboard. The reality was slightly different as we got hassled for a tip by a porter who’d carried our cases six feet even though we didn’t want him to, less than helpful butler types under a Yacht Club awning who would only take people onboard when they deemed enough had arrived so even more waiting then we had to get in line at a very busy Yacht Club check in lounge. Finally when we were taken on board with about six other groups, we had to wait while they did the boarding photos with ship photographers (which we always dodge) and then we queued again to get on board. It was far from the video we’d seen and really wasn’t a great first impression, in fact we’ve had much smoother and quicker boarding as standard passengers on every other ship weve sailed on!
When we reached the Yacht Club area the butler wanted us to wait for a guided tour, we were completely frazzled so excused ourselves went to our suite and spotted a very welcome bottle of fizz waiting for us! Two glasses later we were finally ready to start the holiday properly!
Our suite was beautiful, much larger than anything we’ve ever had before with a lovely sitting area, huge king size bed, a walk in wardrobe, a regular size balcony and a bathroom with a proper bath – absolute heaven as I much prefer a bath to a shower. It was a fabulous home from home for two weeks and so good to have a bit of extra space with a small child.
I needn’t have worried about the butler thing, we barely saw ours all fortnight, he popped by on day one to introduce himself but other than that he was virtually invisible. He didn’t have the best grasp of English so there were a few conversations which got lost in translation. We asked for help when bath water we were emptying was coming up through a plug hole thing in the floor and flooding the bathroom but it was never dealt with so we just threw a pile of towels over it. He did however regularly deliver chocolate dipped strawberries much to our son Finn’s delight!
MSC is a very cosmopolitan cruise line, attracting guests of all nationalities from around the globe. As English speakers we were not in the majority however we knew this before we travelled so it really wasn’t an issue for us. As ever, many of the Europeans on board spoke impeccable English putting us Brits and US guests to shame! I do think the varied audience meant that this cruise lacked some of the friendliness and camaraderie of previous ones but that said we did meet a lovely English family on board in Yacht Club who we spent a lot of time with.
The food on MSC Divina and in particular in Le Muse was superb, it really was fine dining, probably akin to speciality restaurants on the main cruise lines RCI etc. We loved having this private restaurant and ate breakfast, lunch and dinner there most days. The portion sizes were perfect, with numerous small but tasty plates so we did avoid that stuffed feeling you often get at sea. We ate a few times in the buffet restaurant which was good but we didn’t feel the need to do either of the speciality restaurants or the pizza place within the main ship.
The MSC Divina is drop dead gorgeous with Italian design throughout and even the toilets have Alessi fittings! The staircases glitter with Swarovski crystals, the decor’s soft and tasteful and there’s even an infinity pool on top deck. It really is the most beautiful ship I’ve had the pleasure to sail on and RCI, Carnival or NCL should take a look at what MSC are doing from a design perspective.
Entertainment was on the whole decent, there were lots of dance, music or cirque du soleil style shows which avoided the need for language due to the varied nationalities on board. We didn’t see anything amazing but it was entertaining enough to while away a few hours after dinner. We loved the Duelling Pianos Jazz Bar where two pianists played together and we spent many happy evenings in there putting in one dollar requests. The Yacht Club all inclusive option only works in Yacht Club spaces so we pre-bought some very reasonable drinks vouchers which we used when elsewhere around the ship.
We’d often end the evening with a night cap in the Yacht Clubs Top Sail Lounge where wed enjoy a dessert canapé or two. There was also free thin crust pizza available every evening via room service if you were peckish and in need of a late night snack but we never got round to sampling it.
The itinerary was superb and definitely one of the reasons we chose this cruise. Our ports of call included Jamaica, Grand Cayman, Cozumel, St Maarten, Tortola and two stops at Great Stirrup Cay, a private island in the Bahamas. As it was a back to back cruise we also got a day to explore Miami. We only did two ship excursions, a beach break transfer in Jamaica and the ferry trip to Devils Bay, Virgin Gorda which was even more beautiful than we remembered and huge fun now Finn is a bit older as you have to make your way between the two beaches scrambling through caves and pools. We DIY’d everywhere else but the excursions were reasonably priced in comparison to other cruise lines.
Finn normally enjoys the kids clubs on cruises however he wasn’t keen on MSCs. He went to one session and didn’t want to return. This may have been the mix of nationalities or the fact he didn’t gel with the staff – he thought they were bossy! We didn’t mind, it was actually lovely to have him spend his time with us on holiday. I was a little concerned about how family friendly Yacht Club might be but I needn’t have worried. The staff and fellow guests were very welcoming of Finn and there were several other kids around the same age in Yacht Club. They even serve a children’s menu in the Le Muse restaurant and they provide Nintendo Wii’s in the rooms although we never got ours out. Our friends we met onboard said they had enjoyed exceptional butler service with their’s providing warm milk for their 3 year old morning and night!
All too soon it was home time. We had a late evening flight back to the UK and wanted to avoid a day waiting at the airport so we booked an MSC mall trip excursion to help the day pass by before being dropped at the airport. We had instructions to meet after breakfast in the jazz bar lounge where we arrived to scenes of absolute chaos. There were far too many people squashed in one space waiting to disembark and we had to queue for around an hour in a corridor just to get off the ship then queue through the port to collect luggage and queue again to pass through immigration. We finally made it to the coach to sit there for a further 30 minutes awaiting other guests. It was an absolute farce and along with the poor embarkation experience the only low points of an otherwise great holiday. We finally left the port about two hours after our original meeting time. Its a real shame as it’s put me off MSC and fly cruises, particularly US ones. I think we would only consider independent travel in future, at least that way you’re in control of when you arrive and leave the ship and can do hotel stays prior and post cruise to reduce the stress.
In summary, it was a great cruise once on board and we had a lovely time. Would I book MSC again? If the itinerary and price were right possibly but only if we were in Yacht Club. I suspect the main ship would have been a different experience as it seemed very crowded everywhere. The kids club, entertainment and activities weren’t quite up to the standard of some of the US lines but the dining and decor were superb and Divina could well be the most stylish ship at sea. If you have any questions about MSC or Yacht Club then do get in touch and I’ll be happy to help!