Almost every travel advisor in the leisure business, and certainly those who specialize in cruise, has had the high-energy experience of a ship inspection.
And the amount of ground to be covered in a relatively short amount of time can be daunting. Stairs vs. elevators (maybe the stairs when it's embarkation day and some of the elevator banks are closed for luggage delivery)? Is there time for a snack in the lido, or will there be a sit-down luncheon in the dining room? Should one focus on finding all the open cabins, or just concentrate on the public decks?
Everyone has his or her strategy.
I thought about how to best tackle the MSC Meraviglia when I signed up for an evening visit on the ship's maiden arrival to New York on Oct. 7. Not only was I planning to tour the 171,000-gross-ton ship in just under four hours, but I was under strict instructions from our cruise editor to see a Cirque du Soleil at Sea performance. And I had to eat something, lest I collapse somewhere between the Broadway Theater and the MSC Yacht Club. I had my work cut out for me.
Pregame, 4:00 p.m.
I want to look business casual, and unfortunately my favorite pair of comfy-yet-work-appropriate shoes bit the dust earlier this year. I pick a sturdy pair of heels and hope for the best.
5:15 p.m., NYC Cruise Terminal
As any seasoned ship inspector knows, every time you go to the port, the security and check-in procedure will be different. Sometimes you have to surrender your ID, but other times you can hold onto it. Sometimes there's a clip-on badge to wear. Sometimes you can board directly, but other times you have to wait for the group to assemble. Once this is worked out, it's time to get going.
Sculptures at the Chocolat & Cafe eatery. Photo Credit: Rebecca Tobin
I'm on the ship and staring down the MSC Meraviglia's brilliant center promenade, its ceiling lit up with thousands of LED lights. It's a sight to behold. Directly to my left is the Chocolat & Cafe, which I'm irresistibly drawn to. But where, exactly, am I? I decide to consult ...
5:37 The deck plan sign
The deck plan at every elevator bank is a friend to anyone on a mission to see as much as possible in a limited time. MSC has a small sign by each of its elevators that lists the primary offerings on each deck and detailed, LED-screen interactive maps by the stairs. A glance at the small list tells me I'm going to concentrate on Decks 6 and 7 interior, and then Decks 15, 16, 18 and 19.
Wait. There are 19 decks?
6:00 The Carousel Lounge
As I said, everybody has their ship-inspection strategy, and mine normally is to start at the top of the ship (Deck 19!) and work my way down. But MSC has other plans for me: a Cirque du Soleil at Sea performance, a tapas tasting and then a guided tour. The show is in the Carousel Lounge, so to the lounge I go.
I pass through the casino on the way and also take in MSC's famous Swarovski crystal staircases. I take a quick video of my shoes as I ascend the staircase (because Swarovski crystal!). I make a mental note to come back this way to get a better look at the Champagne Bar.
At the Carousel Lounge I start to get a little antsy, and I wonder if I should sneak out and look around the nearby areas. But on the other hand, I'm sure the show will begin as soon as I leave my seat. I opt instead to chill.
(Filming the Cirque show is strictly forbidden, so take my word for it: The one I saw, "Sonor," is wonderful, and the performers are otherworldly. I am also, comparatively, hopelessly out of shape.)
7:14 Back at it, Deck 6
I'm back at the Promenade, where we head to Hola! Tapas Bar with Michelin-starred chef Ramon Freixa, who urges us to try the tapas. After a few bites, I realize it's time to explore the promenade. I see the gelato stand, where two passengers are ordering gorgeous, multiscoop cones. I peek at the Ocean Cay restaurant and the sushi restaurant and the Champagne Bar, photographing all the way.
A very ship-inspection-like image: The group preparing for tapas at the Hola! Tapas Bar on the MSC Meraviglia. Photo Credit: Rebecca Tobin
7:52 Details, Decks 6 and 7
I take a picture of the Chocolat & Cafe menu to remind me of the prices. Three macarons are 3.50 euros (a little less than $4 U.S.). The macarons are displayed tantalizingly in a case to my right. If I had a shipboard card, the macarons (and my bank account) would not be safe.
7:56 Spa, Yacht Club and pools, forward decks 7, 16 and 18
The guided tour has begun. I note that the spa is in an unusual spot on the Meraviglia, Deck 7; the traditional spa zone (top decks forward) is where MSC places its Yacht Club, the exclusive enclave for suite guests. We sweep by the pools, and in the smokestack superstructure that looms over the midship pool I can see a room with lights and couches a lounge? and also a room with exercise equipment. This is also when I stop to take a photo of the pool and lose my group.
8:12 Aft, top decks-ish
Now I have no group, and the interactive ship maps take too much time, so I'm winging it. I'm in the buffet. Then I'm in a hallway. There's a staircase with black-and-white-striped carpeting and red walls; I climb it. I end up on the aft deck staring down the twisting, turning waterslides. It's dark and raining, but I still step out to see the ropes course.
I'm back inside. I breeze through the Attic Club, which I find out later is a bar and dance club. The kids' clubs are absolutely huge. Holy smokes, there's a full-size, indoor basketball court!
8:20 Sky Lounge, Deck 18
I found the lounge I saw when I was at the midship pool. It's the Sky Lounge. I walk through the entrance twice, because it's swanky: black-and-white marble with a rectangular crystal chandelier. The couches with white-leather accents and lamps are very art deco. Might there be cocktails and dancing at some point? Should I order a Negroni? (Oh yeah no ship card.) If I were a passenger, the Sky Lounge would be my hangout.
8:28 Main restaurants, Deck 6
The clear vault filled with wine bottles that is the centerpiece of the main dining zone on the MSC Meraviglia.
Since I'm aft, I reckon the traditional-dining restaurants are below me. I take the elevator and get out at Deck 6. Two restaurants are on this deck, and the focal point of the hallway is a sort of clear vault of wine bottles. I hear the maitre d' addressing diners with a hearty "welcome back!" and I know that means the crew is doing its job to make passengers feel special.
8:32 Promenade, Deck 7
I am feeling guilty about losing my group, but I know we're supposed to end up at the Butcher's Cut steakhouse, so that's my ultimate destination. I take a couple more photos of the atrium, because I'm trying to get those staircases in one frame.
8:39 The Brass Anchor pub, Deck 7
I see MSC's USA COO, Ken Muskat, down the promenade. Then I meet MSC's USA chairman Rick Sasso outside the British-style Brass Anchor pub. But I have to duck inside to take a picture of the tap handles. Guinness, Murphy's, Newcastle, Heineken and Tiger are among the choices.
MSC Cruises' USA chairman Rick Sasso onboard the MSC Meraviglia. Behind him is the promenade with its "sky" of LED lights. Photo Credit: Rebecca Tobin
8:41 Butcher's Cut
Made it. Just in time for a brief speech by Sasso and a chance to interview him. I'm still able to stand, so good choice on the shoes. But I'm sure glad to sit down.
Also, reward time. Not a Negroni or macaron in sight, but I do accept a glass of malbec.
9:15 I'm done ... but not quite
I realize after Sasso mentions it that I missed the bowling alley on Deck 16 as well as the sports car simulators. This is what happens when you lose your guide and don't have a set of deck plans! Luckily, there's company materials, photos and more to fill in the gaps. And there's one other thing about a whirlwind tour: there's more work to do. I have an article deadline in 12 hours.
CORRECTIONS: An earlier version of this report truncated the full name of the Cirque performance on the MSC Cruises' ships; it is Cirque du Soleil at Sea. And the name of the show itself was incorrectly spelled; it is Sonor.