MSC Orchestra bringing Med style to the Caribbean

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MSC Cruises' elegant, 2,550-passenger Orchestra will sail to Fort Lauderdale in January, bringing its Italian experience within easy reach of U.S. travelers. The line is celebrating the ship's first season in North America with incentives for passengers and agents.

Agents can offer a free balcony upgrade to clients booking an oceanview stateroom by April 30. And one agent will win up to $2,000 every week until the Orchestra's arrival on Jan. 2. All agents who sign up at www.msccruisesagent.com as part of the MSC Rewards program, or have a booking under deposit the previous week or a group blocked prior to the drawing, can double the weekly $500 prize to $1,000; agents who made such bookings and are members of the rewards program can earn $2,000.

The Orchestra will head to the Caribbean with alternating eastern and western itineraries from Jan. 3 to April 18. Eastern Caribbean cruises call at the line's private retreat at Cayo Levantado, Dominican Republic; Philipsburg, St. Maarten; St. John's, Antigua; and Nassau, Bahamas. Western sailings call at Key West, Fla.; Cozumel, Mexico; Georgetown, Grand Cayman; and Cayo Levantado. Both routes include two days at sea.

The Jan. 24, Feb. 28, March 28 and April 11 sailings are "Baseball Greats" theme cruises that will include autograph sessions with baseball legends.

In addition, a seven-night cruise roundtrip, Fort Lauderdale to Bermuda, is scheduled for April 25, with three days in King's Wharf and a day in Nassau.

An 18-day transatlantic sailing departs May 2, with two nights in New York before heading to Copenhagen, Denmark, with calls in Ponta Delgada, Azores; Lisbon, Portugal; Vigo, Spain; La Coruna, Spain; and Dover, England.

But before the Orchestra joins the MSC Lirica in the Caribbean, many Americans will have experienced the ship in the western Mediterranean, and an increasing number will have sailed outside the summer season, according to MSC President Richard Sasso.

A symphony at sea

North Americans are fast discovering the cooler weather, smaller crowds and lower prices on spring and fall cruises in the Mediterranean. The cruise I took at the end of March featured daytime temperatures in the 60s and 70s and uncrowded streets in major European cities from Barcelona to Palma de Mallorca, Spain. The mixture of passengers from Europe, the U.K., North America, South Africa, Asia and Australia enjoyed the authentic European way of life, accessible to passengers without a cloud of tourists.

The European lifestyle continued onboard, with the first dinner seating scheduled at 6:45, the second at 9:15 (times will be earlier in the Caribbean). There is no buffet service for dinner, as Europeans prefer table service at the evening meal.

However, Europe is changing, too. Some of the bars and sections of others are no-smoking, as are elevators, dining rooms, stateroom balconies and the spa; smoking is discouraged in staterooms.

Traditionally, Europeans are supposed to be less interested in gambling than their American counterparts, but the Orchestra's extensive and entertaining slot machines, roulette and table games were all very well-patronized at sea.

The atrium's central glass stage, backed by a waterfall, was filled day and night with passengers enjoying a classical string quartet or a mariachi band while sipping specialty coffees and drinks.

Another specialty coffee bar in the spa also serves smoothies and herbal infusions, along with massages from Balinese to hot stone and reflexology, shiatsu and lymphatic drainage, acupuncture, ultrasound and radio frequency treatments, facials and anti-aging sessions. A thermal suite with Turkish bath was very popular, especially in the cool mornings and evenings.

Guests worked off their indiscretions (this was a chocolate-themed cruise, so there were many) in the fitness center, which offers treadmills, free weights, bicycles and resistance equipment, along with classes from stretch and aerobic step to Pilates.

The outdoor track was a pleasure in the cooler temperatures, as were minigolf, volleyball and tennis. Equipment is available at the front desk. For the more sedentary, there is an attractive library plus board and card games, including bridge tournaments.

Cabin fever

Staterooms are elegant and restful, with the line's signature royal blue and rose coupled with light woods. All are equipped with hair dryers, bath amenities, safes and minibars, temperature control and both 110- and 220-volt electrical outlets. Bar service choices in the stateroom are priced the same as in the bar, and the small room-service menu (nominal fee in Europe, free in the Caribbean) is very good.

Families will find connecting staterooms, triples and suites, and the children's activity rooms onboard are charming.

The Orchestra has 80% outside cabins, most with private balconies, and these were especially enjoyable in the warm days of spring. Drawer and closet space is ample, and flat-screen TVs have interactive capability for shore excursions, reservations for the alternative restaurants and spa appointments as well as television stations in several languages and movies (pay-per-view in Europe, free in the Caribbean).

The ship's 24-hour Internet cafe is stylish and well-designed, with private carrels in the middle flanked by two long ovals filled with computers for quick sessions. Ten-minute time blocks cost 4 euros, or about $6.30; for those planning to be online a great deal, it may be worthwhile to bring a laptop, since discounted packages are available for WiFi users.

Entertainment on the Orchestra was spectacular, with acts from Cirque du Soleil-influenced acrobats and dancers to magic, all with magnificent costuming. The disco, which opens at 11 p.m., is a high-tech space with countless plasma screens in the floor, and jazz, dance music and singers entertained throughout the ship. The ship's midnight buffets drew enthusiastic crowds of passengers, many of whom returned to their staterooms laden with pastries.

Mealtime is centered on the two main restaurants and the buffet, but the alternative dining is excellent, with the Shanghai Chinese restaurant so outstanding that guests who tried it wished they had reserved for more nights.

The Grille offers hamburgers, hot dogs and the like at lunchtime, and the pizzeria, open in the evenings in Europe, with longer hours and no fee in the Caribbean, justifies its Italian affiliation. A highly praised Kebab restaurant is slotted into a portion of the space used for the buffet by day.

Dining selections in the main restaurants always include a vegetarian entree and a lighter choice, and there is a separate children's menu. Pasta courses are particularly good, and there is usually an extensive seafood selection. The wine list is extensive, with some especially fine local choices.

Desserts on our cruise were excellent. Not to be missed: anything made with the lemons of Sorrento.

The shops aboard the Orchestra include Logo Wear, with a strong emphasis on children's toys, and the elegant Madison Avenue, with traditional clothing for adults and children. An electronics shop, a perfumerie with cosmetics and a lavish jewelry store are among the other options, and wine, spirits and cigarettes found a huge clientele in the duty-free shop. During the ship's Caribbean season, the onboard spend switches from euros to dollars.

Cruise-only prices aboard the Orchestra in the Caribbean start at $799 per person, double, with cruisers 17 or younger sailing free when sharing a stateroom with two full-fare-paying adults.

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