Conquest of Paradise
Aaron Saunders, Live Voyage Reports
Wednesday, February 11, 2015
If you’re wondering if you should splurge for a balcony stateroom on your next cruise, consider the morning I had aboard MSC Cruises’ MSC Divina as she slipped silently into the harbour in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
The globetrotting Christopher Columbus discovered San Juan on what was literally his “Conquest of Paradise” in 1492-93, but it wasn’t until 1509 that the town was officially settled, and even longer – 1521 – before it was given its official name of San Juan Bautista de Puerto Rico.
Positioned as a prime stopover point for ships carrying gold and silver to and from the New World, San Juan entered a 300-year period of repeated sackings, pillaging, battles and outright siege. The city’s famous fortresses and castle walls were built to protect the city, but that didn’t stop San Juan from becoming a veritable bloodbath. Battles were so common the townspeople could practically set their watches – if they had any – to them.
Today, San Juan is part of the United States of America, but only very peripherally. An unincorporated territory, they use the U.S. Dollar here along with the propensity for heavily-armed police officers dressed head-to-toe in black guarding ports, monuments and Starbucks Coffee but other than that, San Juan still retains much of its Spanish colonial charm. In fact, you could argue that Havana, Cuba would appear a lot like modern-day San Juan had Fidel Castro not decided to go to bed with Nikita Khrushchev and a bunch of long-range ballistic missiles back in the 1960’s.
Having been here just over one year ago, I opted to create my own shore excursion today by walking to Fort San Cristobal, then over to the equally-historic Fort San Filipe del Morro, before making a giant loop back to the ship by strolling through the main shopping district in Old San Juan.
Fort San Filipe del Morro – or just El Morro for short – is a 16th century citadel situated along the western side of San Juan. It’s an easy 30-minute walk from the MSC Divina, and the entire loop today only took me about two hours to complete, including window shopping. A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1983, El Morro was the site of numerous battles. What appears to be a beautiful field of green, hilly grass leading up to the actual citadel was, in fact, a notorious killing ground for invading enemy forces.
I really like San Juan; it’s a great place to visit with a nice blend of authentic, local culture mixed together with the duty-free shopping madness that most cruise passengers seem to expect of a Caribbean port of call. So whether you just want to get a good deal on a Panama-style hat or are looking to experience some authentic Puerto Rican cuisine, you can have it all in San Juan.
I actually wanted to buy a Panama hat, and went into about five shops to do so. I was dismayed, though, to find that all but the most expensive shops only carried a single size: 57. I don’t know what size my head is, but 57 is apparently much too small. So, money safely tucked away in my wallet, I walked back to the MSC Divina at her berth at the foot of downtown San Juan.
Five Things That Have Surprised Me about MSC
Uncomplicated Pricing Scheme
I’ve been on new ships of similar size to MSC Divina that sport nearly twenty different categories of staterooms and suites onboard. Most of these are similar in size and appearance, and are only separated – and priced – according to their physical location on the vessel. They’re also confusing; you practically need a Venn Diagram to sort things out.
Not so on MSC. Here onboard MSC Divina, there are essentially 11 different grades of staterooms and suites, separated into four easy-to-understand categories: Bella, Fantastic, Aurea, and MSC Yacht Club.
Bella and Fantastica grades include Interior, Oceanview and Balcony Staterooms, separated only in terms of location and features. The overall size of each stateroom remains roughly the same.
Aurea includes premium location balcony staterooms (generally on the ship’s upper decks), as well as the first grade of Suites, designated S3.
MSC Yacht Club, of course, is MSC’s premium, all-inclusive ship-within-a-ship concept that features exclusive lounges, sun decks, pools, and even a dedicated dining room. We’ll be talking more about that in the coming days.
Premium Product, Mainstream Price
Have you seen the rates for an interior stateroom onboard MSC Divina? They’re downright affordable – even moreso on the massive transatlantic crossing the ship will be doing this April between Miami (or New York) and Barcelona, Spain or Civitavecchia, Italy.
Fares are so good on some sailings you’ll think they made a typo on the brochure – but what you’re getting, even in a bottom-of-the-barrel Inside Stateroom – is a tremendous value. The ship is decidedly more upscale, and is reminiscent of what Norwegian Cruise Line is actively trying to do with their new Norwegian Breakaway: move from mainstream into a more premium mode of family-friendly cruising. It’s what MSC has already achieved onboard the MSC Divina.
Taken on the whole, there’s a lot of premium features on this ship, from Italian gelato to pasta that’s made onboard to Segafredo coffee.
Focus On English-Speaking Cruisers
MSC Divina has been designed to cater specifically to English-speaking guests. That means that, outside of the Muster Drill – which is conducted in multiple languages – all onboard announcements will be made only in English. It’s a policy that will continue year-round aboard the MSC Divina, even when she sails her Mediterranean season this summer. On all other MSC ships, announcements are made in multiple languages. It’s only a negative if you see it as such.
Food is always a touchy subject; I don’t know when everyone in North America became a food critic, but to eavesdrop on the conversation of most North Americans, you’d think we were all Michelin-starred chefs the way we turn our noses up at some food. And let’s not forget: we’re the continent that gave the world the Double-Down.
I am no culinary master, though I am a wizard with a can opener and a microwave. But I do know good food from bad food, and I have to say the food on MSC Divina matches a lot of the food I’ve had on some premium cruise lines. In a few items (salads, cheese plates), MSC comes close to lines like Viking River Cruises in terms of quality and variety, and dinners in the Villa Rossa main dining room have been events worth looking forward to.
Bonus points have to be given for the special Kid’s Corner on the aft port side of the buffet on Deck 14; a really cool feature for the little ones!
Although nearly everything onboard MSC Divina is geared to English-speaking guests, that hasn’t stopped my fellow passengers from over a dozen different countries from having a wonderful time.
One of the things I’ve noticed with MSC’s international passenger base is that their guests really embrace the entire MSC experience. Nightlife is energetic and plentiful, with bars and lounges open – and populated – well past midnight. MSC cruisers enjoy life, and they enjoy their vacation.
By and large, these aren’t first-time cruisers – and nearly everyone adheres to the dress code. I know; I was one of the few (and I mean few) who didn’t dress in the suggested dress code of ‘white’ last evening. Even families with little kids dressed up. You just don’t see that on North American-based mainstream lines. To me, it’s a refreshing change.
Dining With the Stars
Tonight, we dined in Galaxy, MSC Divina’s trendy specialty restaurant experience perched high atop Deck 16. With floor-to-ceiling windows surrounding it, Galaxy at night takes on an almost space-age quality with dim lighting, black menus, black tables with reflective surfaces, and suitably interstellar décor.
If there’s one issue with Galaxy, it’s that it’s too dark; I could barely see my food, let alone read the white-on-black menus. A few times during the meal, I felt positively blind. But I liked the food, and the overall concept. And – I may be alone in this – I like that dinner took a whopping three hours. To me, that’s a feature. I want a specialty dining experience to take a while. I want it to be an event, not something that’s rushed. If I want to cram food down my maw, I’ll go get a Big Mac.
Now, granted, three hours may not be for everyone – but the food was quite good. Bit of advice: go for the small menu. There’s a massive tasting menu that looks great, but you’ll be exhausted before you even get halfway through! Moderation is key here. Now if they’d just pop the lights up a touch…
Once again, another night aboard MSC Divina draws to a close, with classical music continuing well after midnight in the Atrium as I type this. I should go to sleep. I should rest. Yet I can’t – I only have three more nights left in which to enjoy this. The nightlife on this ship is worth making the most of.
Our full journey:
MSC Divina, Sailing the Eastern Caribbean, Mediterranean Style
|Saturday, February 7, 2015||Miami, Florida||Embark MSC Divina||19:00|
|Sunday, February 8||At Sea|
|Monday, February 9||At Sea|
|Tuesday, February 10||Philipsburg, St. Maarten||09:00||18:00|
|Wednesday, February 11||San Juan, Puerto Rico||08:00||16:00|
|Thursday, February 12||Grand Turk, Turks & Caicos||10:00||17:30|
|Friday, February 13||At Sea|
|Saturday, February 14, 2015||Miami, Florida||07:00||Disembark|