Day 5 – San Juan, Puerto Rico

Conquest of Paradise

Arriving in San Juan, Puerto Rico early this morning aboard MSC Cruises' MSC Divina. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Arriving in San Juan, Puerto Rico early this morning aboard MSC Cruises’ MSC Divina. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

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.

Is a balcony stateroom worth it? Yes - I watched as we silently slipped into San Juan early this morning. Not a sound could be heard. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Is a balcony stateroom worth it? Yes – I watched as we silently slipped into San Juan early this morning. Not a sound could be heard. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

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.

Disembarking MSC Divina was a snap for a ship her size. Plenty of signage indicates the ship's gangways, which today were placed at the Midship and Forward staircases. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Disembarking MSC Divina was a snap for a ship her size. Plenty of signage indicates the ship’s gangways, which today were placed at the Midship and Forward staircases. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

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.

MSC Divina...Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
MSC Divina…Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
...towers over the port of San Juan. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
…towers over the port of San Juan. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

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.

Today, I created my own walking tour of San Juan, which is remarkably easy to do in the historic Old Town where cruise ships dock. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Today, I created my own walking tour of San Juan, which is remarkably easy to do in the historic Old Town where cruise ships dock. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Strolling to Fort San Filipe del Morro - or El Morro for short. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Strolling to Fort San Filipe del Morro – or El Morro for short. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

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.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, El Morro was the site of many bloody battles. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, El Morro was the site of many bloody battles. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
It's also a bit of a city unto itself. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
It’s also a bit of a city unto itself. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
You've probably seen San Juan's iconic fortress in numerous brochures before. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
You’ve probably seen San Juan’s iconic fortress in numerous brochures before. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

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.

Strolling back to the MSC Divina through the colourful streets of San Juan. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Strolling back to the MSC Divina through the colourful streets of San Juan. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
San Juan Cathedral. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
San Juan Cathedral. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

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.

Why am I showing you a photograph of the waterline of MSC Divina's bow? Because she's spotless. Rather than painting over rust patches, the crew are constantly cleaning the hull - moreso than any other ship I think I've been on. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Why am I showing you a photograph of the waterline of MSC Divina’s bow? Because she’s spotless. Rather than painting over rust patches, the crew are constantly cleaning the hull – moreso than any other ship I think I’ve been on. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Five Things That Have Surprised Me about MSC

Uncomplicated Pricing Scheme

Balcony cabins aboard MSC Divina are all more-or-less similar in terms of design; best of all, there are only three separate categories from which to pick! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Balcony cabins aboard MSC Divina are all more-or-less similar in terms of design; best of all, there are only three separate categories from which to pick! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

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

There's a decidedly premium vibe aboard MSC Divina. Shown here is the Caffee Italia coffee bar on Deck 7, which features premium Italian coffee. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
There’s a decidedly premium vibe aboard MSC Divina. Shown here is the Caffee Italia coffee bar on Deck 7, which features premium Italian coffee. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

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 focuses on catering to English-speaking guests - but that doesn't mean non-English speakers are left out. Production shows in the Pantheon Theatre on Decks 6 and 7 tend to be more visual to cater to an international audience. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
MSC Divina focuses on catering to English-speaking guests – but that doesn’t mean non-English speakers are left out. Production shows in the Pantheon Theatre on Decks 6 and 7 tend to be more visual to cater to an international audience. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

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.

Great Cuisine

From Italian pasta made right onboard to premium burgers and pub food in The Sports Bar, shown above, MSC Divina's culinary offerings are far better than average. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
From Italian pasta made right onboard to premium burgers and pub food in The Sports Bar, shown above, MSC Divina’s culinary offerings are far better than average. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

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!

International Appeal

MSC Divina boasts an international appeal that is apparent in her live music offerings in each distinct lounge. Latin jazz is most popular in the Golden Jazz Bar on Deck 7. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
MSC Divina boasts an international appeal that is apparent in her live music offerings in each distinct lounge. Latin jazz is most popular in the Golden Jazz Bar on Deck 7. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

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 Mediterranean-fusion restaurant located on Deck 16. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Tonight, we dined in Galaxy, MSC Divina’s Mediterranean-fusion restaurant located on Deck 16. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

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…

Passing a rainbow off our starboard side earlier today...Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Passing a rainbow off our starboard side earlier today…Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
...as MSC Divina makes her way to our final Eastern Caribbean port of call. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
…as MSC Divina makes her way to our final Eastern Caribbean port of call. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

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.

MSC Divina makes her way towards Grand Turk - some 352 nautical miles away. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
MSC Divina makes her way towards Grand Turk – some 352 nautical miles away. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

 

Our full journey:

Our MSC Divina Eastern Caribbean Live Voyage Report will run from February 7-14, 2015. Illustration courtesy of MSC Cruises.
Our MSC Divina Eastern Caribbean Live Voyage Report will run from February 7-14, 2015. Illustration courtesy of MSC Cruises.

MSC Divina, Sailing the Eastern Caribbean, Mediterranean Style

DAYPORTARRIVEDEPART
Saturday, February 7, 2015Miami, FloridaEmbark MSC Divina19:00
Sunday, February 8At Sea
Monday, February 9At Sea
Tuesday, February 10Philipsburg, St. Maarten09:00 18:00
Wednesday, February 11San Juan, Puerto Rico08:0016:00
Thursday, February 12Grand Turk, Turks & Caicos10:0017:30
Friday, February 13At Sea
Saturday, February 14, 2015Miami, Florida07:00Disembark
Share on facebook
Facebook
Share on pinterest
Pinterest
Share on twitter
Twitter
Share on linkedin
LinkedIn
Share on stumbleupon
StumbleUpon
Share on digg
Digg

One Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

x Logo: Shield Security
This Site Is Protected By
Shield Security