Although my wife and I have travelled a good deal over the years, the “cruise experience” had eluded us. No particular reason — we'd heard plenty, good and bad, about luxury ship vacations. (Opening photo is of the Blue Mosque, Istanbul, Turkey.)
We took the plunge with two excursions, back to back, on different cruise lines. Both sailed round- trip out of Istanbul. The first cruise offered seven days on MSC Divina, an Italian vessel, with Adriatic stops at Dubrovnik, Venice and Bari, then homeward bound at Olympia, Greece and Izmir, Turkey. After a few days in Istanbul, we'd board Celebrity Constellation for a twelve day journey through the Aegean islands with stops along the Turkish coast at Kusadasi (for the Roman ruins at Ephesus), Bodrum and Marmaris, followed by the Greek islands of Rhodes, Mykonos, Santorini and Crete. plus a day in Athens.
We hoped that this schedule would provide a fair introduction to the eastern Mediterranean as well as an entrée to cruising. Also we'd get to compare two ships of similar class and size.
The weather was grand: sunny October days with temperatures in the 70s. Our floating resorts plowed through seas invariably calm, yet a fresh salt breeze was ever present. Any unpleasant sensation of being at sea — pitching, swaying, the throb of engines — was non-existent.
Both ships provided a four star atmosphere as advertised. Cabins were roomy, quiet and well appointed, with flat-screen TVs offering any array of international news programs and movies. Private balconies, offered in a majority of cabins, were a welcome addition.
The liners’ on-board venues — from capacious theatres, specialty restaurants and casinos to health-oriented offerings like spa salons, swimming pools, hot tubs and gyms — scored high numbers.
Personal service, whether in cabin areas, at pool side, or in the principal dining rooms, was consistently efficient and courteous. Overall décor in the public areas, albeit tending toward hyper glitz, left little to differentiate. MSC Divina appointments may be a bit fresher (the ship came on line in 2012 vs. 2002 for Celebrity Constellation), but the latter hardly seemed shop-worn.
Which ship to choose? Individual tastes might dictate a preference for either ship, so with that in mind we offer our own.
Although we enjoyed cruising with MSC Divina, our comparisons generally favor Celebrity Constellation.
A primary issue is crowding. Of course any ship carrying several thousand passengers is bound to feel claustrophobic at times. Divina accommodates 4000 guests on 13 decks; Constellation 2500 on 11 cabin levels. But Constellation provided more elbow room in a number of situations.
For example, both ships offer excellent buffet breakfast and lunch. Like a cooked-to-order omelet? On Divina you might stand in line for ten minutes to place that order. On Constellation there was seldom any wait. Once you’ve put together your breakfast tray, the search is on to find an open table. On Divina this could take awhile. Eventually we resorted to grabbing an available table before hitting the food line. One of us would plop down to save it while the other got his breakfast. Constellation always displayed plenty of free tables.
At dinner, Divina offers two reserved seatings (6:00 and 8:30). Prior to embarkation, a guest must choose either, then be assigned a regular table for the balance of the trip. Constellation did not require pre-arranged seating. We might reserve a time if we wished, but were free to arrive for the evening meal at our convenience and be seated promptly at a table for two or, if we preferred, join other parties at a larger table.
Divina’s reservation plan is understandable — the ship may have more passengers to feed at a less comfortable guest-to-table ratio. Admittedly, once we’d concluded that Divina’s 8:30 seating was preferable to our pre-chosen 6:00, the genial maitre’d switched our reservation time. Dining service personnel on both ships worked to please us. It was simply easier for Constellation to accommodate our wishes.
Of course crowding was evident outside the dining areas. Divina had longer wait time for elevators and available hot tubs. It had longer lines to enter and exit the ship. Such minor inconveniences add up.
On food and beverage Constellation also comes out ahead. Although the quality of buffet meals is comparable, Constellation offers superior fare at dinnertime. True to its Italian roots, MSC does come forward with an array of pastas and regional Italian dishes. But Celebrity ships are famous for excellent victuals and choice of wines (for years Michelin three-star chef Michel Roux oversaw Celebrity’s Continental menus). MSC does a perfectly acceptable job; Celebrity just does it a bit better.
Elaborate life-boat instructions--“extend the right flap of your preserver over the left shoulder,” etc. delivered in a Babel of tongues--are particularly pointless. Such safety information and “delighted to welcome you aboard” palaver should be communicated in writing to be more thoroughly absorbed at one’s leisure.
Constellation, by contrast, has a “zero announcement policy”, which means — “don’t bother people unless it’s absolutely necessary”. Good thinking.
Linguistic complexities also result in a few of other limitations. Divina offers no lectures, whereas familiarization sessions for guests about to disembark in foreign ports are a standard feature on Constellation. Although both ships have televisions in all cabins, Constellation offers a better choice of programming for English speakers, including several cable news channels and ESPN sports programming.
The cost of cruising with Celebrity vs. MSC? Roughly the same. Of course various discounted deals, comparable to those offered by airlines and hotels, may be available. But we determined that our basic cruise — room, board, access to onboard amenities, and transport — came to about $150 per day/per person. When we compared that with what it might have cost to acquire the same services travelling on our own, the figure was comparable.
So cruising can be a reasonable deal. Moreover it is a relaxing way to the travel. One is spared the bother of reserving hotel rooms, plodding through airports or waiting for ferry boats whose schedules are often at the mercy of weather conditions.
On the negative side, cruising means being prepared to give up a certain amount of privacy. Occasionally one has the sensation of being herded — onto or off of a ship, into a tour group. If variety is the spice of life, the cruise company version is circumscribed by its notion of popular activities — pool parties, bingo games, pre-packaged fun. Largely absent, due to time constraints of the typical eight-hour port stop, is the potential for exploration at one’s own pace.
A caveat for computer-savvy cruisers: prepare to be vexed by the sluggish response time of on-board Wi-Fi. For best results operate your systems when ashore or use internet cafes in ports of call.
So there are choices to be made. Our “cruise plus” is one sort of answer: woven into our schedule was a week’s time ashore in Istanbul with its grand mosques, Bosphorus excursions and Turkish restaurants featuring a cornucopia of fresh produce and sea food. With a bit of planning, this type of cruise-and-stay may be arranged at various ports of call.
|Cruise Lines:||MSC Cruises||Celebrity Cruise|
|Parent Company:||Med Shipping Co||Royal Caribbean Intl.|
|Headquarters:||Geneva / Genoa||London, UK|