Where to begin – the five-star, gourmet quality free food round the clock, the free entertainment around the ship every day, the Broadway-style shows every night in the 1,700-seat theatre, the panoramic nightclub overlooking the ship’s ‘aqua park’ or the F1 race car simulator, 4D cinema or bowling alley with free hamburgers and hotdogs? This is MSC Cruises and they’re not playing around in the Dubai cruise market.
MSC Splendida at anchor off Sir Bani Yas Island – she sails roundtrip from Dubai on 7-night cruises between November and March every year.
In the wonderful children’s books Wind in the Willows, Ratty tells Mole that “there is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats” and it’s a sentiment that sums up an Arabian Gulf cruise out of Dubai rather well, especially on a roundtrip Dubai cruise with MSC.
The ‘boat’ they have based in the Middle East this year (and every year until at least 2020) is truly massive, more than 137,000-gross tons, and she is a magnificent addition to the six-ship cruise fleet operating in the region during the current season.
MSC Cruises goes head-to-head with Costa Cruises in the Middle East during the October to March Arabian Gulf cruise season out of Dubai, but MSC Splendida is in a class of her own when it comes to comfort, luxury and style on the high seas. And it’s a distinction that is reflected in the ‘starting at’ prices for an MSC Cruise versus a Costa Cruise from Dubai. MSC Splendida is a ship of 1,800 staterooms, 80% with ocean views and 60% with balconies, six restaurants, 13 bars and lounges, five pools and 14 Jacuzzis.
She has a nightclub with panoramic views of the pool deck and ocean, three incredibly elegant dining rooms serving gourmet fare for free every night, a ‘Virtual World’ games arcade complete with F1 Simulator and 4D Cinema next to a water slide that descends through two decks to the pool and a three-level atrium with gleaming staircases inlaid with Swarovski crystals that could hold its own against any luxury hotel on the Dubai shoreline.
We were invited aboard for a 7-night Dubai to Dubai cruise visiting Abu Dhabi, Sir Bani Yas Island, Muscat and Khassab (a tiny port town hidden within the folds of the Musandan Peninsula) and found that MSC Cruises are making a strong play for a greater share of the Middle East cruise source market.
As one MSC official on the trip said, “MSC isn’t just competing with Costa anymore, they’re directly competing with Royal Caribbean in this market”. MSC Splendida is as big as the new Royal Caribbean ships, and has the same bells and whistles, with a touch of that timeless Italian charm and elegance that makes her a formidable addition to any cruise region, but especially here in the Middle East.
We stayed in a ‘Fantastica Balcony Cabin’ on the starboard side forward on Deck 10, which has to be some of the prime real estate on the ship because it offers the same expansive views as the balcony cabins closer to midships, but without the obstruction of the lifeboats or pool deck overhang. The only cabin category that could possibly be better (without going into the Aurea Spa or Yacht Club categories) would be the corner balcony cabins, which benefit from a larger terrace.
The cabin is big by cruise ship standards, reflecting the status of MSC Splendida in the Dubai cruise market as the largest cruise ship homeporting in the Middle East this year. It was never crowded in the cabin, even with both of us dressing for dinner or for breakfast in the morning. The only give-away that this is a cruise ship cabin is the slightly narrow layout, with the end of the bed quite close to the wall.
The balcony cabins are nice and long though, with a generously sized en-suite (only showers, no baths) and a separate sitting area next to the bed.
As a point of interest, we never sat on the couch once, we were never in the cabin long enough during the day – there is just too much to do around the ship, and when you are spending time in the cabin, the balcony is far more appealing.
Whether to book a balcony cabin or not is a matter of personal choice of course, but on this particular Dubai cruise itinerary one of the most memorable moments of the cruise was our early evening departure from Khassab, watching the sky slowly fade from pink to the deepest black, while the stars of distant corners of the Milky Way emerged overhead.
It was also on our balcony that we watched MSC Splendida’s departure from Sir Bani Yas Island, that delightful private cruise beach off the coast of Abu Dhabi. As the sun sank behind the island, its last light cascading across a hazy sky, the voices of Andrea Botticelli and Sarah Brightman sang Time to Say Goodbye as the ship’s bow and stern thrusters turned her seaward. It was surreal and magical in equal quantity, and entirely unexpected.
Dubai and Sir Bani Yas are the only destinations at which MSC Cruises plays a departing tune, and it would be nice if a different one were selected for each port (perhaps Rod Stewart’s We are Sailing for Muscat, Enya’s Orenoco Flow for Khassab and Bobby Darin’s Somewhere Across the Sea for Abu Dhabi).
Alternatively, she could make use of her specially adapted fog horn, which can play a number songs, including Seven Nation Army.
Turning to more practical matters, the blackout curtains over the huge balcony doors truly do keep the room black even during the day, the doors do a good job of insulating the cabin from the outside world (it was rarely even apparent that we were at sea, except for an hour when we transited the Strait of Hormuz bound for Muscat and the wind grew to a brisk 20-knots).
All the electrical points and lights in the cabin worked perfectly and the bed is firm but extremely comfortable. The linen may not be 300-count Egyptian cotton, but it was soft and clean and changed as if by magic (by our friendly cabin attendant Edi) every morning while at breakfast, and again during dinner (if we napped in the afternoon).
The housekeeping staff do an excellent job of keeping the cabin tidy without being intrusive.
The cabin comes with a built-in hair-dryer for the ladies, but it should be noted that the on-board hairdryers are not particularly strong, so if you have long or thick hair you should take your own (the ship has European plug sockets, but an international adapter is a must when travelling anyway).
In the golden age of travel, during the heyday of the trans-Atlantic ocean liners, cruise lines used the excellent food and dining experience as a way to draw people to sea. Nowadays, with different exotic ports off the bow every morning and all the bells and whistles of a resort on land, MSC Cruises haven’t forgotten this fact.
We dined in the Ville Verde restaurant at the very aft of the ship on Deck 6, and while it doesn’t have the dramatic grand staircase and two-level depth of the Al Reggio restaurant forward of it, the art deco surroundings, beautifully laid tables and top-notch food meant we didn’t want for anything.
Over the course of seven nights, we ate a total of 21 starters, mains and deserts during dinner alone, so listing them all would serve little purpose, but if you’re a meat lover you’ll be in for a treat because veal, lamb, and beef dishes are on the menu every night, and for vegetarians there are also an extensive selection of dishes.
There are no specified ‘Halal’ choices on the menu and it would be nice to see MSC Cruises follow Celebrity Cruises lead in this regard, but the Middle Eastern guests we spoke to during the cruise were content with the vegetarian options and it should also be noted that for dinner there is no pork on the menu (except on the last night), so little risk of cross-contamination in the kitchens.
There is something happening somewhere on the ship at all times, whether at sea or not, but the sea day was when the structured entertainment activities were most prolific. If you love to dance, this is the cruise for you.
There were dance classes aplenty during the seven days, from salsa and rumba to the waltz and the twist.
Every night there is a different Broadway-style show in the theatre all the way forward on Decks 6 and 7. This two-level room with its 1,700 seats is one of the most impressive spaces aboard, with a balcony for those that want an expansive view and huge comfy seats. It would be nice if there were somewhere to place drinks during the show though, a few cocktail tables wouldn’t do a miss.
The shows themselves range from average to truly impressive. The first night’s Space Odyssey lacked cohesion in the dance routines, but the Cirque du Soleil-style acrobatics, balance and flexibility demonstrations were extremely impressive. MSC Splendida has some incredibly talented acts in its theatre department, including two sisters that seem to lack spines, two brothers that are able to juggle and balance on one-wheeled bicycles simultaneously and a gymnast with the upper body strength of a gorilla.
For Indian and Middle Eastern guests, the second night show ‘The Eye of Labuan’ will prove very gratifying, with Arabic and South Asian themes that reflect the region in which the ship is cruising.
There is also a different themed party on the pool deck (called the Aqua Park by MSC Cruises) every night. The White Party is the main event of the cruise, a spectacular exercise in fun and excess as MSC Splendida sails out of Abu Dhabi, but the Luminescent Party, the Ice Party, and especially the Arabian Nights parties are not to be missed either!
As is the custom aboard cruise ships, the vessel really comes to life at night, and in addition to these themed parties, which start on the pool deck and end in the panoramic topdeck nightclub, there are also various live musical acts in each bar and lounge.
The Aft Lounge, so-named because it is at the very back of the ship of Deck 6, is home to the Hot Fingers Band and is the most popular venue for live music and dancing until the early hours.
In the La Brua Lounge just behind the Theatre there is a female singer and male pianist duo that bring the age of ocean liner elegance back to life with their set and in ‘The Purple’, a fantastically over-the-top Jazz lounge, there is a live act that reinvents and puts its own mark on some of the greatest songs ever written.
The overall experience
Overall, MSC Splendida is the undisputed Queen of the cruise ships homeporting in Dubai this year. She isn’t as grand as Celebrity Constellation, or as intimate as Costa Mediterranea and doesn’t have the same ‘party resort’ vibe as Aida Stella, instead she has all of these qualities to varying degress across her many, many public rooms. She is a ship that can appeal to almost any cruise passenger because her size gives her the ability to offer so much.
If you want lazy days by the pool and frantic nights in the nightclub, you can do that. If you want ocean liner-style dancing to timeless classics and a theatre show after dinner, with cards and cooking demonstrations during the day, you can have that too.
If you want action and adventure, head to Virtual World with its 4D Cinema, F1 Simulator and Magic Planet-style teens games arcade.
If you want total exclusivity, book a Yacht Club stateroom, if you want exclusivity but don’t want to pay Yacht Club fees, book a sunbed or rattan in the ‘Exclusive Solarium’ on Deck 16 – just 100 euros for the whole cruise.
If you want to party hard, but travel with your young children as well, there is an all-day babysitting service in the babies, kids and teens clubs, and you can even have your child (6 months or over) looked after by qualified staff until 2 a.m. for a modest fee of around 10 euros.
If you want to go on a cruise in the Arabian Gulf that has a bit of everything, and does all of it really well, MSC Splendida is the ship for you.
Our cruise: 7-nights round-trip from Dubai to Dubai, visiting Abu Dhabi, Sir Bani Yas Island, Muscat and Khassab, with one full day at sea between Bani Yas and Muscat.
Suite: Fantastica Balcony
Price: Starts at AED 2,500 for an inside cabin, our suite is around AED 4,600 – includes all on-board entertainment and three meals per day.
The good –
Free tea, coffee, water 24 hours in Bora Bora buffet
Free pizza until midnight in Bora Bora buffet
Free sandwiches and croissants in La Piazetta area on deck 6
Free hamburgers and hotdogs until 2am in the Sports Bar
The breakfast buffet timings are changed to accommodate passengers departing on early flights on disembarkation day
When it comes to internet the daily social package is well worth it, its 4.95 euros per day but is generally quite fast and lets you upload and watch videos on all the major social media platforms, great way to stay in touch with friends and family
The White Party is not to be missed – it was a highlight of the entire trip and some of the best fun to be had at sea
Leaving Sir Bani Yas in early evening with Time to Say Goodbye was magical, would be nice if they played a different song for each destination
We had a balcony cabin, the added price is a matter of personal choice, but standing together and watching the stars off the coast of the Musandum Peninsula was a wonderful moment to share
Lots of ‘novelty’ experiences around the ship – the F1 simulator, 4D cinema, bowling in sports bar, we only found time for bowling, but it was a lot of fun
The bad –
It’s a pity MSC doesn’t do a 5-night option like Costa Cruises for Middle East residents
The Bora Bora buffet can be extremely crowded at rush hour, recommend eating early or later for the general meal timings
Recommend going ashore later and leaving later at Sir Bani Yas as the queues can be quite long
There is always something happening around the ship, but would be nice to see greater diversity, lots of dance classes, but very few ‘games’, but dance classes seem very popular with MSC’s target market
Would be nice to have more wait staff moving around the pool deck during the day, it can sometimes be a hike to get from your sunbed to the nearest pool bar – the ship is big!
Lots of sunbed hogging, passengers claim sunbeds with towels and then disappear for several hours – MSC should clamp down on this (there are warning signs, but nothing is done).
The hair dryer in the room isn’t great, take your own if you can
General cruise advice –
All-inclusive drinks package probably not worth it unless you’re partying hard – our group of two drank every night for 7 nights and spent 350 euros.
The coffee voucher is worth it if you like to have several café lattes per day (26 euros for 15 vouchers).
Don’t board in Abu Dhabi, cruise roundtrip from Dubai instead.