Reviews

Ship Review: MSC Splendida

The largest cruise ship homeporting in the Middle East, and by far the most appealing to look at, MSC Splendida is a ship that shows MSC Cruises have what it takes to cater to the multitudinous international cruise market, while still giving Middle East cruise passengers a destination within itself.

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When MSC Splendida was launched in 2005 she was the largest cruise ship in the rapidly expanding MSC Cruises fleet and in 2018 she remains one of the largest cruise ships in the world and certainly the largest sailing a regular schedule of roundtrip Dubai cruises in the Arabian Gulf.

Fresh from a major refit and renovation that saw her prepped for the Chinese market (where she will spend a season after her winter deployment in Dubai), MSC Splendida is looking better than ever. Indeed, MSC Cruises marketed her as ‘the most beautiful ship in the world’ when she was first introduced. While that is a tall claim in an industry operating more than 300 cruise ships, when it comes to the mega cruise ships, MSC Splendida certainly is easy on the eye.

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Her size has been incorporated into a big ship design that has managed to avoid the box-like apartment-block exterior of some of her contemporaries. Her lines are balanced and while she is certainly no grand ocean liner, she manages from some angles to look almost sleek, as though built for trans-Atlantic voyages, rather than idyllic sojourns between exotic ports in the Mediterranean, Arabian Gulf and Far East.

That ocean-liner-esque atmosphere continues when one steps aboard, for MSC Splendida although a mega cruise ship, has none of the loud, gaudy décor that seems to predominate the modern cruise ship fleet.

The Public Rooms Walkthrough

Boarding is done on the ground floor of the three-level Atrium, where this ship’s split personality is first seen. This huge, grand room is better-suited to a five-star hotel on The Palm Jumeirah than a cruise ship.

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There are panoramic glass lifts gliding above, a diamond-inlaid grand piano playing for guests sipping cocktails, and 12 sets of sweeping stairs laid with real Swarovski crystals. The stairs alone cost US $2.8-million, US $40,000 for every one of the 72 steps!

This lowest floor of the Atrium is also the lowest passenger deck (deck 5), with passenger cabins all the way aft to the La Reggia restaurant (one of the two main dining rooms – the other being Ville Verde one deck up), and more staterooms forward.

Adjacent to the lower level of the lobby is the Excursion Deck, Guest Relations, the ship’s Library and Conference Room (which doubles as a cinema) and the Cruise Consultants café – which is a cleverly disguised IT centre.

One level up the glittering stairs one reaches the ship’s sixth deck, which is the lower of the two decks on which the majority of the public rooms (lounges, cafes, bars and restaurants) are located.

The sixth deck is home to the L’Aperitivo café, which is the main ‘daytime bar’ with striking views of the lobby beyond bronze-framed glass railings.

Directly aft is the La Reggia dining room, a fantastic two-level restaurant with a stunning grand staircase, and the smaller, more intimate Ville Verde – with a green-and-blue-heavy décor that evokes the ocean with little subtlety. What Ville Verde lacks in subtlety, however, it makes up for with its dining choices and their quality!

Forward of the Atrium on deck six is the La Piazetta ‘town square’ type shopping area, where luxury and mid-stream boutiques frame a columned café with artificial stars overhead in a beautifully painted sky.

Various drinks are available for order here, along with free croissants and sandwiches throughout the day (from around 7am until midnight).

Just off the square is the Cigar Lounge, which is the only place to smoke indoors (except the Casino, where you have to be playing in order to do so). It’s a superbly art deco lounge, where even the light fittings do double-duty as oversized plants. It’s the most RMS Queen Mary-like room aboard and The Bromsgrove Guild would no doubt be proud.

Further forward past the Cigar Lounge and the Poker Room opposite it on the other side of the La Piazetta square is the casino, where bright lights and flashing signs are the gatekeepers to a dance with Lady Luck.

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The casino sits directly beneath the La Brua Bar, an ocean liner-style lounge that provides live music in the evenings and a scientific approach to cocktails called ‘mixology’.

It’s a wonderfully elegant room and it’s dissected by another huge grand staircase, which dominates the casino below. MSC Splendida’s designers went all out with this interior, even the stairs are adorned with intricate attention to detail and little art deco flourishes you have to look closely to see.

It’s no wonder that MSC Splendida was over-budget when she was launched back in 2009, costing a staggering US $550-million. Many industry observers say this is because of Mrs Rafaela Aponte, the matriarch of the Italian family that owns and operates MSC Cruises.

She has taken a close interest in MSC Cruises’ stated intention to spend more than US $11-billion on a massive shipbuilding program into the 2020s. Since 2003, the cruise line has launched a new ship almost every year, with plans to launch a World-class ship that at 220,000 gross tons will make Splendida look small!

Rumour has it that Mrs Aponte can’t help but be extravagant with the new ship’s being built for her family-owned business, which includes MSC Shipping, one of the largest shipping lines in the world.

With no shareholders to answer to, she’s able to get involved in all aspects of the ship’s design, personally selecting every piece of furniture, every colour, every piece of material and every piece of art.

And this she has done to grand success aboard MSC Splendida (although fresh from her refit and refurbishment, Splendida retains Mrs Aponte’s flair for excess through-and-through).

Decks 6 and 7 all the way forward are occupied entirely by the ship’s huge 1,700-seat two-level theatre, complete with balconies on either side and cocktail tables at the very back for those who prefer to take in the show with a beverage to hand.

It is here that ambitious Broadway-style shows take place every night, with a stage large enough to accommodate huge set pieces, including a hydraulic platform that can be recessed or raised during productions.

Heading aft on deck 7, the La Brua Bar is one of the most popular nightlife spots aboard the ship. It’s an unashamedly nostalgic lounge, with an ocean liner prow as its logo and green and burgundy décor that is deliberately 40s in feel.

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Continuing along deck seven through the Art Gallery, the next bar aft couldn’t be more different.

The Purple is a jazz bar that wants to be a Manhattan nightclub at the same time. It’s loud, obnoxious and a riot of colour, but the music here after dark draws one in like a moth to the flame.

Directly next to it, taking up the rest of the ship’s beam, is the Sports Bar, complete with bowling alley, arcade games, engine parts doing duty as footstools and table supports, and (most importantly!) free hotdogs and hamburgers until 2am.

Continuing aft (this is a big ship!) is the top deck of the three-level Atrium, with a L’Espresso Coffee Bar that specialises in all manner of caffeinated beverages, but also provides alcohol (because what’s a cruise without ready booze?).

This area also doubles as an extension of the ship’s shopping area one deck down in the La Piazette, with a La Profumeria boutique selling various brand-name perfumes and opposite it on the other side of the Atrium, the MSC Logo Shop, selling MSC-branded toys, bags, hats, accessories and clothes.

Changes made during the 2017 refurbishment

Apart from the removal of the wall-length mirrors opposite the beds in the staterooms, one of the greatest changes done to the ship during her 2017 refurbishment was the removal of the very elegant L’Enoteco wine bar.

It has been replaced with a DimSum Tea Bar that follows the same layout, but has replaced the wine bar’s blue and ochre walls and pillars with a pervasive red.

The Santa Fe Tex-Mex speciality restaurant adjacent this bar and lounge has also been refurbished, with a Butcher’s Cut steakhouse in its place.

Through the Photo Gallery is the Aft Lounge, so-named as it’s at the very back of the ship, directly above the Ville Verde dining room.

The Aft Lounge is the ship’s most popular evening entertainment venue, and because the Butcher’s Cut occupied one half of the beam of deck 7, the Photo Gallery becomes a main thoroughfare that can become severely clogged when passengers are also stopping to look for their pictures from the day.

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The ship’s wide, breezy promenades to port and starboard are a nice alternative. Top tip: use the promenade to get fore and aft when walking from your cabin to the dining rooms, or from dinner to one of the lounges as they’re rarely busy and (if you’re cruising with a partner), they’re very romantic.

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It’s just a pity there isn’t much of a view from the deck. MSC Cruises have made the (probably wise) decision to have the lifeboats sat almost on deck level, rather than on cradles higher up. It blocks the sea at deck level, but gives the deck 8 balcony cabins an unobstructed ocean view.

Accommodation aboard MSC Splendida

Decks 8 through 13 are purely accommodation decks. There are six primary cabin categories aboard MSC Splendida, although cabins within the same category are often priced according to the convenience of the location.

Aboard a cruise ship, the laws of real estate are even stricter than on land. Generally speaking, the higher you go, the more expensive the cabins are, and this is true to an extent aboard Splendida.

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Inside cabin

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Outside cabin

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Balcony cabin

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Balcony Suite

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Aurea Spa Suite

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Yacht Club Suite

The most exclusive staterooms, the MSC Yacht Club suites, are located within their own restricted access area on Deck 14 all the way forward. The 99 suites in this exclusive area of the ship come with marble bathrooms with full size bath, fluffy robes and slippers, pillow menu, Egyptian cotton sheets, memory mattress, complimentary mini-bar and a personal butler.

The Yacht Club Suites also have access to the oh-so-exclusive Top Sail Lounge, which we were able to take a peek at only after MSC Cruise’s regional director personally intervened. The Top Sail Lounge is undoubtedly the most elegant part of the ship.

Located on Deck 15 at the front of the ship, its windows are outstretched for panoramic views, but (disappointingly) they’re backward slanting rather than forward-angled like the windows on the bridge, so the views aren’t as good as they could be.

The walls are lined with walnut panels; the carpets, lamps and fixtures drip with golden hues and in a twist on the glitzy Swarovski staircases in the Atrium, the steps here shimmer with amber crystals instead.

The MSC Aurea Spa

Below the gated Yacht Club area (it’s not really gated, it’s closed off with sliding frosted glass doors), we find the ship’s MSC Aurea Spa and huge gym, with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the bow.

The equipment is brand new, or feels it anyway, and the whole facility is kept spotlessly clean. There are stretch classes, spin sessions, aerobics and various other group exercise programs daily.

The gym is fronted by the Spa Bar, serving refreshing smoothies and cool drinks that have helpful calorie content information, with comfy wicker chairs for relaxing in after a workout.

If you want to really unwind, there are four massage treatment rooms, one of which has a couples’ private hot tub with ocean view, and a steam room and sauna for men and women.

On the starboard side of the Health Club section, as you enter, is the beauty salon and hair salon by Jean Louis David (the first at sea in the Fantasia-class).

The Outdoor Decks

Aft behind in the gym and spa is the L’Equator indoor pool area, and behind that the outdoor heart of the ship, the main pool area (which MSC rather grandly calls the AquaPark).

Above the pool area is the main sun deck, and overlooking that and the AquaPark is the Solarium, which is a restricted access area with rattans and sunbeds that can be rented by the day or for the whole cruise. This Solarium area also has its own Jacuzzis.

At the very back of the ship is the Playa Del Sol pool area.

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This is a fantastic spot for swimming and sunbathing as it’s not as crowded as the main sundeck and feels a lot more private than the hot tubs and pools in the AquaPark.

Directly forward of the Playa Del Sol area is the children pool and play area to port and the two-deck waterslide to starboard.

It should also be noted that out here on the ship’s outdoor decks with their five swimming pools and 12 whirlpool baths, there are three additional bars (Movida Bar for Playa Del Sol, and Bar Del Riccio and Tartaruga Bar for the AquaPark).

The Buffet and Nightclub

Beneath the Playa del Sol pool area all the way aft is the Pago Pago Buffet, and further forward the Bora Bora Buffet.

During peak times (breakfast, lunch and dinner) these buffets operate as one monstrously big restaurant with an incredible array of food choices. It’s also up here that free tea, coffee and water is available 24/7, while orange juice is also complimentary during breakfast.

Above the Playa del Sol area, up on deck 16, is the Sea Pavillion NightClub (formerly Club 33 before the refit) and its Asian-inspired hotspot restaurant, which is open until 10pm most nights (after that the nightclub makes dining unpleasant anyway as its all one large space).

Forward of the nightclub and hotpot is the teen’s area, with foosball tables, arcade games and a 4D Cinema and F1 Simulator, and the children’s club, with a Lego Room and professional babysitters.

We toured MSC Splendida during our 7-night roundtrip Dubai cruise in the Arabian Gulf, and in our cruise review we decided that MSC Splendida is the most multi-faceted and dynamic of all the cruise ships homeporting in the Middle East this year.

She offers something for everyone, is what we said, and that holds true during her Dubai deployment and her upcoming Asian season. MSC Splendida is a magnificent grand lady in the MSC fleet, and it will be with a great deal of sadness that we watch her leave these waters for the indefinite future in 2019 when she is replaced by the even larger MSC Bellissima.

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