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With divine perks and a few snags, 'MSC Divina' sails from Miami

MIAMI

Boasting continental fashion flair throughout, the Italian ship MSC Divina has arrived in North America. Absent, however, are significant facets that make for a pleasing cruise.

The parent, Mediterranean Shipping Co., is based in Italy and boasts more than 500 container vessels plus Divina and 11 other cruise ships. MSC has occasionally sent one of the latter to Miami for the winter cruise season, but in mid November it took the giant step of basing Divina year-round in Miami, cruise capital of the world.

Among the pluses:

• The ship's interior decor is handsome indeed. A waterfall wall graces the lower levels of the atrium. Swarovski crystals and twinkling lights in the treads of the atrium's twin staircases add an unusual visual touch.

Color schemes generally are subdued or bright — salmon, coral and chocolate, silver and black — without being glaring. Walls in public areas feature large black-and-white photos of Italy's film stars from the 1950s to the '70s. (This may be a nod to the godmother for all the ships in the MSC cruise fleet, Oscar winner Sophia Loren.)

One corridor passes through a circular art gallery that displays four metal sculptures of a female figure, books and two egglike objects. This small gallery offers something pleasing to the eye, intriguing to the mind.

• The five open decks have innumerable chaise longues around five pools (one under a retractable roof, another an infinity pool at the edge of the bow), 12 hot tubs and large LED screen outdoors for watching films or TV.

• There are 13 themed bars and lounges indoors, another five on deck. They tend toward cozy, with eight of the 18 venues seating fewer than 100.

• The 1,603-seat performance theater has marvelous sight lines. The stage has three elevator floor sections, plus a turntable, and is large enough to accommodate 25 performers for a curtain call. There are seven musical revues available for a typical seven-night cruise.

Divina chefs report that they prepare 70 percent of the pasta, a staple in the Mediterranean-themed cuisine. I had three pasta dishes and two kinds of pizza and found them tastier than typical servings in landside chain Italian restaurants.

• The sports bar — with jarring Harley-Davidson orange and black decor — has draft beer and pub grub (for an extra fee) and two shortened bowling alleys with duckpins (also an added fee).

Actually, there are a number of added-cost choices onboard. These include a 4-D (think wind in your face) theater. Each of the 10 hard plastic seats comes with a seat belt against the jouncing that's synchronized to action on the screen; $7. Popular is the reduced-size, single-seat, Formula 1 race car. The driver faces four monitors displaying video of the course the driver has selected to navigate; $9.

There are also three added-fee restaurants, two of them with a la carte menus and the third, seating just 30, a prix fixe $34 for a five-course dinner; the menu changes nightly.

A different fee-added option is the Winery at Sea, a choice of lessons in wine-tasting and then blending from four reds to create your own favorite taste. The various steps involve swirling, sipping, swallowing, an eyedropper, graduated cylinders … If you create a blend you really enjoy, for $30 the onboard vintners create a bottle and deliver it to your stateroom, or ship bottles home.

So, passengers aboard the 20-month-old vessel have the basics included on most ships, as well as some options. It is what is missing, though, that will challenge MSC.

Even before it reached the United States, some travel agents were quoted in a trade-industry publication as saying they expect the Divina to be a tough sale because the line and this ship, which carries 3,502 using its lower berths in 1,751 cabins, are virtually unknown to potential passengers.

But agents aboard the vessel for a three-night cruise in November were even harsher. Angela DeDomenico of Boca Raton, who said she had 40 years in the travel business, said she would recommend the ship with "warnings'' against uneven crew performance and food.

Though some of these issues may be rectified by now, other agents and travel writers I sailed with cited concerns such as:

• Dining room servers did not refill water glasses, did not bring coffee when requested to accompany the dessert, did not offer the juice tray or bring toast when they brought breakfast entrees.

• Two guests in the concierge level's private dining room said that neither the menu nor the delivered food suggested a preferred experience. One of these passengers said she would not return after trying two meals there.

• Some service problems possibly stemmed from language difficulties between passengers and staffers. This is an increasing problem on cruise ships, as the growth in the number of vessels serving North America has forced a wider search for crew members.

• On Divina, the crew of about 1,370 represents more than a dozen nationalities, few of which have English as a first language. Ken Muskat, MSC's senior vice president for sales and marketing, told me that one of the factors in staffing Divina was "some proficiency in English.''

Other service matters were perplexing. My cabin's in-closet safe was locked when I arrived. My cabin steward told me I was in the cabin too early, that the safe would be opened. Three hours later, it was still locked. And I spent more than 20 minutes on hold during three phone calls, trying to get someone to open it; no one answered those calls.

Next I went down three decks for help from guest services. There, a crew member dialed a number and was told a repairman would attend to it immediately. I returned to my cabin and waited 15 more minutes before giving up. The safe remained locked the entire cruise, and I carried my wallet and passport with me; I left my camera, iPad and phone in clothes drawers.

While my steward did handle the morning and evening cabin servicing smoothly, he interpreted his standard instructions to tidy up the writing desk-vanity by shoving everything on it into one messy stack.

Singly, none of these minor problems would spoil a cruise. But MSC markets Divina with a play on words, likening it to "a diva like no other'' — yet no diva would settle for the accumulation of aggravating, and frequent, shortcomings.

Former Times travel editor Robert N. Jenkins has sailed on more than 60 ships to write about them. His four e-book anthologies are available at the Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Smashwords sites. For information, go to smashwords.com/author/robertjenkins.

If you go

Divina has 1,751 cabins in five basic categories, including 69 suites of the concierge-level MSC Yacht Club. Cabin sizes range from 138 square feet (interior) to 562 square feet (the Yacht Club staterooms).

It generally will sail seven-night voyages into the Caribbean from Miami. Prices are heavily discounted during the busy winter season as MSC seeks to establish itself: Early booking prices may still be available, such as a stateroom with tiny balcony for as little as $799, into April.

For information, consult a travel agent or go to msccruisesusa.com.

With divine perks and a few snags, 'MSC Divina' sails from Miami 01/20/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 21, 2014 2:03pm]
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