Nights on the Opera

Cruise the Caribbean with Italian flair

By: Jonathan Siskin

Clients in the market for a reasonably priced cruise aboard a stylish mid-sized ship should find the 1,756-passenger MSC Opera to their liking. From its 14 decks named after Italian operas (Turandot, Traviata, Rigoletto) to the cuisine and furnishings, there’s no mistaking the Italian flavor and flair of the line’s new flagship.

After its maiden voyage in the Mediterranean last summer, the Opera was repositioned to Fort Lauderdale in early December. A gala welcome-to-Florida dinner attended by the ship’s godmother, Sophia Loren, initiated the Opera’s Caribbean sailings.

My 10-day cruise last Christmas featured a partial Panama Canal crossing along with calls at Ocho Rios, Jamaica; Cartagena, Columbia; Puerto Limon, Costa Rica; and Cozumel, Mexico. Four days at sea gave me plenty of time to get to know the ship’s staff, sample onboard activities and enjoy the Opera’s amenities.

The ship exudes a quiet elegance without a hint of flash, reminiscent of the chic cruise liners of an earlier era. I found the Opera’s glitz-free, low-key ambience and minimalist European design a refreshing change from the kaleidoscopic colors, sizzling neon and high-energy atmosphere typical of many contemporary cruise ships. Instead, the Opera’s tastefully appointed public areas feature marble, brass, polished hardwoods and fashionable Italian furnishings. The ship’s layout is comfortable, roomy and well planned, ensuring a smooth passenger flow through public areas day and night.

Though the public areas are spacious, some of the staterooms are confining; inside cabins measure just 140 square feet. Fortunately, I had one of 172 outside staterooms with a balcony, allowing me to stretch out and experience the delightful Caribbean climate. There are another 487 outside staterooms without a balcony, while the largest accommodations are the 28 suites measuring 280 square feet.

I was heartened to learn that MSC believes in keeping public address announcements to a minimum. The Opera’s passengers are not constantly harangued by perky cruise directors telling passengers where to go and what to do next over the PA system. Instead, MSC has made an obvious effort to maintain a quieter onboard atmosphere. To my pleasant surprise, the ship was also free of other onboard distractions such as boisterous art auctions, pushy photographers and waiters hawking drinks at every turn.

While many passengers were content to curl up with a book on a deck chair or just enjoy the balmy Caribbean breeze, those who craved more action could choose from an agenda of activities organized by the ship’s Animation Team, a group of 12 energetic 20- and 30-somethings who led poolside games, dance classes, bingo and trivia contests. The liveliest area of the ship during the day was the top deck, which has two swimming pools and two Jacuzzis and attracts a large contingent of sun worshippers along with those who want to join in the fun and games.

The Opera is a great ship for clients who like to dance or want to learn a variety of steps. During my cruise, enthusiasts learned the samba, bossa nova, merengue, cha cha and tango. Every night, live bands drew crowds in the ship’s various lounges. My favorites were Los Reyes Paraguayos, a South American trio that performed folk tunes, and the live Latin music during afternoon tea in the Piazza di Spagna Lounge.

The Opera’s spa featured everything from manicures to massages, but it booked up early in the cruise. The health club, in the front of the ship up high on deck 11, offered panoramic views and a daily class schedule that included Pilates, yoga and stretching. On sea days, the club was rather packed, with treadmill time at a premium.

I’ve never been too fond of cruise ship entertainment, but the nightly performances in the 713-seat Teatro dell’Opera were among the most creative I’ve ever enjoyed at sea. I even occasionally joined my fellow passengers in standing ovations following several quality shows. My personal favorite, “Fantasy,” was a surreal variety show featuring acrobatics, dance, lasers and music.

After the theater performances, the Byblos disco attracted a young crowd that gyrated until morning. During the day, the disco was an ideal place to read and write in virtual privacy; it was usually empty and offered magnificent views of sea and sky.

While most new ships have increased the number of dining alternatives by adding specialty restaurants and offering flexible dining hours and open seating, the MSC Opera has not followed this trend. Evening dining is limited to two main restaurants La Caravalla and L’Approdo with assigned early (6 p.m.) and late (8:30 p.m.) seatings. The dinner menu’s impressive selection sometimes featured disappointing and bland offerings, but the Italian specialties, such as pasta and risotto, were always superb.

An additional dining option is available for breakfast and lunch in Le Vele, the ship’s open seating, informal buffet adjacent to the pool deck. The vast majority of passengers opted to take both breakfast and lunch in this attractive, airy space with its panoramic sea views. For caffeine lovers, the Aroma Coffee Bar, situated midship on deck 6, provided a perfect place to enjoy a cappuccino.

As would be expected, several of the kinks that accompany the debut of a new-build especially one on its initial venture into the U.S. market have not been ironed out to everyone’s satisfaction. Some passengers complained that staff at the reception and shore excursion desks were abrupt and unhelpful, while others were upset with the size of their inside cabins or slow room service. I, however, found the staff made every effort to please, and most performed their duties with diligence while maintaining an upbeat, hospitable attitude.

All in all, it’s definitely a line I’ll try line again.


Ship: MSC Opera

Size: 58,600 tons

Capacity: 1,756 passengers

Year Built: 2004

Plugging In: 120 and 220 volt current in cabins

Hits: Superb entertainment in main showroom, classy interior design, minimal public address announcements.

Misses: Limited dining options, cramped inside cabins.

Itinerary: Seven-day eastern Caribbean stopping in San Juan, St. Thomas, St. Croix and Nassau. Seven-day western Caribbean stopping in Key West, Cozumel, Grand Cayman and Roatan.

After March 26, the ship will make a transatlantic voyage, then sail the Mediterranean before returning to the Caribbean at the end of the year.



Owned by Italian-based Mediterranean Shipping Company, the world’s second largest container shipping company, MSC Cruises has moved aggressively into the leisure cruise market with an ambitious $3 billion expansion.

The Opera’s sister ship, the MSC Lirica, is also currently in the Caribbean. Both ships will sail out of Fort Lauderdale on Caribbean itineraries through March before heading back to the Mediterranean in April.

The MSC fleet comprises seven ships, and plans are in the works for the construction of two giant 3,000 passenger mega-ships, the MSC Musica, due in 2006, and another, due in 2007. Both will have 1,275 cabins, 80 percent of which will be outside, and 65 percent of which will have a balcony.


MSC cruises has rolled out online booking tools for agents, at The Web site allows agents to request cruise-only staterooms, enter credit card payments, complete embarkation forms and request agent rates. Additionally, a new reservations system will be in place by spring 2005. The system will feature new enhancements for agents, including online booking and the ability to print confirmation forms.

“MSC Cruises continues to support travel agents with one of the most progressive and profitable commission programs in the industry,” said Rick Sasso, president and CEO of MSC Cruises USA.

In addition to the generous commission structure already in place (which pays commissions on port and service charges), MSC Cruises has added more ways for agents to profit, such as additional commissions for air add-ons, special group benefits and a soon-to-be-announced loyalty program designed to create benefits for agents and customers alike.