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No line has felt the challenge of achieving balance in catering to a varied demographic more acutely than MSC Cruises, whose single ship in the Caribbean, MSC Divina, has battled the industry’s heavyweights in a David versus Goliath-like fashion since its Miami debut in 2013.
But after two seasons of refining the onboard experience for North American guests, it’s clear MSC has now found the sweet spot with a product that’s a true differentiator in the seven-day Caribbean market. While North Americans typically represent up to 70 percent of passengers on Divina’s Caribbean sailings, Europeans round out the base, creating a multicultural, melting pot atmosphere.
Compared to competitors’ similar-sized mega-ships, Divina feels smaller, thanks to its Italian designers’ knack for creating elegant public spaces that are rich without being vast. Like the Swarovski crystal-lined staircases that grace her main foyer, Divina is classy but never flashy.
Since MSC tabbed Divina as its “North American-facing” ship (regardless of where she sails), her onboard product is now a bit more familiar, while still retaining just the right amount of Mediterranean charm. Except for safety-related information, announcements are in English only; dining times have been adjusted to earlier; smoking areas are limited; protein portions are larger; and recognizable comfort food dishes have been added to menus.
According to Hans Hesselberg, senior vice president of hotel operations for MSC, the subtle changes have been “an evolutionary, rather than a revolutionary, process.”
But Divina’s finest attributes aren’t targeted to a particular passenger demographic. Menus in the two main dining rooms (fixed seating is at 5:45 p.m. and 8:30 p.m.) feature at least two daily pastas that, like all of the eight to 10 pastas served onboard every day, are prepared and sauced superbly. As guests would also expect from MSC, pizzas, breads and cheeses are standouts.
And just as the ancient Romans were entertained after their copious feasts, Divina’s guests are treated to what could arguably be called the best production shows at sea. Appealing to travelers from all over the globe, Divina’s seven unique productions are not language-dependent. Instead, they are musical experiences that combine acrobatics and other innovative elements with a level of talent, creativity and artistry not typically seen at sea. Ubiquitous musical acts in the lounges are also of high caliber.
Despite MSC’s focus on delivering a recognizable product for North Americans, guests aren’t fed a steady diet of steak, baked potatoes, burgers and fries. While those standards are offered, Divina’s menus still skew more toward the Mediterranean than the Midwest, while ultimately pleasing most palates.
The ship’s casual buffet fare reflects more of a Mediterranean influence with a wide range of pastas, salami, cheese and bread. Those expecting standard cruise breakfast options at the buffet may be surprised by the lack of an eggs-to-order omelet station and smoked salmon. However, there are options such as fruit, rolls and cereals. A pancake, waffle and French toast station also stands nearby.
The alternative Eataly Steakhouse — featuring products sourced from Italy — is a prime example of the line’s focus on its heritage. The experience here, typified by rustic dishes expertly prepared and served by an all-Italian staff, reaches a level of perfection other cruise lines’ specialty restaurants aspire to, yet rarely achieve.
Offering further proof of MSC’s ambitions to compete in North America, the recently announced Project Seaside initiative will put a new, purpose-built mega-ship into year-round Caribbean service in 2017, while Divina sails the market year-round starting this November. The line will also continue its popular Kids Sail Free promotion on most sailings.
Yet, despite MSC’s laser-like focus on capturing the U.S. market share, this isn’t a product for ethnocentric Americans who want their everyday experiences reflected onboard. Instead, it’s the right fit for slightly more sophisticated travelers who would appreciate a taste of the Mediterranean — much closer to home.