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Cruise Ship Review

MSC Sinfonia - Ship Review provided by Cruise Critic

Just a few years ago, MSC Cruises was a virtual nobody in the cruise industry -- a second-tier operator with a small fleet of well-kept but rather old ships bought from other operators. Then, in 2000, huge container ship operator Mediterranean Shipping Company, the line's parent, decided it was time to expand their presence in the cruise market. The result was an order for a pair of brand-new 58,000-ton ships, the very first new-builds in the company's history. Three years later, in 2003, the company took delivery of their first-born, MSC Lirica, setting off an epic expansion that would catapult MSC to the number four spot worldwide -- and number two in Europe -- in a matter of years.

As luck would have it, just after MSC Lirica was delivered, Festival Cruises -- one of MSC's biggest competitors in Europe -- fell into bankruptcy and was liquidated. This left two nearly new ships, European Vision and European Stars, in the hands of Festival creditors eager to offload them. Fortunately for MSC, the two Festival ships had been built off almost exactly the same plans as MSC Lirica. European Vision became MSC Armonia, and European Stars became MSC Sinfonia. By the time MSC Lirica's sister MSC Opera was delivered in 2004, MSC had four new ships and had more than doubled the size of their fleet.

While they were a big step for MSC, which has gone on to build larger ships since then, MSC Sinfonia and its sisters are relatively small by today's standards (at least for new, mass-market ships). Sinfonia does have fewer balconies and suites than most other ships its age, and lacks a few other amenities like an alternative restaurant for dinner. Nonetheless, this ship will appeal to lovers of smallish, classy ships who appreciate the clean, stylish European design of its interiors and its more intimate size in comparison to the latest mega-ships from the major North American lines as well as MSC's chief competitor, Costa.

While it is important to remember that this is a product very much geared to a continental European audience and English-speakers will be in the minority, MSC Sinfonia offers good value for the cruise fares charged and a truly Italian-style cruise experience in stylish surroundings that will be appreciated by North American and British passengers looking for a something a bit different from the mainstream English-speaking cruise.

One note: MSC's prices for onboard charges are calculated in euros; we've offered charges in euros and converted to dollars; at press time, the conversion rate was approximately $1.35 euros to the $1. Check XE.com for the latest rate.

Dining

Casual dining is available up on Deck 11 at the indoor-outdoor La Terrazza Buffet, which is separated by smoked glass dividers from the ship's pool area.

The cafe's interior is pleasantly decorated in shades of brown and cream, with a marbled floor and smart beech, walnut, glass and chrome dividers. Wood-topped tables are inlaid with marble, chairs are comfortably cushioned, and large windows on three sides give a light and airy feel while outside, white globe lamps and a solid wood bar create a popular alfresco dining and meeting place.

Overall, the food is good quality; salads are crisp and freshly cooked pasta, pizza and grilled food is offered at lunchtimes; but some meat dishes are a little stringy.

Surprisingly, there was little queuing, as the largely Italian clientele on my cruise quickly got the hang of using separate service islands. That said, expect a fair bit of barging in and reaching across you.

Sinfonia also has two formal restaurants, the larger of which is Il Galeone on Beethoven Deck (5). Terracotta and green decor, lacquered wood trim, large porthole windows and lush plants give this restaurant the relaxed feel of a pretty garden room. And though it has only one table for two, getting an unshared table at open-seating lunchtime was not a problem -- though being an English speaker on an Italian ship undoubtedly helped (this is one situation in which it's best not to demonstrate your skills as a polyglot).

The ship's prettiest restaurant, though, is the smaller and more intimate Il Covo, which overlooks the stern of Mozart Deck (6). This has a pretty entrance with an Italian waterfront mural, decor of warm terracotta and cream, large windows and more tables for two than Il Galeoni, and so is a better choice for couples that prefer to eat a deux.

The food is the same in both restaurants; a typical dinner menu features potato and squid salad, salami and provolone cheese or tomato and mozzarella as starters, followed by tomato or minestrone soup (no cold fruit soup nonsense here, thank goodness).

The good-quality pasta or risotto course is worth making room for as main courses are more variable, ranging from excellent swordfish steaks and pork piccatas to rather flabby vegetarian pancakes.

You can always fill up on puddings, though; as ever in Italy, the ice cream is good, and the ship has a talented pastry chef whose light-as-air vanilla millefeuille with zabaglione sauce was particularly memorable.

Both restaurants offer a substantial and affordable wine list, with reds ranging from 15 euros ($20.25) for Argentinean Malbec to 28 euros ($37.80) for a lovely Lacrima Christi and 55 euros ($74.25) for an excellent Barolo.

White wines start at 20 euros ($27) for Frascati and 22 euros ($29.70) for Pinot Grigio, and range up to 65 euros ($87.75) for Veuve Cliquot.

Public Rooms

Discreet good taste is the order of the day on this ship; even the San Remo Casino on Mozart Deck (6) is understated, with red and cream leaf patterned carpet and curtains, walnut veneered walls and a pillared entrance.

The most ornate bar on board is Le Baroque Cafe -- also on Deck 6 -- which has a pleasantly 18th-century feel with its red velvet chairs, and olive green and cream walls embellished with silhouettes and scenic paintings. But prettier, in my opinion, is the Buddha Bar, which lies between the casino and the photo gallery; decorated in soft shades of green with a stunning chandelier as centerpiece, this would be a very relaxing venue if it didn't overlook the hordes of passengers milling about the photo displays. A couple of well-placed screens would work wonders here.

Another cozy watering hole is the Manhattan Bar on Deck 6, a popular pre-dinner drinks and dancing venue with a bandstand and substantial dance floor, large porthole windows and sophisticated blue and gold decor.

Shelagh's House -- the ship's Irish pub -- is less successful: cozy enough but nondescript and not really attuned to the clientele (though British passengers will like it as any pub's better than none).

Late at night, the Italians prefer to see and be seen at the elegant Pasha Club -- a large-windowed, roomy lounge-cum-nightclub on Deck 12.

The Italians are also great shoppers, and Sinfonia offers them plenty of scope with the well-stocked Galleria Mazzini jewelry shop on Deck 6. (Cartier watches from 2,400 euros [$3,240] anyone?)

One deck down, other shops include a general store selling an affordable selection of cosmetics, perfumes and toiletries, a logo goods shop and a boutique selling linen goods, designer swimwear and polo shirts.

MSC Sinfonia also has a smart Business Centre on Deck 6. Resplendent with leather and wood veneered walls and comfy red and gold seating, this hosts shore tour talks but could be put to better use as a cinema when not in use by incentive groups.

The ship's Internet cafe (on Deck 5 near reception) keeps passengers connected for 3.33 euros ($4.50) for the first 10 minutes online, then 0.33 euros ($0.45) for each minute thereafter. While cheaper than on many cruise ships, this is still dearer than cafes ashore.

There is a very restful, plant-filled and surprisingly well-stocked library just off the keyhole-shaped Sinfonia Lounge on Brahms Deck (7). MSC's UK office keeps this stocked with English books and offers an excellent choice. Unfortunately, opening hours are very limited and vary from day to day; so bookworms need to be vigilant.

Cabins

MSC Sinfonia has 11 categories of cabins, ranging from inside twins with lower beds to suites with balconies. All have air conditioning, TV (with limited satellite service and showing one English language movie per day), a hairdryer, a safe, a telephone and en suite facilities.

Cabin service is available and continental breakfast delivered free, but there is a per-item charge for other orders.

An MSC club or smoked salmon sandwich costs 3 euros ($4.05), salads 2.90 euros ($3.90), a cheese platter 2.70 euros ($3.65), fruit 2.50 euros ($3.40) and the pudding of the day 3 euros ($4.05).

All the cabins the cabins smartly decorated with beech-veneered walls and cozy terracotta, maroon and gold soft furnishings.

Suites with balconies come equipped with a large double bed, a sitting area with sofa, a substantial walk-in wardrobe (containing two rather skimpy cotton bathrobes), a well stocked mini bar, and a large mirror-fronted cupboard containing a safe and a hairdryer and a well-stocked mini bar. Bathrooms are smallish but have an attractive marble floor and a full-sized bath and shower.

There is also a reasonably large balcony but this has only two plastic sit-up chairs and a tiny coffee table, so is not equipped for sunbathing.

The rest of the ship's standard inside and outside cabins are virtually identical except for location. They lack the sitting area and walk-in closet and have smaller bathrooms with shower only but, while small, they are well designed and perfectly adequate.

Entertainment

Forward on Brahms Deck (7), next to the library, is the Sinfonia Lounge, a lovely light room with pale beech walls, gold and maroon decor. This is a popular venue for early evening dancing and late-night cabaret singing and magic acts.

The ship's main show lounge -- the Teatro San Carlo -- mounts spectacular Cirque du Soleil-style shows in a lovely setting with a pretty starlit ceiling, comfortable red and gold seating, and good sightlines.

Shore excursions -- largely coach-based -- were not particularly active or exciting, and could do with updating if Sinfonia is competing for bookings from more go-getting British and American passengers.

Fitness and Recreation

Right at the stern end of the ship on the top deck is a large ball court, while one deck down is a mini-golf course. At the forward end of the top deck are an indoor golf simulator and roomy sun deck, while one deck down, Deck 12 has a rock-climbing wall and a jogging track. But the rock-climbing wall is cordoned off and out of use and there is, absurdly, a "no running" sign on the jogging track! Fitness-oriented passengers quite reasonably ignore this, though most use the track -- which offers splendid sea views -- simply for a pleasant evening stroll.

The track overlooks a blue and white tiled, twin-pooled area on Deck 11 -- a popular sun spot and venue for a weekly open air Buffet Magnifique. Unfortunately, use of the pools is restricted by the fact that the water is cold (so much so that even kids won't go in for long) -- and the pools are netted and sun beds are cleared away, stacked and tied down by 6 p.m., far too early. This also means passengers miss out on a Jacuzzi during the lovely early evening "golden hour" just before the sun sinks.

They can, however, head indoors to La Ferme Spa, which has a well-equipped gym with six treadmills, four steppers, three sit-up bikes, three reclining bikes, weights and resistance machines and a large aerobics studio offering free stretch and aerobics classes, salsa or merengue lessons at 12 euros ($16.20) per class and step aerobics for 8 euros ($10.80).

There is a large-windowed relaxation room adjacent to the gym equipped with very comfortable deep-cushioned steamer chairs and, next to this, a very pretty Thermal Suite. This has a beautiful mosaic Turkish-style sauna and a hot steam room fragranced with chamomile, as well as tropical rain showers and heated white-tiled recliners facing floor-to-ceiling windows.

The thermal suite costs 12 euros ($16.20) per hour to use, but as the cruise progresses sessions are often thrown in free as an incentive to book spa treatments. It's well worth waiting to book these as prices are steep to begin with but fall quite a bit as pressure builds for staff to meet their targets.

Family

MSC Sinfonia has three children's areas -- the Pinocchio playroom, which lies next to the spa on Deck 11, and the Planet Teen's Club and separate Galaxy video games arcade, near Club Pasha at the stern end of Deck 12.

Pinocchio's is a large and cheerful room, with an elephant patterned carpet, a soft climbing frame, a TV, plenty of soft toys and an area with tables and chairs for arts and craft activities.

Babysitting costs 15 euros ($20.25) per child per hour, and during the day activities are offered for three age groups.

A Mini Club caters to 3- to 8-year-olds with baby discos, painting, dance, and arts and crafts sessions; the Junior Club keeps 9- to 13-year-olds happy with treasure hunts, parties and other activities, while the Teenagers Club-cum-disco caters to 14- to 17-year-olds.

Clubs are open from 9 a.m. until 11 p.m. with breaks at lunch and dinnertimes. Likely to be voted most popular kids' facility, though, is La Gelateria ice cream parlor on Deck 11!

Fellow Passengers

This is a very cosmopolitan ship; the majority of passengers are Italian but you'll also find French, Spanish, German and British passengers. Italians tend to barge about a bit, so people used to holding back and saying please and thank you may find them a bit much at first, but they don't mean to be rude -- it's just their way.

Sophisticated travelers who enjoy practicing their foreign language skills will be very much at home on this ship, while those who dread endless multilingual tannoy announcements will be pleasantly surprised to find they are kept very much to a minimum, except at the mandatory boat drill, which seems interminable.

Dress Code

Europeans tend to be casual dressers by day and even in the evenings some of them don't go to much trouble outside of the captain's formal welcome and farewell gala evenings. It's worth taking some smart outfits along for these but otherwise you can dress pretty much as elegantly or casually (within reason) as you wish without exciting comment.

Gratuity

Six euros ($8.10) per person, per day covers waiters and cabin stewards; other gratuities are at your discretion.

--by Maria Smith, a travel writer whose work has appeared in newspapers such as the Dallas Morning News, the Nashville Tennessean and the San Jose Mercury News.

Gratuity

Six euros ($8.10) per person, per day covers waiters and cabin stewards; other gratuities are at your discretion.

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