Review: MSC Armonia, Messina

Our four night cruise on the MSC Armonia actually started the night before as Messina, our departure port, is not served very well by an international airport. Instead we return to Catania (where we have been previously) and stay at a delightful Bed&Breakfast. In the morning we head to the nearby train station and make the leisurely train journey to Messina.

Neither Ange nor I have been on a cruise before, and I’m kind of curious as to how it all will work. We have a lot of documentation and instructions regarding what we can take on board and the logistics of luggage management. So we have dutifully labelled our luggage and arrived in enough time for embarkation.

There is a three hour window for new passengers to get on board, but I’m more keen on getting the cruise started than I am on exploring Messina, so we pause briefly for lunch at Maccas and then head towards the port.

Part of the documentation included a latitude and longitude and after relying on Google Maps for port locations in Rovinj, I’m grateful for a more specific rendezvous point. Since my cellphone plan includes roaming, I’m the designated navigator, and we set off down the road from Maccas towards the water. I’m frowning at my phone and have just finished telling Ange that “the road we’re on is parallel to the water, we just need to go one block to the right and we’ll be there” when she tugs on my arm and there, between two buildings on our right, we can see the verandahs and decks of the ship, looming intimidatingly.

It’s big. Like really big. I’ve seen cruise ships before, but always from a distance, and as we get closer and closer the thing looms even more. We head across the street, push past the street hawkers selling knickknacks, and get directions from the guy on security. Two queues enter a tent, one for returning passengers and one for those joining the cruise here in Messina.

There is one couple ahead of us “checking in” (does one “check-in” to a cruise?). It’s a straight forward affair. They ask for our passports and boarding form that we have filled in online. The MSC website had been down when we had originally tried to fill in the details online and it only came back available a few hours before I flew out, making for an unnecessarily stressful lead up to to the trip. We then hand over our luggage and go through an airport like security check and then head onboard.

Upon boarding we have our photo taken for the security system and then we’re guided upstairs to a gauntlet of grinning staff who attempt to sell us drinks packages and excursions. It’s a hard sell environment but I have no intention of spending more money than I need to on drinks, so am not swayed. Part of me is wondering at the hard sell. Does that actually work on people? We also blow past the guy with a camera wanting to take a picture of us behind a cheesy old time ship steering wheel. At this point I realise I’m treating the staff like they’re the street hawkers on the dock!

We already know our cabin number and proceed to try and find our cabin. Luckily there are signposts everywhere indicating the directions, and maps at every stairwell, so it’s not long before we find it. Ange voices her concern that we haven’t been given a key card or anything to access our room but I recall in the screeds of documentation there was a line that the keycard would be waiting in the room.

Lo and behold, when we arrive the door is slightly ajar and on the bed is a welcome pack including personalised cards the size of credit cards which would be access to the room, ID for boarding at each port and our method of payment for “incidentals”.

Our Cabin

We’d had a few options with regards to the cabins, and our thinking was that we wouldn’t spend the extra money on a room with a view because all we wanted to do in the cabin is work and sleep. It would encourage us to engage with the offerings of the ship if we “bareboned” the room.

We decided on a higher cabin to be closer to the restaurants, which turned out to be a good move – better to have the odd scraping of things moving around above us rather than the noise from the engine. Even on level 11 we still can hear the deep thrum of the engine. The only cabins available in the online sale were in the aft section, but with the advantage of hindsight we would have been tempted to select one further forward if we could: to put more distance between us and the engine noise.

The cabin itself is perfectly serviceable with a compact bathroom but most importantly a comfortable bed. Always the major consideration for me! The room also came with a mini-bar with hotel level prices. We start looking through the fine print of the documentation in our room and discover some things they must have missed off the website.

Like they would make an authorisation on your credit card of €250 to cover “incidentals” like the €10 per night “service charge”. In lieu of tipping apparently. You could avoid the authorisation on your credit card by making a cash deposit of similar size or making a payment using a debit card. Again, things that really should have been front and centre. Especially if it bumps up the cost!

We also receive the daily newsletter with the events and important information about that days’ port. Unfortunately it’s in Italian, but fortunately Ange knows her way around that language. It also covers what dress code governed the evening meal. Apparently there is casual (jeans), informal (no jeans), formal (suit) and gala (tuxedo), and tonights code is Gala – darn! I left my tuxedo back in London.

We also find out that there is a compulsory emergency drill that evening for all those who got on at Messina, and a presentation on what excursions are available prior to that. We decide to go exploring.

There are three restaurants: a buffet one just above us on level 12, a fancy one which follows the dress code on aft on level 6 and another fancy a la carte one forward on level 6. We’d requested the first sitting (7pm – 9pm) in the fancy one but obviously didn’t make the cut and had been given the second sitting (9pm – 11pm). The 9pm sitting is a bit too late for us so we’re thinking we’ll get most of our meals in the buffet restaurant. C’mon, as much as you can eat?! How could we go past that?

After exploring we end up on the deck looking for the promised discussion on excursions. Eventually we ask a member of staff and they jump on the radio. The word comes back that there aren’t enough English speakers to warrant an independent excursion presentation. Nice of them to tell us! Instead we head back to our room to rest prior to the lifejacket drill.

Feeling very special with the boxy orange life jackets, we make our way to the theatre for the briefing. It’s repeated five or six times  for each of the languages of the passengers onboard. This time there is an English version! The briefing ends with us assembling near the lifeboats. I get chatting with the crew member who scans our passes to register the fact that we had attended and ask how many passengers each lifeboat could take.

He frowns until he realises I have misinterpreted a sign saying something about max 10 passengers as applying to the lifeboat capacity. He assures me that each lifeboat can take 50-60 passengers and some even more. Plus they have life rafts. “Aaah, so no Titanic here!” I say, I’m not sure he’s smiling as he turns away – it’s the end of the drill.

We head up to watch the ship leave port which feels more momentous than it actually is. We’re off! We’ve started our cruise! But from the ship’s point of view we’re just leaving another port. This happens almost every day. The Armonia keeps sailing on a circuit around and around the Western Med, so this is just another day. It’s cool how there are side jets which push the ship away from the jetty – no tugs needed here!

After the departure we head to the buffet. It’s good – very Italian, but plenty of everything and ample desserts! Our deal doesn’t include drinks apart from water, so if we want anything more adventurous to drink we’ll have to add it to our cards but we’re happy to stick to the water.

After dinner we head back to our room and are interrupted by a knock on the door. I swap frowns with Ange and head over to answer it. Our maid introduces herself as Perpetue and tells us if there’s anything we need, she’s the one to talk to. We enquire as to whether there is an English language daily bulletin and she rummages in her cart and pulls one out. Bidding us a good cruise she heads off to her cleaning.

We have a lot of work to do, so sign up to the internet onboard. After picking our jaws up off the floor at the price, we realise that it uses satellite technology and so will naturally be more expensive than regular hotel internet. We sign up for the package which allows “normal web browsing”, leaving aside the more expensive package which allows for “streaming and downloading”.

Twenty minutes later I’m finishing off a post I had previously started and click save. Boom. A page stating that the page I have requested has been blocked by MSC. I frown and hit refresh. Same again. I hit the back button on the browser, check that the changes I made are still there and try again. Same MSC screen. Ange is sitting on the bed beside me doing work of her own and I startle her by asking her through gritted teeth to “please pass me the phone?”.

I dial Customer Services and explain the situation. They’re not an IT helpdesk though, and ask me if I had used up the internet allowance. I try to explain that the message I am receiving is an MSC one, and refers to a blocked page and a rule number – indicating to my mind that for whatever reason my blog admin page has somehow triggered a rule on their restricted sites list. Weird.

I decide to head downstairs to show them the error message. Surely that will help them diagnose the issue? So I tell Ange what I’m up to and head down to customer services in barefeet and shorts, carrying my laptop. I make it to the lifts before I notice that everyone around me is dressed in tuxedos and cocktail dresses for the Gala evening at the restaurants. There I am in the lift with them, carrying a laptop (and the fan has just kicked in making a hell of a din!) with barefeet and shorts.

A few eyebrows are raised but I am on a mission. I make it to the front of the queue and tell my story to the rep behind the counter. He quickly reaches the limit of his technical abilities and escalates to his manager. The manager says that the IT manager is not available but that he will take a note of the situation and ask him for a solution. I sigh, mentally farewelling the time I should be working, and ask for a piece of paper and pen.

I then make sure I itemise what I was doing and the contents of the error message to make sure there is no confusion with non-technical people communicating a technical issue and stomp back to the room, ignoring the pearls, jewels and tuxes on the way.

Muttering darkly to myself, I explain the situation to Ange: that the IT manager will be given the message explaining everything tomorrow morning and when we get back from our excursion onshore, we’ll have a response from him waiting for us. With any luck it will mean we will only lose one day’s worth of work. The bed turns out to be super comfortable and the almost imperceptible rocking is very soothing, leading to an excellent night’s sleep.