There’s a sparkling atmosphere on MSC Cruises’ new flagship Virtuosa
The excitement in the Sky Lounge is palpable as MSC Virtuosa edges away from the Southampton quayside. The hubbub of conversation is momentarily silenced as the PA system cuts in: “Ladies and gentlemen, this is your cruise director Gene speaking, we are sailing, and we are so proud to say we are back.” It is followed by a rousing cheer and the synchronised clinking of glasses.
In March 2020 the pandemic left the UK ocean cruise industry high and dry and, for the first time since then, I’m back on the water aboard MSC Cruises brand-new flagship. The Italian-owned line has a penchant for bling (some 80,000 Swarovski crystals are embedded in the staircases alone) and this glittering ambiance creates a suitably celebratory backdrop for the maiden voyage.
MSC, which last year successfully operated cruises for 65,000 passengers from the Schengen Area who were allowed to travel, has pioneered the return to British waters and umpteen other lines will be following in its wake with coastal sailings this summer.
Antonio Paradiso, the line’s UK and Ireland Managing Director, readily admits to shedding a tear, along with many other crew members, when the first passengers boarded.
“We have been waiting 15 months to see a ship sailing out of the UK again, and it’s great to be back,” he said. “Since August last year we have been in the Mediterranean, so we thought why not do it in the UK? We have been working very hard behind the scenes to make sure we were ready to embrace such an opportunity. We know all eyes are on us, so it is a big responsibility. But you can see the happiness in the air, and it is sending out a very strong message and a message of hope.”
With 19 passenger decks and stretching 1,085ft from bow to stern, MSC Virtuosa can carry up to 6,300 passengers. However, for the foreseeable future, in order to adhere to health and safety protocols, it is sailing with a maximum of 1,000. So it feels even more exclusive to have the run of the ship without the hint of any queues and a huge amount of space to spread out on one of the world’s largest cruise vessels and also boasts the largest shopping area at sea and a fun-filled waterpark.
On our cruise there is one stop at Portland, but after so long on dry land I relish the chance to stay on board and continue exploring at leisure; treating myself to a restorative Balinese massage in the expansive spa where the therapist expertly kneads out knots acquired during months of lockdown. Those that did go ashore had to stay in a group ‘bubble’ and not wander off to mix with landlubbers; reinforcing the emphasis MSC is placing on everyone staying safe.
On board all the crew members have masks, and we have to wear them when walking around the ship. I don’t feel it’s intrusive, especially as we’re now all used to wearing them in shops and venues ashore, and we can take them off once we’re sitting down, working out in the gym or outside on the decks. From the hot tubs to the restaurants and bars, social distancing is in place, but with only a sixth of the passengers on board it’s never an issue. Everyone’s temperatures are also taken daily.
There are other changes, too. In the post-pandemic world help yourself buffets are a thing of the past and in the main Marketplace Buffet the food is behind screens and served by staff. Frankly, as someone who always overeats at buffets, I don’t mind, and it makes me think twice about overfilling my plate and going back for seconds (or thirds!). Of course, there is no enforced portion control, and you can eat as much as you like if you want. The menus have been tweaked for British tastes and alongside the best pizza and gelato at sea you’ll find familiar favourites including full English breakfast, roasts, pies, and bread and butter pudding, plus welcome tea and kettles in all cabins.
Elsewhere, MSC Virtuosa has four other main restaurants and five speciality dining venues where you pay a supplement or can buy a package which covers three of them. Old favourites include the theatrical Kaito Teppanyaki restaurant where our personal chef Jaymar juggles with knives before joking that he only started the job the day before.
Two all-new restaurants are the Hola! Tacos & Cantina, serving authentic Mexican food and fiery mezcal in a laid-back environment, and sublime Indochine where you can sample beautifully flavoured Asian food in sophisticated surroundings. Both of these restaurants can be found in the dazzling Gallerie Virtuosa which is set beneath a 300ft LED dome, another MSC trademark and the longest on any of its ships. Neck-craning visuals stretch the length of the ceiling and several times daily it comes spectacularly to life with different ‘shows’.
Another talking point – and one that talks back – is Rob, the robotic bartender who presides over the futuristic Starship Club, one of 21 bars and lounges. He took six years to develop and can converse in six different languages as he engages in banter and mixes up to 30 drinks an hour. The space-age cocktails include Jupiter Passion, Galactic Cloud and Black Hole Punch, or you can ask Rob to mix something of your own invention. They all come served in a souvenir cup to take home.
Whether you go for one of Rob’s concoctions or order something more down to earth like a G&T from the bar, on my final night as we sail back to Southampton I raise another glass to MSC to celebrate the nautical milestone of restarting cruising in the UK. I’m not sure what the toast would be in Rob’s home planet of Caipora, but it’s a big cheers from me.
MSC Cruises is offering seven-night sailings on MSC Virtuosa, departing from Southampton, Liverpool and Greenock with ports of call including Portland and Belfast. The British Isles sailings run until mid-September and are available to UK residents, including children. Travel insurance with Covid-19 cover is required and adults have to show proof of a double Covid-19 vaccination or negative test taken 72 hours before departure. The test is not required for children under two.