In the rapidly growing cruise market, new ships are being launched as fast as they can be built. On its inagural voyage earlier this month, Adele Thurlow checks out the high-tech MSC Bellissima and rubs shoulders with Sophia Loren.
Anywhere that bakes 15,000 fresh croissants each day and stocks 20 varieties of champagne is somewhere I know I'll be content. And within four days aboard the world's newest cruise ship MSC Bellissima, I quickly become accustomed to the four-course meals and faultlessly attentive service.
Despite her scale and the opulence, there is a definite sense of comfort about this ship. Within her 315m length and 19 decks, is a layout that is simple to navigate and has ample public space for its 5600+ passengers to enjoy without uncomfortable encounters with strangers. The crew pride themselves on creating an environment in which passengers feel at home — though, I'm confident I'm not the only passenger whose abode doesn't feature multiple dazzling staircases with 640 Swarovski crystals within each step.
That faultlessly attentive service extends to every corner of the ship. Not once do I need to wait at a bar to order a drink — the staff are too quick for that. My bed is whipped into shape each morning and turned down before I return to the cabin each evening. Towels are straightened or replaced, and the bathroom vanity restored to a state of radiance multiple times a day.
If you've cruised before, you may be familiar with that slight sense of cabin-fever which can come with small spaces, low ceilings, and limited natural light. None of this applies in MSC Bellissima. More than 60 per cent of cabins have balconies and many of the 20 bars and restaurants boast floor-to-ceiling glass windows.
I start each day at the Marketplace Restaurant, with its astonishingly extensive breakfast buffet and Italian espresso which easily satisfies my morning cravings. At the other end of the day, the Champagne Bar is an easy choice. Its wraparound bar in off-white granite anchors the space, while ocean-facing cushioned bar stools in soft champagne-gold leather upholstery are the perfect perch for dreamy ocean views and a glass of champers.
Through the central public space stretches Galleria Bellissima — a two-level, 96m Mediterranean-style promenade flanked by a selection of specialty restaurants, bars and retail stores. Wandering through this social hub is not unlike being inside a boutique mall — except this mall is crowned by the world's largest LED screen at sea. Ever-changing scenes on the dome LED ceiling stop passengers in their tracks while they gaze upwards. The restaurants, many led by Michelin starred chefs, include a French bistro, a tapas bar, a teppanyaki grill and sushi bar, and an upmarket American-style steakhouse with craft beer and classy cocktails.
While aboard MSC Bellissima, we're invited to the ship's spectacular, star-studded naming ceremony.
Amid a crowd of 2500 inside a transparent-panelled marquee at the Port of Southampton, we are treated to performances by the incredible Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli and his son Matteo, and the ship's own Cirque du Soleil cast. However, despite careful positioning of the ship adjacent to the marquee to provide a windbreak, the British weather becomes inhospitably stroppy shortly before MSC Cruises' "godmother", Sophia Loren, is due to break a sacrificial bottle of champagne over the ship's hull. Guests are advised to reboard the ship from where the proceedings would continue.
If we weren't already wowed by the slick quayside ceremony, it is this unexpected turn of events which categorically demonstrates the Italian crew's ingenuity and decisiveness. After MSC's senior management rapidly convene to confirm Plan B, guests are invited to get a drink and gather within Galleria Bellissima. Sophia Loren and dignitaries are guided by security directly past my vantage point (amid a flurry of photos by us star-struck mortals) to be positioned on a mezzanine bridge spanning the centre of the promenade. When the ceremony resumes, it is simultaneously projected (impressively, given the unexpected relocation) onto the promenade's arched LED ceiling along with every screen within the ship.
MSC's executive chairman, the lively Pierfrancesco Vago, announces — with his mobile phone pressed to his ear — that his wife, Alexa, has climbed onto the roof of the ship and is poised to cut the ribbon.
In his thick Italian accent, he loudly declares, "The most imporrrtant thing is safety for usss; to have a grrreat party afterwards; and for that bottle to brrreaakkkk!"
After a short, enthusiastic countdown by Sophia and the crowd, live footage of the champagne bottle smashing across the bow of MSC Bellissima is broadcast across the LED ceiling for all to enjoy, followed by scenes of a spectacular fireworks display above. As guests are ushered off to a gala dinner prepared by two Michelin-starred chef Raymond Blanc, there is little doubt that the Italian hosts have hospitality nailed.
While the maritime industry has long been criticised for its environmental impact, newly-built cruise ships are really cleaning up their act. MSC aims to use the latest technology to have zero impact on the environment.
MSC Bellissima pushes the boundaries of cruise ship environmental performance. The ship is powered by clean-burning, eco-friendly liquefied natural gas (LNG), affording a significant reduction in emissions. It is also equipped with an exhaust gas cleaning system for cleaner emissions; state-of-the-art recycling and solid waste management; an advanced wastewater treatment system; smart heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems to recover heat from machinery spaces; and LED lighting and energy-saving devices.
At the same time MSC Bellissima was launched, MSC also announced it was eliminating single use plastic across its fleet.
High-tech on the high seas
During my first cruise some 15 years ago, on-board communication was generally via a photocopied A4 newsletter placed inside my cabin each evening. While there is still a very useful daily printed newsletter for bedtime reading, a raft of innovative technology on MSC Bellissima propels communication well into the future.
A digital platform called 'MSC for Me' provides passengers with an integrated, smart experience available across a mobile phone app, cabin TV, and a digital wristband. MSC for Me enables guests to check-in via their mobile phone before embarking the ship, access activity information and make reservations, message and locate friends and family aboard, and manage their on-board account.
A new addition to this digital platform — and one of the heroes of MSC Bellissima's launch — is what the company describes as its "most expensive crew member" — Zoe. A small, round desktop speaker in each cabin is, in fact, the world's first virtual personal cruise assistant. Zoe can answer more than 800 questions in seven languages and recognises 30 different accents.
During an entertaining introduction to Zoe by the dynamic Vago, he describes Zoe as his 'daughter'.
"My wife is Alexa," he says, "So that name is already taken."
"Besides," Vago continues in his animated Italian delivery, "When I ask Alexa to switch off the lights, her response is always, 'Swiiitch them off yoursellfff!'."
MSC Bellissima is the first of two new ships MSC will launch this year, and part of a 10-year growth plan which will see the introduction of 17 new cruise ships.
The NZ$1.24 billion dollar MSC Bellissima will spend her inaugural season in the Mediterranean before moving to the Emirates later this year and Asia in 2020.