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MSC Virtuosa: Smooth sailing on domestic cruise from Southampton

MSC Cruises announces summer 2024 itineraries, MSC Virtuosa

A domestic cruise on MSC Virtuosa marks something far more significant than just the debut of a new ship. The UK cruise sector can now say it is back. Gary Peters reports.

Standing on a staircase for a photo opportunity is not particularly ground-breaking or even mildly exciting. Not in ordinary times.

But, this is no ordinary staircase. No, it’s the famous MSC Cruises staircase, sparkling in all its glory in the atrium on the brand-new MSC Virtuosa – incredibly there are 80,000 Swarovski crystals in all the stairs of this kind across the ship.

I’ll toot my own horn and add a few to that number, as my shoes for the evening on what is the second night on board are rather glitzy. Let’s just say I’ve waited many, many months to showcase these shoes to the world – well, 1,000 other cruisers.

And this, of course, is what this article is all about – not just shoes, but cruising. I’m on board for MSC Virtuosa’s second domestic cruise out of Southampton, sailing for four nights, with two full sea days and one quick stop in Portland for a socially distanced and MSC-organised shore excursion.

MSC Virtuosa’s Swarovski crystal stairs.

Covid tests and travel insurance 

Rewinding back to before the cruise and in the days leading up to embarkation my mind is working overtime worrying about the necessary documentation – evidence of a negative lateral flow test taken within 72 hours of departure; cruise ticket with health questionnaire completed, and – the one that seems to be causing the most confusion among fellow guests and I – evidence of travel insurance with Covid-19 cover.

This is the critical thing to remember. Check, check and check again that it lists Covid-19 cover as part of the policy. Without it, no cruise.

Despite all the pre-cruise nerves and panic, I have no need to worry. My insurance has the right Covid-19 cover and my health questionnaire is all in working order.

It’s after the usual security checks where things get a bit different as guests get a lateral flow test before going off to do the official check-in procedure to get a cruise card and MSC wristband (this traces passenger movement and contacts for safety reasons and must be worn at all times on the ship).

The LED screen is an experience in itself. Credit: Ivan Sarfatti, MSC Cruises.

Back on the open sea

It’s all oddly familiar being back on board. No doubt this is thanks to a very welcome reunion with some cruise friends. All those I have spoken to so far have reported similar feelings – after so many months on land it feels surreal to be on a ship, yet also like we’ve never been away.

On board, the first thing I’m greeted by is the mesmerising sight of the LED dome – on Galleria Virtuosa (the main promenade) – which is the largest of its kind at sea and the heart of the ship that plays different productions throughout the day. This is masterful and it’s common to see guests ambling around, phones in the air, trying to capture whatever is playing out above their heads.

It’s encouraging to see so many families and younger people cruising. With just 1,000 passengers on because of current restrictions, MSC Virtuosa does feel empty, but there are benefits, including space and freedom to wander.

This sense of fun means it’s easy to forget that as MSC Virtuosa sails along the south coast, it was only a week before that the green light was given for domestic operations to resume, and then on 20 May that MSC took the plunge, lifted anchor and officially kicked off the UK cruise season.

The sheer work that has gone into these sailings makes the mind boggle. In fact, even discussing the complexities of getting everything in order and ready for paying passengers is enough to increase my stress levels, let alone those who are rushing around the ship making sure everything goes according to plan.

On that point, the crew is first class. Yes, service is quicker than usual considering the numbers on board and that helps with the experience, but the happiness that emanates from all working on the ship is clear to see.

It’s very easy to adjust to the new health and safety protocols in place. Masks have to be on while walking around the ship but can be removed when sitting down for drink and food and in other venues. Temperatures are taken during the day, social distancing is not an issue – the reduced capacity helping with that – and hand sanitiser is available throughout the ship.

Rob, the humanoid robotic bartender on MSC Virtuosa. Credit: Ivan Sarfatti, MSC Cruises.

A cruise with a robotic bartender

While it is undoubtedly a different experience, the ship still feels alive with action. When the sun comes out, guests are relaxing by the pool; a few dedicated souls are in the gym burning off those cruise calories; restaurants are a hive of activity; the evening entertainment is diverse and, on the whole, hits the right spots.

The Le Grand Theatre is home to a variety of shows, such as le Ciel de Paris – Parisian cabaret – and The Big Apple, dedicated to all things New York. For the pop and rock stars on board, there’s karaoke in the TV & Studio Bar (I’m not brave enough to give it a go), and dance lessons, among several other activities throughout the day, such as pub quizzes, aerobic classes and more.

There is one place that draws more attention than anywhere else – the Starship Club. Of the 21 bars and lounges on MSC Virtuosa, it is by far the most unique, as it is home to Rob, the first-ever humanoid robotic bartender. Rob is fully functional, mixing and serving cocktails while engaging in conversation with passengers. Rob makes it all look easy, but a five-year development process demonstrates it was anything but simple to take it from an idea to reality.

After a drink in the Starship, it’s off to dinner. MSC Virtuosa has 10 restaurants in total – five complimentary and five specialty. I’m lucky enough to sample a number during the four days. The Butcher’s Cut – the steakhouse on board – definitely takes top prize for me, but the choice is endless and every taste is catered for. Indochine, a beautiful and elegant French-Vietnamese restaurant, is another win.

As for the shore excursion in Portland on day three of the cruise, it’s more regimented than before, but despite being low key, it’s genuinely nice to be back out and about exploring.

All in all, MSC’s domestic cruises represent far more than the physical act of sailing a ship; they are the rebirth of the UK cruise sector.

Selling tips

  • With months of sailing with new protocols in the Mediterranean under its belt, MSC Cruises has worked through any kinks in the new systems, so guests should not feel that the experience is diminished
  • Families are welcome on board and there is plenty to keep kids entertained, particularly in the Sportplex, which has an array of games – some of them hi tech using virtual reality
  • For any land-based clients unsure if a domestic sailing can offer a true cruise experience, talk up the fact that MSC’s protocols are tried and tested, and with a reduced capacity on board now it the ideal time to hop on for big-ship experiences without the crowds

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