Local cruising gets an upgrade with MSC Splendida: here's what it's like on board
The youngest, largest MSC ship ever to summer in SA, Splendida is a destination in itself — and the first to offer locals the exclusive 'ship within a ship' concept
He was a dark, handsome stranger with impeccable manners and a posture that screamed “private school”. Every evening, he’d appear in the dining room wearing a ritzy bow tie and a twinkle in his eye. And even though our paths crossed several times during the week that we were both on board the MSC Splendida, doing a lovely loop around the Mediterranean Sea, we never once spoke. In fact, I never even learnt his name.
This sort of silent affability between passengers is par for the course on a cruise ship, where faces quickly become familiar and, though you may not speak the same language, smiling comes easily to strangers on holiday. Anyway, Labradors don’t talk. Yes, my charming mystery man was a black Lab, a guide dog in the company of a German-speaking guest.
That even the dog got dressed up for dinner should tell you something about this particular dining room, a far cry from the “bedlam at the buffet” image that many people seem to harbour about cruise ships.
Named L’Olivo, our nightly dining spot was all class, with classical music playing softly in the background, waiters to pull out our chairs, pour our wines, and jot down our picks from the three-course menu. The choices changed nightly, though a crisis of decision-making was almost always assured. Champagne risotto or cannelloni with veal? Herb-crusted tuna or filet mignon? Cheese platter or tiramisu? Such are the hardships of life in the Yacht Club.
This is what the Italian-born, Swiss-based line calls its VIP offering — “a ship within a ship” because Yacht Club “members” get access to places and services that regular guests don’t. Imagine the swipe of a keycard towards the front of the ship, which opens a door, behind which you’ll find a private concierge desk, plus the quietest corridors with the best cabins on the highest decks.
Checking in to the Yacht Club, I must admit I felt a bit strange about meeting my personal butler — white-gloved and smiley Caesar of Madagascar, who’d be at my disposal 24/7. I never did ask anything of him but I won’t pretend it wasn’t fantastic to re-embark after a long day on foot in, say, Istanbul, and shoot that members-only elevator straight to the VIP sundeck for an Aperol Spritz and a last glance at the city.
That was early October and the cruise meandered out of Bari, Italy, with stops at other Italian ports, as well as in Turkey and Greece. It’s been a few weeks since I’ve been home and presumably the dog is busy being adorable somewhere in Germany. The MSC Splendida, meanwhile, late last month said “Ciao!” to Europe and set sail on a Grand Voyage southwards. Assuming all is going to plan, if you are reading this on Sunday November 19, it is today pulled up alongside Réunion island in the Indian Ocean.
Early on Thursday [Nov 23], it will sail into South African waters to home port for the next few months in Durban, then Cape Town, offering several trips from SA mostly to Mozambique and Namibia before setting off back north on April 3 2024.
The arrival marks a historic moment not only for the ship, which has never before touched South African waters, but also for the local cruise season, which has never been serviced by a ship of this calibre.
Built in 2009 and refurbished in 2017, Splendida is one of four ships in the line’s Fantasia class. When they launched, between 2008 and 2012, they were among the world’s biggest, and while new vessels get ever more inventive by the year, Splendida remains relatively large by cruise ship standards, with a passenger capacity of 4,363.
It is certainly younger and larger than the MSC vessels — Sinfonia (built in 2002 with a passenger capacity of 1,960) and Orchestra (2007, 2,550 pax) — that plied local waters for the '22/'23 season. It is also the first to bring the Yacht Club concept here.
A MANY-SPLENDOURED THING
So what’s a week on board really like? It was on a sea day, somewhere between Turkey and Greece, that a new mate and I were lying on loungers on deck 18, our toes pointing out to sea with not a speck of land in sight. “It’s quite a thing,” she mused, “to be not entirely sure where you are in the world.”
Agreed. And, for me, that feeling applied not only to the geographic location of the ship but also, fairly often, to my own whereabouts on the ship itself.
Over 333m long and 66m high, Splendida has 14 public decks (each bearing the name of a famous Italian artist) connected by 25 lifts, with lounges, bars, restaurants, pools, shops and much more tucked in from bow to stern. That means a dizzying number of ways to occupy oneself in a crazy number of places and, for the navigationally challenged (such as me), 100 ways to get lost.
In fact, unless you deliberately task yourself with an Amazing Race-style mission to check everything off, odds are there are places you will never see, or only stumble across because you were going elsewhere and misread the map.
Such variety, of course, is a huge part of the appeal of modern cruising — port calls are wonderful but the ship is a destination too. And Splendida does well to deliver a choose-your-own adventure sort of holiday for most tastes.
Gamblers will surely devote time to the Royal Palm Casino, where the machines whirr 24/7 and croupiers come out at night. Parents can deposit their progeny at the kids clubs, with dedicated facilities for different age groups.
There’s a bowling alley and table tennis; a waterslide; an F1 Simulator and an arcade. Not to mention the multi-page programme slipped under your door every evening with tomorrow's activities — such as quizzes and dance lessons, musical performances and auctions — that go on from sunrise til the wee hours.
You can’t walk very far without coming across a swimming pool or whirlpool and it’s even less of a walk from anywhere if you’re looking for libations. I count 21 bars and lounges, each one with its own décor identity, from the tiled, Italian-style piazza to the soaring atrium in the ship’s centre with its sweeping Swarovski-crystal staircases and glass lifts.
There will be things you think you’ll get around to but never do — because priorities. There is a different show in the Strand Theatre every night, yet our party caught only one, preferring instead to linger over dessert, or with a cocktail outdoors, simply gazing at moonlight on water. I only spied the gym on my way to a heavenly massage in the spa. And though we threatened to do it “tomorrow night” every night, we never once made it to the Club 33 Disco.
Naturally, on-board eating is an Olympic event. Beyond the Yacht Club’s L’Olivo, there are two à la carte restaurants for the rest of the guests, and two buffet spots for everyone. Brave the latter at peak times and you will find the chaos, but there is a staggering selection of foods, well organised and covering almost every food style imaginable, though with a European leaning. I'm told that for the SA season there will be more of the sorts of things South Africans adore — like boerewors, bobotie, bunny chow and Mrs Balls. Try to resist the temptation to swing by at 1am for a slice of pizza — or don’t. I will neither confirm nor deny whether I did.
At extra cost, there are two speciality restaurants, the Sea Pavilion for sushi and seafood and the American-steakhouse-inspired Butcher’s Cut, sure to be a hit with meat-loving South Africans with its Angus beef and new world wines. The prices may skrik your bank manager but if you do go, hope you get speciality waiter Oscar Centeno from Honduras, who describes every dish with such infectious enthusiasm that you’ll be sure it’s worth it. You won’t be wrong.
BEYOND THE VELVET ROPE
And then there is the question of the Yacht Club, which obviously is higher priced than the regular cruise experience — a bit of an oxymoron really because there’s nothing “regular” anywhere. So if you’re simply looking for fun, or if budget is a factor, you’ll be happy with the standard options.
If you fancy a more elite kind of treatment, starting even before you board with priority bag handling and a personal escort (by butler) onto the ship; bubbles before you get to your cabin; prime seating in the theatre; discounts in the speciality restaurants and spa; basically barely queuing anywhere and a Caesar of your very own, then the Yacht’s for you.
Dressing up for dinner, incidentally, is not compulsory but the air of refinement does inspire one to make an effort. Besides, you never know what handsome stranger’s eye you might catch across a room one night, even if he just a dog and you are only ships in the night.
• Sleith was a guest of MSC Cruises.
A SEASON IN SA
MSC Cruises will operate 35 sailings of MSC Splendida from both Durban and Cape Town during the 2023-24 season. The first leaves Durban on November 24 for a two-night sea cruise (prices start around R6,358 per person).
On December 27, it leaves Durban for a 12-night trip to Réunion, Mauritius and back.
In March it sails from Durban to Cape Town (three nights, priced from R5,337 pp), after which it will be doing excursions from Cape Town to Walvis Bay, Namibia. It sets off on a Grand Voyage from Cape Town back to Europe on April 3 (from R31,090.36 pp for 27 nights).
For more dates, prices and full itineraries go here.