One of the world’s biggest cruise ships has spearheaded a summer of sailings around Britain.
“A cocktail a day keeps the doctor away,” quips the barman as he spins round to greet me while I peruse the drinks menu, before adding: “I love this planet, I have been here many times. Come here and try one of the best drinks on the galaxy.”
It’s not quite the usual opening gambit you’d expect but then Rob is a world away – quite literally – from your standard barman. Presiding over the Starship Club he’s the first humanoid robotic bartender at sea and one of the many talking points on MSC Cruises’ brand new flagship which pioneered the restart of cruising in the UK.
The biggest topic of conversation of all amongst the 1,000 passengers is that we’re aboard the maiden voyage of MSC Virtuosa, which is giving UK passengers their first taste of an ocean cruise since Covid-19 struck last spring. There are some emotional tears, as well as cheers, as the 1,085ft vessel slips away from Southampton. Quite a few crew members have moist eyes too.
As the cruise industry sets sail once more, a host of lines are converging on the UK to offer coastal sailings. MSC is one of the few lines offering sailings to vaccinated and unvaccinated passengers, which means families with children can enjoy life back on the ocean wave. And what a life it is as I begin to explore the glittering vessel that reflects the line’s flamboyant Italian heritage with staircases studded with Swarovski crystals, upmarket boutiques and a jaw-dropping 300ft LED ceiling that displays a Union Flag theme as we board before staging music and light shows at various times during ensuing days.
Due to current restrictions the ship is only carrying one sixth of its potential capacity, so there’s certainly plenty of room to spread out. In my view, the relative lack of passengers doesn’t detract in any way from the experience, particularly when everyone seems so pleased and excited to be on a cruise holiday once more.
Not surprisingly, stringent health protocols are in place before you embark and once you’re on board; including daily temperature checks, no self-service food and the requirement to wear masks all the time you’re walking around inside. There’s also social distancing, one-way routes and rigorous cleaning by the staff; ever-smiling and polite behind their masks despite undoubtedly having more work to do. MSC also know what they’re doing as they have been successfully operating cruises in the Mediterranean since last August for Italians and other Schengen Area guests.
Policies continue on dry land where passengers on shore excursions have to stay in a group ‘bubble’. MSC displayed its zero tolerance policy last year when a family refused to comply and went AWOL on the island of Capri. They weren’t allowed back on the ship and their luggage was left on Naples’ quayside for them to make their own way home. It might sound harsh, but it makes sense when the line is going all out to protect other passengers and crew.
Back on board, a ship of this size offers a huge range of cabins to choose from, including value-for-money insides, balcony cabins, family rooms and plush suites. The swanky Yacht Club is MSC’s gorgeous ship-within-a-ship concept; an exclusive private enclave with its own staterooms, lounge bar, dining room, pool area and 24-hour butler service. If you’re not into entertainment in a big way you could easily squirrel yourself away here for the whole sailing, and I expect some people do.
But after so long on dry land I want to take advantage of everything that’s on offer and it’s quite a tough call with a packed programme of daily activities that begin with a sunrise stretch class and end with late-night comedy and musical shows. In between the plethora of things to do include dance classes, quizzes, squaring up to zombies and driving a racing car in the reality games area, or taking a trip to the spa, to name just a few. On top of that there are multiple places to drink and dine, including the mouth-watering Jean-Philippe Chocolate Café and all-new Indochine Asian restaurant and Hola! Tacos & Cantina serving authentic Mexican street food (one of my favourites).
Food in the main restaurant and Marketplace Buffet – where food is now served by staff – has been tweaked to please British palates, whilst still retaining favourites such as fabulous freshly-made pizza and Mozzarella dishes using cheese that you can watch being made. At times I wondered what Italians think we eat, given the topsy turvy culinary novelty of roast potatoes and chocolate cake at breakfast and bread and butter pudding and Guinness and steak pie at afternoon tea. That said, you’re certainly never going to go hungry, and I loved being able to make a cuppa with the in-room kettle.
“We are bringing the Mediterranean to UK shores,” said MSC’s UK and Ireland Managing Director Antonio Paradiso. “There are roasts and English bacon, but it is not a full British experience, it is cruising with a British twist.”
Whatever the recipe, it is going down well with UK holidaymakers who are desperate to get away again. A surprising statistic is that many of my fellow seafarers have never set foot on a cruise ship until now.
“We have seen a huge spike in people that have never cruised before,” he added. “Some 55% of passengers are new to cruise and we have never seen a pattern like this before and many have already booked another cruise, which is really encouraging.”
Later I head back to the Starship Club where Rob is waiting. “Nothing makes me happier than flying my guests to the stars with one of my cocktails,” says Rob, who can also converse in eight other languages whilst mixing up to 30 drinks an hour. I sit down at a virtual planetary table where you can play games and even have your horoscope read by putting in your details and placing your palm on the surface. I’m hoping mine might predict I’ll be back at sea again in the company of space-age Rob and earthlings who love to spend time at sea.
Tel: +44 (0)203 426 3010
Email: via contact form on website
Facilities: Ten restaurants, 21 bars and lounges, theatre, spa and gym, sports and games complex, sun deck, five swimming pools and waterpark.
Number of cabins: 2,405
Price Band: Medium to high
Insider Tip: Book the Finest Four dining package to save money on meals at speciality restaurants Indochine, Kaito sushi, Hola! Tacos & Cantina and Butcher’s Cut. The £16.99 all you can eat deal at Hola! Tacos & Cantina also offers great value.
Reviewer’s Rating: 9/10
Factfile: MSC Cruises offers a seven-night UK coastal sailing aboard MSC Virtuosa from £799. Round-trip cruises depart from Southampton, Liverpool and Greenock with ports of call including Portland and Belfast. Fares include all meals, premium all-inclusive drinks package and gratuities. Travel insurance with Covid 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.
Known as the ‘River Cruise Queen’, Jeannine Williamson is an award-winning travel writer, cruise expert and our cruise correspondent, who has clocked up thousands of nautical miles.
Photographs by Ivan Sarfatti courtesy of MSC Cruises