The maiden cruise of MSC Virtuosa departed from Southampton on 20th May 2021 and we were lucky enough to be on board. This was also the first cruise to set sail from the UK in 14 months so there was plenty of excited passengers, crew, port staff and press interest.
Restricted to UK residents only, the 4 night cruise was the first of four inaugural voyages with only 1000 passengers (normal capacity of 6,300) that would sail around the UK coast with a port stop at Portland in Dorset before returning to Southampton.
MSC had been safely conducting cruises in Europe since August 2020 and, due to their successful enhanced safety protocols, were prepared to welcome both unvaccinated and vaccinated passengers onboard. Unvaccinated or partially vaccinated passengers were asked to carry out a PCR or lateral flow swab test 72 hours prior to the cruise and bring proof of the results. We would (just) be fully vaccinated by the time of the cruise and printed off an email confirmation from the NHS App as proof of vaccination. Passengers also needed to fill in a health questionnaire on embarkation day and bring along a copy of their travel insurance policy to demonstrate that it it had the required Covid-19 cover. MSC would also carry out a PCR test on each passenger at the terminal before boarding and warned of a possible 90 minute wait for results.
We only booked our cruise the week before departure – never having cruised with MSC before meant there was a huge learning curve! Our booking included the Premium drinks package and gratuities but we also upgraded to the Premium Plus drinks package (£52 pp) and purchased the Internet Browse and Stream package for 2 devices (£74.80) and a Fun Pass (£72). We decided not to buy a Speciality Dining Package as we were planning to make use of the complimentary meal provided by our Diamond loyalty status (achieved through Status Match) and we wanted to see the menu for the new Indochine French/Vietnamese restaurant first.
We arrived in Southampton the night before our cruise and stayed at the Holiday Inn which is right across from the terminal and MSC Virtuosa. This was the view from our window:
We took the opportunity to pop down to Mayflower Park to grab some pictures of the ship – the light show at night was amazing!
MSC had assigned us a boarding slot of 13:40 and asked passengers not to turn up early at the risk of being turned away. So we arranged a late check-out of the hotel, drove around to the port to park up and arrived at 13:30. There was a short queue outside the terminal – not a pleasant wait in very windy weather – but we were soon inside.
For us, the longest queue was waiting for the swab test (which turned out to be a much quicker lateral flow test on one nostril) .The embarkation timeline was as follows:
|Stage and documents needed||Time Taken|
|Queue into terminal, initial document check, obtain initial Boarding Number card:|
– Embarkation Form
– Vaccination Status
– Insurance Documents
|Security queue and screening|
– Initial Boarding Number card
– Embarkation Form
|Swab queue and test, obtain Final Boarding Number card|
– Health Questionnaire
|Check-in, obtain cruise card and wristband for track and trace|
– Final Boarding Number card
– Embarkation Form
– Take Security Photo
|Waiting to board, show Final Boarding Number card|
– Cruise Card
The only concern was that, while lines were socially distanced in front and behind you, the lines themselves were still pretty narrow on either side so you ended up standing closer to other passengers in the next line. We hadn’t even been inside a supermarket for 12 months so it was a bit of a worry. Our cruise blogger friends Cruise Monkeys also flagged this when we met them later on the cruise.
And so, after 1 hour and 20 minutes, we walked up the gangway and stepped onto a cruise ship again!
We entered on deck 6 directly into the Galleria Virtuosa – the Union Jack was projected onto the enormous LED ceiling and was very striking. We were offered champagne but decided to move on and try and find our cabin at the back of the ship. En route, the public spaces were gleaming and the crew seemed very happy to see us.
Health Protocols and Social Distancing
The following general protocols were in place:
- Masks must be worn around the ship unless you are in your cabin or seated to eat or drink. Masks should also be worn in theatre/lounge during the shows in between taking a drink.
- Spare masks are provided in each cabin and the remote control in a sanitised paper bag.
- The MSC wristband should be worn at all times for track and tracing and handed back on disembarkation.
- Only four people permitted in an elevator at the same time.
- If you wanted to get off the ship in Portland then you had to pre-book an MSC excursion.
And when drinking and eating:
- You are required to have temperature checks at least once a day and when you enter the buffet or main dining rooms.
- All bars, lounges and restaurants onboard have seats blocked out to ensure social distancing.
- All bar and restaurant menus are accessible by scanning a QR code via your phone, although paper menus are available if requested.
- All cutlery and butter dishes are bought to your restaurant dining tables.
- All trays and cutlery/napkins are handed to you as you enter the buffet.
- Buffet food items are displayed behind perspex screens and crew will hand them over already plated. This can result in quite a number of dishes.
- Buffet drinks will be prepared by crew on request at the self-service drink stations.
- There are separate entrance and exit routes in the buffet, essentially a one-way system.
A new set of procedures were in place for carrying out muster drills. We were directed to return to our cabin to watch the safety video on our televisions at a specific time before sailaway. At the end of the somewhat glitchy presentation, we were asked to phone a 3 digit number to register that we had watched it. This number was announced over the PA system as well so this seemed to cancel out that measure. We were then directed to our muster station to have our cruise card scanned by a crew member – this meant throngs of people on the stairs and walkways which could have been managed in a better way.
June 2021 update: Passengers are now being sent to muster stations on a deck by deck basis so this is a much better arrangement.
We had booked a Suite – due to the roomier bathroom layout, larger cabin and aft balcony. This is also known as family cabin as it includes 2 bunk beds hidden behind a curtain, a double sofa bed and the option of a connecting door to the next cabin. It is not part of the Yacht Club.
There was plenty of storage with two full wardrobes and USB charging points located under the bedside lamps and at the desk. We loved the cabin, especially sitting on the balcony watching the wake.
The only drawback was that there are no aft elevators on the ship (for passenger use) so you need to factor in a long walk between the mid ship elevators and the cabin.
We tried as many of the different dining options on MSC Virtuosa as we could. The Indochine menu didn’t suit our tastes so we booked Butcher’s Cut for our complimentary speciality meal.
On embarkation day, we didn’t have time for lunch or a sit down dinner so ended up grabbing some pizza slices and curry in the buffet about 9pm. The pizza was fine and Chris really liked his potato curry and rice. This was our only foray into the buffet apart from breakfast on the final day. The warm pastries, fresh fruit and hot breakfast items were much better than the room service breakfast so we wished we had made it there more often! Keep an eye on the buffet opening times in the Daily Planner – one afternoon we missed lunch and discovered it was closed between 3:30pm and 6:30pm so had to resort to room service.
The second night was Elegant Night and we chose to eat in our assigned main dining room – the Blue Danube on deck 5. We had an early dining slot 5:30:7:30pm and raced to get there in time. They were quite relaxed about times at the entrance but were strict about taking our temperature. We were then shown to a group of 3 tables and seated in the centre – the tables either side were blocked off for social distancing. Groups of 5 tables also had alternate tables blocked off.
We had to scan the QR codes provided to review and order from the menu and had to wait for cutlery and butter dishes to be delivered with our food. We really enjoyed our meal, even if it took a leisurely 2 hours!
On the third night, we ate at Butcher’s Cut. The restaurant itself is quite small and was packed, even with social distancing so we were happy to sit outside looking over the Galleria. We confirmed with the waiter that we would be having the Dining Experience due to our Diamond Loyalty status. This meant one appetiser, one entree, one side and one dessert each from that part of the menu. We decided to order an additional side and pay the difference. Everything was fantastic and the filet mignon cooked to our taste.
On the final night, we booked the Mexican themed Hola! Tacos and Cantina speciality restaurant. I have a low spice tolerance but happily was able to navigate the menu. This was our favourite restaurant based on variety, taste and value for money. Chris also hit the frozen margaritas a little too hard (all included with our Premium Plus package). Be sure to agree with your waiter whether you are doing the All You Can Eat option beforehand as we got caught out after making the wrong assumption. Note also they didn’t have yellow corn crunchy tortillas in stock for the tacos when we were there.
For lunch on the second day, we missed the buffet opening times and returned to our cabin to order room service. We found the complimentary room service menu pretty limited compared to other cruise lines and ordered a couple of sandwiches each to tide us over.
For brunch on the third day, we decided to eat at the Masters of the Sea pub. The food menu is small with 4 items available at a nominal charge. Chris chose the Cheeseburger and I went for the Fish and Chips – we were charged £9. The cheeseburger was small and disappointing but the chips and fish were good.
On the final day, we stopped by the Jean Phillipe Crêpe and Gelato bar and ordered a fresh Strawberry suprême crêpe from their menu and was persuaded to add a scoop of strawberry gelato. This was chargeable at £10. Absolutely delicious though!
On the second and fourth mornings we pre-ordered complimentary Room Service breakfast by filling in the card provided and hanging it on our cabin door before 2am. This included continental items only and, for us, was a bit hit and miss. The first order didn’t include any milk or toast so Chris had to leave his cornflakes in their packet! The pastries are quite small so bear that in mind when filling in quantities.
Drinks and Bars
We had intended to do a full bar crawl on MSC Virtuosa but the bad weather put paid to that. So we confined ourselves to trying a few of the bars inside the ship. The headliner was the Starship Club where drinks and chat are served up by Rob the robot humanoid barman. Passengers can request their drink from a pre-selected cocktail menu via interactive screens or make up their own. However, any alcoholic drinks made by Rob come at a cost of £18 each! This was disappointingly not included in the Premium Plus drinks package so we decided not to partake. However, we did enjoy ordering latte and hot chocolate from the same bar – the drinks were made by humans though and delivered by wait staff in Star-Trek style uniforms and in futuristic cups!
Our first drink on MSC Virtuosa was at the British-style pub Masters of the Sea. We perused the menu and Chris ordered a draft Stella but I had to resort to a Coke Zero as I don’t drink beer or cider. They don’t have non-beer cocktails. Note also that Coke Zero was the only lite version of Coke they had onboard. It took quite a while for it to be served – this was early evening on embarkation day and we were so thirsty we forgot to take a photo.
In the hunt for our first cocktail, we headed down to the Virtuosa Lounge to meet up with our cruise blogger friends Cruise Monkeys. The general bar menu here was much better and we were easily talked into ordering our first Miami Vice frozen cocktail and partaking in a group selfie!
The next day, our new bar to try was the Sky Lounge on deck 18, an adults-only bar with glorious floor-to -ceiling panoramic windows that overlooked the lido deck. A great place to chill out day or night and usually pretty busy -although some seating areas were out of use due to social distancing rules. The drinks menu includes special mixology cocktails but we stuck to the regular cocktails and hot drinks.
After our Elegant Night meal in the main dining room, we headed to the Champagne Bar. We learned to love it’s comfy sofas and friendly, attentive waitstaff and came back every night. The menu does focus on champagne/wine so wasn’t a complete hit for me. No frozen cocktails here. But I actually discovered they could rustle up a malibu and pineapple (one from my student days) which kept me happy. Chris started with an Aperol Spritz but then moved onto ordering champagne by the glass – which is included in the Premium Plus drinks package. Many glasses in fact – I blame the Cruise Monkeys!
MSC laid on plenty of entertainment. Trivia, game shows, aquapark activities and dance lessons during the day and theatre shows, music tributes or a comedian in the evening. We didn’t make it to any of these. We caught a live band in the Virtuosa Lounge, a piano player in the Infinity Atrium and karaoke in the TV Lounge. There was a White Night on the final night of the cruise and a few passengers dressed accordingly but there was no party due to the health protocols.
Chris tried to make use of the Fun Pass and had intended to spend the day at the Amusement complex during the stop in Portland but it was closed until 5pm which was very disappointing. He played a few arcade games but it was unclear which ones were included (none, it would seem!)
Technology and Glitches
We experienced some new technology and quite a few glitches whilst on this cruise. We are hoping these were just teething problems.
- The MSC for Me App was very good for booking restaurants, checking your bill and receiving notifications.
- The elevator selection process was brilliant – you select which deck you need from a panel and you would be directed to a particular elevator. I had seen this before in one of my offices but great to see on a cruise ship.
- Plentiful USB charging points in the cabin.
- The wristband was useful as an alternative to using your cruise card when paying for drinks.
- The interactive screens around the ship worked well.
- The internet Browse and Stream package was reliable and reasonably fast (9 Mbps down, 4 Mbps up)
- Disembarkation was quick and mainly well organised.
The not so good:
- We were not recognised as Diamond loyalty status so did not receive any of the complimentary benefits in our cabin. This also meant no complimentary speciality meal. We managed to get an updated cruise card and wristband and received some of the benefits over the remaining days but missed out on the fruit embarkation goodies.
- We were charged again when registering for the internet but had bought a pre-paid package – we had go to the Internet Deck to get this taken off.
- Some drinks that were included in our drink packages kept appearing on our bill – we had to go to Customer Services three times to get these taken off.
- We went in person to Butcher’s Cut on embarkation day to book a meal – our booking never made it onto the system,
- No deck plan on the MSC for Me app so you had to rely on the interactive panels around the ship.
- Could not add other passengers to Chat on the MSC for Me app – the search didn’t work.
- Zoe, the in-cabin AI assistant never seemed to work for us. Would have been good to have some instructions.
- We were assigned a late disembarkation slot (group 16) even though passengers with Diamond status were meant to be disembarking early. I went to Customer Services and we got moved up to group 7 but the MSC for Me app thought we were group 2 anyway so we left just before 8.15am.
We felt reasonably safe on board and were able to relax and enjoy the cruise. It was so great just to be back at sea. We did notice passengers were ignoring the seating social distancing rules by the end of the cruise but we tended to restrict the number of people we sat and drank with. While the glitches we experienced were annoying, we would have no hesitation going back on MSC Virtuosa but wonder what it would be like with an increased passenger capacity – longer cruises on MSC Virtuosa with more passengers and UK ports have been scheduled after June 12th.