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Geneva-based firm Mediterranean Shipping Company, whose cruise arm was formed in 1987, is one of the world's biggest players in international shipping. MSC Cruises, based in Naples and Sorrento, was conceived on the premise of offering Europeans affordable cruise vacations -- a concept that was fairly revolutionary in 1990. Today, it competes (in Europe) primarily against Genoa-based Costa Cruises (as well as smaller, more regional lines such as Spain's Pullmantur). The big difference between MSC and Costa is that the latter is owned by Carnival Corporation and has begun to sport ships that more closely reflect the Carnival Cruise Lines ambience. (Indeed, Costa's newest ships are built on the same platform as Carnival's Conquest-class of ships and are designed by Joe Farcus, Carnival's longtime interiors maestro.) MSC, which shows an equal commitment to not only building new ships but also expanding its passenger demographics, is privately owned and, as such, the designs of its vessels are unique to the line. MSC Cruises was created when Gianluigi Aponte, owner of Mediterranean Shipping Company, acquired Starlauro -- a one-ship cruise line, whose fleet consisted of the Achille Lauro (which had been hijacked by Palestinian terrorists in 1986). This first ship continued its troubled history, even while under the MSC flag. In 1996, the Achille Lauro, while sailing a passenger cruise, caught fire off the coast of Africa and, ultimately, sank. All passengers were safely rescued. Other ships in MSC's early fleet included MSC Melody and MSC Rhapsody. (Both since retired.) The turn of the millennium was a massive breakthrough for MSC, when huge container ship operator Mediterranean Shipping Company, the line's parent, decided it was time to expand their presence in the cruise market. The result was an order for a pair of brand-new 58,000-ton ships -- the very first new-builds in the company's history. Three years later, in 2003, the company took delivery of their first-born, MSC Lirica, setting off an epic expansion that would catapult MSC to the number four spot worldwide -- and number two in Europe -- in a matter of years. MSC Opera debuted in June 2004, carrying 1,756 passengers. The line then bought several vessels from the now defunct First European/Festival: MSC Armonia and MSC Sinfonia; both ships measured 58,625 tons and carried 1,566 passengers. The introduction of a new class of ships -- larger, more amenity-laden and featuring an even higher ratio of private verandahs -- emerged with MSC Musica. Measuring 89,600 tons and accommodating 2,550 passengers, that class "master" was launched in June 2006; siblings include MSC Orchestra (debuted in spring of 2007) and MSC Poesia (spring 2008). MSC Magnifica, the fourth ship in the Musica class, launched in 2010. The Fantasia Class of ships followed in 2008. MSC Fantasia (133,500 tons, 3,300 passengers), which debuted in December 2008, was the first of four Fantasia-class vessels. Sister ship MSC Splendida (133,500 tons, 3,300 passengers) debuted in 2009, and MSC Divina (139,400 tons, 3,478 passengers) arrived in May 2012. Its biggest vessel, MSC Preziosa (139,400 tons, 3,502 passengers) joined the fleet in 2013. These two post-Panamax-sized vessels are based on a unique protoype that incorporates first-ever features, such as the ship-within-a-ship Yacht Club concept for suite holders, a pool with a magrodome for all-seasons swimming and an interactive center with a 4D theater and a Formula One simulator. In 2014, MSC announced four new ships, the first of which -- MSC Meraviglia -- will debut in April 2017. Carrying 4,500-passengers, it will be second only to Royal Caribbean's Oasis Class in terms of passenger capacity. MSC Meraviglia is currently being built in the same shipyard as the Oasis class ships -- STX France -- and will be the biggest ship ever built by a European-based cruise line. Meraviglia -- the name means "wonder" in Italian -- will spend its first summer sailing the western Mediterranean with three homeports: Genoa, Marseille and Barcelona. Hot on its heels will be the launch in November 2017 of MSC Seaside, heralding another new class of ship -- Seaside. It will be smaller than Meraviglia at 154,400 gross tons. It and will have 2,070 cabins holding 4,140 passengers in double occupancy. It will launch in Miami, be christened there and homeport there year-round, in a further bid for the line to break into the US market. A second Seaside class ship will follow in May 2018. The line has also set its sights on China: MSC Lirica will homeport in Shanghai from May 1, 2016, initially for two years. Uniquely, in an era in which cruise lines choose a different celebrity godmother for each ship in the fleet, the Italian-influenced MSC has remained loyal to legendary actress Sophia Loren. She's served as godmother for every new ship since MSC Lirica, although this will change with MSC Seaside.
The MSC Cruises fleet can be divided into five categories, or Classes: Mistral Class The 58,600-ton, 1,566-passenger Armonia and Sinfonia, which were acquired from the defunct First European/Festival Cruises and were originally called European Vision and European Stars, respectively -- were built in 2001 and 2002. MSC's first new-builds started with the 59,058-ton, 1,445-passenger MSC Lirica, debuting in 2003. MSC Opera followed a year later; it's largely a sister ship, though some alterations were made to cabin configurations (fewer mini-suites, more standard staterooms with private balconies). Interestingly, this pair is a slightly evolved design-mate with Armonia and Sinfonia. All four of these ships were "stretched" as part of a ?200 million, two-year refurbishment program in 2014?2015 that saw a nearly 80-foot-long section sandwiched into the middle of each ship. The "stretching" procedure added nearly 200 more cabins -- 94 of which have balconies. During the refurbishment, the line also took the chance to update the spa and childcare facilities, as well as to add an interactive water feature called the Spray Park to the top deck. Musica Class MSC's Musica class began with the 90,000-ton, 2,550-passenger Musica, launched in 2006. Musica featured an innovative new design for MSC; introduced on this vessel were more contemporary features, such as a sprawling spa, a wider range of dining venues -- like the now-standard wine bar -- and a much higher number of balcony cabins. MSC Musica has since been followed by siblings MSC Orchestra and MSC Poesia (launched in 2007 and 2008, respectively). MSC Magnifica, the fourth ship in the class, launched in 2010. Fantasia Class The introduction of the Fantasia class -- four ships that weigh in carry at least 3,300 passengers and are at least133,500 tons -- was even more revolutionary for the line. MSC Fantasia debuted in December 2008; Splendida, a sister ship, debuted in 2009; Divina launched in 2012; and the line's largest, MSC Preziosa, debuted in March 2013. Vista Class In March 2014, MSC announced two new-builds (with an option on two more) mega-ships that will launch in April 2017 and 2019 and will by passenger capacity become the second-largest ships in the world (after Oasis and Allure of the Seas). The 167,600 gross ton MSC Meraviglia will have 2,250 cabins holding 4,500 passengers in double occupancy, and a maximum capacity of 5,700 passengers and 1,536 crew members. Among the new features will be specially designed cabins for families and an extended MSC Yacht Club that will include a large solarium, a private lounge and restaurant, and duplex suites. The ships will be more environmentally friendly, with a hull and propulsion system optimized for energy efficiency and fuel scrubbers to reduce CO2 emissions. MSC has not confirmed where the ships will be deployed, but speculation is high that one will be based in the Mediterranean and another could be deployed in the U.S. Seaside Class Since MSC Lirica, all of the line's new-builds have been built at France's STX Europe shipyard, however in May 2014 the line announced it had signed for two further new builds (with an option on a third), which will be built at Italy's Fincantieri shipyard. The first of the 154,000-ton, 4140-passenger ships will be called MSC Seaside, and will be the first of a new class for MSC -- Seaside Class. They will cost ?700 million each, with the first scheduled for delivery in November 2017 and the second arriving in May 2018. The line describes the new design as "revolutionary" and says that it will pave the way for a new generation of cruise ships. The new features includes a sea-level promenade that circumnavigates the ship with outdoor spaces, shops and restaurants.
MSC Cruises Fleet
Whether new ship or old, MSC Cruises emphasizes a strongly Italian-influenced ambience. For the most part, its ships traverse the Mediterranean (winter and summer) and are geared to European travelers. But, the line has made a major commitment to not only sail elsewhere (South America, Canada/New England, the Caribbean, South Africa, the Gulf), but also to expand its passenger base to include English-speaking travelers. In fact, the line is so committed to expansion, it deployed one of its newest ships, MSC Divina, to sail full-time from Miami, which started in November 2013.
However, after a number of years basing a ship -- MSC Opera -- in the UK, it is pulling out completely in 2015 to concentrate on its core business of fly-cruise Mediterranean sailings.
Because of the international passenger base, announcements generally are read in Italian, French, Spanish, German and English.
Life onboard, particularly when it comes to mealtime, follows a more traditional cruise schedule -- set dining times and seatmates, and a handful of optional eateries that include sushi, a buffet and an Italian restaurant.
The ships offer a standout range of evening entertainment offerings, from smoochy dance music to classical concerts, Cirque du Soleil-esque aerobatic shows to jazz.
While MSC cruises are typically priced at very value-oriented levels (i.e. pretty cheap cruise fares), the ships offer a fairly unprecedented range of services and amenities that cost extra, such as a la carte menus, fees for port shuttles and more.
In Europe, from the Mediterranean to the Baltic, the ships attract a very strong European crowd. (U.K.- and Ireland-based cruise travelers are becoming increasingly well-represented.) Caribbean sailings are geared more strongly to North American travelers.
With its new-builds, the line attracts numerous retirees during the winter season, while its efforts to cater to families during the summer and school holidays mean there are lots of kids at those times.
MSC's more classic vessels -- which lack state-of-the-art kids' facilities and sail on longer, more exotic itineraries -- are tailored to older travelers.
MSC Cruises' main playground is, of course, the Mediterranean, and itineraries include stops in Italy, Greece, Malta, Canary Islands, Croatia, Portugal, Morocco, Spain, Istanbul and even the Ukraine. Northern Europe, from Norway's fjords to the Baltic, is increasingly popular.
MSC has since added itineraries to South Africa and South America. It also is ramping up its presence in the Caribbean. In 2010, the line added fall foliage cruises from a new homeport in New York to Canada and New England. It also has sailings out of Southampton (which will cease in 2015), and MSC Divina started sailing full time out of Miami in 2013.