I’ve said, many times, that I would never be seen dead on a cruise. I associate cruising with hordes of badly-dressed people wearing socks and sandals, piling up their plates with food. Just the thought of that pool, stuffed with hundreds of people, makes me cringe.
My partner and I had a conversation about it a while ago. “Are we missing out on something?” we asked ourselves – and we thought we might be. More and more people “our age” are trying cruises, and they all seem to enjoy the experience… Were we weird for not being tempted? We decided to put the discussion to rest, to be revisited in 20 years or so.
Little did I know that, a couple of weeks later, the cruise company MSC would invite me on exactly such a trip. With that recent conversation in mind, I said thanks, but no thanks. Then they raised the game: “Suite, private yacht club, 24-hour butler service, private dining, Balinese massages, Turkish baths… and a pool for just a few people.” I figured I could survive two days of all that. So I called my husband.
I am not being snobbish – OK, I am – but there is a time and place for everything, and dinner is no place for shorts.
His answer: a point-blank “No”. Us? On a cruise? I read him the details of the invitation and reassured him: “It’s like a floating five-star hotel. We get to go to three quite cool places. And it’s just a weekend.” Several hours of persuasion ensued before he allowed himself to be convinced.
As the time neared, I found myself getting progressively more excited. The weather wasn’t fantastic in England in early July, so the prospect of shopping in Rome, dining in Genoa (and Portofino, one of my favourite places in the world) and downtime in Barcelona at the W Hotel’s beach club was even more appealing than usual.
We flew to Rome early on a Friday. First stop: the shoe shops. I had arranged a session with Anna Maria, one of Italy’s most renowned personal shoppers and stylists. We met at the Via Condotti (home to Bulgari, Tod’s, Gucci and Loro Piana, among others) and then headed to stores I was less familiar with. After all, I can buy those big names anywhere, and shopping abroad should be an adventure. We went to Giorgia R, which sells handbags for €8,000 and might be the most beautiful shop in Rome, and to the studio of Mario Gala, who makes incredible couture lace dresses starting at €4000. At the other end of the retail scale, there is Harrisons, where I bought four pairs of ballet pumps for €40 each. It wasn’t a glam shop at all, but I loved it.
At around 4pm we had to make our way to the cruise ship, which was docked at Civitavecchia, the “port” of Rome, some 80km away. To call the ship huge would be a huge understatement: I tried repeatedly to take a photo, but found it impossible to capture its full length and height.
We were met at the dock by our personal butlers, checked-in and boarded. All our luggage was sent to our cabins while we were taken to a small area called the Yacht Club. This detail makes a huge difference – it’s a special part of MSC Splendida, with separate facilities to those the rest of the ship’s 4,000 passengers enjoy. This area is reserved for the Club’s 71 suites and has its own lounge, bar, pool deck and spa. There’s one butler for every five deluxe suites, and all the staff get to know your name pretty quickly. In effect, the Club serves as a small boat inside a big ship – or, perhaps, a boutique hotel inside a big resort.
After we’d inspected our accommodation (modern, nice, but rather small – not absolutely tiny, but I was expecting more space) we went for drinks in the Top Sail pool bar. It’s a huge area with a bar, lounging chairs, a pool, two jacuzzis and a viewing deck, for exclusive use of the Yacht Club guests. It was super-spacious and crowd free.
All guests in this area of the ship have meals in the fine dining restaurant, which are included in the price of carriage, as are drinks. There is a supplement for some of my premium favourites, including Tanqueray Ten, but I was delighted to discover Prosecco on tap. I do like my bubbles, and over the last couple of years I’ve developed a special affection for this Italian sparkling wine; it’s so light and easy to drink.
So – did this trip change my mind about cruise ships? I accepted this invitation purely on the basis that we weren’t travelling within the main part of the boat. These cruise liners are seriously big, with over 3,000 passengers on board each. I liked the concept of the Yacht Club, which shrinks the passenger list down to 140 people. Yes, the rooms could have been a big bigger, but I didn’t really spend a lot of time in them. The service was perfect, and I loved having a butler although I was an easy passenger – I never leave for a trip without perfectly pre-shined shoes and all my dresses are low maintenance, but I can see the appeal of having your ironing done.
There was a lot to love about my cruise ship experience. I loved the pool deck; I loved the fact that there were more sun loungers than guests. I also loved the spa – it was one of my best facial and massage experiences ever. The treatment rooms are state of the art, with ocean views that would be impossible to replicate anywhere else. I loved the Yacht Club lounge – which was just like a hotel lounge – serving simple meals throughout the day, along with drinks. We also had access to the fine dining restaurant, and I cannot fault anything there.
What didn’t I like? First and foremost, I didn’t enjoy having to cross the whole ship in order to get to the restaurant. It’s less the distance and more the profound contrasts it highlighted of the cruising experience. There were thousands of people to contend with. All being super loud. Everywhere. Without full-length trousers after sunset. Or shirts. I am not being snobbish – OK, I am – but there is a time and place for everything, and dinner is no place for shorts. I’m not suggesting everyone should wear tuxedos and evening gowns (although I would loved to have had an evening like that), but trousers, long-sleeved shirts and proper shoes should be the minimum dress requirements for men. In the Yacht Club, jackets are required for gentlemen and I wore cocktail dresses every night. As I would do for any dinner.
Would I go on a cruise again? If I was a guest at the Yacht Club, then absolutely. For a long weekend, it’s perfect, particularly with a group of friends: I think of cruising, like skiing, as more of a group activity. And if I had to travel in the other part of the ship? Absolutely not. It’s not for me.