MSC Seaside, “the ship that follows the sun”
by Anne-Marie Macloughlin
With a steady increase in holidaymakers opting to cruise the high seas (a projected 27.2 million in 2018 according to data generated by Cruise Line International Association, the cruise lines are paying attention. Launching evermore luxurious liners to satisfy even the most discerning of tastes, these behemoths of the sea provide multi-generational entertainment, luxury and a once-in-a-lifetime experience as they sail the four corners of the globe.
With my only experience of cruising the high seas limited to a brief jaunt out of New York Harbour one balmy November, the siren song of the Caribbean lured me to the MSC Seaside, the newest flagship in the Italian cruise fleet. A brand-new prototype, the Seaside features unique design that brings guests closer to the oceanic experience. Inspired by Miami beach condo design, the seaside boasts two glass-floored catwalks and a 40m high ‘Bridge of Sighs’ affording guests a stunning ocean view. Panoramic lifts and a waterfront boardwalk further dissolve the separation between guest and ocean. Developed by MSC to fit the needs of today’s cruise guest, this beautiful vessel is aptly-named as “the ship that follows the sun”. With an itinerary that included Sint Maarten, San Juan and Nassau, I was eager to put the name to the test.
Food and Drink
As one would expect, food and drink options are of considerable importance when catering to the global community. The discerning holidaymaker demands cachet in addition to convenience, the buffet experience on board as popular as ever but with more exclusive options on the table. The Seaside’s premium restaurants can compete with anything a major city can offer. The Butcher’s Cut caters to meat lovers as the name suggests but with seafood and vegetarian options available too. Attentive and knowledgeable staff will demystify the menu and offer the appropriate wine suggestions for your meal, almost psychic in anticipating one’s needs. For someone whose wine knowledge is embarrassingly sparse, I was grateful for the educational experience (and the delicious salmon).
The Ocean Cay is a seafood lovers nirvana, the appetizers we ordered staggeringly generous, the goat cheese tarte big enough to be mistaken for an entrée. Again, we were presented with a distinguished wine selection, our server happy to make suggestions for the overwhelmed. The ambience of the Cay is tasteful, low key and intimate, the nautical theme apparent but not stifling. It was strange to remember we were sailing, such was the effect after dark of a free-standing establishment. Definitely a high point.
Bars abound on the seaside, be it an al fresco cooler one desires while soaking up the rays or a seductive cocktail at sundown. The Atrium is a dazzling visual centrepiece spanning three decks that houses several bars and a variety of entertainment including piano bar, DJ and live dance performances from the versatile entertainment staff. As I experienced on every deck, the bar staff are very happy to recommend cocktails, beer or wine as per one’s personal taste. Not a fan of sweet beverages (the Bloody Caesar more my speed), the bar staff created a fiery Bloody Mary which more than made up for the lack of Clamato! For the connoisseur, premium liquor abounds, my Scotch-loving colleague happy with the selection.
The Seaside has it all; from Broadway-style theatrical magic to movie nights, bingo, dance lessons and themed events, the only “downside” is figuring out which option to choose. Daily schedules are delivered to the cabins to assist with such major decisions. Time constraints dictated some very cunning schedule surfing, the ever-helpful MSC staff available for tie-breakers. My companion and I opted to take in a show at the Metropolitan Theatre, a 900 plus house with state of the art lighting and sound. “Timeless” had been described as a Michael Jackson tribute; so far so good. What we did not expect was a 40 minute multi-genre experience with comedy, steampunk, contortionists, musical theatre, aerial acts and yes, a tribute to The King of Pop in the shape of a supernaturally authentic dancer leading us through some of MJ’s best loved hits.
For a more immersive entertainment experience, the nightly themed parties hosted by the Seaside’s animation team are excellent ice breakers. From the decadence of a Great Gatsby themed soiree to the Pirate Party on our final evening (my personal favourite) it makes sense to check in advance for costume inspo. The entertainers are energetic, engaging and talented. Amateurs need not fear the dance floor; the staff are well-trained in communicating simple yet impressive moves to the non-professionals among us. Take note: a visit to your local dollar store for cheap and cheerful costume accents prior to sailing is recommended. Al fresco fitness classes are also hosted by the entertainers and a wonderful way to burn off some of those calories and soak up the vitamin D. For more family-oriented endeavours the Doremi club provides peace of mind for parents looking to keep their little ones amused.
Ports – Sint Maarten, San Juan, Nassau
The Dutch/French island of Sint Maarten/Saint Martin was our first stop. The beaches are clean and pebble-free with the option to rent a sun lounger or umbrella for when things heat up. Strolling the boardwalk is the perfect way to get one’s bearings and find a spot for lunch or a cooling cocktail. We stopped at The Lazy Lizard for some delightful blackened chicken and Cajun fries where we were welcomed like family, the open front allowing us to enjoy the charming view as we dined. Local vendors stroll the beach selling their wares including colourful sarongs and jewellery. For those in need of some pampering, al fresco massage and hair braiding is on offer from the friendly islanders. When you remember this tiny island was battered during Hurricane Irma in 2017 it’s hard to fathom when all seems so idyllic; a testament to the tenacity of the islanders and those who came to their aid.
Approximately 200 land miles from Sint Maarten lies sunny Puerto Rico (literally, “Rich Port”), a major stop for cruise ships. It’s US status was apparent within minutes of disembarking; CVS and Walgreen pharmacies jostle for space in the busy port. Vendors line the waterfront, wares including ball caps and T’s for that last-minute gift. It should be noted that the shore excursions from the Seaside are sold out fast so make your selections early in order to make the best of your time ashore. Local tour guides are many but all timings and destinations are approximate; be prepared for a long wait while they fill as many seats as possible! History buffs will enjoy a visit to the San Juan National Historic Site featuring the imposing Castillo san Felipe del Morro, a 16th Century Spanish citadel with some interesting photo opps; the day we went a 3-foot long iguana was clinging to the side of the wall! The summers are typically hot and humid, on this May day the heat was such that a shady lunch break was in order (and a cold beer). La Cueva del Mar boasted the freshest fish in town. Thanks to my travel companion who has a nose for such things, we enjoyed the best fish tacos in recent memory topped with tangy coleslaw.
Our final port of call was sunny Nassau, a Bahamian paradise and former pirate stronghold. At one point the scoundrels outnumbered the locals, amongst them the infamous Blackbeard. Luckily, Nassau shows little evidence of its scandalous past but for the curious one may visit the site of Blackbeard’s former residence. There are many tours one may partake in but for those crunched for time, a water taxi ride with an entertaining local guide is a must. For a mere $4 each way we escaped the busy cruise terminal and caught some rays at Cabbage beach, a stone’s throw from the manufactured grandeur of the Atlantis resort where one may rent a sun lounger and umbrella to escape the searing UV rays. If it’s shopping you’re after, non-guests of the resort are permitted entry to the complex where tourist trappings lie cheek by jowl with designer watches and apparel. Taxis are in abundance so we reluctantly left the beach and went souvenir shopping before returning to the Seaside. As with a lot of resorts the ubiquitous made in China tat is overflowing but there are some good local craft stores where we found inexpensive shell jewellery and mini bottles of local hot sauce.
As we finally set sail for Miami and home, the vacation was not quite over yet. The wonderful crew of the Seaside hosted a Pirate Party to send us on our way, the entertainers in authentic costume as they led the guests into some rousing dance numbers. With the lingering Bahamian vibe of piratical times past still firmly in our minds, where better to connect with one’s inner Blackbeard than on the high seas?
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