MSC Divina brings its European flair to the Caribbean
MIAMI -- The MSC Divina is a brassy, voluptuous ship thousands of Swarovski crystals embedded in glass stairways, crystal chandeliers, an infinity pool, Italian-style fountains and sculptures, tiny jewel-like lights in the ceilings, lots of curves where other ships have straight lines even a sexy red suite designed by Sophia Loren, godmother of the MSC fleet.

Divina's heritage is mixed, but the effect is all Italian. And who doesn't love Italy?

MSC Cruises, which has been running seasonal Caribbean cruises out of South Florida for a decade, last month moved the MSC Divina to PortMiami, where it will do Caribbean cruises year-round. It's the first time MSC Cruises has stationed a ship permanently in North America.

Launched in Europe in spring 2012, the MSC Divina is 1,094 feet long with 139,400 gross tonnage and has 1,751 staterooms that hold 3,502 guests at double occupancy. It's very close in size to the Royal Princess, slightly larger than the Carnival Breeze.

The MSC Divina arrived in Miami Nov. 19 and is now sailing weeklong cruises from PortMiami. Its owners are hoping they found the right balance of Mediterranean ambiance and North American taste to distinguish the ship from its better-known and especially at this time of year, numerous competitors.

Strictly speaking, MSC Cruises and the MSC Divina are not Italian. Company founder Gianluigi Aponte is Italian, but the Mediterranean Shipping Co. is headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland. The MSC Divina was built in Saint-Nazaire, France.

But the company calls itself an Italian cruise line, and a cruise on the MSC Divina has an unmistakably Italian feel.

Some of the ship's features and services have been modified to appeal to American tastes, said Richard E. Sasso, president and CEO of MSC Cruises USA. "But we will never change the heritage, that slow Mediterranean way of living," he added.

In the 10 years that MSC Cruises has been sending ships to Miami for the Caribbean season, the line has had to compete with vessels bristling with new architectural features, especially recreational elements such as rock-climbing walls and surf pools, but also more restaurants. "Every year we were trying to catch up," Sasso said.

So when MSC decided the market was ripe to base a ship here year-round, it chose the MSC Divina, one of the newest vessels in its 12-ship fleet, because it has the "hardware" that American passengers have come to expect, he said lots of balcony staterooms, a big water slide, more alternative restaurants.

During that decade of part-time residency, MSC executives also noticed a few things that Americans don't like and toned down some of the ship's overtly European characteristics

Smoking is allowed in fewer places. More brands of beer and soda are available. Most announcements are made only in English rather than in Italian, French, German and Portuguese, too. American favorites were added to menus, and in some musical productions, songs familiar to the U.S. market were substituted for less well-known ones. A large movie screen was added on the pool deck.

"We need to make sure we communicate in an American way. ... You can never afford to have someone misinterpreted," Sasso said.

Katie Speer, a travel agent in the Tampa Bay area, said the ship's Italian character will appeal to "a client that has maybe traveled and knows that the world isn't Americanized everywhere, who wants something a little different, who is more worldly."

In putting together a 1,400-member crew, priority was given to staff who spoke English or had already worked in the North American market. Staff got intense training in American culture, said Ken Muskat, senior vice president of sales and marketing. For example, he said, Americans sunning themselves on the pool deck like to have drinks brought to them, while Europeans don't like the intrusion and are more likely to get a drink themselves. The wait staff was instructed to circulate among sunbathers and offer drinks.

How will the MSC Divina compete with the large Caribbean fleet and better-known brands? Price, Sasso said. "Because we are not known, our prices are also under what it's worth. ... When you're the new kid on the block, you keep the prices a little lower. It's a best-value proposition."

A check of prices at found seven-night cruises on MSC Divina in March in an inside cabin starting at $649 per person double occupancy, while balcony cabins start at $849 per person. By comparison, similar cruises from Miami or Fort Lauderdale in March on Carnival and Norwegian ships (except the new Norwegian Getaway) are cheaper, while cruises on Celebrity, Royal Caribbean, Holland America and Princess are more expensive.

On its first cruise out of Miami, the MSC Divina carried mostly travel writers and travel agents for a three-night introduction to the ship. A preview cruise may not be representative of the usual cruise experience, but here are some first impressions.

The MSC Divina has a classy ambience, especially if you start at the center, a piazza with a double Swarovski staircase, a golden glow, perhaps a piano player or a classical quartet, and several elegant lounges (my favorites: the Black & White Lounge and Caffe Italia).