Journalist Sara Macefield shares with us her experience on-board MSC Virtuosa’s maiden voyage, embarking from Southampton, U.K, highlighting what life is like being back on the water!
As I drove into Southampton to board MSC Cruises’ newest ship, MSC Virtuosa, a million questions were running through my head.
How would it feel to step on to a cruise ship for the first time in 15 months? Would social distancing and mask-wearing crush the life out of the famously lively buzz?
After sailing along the South Coast on MSC’s new flagship, I’m relieved to report that it doesn’t. The absolute joy of being back at sea remains undimmed along with the fun feel of being on a cruise ship. But there was no ignoring the changes; the new world of cleanliness protocols, plus social distancing and mask-wearing which were key aspects of this sailing.
Yet once everyone grew accustomed to sitting only in designated seating and wearing masks around the ship, removing them only when drinking or dining (or on deck and in cabins), it soon became second-nature. But on arrival at check-in, my main question – and concern – was whether I would make it on to the ship in the first place.
MSC requires guests to take a lateral flow or PCR test within 72 hours of departure with official proof of a negative result. Having the NHS Covid app on my phone with my test result and details of my first vaccination (which they also asked to see) made this much easier.
Another demand is that guests have travel insurance with Covid-19 cover. Passengers caught short had to hastily arrange fresh cover on the spot, with some opting for MSC’s own Covid-19 insurance. After taking a lateral flow test, and waiting around 15 minutes for the all-clear, passengers are then invited to board.
MSC Virtuosa is the first large cruise ship to depart the UK since the pandemic and I was on its second sailing from Southampton on May 24 for a four-night voyage to Portland in Dorset.
In line with UK regulations, there were just 1,000 passengers on a ship that can accommodate more than 6,000 – though this is expected to rise to around 4,000 after UK restrictions are relaxed on June 21.
I’d feared that in such a giant floating resort, with 10 restaurants, more than 20 bars and lounges, an adrenaline-pumping waterpark and five swimming pools, the relatively few guests would drift like tumbleweed along the glamorous Galleria Virtuosa shopping street that cuts through the centre of the ship. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The public areas never felt empty or subdued. In fact, the ship was buzzing with excitement and the enthusiasm of guests and crew was contagious.
MSC Virtuosa is fabulously family-friendly with attractions for all ages.
The five pools, hot tubs and waterslides were operating as normal, along with virtual thrills in its indoor “amusement park” where I fired up racing cars in a Formula 1 simulator and battled zombies in a virtual reality shoot-out.
At the kid’s clubs, split into five age groups from babies to teens, the number of children has been reduced to allow for social distancing and operational hours are slightly shortened to allow for sanitising between sessions.
Baby Club now admits one child who must be accompanied by one parent, while the maximum limit for older age groups is 20 children.
The emphasis is on cleanliness and distancing with each child given their own toys, such as Lego or craft kits, and these are sanitised after use. There are separate entry and exit points to the kids club area to avoid crowding and on entry, children’s temperatures are taken and their shoes and hands sanitised. Staff wear facemasks or visors and children from six years old must also wear masks.
The new protocols have also introduced socially-distanced activities that have replaced anything involving direct contact. Football tournaments have given way to penalty shoot-outs in the Sportplex sports court and family discos have morphed into socially-distanced dancing.
But with drone-flying classes, ship treasure hunts and Nintendo challenges, the clubs have lost none of their spark.
La dolce vita
In the exclusive Yacht Club – with its upscale cabins and suites, private lounge, restaurant and deck area with pool – the only post-Covid changes are the reduced number of guests, down from 210 to 80, and temporary closure of three deck cabanas.
When it comes to pampering, MSC’s spas are among the best at sea and I’d been looking forward to treating myself to a massage, but wondered how such treatments would now work.
The same as before, it turns out. The only difference being that my masseuse wore a mask for my Balinese massage and I did too, but that didn’t detract from the experience.
The range of treatments in MSC Virtuosa’s Aurea Spa remains unchanged under the new regime, even facials. However, massage rooms are sanitised between appointments and the thermal suite is currently closed.
Scenic shores of Portland
The only stop was Portland where guests could only leave the ship on MSC excursions, escorted by a guide in their own “bubble” from which they cannot deviate.
There were three half-day options and I joined guests on the Weymouth and Portland tour. We had our temperatures checked on disembarking (and again upon re-embarking) and joined the coach for the short drive through Weymouth, stopping on the beachfront for 20 minutes.
We continued past Chesil Beach, which connects the Isle of Portland to the mainland, before stopping by the lighthouses on its rugged shores and at the 18th century Georgian Regency church St George’s where we walked through the graveyard.
It was interesting to explore, but I was paranoid about wandering too far from the group, knowing we were forbidden from entering shops and I found this one of the biggest restrictions. But I think MSC has come up with the best compromise in the circumstances. It’s for guests to decide whether it is worth it.
As for the cruise – that’s definitely worth it. A sparkling new ship full of pizzaz and glamour, with extravagant theatre shows, fabulous restaurants and top-notch service from the friendly crew – what’s not to love. It just shows what we’ve all been missing during the last 14 months.