The day is finally here. The engines kick-start with a mighty roar, the deck sways gently and the air grows thick with the clinking of champagne glasses. It’s sunset on May 20, 2021, and as I watch the port of Southampton fade into the horizon, the gravity of the situation finally hits me – cruise ships are back.
Today, I am lucky enough to be on board not only the maiden voyage of the brand new €1 billion MSC Virtuosa, but also the first cruise to embark from the UK since the coronavirus pandemic brought this much-loved industry to a standstill.
I’m excited for this four-day jaunt around the English Channel with a quick stop in Portland, but nowhere near as excited as cruise director Gene Young. “This is a historic moment,” he tells me, emphatically. “We have been through 14 months of hell but now… We. Are. Back!”
Gene is a charming and charismatic man, but I detect a hint of nervousness in his voice. As we all know, the entire cruise industry – in fact, the entire tourism sector – is watching this voyage with bated breath. Everything must go perfectly. One slip-up could send us right back to square one.
No wonder, then, that the embarkation process has been so strict. Two days ago, I took a PCR test in order to show my negative certificate at check-in this morning. I had to fill in a health questionnaire, then bought special Covid-19 cruise insurance. I had my temperature taken as I made my way through the port, then a nasal swab test. Once that came back negative, I was finally allowed to embark.
Not a single passenger, I discover, tested positive at the port – but that doesn’t mean we can rest on our laurels. Even now, while on board, I am asked to wear a mask and observe social distancing in all public spaces. I have my temperature taken daily and the entire fourth deck is off-limits, acting as an isolation deck in case of an outbreak.
The restrictions may be strict, but the end result is that I feel totally safe and able to enjoy the impeccable hospitality onboard the MSC Virtuosa.
That experience begins in the Virtuosa’s gorgeous Italianate promenade. This boulevard is home to one of the world’s largest floating retail spaces, selling over 240 brands. One of the most prominent is Swarovski, who have also shelled out the materials for the Virtuosa’s “million-euro staircase” – very glitzy.
The promenade is also home to four speciality restaurants, several bars, a theatre and a Balinese spa . Four days is seldom enough to sample everything, but even so, I try my best to take advantage of my “Finest Four” dining package.
While all guests are entitled to eat at any of the standard restaurants, upgrading to either the Duo, Trilogy or Finest Four dining packages is recommended. These allow guests to indulge in two, three or four restaurant experiences respectively. The standard of the food in these four venues is certainly a cut above.
By far my favourite of the Finest Four is Hola Tacos. Here, I get to dine with Jacques, the mastermind behind this novel concept of Mexican street food served on the high seas.
“In Hola Tacos, we have tried to create a unique concept,” he explains, “A fast, casual, affordable experience, with food to go.”
The menu features everything from soft-shell tacos to nacho platters and burritos, all made with authentic ingredients (there’s nothing ‘TexMex’ going on here). The highlight is Jacques’ curated range of mezcals, a high-calibre agave alcohol which, despite being of the same family as tequila, tastes more like Scotch whisky. Jacques takes me through a prototype mezcal tasting, an experience he will soon start to offer.
Maybe it’s the mezcal in my system or maybe it’s the gentle rocking of the ship, but I sleep like a baby on my first night. Maybe, then again, it’s because of my cabin. While nothing fancy, the balcony cabins offer everything a couple or solo traveller needs, most of all an incredibly comfortable double bed. Those wanting something a little more special can upgrade to one of the Royal Suites in the MSC Yacht Club, and family cabins are also available for up to ten people.
Speaking of families, I am especially struck by the great range of activities for kids. The Virtuosa’s top deck houses an adventure water park, featuring giant flume slides and high rope adventure trails. Below deck, there are a number of play areas for kids aged one to 17, the most eye-catching of which is the new Teens Lab, an AV club where young people can create a video memento of their time on the high seas. An arcade with bowling alley and an exciting Formula One simulator also feature.
Shore excursions are back on the agenda too, and my Covid-safe bubble gets to experience a leisurely trip around the Dorset countryside. We travel by coach from our dock in Portland, past the Cerne Abbas Giant hill figure on our way to the village of Minterne Magna. Here we enjoy afternoon tea and a (rather rainy) walk around the Himalayan Gardens of Minterne House.
As one might expect, the experience is somewhat pared back by various restrictions – masks and social distancing notwithstanding, we are shepherded very strictly to make sure we don’t interact with anyone outside our bubble, and must of course take a temperature check on either side of our trip. But as far as experiences go at a time like this, this MSC shore excursion delivers to the best of its ability.
All in all, it’s safe to conclude the MSC Virtuosa has proven, definitively, that cruising is not only a safe and viable form of vacationing, but can still go above and beyond expectations. Yes, there are numerous restrictions and inconveniences, but these hardly spoil an otherwise luxurious, decadent, relaxing and altogether exciting experience.