The ship visit that changed my mind about cruising

Despite the fact that I’ve been writing marketing texts on cruise ships for the past eight months, I’d never actually been on a cruise ship. So when the opportunity arose to tour the MSC Magnifica while she was anchored in Hamburg, I took it.

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Preconceived notions about cruising

Having done so much research on cruises, cruise lines, and cruise ships through my work, I went into the tour with certain expectations. I knew the ship would have a pool, a spa, multiple restaurants, a buffet, and several bars and lounges. I expected it to be colorful, crowded, and loud. I’ve also got preconceived notions about cruise ship travel – as someone who’s a big fan of backpacking, traveling on a budget, and experiencing authentic culture, the idea of being trapped on a boat with thousands of other tourists, spending just a couple of hours in each port on carefully-planned excursions doesn’t exactly appeal to be. But on this visit, I learned something.

2018-06-12 11.24.48Part of the main dining room on the MSC Magnifica

Going on a cruise – at least an ocean cruise with a big, mass-market cruise line such as MSC – isn’t about the destination. It’s about the journey.

2018-06-12 14.27.51The casino on the MSC Magnifica

Most people don’t go on cruises because they want to travel – because they want to be challenged, to step outside their comfort zone, to experience new foods and new languages and new ways of living. No, they go on a cruise because they want to experience the ship: a big, floating theme park for adults, with great food, lots of entertainment, all in a setting of bright colors and sunny weather. It’s a relaxing vacation, not a cultural experience. And that’s exactly what big cruise ships deliver.

2018-06-12 14.39.55The cigar lounge of the MSC Magnifica

MSC Magnifica: an overview

The MSC Magnifica is, by modern standards, a middle-aged and mid-sized cruise ship. Launched in 2010, she’s far from the oldest cruise ship at sea, but she lacks many of the amenities of newer ships: a higher percentage of balcony cabins, a wider range of dining options, water slides and kids’ activities. At 964 feet, she’s nearly the length of three football fields and more than 100 feet longer than the Titanic – yet the current largest cruise ship in the world, Symphony of the Seas, is 1,188 feet long and holds nearly twice as many passengers (5,518 versus 3,223 ). Knowing this, I was pleasantly surprised and impressed at the size and the beauty of the MSC Magnifica.

As I descended the hill down to the cruise port in Hamburg-Altona, I could see the top of an MSC ship visible from the top of the hill. With a start, I realized that was the ship I’d be visiting.

2018-06-12 09.57.45The MSC Magnifica, just visible behind the Hamburg-Altona cruise terminal

The Port of Hamburg is an official port of entry into the EU, but as a ship port, it’s much more relaxed and sees far less passenger traffic than an airport. We had to show our passports and walk through a metal detector to get on the ship. As Hamburg has three different cruise ports – Hafencity, Altona, and Steinwerder – there’s never too much traffic at a single port at once. Although the lines can be long and the crowds can be noisy when a ship is embarking and disembarking, in between the port is quite calm, and we boarded the ship with little hassle.

2018-06-12 10.33.56The cruise terminal at Hamburg-Altona on a less-busy day

Stepping onto the MSC Magnifica was like stepping into a high-end hotel. A thick, heavily-patterned carpet muted the human noise, and smiling crew members checked our badges and ushered us into the hallway. Shiny brass railings on the elegant staircases drew my eye, and a faint smell of bleach was in the air – undoubtedly a result of the thorough scrubbing the ship receives on “turnaround” days, when one group of passengers gets off and another gets on, to prevent the spread of disease in such tight quarters. A patient-looking bartender stood behind the glittering counter of a lounge bar, an assortment of liquors visible on the shelves behind him. We crammed into a marble elevator with mirrored ceilings to have a look at the show cabins.

2018-06-12 11.10.13Shiny brass staircases, sparkling floors, and lots of reflective surfaces characterized this Italian-designed ship

Visiting the staterooms: a balcony cabin on the MSC Magnifica

We toured an Interior, an Ocean View, and a Balcony stateroom. The only difference between the Interior and the Ocean View stateroom was a large picture window on the Ocean View room, which took up nearly the entire wall. Adequate as a place to sleep, the only cabin I could imagine spending any amount of time in was the Balcony cabin. Though its two narrow beds and compact loveseat were far from spacious, it still had significantly more breathing room than the other two cabin categories, and the private balcony made a big difference in terms of how large the room felt.

MSC Magnifica Main Dining Room

Our next stop was the main dining room, which featured white tablecloths with nametags, plum-colored furniture, and gold and teal accents on the walls. Each table was topped by a fake orchid in a pot. I assume it would be too difficult to keep real orchids alive in such dark conditions. Although the walls were lined with fish-eye portholes, there was relatively little natural light – at least not on this dreary spring day in northern Europe.

Entertainment on the MSC Magnifica

We were treated to some light chamber music in one of the lounges.

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The Tiger Bar

IMG-20180612-WA0001.jpgEvery room throughout the ship featured a bold design. Sometimes elegant, sometimes kitschy, sometimes downright garish, the one thing it never was was boring. While I found much of the design appealing, if a little over-the-top, the one space I found that had really ventured into tastelessness was the tiger bar.

2018-06-12 13.40.14Tiger-striped furniture on a tiger-striped carpet with stylized illustrations of tigers on the wall. Not one of the best design choices, in my opinion, but certainly memorable.

Ship’s Theater

We visited the ship’s theater, a turquoise auditorium with a balcony and hundreds of tiny star-like lights in the ceilings and the walls.

Lunch aboard the MSC Magnifica

Next we were treated to a delicious three-course lunch in the main dining room.

(Click on the photos to enlarge them, and to read the captions)

Knowing that mass-market cruise lines had a rather poor reputation for food, I was surprised to see gourmet-sounding dishes on the menu – only to find out my expectations had been accurate, and the dishes ranged from acceptable and good to disappointing and bland. The desserts, however, were excellent.

Pool Area

I’d been looking forward to seeing the pool area from the moment we’d stepped on the ship, as swimming pools are known to be one of the most popular areas of the ships. On this overcast day in Hamburg, as the ship was between rounds of passengers, we unsurprisingly didn’t see anyone swimming or lounging outdoors. The pool was smaller than I expected, but I believe the wide open spaces around it were designed to maximize space for sunbathing.

The pool area had a small stage, unused during our visit, where performances would sometimes take place.


The Top Deck

As we ascended to the top of the ship, we got a beautiful view of the city of Hamburg, the Elbe river, and the Port of Hamburg.

Reflections on my first ship visit and how it changed my view of cruising

All in all, the MSC Magnifica exceeded my expectations and made me realize the true appeal of cruising. More so than visiting tropical islands and industrial ports around the world, the ship itself is a playground, and people cruise in order to play. The ship’s design reminded me of Disneyland, with everything revolving around bold colors and sleek lines and interesting, themed areas. But rather than roller coasters and water slides and character encounters, this ship has a more adult appeal (though you can find those things on other cruise lines, such as Disney Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean). Adults can spend the day soaking in a hot tub, getting massages and beauty treatments at the spa, or lounging by the pool, and an attentive service staff are there to make sure you’re never hungry and your glass is always full. The number of people drinking champagne before noon surprised me at first, but then I thought, why not, they’re on vacation! And it actually made me really happy.

2018-06-12 11.47.12Passengers studying the drink menus at the Tiger Bar on the MSC Magnifica

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I found a pole dancer at the casino!

People go on cruises to have a good time. The destinations and shore excursions are just an added perk – basically, the ship is a floating hotel, bar, nightclub, theater, and swimming pool, all wrapped up in one. For people looking for that kind of vacation experience, it’s often more cost-effective to book a single cruise than to buy all of those experiences on land – though of course, for those looking for the backpacker’s experience, cruising is not the way to go.

Would I go on a cruise now? Maybe. I still have concerns about the environmental cost and labor exploitation in the industry. But now that I’ve had a taste of that laid-back vacationing and pampering, it’s pretty darn tempting.


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