As a travel-loving family, we’ve ticked off countries and continents and enjoyed stays everywhere from campsites to five-star hotels.
But this year, we got the chance to try a totally new holiday experience with a cruise around the UK.
The trip was one of many organised by cruise companies who had to rethink their regular routes due to the Covid pandemic.
This meant that there were dozens of so-called ‘seacation’ cruises to choose from, departing from and visiting various ports around the country.
And since we had yet to find our sea legs, we enlisted the help of the experts at cruise.co.uk to guide us through the options.
On the basis of their friendly advice, we decided on a trip with Italian cruise company, MSC, on their brand new boat the Virtuosa and took the train down to Southampton via London to board.
Top tip: Book via thetrainline.com app and you could save £££s using their auto ticket splitting service, SplitSave. We paid around £200 return for the three of us just a couple of weeks before departure and could have saved more if we’d booked earlier.
There were extra checks to go through at the terminal to protect passengers, including a Covid test and checking of requirements such as vaccination records. This was straight forward, well organised and took about an hour to negotiate.
Having dropped our bags at the terminal, we were ready to explore our new home for the next week and spent the time getting to know our way around and enjoying the welcome lunch.
Set to sail
By early afternoon, our cabin was ready and we were able to freshen up ready for ‘sail away’. This is when the ship departs and we decided to head to the top of the ship, grab a cocktail and take in the views as we left Southampton.
As with most cruises, our meals in our allocated main dining room were included, alongside more casual dining options at a large buffet and round the main pool which we could visit at any time.
There were always plenty of options in the main dining room, which had a changing three-course menu to choose from each evening.
Top tip: Use the MSC for Me app to see the week’s breakfast, lunch and dinner menus to help plan your week. We booked a couple of meals at one of the dining venues where you have to pay extra to eat on nights when the main dining room menus were not quite as tempting as others. This also meant we didn’t miss the amazing surf and turf dish with lobster on offer one night!
We opted to pay extra to dine at the Japanese Kaito Teppanyaki and American Butcher’s Cut steakhouse which helped break up the week. Although we were perfectly happy with the included main dining, even the most delicious three-course meals can get a little repetitive so it was nice to try different things.
The Teppanyaki restaurant was a particular hit, offering fun food and entertainment in one with a small number of guests seated in front of two chefs with incredible skill and great rapport while the steakhouse was more refined, placing an emphasis on flavours to savour.
Eating out was always a pleasure and compared to other holidays, completely stress-free. There was no cooking or washing-up to be done as in a villa and no traipsing around peering in the windows of restaurants checking the menus and prices in windows or looking at endless reviews online before making a decision then trying to book when tables are already full.
But it wasn’t all eating(!). We managed to avoid putting on too many cruise pounds by making the most of facilities like the gorgeous outdoor pools, water park, rope climb, table football and jogging track on deck.
The weather was extremely kind and we were able to lay or sit in the sun most days which was a huge bonus as, due to Covid restrictions, opportunities to leave the ship were limited. Only guests who had booked MSC excursions were able to leave but we were aware of this and arranged to go on two before embarking and booking a third once onboard after being impressed by the quality of these escorted tours.
This meant we took in the beautiful Loch Lomand in Scotland, learnt about the history of Belfast and saw the sights around the Isle of Portland in Dorset. We enjoyed them all though they were on the expensive side, especially for a family of three.
A behind-the-scenes look around the ship that was also on offer really appealed to us, especially on a cloudy day, but was priced at around £75 which seemed very pricey for what amounted to a walk around a vessel we had already paid to be on. Hopefully MSC might rethink the cost of this one for future cruises.
Another area of improvement would be the service in the adults only bar. We got into a routine of popping here for a pre-dinner drink while Kasper went to meet his new cruise mates in the kids club nearby for an hour. The views from here were amazing but it often took a long time to get served and the lovely looking complimentary appetisers were not forthcoming which was a shame.
Top tip: Unless you have very young children, we would recommend booking a later rather than early dining slot. Our table in the main dining room was available at 8.30pm every night which gave us just the right amount of time to get ready for the evening, catch a show, browse the shops, or do the kids club/adults bar combo mentioned above!
The Virtuosa is a very glamorous ship with Swarovski crystal filled stairs forming a stunning centrepiece in the main atrium, matched in wow factor by the stylish Galleria Virtuosa promenade with LED Dome was a great place to go for a stroll in the evening.
Away from the public areas, our cabin was modern and comfortable and we benefitted from a balcony which was a real highlight, offering the chance to pull back the curtains each morning and check out our new destination. Our arrival in Scotland was particularly beautiful and we even saw dolphins swimming by one afternoon and spotted a shark and a jellyfish.
We’ve already booked our next cruise and have opted for a balcony once again although a cabin with a window would also be a good choice.
Top tip: There is an incredible amount of information out there about cruising, mainly supplied by the many friendly and passionate fans of cruising. We even managed to find a picture of the view from the balcony on our next cruise, which is slightly obstructed by a lifeboat. So, it’s worth spending some time checking out these sites to get the best trip for you.
Dress to impress
We’re also planning on taking a couple of fancier outfits for the ‘elegant’ nights on our next cruise when people are encouraged to dress-up. This was completely optional on MSC Virtuosa but many cruisers wore their most fabulous outfits and it was definitely something we’d like to do next time.
Our next cruise is with Princess Cruises but we’d certainly love to sail with MSC again, especially on their new ships like the Virtuosa which really are gorgeous. If you have a cruise booked on the Virtuosa you may have read some less than positive reviews as we did before boarding.
As first time cruises, this made us nervous and we even looked at paying more to move to the quieter and more exclusive ‘MSC Yacht Club’ after reading about busy public areas and long queues. However, our experience was nothing like those described by some.
Even some photographs shared on various sites are misleading. For example, one shows a long line of people but this looks like diners simply waiting for their main dining room restaurant to open at their set dining time. Such ‘queues’ could be avoided by not gathering too early before the restaurant opened or arriving a few minutes after which we did and walked straight in after having our temperatures checked.
Many complaints also appear to be from people who enjoyed a trip on MSC Virtuosa when it sailed earlier in the season with an extremely low number of guests and then returned later in the season when the ship was full and seemed disappointed that they no longer had the ship almost to themselves.
Yes, there were a few minor quibbles such as a general busyness of the buffet area at peak times that could have been better managed and people leaving towels on sunbeds and not using them for hours or even all day in some cases but we always found a nice spot and since one of us was usually swimming or doing something, shared two between the three of us.
But for us, MSC Virtuosa was a brilliant introduction to cruising and a new style of holiday which we feel suits our family perfectly at this time. Kasper has now started secondary school and the kids club and safe environment that a ship offers older children gave him the opportunity to enjoy some freedom and responsibility and share his holiday with other kids as well as spend time with Mum and Dad.
Our advice would be to take the negative reviews with a pinch of (sea)salt, do your own research, book with a trusted specialist and get out on the waves to see if cruising could be for you.