MSC Armonia emerged from dry dock in November after an extensive refurb, including lengthening. Kate Sutton joined its inaugural sailing from Genoa to the Canary Islands

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MSC refurbished Armonia

Slicing a cruise ship in half, separating it and inserting a whole new mid section is a vast task, and that’s exactly what MSC Cruises did with MSC Armonia, in just three months.

MSC’s €200 million Renaissance Programme is an ambitious two-year operation to take four of its ships back to the Fincantieri shipyard in Palermo, Sicily, for the lengthening process. The ship is cut just in front of the funnel (slightly behind the mid-way point) and then separated so the new pre-built section of ship can be inserted. The hull is then resealed. It’s an enormous feat of engineering which has enabled MSC to not only modernise the much-loved Armonia, but also to add more balcony staterooms (94 in total) which of course, is great for cruise passengers. MSC Sinfonia, MSC Opera and MSC Lirica are all also getting the Renaissance upgrade this year.

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MSC Armonia’s sun deck

I boarded the newly lengthened and refurbished MSC Armonia in Genoa for the inaugural sailing to the Canary Islands, and the first thing I spotted in my balcony stateroom, one of the new additions, was an extra bed attached to the wall for children – great for families. The pale wood added to the feeling of spaciousness and the bed was extremely large and comfortable.

After the obligatory call to the muster station for the life jacket drill, it was time for dinner and there are now several options on board. I chose to dine in the more formal Italian La Pergola restaurant, where the Californian Spring Rolls (with the hottest wasabi sauce I’ve ever tasted) and amazing Limoncello Cake with redcurrants were absolutely delicious. All washed down with a few glasses of house Prosecco.

Among the new onboard features and improvements are the kids’ clubs. Had my 10-year-old son been with me, no doubt he would have headed off to the Junior Club (for seven to 12 year olds) for the rest of the evening and played on one of the many Xbox One consoles, but it’s interesting to note that each club (and there are five, varying from ages 0-17), has dedicated staff who make sure that game time is shared equally and activities are varied. However, being child-free on this occasion, I took full advantage of being able to relax in the Red Bar, listening to a crooner who sounded like an Italian Chris Rea, while working my way through the cocktail menu.

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Enjoy ‘any time’ dining on MSC Armonia

The colour palette throughout the ship is a mixture of deep reds, corals, blues and greens, with luxury marble and gold touches in the bar and lounge areas. During the lengthening process and refit, the Atrium has remained light and airy, with a stunning waterfall feature on the back wall opposite the reception area, but new carpets have been laid, furniture reupholstered and ceilings painted, and the general ambience throughout the ship is one of calm. Cool, marbled walls, coupled with plush carpets, convey a sense that you are on board a really opulent ship and in fact, it is hard to even see where the new section starts and the old section ends – the merging appears seamless.

Later that night, we sailed onwards to Marseille. Unusually, the only indication we had that we were moving at all was when I returned to my stateroom to take in the sights on my balcony, only to find Genoa had disappeared. A friend and I decided to make our own way to Marseille the next morning, instead of joining the organised excursion, and there were plenty of taxis waiting for us when we disembarked. We spent four hours wandering around the town, before giving in to the temptation of freshly baked churros at the local market.

We were back on board the ship in time for Gala night, and after some spectacular fireworks we went to the ship’s theatre for the show Cleopatra (I’m not sure that contortionists and a man balancing another man on his head were in fashion in ancient times, but we thoroughly enjoyed the show). Surprisingly, the theatre is still the same size post-lengthening, and a show reservation system has been employed in high season to accommodate everyone. We had another late night and even though I could have taken advantage of having breakfast delivered to my room the next day (at no extra charge on the Aurea package), I thought it best to get some fresh air. The following morning was a sea day as we were by now making our way to Cartegena, Spain, and this gave me the perfect opportunity to check out the spa.

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The refurbished balcony staterooms feature extra beds for children

The Aurea Spa is dedicated to treatments from Bali. I had high expectations. After all, MSC had recently won the coveted Best for Wellbeing Award at the Cruise International Awards 2014. And I wasn’t disappointed. I think I saw angels at one point during my Balinese massage when my masseur hit a particularly tough shoulder knot. There is also a well-equipped gym on board which I (thankfully) didn’t have time to try out. It seems such an enormous undertaking, to lengthen and refurbish a ship, and it’s astonishing to think this took such a short time to complete. The fact that a new 24-metre section integrates so easily with the remainder of the ship illustrates just what a magnificent achievement this truly is.

My overall impression is that MSC Cruises thinks of itself as a family, dedicated to making all its passengers feel as welcome and comfortable as possible. From partnerships with Chicco and LEGO and the introduction of ‘any time’ dining, to providing an outdoor football pitch for tournaments and a Spray Park for younger guests, they seem to have thought of everything.

GETTING THERE
A seven-night Canary Island cruise on 14 March 2015 starts from £549pp, departing from Las Palmas, Gran Canaria, calling at Puerto del Rosario (Fuerteventura), Spain, Funchal, Portugal (overnight in port), La Palma, Spain, Tenerife, Spain and returning back to Las Palmas, based on two adults sharing (children cruise free with MSC Cruises all year round, only paying port taxes and flights). Includes meals, accommodation, theatre shows, use of gym/sports deck, kids’ clubs and return British Airways flights from Heathrow to Las Palmas (msccruises.co.uk/0203 426 3010).

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