Sarah Maguire sets sail around the Mediterranean on a ship for cruisers who like a bit of sparkle in their lives - be it sunshine or crystal.
It's dinnertime on the MSC Divina, one of the world's newest superliners, and, after a day spent wandering around Rome, we've decided to try one of its specialty restaurants. On the approach to Sacramento Tex Mex are displays of artfully lit cactus and tree branches; cabinets inside feature guns and arrows, cowboy hats, horseshoes and pictures of Chuck Norris.
MSC Cruises, the world's fourth-largest cruise company and the largest owned by a family, calls the Mediterranean home, and we are cruising on it now, somewhere between the Italian port city of Civitavecchia and Messina in Sicily.
But this feels a long way from where we are. It's more, well, Baja California. And two members of our party have abandoned their burritos for an impromptu line dance, to Billy Ray Cyrus's Achy Breaky Heart, with a passing crew member dressed as a naval officer of yore (although I can't be sure - did they wear shiny black-and-white-striped pantaloons?).
MSC Divina, all 139,400 tonnes and 18 decks of her, is deliciously over the top and, one might say, all over the place. There is particular puzzlement at the portraits of native Americans in elaborate feather headdresses featured throughout the main buffet cafeterias of Calumet and Manitou. Elsewhere, a giant lipstick sculpture forewarns of an entire wall plastered in giant lipsticks and big red smooch marks.
"There is nowhere for your eye to rest," comments a fellow cruiser. From the grand Swarovski crystal staircase that sparkles madly underfoot to the Piazza del Doge, a reproduction of a typical Venetian piazzetta, this is a shining bauble of proudly Italian design, a signature of MSC Cruises, which has 12 ships plying mostly northern waters.
The Divina was inspired by the godmother of the fleet, Sophia Loren, who, when she christened Divina last May, sent a bottle of champagne to smash across the bow of an MSC ship for the 11th time. She has an eponymous royal suite on board in which she had a hand in the design: the dressing table, for example, is a replica of her own, and photographs of Loren in her most famous film roles feature on the walls.
The whole glittering shebang, says CEO Pierfrancesco Vago, is for the discerning cruiser, and it comes with a Mediterranean stamp wherever Divina might be cruising.
"We carry the values of Mediterranean hospitality and authenticity all over the world," Vago says. "We love travellers; we want to be a brand for travellers. We don't push people; we want to give maximum time to our holidaymakers to savour the journey."
This six-night itinerary, the inaugural one for Divina, is taking us from Marseille to Venice via Rome, Sicily, Malta and Dubrovnik.
In Sicily, we take a bus to the labyrinthine hilltop village of Taormina to see Greco-Roman ruins and browse its boutique shops, stopping for coffee and cake to take in the town's beautiful views over the Ionian Sea.
Our morning arrival at Valletta in Malta is heralded by the firing of cannons along the ancient city walls. A shore excursion on that tiny, densely populated island is a history lesson in knights, religion and stolen Caravaggio paintings.
The mass nature of cruising can't be avoided when, in a place like Dubrovnik's old town, businesses bear signs stating they are recommended by the various lines that disgorge thousands of passengers during cruising season into ancient places of breathtaking scale and beauty.
Still, it is difficult to think of a more romantic way to arrive in a place than on a cruise ship, particularly when you have your own balcony from which to see your next legendary landfall emerge silently from a morning mist or, in the case of Malta, with a bang.
Of Divina's 1751 cabins, 1222 have balconies. My balcony cabin on deck 12, Aurora (each of the decks is named after a Greek god - Afrodite, Cupido, Apollo et al), is in Tuscan shades of orange and brown. It is roomy, with a sitting area and 32 TV channels to peruse across six European languages (including four in English), evidence of the multinational nature of cruising the Med on an MSC ship.
When not on shore, and with the sun shining in famously Mediterranean fashion virtually the entire cruise, passengers converge poolside, smothering Divina's three pool decks with the bright-orange regulation beach towels on which the ship keeps close tabs, requiring passengers to sign them in and out.
The Aqua Park is the epicentre of the ship's daytime activities. There's not much that doesn't happen here: dance lessons, aerobics, stretching, darts, bingo, arts and craft, ping pong, basketball, quizzes. Nothing is in private - every awkward cha-cha step, every mistimed aerobics move is, in unabashed European fashion, for the general amusement of fellow passengers in poolside repose.
When the sun goes down, the clothes go back on and the bars, restaurants and 1600-seat theatre come into their own. There is also a casino. Shops selling duty-free designer watches, sunglasses, handbags and perfumes stay open until midnight - ideal for a spot of accessorising on a ship you could never hope to out-bling.
The writer was a guest of MSC Cruises and Emirates Airline.
Getting there Emirates flies from Sydney and Melbourne via Dubai to multiple European cruising ports, including Venice, Barcelona and Istanbul, all embarkation points for MSC Divina cruises. emirates.com.
Get on board A seven-night Mediterranean cruise aboard MSC Divina — a round-trip from Venice and visiting Bari in Italy, Katakolon in Greece, Izmir and Istanbul in Turkey, and Dubrovnik in Croatia — starts from $1204 a person twin-share in a balcony cabin. Other itineraries include Spain, Morocco, Portugal, Greece and Montenegro. 1300 028 502, msccruises.com.au.
Behind the scenes
With 3502 guests and 1370 crew to feed, water and keep healthy, and 1751 cabins to maintain, taking to sea on the MSC Divina, as with any superliner, requires an astounding feat of logistics.
On a tour with MSC's corporate hotel manager, Australian Tim Skinner, we see the shining expanses of scrubbed galleys in which food is prepared and cooked. Pictures of the numerous dishes being served that day show staff precisely how to plate up, be it mixed-vegetable tempura, truffle-scented pumpkin risotto or a shellfish bisque with brandy.
We look into one of the 14 dry store rooms and check out the united nations of fresh food in one of the cold stores: grapes from Chile, kiwi fruit from Italy, melons from Costa Rica.
All this food is handled by arguably the cleanest hands in the world. Gastro outbreaks are poison for cruising's reputation, and MSC Cruises is obsessive about avoiding one: there is a hand-washing station every 11 metres and no one, Skinner explains, should ever need to walk through a door to reach one. Even a chip in each of the crew's name tags to record how often they wash their hands has been considered, which strikes as a little Rain Man meets Big Brother.
In the meantime, any of the 12,000 bread rolls baked daily that don't get eaten are thrown away because people might have breathed on them. Food goes nowhere on the ship without being fully covered.
And in the garbage room, which stores the detritus that comes from feeding 5000 people, there is no smell: food scraps go straight into an incinerator, except for bones, which are crushed and discharged.
In the laundry room, we see the result of a sheet going through an automated folding machine. Yes, it is folded perfectly. Towels are still done by hand. Skinner says that on a turnaround day, when the ship is taking on new passengers, 88,000 items will be washed, dried, ironed and folded in 24 hours.
You name it, she's got it
For spa lovers The entry to the Aurea Spa is long and, if they are not otherwise occupied, flanked by spa therapists in traditional Balinese dress giving a traditional Balinese welcome as you approach. A comprehensive, diverse spa menu has treatments ranging from a 20-minute Bali head massage (€45; $56) through to 90-minute Bali holistic massages (€169), eyelash extensions with Swarovski crystals (from €250) and anti-ageing facials (€89 for 60 minutes). It's also worth visiting the thermal area, where you can sweat for a while in a Scandinavian-style sauna or gorgeously tiled Turkish bath (€16 for 60 minutes).
For fine diners Among the seven restaurants on board, the Galaxy, which becomes a disco after dinner, is the first MSC restaurant to offer a-la-carte fine dining. Mediterranean fusion dishes, such as roasted scallops on a cream of zucchini and basil soup, and rack of lamb in a pistachio crust with a sour cherry sauce, are a marked cut above the fare in the main restaurants — where dining is included in the cruise price — and worth the extra €24 for three courses.
For a cocktail More a question of where than what to drink, with 20 bars and lounges to choose from; La Luna Piano Bar becomes a favourite; the Golden Jazz Bar gleams more than most, with its striped neon theme; more suited to a beer is the Sports Bar, which features a retro petrol bowser and a mini tenpin bowling alley.
For kids The youngest cruisers on Divina have a Smurf-themed play area, I Puffi, with a toadstool house and rooftop slide. Entertainment for older children and teenagers includes a 4D cinema and Graffiti disco, while tennis, basketball, volleyball and soccer are played in the sports arena. There are kids' clubs divided into four age groups, and babysitting is available.