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Her owners call MSC Splendida the world's most beautiful ship. Rob Dunlop investigates the claim.
I'm in the Mediterranean, sailing the maiden voyage of Europe's newest gleaming cruise ship, MSC Splendida. Not only am I sailing the most beautiful sea in the world but also the most beautiful ship in the world.
Or so I keep hearing. The captain doesn't mind dropping the “most beautiful” line into conversation, either. But that's expected from the ranks within. However, there is one particular advocate who commands greater passion than anyone – Mrs Aponte.
She is the matriarch of the Italian family that owns and operates MSC Cruises and has spent more than $10billion on a massive ship-building program. Since 2003, the family has popped out a new ship at the rate of almost one a year, making it the world's largest modern fleet, currently numbering 10.
And again, in grand Italian style, the latest ship is over budget. Some might say that's because Mrs Aponte can't help but be extravagant (no shareholders to answer to, perhaps?). She's involved in all aspects of the ship's design, personally selecting every piece of furniture, every colour, every piece of material and every piece of art. The ship has 18 decks and 1637 cabins, is 333 metres long and 67 metres wide. That's a lot of space to cover.
But Mrs Aponte is an energetic lady who exudes style. And she gets what she wants. Two sweeping staircases in the reception area are a showcase of Swarovski crystal – each of the 72 steps glitters with $40,000 worth of crystals ($2.8million in total).
She also lends a motherly practical hand, dictating to revered naval design outfit, Studio de Jorio, that "beds must be high enough for suitcases to fit under". And quite naturally, Mrs Aponte believes MSC Splendida to be the most beautiful ship in the world.
Splendid by name, splendid by nature. Time to check the ship out. I enlist the help of the cruising world's most respected – some might say feared – critic, Douglas Ward. The cruise expert of 44 years is author of the independent industry bible, Berlitz Complete Guide to Cruising and Cruise Ships. Ward inspects 30 to 60 ships a year and sails on 20 to 30 of them.
With my black rubber thong poised on a Swarovski step and my toe nails radiating from the crystal reflections, I'm in love with the idea of outrageous overspending.
I can see why this is Mrs Aponte's favourite part of the ship. Over the glitter, panoramic glass elevators whisk passengers up and down in awe. Even the grand piano sparkles with 20,000 Swarovski crystals.
Ward admits Mrs Aponte has a fine eye for design style and detail and says it's because of her “MSC Cruises is able to impart that special European-Italian feel to the interior decor”.
He confidently predicts the stairs will be a talking point for passengers. Indeed, a steady stream of passengers stop to take photos.
While I'm happy to luxuriate in the outdoor areas – five swimming pools and 12 whirlpool baths – I also see no harm in checking out the 18 bars and lounges and a disco which might later host my first Michael Jackson tribute dance.
While Ward prefers the olive-coloured seating and ochre walls of the L'Enoteca wine bar for its design and decoration, I'm won over by the loud Purple Jazz Bar, which screams “I'm in Manhattan”.
Reluctantly, I explore the library. I find an unthumbed copy of Alain de Botton's The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. I thumb through it but I'm distracted by thoughts of onboard work commitments – gala evenings and parties with celebrity performers including Jose Carreras.
According to Ward, the most elegant part of the ship is the Top Sail Lounge, which is in the exclusive six-star area known as MSC Yacht Club. Located on Deck 15 at the front of the ship, its windows are outstretched for panoramic views. The walls are lined with walnut panels; the carpets, lamps and fixtures drip with golden hues. In a twist on the Swarovski staircase splendour, the steps here shimmer with yellow coloured crystals instead. (And make my feet look jaundiced.) A table of honey-coloured onyx marble offers up nibbles and gourmet treats all day long.
When I sink into a lounge, I'm only slightly distracted by the inlaid entertainment system offering up movies. I much prefer the view upfront – the ocean. And I'd kill for champagne.
The 99 suites in this exclusive area of the ship come with marble bathrooms with full size bath, fluffy robes and slippers, pillow menu, Egyptian cotton sheets, memory mattress, complimentary mini-bar and the piece de resistance – a personal butler.
Apart from attending to duties such as unpacking clothes, fetching the morning paper, booking restaurants and spa treatments and serving up traditional English high tea, the butlers also respond quite well to requests for champagne.
So, Mr Ward, is MSC Splendida the most beautiful ship in the world?
“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”
Photos: On board the MSC Splendida
The writer was a guest of MSC Cruises and Emirates airline.
Supermodels of the sea
Other contenders for world's most beautiful ship, according to cruise expert Douglas Ward (who warns his list changes daily):
1. Balmoral, Fred Olsen Cruise Lines
2. Disney Magic, Disney Cruise Line
3. Europa, Hapag-Lloyd Cruises
4. Saga Rose, Saga Cruises
5. Sea Cloud, Sea Cloud Cruises
Emirates has daily flights from Sydney to Italy (Rome, Milan and Venice). Phone 1300 303 777, see emirates.com/au.
GET ON BOARD
MSC Cruises has several seven- and 11-night Mediterranean itineraries on MSC Splendida, including ports in Italy, France, Spain, Tunisia, Malta, Greece, Israel and Egypt.
Prices start from $1070 a person (conditions apply) in an inside cabin. The MSC bonus is children always cruise free. Phone 1300 028 502, see msccruises.com.au.