I didn't tell my partner this before embarking Grandiosa, MSC's glossy new flagship, but I was looking forward to spending some time with Zoe. And as I lounged in my cabin and first heard Zoe's voice – well-spoken, British accent, probably mid-to-late 30s – I was quite charmed. But over the coming days, we didn't really hit it off. The conversation was stilted and robotic, the chemistry non-existent. Zoe was prone to repeating herself or saying she didn't understand what I was getting at. In the end, I confess, I kind of gave up. I was probably expecting too much, mind.
Zoe has been dubbed the "world's first virtual personal cruise assistant". Driven by artificial intelligence, this voice-enabled device graces all 2421 cabins of a ship that was christened in Hamburg in November by Sophia Loren (now 85 years old and godmother of 15 MSC vessels).
Since Zoe debuted on MSC Bellissima, Grandiosa's slightly smaller predecessor in March 2019, her AI has evolved and she can now answer, in seven different languages, around 850 questions about life on board Grandiosa, from places to eat and drink (choose from 11 dining venues and 20 bars) to the diverse entertainment (there's everything from F1 simulators and bowling to Broadway-style theatre and Cirque du Soleil). The most common question, apparently, is "where is the hairdryer"? To be fair, when I ask Zoe, she answers in a shot (it's in a drawer beneath the desk on which she is perched).
You don't need to gel with Zoe to enjoy Grandiosa, a fun, stylish and sophisticated ship offering year-round Mediterranean cruises (with typical seven-night circuits featuring Barcelona, Marseille, Genoa, Rome, Palermo and Valletta).
For starters, there are alternative information sources, from the MSC for ME smartphone app to the interactive touch-screens peppering the ship's public areas. There's the old-fashioned way, too: browsing the daily program delivered to your cabin or reception, where staff are on point when I have a minor issue with my Wi-Fi connection (unlimited internet for four devices is $180 a week).
Able to carry 6334 passengers, with 1700 crew, Grandiosa is the first in MSC's Meraviglia-Plus class. It's touted as the fleet's most "environmentally-conscious" vessel, fitted with cutting-edge technology designed to boost energy efficiency and produce cleaner air emissions (MSC has vowed to be the world's first carbon neutral cruise line from January 2020, offsetting all emissions with "blue carbon credits"). Despite embracing mod-cons, Grandiosa retains the traditional elements of a good cruise ship with friendly, efficient customer service and a personal touch. That's particularly the case at MSC Yacht Club, an exclusive retreat – a "ship within a ship" – with 95 elegant guest suites, 24-hour butler service and concierge, plus a private bar-lounge, restaurant, sun-deck and pool.
Elsewhere, most passengers, including me, stay in balcony cabins. These smartly-designed spaces, with their white, grey and violet (or green) colour scheme, span around 20 square metres, have a bathroom with shower and toilet and a covered balcony. You can tuck your suitcases under the double bed, which faces a huge wall mirror and has an uber-comfy Dorelan mattress and pillows. There's touch-sensitive bed-side lighting, flatscreen HD TV and decent wardrobe space for a couple (or more at a squeeze).
The sofa can be converted into beds, with under-12s cruising for free (excluding port charges) if travelling with two adults in the same cabin. For larger groups there are inter-connecting cabins and roomy suites, including 59-square metre duplexes with whirlpool-adorned balconies. Those on a tight budget and not bothered with a sea view may find the interior cabins a cosy option.
There are lots of "free" smile-inducing activities on Grandiosa, notably the top (19th) deck Wild Forest Aqua Park, with its snaking waterslides and Himalayan Bridge – an 82 metre-long suspended ropes course. Also dotted about are pools and ping-pong tables and the Sportsplex, an indoor arena for tennis, basketball and five-a-side football. Beside this you'll find arcade machines and other extra-fee draws, including two bowling alleys (hitting a strike is always a thrill, especially at sea) and F1 simulators (strapped into one, I joyously speed around the track, but crash on almost every corner). The VR (virtual reality) Maze plunges me into the pseudo-medieval world of Assassin's Creed where I must physically mimic pulling a bow to fire arrows. And in the 3D interactive cinema, I battle through a zombie-occupied New York. Access these attractions with a Fun Pass (a family one is $150 a cruise).
Stuffed with Lego-based fun and games, consoles such as PS4 and board games including Monopoly Fortnite, Doremiland is the ship's dedicated youth area, where children, from babies to 17-year-olds, can be left with carers free of charge, 9am-11pm (and later on request). Parents can then hit, say, the casino, gym or spa for Balinese-style massages and facials (from $120), or the thermal suite with its Finnish saunas, ice baths and salt rooms (area pass, $224 a person).
I love ambling, licking gelato (try the dulce de leche) and people-watching in the Galleria Grandiosa, a glitzy indoor promenade and the ship's main social hub (Sophia Loren cut the ribbon here during the official christening ceremony). Lined by Roman-style columns and Venetian gothic arches, this 112 metre strip is capped by a dazzling LED dome. The longest of its type at sea, it regularly changes appearance: at night, it's often a starry sky; by day, it might evoke the ceiling of a plush Milan arcade or a baroque church.
The promenade almost transports you to continental Europe (bar the noise of honking Vespas). Boutiques sell Gucci and Armani products, bars serve cocktails, champagne and cappuccino and there are enticing speciality eateries: Michelin-feted chef Ramon Freixa's Spanish tapas restaurant, a delectable chocolaterie by master patissier Jean-Philippe Maury and a bistro fronted with a striped green-and-white awning serving French classics and wines and decorated with 26 original etchings from Impressionist artist Edgar Degas.
The ship's decks are named after artists such as Dali, Miro and Magritte, but there is no deck 17, seen as an unlucky number for Italians. While MSC is now headquartered in Geneva, its Italian roots are strong. The company is owned by the Aponte family, which has been in the seafaring business since at least 1675. Flavours from other continents also permeate Grandiosa, with a Japanese sushi bar and teppanyaki restaurant and an American-style steakhouse, and globally-inspired dishes (Thai and Indian curries, Tex-Mex pork ribs and Jamaican cod fritters) served at the "free" eateries, where multi-lingual crew and guests from over 100 countries rub shoulders.
Yet there's no denying Grandiosa's European spirit (and not just because of the Mediterranean ports of call and on-board euro price tags). Each week in the complimentary la carte restaurants, there's a special menu by German chef Harald Wohlfahrt. His former Black Forest restaurant won three Michelin stars 26 years in a row and you can expect the likes of king crab salad, veal tenderloin and maultasche (a German pasta dish filled with winter truffles).
Fresh pasta is a highlight, too, at the vast, complimentary Marketplace Buffet, which is open 20 hours a day and excels in pizzas and mozzarella. About 300 kilograms of this creamy buffalo milk cheese is made here daily and you can watch the artisan chefs working their magic at the dedicated mozzarella station.
FIVE MORE THINGS TO DO ON MSC GRANDIOSA
CIRQUE DU SOLEIL AT SEA
The Montreal-based act perform original shows created exclusively for MSC at the state-of-the-art Carousel Lounge. Dinner and a drink is $23 a person; $53 for dinner and show.
Whether it's day-time singers and pianists, late-night DJs or the excellent jazz band at L'Atelier Bistrot, you'll hear tunes to tap your feet to.
MASTERS OF THE SEA
Drink ales, play darts and watch live football at this lovely wood-panelled, nautical-themed English-style pub.
Ideal for a selfie or a group photo is the atrium's gleaming Swarovski crystal-studded staircase. Each step is said to be worth €5000.
Pop by to discover more about MSC's non-profit organisation which supports sustainable initiatives across the planet. For every euro guests donate, MSC matches it. Kids can play on an LED screen here, swimming through a 3D aquarium and cleaning up waste on the seabed.
Steve McKenna was a guest of MSC Cruises.
MSC Grandiosa's seven-night Mediterranean cruises are priced from $799 an adult, based on double occupancy and include a drinks package. Various specialty dining packages that include the bistro, tapas restaurant, sushi bar and steakhouse can also be purchased. See msccruises.com.au