Welcome to my first ever blog post!! And what a way to start, with a review of my four night cruise onboard the brand new MSC Virtuosa. The Virtuosa was originally slated to launch in September, but thanks to the pandemic (the gift that just keeps on giving!), she wasn’t able to do her first passenger sailing until the 20th May 2021. Along with numerous other cruise lines, MSC launched a summer full of UK staycation (or maybe seacation!) cruises, and the Virtuosa was the very first ship to set sail. At full capacity, the Virtuosa can hold well over 6000 passengers however for our cruise, thanks to government guidelines and the protocols that all of the cruise lines have to operate under in relation to COVID-19, it was limited to a maximum of 1000 passengers. We thought that this was an excellent time to try out a brand new ship without it being too busy.
I don’t want to talk about the ship too much, as there are numerous other blogs out there who have done a far better job than I ever could. Suffice to say that while beauty is in the eye of the beholder from the outside, on the inside there is no doubt that she is stunningly beautiful. Glitzy yet glamourous, sparkly without being over the top (you have to love the Swarovski stairs onboard the MSC ships!), and all together elegant. One of the highlights of walking the promenade on Deck 6 is the 93 metre long LED light ceiling, which is changed regularly as well as having sky dome shows throughout the day, which are a thing of beauty! A top tip is to get a drink at one of the bars with seats outside (we did this at L’Atelier bar a few times) to watch the show, which normally last 2-3 minutes.
Booking and Prior to Cruising
We booked our cruise only three and a half weeks before it was due to depart, and I made sure to mention to the travel agent that we were both coeliac. This ensured that we were sent the special needs forms that MSC require for any kind of needs, whether it be dietary, mobility or something else. Once filled in and returned to the travel agent, they were passed on to MSC. This meant that our dietary needs would be logged on our account. Whoever you book through, make sure you tell them about your need to be gluten-free as it is very important it is documented.
I tried to do as much research as I could regarding how MSC dealt with gluten-free diets, but to be honest, I found information a bit lacking. However, what I did find suggested that MSC might have room for improvement with how they dealt with passengers requiring a gluten-free diet. With this in mind I did two things – firstly I stalked social media and cruise forums to get all the information I could from the first sailings. Secondly, I stocked up with a load of gluten-free goodies to take onboard in case we starved! I also bought a bottle of brown sauce, as it’s my favourite sauce, and I had read that MSC were providing HP brown sauce, which is definitely not gluten-free.
I also filled out a ‘contact us’ form on the MSC website asking specifically where we could eat onboard, and whether we would be able to eat in the buffet or order anything from room service. After a couple of days I received a reply back informing me that the only place suitable to eat for anyone who is gluten-free is in the main dining room. I was disappointed that we wouldn’t have any kind of flexibility regarding where we ate, but vowed to investigate further once on board.
Armed with this information, we then faced a bit of a quandary. I had found out through my incessant checking on social media that the main dining room closed for lunch at 13.30. Our boarding time, which you get printed on your e-tickets, was 12.20. Knowing that check in was going to involve having insurance documents checked, a lateral flow test and waiting for those results (which the website said could take anywhere up to 90 minutes), I was obviously concerned that the main dining room might be closed by the time we actually boarded, and we then would not be able to have anything to eat until dinner time. I quickly added a couple of gluten-free pot noodle type tubs into our snack stash just in case, as I knew that there were kettles in the room (specifically added to the rooms for the UK “seacation” cruises)!
Check in and Boarding
As it turned out, we arrived at Southampton dock around 11.30. There was no queue outside the terminal, so we decided to chance our arm checking in early due to the worry about being able to eat lunch. I wouldn’t generally recommend this, but given the circumstances I thought it was acceptable, and had a copy of our special needs forms printed out in case we needed to have a discussion with someone about it. No-one said anything about us being early, and the whole checking in procedure, from having our insurance documents checked through to having our lateral flow tests, receiving the results and actually boarding only took 45 minutes. Amazing!
Walking onto a cruise ship for the first time in 18 months was quite an emotional moment! We took a short time to sit down in the stunning atrium, have a drink and get the MSC app set up properly in order that we could scan the QR codes for all the bar menus (there are paper menus available on request, but they much prefer you to look at them via the app for hygiene reasons). It was then time to head to The Blue Danube, one of the main dining rooms which is on deck 6 ready for lunch.
Main Dining Room Lunch
Once seated, I explained that we were both gluten-free, and one of the supervisors came over to talks to us. He gave us the gluten-free menu, which you cannot look at via the app (all other menus for the whole cruise were available by scanning the QR code). I found this a little disappointing, as it would have been easier to plan ahead with me being vegetarian. Instead, I got used to asking for the next day’s paper menu ahead of time so that I could check there was a suitable dish for me.
A supervisor/head waiter will always take the order for gluten-free meals, and for any other allergies. The lunch menu for embarkation day had three starters and four main courses. I immediately noticed that none of the dishes are marked to say if they are vegetarian or vegan, and this continued throughout the cruise. This would be a very useful addition to the gluten-free menu, as the standard menus have these markings. I also saw that there was no vegetarian starter. I was told that a salad could be made up for me, but I wasn’t really feeling like salad, so decided to go with just a main course. Having checked that the pakora were vegetarian, I ordered those, and they were absolutely delicious. My husband, also needing to eat gluten-free but not vegetarian like me, ordered the salmon and was also very impressed.
Because it was the first lunch, and there were what seemed like hundreds of staff around eager to serve, we were offered bread numerous times. We declined each time, stating that we were gluten-free, only for another server come over and do the same thing! This only really happened on the first day though. We were offered gluten-free bread by the supervisor serving us. MSC use Schär bread products, they are left in their packaging and heated up (I suspect in the microwave) which can take anywhere from a couple of minutes to te
Food is slow to get to you, as all gluten-free and other allergy orders are cooked from scratch in MSC’s allergy kitchen. Sometimes this meant it was quite a long time before receiving our meal (our breakfast on the last day of the cruise took 40 minutes). However, all of our meals were piping hot, something I’ve found to be a problem on numerous other cruises I’ve taken before being gluten free. Every meal that we ordered was really tasty, overall we were very impressed with the standard of the food. I have read reviews stating that the portion sizes on the main menu were small, we didn’t find this to be an issue and had very generous amounts of food. We often ordered a side of vegetables with dinner, which is what MSC recommend as their meals don’t tend to come with vegetable accompaniments as standard.
Because everything on the gluten-free menu is cooked from scratch, it is easy for them to make changes. For example, there were dishes on there which had parmesan on or in, which is not vegetarian, so I was able to get that left out. Also not on the menu at all were french fries, but we spoke to our head server on day two and asked if it would be possible to get some for lunch, as we were not able to eat anywhere else on the ship, and he made that happen (be aware though that we were offered sachets of Heinz malt vinegar, which is not suitable for coeliacs). The head server did also say that gluten-free pasta was always available, albeit it didn’t appear on the menu. This could be a useful back up to anyone like myself who is vegetarian, as none of the ‘always available’ dishes mentioned on the gluten-free dinner menu are vegetarian.
Desserts are a little disappointing, and not particularly varied. Essentially, the same thing is offered both at lunch and at dinner, with the addition to the dinner menu of dessert of the day (although we were offered that every lunchtime as well!). This is a pre-packaged dessert that is bought in rather than made onboard, and we had three to choose from over our four nights. Day one was tiramisu, day two was a kind of chocolate tart with chopped hazelnuts on top, and day three was a meringue type cake with cream inside. For ready made desserts they weren’t bad, although sometimes they were still a little bit too frozen than they should have been when they were served. I also had cheese and biscuits a couple of times, these come with a sealed pack of gluten free crispbread type crackers.
Main Dining Room Dinner
Dinner on our first night was a similar affair to lunch, being offered normal bread lots of times (again, it didn’t happen after the first night). We both had minestrone soup (after checking it was vegetarian for me) and had the obligatory Schär roll with it! For main course I had the legume stew tuscan style, which definitely tasted better than it looked, and my husband had the fillet of cod Ligurian style, which he said was very nice. We had a serving team allocated to the section we were sat in, and the head waiter again took our order for dinner, and also brought it out. At the end of every meal you are asked to sign for the food you had by the head waiter, I understand this it to keep track of what is cooked in the allergy kitchen, and just in case of any issues that may arise later on.
As you can see from the menus above, there was a variety of cuisine on offer, although sometimes lacking in obvious vegetarian options. I was able to ask for things like the Spanish tapas without meat, and because of everything being prepared from scratch that was easy for the allergy kitchen to accommodate. When there were two main courses that were vegetarian, I was able to request one as the starter and one as the main course, which worked well (this tended to happen more with the lunch menus than dinner).
Our serving team were great, nothing was too much trouble, and they were always there to fill up our wine glasses! We were advised to ask for our server by name when we entered the restaurant for the remainder of our meals so that we were always sat in the same section, and this worked well. When we booked the cruise we had been asked if we wanted early or late dining, and had picked early. However, on boarding the ship, because there were so few passengers, there was a note in our cabin telling that dining was run as anytime dining. That meant no matter what time we went, we would always have the same team who knew our dietary requirements. Dinner was available between 18.00 – 20.30.
After lunch on our first day, we decided to go up to the buffet on deck 15 to see what the deal was. I looked for someone in a suit jacket, as they are in charge just as in the main dining rooms, and explained that we were gluten-free and asked if there was anything we would be able to eat in the buffet. Basically we were told no, as there is no allergy kitchen attached to the buffet, and so they simply cannot guarantee that there is no cross contamination taking place. I know that there are people willing to risk this, particularly if they are gluten intolerant rather than coeliac but for us, it was a definite no no. The head waiter did say that at breakfast they have pre-packaged bread available, and some cookies, and did suggest that the omelette station might be suitable. We decided not to risk it, and so ate breakfast every day in the main dining room.
Main Dining Room Breakfast
Breakfast in the main dining room is available between 07.30 – 09.00. There was no gluten-free menu available, it was a case of being told what you could have – we looked at the main breakfast menu to see what there was so that we could ask if it could be made gluten-free. Our old favourite Schär bread was of course always available, although there didn’t seem to be any ability for them to toast it or offer any gluten-free toast. For a cooked breakfast, we were able to have the following gluten-free: bacon, sausage, eggs (any way), mushrooms, baked beans, cubed potatoes and tomatoes. There was no vegetarian gluten-free sausages, and sadly the hash browns were also not gluten-free. Black pudding was also on the standard menu, but I have no idea if this was gluten-free, although I suspect not.
Croissants were also offered. These were pre-packaged and the writing on them was in Italian. We didn’t realise there were different types until our second day, however it appeared that we were not able to choose which particular ones we were given, so we just had to wait and see what turned up. I’ll be honest, the croissant was pretty dry, but I was starving so I ate it (and a good job too as breakfast was quite the wait every morning!). On day two we were given what turned out to be a chocolate and hazelnut spread (like Nutella) filled croissant, these were delicious. We asked for them on day three but it wasn’t to be, what turned up was some kind of marmalade filled croissant that I didn’t like. On our last day we again requested the chocolate filled croissant, one was found from somewhere and it turned up along with the plain dry croissant. I would definitely like to see MSC offer a choice for this rather than it just being luck of the draw.
Speciality (Paid) Restaurants
There are four restaurants on the Virtuosa that are at additional cost. These are Butcher’s Cut, Teppanyaki, Hola! and Indochine. If you are a diamond member of the MSC voyagers club, then one of the perks is a free meal at one of these restaurants. Sadly I am not high enough status to get this perk, and to be honest, even prior to being gluten-free I’ve never really done paid for restaurants on any cruise line, as I’ve always been happy with the food choices available to me. I appreciate that this is very much a very personal choice. I did look at the menus for all four of these restaurants, but none of them had any gluten-free dishes marked. I did not go and ask if they would be able to cater for gluten-free diets, but my expectation, perhaps wrongly, would be that they would say no due to not having separate allergy kitchens. It would be lovely to be proved wrong on that though.
I thought I would give room service a call one afternoon, just to see if there was anything at all they could deliver that would be gluten-free. I was hoping that the email I received back from MSC customer service prior to sailing had just been over cautious, but it turns out it wasn’t. As soon as I mentioned gluten-free on the phone, I was told that there were nothing at all they could deliver as they could not guarantee that it would have been been prepared safely. I totally understand this, and appreciate the concern for safety MSC have towards gluten-free food, but being honest, the lack of flexibility around food was getting to be a little wearing.
Drinks (and a gluten-free bar!)
When researching before the cruise, I was pleased to see that other MSC ships have a gluten-free lager onboard – Estrella Daura Damm. Don’t get me wrong, I love other alcoholic drinks, especially wine but sometimes only a beer will do! I asked in a few groups if anyone on the sailings before me would mind finding out if they had it on the Virtuosa. Fortunately, a very kind person replied that their friend was crew onboard and confirmed that they had it in the Sports Bar.
It turns out that the Sport Bar, on deck 16 is what MSC describe as their gluten-free bar. The reality of this is that they have a gluten-free menu for drinks, which includes Daura Damm plus lots of other standard drinks freely available in other bars. They also have a display of gluten-free snacks kept behind the bar. Disappointingly these are not free, and at the time I didn’t think to ask how much they were, but the bags of Haribo next to them were £2.50, so that probably gives some idea.
The GF lager is also available in Masters of the Sea, the pub on deck 7 which overlooks the promenade. On a couple of occasions we asked for some unopened bottles of this to keep in our mini bar in our cabin to drink at our leisure, and the staff were more than happy to oblige. They don’t appear to keep supplies of this beer in the main dining room, but we found out that if we asked for it, one of the serving team would be sent to go and get it. You’d think it would be easier just to keep a stock, but there we go! As I mentioned before, our serving team really were great and were happy to deal with any requests we had.
We enjoyed lots of other drinks onboard, including a good range of cocktails. I love a frozen mudslide, and although it wasn’t on the menu found that staff in a couple of bars were happy to make it (once I told them what was in it!). I did ask to check out the bottle of chocolate syrup they were using both in the cocktails and on the glasses, and it was the Monin brand, which stated on the bottle that it was gluten free. I noticed that in many bars people were offered little bowls of snacks (crisps, nuts etc), and this had happened to us on a previous MSC cruise prior to being gluten free. I actually think it was pot luck who got them, rather than it being anything to do with our GF status. However, given that none of the snacks in the mini-bar were suitable for gluten-free diets (they were all a may contain) then I very much doubt these would have been suitable.
I will briefly mention the mini-bar available in each cabin. All of the staycation cruises this summer come with the Premium Drinks package included. We paid to upgrade to the Premium Plus package, and one of the included features of this package is the contents of your mini-bar, which are replenished every day. Unfortunately, all the snacks are a ‘may contain’ for gluten, so not suitable. I did ask the cabin host if he was able to get the Daura Damn for our mini-bar (and explained why) but was told that they only have access to the exact contents that are already in there. Whilst they can make adjustments to quantities of those items, they can’t swap them for anything else. We asked for extra gin (my husband’s favourite!) and then got our own bottles of Daura Damn to keep in there. Also useful to keep our snack stash in that we had brought with us!
The positives: the quality of gluten-free food that we had cooked for us in the main dining room was fantastic. Food was tasty, well presented and hot. We felt reassured by having the head waiter/supervisor take our order and serve our food, and very safe regarding how our food was prepared in a separate allergy kitchen. The servers were brilliantly attentive and eager to do all that they could for you. We really appreciated them going to get us GF lager from elsewhere on the ship. Food was slow to arrive, but we understood that this is because it was cooked from scratch, and after experiencing it for our first couple of meals we knew what to expect.
The negatives: lack of flexibility around where we could eat really was a huge problem. I like to have a bit of a lie in on holiday and amble up to the buffet as and when. This just isn’t possible, so you need to make sure you’re in the main dining room before 09.00. Also, by the time breakfast actually arrived I was about ready to eat the table! You basically need to allow a minimum of an hour, but probably closer to an hour and a half for each meal in the main dining room and obviously need to plan this around it’s opening hours. Essentially, you end up planning your day around the limited hours that the main dining rooms are open. This is my first cruise since being gluten-free, so is a kind of benchmark. I’m going to be very interested in other lines to see how they measure up, particularly in regard to buffets and other eateries around their ships.
I think that MSC are doing a sound job in relation to providing gluten-free food in their main dining rooms, but I believe there is definite work to be done in them providing safe gluten-free food in other areas. Given that they don’t currently do that, a good starting point would be to make the gluten-free snacks they have available in the Sports Bar free of charge.
Would we cruise with MSC again? Based on our experience, we would consider another short cruise, but I think that anything over four days would be a no. Having to be so rigid with meal times was a problem, and once cruising gets back to normal and ports are added back in, then this would cause additional trouble. We were able to make it work over four nights, and we had a fabulous time overall, but personally, I think anything longer than that would just become too problematic.