MSC Cruises ships are as regal as film legend Sophia Loren, who is godmother to all of the ships in MSC Cruises’ fleet. Not only did I have the pleasure of sailing on one of the line’s newer ships, MSC Poesia, I had the additional delight of meeting Ms Loren, true Italian ‘royalty’.

A privately owned organisation founded in 1970, the Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC) is one of the world’s leading global cargo and cruise lines. In 1989, MSC bought the cruise-ship operator Star Lauro, renaming it MSC Cruises. At the end of last year, the line’s worldwide cargo fleet numbered more than 400 vessels, including one of the world’s largest container ships, and more are being added every year.

The cruise fleet plies the Med year-round and cruises seasonally to Northern Europe, across the Atlantic and around the Caribbean, North America, Canada, South America, the Indian Ocean, South Africa and, from the end of 2011, the Arabian Peninsula.

MSC Cruises is the only shipping company in the world to receive the elite Six Golden Pearls award from Bureau Veritas, an accolade bestowed (along with a Bureau Veritas Energy Efficient Design award) in recognition of the shipping line’s high-quality management and environmentally sound policies and practices.

The newest ship in the line’s fleet, MSC Magnifica, boasts all the dining and entertainment amenities one would expect to find on a contemporary cruise vessel. On board, there’s a choice of five restaurants and numerous bars, an internet café and a cigar lounge as well as a plush 1,200-seat theatre, a cinema, a casino and a disco.

MSC Magnifica, along with other MSC Cruises’ ships, features an onboard Aurea Spa. This sumptuous wellness centre has various options for helping its guests unwind, from saunas and Turkish baths to fully equipped gyms. Highly trained Balinese personnel offer an array of massages, and you’ll also find a wide variety of beauty treatments and hairdressing services here.

Mrs Aponte, wife of the line’s owner, Gianluigi Aponte, has lent her personal touch to most of the MSC ships, advising on everything from the interior design and appointments of the cabins to the décor of public areas. The line’s sleek vessels offer the quality one expects on five-star ships, yet the pricing is what I would call modest.

Passengers looking for an extra level of luxury can book in to the MSC Yacht Club, an exclusive area on board MSC’s newer ships, MSC Splendida and MSC Fantasia. The Yacht Club offers its members spacious suites with private balconies or panoramic windows, round-the-clock butler and concierge services, separate public areas such as the Top Sail Lounge and The One Pool, and private lift access to Aurea Spa.

There’s a special menu for MSC Yacht Club members in their exclusive dining areas, and complimentary beverages in their cabins. The Yacht Club has its own dedicated chef and offers international cuisine with many menu options and a select range of beverages. In addition, Yacht Club members are offered complimentary dining at either L’Etoile French restaurant or Mediterranean-style L’Olivo and are welcome to enjoy meals in the main dining rooms, too.

MSC Cruises’ newer ships have alternative specialty restaurants. Aboard MSC Musica and MSC Poesia, Japanese restaurant Kaito has proven hugely popular, as has the Shanghai Chinese Restaurant on MSC Orchestra, with its wok-tossed Szechuan, Cantonese, Beijing and Shanghai dishes, and dim sum.

The ‘slow food’ concept, Mediterranean style, has also been introduced to MSC Cruises’ ships, highlighting younger regional Italian wines and, naturally, Italian cuisine. All the pizza dough is made on board and the risotto has become a signature dish. At L’Oasi on MSC Magnifica and à la carte restaurants on the cruise line’s other Musica-class ships, you can tuck into signature Italian dishes from two-Michelin-starred chef Mauro Uliassi: think lobster with coriander and anise, pumpkin risotto drizzled with truffle oil, and crêpes Florentine. And MSC’s famous seven-course menu, available in the main dining rooms, includes a new regional Italian specialty every night in a ‘medley of fresh Mediterranean flavours’ that the cruise line calls La Cucina Italiana.

MSC ships are popular with families, and no wonder: children under 18 years of age cruise free when sharing a cabin with two paying adults, with port charges the only outlay – which can mean savings amounting to thousands of dollars. Younger kids and adolescents are well catered for on board, and some scheduled children’s and teen activities are free. The various youth clubs on board are categorised by age: there’s the Miniclub for three- to six-year-olds; the Juniors Club for seven- to 12-year-olds; and a Teen Club with a jam-packed, adolescent-friendly activities program that includes sports tournaments, team games, music and dancing, quizzes and special events. There are also dedicated pools, games rooms and play areas, and lots of room to run, jump and have fun.

On European and Mediterranean itineraries, remember that Italian will be the first language spoken on board, though I did not find this a problem. Most of the crew speak English that is much better than many passengers’ Italian!

I’ll leave you with an interesting story about how MSC’s next ship got its name: one evening, Sophia Loren mentioned to owner Gianluigi Aponte her dream of having a ship named in her honour, and he immediately suggested dubbing the new vessel Divina instead of Fantastica, the ship’s proposed name, reminding his friend that “a fantastic experience is fleeting, whereas a divine experience gives you memories that last forever”. Thus, a new name for a new ship in honour of the divine Ms Loren was born – but she will have to wait a while for her dream to come true, as MSC Divina isn’t due to be launched until May 2012.

What the Berlitz ‘bible’ says:

Douglas Ward, critic extraordinaire for the prestigious Berlitz Complete Guide to Cruising & Cruise Ships, had this to say about MSC Cruises in the most recent edition of the ‘bible’.

“MSC Cruises’ ships are really suited to adult couples and singles, and families with children. They are good for those who enjoy the big-city life, outdoor cafés, constant activity accompanied by plenty of live music, late nights and food ranging from adequate to very good.

“Of all the major cruise lines, it’s also the cleanest. It changes bed linen and towels the most; typically, bed linen is changed every second day, towels daily, and bathrobes in suites daily. MSC Cruises uses the most environmentally friendly detergents and cleaning materials in its housekeeping department and laundries [and] has dramatically reduced the use of plastic items aboard its ships…”

Cruise Passenger concurs.

Fact File

MSC Cruises offers a stylish modern fleet. Once MSC Divina comes on board, it will total 12 vessels, including three Fantasia-class ships: MSC Divina, MSC Fantasia (2008) and MSC Splendida (2009), the largest ships ever built for a European ship owner; four Musica-class ships: MSC Magnifica (2010), MSC Poesia (2008), MSC Orchestra (2007) and MSC Musica (2006); and four Lirica-class ships: MSC Sinfonia (2004), MSC Opera (2004), MSC Lirica (2003) and MSC Armonia (2001); as well as the fleet’s oldest vessel, MSC Melody (1982).