Cruising Latin America, European style

By Deanna Palić

(First of three parts, jump to part 1, part 2, part 3)

I never imagined that an episode of the “Larry King Live” show would be the springboard for a winter vacation. This particular evening, Larry’s guest was Sofia Loren. Rather than delving into her eminent film career, the discussion centered on her role as spokesperson for MSC (Mediterranean Shipping Company) Cruises, whose motto is Premium Class With a True Italian Signature. Although their motto is an apt description of the star herself, the cruise has more of a European than Italian signature.

The MSC Lirica towers over a tug in Puerto Limón, Costa Rica. Photos: Palic

MSC Cruises (6750 North Andrews Ave., Ft. Lauderdale, FL 33309; 800/666-9333 or is a cruise line with which I was not familiar. My husband and I checked out their website and found an itinerary that aroused our interest. Of the ports listed, I had visited all but Puerto Limón previously. After some 20 to 30 years, the prospect of an update was very appealing.

As the Christmas/New Years’s cruise was sold out, we opted for the Jan. 13, 2006, sailing out of Fort Lauderdale. We paid a discounted media rate for an outside cabin. The brochure rate is quoted at $2,700 per person, but ask the MSC reservations agent if an Early Bird Discount is available. If so, you might just save $800 per person.

This 11-night sailing on the MSC Lirica visited Ocho Rios (Jamaica); Cartagena (Colombia); San Blas and Cristobal (Panama); Puerto Limón (Costa Rica), and Roatan (Honduras). There was a total of four days at sea, nicely interspersed. Aside from relaxing poolside, I caught up on reading and took the offered Italian classes. This itinerary is a nature lover’s dream, with 98% of the shore excursions emphasizing nature.

Jetting there

We chose American Airlines for the only nonstop flights from Los Angeles to Fort Lauderdale. The flight attendant announced that there would be snacks for sale, but they didn’t have enough for everyone. Luckily, we had eaten a good dinner before flight time. It is difficult to become accustomed to the deteriorating state of cabin service on domestic carriers.

We found American to be very strict on their luggage restrictions. For travel within the U.S., two pieces of checked luggage were permitted per person. If any piece had exceeded the 50-pound limit, we would have been charged extra.

Ft. Lauderdale accommodations

In Lirica’s two restaurants, service runs smoothly with the expertise of European Table Supervisors. Pictured from left to right are Milenko, Ivan, Zvonko and Matko.

Preferring to arrive one day prior to embarkation, we stayed at the 4-star Sheraton Fort Lauderdale Airport Hotel (800/325-3535 or airport). Its location is ideal, close to the airport and the Port Everglades pier. While the hotel has a complimentary shuttle to the airport, it costs $7 per person for van service to the pier; the Guest Services desk can arrange this. A taxi from the hotel to the pier would cost $15.

The rate for a large, comfortable single/double at this hotel is $221 (we were given a media discount). Sheraton’s Best Rates Guaranteed policy promises to match any lower rate found. The breakfast buffet at $16.50 is a better value than the Continental breakfast at $12.75. (Prices noted include tax.)

We traveled in the Caribbean value season (December-January). MSC Cruises offers a Fort Lauderdale hotel package that includes hotel and transfers between airport, hotel and pier for $95 per person. Depending upon what rates you find on the Internet or directly with the hotel, this package deserves consideration. I am told that MSC prefers to utilize the Sheraton when it is available.

MSC Cruises and the Lirica

MSC Cruises was founded in 1990 and currently operates seven vessels based primarily in the Mediterranean. The fleet will grow to 11 ships by 2009.

The line’s Mediterranean cruises depart from Genoa, Rome and Venice. Its Caribbean cruises depart from Fort Lauderdale. South American cruises depart from Rio de Janeiro. Transatlantic cruises depart from Genoa, Fort Lauderdale, Venice and Rio. Northern European cruises depart from Copenhagen. There are future plans to put the Lirica into service out of New York.

My husband, Josip, surveys the astounding late-night pool deck buffet with its creative fruit carvings.

The 14-deck, 58,600-ton Lirica, christened in April 2003, is the largest ship on which my husband and I have sailed. Even after 11 days, we were making wrong turns to reach our destination on board.

The ship is tastefully decorated and immaculately maintained. It continually reaps the highest sanitation ratings for cruise ships.

Outside cabins and bathrooms are well designed although not spacious. Inside cabins have the same layout minus the window. Storage space for personal belongings is very well planned. Every nook and cranny can be used for storing some article of clothing. We had enough room for everything and were able to fit two large suitcases under our queen bed.

The cabins with balconies are larger. The bathrooms in those feature full-size bathtubs. Bathrooms in all cabins are equipped with hair dryers.

A safe for valuables is located behind the vanity mirror. 110V outlets are conveniently located near the vanity mirror and in the bathroom. I have been on too many ships where outlets are nowhere near a mirror!

Evening dress code

There were three formal evenings during the cruise. A few gentlemen wore tuxedos, but dark suits or jackets and ties were more the norm. Women were not extremely formal. Although the remaining evenings were designated as casual, most passengers dressed casually chic.


Open seating prevails for breakfast and lunch. If you prefer a buffet rather than à la carte service, you can choose from the cafeteria Le Bistro or the restaurant La Pergola, located on the pool deck. Operating in the afternoons is a pizza counter where a variety of delicious pizzas are served. An additional counter serves fare of the fast food variety: hamburgers, French fries and hot dogs.

If you prefer the early dinner seating at 6:15 p.m., you should make reservations when booking your cruise. On our cruise, the early seating was sold out in both the La Busola and L’Ippocampo restaurants. The second seating starts at 8:15 p.m.

Both of the restaurants on board are staffed by Indonesian waiters. Under the watchful eye of European Table Supervisors, meal service was smooth.

On a scale of 1 to 10, we rated the food a 7. Memorable appetizer selections included smoked duck breast and Chilean ceviche. For dessert, the highlights were tiramisu and cheesecake. Those struggling to watch their diet were not overlooked; sugarless desserts and vegetarian selections were always available.

Menu selections leaned more to Continental cuisine, although a pasta course consistently appeared on the menu. On the pool deck during lunch hour a chef prepared fresh pasta.

I enjoyed the cooking demonstration for Carbonara sauce. The recipe is filed away at home for a future indulgence.

Coming up — more about life on board the MSC Lirica plus ports of call.

(continue to part two)

—Latin America is written by Deanna Palic.