Scotsman Travel - Cruising the UK on the MSC Virtuosa

What’s the time back home? When you’re on a cruise, that’s not an unusual question. When you’re on a cruise around the UK, with domestic guests only, it’s a little more surprising.

MSC Virtuosa arrives into Southampton. (Photo: MSC Cruises, Blue Harbour)

Then again, you could forgive a person for being a little giddy when a “Cruise to Nowhere” is their first real taste of freedom for well over a year.

Cruise to Nowhere is a snappy phrase, but a misnomer; we weren’t spending a week moving a few inches back and forth in a harbour somewhere. We had definite destinations; Greenock, Belfast, Southampton, Portland and back to Liverpool, where we boarded. We could have got on at Greenock, but FoN – Fear of Nicola – made England seem a safer starting point. “The Covid” meant boarding involved more forms than usual, proof of double vaccination and a lateral flow test, but the process was smooth and speedy. Hosting our seven-night escape – with passenger numbers far below maximum capacity – was the MSC Virtuosa, which set sail for the first time just a couple of months ago.

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Unsurprisingly, it’s beyond pristine, with swanky Italian decor including a staircase full of Swarovski crystals where many a formal photograph was staged. Face coverings are required to be worn in public areas, there are sanitisers everywhere and hand washing before entering dining areas is demanded. We were surprised that self-service is back in the buffet, but hardly perturbed. Once you’ve sat down with food or drink, which, let’s face it, takes up about two-thirds of any time spent on a liner, the mask can come off. Spare a thought for the super-friendly, efficient staff members, who must wear theirs every minute they’re on the job.

The space-age MSC Starship Club

We rarely bother with balcony staterooms, as we usually use cabins only for sleeping and changing, but as this looked like it might be our one cruise this year, we stumped up for a fancier package. The room was spacious and light, with plenty of storage and a terrific bathroom, and we loved catching up on our books with a cuppa while watching the waves.

The pandemic meant the usual freedom to wander around ports wasn’t an option, it was excursions only, which is fine, it won’t be forever. We never bothered getting off at Greenock as Steve is from Glasgow, and we’ve been there many times, but I knew little of Belfast bar Seventies news reports and a Boney M song, so off we popped. While The Troubles still loom large – a ride down the Falls Road and Shankill Road shows the politically charged murals remain, along with, shockingly, the “Peace Wall” separating Catholic and Protestant areas – the city impressed. Like Edinburgh, it boasts around two dozen "quarters”, among them the Linen Quarter, Gay Quarter and Cathedral Quarter. The latter includes Queen’s University Belfast, whose panelled and portrait-heavy Great Hall proved the perfect place for a picture or 20.

The Titanic Museum and Game of Thrones tourism – the series was partly filmed in Northern Ireland – have been bringing tourists back to the city, along with their money, and the people are welcoming. And of course, Line Of Duty is filmed in Belfast, and there we were, going up the Lagan in a social bubble…

One of the most fascinating facts for “Titanaraks” is that two of the names on a memorial to people lost in the 1912 tragedy have asterisks alongside them, denoting passenger travelling with fake documents – who the John Doe pair were, we’ll likely never know.

The Galleria Virtuosa boasts a striking ceiling light show

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Next stop, Southampton, and a bus tour to the New Forest, land of thatched cottages and roaming ponies. As with other excursions, there were photo stops, but it would have been lovely to visit the pretty shops in Lyndhurst, where Alice Liddell – the model for Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland – was laid to rest in the churchyard established by her in-laws. Next time.

The Isle of Portland was the starting point for a ride around the Dorset countryside, and while The Troubles yet haunt Belfast, it’s the Second World War which casts a shadow, with retired tanks on the street, a D-Day Centre and Chesil Beach, which played a vital role on 6 June 1944. We looked further back in time with a tour of the Jurassic Coast, where dinosaur bones aplenty have been found, and stopped off at the breathtakingly lovely Lulworth Cove, in the area where smugglers once hid. A brief visit to the ruins of Corfe Castle, a place of many dark doings, rounded off an excellent itinerary.

A couple of sea days gave us a chance to enjoy the Virtuosa’s many attractions, which include the gasp-inducing LED Dome at Sea, a sound and light show spanning the ship’s shopping mall, showcasing short films on the likes of dinosaurs and our world from outer space.

A spacious Grand Suite

On a similarly space-age theme, the Starship Club bar features robotic bartender Rob, the first non-human cocktail shaker on the oceans. Sadly, his combos aren’t included in the on-board drinks package, they’ll set you back £18, but hey, you’re on holiday! So far as less showy tech goes, the lifts are the fastest, shiniest, most efficient we’ve seen, a great way to reach the decks, each of which is named, this being the Virtuosa, for a virtuoso composer (Paganini, in our case).

The Virtuosa has a couple of dedicated live entertainment spaces, the Carousel and Le Grand Theatre, where song and dance shows are staged – France, New York, Italy and magic were the themes of the crackers we saw. There’s also live music across the public areas, whether that be indoor bars or those on the pool deck, which feature some rather large hot tubs.

You’re assigned one of the main dining rooms for the sailing, but don’t have to stick with it – the Marketplace buffet offers a wide range of grub, and the novelty of a mini-Mozzarella factory. And there are extra-pay eateries such as the French-Vietnamese Indochine and Butcher’s Cut steakhouse. There’s also a gelato bar and a chocolatier’s where you can concoct your own souvenir bar from a long list of ingredients (almond, strawberry, vanilla, orange and waffle in our case – no, you’re not having a bit!).

Our favourite of the 21 drinking areas was the Sky Lounge – it’s adults only and at the top of the ship, so affords superb views, day and night. Unfortunately, the Virtuosa is so big – it’s a 19-deck “mega ship” – that we didn’t actually discover it until our penultimate day…

A note on the billing. As with other cruise lines, MSC lets you see how non-inclusive charges are mounting day by day, so you know what will come off your card at trip’s end. The Virtuosa app, though, also lists the cost of food and drink you’ve had, and excursions taken, even though they’ve been paid for in advance – they’re later voided, but this isn’t made clear beforehand. Also, as well as registering a debit/credit card on embarkation, you must register again within two days via an onboard terminal or face the embarrassment of having payment refused, as we did. It’s all an unnecessary headache.

Overall, though, we had a brilliant time, the Virtuosa providing the break we needed, showing that a Cruise to Nowhere can be, actually, a cruise to heaven.

Seven-night cruises on the MSC Virtuosa start at £699pp, www.msccruises.co.uk; Martin Gray booked with cruise specialist Connoisseur Travel, www.connoisseur-travel.co.uk

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