Category: 07 – Cruise 8 – Northern Europe

Our eighth cruise to Northern Europe – and first with MSC – is a new chapter in the Journey into Darkness travel annals

Down South again

Departure port: Southampton
Destinations: Hamburg, Zeebrugge, Rotterdam, Le Havre
Cruise Line: MSC Cruises

This time we’re doing something different and trying MSC Cruises. The surprisingly low fares, coupled with the fact that they are the only operator still running cruises out of the UK at this time of year makes MSC the obvious choice for a short break.

MSC ships leave Southampton later in the evening, so there’s no need to stay in town the night before. Instead we take a leisurely daytime drive down without any major headaches.

Once in town we had planned to stop for lunch in the Westquay Shopping Centre. As we head up from the carpark, I remember there’s an escape room across the road, so we forget about lunch and head over to Locked in a Room instead. The venue is deserted and we are able to walk straight in. We choose Parallax which turns out to be the hardest room of the two on offer but we do manage to escape with six minutes to spare. The theming is great and the games masters really get into character – we have a great time (much better than a KFC).

Top tip: Look under everything.

Afterwards we stop for a Krispy Kreme donut and drive to the port (after much hassle trying to pay for parking). MSC sail from the Horizon Terminal which would be an easy walk from the city centre.

Our first sighting of the MSC Virtuosa moored in Southampton
First ‘glimpse’ of the MSC Virtuosa

Parking is right outside the terminal which is great. The journey through the terminal is smooth and hassle-free – none of the grief we have come to expect when sailing Princess Cruises. No queueing, no shoving, no complaining – incredible.

Once onboard, the sheer size of the ship becomes apparent. With a max passenger capacity of 6334 (+ crew), this place is enormous. There’s plenty of glitz and shiny stuff, much to Linda’s excitement.

Top tip: MSC offer a status match program, so if you’ve achieved status on another line, use the form here to apply for the MSC equivalent. Our Platinum Captain’s Circle status on Princess equates to ‘Gold’ level on MSC.

The cabin stateroom itself is nice, although the MSC experience lacks much of the polish we have come to associate with Princess Cruises. This is particularly true when it comes to tannoy announcements which are given in five or six languages, dragging on for several minutes at a time.

That said, we’re looking forward to our latest adventure…

Please note that although we may earn a referral fee or bonus points on some of these services, we never recommend anything we wouldn’t use ourselves.

MSC at Sea

Today is a day at sea, so it’s a good opportunity to mention some of our (random) observations. It’s a bit like an MSC vs Princess smackdown.

The passengers
MSC cruisers are much younger and a hell of a lot friendlier than the passengers on Princess. There’s a good mix of nationalities and everyone is (in the main) polite, uncomplaining and accommodating. Refreshing.

The facilities
The MSC Virtuosa has something for everyone. From kids clubs to bars, a waterpark to sports park, dance classes to casino to aerial assault course. You won’t get bored on this ship anytime soon.

The staff
As I mentioned previously, the service on MSC Cruises is slightly less polished than Princess Cruises, but that’s not a negative thing. Each night, around 9pm, the waiting staff launch into a weird, unannounced song and dance routine in the main dining room. It’s hilarious – and definitely something you won’t see on Sky Princess.

The buffet
The buffet operates according to some strange opening hours. It is not unusual to grab a plate and find that a counter has closed while your back is turned and all the food has vanished. Pizza, salads and burgers seem to be available almost around the clock, in between scheduled meals.

The bars
Virtually everything is included in the drinks package. You can even drink Lanson Black Label in the champagne bar on the drinks package. The adults-only bar on the top deck is really nice.

The chalet
For a short period each afternoon, a German Christmas Market-style chalet opens on the open deck. Well worth visiting if you like mulled wine, spiked hot chocolate or candy floss.

When it comes to MSC vs Princess, the American cruise line wins for candy floss
Adult-sized portions – Linda confirms it was good

The decor
Think Las Vegas.

Admittedly, we have travelled in term time, but there are kids on board. And because the kids club is on the top deck, you almost never see them. Those we did encounter were well-behaved, which is nice.

To summon a lift, one must first press the number of their floor. A digital display then tells you which of the six lifts to get into. There are no buttons inside the lift, so no one can change their mind mid-journey. As a result, the whole experience is smoother, faster and more pleasant.

The MSC Virtuosa has a great choice of beers. The ‘pub’ down in the main plaza has plenty on tap – and they live stream Premiership football matches too. The only downside is that snagging a seat on match day isn’t easy.

Generally excellent. Perhaps the only criticism would be that dishes sometimes arrive a little cold in the main dining room.

Would we travel MSC Cruises again? Yes, absolutely. It’s a different vibe to Princess, but we like it.

Please note that although we may earn a referral fee or bonus points on some of these services, we never recommend anything we wouldn’t use ourselves.


After a few days at sea we land in Hamburg, Germany. It’s Sunday, so most of the city is likely to be closed. Worse still, the local ferries that would take us straight into the city centre aren’t running.

It’s a two mile walk into town through the deserted docklands area, and the sights are few and far between. We pass the time doing a few geocaches of varying degrees of difficulty.

Top tip: There is a ferry which runs from a nearby dock straight into the St Pauli district of Hamburg – but it only runs Mon-Sat. If you visit on a Sunday, you’ll have to walk, use a taxi from the cruise terminal or pay (€15 each) for the shuttle bus overseen by MSC Cruises.

Eventually we arrive at the Old Elbe Tunnel, an old under-river passage that you may have seen Jon Voight running through in The Odessa File. Cars drive into large lifts and are hoisted to a subterranean roadway before being hoisted back up on the other side. Very cool – we enjoy our walk through this particular piece of history.

At the other side of the tunnel we arrive in the St Pauli district of Hamburg. It’s at least another mile to walk into the city centre but the local Hard Rock Café is right by the entrance of the tunnel. In the same way that I like to visit Apple Stores across the world, Linda loves Hard Rock Cafés, so we stop in for a beer and to purchase a local pin badge for her collection.

Afterwards we head back to the ship in some very (very!) fine snow. It’s a shame the ferries aren’t running – or any other public transport for that matter.

We’ll be back in Germany in June – but next time it will be way down south, in Munich.

Please note that we use sponsored links on this blog. Although we may earn a referral fee or bonus points on some of these products and services, we never recommend anything we wouldn’t use ourselves.

All Brussels, No Sprouts

The Virtuosa docks in Zeebrugge before dawn, offering an impressive moonlit journey into port. Having visited Bruges before, we have this time opted for an excursion into Brussels.

After meeting in the ship’s theatre, we’re loaded onto a coach for the drive into the Belgian capital. Our tour guide provides plenty of Belgian historical commentary, from the medieval beginnings of Bruges to the post-war resurgence of Brussels.

Top tip: It is possible to make your own way to Brussels by train from Zeebrugge. It’s about an hour each way and not particularly expensive – but it’s a lot easier (and more informative) to book an excursion on the ship.

Bonus tip: There is a free shuttle bus that runs from dockside to the dock gates – but that’s as far as it goes. Apparently there are a few public transport options within walking distance from the drop-off point.

The coach takes us past the King Baudoin Stadium (formerly known as Heysel) and on to the Atomium. Built to resemble a super-magnified iron crystal, it’s impressive to note this space age structure was erected in 1958. Sadly we don’t have enough time to go inside.

Afterwards, the coach takes us through much of the European Union heartland. Incredibly, the EU currently occupies 66 buildings – with many more under construction. If you ever wondered where the EU budget goes…

We are then dropped at the Boulevard de Berlaimont near Saint Michael’s Cathedral for a short foot tour with our guide. After showing us a few sights, he leaves us at the Grand Place for two hours to spend however we want. Linda and I head straight for the legendary Mannekin Pis – which is surprisingly tiny (and underwhelming!).

We then head back to the Grand Place and another Hard Rock Café. As well as a local brew, we both enjoy a Belgian Waffle (and buy the obligatory pin badge). We even manage to squeeze in a quick (very simple) geocache before meeting up with our group for the return journey to the Virtuosa.

Top tip: Along with all the usual memorabilia, there are some very cool drawings and portraits by various artists on the top floor of the Hard Rock Café, including Keith Moon of The Who. It is well worth a walk up all those extra stairs.

Rotterdamned. Again.

We’ve been to Rotterdam several times before, but the sunrise journey into port is always quite spectacular. The golden morning light turns an industrial jungle into something really quite beautiful.

Because we have already seen most of Rotterdam’s highlights, we had planned to catch the metro up to The Hague today with a view to doing an escape room. However, we decide to take it easy instead, venturing ashore and limiting ourselves to the Rijnhaven area adjacent to the cruise terminal.

There’s plenty of restaurants, cafés and bars in the area, and for a while we watch a group of young and trendy people filming some kind of advertisement. We then busy ourselves hunting down a handful of geocaches with varying degrees of success.

Top tip: The Rotterdam Cruise Terminal is located in the city. It is a short walk over the Erasmus Bridge into the main shopping area and there is a tram stop and metro station nearby. There is no need at all (unless you have difficulties walking) to use any of the paid-for shuttle services.

Afterwards we head across a footbridge to the Fenix Food Factory located in a converted shipping warehouse. Herein lies the Kaapse Kaap taproom with 30+ local beers to try. It takes a while to pick one, but in the end we both find something we enjoy.

Beer sampled, we head back to the ship. The sunshine is nice, but it’s still very chilly!

The ship sails in late afternoon and we get to enjoy the sunset over the Europort petroleum depot. It sounds awful, but the view is still incredible.

Grey Town

Today we’re in Le Havre, what appears to be a relatively industrial enclave on the Normandy coast. The ship docks within seeing distance of the city centre – but it’s at least a mile to walk into the town.

The city is overwhelmingly grey, undoubtedly a result of post-war reconstruction that heavily favoured concrete. This is not a pretty town – if you want something more visibly attractive, Honfleur is supposed to be nicer and it’s not too far away by bus.

Top tip: The Normandy coast saw some of the most vicious fighting towards the end of WW2. Dark tourists may want to check out the D Day landing beaches which are located to the south of the city.

On the way into town we grab a few geocaches, including a fun one in a puzzle box under a bridge. Sadly there’s not much by way of sights in the town – and we have arrived near lunchtime as all the stores shut for an hour or two. The place feels deserted.

Top tip: Most cruise lines advertise this port as Le Havre – Paris. Don’t be fooled – it’s almost two hours drive to the French capital. Even the cruise ship excursion staff have a hard time selling their trips because you have almost no time to see anything in Paris. Our advice? Don’t bother.

We make our way to the faithfully restored Cathédrale Notre-Dame which still bears some scars of bombing and fighting in 1944-45. However, inside we discover something quite incredible:

In one of the side chapels is a fairly standard crucifix. However, the photograph besides reveals something quite astonishing – Jesus was the only thing to have survived the heavy bombardment of the Cathedral in September 1944. The only damage he sustained? A gash on his side, just as described in the New Testament book of John.

It has to be said, Le Havre does have a more famous church to visit, but we found this undocumented piece of history particularly fascinating.

Afterwards we retire to L’Havrais Bière, a local brewpub serving its own beers. With six to eight ales to choose from, there’s something for everyone – and my cloudy IPA is pretty decent. Then it’s the long walk back to the ship…

Sadly, we’re back in Southampton tomorrow. But we have Norway, Iceland and Poland coming up in May…

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