While the England soccer team spent their time in Qatar in a mid-range, booze-free hotel, their wives and girlfriends made it out in rather more elegant digs.
MSC World Europa – dubbed an “ultra-modern urban metropolis at sea” – was christened with a drone and fireworks display over Doha’s futuristic skyline earlier this month, becoming the largest cruise ship afloat after the Oasis-class of the giants of the Caribbean, the most recent Wonder of the Seas. Until it reaches open water, however, it’s being used as a floating hotel for World Cup fans, including the Wags, who have reportedly made full use of their premium drinks package and belted out the classics in the karaoke bar . Came on board for a three night stay ahead of the tournament.
Both World Europa and Wonder of the Seas were built in the same French yard, but their styles are very different, contrasting MSC’s European styling with Royal’s American might.
With a passenger capacity of 6,762, World Europa is 21 decks high and 215,863 gross tons (a measure of volume, rather than weight) while the 17-deck Wonder of the Seas carries up to 7,084 people and is 235,600 GRT. It’s roughly the size of three and a half QE2s – the beloved Cunard ocean liner that’s now a floating hotel in Dubai.
World Europa has a spiral slide with 11 bridges, dodgem cars, seven pools, a water park with a virtual tech ride, and 13 restaurants. Wonder – launched in March as the latest of five sisters each taking the title of world’s largest cruise ship – also has a superslide, as well as a water theatre, ice rink, robot mixologist and a surfing machine .
Both ships have a bridge missing for superstitious reasons. Wonder of the Seas, like many US ships, does not have a 13th floor. The MSC fleet, with its Italian roots, loses deck 17 because in Roman numerals it is XVII, an anagram of ‘VIXI’, which means ‘I have lived’ or ‘my life is over’.
From her vertical bow to the open Y-shaped promenade aft, the ship is a constant hive of activity, with plays, dance parties, drone races and nightclubs. As if that weren’t enough, the pop-up performances feature actors maneuvering life-sized animal puppets.
As I walked through a two-level indoor mall filled with shops, bars, and restaurants, dolphins appeared to swim majestically above me on a 3,500-square-foot LED screen (so convincingly that people who viewed my clip on social media media asked if they were real).
A ‘British pub’ with wooden barrels, hanging sign and Newcastle Brown on tap brews its own pils, bitters and wheat ale from desalinated water on board – drinkers can see the fermentation tanks through a glass wall as they enjoy their pints.
Upstairs is a gin house, while elsewhere there is a champagne lounge, a specialist cocktail bar and any number of bars.
If alcohol isn’t your thing, a tea room was laid out in the days of the Raj, contrasting with a modern coffee emporium serving beans from areas as diverse as France, Italy, Turkey and Morocco. To refresh yourself, you can go to a juice bar.
Of course, there are also all kinds of food offerings, from tacos to teppanyaki to chocolates to chicken wings to steak to sushi. A new seafood restaurant has fresh fish laid out on ice for guests to choose as they would at a market.
Another place even produces plates containing hydroponically grown “microgreens” — without soil — on shelves surrounding diners.
After braving the fall of 11 decks into the stainless steel chaos, I was relaxing with a drink at the stern of the ship when I saw the crowds gather, holding their phones aloft.
Wondering what the excitement was, I walked over to find a dazzling light show in progress, with multi-story columns in the open promenade pulsing, flashing, and sparking to the beat of the pumping music.
Later, I heard a rumor of a party on the upper deck. At midnight, performers in lighted jackets circled a DJ as passengers danced, drank and chatted in tight groups. I could still hear the music in the early hours from my balcony cabin.
But it would be wrong to imagine that World Europe is all noise and bright lights. Quiet areas include the spa, an adult “Zen zone,” and several of the pools, one under a retractable roof.
Much of the forward part of the ship is given over to the so-called Yacht Club, where well-heeled guests in 152 butler-serviced suites have their own restaurant, bar, pool and sundeck.
MSC Cruises normally caters to multigenerational and multinational customers. While the names of the ships have switched from Italian (Fantasia, Preziosa, Grandiosa) to English (Seaside, Seaview, Seashore) over the years, the ships themselves still have that pan-European flair, especially in the colorful entertainment. A musical show was performed entirely with props and costumes made from recycled materials.
With cruise ships getting bigger and bigger, are the days of such floating cities numbered in today’s trend of more sustainable travel? Well, it seems that instead of becoming dinosaurs, they are evolving to avoid extinction.
The executives of family-run MSC Cruises, based in Switzerland, speak passionately about the millions of pounds they have invested in making World Europe as green as possible. It uses liquefied natural gas (the cleanest fossil fuel), can connect to shore power, recycle water, and dispose of all waste responsibly.
The goal is to switch to hydrogen or biofuels as soon as possible. Already, they claim, World Europe has the lowest carbon footprint per passenger in the cruise industry. The vessel is testing a new type of fuel cell that will further reduce emissions and the entire fleet will be net-zero by 2050.
Of course, cruising will never be as green as cycling, but they argue that when alternative travel, hotel, entertainment and other factors are taken into consideration, it can compete favorably with other international package tours.
As someone who has sailed nearly 90 cruises on everything from four-passenger Scottish boats up to and including Wonder of the Seas, I still feel a sense of vertigo every time I step aboard one of these leviathans.
Following the end of the World Cup on 18 December, World Europa will spend the winter sailing seven-night cruises to the Middle East, moving to the Mediterranean next summer. A sister ship, MSC World America, is due to be launched in 2025, but plans for two more of the same size have not yet been confirmed.
MSC is known by its moniker “More Ships Coming,” and true to form, another, MSC Seascape, will be christened in New York next month by longtime “godmother” Sophia Loren (the 88-year-old has chosen to give the trip to Qatar was missed).
Megaships aren’t for everyone, but the cruise line has a solution for that, too. For more relaxed travellers, MSC Group will introduce a new luxury brand called Explora Journeys next year, launching the first in a series of six ships carrying fewer than 1,000 passengers.
It won’t have a chute or waterslides, but if – like Sartre – you believe that hell is other people, it might be the safest bet.
Dave has been a guest on MSC Cruises and Qatar Airways. An eight-night cruise on MSC World Europa, departing Abu Dhabi on 19 March 2023, costs from £769 per person excluding flights (msccruises.co.uk)