While the England football team has spent their time in Qatar at a mid-range, alcohol-free hotel, their wives and girlfriends have been living it up in rather more stylish digs.
MSC World Europa – dubbed an ‘ultramodern urban metropolis at sea’ – was christened with a drone display and fireworks against the futuristic skyline of Doha earlier this month, becoming the biggest cruise ship afloat after the Oasis class of Royal Caribbean giants, most recently Wonder of the Seas. Until it hits the high seas, however, it is being used as a floating hotel for World Cup fans – including the Wags, who have reportedly been making full use of their premium drinks package and belting out classics in the karaoke bar. I hopped on board for a three-night stay ahead ahead of the tournament.
Both World Europa and Wonder of the Seas were built at the same French shipyard, but their styles are very different, contrasting MSC’s European flair against Royal’s American might.
With a capacity of 6,762 passengers, World Europa is 21 decks high and 215,863 gross registered 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. That’s about the size of three-and-a-half QE2s – the beloved Cunard liner that’s now a floating hotel in Dubai.
World Europa has an 11-deck spiral slide, dodgem cars, seven pools, a water park with a virtual technology ride plus 13 dining venues. Wonder – launched in March as the latest of five sisters each passing on the title of the biggest cruise ship in the world – also has a superslide, as well as a water theatre, ice rink, robot bartenders and surf machine.
Both ships have a deck missing for superstitious reasons. Wonder of the Seas, like many US vessels, has no 13th floor. The MSC fleet, with its Italian roots, misses out deck 17 because in Roman numerals it’s XVII, an anagram of ‘VIXI’, meaning ‘I lived’ or ‘my life is over’.
From its vertical bow to the Y-shaped open promenade at the stern, the ship is a constant hive of activity, with theatre shows, dance parties, drone races and roller discos. As if that weren’t enough, pop-up performances include actors operating life-sized animal puppets.
As I walked along a two-level interior mall filled with shops, bars and restaurants, dolphins appeared to swim majestically above me on an 3,500 square feet LED screen (so convincingly that people who saw my clip on social media asked if they were real).
A ‘British pub’ with wooden barrels, hanging sign and Newcastle Brown on tap brews its own pils, bitter and wheat beer 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 is a champagne lounge, specialist cocktail venue and any number of bars.
If alcohol isn’t your thing, a tea room has been styled in the days of the Raj, contrasting with a modern coffee emporium serving beans from such diverse areas as France, Italy, Turkey and Morocco. To cool down, you can head to a juice bar.
Of course, there are all sorts of food offerings as well, from tacos to teppanyaki, chocolates to chicken wings, and steak to sushi. A new seafood restaurant has fresh fish laid out on ice for guests to choose as they would in a market.
Another place even makes dishes containing ‘microgreens’ grown hydroponically – without soil – on shelves surrounding the diners.
After I braved the 11-deck drop in the stainless steel helter-skelter, I was relaxing with a drink at the stern of the ship when I saw crowds gathering, holding their phones aloft.
Wondering what the excitement was, I wandered over to find a dazzling light show going on, with multi-storey columns in the open promenade pulsating, flashing and twinkling to the beat of pumping music.
Later, I heard a rumour of a party on the top deck. At midnight, performers in lit-up jackets were gyrating around a DJ while passengers danced, drank and chatted in huddled groups. I could still hear the music in the early hours from my balcony cabin.
But it would be wrong to imagine that World Europa is all loud noise and bright lights. Tranquil areas include the spa, an adult ‘Zen area’ and many of the pools – one under a retractable roof.
Much of the front of the ship is dedicated to the so-called Yacht Club, where bigger-spending guests in 152 butler-serviced suites have their own restaurant, bar, pool and sun deck.
Normally MSC Cruises caters for multi-generational, multinational customers. While over the years the names of the ships have moved from Italian (Fantasia, Preziosa, Grandiosa) to English (Seaside, Seaview, Seashore), the vessels themselves still have that pan-European feel, especially in the colourful entertainment. One musical show was performed entirely with props and costumes made from recycled materials.
With cruise ships becoming ever 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’re evolving to avoid extinction.
Executives at family-owned, Swiss-based MSC Cruises talk passionately about the millions of pounds they have invested to make World Europa as green as possible. It uses liquefied natural gas (the cleanest fossil fuel), can plug into shore power, recycles water and disposes of all waste responsibly.
The aim is to move to hydrogen or biofuel as soon as practically possible. Already, they claim, World Europa has the lowest carbon footprint per passenger in the cruise industry. The ship is testing out a new sort of fuel cell that will cut emissions further and the whole fleet will be net-zero by 2050.
Of course, cruising will never be as green as riding a bicycle, but they argue that if you take into account alternative travel, hotel, entertainment and other factors, it can compete favourably against other international package holidays.
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 dizziness every time I board one of these leviathans.
After the World Cup ends on December 18, World Europa will spend the winter sailing seven-night cruises in the Middle East, moving to the Med next summer. A sister ship, MSC World America, is due to launch in 2025, but plans for another two of the same size have not yet been confirmed.
MSC is known by its nickname of ‘More Ships Coming’ – and true to form, another, MSC Seascape, will be christened in New York next month by long-time ‘godmother’ Sophia Loren (the 88-year-old opted to give the trip to Qatar a miss).
Megaships aren’t for everybody, but the cruise line even has a solution for that. For the more sedate traveller, the MSC Group is introducing a new luxury brand next year called Explora Journeys, launching the first in a series of six ships carrying fewer than 1,000 passengers.
It won’t have a slide or water chutes, but if – like Sartre – you believe hell is other people, that might be the safer bet.
Dave was a guest of MSC Cruises and Qatar Airways. An eight-night cruise on MSC World Europa, departing Abu Dhabi on March 19 2023, costs from £769 per person, excluding flights (msccruises.co.uk)