On board the MSC Virtuosa – the first cruise ship to leave Southampton since Covid-19 hit

We’re shipshape at last: The first cruise finally left Southampton this week. And it was better than ever…

  • MSC Virtuosa set sail from Southampton this week on a four-night British ‘seacation’ carrying 1,000 guests
  • One of them was the Daily Mail’s Lesley Bellew, who says there’s no denying that life on board is different 
  • She found bags of space in the ship’s dining venues and explored the vessel’s glitzy three-deck atrium

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Rocking and rolling under the greyest of skies, with winds gusting at 33 knots, there’s no one outside for a deck party on MSC Virtuosa as she sails slowly out of Southampton.

It’s not quite the sunshine return to cruising I’d imagined on the first ship to sail from the UK since Covid-19 brought the industry to a standstill 14 months ago. But the passengers and crew are buzzing.

This four-night British ‘seacation’ – carrying 1,000 guests instead of the maximum 6,334 – is making history through a real European effort; MSC Cruises is Swiss-owned with Italian bosses, and the new liner was built in a French shipyard.

The MSC Virtuosa, pictured, sailed out of Southampton this week on a four-night British 'seacation' carrying 1,000 guests instead of the maximum 6,334

The MSC Virtuosa, pictured, sailed out of Southampton this week on a four-night British ‘seacation’ carrying 1,000 guests instead of the maximum 6,334

All passengers are from the UK, so the Masters of the Sea pub, the sticky toffee pudding on the menu and the kettle and Yorkshire Tea in every cabin all add a really homely feel.

All eyes are on MSC Virtuosa’s debut, and with prices from less than £500 pp, including drinks and tips, it’s a tempting offer.

At Southampton’s City Cruise Terminal, check-in health protocols are impressively slick.

Passengers share stories about their return to travel while waiting for compulsory pre-embarkation Covid test results. If the result is positive, the passenger and their travelling companions can not board. No ifs, no buts.

The MSC Virtuosa is an 18-deck megaship that has a glitzy three-deck atrium, pictured, complete with crystal staircases and grand piano

The MSC Virtuosa is an 18-deck megaship that has a glitzy three-deck atrium, pictured, complete with crystal staircases and grand piano

The ship has four pools, a ten-pin bowling alley, a basketball court and classes from yoga to aerobics, plus jive and tango dance sessions

The ship has four pools, a ten-pin bowling alley, a basketball court and classes from yoga to aerobics, plus jive and tango dance sessions

I am almost giddy with excitement walking up the gangway and being handed a glass of champagne in the glitzy three-deck atrium, complete with crystal staircases and grand piano.

It’s going to take more than four nights to experience everything on this 18-deck megaship, which has four pools, a ten-pin bowling alley, a basketball court and classes from yoga to aerobics, plus jive and tango dance sessions.

‘This is the first time I have cruised on my own, but when I saw a four-night deal for £489 I thought, ‘Yes, I am getting on there,’ ‘ says Kyle Harwood, 24, from Nottingham.

There’s no denying life on board is different, but in some ways it’s better for it. 

Virtuosa has 12 dining venues, including five speciality restaurants. Pictured is the Indochine restaurant

Virtuosa has 12 dining venues, including five speciality restaurants. Pictured is the Indochine restaurant 

Rob, the robotic bartender, who cracks jokes and serves cocktails at the ship's MSC Starship Club

Rob, the robotic bartender, who cracks jokes and serves cocktails at the ship’s MSC Starship Club

The Daily Mail's Lesley Bellew on board MSC Virtuosa for its seacation. She said: 'There's no denying life on board is different, but in some ways it's better for it'

The Daily Mail’s Lesley Bellew on board MSC Virtuosa for its seacation. She said: ‘There’s no denying life on board is different, but in some ways it’s better for it’ 

There’s bags of space in the 12 dining venues, including the five speciality restaurants. 

It’s easy to book tables, shows and classes on touchscreens dotted around the ship or by using my electronic wristband linked to an onboard account. 

There are no self-service buffets or paper menus — and drinks can be ordered simply by scanning a QR code on your phone.

Rob, the robotic bartender, cracks jokes and serves cocktails at the MSC Starship Club. 

Little ones play in the children’s zone, with a Chicco baby club, Lego rooms, computer games and cool teen hang-outs. 

Meanwhile, their parents can head to the vast spa which has more than 20 massage rooms. 

For fans of fitness, sea views make a nice distraction while pounding the treadmill in the gym.

The weather clears a little by the morning. 

So I take a walk around the deck and feel the joy of being at sea, but with comforts close at hand. It’s a pleasure I will never again take for granted.

MSC Cruises managing director Antonio Paradiso is on board and feeling emotional. He is teary-eyed as he says: ‘This is a historic day for the cruise industry.

‘It’s been hell, but tell everybody, we are back.’ 

TRAVEL FACTS

MSC Virtuosa’s seven-night British sailings start in June, with prices from £849 pp (msccruises.co.uk, 0203 426 3010).

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