Maiden cruise on the MSC Bellissima

Posted on 28 November 2019

MSC cruise ships are a familiar face on South Africa waters, so when fresh-out-the-shipyard Bellissima, the company’s newest addition, took her first voyage carrying passengers from France to the UK across the English Channel, we jumped aboard.

MSC Bellissima’s routes will take travellers around the Med, Persian Gulf and Asia. She has been built with advanced technology for cleaner ship emissions and the latest waste management and recycling systems. Image: supplied.

We have Archimedes to thank for cruising. While taking a bath in ancient Greece he discovered the law of buoyancy. During his daily soak, he worked out that if the weight of water displaced by an object is equal or heavier to the weight of the object, then the object will float. Realising he had solved a problem, he leapt out the tub and famously ran through the streets naked and yelling eúpnka (eureka), meaning ‘I have found it’ in Greek.

I was pondering this and the astonishing impact that his discovery has had on maritime travel while looking up at the Bellissima, MSC Cruises’ latest luxury liner, as our bus came to a halt in France’s ship-building port of Saint-Nazaire. I had always wanted to go on an ocean cruise, despite being prone to motion sickness and hearing cruise liners described as ‘floating hotels’ carrying vast numbers of people. And it seems a lot of people have had the same idea … stats show that millions of South Africans will have taken a cruise by the end of 2019.

Parisian-style L’Atelier Bistrot serves traditional French dishes. Image credit: Michelle Hardie

Eager to begin mine, I leapt up the 28-step staircase with my hand luggage. And who should be there to greet me? Two young South Africans working at the security check-in. Like me they were pleased to see a fellow Saffer, and once they’d verified I was a passenger they waved me through into the reception area. ‘I’ll see you later,’ I called to my travelling companions, who included MSC staff from South Africa, all of us excited to be on Bellissima’s virgin crossing from France to the UK. Not a regular route, she was being delivered to Southampton for the start of her career on the high seas, and Sophia Loren, the godmother of the MSC cruise fleet, would be there to christen her.

My Balcony Cabin was similar to a standard hotel room. Brand new, everything was squeaky clean and I was the first person to be sleeping in Cabin 11356 on Deck 11. I snuggled down on the sofa to read the information brochures, my astonishment growing at the logistics of running a cruise ship that accommodates 5, 686 guests and 1,564 crew members.

The double-volume view of Infinity Atrium on Deck 5 with reception below and Galleria Bellissima above. This is the social hub of the ship where a promenade of shops and restaurants are overlooked by an LED sky. Image credit: Michelle Hardie

MSC Bellissima’s surface area is the equivalent of 63 football pitches across her 19 decks; she has four pools, 12 restaurants and 20 bars and lounges (one serves 20 varieties of Champagne), and a staggering 15,000 croissants are made fresh onboard every day. That’s nearly three per person per day.

Zoe was a welcome presence in my cabin – she’s the voice-enabled cruise assistant developed by MSC. She understands seven languages and was asked more than two million questions during testing. She even helped me find the hair dryer I was having difficulty locating. Refreshed after a hot shower in the small but well-designed pearly-white bathroom, I headed off to explore before dinner.

The heart of the ship is her two-level indoor promenade, Galleria Bellissima, which has an LED-screen ceiling that shows mesmerising visuals ranging from graphic designs to night skies and landscapes. Accessed by the main 96-step staircase glittering in Swarovski crystals (640 in each step), it was as if I was walking through a fancy shopping centre but one sprinkled with photographers in suits – they were everywhere.

At first, I assumed a celebrity was nearby – maybe Sophia Loren was onboard or Andrea and Matteo Bocelli (who sang at the naming ceremony). But then I realised they were there for me and every other passenger. I can’t tell you how many poses the persistent photographer had me in but there were many.

There’s entertainment every evening in London Theatre on Deck 6. Image credit: Michelle Hardie

Delighted that my first night on my first cruise had been captured for posterity, I waltzed off to find my colleagues who were sipping cocktails in the glitzy TV Studio and Bar. From there we sauntered to the Lighthouse Restaurant for dinner and watched through a large window as fat mooring lines were released so Bellissima could ease away from the pier to begin her journey. As the ship began to gather way, the atmosphere in our group started to fizz.

I liked the convenience of having everything I desired in one place while on the move. I wasn’t worrying about packing my suitcase to catch a plane or driving to the next destination. My daily routine (gym, walking and reading) was interspersed with treats, such as free tastings at the five speciality restaurants and being offered gorgeous-looking drinks by waiters in the lounges at sundowner time. And if I felt a little sleepy I could retire to my room a few minutes away.

Here 84-year-old Italian doyenne Sophia Loren stands with the ship’s captain, Raffaele Pontecorvo, to her right on the bridge in the Galleria Bellissima during the ship’s naming ceremony. The proceedings were beamed across every screen on the ship, including the LED ceiling above them which produced a kaleidoscope of reflections. Image credit: Michelle Hardie

Admittedly, I spent a lot of time in the maze of corridors getting lost. But I eventually got a sixth sense of whether to turn left or right, or a steward would kindly point me in the right direction. It was suggested that I load the MSC For Me app on my phone, which has an interactive map of the ship that helped me get around. The app sent me notifications of events, such as live shows, and the MSC for Me Chat meant I could make plans with my travelling companions. In addition, I used the interactive screens on board to locate the speciality restaurants and the 80-metre-long Himalayan suspension bridge. It’s high – 60 metres above sea level – so I was quite content to watch some of the passengers bravely tackling it.

We cruised for a day up the coast of France passing the island of Ushant at midday. This 15-square-kilometre rocky mass marks the southwestern end of the English Channel. The following morning we neared the Isle of Wight and a pilot boarded to help Bellissima enter The Solent – a busy strait used by military, freight and passenger vessels and for great yachting regattas such as Cowes Week. By 8am we had docked in Southampton and I went ashore to explore the CBD, which looked a bit tired and grey after the glitz of the ship.

Japanese kabuki on the bridge across Galleria Bellissima’s promenade. Image credit: Michelle Hardie

Going ashore and returning to the ship was quick and easy with my cruise card which I kept on me at all times. The card is the equivalent of your house keys and your wallet combined. It gets you in and out of your room, on and off the ship and you can load it with credit for onboard purchases (over and above what is included in your cruise package). It’s an easy way to keep track of your spending.

Chocolate by renowned chef Jean-Phillipe Maury was on my list. Each month 1,5 tons of chocolate are made into products in the chocolaterie onboard. Throughout the trip I spent a good few hours hanging out in the French-style cafe tasting generous quantities of creamy macaroons for free, and 13 flavours of ice-cream at the gelato bar further along the promenade.

Finding South African employees at check-in meant I wasn’t surprised to meet another as I took an early morning walk along Deck 16. Ayanda Gxasheka grew up in Peddie and moved to Port Elizabeth in 2012 to study agricultural management at Nelson Mandela University. He was a few weeks into his job and was busy cleaning Horizon Pool, which has loads of deck space around it and turns into an outdoor venue at night.

South African Ayanda Gxasheka at work on the upper deck. Image credit: Michelle Hardie

‘I wanted to travel and see the world,’ he told me. ‘I could also have joined the cargo division with my qualification, and I know I have an opportunity for a career with the MSC Group.’

MSC has a strong connection with South Africans employing many worldwide. Owned solely by the Aponte family, seafarers since 1675, the MSC Group was founded with a single ship in 1970 and now has a 510-strong fleet of cargo ships and 16 luxury liners.

Would I go on another cruise? Yes, definitely! Pass the croissants, s’il vous plait.

Japanese cuisine is prepared in front of guests at Kaito Teppanyaki. Image credit: Michelle Hardie

Plan Your Trip

MSC Bellissima sailed a once-off route for her maiden voyage. As it was a short trip in winter, I didn’t spend much time on the upper deck.

Stay Here

There’s a wide range of accommodation types on the ship from the Luxurious Royal Suite (MSC Yacht Club) to cabins for families, duplex suites and budget interior cabins. Where you sleep and what’s included (ie which restaurants you can eat at for free) depends on the experience you choose, of which there are three: Bella Experience (value for money); Fantastica Experience (greater comfort and dining-time flexibility); Aurea Experience (all-inclusive comfort). For more information on what’s included in the price, visit

The view from upper deck while docked in Southampton. Image credit: Michelle Hardie

2019/2020 Routes

The ship’s routes for the rest of 2019 into 2020 include the Mediterranean, the Suez Canal, United Arab Emirates and East Asia. There are many dates to choose from but here are two examples of what’s on offer.

United Arab Emirates
Departing on 7 December from Dubai, stopping at Abu Dhabi, Sir Bani Yas Island, Doha and Bahrain. From R8 ,553 per person for eight days and seven nights.

Departing on 21 March 2020 from Dubai, stopping in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, China and Hong Kong. From R25 ,571 per person for 22 days and 21 nights. For more information, visit

Don’t Miss

The Butcher’s Cut – I spent many hours in this cosy steak house tasting small cuts of meat and sipping good Californian wine.
Kaito Teppanyaki is where you can watch Japanese chefs cooking traditional food … and then eat it!
Hola! Tapas Bar has a menu curated by Spanish chef Ramon Frexia. This is the place to snack if you don’t want a full meal.
The Sky Lounge on Deck 18 aft is at one of the highest points of the ship – the ocean view is all-encompassing and it’s a great spot for sundowners.
Cirque du Soleil at Sea has developed two new shows, Syma and Varelia, exclusive to MSC Bellissima.

MSC Bellissima being led ceremonially into port at Southampton. Cruising is a way to holiday slowly. There’s time to eat, sleep and feel free to join in with activities onboard or do your own thing … it’s entirely up to you. Image: supplied.


Techie Facts

  • Weight – 171,598 tons
  • Length – 315,83m
  • Width – 43m
  • Height – 67m
  • Maximum speed – 22,7 knots
  • Surface area – 450 000m² including 33,000m² public areas
  • 19 decks
  • 32 lifts
  • Wi-Fi available in all public areas and cabins.
  • 3,302 navigation sensors onboard
  • 195 information screens
  • 94 interactive screens
  • 2,217 cabins, including 55 for those with disabilities
  • 2,217 in-cabin smart TVs
  • Cabin voltage – 110/220 volts

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