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Sail of the century

IT'S so Italian. The power of a Ferrari. The elegance of a Venetian palazzo. The buzzing nightlife of a Rimini club. Divina is a statement of intent by Italian cruise giants MSC that it wants to be numero uno on the ocean waves.

And the American players should sit up and take notice.

The Herald was the only Irish media organisation to join the world's press and TV crews as it launched in Marseille over the weekend. And launches can be a double-edged sword - a bit like a first night at a show, it can all go perfectly or become a nightmare.

But MSC have really upped their game. The staff were professional, friendly and, while it's proudly European, there's a fair bit of American can-do and cheeriness about everyone onboard. Step on to the ship, and you'll be accosted by opulence. The grand spiral staircase is inlaid with Swarovski crystals - and each step cost an eye-popping €24,000.

The Piazza del Doge is a buzzy al fresco-style drinking and shopping area in the heart of the ship.If you think you've seen it before, you have. It's inspired by the late Gothic style of Venice's palatial Ca' d'Oro. Sip on a cocktail or cappuccino and people watch as if you're in the heart of a Roman piazza.

While they're not great at producing pop, the Italians do nightclubs well - and Divina's extensive offering is based on a 1950s club. It's elegant, it's huge, and the music is refreshingly cheesy.

If you want to look your best, the lads even have their own Roman-style barbershop, while the girls have a sprawling spa area.

Face down on a treatment table, with a little Asian man rubbing my shoulders (not my idea), I had a bird's-eye view over the historic Vieux Port when we were docked in Marseille. On sea days, there's nothing more relaxing than looking out at the passing waves as you're massaged (Balinese a speciality onboard).

But this is a mass-market ship (see price panel for how cheap in price it can be), so there's fun as well as culture and pampering. Fancy 10-pin bowling? There's no need to go ashore, as Divina has its own alleys. You can pretend you're Jenson Button on the F1 simulator, or catch a movie in the 4D theatre.

Up top, it's unusual - but great - to see whirlpools on upper and lower decks, and there's also a giant screen for movies.

The infinity garden pool and 'beach area' are dying to be used on those sunny days in the Med, while another has a retractable roof for the chillier months.

If you've got the cash, the MSC Yacht Club is the ultimate in exclusivity. It's a self-contained private club for its members only, so it feels as if you're on a yacht rather than large liner.

For the extra bucks, you get a bigger room, tended to by butlers, your own restaurant, bar, pool, private decks and lifts.

You won't want to sleep given all the distractions, but the rooms, though feeling narrower than usual to me, are very classy. The showers have proper retractable plastic doors, and the bedroom is much more boutique hotel than ship cabin.

Nightlife is always one of MSC's strengths, and the sports bar is great for catching up on the action. The jazz bar is cool - and does what it says on the tin - and the cigar lounge has a classy private members' feel to it.

The main dining room is as classy as you'd expect, but even the casual buffet has an amazing array of dishes -- and the Italian staples (including freshly made pizza and pastas are mouthwatering.

Irish passengers, used to American lines and their great service, have been slow to try the European alternative. Divina looks like a game changer.

FACTFILE: Divina's taking a great route around the eastern Med. Starting in Venice, you hit Bari in Italy; Katakolon in Greece; Izmir and Istanbul in Turkey; Dubrovnik in Croatia, before heading back to Venice.

Travel in the autumn and you'll get super bargains - cruise only is €399 per person for an inside cabin (€599 for balcony) leaving October 6, 13, 20 or 27. Fancy all-inclusive drinks package - just add €161pp.

If you want to go high season, August 8, 15 and 22 come in at €549 (inside) and €749 (balcony). Even better, kids go free, paying just port taxes of €115.

See www.msccruises.ie for more information.