On board the Gaddafi luxury liner

WINSOR DOBBIN
Last updated 09:54 12/04/2013

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I am taking in 180-degree views of the sparkling Mediterranean while sipping on a stiff gin and tonic that has been served to me by a strikingly tall Ukrainian lady, who looks as if she was previously a supermodel.

Life doesn't get much more glamorous than in the exclusive Top Sail lounge in the Yacht Club section on the 16th-level of the newly-launched luxury cruise ship MSC Preziosa.

And I am very lucky to be here. The man who was supposed to have been enjoying the views of distant Barcelona and the top-shelf drinks is none other than the late Libyan dictator Muammar Gadaffi and his cohorts.

The MSC Preziosa was originally ordered and designed by the deposed Libyan regime leader's son Hannibal and was under construction in St Nazaire in Brittany when Gaddafi was toppled in 2011.

Italian billionaire Gianluigi Aponte, whose Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC) Cruises is now the third-largest cruise company in the world after having been formed only just over a decade ago, stepped in and snapped up the half-finished vessel and had it finished to MSC specifications.

Out went Gaddafi's plans for a massive shark tank to dominate the fifth-floor atrium; in went a glittering staircase and a Hyatt-style glass elevator.

Christened late last month at a glittering black-tie ceremony in Genoa, the MSC Preziosa was sent off on her maiden voyage by veteran actress Sophia Loren, the "Godmother" of the MSC cruise fleet, to music conducted by the great composer Ennio Morricone.

The new-look Preziosa, which will start life doing seven-day cruises visiting Naples, Messina, La Goulette in Tunisia, Barcelona and Marseille, has a total of 1751 cabins and can host up to 3500 guests at any one time.

At 330 metres long, more than the length of three football pitches, she has a top speed of 24 knots. She is the 12th ship in the MSC Cruises fleet and the fourth Fantasia class vessel.

The Preziosa cost A$697 million to build and has four swimming pools, 26 lifts (still not enough at peak times), a mini bowling alley, and no fewer than 21 bars and restaurants over 18 decks. It feels less like a ship and more like a city afloat.

The exclusive Yacht Club suites, originally conceived as the Gaddafi family's private quarters on board, are just 69 in all and home to the movers and shakers on each cruise. These guests sip their drinks, barely getting their lips wet, as a pianist in the lounge tinkles unobtrusively in Richard Clayderman-style.

Those staying in the Yacht Club enjoy cabins with walk-in wardrobes, full bathrooms with bath and showers (and towels that are replaced twice daily on request), a complimentary mini bar, balcony or panoramic views and room service. There's king-sized bed with Egyptian cotton sheets, widescreen TV and a reserved area in the ship's Aurea Spa facility, operated by Balinese therapists.

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Yacht Club guests also have their own private pool and jacuzzis on the bow of the ship, unlimited alcohol and canapes, and are served high tea each afternoon, while a daily paper from your home country is delivered to your cabin each morning. Everything a dictator could wish for, really.

There are private butler and concierge services as well, should you need another selection from the pillow menu or to book a shore excursion. Concierge Maria, an Italian who speaks six languages, organises my visit to Carthage and Sidi Bou Said in Tunisia, while butler Jeannot, from Madagascar, is on hand to help should I need escorting to the Palmeraie restaurant on the first night of the cruise.

Rather bizarrely, the Palmeraie, the dedicated restaurant for Yacht Club guests, is at the stern of the ship - several hundred metres away. No one seems to have an explanation for this - maybe it was a Gaddafi foible.

The food throughout the ship has a largely Mediterranean vibe - and many of the chefs and waiters are Italian, although there were crew from 48 different nations on board the inaugural cruise.

The boast is "the flavours and aromas of the Mediterranean", which seemed to please most guests, with the possible exception of a stern group of Russians and their pneumatically-enhanced companions, who spent much of their time in the small smoking section of the Top Sail Lounge apparently fearful that the world was about to run out of cigarettes.

The rest of us enjoyed the 120-metre-long Vertigo water slide (the longest on any ship), and nightly entertainment offerings as diverse as bingo and the on-board casino to a 4D cinema, wine bar and the Eataly restaurant - the first afloat - which highlights artisanal Italian dishes like roast veal with vegetable couscous and organic Italian wines.

There are black-tie dinners on board for those who enjoy a bit of pomp, but plenty of options for those who do not - and meals from the two buffet restaurants are on offer 20 hours a day. There's shopping and dancing - and also the chance to switch off. I missed one early morning appointment because I was still fast asleep.

There are children's clubs and facilities for when mum and dad need a break and there is the choice of organised excursions at each port, or self exploration. Naples is grim but fortunately Vesuvius, Pompei, Capri and Sorrento are all close by; while Messina is a jumping off point for Toarmina and Etna, although I just took a train to the delightful seaside resort of Giardini.

Choose from historic Carthage or Medina, or both, in Tunisia, while both Barcelona and Marseille, the European capital of culture for 2013, are stunning in the spring.

As someone who can be seasick on the Manly ferry, I found the Preziosa wonderfully stable. The lift queues were sometimes annoying, disembarkation needs attention and I would have liked more choice of TV channels. These, however, are minor quibbles about a very special experience.

Muammar Gaddafi was captured and killed by Libyan rebels in late 2011. No doubt many of them objected to his luxurious lifestyle. His son Hannibal survived but fled to Algeria. I, meanwhile, ordered a cocktail and thought how fortunate I was.

The writer was a guest of MSC Cruises and Emirates Airways.

Seven-night Yacht Club class cruises on board the MSC Preziosa start from A$2893 per person including priority check-in, butler service, complimentary drinks and al a carte dining. For bookings and introductory offers contact MSC Cruises at www.msccruises.co-m.au.

- Sydney Morning Herald

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