December will mark a major step forward in the amazing growth story of MSC with the arrival of the fabulous new MSC Fantasia. The 133,500-ton ship will be far the largest in the fleet and, for the first time, will give this ambitious Italian company a bigger vessel than close rival Costa Cruises.

It promises to be a historic moment in its 38-year lifespan – and a significant point at which to look back at how it all started, and how the line grew from humble cargo ship beginnings to an international shipping colossus.

The Mediterranean Shipping Company was actually founded in 1970 when Sorrento-born Gianluigi Aponte bought his first ship, the 1,861-ton Patricia. This small ex-German freighter traded in the Mediterranean and was soon followed by another second-hand ship, Rafaela, the first of a number of vessels named after Mr Aponte’s wife. MSC is very much a family business and, in the early days, all the ships were named after members of the family, including Aponte’s two children Alexa and Diego, who are heavily involved in the running of the company.

From conventional cargo ships, they expanded into container ships and experienced spectacular growth. In 2003, the company became the world’s second-largest carrier in respect of container slot capacity and for the number of container vessels operated. From its head office in Geneva, MSC currently operates a staggering 414 container vessels.

Its first foray into cruising came in 1989 when they bought the Neapolitan firm Starlauro Cruises and its sole ship, the 24,000-ton Achille Lauro. Named after the founder of Lauro Lines, this beautiful ship had achieved notoriety in 1985 when she was highjacked by Palestinian terrorists. She had been built in 1947 for the East Indies passenger service as Dutch liner Willem Ruys. The ship continued to operate under the Starlauro banner and offered value-for-money cruises in the Mediterranean and out of South Africa. However, in 1994 she caught fire in the Indian Ocean and sank.

Despite this loss, Starlauro also acquired a number of second-hand cruise ships: Monterey, a former US liner, which had been converted into a cruise ship; the 1951-built Symphony (ex-Enrico Costa) bought from Costa Line; and the 19,596-ton Rhapsody, which had started life as Cunard Princess in 1977.

In 1995, the cruise company’s name was officially changed from Starlauro to Mediterranean Shipping Cruises. Then, two years later, it bought its first large cruise ship, the 35,143-ton Melody, which had been completed for Home Lines as Atlantic in 1982. She became MSC’s first US-based ship in 1998 when she offered winter cruises to the Caribbean out of Miami.

Having established its reputation in the cruise market with second-hand tonnage, MSC moved up a gear when it ordered its first all-new vessels from the famous French shipyard Chantiers de l’Atlantique at St Nazaire in 2001. The opportunity arose when it purchased the options for a pair of 59,000-ton, 1,566-capacity ships designed for the European line Festival Cruises which, despite rapid growth, had been struggling with huge debts.

The two new-builds were to have been sisters to Festival’s European Stars and European Vision, which were completed in 2001 and 2002 respectively. More than 50% larger than Melody, the first was christened MSC Lirica by Italian film star Sophia Loren at a lavish ceremony in Naples in May 2003. Since then, all new MSC cruise ships have been named by the legendary actress.

Lirica and sister MSC Opera (delivered in June 2004) are streamlined versions of the rather stiff-looking Festival pair. With a curved stern area, they also have swept-back, elliptical funnels, which are similar in shape to Princess Cruises’ Sun-class ships. In terms of layout, all four ships are broadly similar, although Opera has an additional deck of cabins with balconies.

In early 2004, Festival Cruises went bankrupt after failing to obtain re-financing. European Stars was placed under arrest in Barcelona and Vision in Barbados. This was a sad end for an ambitious company which, in July 2001, had hosted the G8 Summit of industrialised nations aboard new flagship European Vision in Genoa. MSC acquired both vessels at auction and, after a refit, they joined the fleet as MSC Armonia (Vision) and Sinfonia (Stars).

The success of the new ships led MSC to place another order with Chantiers, now known as Aker Yards France, for four enlarged versions of the original quartet. Known as the Musica-class, these 89,600-tonners carry more than 3,000 passengers but, unlike the earlier ships, are driven by traditional fixed propellers instead of pod propulsion.

Some 78% of cabins are outside whilst 65% have private balconies. They also have more than 22,000sq m of public spaces, including a 1,240-seat, three-deck-high theatre, four restaurants and 14 bars and lounges. MSC Musica, the first to be delivered in June 2006, was followed by Orchestra in May 2007. Poesia was named by Sophia Loren in April this year at a starstudded gala event in Dover, which included concerts by the famous tenor Andrea Bocelli and rock star KT Tunstall.

The final ship in the quartet, Magnifica, which joins the fleet in 2010, will have a more spacious pool deck with a retractable glass roof to ensure year-round use. In recent months, MSC has ordered a further two Musica-class ships for delivery in 2011 and 2012 respectively with the tongue-twisting names MSC Meraviglia and Favolosa.

Enter, Fantasia

The next phase in the extraordinary evolution of this Geneva-based company came in November 2005 when it announced a EUR1billion order with Aker for two 133,500-ton ships. These giants will not only be the largest passenger ships built for a European owner but also the first modern cruise vessels to feature an exclusive three-deck area for premier passengers, the MSC Yacht Club.

MSC Fantasia will be christened in Naples on December 18 while the second, Splendida, will arrive in summer 2009. Significantly, Fantasia is also larger than Costa’s 114,500-ton new-builds Luminosa and Pacifica which are due out next year.

Another unique difference, the select MSC Yacht Club is reminiscent of first class life aboard liners of the past. It is situated forward in a dedicated area on the top three decks where passengers in 99 suites are provided with butler service and a number of exclusive VIP areas, including a reception with concierge service; a panoramic lounge overlooking the bow; private lifts; and, on the top deck, a separate pool area.

Yacht Club passengers can also enjoy complimentary drinks and dedicated menus in the ship’s restaurants. However,the situation of the Yacht Club does mean other passengers are unable to access forward views from the ship, apart from in the gym and spa on Deck 14.

Fantasia will carry almost 4,000 passengers and 1,325 crew. Of the 13 passenger decks, 6 are for passenger accommodation and, of the 1,637 cabins, only 17% are inside. A relatively high proportion (more than three quarters) also have private balconies.

As with ships of this size, most of the public rooms are situated on the three lower decks while the sun and sports areas occupy the four top decks. The interior design has been co-ordinated by MSC’s preferred designers, De Jorio Design International, and the focus has been on simple but stylish modernity with elements of historic reflection.

This is evident the moment one steps into the main foyer with its curved glass balconies, panoramic elevators and wooden floors. Forward of the main foyer is a large public space, which is pure Italian – the Piazza San Giorgio. Based on a typical Genoese piazza with brick and cobblestone flooring, it has shops and caf�s and has been designed as a central place for socialising, eating and listening to music.

The piazza is also not far from the three-deck-high, 1,650-capacity L’Avanguarda Theatre, which is shaped from iridescent metal and plexiglass forms. These change colours and effects depending on what is happening in the show. The ship also has two main restaurants, and the signature L’Etoile, an exclusive French restaurant, for which meals are charged on an � la carte basis. On the top deck is an Aquapark and pool with a magrodome sliding roof.

With the delivery of Favolosa in 2012, MSC will have 12 ships and one of the most modern fleets in the world. No mean feat for a company which, less than 10 years earlier, owned only three second-hand vessels.