by Vincent and Mary Finelli
CostaRomantica Western Caribbean and Panama Canal
November 29 - December 10, 1998
This was our fifth Caribbean cruise in the last two years, but the first one to the Panama Canal. We have cruised on the Grandeur of the Seas, Norwegian Wind, CostaVictoria, and twice on the CostaRomantica, our favorite ship. We have previously written a review on the Romantica April 19 - 26, 1998 Eastern Caribbean cruise, thus we are not going to report again the specific details on her size, passenger capacity, passenger to space and crew ratios, etc., but we are going to report our second impression of this ship and some information on the Panama Canal and Belize.
Overall we had a great cruise, even better than the one we had in April on this ship. However, as we stated before in other reviews, we have never had a bad cruise yet. We love cruising, and in particular we love cruising on the Romantica; we love her so much that we have planned the wedding of our son for February 14, 1999 on this ship. From the courteous attention we have continually received by the ship's staff, we can predict a great outcome for the ceremony, reception and dinner which will be attended by about one hundred wedding guests. We look forward to this event, and plan to write our first review of a wedding on board.
The boarding procedure went somewhat slow but without major problems. The Romantica had just arrived in Ft. Lauderdale from the Mediterranean, thus the official inspections by U.S. Customs may have been longer than usual. Even with priority boarding that Costa offers to suite and mini-suite passengers, we were delayed for about one hour before boarding. But once we entered the ship, we saw two long lines of nattily dressed crew in maroon uniforms and white gloves waiting to escort the passengers to their cabins. This type of welcome aboard procedure distinguishes Costa from some other cruise lines where, after crossing the gangway, you have to ask some crew member for directions to your cabin.
Our cabin was mini-suite #1121 on Monte Carlo Deck (#11). Similar to the one we had last April, it is a very spacious (340 sq. ft.) room with three huge floor-to-ceiling panoramic windows and a large all-marble bathroom with a Jacuzzi tub and separate shower stall. For those who have read our previous review for the April cruise, it is superfluous to repeat the description of the cabin, but it is important to learn that the problem we had with the poor visibility through the windows due to water condensation between the double glass panes was absent in this cabin. After a conversation with the Hotel Director, Alfredo Salomoni, I learned that there was a problem of marred visibility in several windows which had been corrected and that continuous attention will be given to the prevention and repairs of future problems with glass pane seals.
It became apparent to us that continuous maintenance kept everything in shipshape condition and sparkling clean, from the galley to the theater, from the corridors to the cabins. It was like being on a new ship, but with the charms of older liners.
With a very few exceptions, we have always received good service on every ship we have cruised on. I believe that the accepted practice of tipping is a great incentive for good service; good service yields good tipping and vice versa. But on the Romantica, the service has been exceptionally great, as great as the service on the luxury liners of yesteryear, but without the ultra formality and stuffiness often encountered on ships with distinct segregation of classes (e.g. Cunard Line). From the bus boy to the waiter, from the steward to the butler, all of the crew were eager to please.
We had impeccable cabin service from Irfan, the butler, who served our breakfast in white gloves and with a big smile, and from Raja, the steward, who unobtrusively always kept our cabin shipshape.
In the restaurant, the service was also outstanding: Jhon (that's how he spells his name), the waiter was prompt, alert and entertaining. He always wanted to please us by asking if everything was all right or if we desired any other thing. Victor, the assistant waiter, was always attentive and pleasant. After the first dinner, he remembered our preferences and anticipated our desires; he was always there, serving us with a big smile. We wish to congratulate Mario Anselmi, Maitre d'Hotel, for overseeing the waiting staff and maintaining a high standard of efficiency and pleasant atmosphere in the restaurant.
Most of the time, we ate breakfast in the cabin, and lunch and dinner at the Botticelli Restaurant. We had a few lunches and snacks at the Giardino buffet and a pizza at Romeo's Pizzeria. The breakfast was always good, with hot coffee and hot chocolate or hot milk, soft boiled eggs or omelets, danish pastry and rolls, etc. One comment about the coffee: in general, the coffee aboard was always strong, whether espresso or American-type coffee. It seemed to me that either type was brewed from the same coffee blend; the only difference between the two types was concentration -- the espresso being more concentrated than the American coffee. A suggestion to Costa: use American blends of coffee to brew the regular coffee, especially when cruising in the Caribbean, and the Italian type of coffee for making espresso or cappuccino.
The food at the Giardino buffet was better than that found at a common cafeteria, but not as good as that found at the Botticelli. We tried the pizza once and it did not meet our expectations. As for the food at the Botticelli, we were very pleased. The quality was good and the variety great. There were ample choices: five or more main courses were offered in the menu, thus the chance of not liking any of them was really minimal. But even if someone preferred something not listed on the menu, the wait staff usually fulfilled his/her wishes.
Most of all, the pastries were exquisite: delicious soufflés, cream puffs, and the Neapolitan pastiera, a ricotta cheese cake, which Camillo Buonincontro, the Pastry Chef, baked to perfection. When I met Camillo, I congratulated him for making such a delicious dessert. I am looking forward to the wedding cake that he will bake for my son's wedding.
Entertainment for us is not a major reason for cruising, but we do attend a few shows and have an opinion about whether we were entertained or not. During the eleven days aboard, we attended five or six evening shows. We enjoyed "I'll take Manhattan," a Broadway-type show performed by the CostaRomantica Dancers and Orchestra.
We also enjoyed the performance of Peter Lemongello, an Italo-American singer with the style of Frank Sinatra. His voice was pleasant and he had the ability to interact with the audience. The popular tunes of his repertoire, his charisma and audience participation were the ingredients for a fun-filled evening.
A disappointing show was the performance by a magician that would have been more appropriate if done at a children's party or at the amateur hour. We were also a bit disappointed with the performance of a solo concert of the classic guitarist, Jonathan Sargent -- not because of his lack of talent, but because he was featured as the main evening attraction for an audience with few connoisseurs of classic guitar, his repertoire was not popular, and the sound system used with his guitar was not appropriate for the large theater.
A few minutes after the beginning of the performance, people started walking out of the theater and the continuous movement among the seats caused unwanted distractions for those of us who would have enjoyed the concert. A suggestion on this matter: this concert should have been given during an afternoon in a smaller room, possibly in the Tango Ballroom, where the amplification of the guitar would have not been a critical element and a selective group of classical guitar lovers would have enjoyed the performance.
Tropical Night, a pool side party, was a success. Everybody seemed to have a lot of fun with music, limbo dancing, ice carving demonstrations and the midnight buffet. We also noted that on this ship, more so than others, there was almost always a contagious festive atmosphere which spread happy feelings among all cruisers. Credit for this happy cruising "Italian Style" must go to the very active Cruise Director, Franco De Vettori, and his staff.
We often sat in Piazza Italia and enjoyed listening to the Sensational Strollers playing popular songs or arias from classical music. Other activities which kept us busy during the cruising days were the various trivia quizzes, from classical music to geography and to movie actors and other categories. We won prizes most of the times we participated.
In the cabin, the entertainment on television was poor. A few movies in English, Italian, French, Spanish and German were transmitted on various channels, but I missed the news channel (CNN) and the sport channel (ESPN), which were not available on this ship. In this area NCL and RCI fared better. In this great era of communications, Costa must update its services to effectively compete in the cruise industry.
Each year, at the beginning of the Caribbean cruise season, Costa makes one trip to the Panama Canal. This year the itinerary included Grand Cayman, the Panama Canal, Ocho Rios, Belize and Playa del Carmen/Cozumel. With the exception of Belize and the Panama Canal, we had previously visited the other ports during two Western Caribbean cruises. The Panama Canal was surely what we expected, the great engineering feat of the locks and of the largest manmade lake (Gatun Lake). We watched first from the deck and then from our cabin the ship entering the first lock and being raised to the next level to continue into the next lock. In the meantime, we watched a ship in the adjacent lock going through the same maneuvers.
We crossed the Canal only half way (partial crossing), but upon returning we got the chance to see the other side of the Canal from our cabin, so we don't feel we missed anything. We were amazed to see so many ships, mainly cargo ships, waiting to cross the Canal. The Romantica must have had priority, since we did not have to wait in line to begin our crossing.
Once on the lake we could see another cruise liner anchored at a distance from us. We remained anchored on the lake from midmorning until mid-afternoon. It felt very peaceful contemplating the deep green tropical forest bordering the calm blue waters of the lake; my wife offered me quite a few pennies for my thoughts. It was worth the trip!
In regard to Belize, there isn't much to say. I am afraid to bad mouth this land, because the only thing we saw there was Belize City, a poor and run down city. Maybe they'll get better organized for their tourist sites: the Mayan ruins and the ecotourist sites. The ship's Captain, Aldo Buongarzone, had to be very careful navigating through dangerous coral reefs and shallow waters for quite some time while approaching or leaving the port. He stated that this may have been the first and last time that a Costa ship would visit Belize.
There is always a feeling of sadness when debarking a cruise ship, but this time the sadness was attenuated by having had an eleven-day cruise instead of seven and, also, we'll return to the Romantica on February 14 for the wedding of our son. The process of debarkation went as smoothly as possible: we were off the ship by 9:00 a.m. and on our way home, reminiscing about the good times we had aboard.
We had a great cruise on the CostaRomantica and we'll plan to cruise on her again in the future. But for the next few cruises, we want to try other ships, such as the Mercury, on Jan. 17th, the Grand Princess, on May 2nd, and the RCI Voyager of the Seas, on Nov. 28th, 1999. We are looking forward to writing a review of the Valentine's day wedding aboard the CostaRomantica.
Vincent and Mary Finelli have contributed previously to the SeaLetter and can be reached for questions or comment at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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