Vacations have many variables. Variables can determine whether or not you enjoy your vacation. Basic vacation variables include (but are not limited to) transportation to your final destination, accommodations, quality of meals, service, weather, activities, and the company you keep!
Some of these we have some control over, but most we don't. We cannot control weather, food quality, friendliness of staff, or entertainment. Granted, many people 'complain' about these variables daily, but that is not 'controlling' them. Therefore, doing your homework is vital to a successful vacation.
When you stay at your everyday hotel, there are no activities planned for the hotel guests. On the contrary though, the more you spend, the better your chances are that the hotel/resort has a limited array of things to do. And these activities range from poolside games to water sports to entertainment. On a cruise, it 'is' different out there. My guesstimate is that the average 7-day cruise offers 40 excursions/tours per week. For sure you will see at least five per port of call, and in popular destinations, maybe up to 15. Tours make up a good portion of what you do on a cruise, and the cruise lines place a lot of emphasis on offering you a large variety.
Costa Cruise Lines, the upscale Italian line that runs two ships out of southern Florida during winter months [the CostaAtlantica and the CostaVictoria -- Ed.], is no exception to the number of excursions offered. During my cruise aboard the luxurious CostaAtlantica in April of 2001, I spent some time with Anna Marie Maestri, the Shore Excursion Manager.
Starting off our interview, I asked Anna Marie to give me her personal first and most important tip concerning the shore excursions. Without hesitation she delved into a long litany of reasons why you need to stop by the Shore Excursion Desk the first day you board. Simply put, the booklets you get are not always 100% accurate -- especially in the Caribbean.
The Caribbean seems to be a bit more susceptible to 'variables' such as hurricanes, poor quality reports of the tours, the bureaucracy of island governments, bankrupt tour operators, civil unrest on the islands, and too many ships in port at the same time. Frequently the excursion booklet that accompanies your cruise tickets is outdated. For the most part the information inside is accurate, but it is hard to blame the cruise lines, because the printing costs and logistics of printing booklets monthly would be unrealistic. So listen to Anna Marie and try to allow time after you board for a visit to the shore excursion desk.
Repeat cruisers like to try new tours, and this is one of Anna Marie's toughest tasks. Adding new tours requires a lot of work. First, the tour needs to be 'sampled.' If it passes this test, then everything about the tour is carefully scrutinized, from full inspections of vehicles and boats, to credit references. Crew members are met, maintenance records reviewed and personal references checked. If everything meets Costa's high standards, the tour is added to the ship's offerings.
Complaints come in daily to the shore excursion desk from disgruntled passengers for a myriad of reasons. But according to Anna Marie, some of the most common are:
The week we sailed, the CostaAtlantica visited Key West, Playa Del Carmen/Cozumel, Ocho Rios and Grand Bahama Island. I asked Anna Marie to give me some highlights of the respective tours for these islands:
Playa Del Carmen
Grand Cayman Island
Grand Bahama Island
A few others, not on our itinerary:
Anna Marie was born in Genoa, Italy. Genoa is famous in the cruising world because many of the ship companies have headquarters there. Growing up with a Costa ship or two always in the port, Anna Marie longed to work on a ship. But first she began her career as a Guest Relation's manager at Disneyland in Paris. One day she sent in her application to Costa and 60 days later she was living and working on a ship.
She has been at it six years and sees no end in sight. She loves her job and feels it is important to help passengers with their shore excursions. Her favorite ship is the CostaMarina, while her favorite port of call is Grand Cayman.
Anna Marie does love her job, and that was quite refreshing to witness. She smiled from ear to ear when she talked about her responsibilities and when providing me tips for passengers with regards to shore excursions. As we completed our time together, we recapped what passengers can do to make the most of their cruise and shore excursions:
On this cruise my friend, Debbie, and I did not take an excursion because we have been to these ports numerous times and decided to venture out more on our own. However, our dinner mates did go and had nothing but good reviews for the ship's staff and the excursions themselves. In fact, all six of us were very satisfied with just about every aspect of the cruise. Cruising "Italian Style" is not just Marketing hype - it's reality.
Photos courtesy of Douglas Terhune.
For lots more SeaLetter photos and information on CostaAtlantica, click HERE.
Doug Terhune is quite the experienced solo cruiser and is a regular columnist and reviewer for the SeaLetter. His Ship Tips columns are very popular with our readers.
Doug's special interest is interviewing various officers on his cruises, including interviews with the Tropicale's head chef, the Inspiration's Chief Engineer, and the Grandeur of the Sea's Captain. To find all of Doug's SeaLetter columns and cruise reviews, visit our SeaLetter COLUMNISTS Index.
Doug is always interested in your comments and suggestions and may be reached at: Doug@sealetter.com.
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