How about a cruise where they pass out bed sheets and ask you to wear them as Roman togas? And how about this - a talent show where you are part of a boisterous crowd judging whether the performer should be tossed to the lions. It's these kinds of offbeat stunts, plus a litany of popular Italian touches and ships brimming with European elegance, that make it easy to understand why Costa Cruises has remained a longtime popular fixture in the cruising world.
They call it Cruising Italian Style, a catch phrase coined more than a decade ago to underscore that Costa's otherwise traditional cruising program comes with a decidedly ethnic twist. It's a concept that not only attracts North Americans, but appeals also to a mix of Europeans, mainly Italians, Germans, French and Brits, as well as Latin Americans, who collectively add another interesting international dimension to the cruise.
During the fall/winter season when Costa has a Caribbean presence, more than 70% aboard are North Americans; in Europe the rest of the year, the percentage is somewhat reversed, but Americans are well taken care of by staff assigned solely to them. One certainty though, on both sides of the Atlantic, all announcements will be made in at least five languages.
Although it's Europe's largest cruise line and corporately based in Genoa, Italy, Costa has long operated a major headquarters in Miami, in order to cater to the specific needs and tastes of North Americans. A pair of its six-ship fleet, the mid-size (1,350-passenger) CostaRomantica and its larger, 1996-built (1,928-passenger) running mate, CostaVictoria, are based during season at Port Everglades, Florida, traversing alternating week long itineraries to the eastern and western Caribbean. In warmer months both are in the Mediterranean.
Our most recent Costa experience was last February on the CostaRomantica, which still is every bit as fresh and impressive as she was our first time aboard in 1993, when she arrived brand new from the shipyard. Extensive Carrara marble walls, flooring and stairwells, handmade Italian tiles and very large public rooms foster a rich palatial look that takes on a warmness through the deft application of expensive woods such as mahogany and burled briarwood. The massive interior feel is further emphasised by sweeping glass walls that form a contemporary backdrop to colorful 18th century styled furnishings and original art.
CostaRomantica's overall roominess extends to all cabin categories, which consist mainly of 200-square-foot standard ocean view rooms with an oversized porthole. Inside units offer only 25 square feet less space. All comfortably accommodate a twin or large double bed, cocktail table and chairs and well-lighted vanities, as well as ample closet and shelf space. A safe, closed-circuit satellite TV, three-channel radio and a hair dryer are among the standard amenities, and you don't need to bring shampoo or conditioner. (Rates are quite moderate, generally reflecting deck location. Some units provide for 3rd and 4th passengers.)
Upgraded accommodations include 340-square-foot mini-suites and 580-square-foot posh suites (some with verandahs), all laden with extras. Among the suite amenities are the services of a full-time butler.
CostaRomantica is an easy ship to get around, in that most of the public areas are located along decks eight and nine, and each room has a distinctive personality. L'Opera Show Lounge is a particular standout, stretching two levels in the form of an amphitheatre, with sharply rising rows of plush seating that make for excellent sight lines.
Top-notch production shows and engaging variety acts get evening billing. Our particular sailing starred singing icon from Big Band days, Don Cornell, who accumulated 12 consecutive gold records and who now, even in his venerable years, brings audiences to their feet.
The showroom also is the venue for the talent show, hilariously orchestrated by the "emperor" (cruise director) and his centurions and ladies, and woe be it to performers thought lacking. As in the days of Caesar, the audience is brashly egged-on to give a thumps-up-or-down sign. It makes for wonderful pandemonium. (Most acts get mercy!)
The talent show falls on the same evening as the uproarious Roman Bacchanal night, when a creatively designed toga is the evening fashion. It shouldn't be surprising that a large number of people jovially take the challenge and join the big parade through the jammed Piazza Italia Grand Bar, vying for the titles of Caesar and his lady. After all, they're on board for a good time.
This huge piazza on deck 8 is the entertainment center where something is always going on with dancing, bingo, karaoke (even the Italian kind) and Italian cooking lessons among the host of activities. On one evening, the ship's orchestra performs a Big Band concert for dancing. A very long curving bar, cocktail tables, couches and soft chairs make this area the most popular meeting place on board.
An open middle section of the ship with a classy spiral staircase leads up one deck to Via Condotti, where during the better part of the day and night, in separated relaxing settings, you can order cake and fancy coffee at Juliet's Patisserie, or complimentary pizzas at Romeo's. Ice cream from an old-fashioned cart is another goodie dished out here in the late evening. The long promenade is also lined with posh shops offering a range of goods (with a wide range of prices) that includes offerings from top Italian designers.
The marble hallway leads into an expansive casino that's adjacent to a multi-windowed, greenery filled Tango Ballroom. It's a particularly lovely, somewhat more subdued night club setting where a lively trio plays all kinds of danceable tunes all evening. Real late-nighters head for the Diva Disco, forward on the topmost deck, a large circular room with wrap-around windows that doubles at other times as a quiet observatory.
Classic Roman pillars and marble floors are hallmarks of the Botticelli Restaurant, which serves three full course meals in each of two seatings. (Smoking is permitted in two sections set apart from the main room.) Food preparation is basically continental style with Italian touches geared to American tastes, plus tasty regional dishes. Most evening meals are ethnically themed (French, Caribbean, etc.). And there's the Romantic Dinner, when every lady is presented with a red rose.
The dining room staff is international, multi-lingual and supervised by a cadre of table captains having upwards of 30 years of experience with Costa stemming from the days when the line was totally Italian-staffed. These old-timers love to kibitz and revel in whipping up special pastas and desserts tableside. They also handle requests for special dishes and diets.
Lighter breakfast and lunch fare is set up in the Buffet Giardino, which is accessible from both of the ship's two pools (and four whirlpools). Eggs-to-order stations at breakfast and hot-made pastas at lunch and a different daily ethnic food augment an otherwise limited variety of choices. There's also a breakfast bar (later in the day, a salad bar) set-up outside in the stern area covered by a large white, sail-like canvas. The ocean view and fresh breeze add to the relaxing feeling when eating here.
Pool games, a library, game room, evening movies, a well equipped gym and jogging track and special kids programs are among other available diversions. And, if you would rather just hang out in a deck chair, there's plenty of room.
Eastern Caribbean itineraries begin Sundays from Port Everglades, with a short evening-only stop Tuesday at San Juan Puerto Rico, a full next day in St. Thomas Virgin Islands, and a daylong beach day and barbecue lunch on Thursday at Serena Cay, Costa's private beach in the Dominican Republic. Nassau, Bahamas, is the Saturday morning-to-evening call before returning to Florida on Sunday.
The western leg also departs Sunday, arriving the next morning at Key West Florida for a five hour stay. Tuesday you are in Cozumel Mexico for the entire day. Ocho Rios Jamaica and Grand Cayman Island are daylong Friday and Saturday calls.
CostaRomantica, CostaVictoria and other Costa vessels offer a range of European itineraries during the summer season. The venerable CostaRiviera plys the Mediterranean year-round from the small resort town of Savona, Italy near Genoa, sailing alternating 10-11-day roundtrip itineraries to the west highlighting the Canary Islands and to the east highlighting the Greek Isles, Israel and Egypt.
Photos courtesy of Bernard Block and Costa Cruises.
Jeannie Block is a well-known professional freelance cruise travel writer. Her articles, along with her husband Bernard Block's photographs, have been published in such magazines as Cruise Travel and Onboard Services. Jeannie and Bernie Block are still email holdouts, but we will gladly pass along all of your comments sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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