When Costa Romantica was launched way back in 1993, the ship was designed and built for Costa Crociere, then an independently owned Italy-based cruise ship operator. Of course, Costa has since been acquired by Carnival Corporation, and while its newer vessels reflect a decidedly more American sensibility, Costa Romantica has a distinct style of its own.
When I first sailed in 1998 aboard Costa Romantica to the Caribbean, I thought it was the most beautiful modern ship I'd ever sailed, reflecting more of a sleek and elegant Milanese style than, say, a rambunctious and frenetic Roman ambience. This spring, I headed to the Mediterranean to see how Costa Romantica had evolved over the past eight years.
The first observation: One thing that hadn't changed at all was the disorientation you experience when you sail on a cruise that is geared to numerous nationalities. On my cruise there were five languages: Italian, French, English, German and Spanish; sometimes, there are six, when Portuguese is added. On a previous Costa cruise, the English host gave a cocktail party for Americans early on, so passengers could meet some of the other English-speakers. On this cruise, the English host gave a party for Americans on the penultimate night, too late to help in identifying other English-speakers.
There are advantages and disadvantages to such an international passenger base (not to mention crew!). On the plus side, it's educational to be exposed to different customs, cuisines and points of view. On the negative side, people can seem rude. Because they assume most passengers will not understand them, they don't greet others in passing or apologize when appropriate. While Italian is the lingua franca of the ship, only Italians speak it onboard; the Filipino crewmembers speak English.
Passengers, including myself, have complained to Costa that announcements in multiple languages are tedious (and particularly off-putting to Americans), so there are now few announcements -- too few, actually. There were times when announcements would have been helpful -- for example, when local authorities had cleared the ship and it was time to go ashore.
Another change: Since my last visit to a Costa ship in Europe three years ago, smoking has been brought under control. Following Italian law, there is no longer smoking in any dining room, nor at any bar. There is, however, a smoking area in each of the lounges. The smell of cigarette smoke, while present, is nowhere near as pervasive as it once was.
Costa's crew, traditionally drawn largely from its home country, has like most lines in the industry broadened its base with a significant increase in crewmembers hailing from the Philippines. I had heretofore assumed that Filipinos went to sea because, given a limited education, it was the best option open to them. But on this voyage, a steward pointed out the large number of crewmembers with bachelor's degrees -- he had one in marketing. The Philippine economy cannot absorb all its college graduates, so some of them go to sea out of sheer necessity. (My assistant dining room steward told me her sister was studying acting in London and dreamt of being on Broadway.) This results in the topsy turvy scheme of Italian school-leavers (high school drop-outs) ordering around Filipino college graduates.
Even though Costa Romantica certainly shows its age -- in the low percentage of balcony cabins, for instance, or fewer recreational or dining options -- I was particularly impressed with its Club Squok program for kids. The children's facilities were, as was typical in the mid 1990's, quite small and cramped. But on my Easter week sailing -- a prime time for European families to cruise as students are on holiday -- the program was so inventive, using various public areas around the ship to complement the limited facilities, that all the urchins seemed well entertained.
I came away with my impressions of eight years ago confirmed. Despite some shortcomings, I did like this ship. I like her size, her style and her crew -- and I would return.
The Botticelli Restaurant is the ship's main dining room. It's located on Deck 8 aft with large windows on three sides. During the day, windows give views of the sea; at night one of two sets of shades is drawn -- plain room-darkening shades for ordinary dinners and shades that depict classic Costa posters for festive dinners. For festive dinners, there are also candles placed on the tables. The restaurant is one deck high. Most tables are for eight diners, but there are some tables for four and a very few for two. The floor, like those throughout the public areas of the ship, is marble. As all surfaces are hard, the noise level can be deafening, particularly in the evening.
Breakfast is served each morning from 7:30 until 9:15 a.m. Only hot beverages and eggs made to order (other than scrambled) are served. All other items are self-serve from a buffet of pastries, sausage, French toast, bacon and scrambled eggs. Catering to a European clientele, the buffet also offers smoked fish and sliced cheeses and meats. There are fruit juices, fruit salads, whole fruit and yogurt.
Lunch is served from a menu, divided among appetizers, soups, salads, pastas, entrees, cheeses and desserts. (There's at least one vegetarian offering in each category.) Dinner is served from a menu, and the offerings are presented in the same categories as at lunch. There are bottles of extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar on each table for dipping bread and making salad dressings. Stewards take orders for all courses, including dessert, at the beginning of each meal. Coffee and tea are not served in the restaurant except at breakfast. Asterisks next to items on the menu indicate the main ingredient has been frozen, which is the case for all seafood and meat dishes. Portions are neither overwhelming, nor skimpy. It's possible to order many courses without overeating, but it will take the same amount of time to dine if you order two courses or six, as later course offerings are not made available to waiters until after earlier courses have been served. As for quality, think "Olive Garden," and you won't be disappointed.
The maitre d' makes every effort to seat speakers of the same language together. He failed in my case, as I ended up at a table for eight with only a charming Turkish couple whose English was limited (but better than my nonexistent Turkish). The line offers parents the option of allowing their teenaged children to sit at tables with other teenagers. This appeared to work well for both parents and teenagers. Breakfast and lunch are served open seating, while dinner is served in two seatings -- 7 and 9:15 p.m. On Italian Night, there are Italian songs piped over the loudspeaker in place of the songs formerly performed by the stewards (a result, no doubt, of the change in nationality of the crew from Italian -- when the custom began -- to Filipino).
Il Giardino is the buffet restaurant. Located aft on Deck 10, the room is divided into small seating areas with attractive wicker furniture. Outside the buffet there is an outdoor seating area called La Terrazza, which is shaded by a sail-like awning. Here there are wooden tables for four with padded chairs. Service in Il Giardino is divided into efficient stations.
Breakfast in Il Giardino is similar to the one offered in the dining room -- buffet for most items and a station for eggs made to order. Lunch features make-your-own salads, prepared salads, bread, cheese and cold cuts (for sandwiches), pizza, soup, a hot dish of the day (reflecting the cuisine of one of the nationalities onboard), desserts, fruit, yogurt and soft ice cream. On La Terrazza, grilled hotdogs and hamburgers with French fries are offered. Afternoon tea is served in Il Giardino. There are sandwiches, pastries and a dietetic corner for sugarless desserts.
A nice touch: There's a steward making individual infusions from large canisters of loose tea. Various teas, both varietals and herbal, are offered, and you can request a blend of your own choosing.
In the evening there's an informal dinner buffet, offering the same menu as the dining room, but served cafeteria-style. On warm nights you may take your tray out to La Terrazza to dine al fresco. Coffee and tea are available in Il Giardino 24 hours a day. There's a Pizzeria in the Romeo Bar on Deck 9, which serves individual pizzas in the late afternoon and late at night (at no charge).
Room service is offered 24 hours per day. There is a free service of continental breakfast: cereals, breads, pastries, juice, coffee and tea. At other times of the day, there's a limited menu of sandwiches and salads, for which there is a 2 euro ($2.40) cover charge.
The ship is quite easy to navigate. There are thirteen decks and each passenger deck has a number and is named for a European city; stairway landings are decorated with each city's coat of arms. The two major stairways are open and made of marble. There are two banks of elevators, with four elevators apiece. Most public rooms are on Decks 8 and 9. On Deck 13 there's the Diva Disco, an underused circular room with panoramic views of the sea. (The room is mostly given over to teen activities, except for late at night.)
On Deck 9 from fore to aft are the upper level of the Opera Theatre; the Opera Bar; the Via Condotti, which contains four shops; the Romeo and Juliet Bars; two video arcades; the Casino Excelsior; and the aft facing Tango Ballroom. The Opera Theatre is a two level show lounge, built in the style of a Roman amphitheater. The stadium seating affords everyone a good view, except for those seated behind pillars. The seats are bolt upright and very uncomfortable. The other spectators are often more entertaining than the show on offer. There is no provision for service of drinks in the theatre.
The Opera Bar is a sit down bar (no bar stools) and the only indoor place onboard for cigar smoking. The Romeo and Juliet Bars overlook the Piazza below. The Romeo Bar doubles as the Pizzeria, while the Juliet Bar is the ship's wine bar.
The ship's shops include the photographer's shop, where you may pay for photographs, download digital photos, buy supplies and (surprisingly) mail letters and postcards. (This last service costs 1.50 euros [$1.80] per postcard or letter to the USA, which makes the 2 euros [$2.40] for a digital postcard seem like a bargain! Postcards, which are not stocked free in the cabin, cost 1.50 euros [$1.80].) Photos cost 11.95 euros ($14.40).
Other shops include a duty-free store for liquor, perfume and cigarettesa a shop that sells Murano glass jewelry and other fashion items, and another that sells other jewelry and watches. Interestingly, there is no logo shop, per se -- the duty-free carries a limited line of Costa souvenirs -- and none of the usual Swarovski and Lladro.
The pubic rooms on Deck 8 from fore to aft are the lower level of the Opera Theatre, a small Roman Catholic chapel, two meeting rooms, the Piazza Italia, card rooms, and the library and Internet center. The chapel has an icon of the Virgin Mary, a free-standing altar and stations of the cross. The two meeting rooms are used by affinity and incentive groups. (An English language movie was screened in one of the meeting rooms once during my cruise.) The Piazza Italia is the focal point of the ship and reminds one of a plaza, er piazza, in a European town. There is a dance floor and a space for musicians, and the ship's main bar, the Grand Bar, is also located here. With marble floors it is a noisy, but joyful space.
The card rooms each have four bridge tables (cards and games are available from Reception). The library has four bookcases divided by language: Italian, German, French, Spanish, Portuguese and English. Most books are paperbacks that appear to have been left behind by previous passengers. Passengers may access books for one hour only each day.
In the Internet Center there are six computers with flat-screen monitors. As this is the only place on the ship for internet connectivity -- there is no broadband in the cabins, nor Wi-Fi anywhere -- the number would have been inadequate, and the situation was made inexcusable when the system crashed on the second day of my cruise and was not restored thereafter. The cost for surfing the Web is .50 euros ($.60) per minute. The Lobby is located on Deck 5 where reception and the tour office are situated. The pursers at reception have the daunting task of answering questions in many languages. They wear pins with flags representing the languages they speak.
There are laundry and dry cleaning services, but no self-serve launderettes.
The cabins on Costa Romantica are lovely but are showing signs of wear. Inside and outside cabins are identical in size and layout. Outside cabins have large circular windows (like portholes but big!). Both have twin beds that can be combined into a queen-sized bed, separated or flanked by night tables with drawers. There is a desk/vanity with drawers, a chair and a large mirror, a club chair and ottoman, and a coffee table. There is a credenza with refrigerator (containing a stocked minibar) and topped by a small analog television set, and there is a table, suitable for a room service tray.
Each room has a large photo tapestry. The cabins are paneled in cherry veneer, which gives the rooms a warm tone. There's pinpoint inset lighting and a reading light (not very bright) over each bed. There is ample closet and drawer space, but the hangers are large and plastic, and cannot be used outside the closet. There is a combination safe and a built-in hair dryer. Bathrooms are of stunning Milanese style, but quite small. Pocket doors separate the bathroom from the cabin. The circular shower stalls are tight. There is vanity storage and good lighting. The toiletries are minimal: a bar of soap and a dispenser of shower gel/shampoo in the shower. In the European manner there are no washcloths.
Television offered satellite feeds in many languages, but the only one in English was BBC World (Asia). There was also a movie each day, repeated continuously. This was shown in the language of the country in which the film had been produced and, on other channels, dubbed into one of the other four languages. (The televisions were not interactive, nor could one receive or send e-mail from them.)
Costa Romantica also features so-called panorama suites, which are tiered accommodations with a bedroom level above a sitting room level with floor to ceiling windows overlooking the sea. Ten of the panorama suites have small, semicircular balconies with latticed teak decks, two teak deck chairs and a table. The balcony railings are solid, which means there's no sea view for passengers seated in the cabin. The bathrooms are larger than in other cabins and contain Jacuzzi tubs. There are two interior single cabins, and many cabins can accommodate third and fourth passengers in bunks that are recessed in the ceiling. There are handicapped cabins in a variety of price ranges that have accessible bathrooms with wide doors, low doorsills and roll-in showers (with seats). There are handrails in the cabin and bathroom, wheelchair-height mirrors and call buttons to summon help.
A service charge of 6 euros ($7.20) is added to the onboard account of each passenger, each day. (Half that amount is charged for children under the age of 18.) This amount is divided as follows: 2 euros to the cabin steward(ess), 2 euros to the waiter and assistant waiter, and 2 euros to the staff in Il Giardino. (The English-speaking host informed his passengers that English speakers usually tipped above the service charge, which left an impression that speakers of other languages usually didn't.) A 15 percent service charge is added to bills for beverages and for salon and spa services.
|Fitness and Recreation|
There are two swimming pools, one aft on Deck 10 where children are not allowed, and one amidships on Deck 10 where they are welcome. There are four hot tubs behind the aft pool, which were well patronized. The gym, while compact, offers all the standard machines: cross country skiing, stationary bicycling, rowing, resistance training, together with free weights. Exercisers overlook the sea through floor-to-ceiling windows. Passers-by can watch the workers-out from the corridor through large circular windows.
There are saunas with male-only, female-only and mixed times (bathing suits must be worn). There's a Ping-Pong table and two outdoor Foosball tables. There are no other outdoor sports areas: no shuffleboard, no quoits, no ring toss, no basketball, no skeet shooting, no putting green or driving range. A jogging/walking track circles part of Deck 11, but it can become impeded by deck chairs. There's a sufficient number of good quality metal sun loungers and a particularly nice arrangement of them in tiers around the aft pool. Both pools are protected against the wind. Pool towels and blankets are available from pool attendants.
Forward on Deck 11 there are padded wicker basket chairs that provide charming vantages from which to view the sea.
The gym and spa are located on Deck 11. The spa is franchised to Steiner Leisure, the London salon operator, and features their usual price scale: e.g., Elemis Face & Body Therapy (160 euros [$192]), Aromapure Massage (50 minutes: 99 euros [$119]), Deep Tissue Massage (45 minutes: 105 euros [$126]).
I cannot sing the praises of this ship highly enough when it comes to accommodating families with children and teens. Because my cruise sailed during a school holiday, there were hundreds of children and teenagers onboard. While this could be cause for alarm for adults without children, it was actually a pleasant experience. The children's animation staff coped admirably with the added number of kids.
The Squok Club is the line's name for its children's program. It's divided into Minis (ages 3 to 6) and Maxis (ages 7 to 11). Activities were scheduled in blocks from 9 a.m. to noon, 3 to 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. to midnight. The children's room was far too small (though it is filled with fun, colorful stuff) to contain the number of children, so counselors improvised with excursions around the ship, using public rooms during off-hours for children's activities. (The line also offered staffed activities for children between 3 and 11 during port calls, so parents could take excursions without their children.)
Teenagers were divided between juniors (12 to 14 years) and seniors (15 to 18 years). There were socials and contests scheduled for this group, but the teens seemed happiest just hanging out with each other around the pool, in the video arcade or in one of the public rooms. (I never saw a rowdy teenager.) It was heartening to see young people enjoying a cruise. It made me believe there would still be cruisers in the future. (I went on my first cruise when I was 14 and was hooked for life.)
On my European cruise the majority of passengers were Italian, French, German and Spanish. There was, however, an unusually large number of Americans, mostly families from American military bases in Europe, and a large group of English-speaking Filipinos. The English host said the average number of English-speaking passengers on a European Costa cruise was 40 - 60; on this cruise there were over 250. The cruise also had the lowest average age of any cruise I've taken. In my late 50's, I'm often among the youngest passengers -- here, I was among the oldest. The average age was only about 35 (certainly an average reduced by the large number of children). There were few identifiable singles. Because of the variety of languages spoken onboard, there were few announcements and none promoting onboard activities.
Perhaps it was the low average age, but the dress code was by-and-large ignored. The line printed a suggestion each evening: casual, informal or formal. On formal evenings the dress in the dining room ran the gamut from T-shirts to tuxes, with T-shirts outnumbering tuxes. On formal nights most men wore jackets with no tie; women, short dresses. This isn't a dressy ship, and informality rules. The line asked that no tank-tops or shorts be worn in the dining room at dinner, and I didn't see any adult who failed to comply. In Il Giardino there's no dress code.
Mine was a port-intensive cruise with only one full day at sea (the last). The cruise director's staff are called "animators," and so they are. They must liven things up in five or six languages, and they succeed admirably.
There are few planned activities, and rarely are two scheduled to happen concurrently. More often than not, there's time between activities. If you don't want to miss anything, you won't.
There are competitions like ring toss, passing a hula hoop from one person to the next while holding hands, and kicking shoes into a wastebasket affixed to a higher deck. For the more sophisticated passengers, there are group dance lessons. There are also trivia quizzes (quite a feat, given the languages spoken). Each language has its own host.
Each evening there was a show in the Opera Theatre. It was given twice -- an earlier pre-dinner show for the late seating, and a later post-dinner show for the early seating. In order to appeal to the greatest number of people, the acts were mostly visual. There is a resident song and dance troupe, and there are other entertainers who rotate among Costa's fleet. On my cruise there were several singers, a magician and a contortionist(!). The singers and dancers performed enthusiastically, but the sound level was deafening.
In the Tango Lounge each evening, a talented Macedonian couple played musical instruments and sang to a click track. There was a pianist who played cocktail music in the Piazza. There's jackpot Bingo daily, though, alas, no art auction.
Cocktails and other beverages are served at the Capri Bar (midships pool area); Grand Bar; Juliet Bar; Terrazza Bar; Tango Ballroom; Opera Bar; and Diva Club. Prices are fair for mixed drinks (5 to 6 euros [$6 to $7.20]). Italian drinks like Grappa and Limoncello are available, and all bars serve Lavazza cappuccino and espresso, regular and decaf, for a nominal charge (under $2). Children (and adults not too proud to ask for a "children's card") can have a card that entitles them to 20 juices or soft drinks (but not mineral water) at a discount. As it is an Italian ship, Costa Romantica's wine list runs heavily to Italian wines. While a few wines are expensive, there are many to choose from at between 17 and 19 euros ($18.40 to 20.80) per bottle. Half liter carafes of wine are available at 8 euros ($9.60), and wines by the glass for 4.50 euros ($5.40).
The video arcades contain a large number of games that cost .40 euros ($.48). There are also shove ha'penny and hockey games that are free. The Excelsior Casino has one dice table, three blackjack tables (minimum bet: 3 euros [$3.60]), one Caribbean stud and one Caribbean draw table, roulette and .10, .20, and .50 euro slot machines. The casino is quite small and not crowded on European sailings. The Tango Ballroom is an aft-facing lounge with tiered seating. This is the ship's alternative show lounge, which offers musical acts and a small floor for ballroom dancing. There is a bar (with bar stools).
Are religious services "entertainment?" Three religions had major observances the week I was onboard. Muslims observed Mawlid an Nabi, the Prophet Mohammed's birthday. Despite there being Muslim passengers and crew onboard, there was no mention of the holiday in "Today." Jews observed Passover. There was also no mention of the holiday in "Today." A nice touch would have been an offer on the part of the ship's company to provide Jewish passengers with the necessary foods for a Seder and to offer space for one. Christians observed Holy Week and celebrated Easter. The ship's resident Roman Catholic priest offered the customary services, but he apologized for not speaking French, English or German and told the Spaniards they could understand Italian (which I'm sure came as news to them). The ship's accommodation of religious observance was, given the particular week of my cruise, inadequate. The ship was decorated with white crepe paper bells and Styrofoam cutouts of doves -- which were intended to be Easter decorations -- and each cabin door was decorated with a crepe paper egg. On Easter Eve passengers were given large Lindt chocolate Easter eggs in their cabin.
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