That's why I became curious about Costa Cruises' catchphrase, Cruising Italian Style. It seemed to promise something fairly specific. So, in the name of research, I sailed on a Costa Caribbean cruise to learn if they deliver a unique kind of product, or if Italians cruise in a style similar to the other cruise lines.
I'm not Italian, but I have been to Italy several times, and I talk with my hands, so I thought I had a pretty good grasp of what I might expect when sailing the 86,000-ton, 2,114-passenger CostaMediterranea, which was launched earlier this year.
Generally 40 percent of all Costa's passengers are Italian. On European itineraries this number can run even higher, and passenger loads there include another 45-50 percent from Spain, France, Germany and other European countries. Topping it off is perhaps 5 to 15 percent North Americans.
When you sail Costa in Europe, the monetary standard onboard is the euro, not the U.S. dollar -- even in the casino. They do switch to a U.S. dollar standard in the Caribbean, however.
With their new ships, Costa seems to be offering the beginnings of a cruise experience more familiar to the North American passenger, while still maintaining their roots in "Italian style".
The CostaMediterranea is the newest Costa ship to sail in the Caribbean. It also exhibits an interesting evolution in Costa style.
When I first walked onboard I was impressed with the rich quality of fabrics and materials used, and the obvious high quality of workmanship involved in putting this ship together.
They made extensive use of Italian marble, granite, stone, ceramics, and Murano glass. The amount of intricately detailed wood inlay used in a variety of places -- dance floors, ceilings, even on doors -- is staggering, and very attractive.
In some areas, the combination of materials seems contradictory, such as the chrome used on railings in the atrium, topped with fine granite; or faces sculpted of stainless steel. Yet they seem to mesh well into the complete design package.
The ship's interior design work was done by Joe Farcus, of Carnival fame. In my view, when comparing his work on the CostaMediterranea to others I've sailed on that he designed, this could be his finest work to date. True to Farcus form, there is no refined elegance in evidence here. But there surely is a visible theme throughout the ship, which is based on the 17th and 18th century Italian palazzos (palaces), and the mythology of the Mediterranean Sea.
As you move from one public room to the next, a noticeable design thread connects them, even though each is different from the other. One could easily spend an entire seven-day cruise exploring the ship's artwork. But on the CostaMediterranea the art is not restricted to paintings hanging on walls, or sculptures. On this ship art is everywhere -- from decorative moldings to wall paneling, ceilings, even the furniture.
The ship's lounges and public rooms are designed for active and participatory passengers. The dance floors in the majority of the lounges are significantly larger than those on most other ships I've experienced, and are very well used. Theme nights, or theme events in the lounges, are common, running the gamut of Elvis, Sinatra, or Beatles nights, to a full-blown Italian festival in the atrium.
On any given night, it isn't unusual to find 50s jive and twist contests in one lounge, while Latin dance night is featured in another. The real action in the ship's disco doesn't even begin until after midnight, and it's not unusual to see this spot jumping into the wee hours of the morning.
Bucking the trend of many mass-market lines to hold their gala shows for late seating diners prior to dinner, on the CostaMediterranea the shows for late diners start at 11 p.m. And even at that late hour, most nights the showroom is close to full. As the shows finish, plenty of passengers head to the lounges or disco rather than retiring to their cabins. This certainly has to be the European influence, as generally throughout Europe the cafes and clubs don't begin to fill with crowds until late in the evening.
To a North American, not accustomed to this high-energy, late-night action on a cruise, this can be either perplexing or energizing. If you can adjust your nocturnal habits, it's easy to get caught up in the energy and enjoy this Italian way of doing things.
There is one area where all the promise of the CostaMediterranea experience seems to struggle: food and food service.
As a pasta lover, I like the fact Costa offers a separate pasta course, and the dining room menu suggests you "eat your pasta as the Italians do," prior to the main course. So each evening the dining room menu offers an appetizer course, soup course, salad course, pasta course, and entree choice, followed by dessert.
The problem is the seeming disorganization in delivering the food. Service seemed rushed, almost chaotic, with people at the same table being served different courses whenever they happened to finish one, rather than in unison. This created a lack of cohesion in the dining experience.
Italian food is one of my favorites, and I looked forward to the delicious taste treats I've enjoyed during my visits to Italy. Unfortunately, I encountered only a few items during our cruise that came close to the Italian food I had led my taste buds to expect. The dishes that did so surely were a gastronomic delight, and my inner voice kept asking why they couldn't produce this type of quality all the time.
The CostaMediterranea is, without doubt, a beautiful ship, with huge potential. However, someone has to spend as much time and energy on the food and service operations as the design team did in creating the ship and atmosphere.
With little effort, one can find amazingly low discounted prices on various sailings of the CostaMediterranea during its Caribbean season. Many passengers we spoke to had booked balcony cabins in the range of $650 per person including port charges and taxes, and lower categories for significantly less. At those prices one could likely overlook the shortcomings and get significant value for their cruise dollar.