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As I gushed in the last Frommers.com cruise newsletter, a cruise aboard the Italian cruise ship Costa Atlantica (www.costacruises.com) to the Norwegian Fjords last summer was one of the best cruises I've ever taken. Definitely in my top 10 favorite cruises of all time because of both the ship and the itinerary. Some people are content with just being on a ship regardless of where it's going -- there are people who never bother to get off the ship in port at all. I'm not one of them. In the spirit of balance of harmony, to me, it takes both a great itinerary and a great ship to equal a great travel experience.

For lots of details on the breathtaking ports and the well-executed excursions we took, see my Dec 10th story. To learn about the ship, read on. But first, Copenhagen. We boarded the 2,114-passenger (double occupancy) Costa Atlantica in Copenhagen for a 7-night Norway cruise calling on five ports. We arrived a day early in the Danish capital so we could spend some time exploring. We checked into The Square Hotel (www.thesquarecopenhagen.com), a cute, well-run three-star hotel conveniently set in the center of town just a few blocks from the 19th-century Tivoli Gardens amusement park. Our room was stylish in that cool minimalist European way, and it had a pull-out sofa bed for our boys and a slick bathroom with tub. Rates include a breakfast buffet and start at about $300 per room. After a night flight from New York, we arrived mid-morning, checked in early, and then napped for a few hours to shake off our jet-lag. We awoke just before lunchtime and spent the rest of the day exploring Copenhagen. Near the hotel, we boarded the orange #11 hop-on/hop-off City Cirkel tour bus for a one-hour overview of the city, hopping off for a look at the Amalienborg royal palace, to see the changing of the guard at noon and to admire the colorful boat-lined canals nearby. Back at Town Hall in the city center, we strolled past a statue of the city's most famous scribe, Hans Christian Anderson, sampled the ubiquitous Danish sausage (the popular version stuck in half a bun) from a cart in the town square. Then we spent several hours at the legendary Tivoli Gardens. A lovely throw-back to an era before big-eared mice and over-the-top marketing, we enjoyed the 167-year-old park's nostalgic carnival games and century-old wooden roller coaster, as well as a few of the modern machines, including The Demon roller coaster, which one of my twin sons was tall enough to ride (the other, just a smidge under). For dinner, we enjoyed a delicious meal at an Asian restaurant nearby.

The next morning after a filling breakfast, we set out to see Copenhagen's most famous statue, the Little Mermaid. This time we took a pedi-cab, pedaled by a friendly English-speaking local who was happy to answer our questions. The statue is, as we had heard, much smaller in person than most people envision. Cameras flashed and people posed in front of the rock where she sat. By lunchtime, we were ready to the board the ship. Because of our heavy luggage, we took a taxi to the pier, which was just a mile or two away from our hotel; though it would be possible to get there by bus or train if one's luggage is manageable (taxis are expensive in Copenhagen ...in fact, everything is expensive in Copenhagen, it's consistently ranked in the top 10 most expensive cities in the world). Once at the terminal, there were no big lines and check-in was very efficient, impressive considering we'd be sailing with 2,428 other passengers from around the world.

The Cabin

We were fortunate to spend the week in a Panorama balcony suite (#6184) on deck six, a compact but well laid out room done up in warm autumn tones with burled cheery wood veneers and marble countertops. We especially appreciated the large bathroom with tub and double sinks, and the attached dressing room with a sit-down vanity table and large closets. Amenities included a stocked pay-as-you-go mini bar, useful bedside reading lamps, and lots of storage space for four people. Besides the queen bed for us (two pushed-together twins), there was a pull-down bunk and a sofa bed for our boys. The roomy balcony came in handy for viewing the gorgeous scenery at our whim, though it was usually a bit too chilly to spend much time out there while the ship was moving.

Kids Programming

It was sheer pleasure, after an exhilarating day of touring, to drop off the kids at the Squok Club playroom for an hour or two so my husband and I could have some time to unwind, go to the gym, stroll around the ship, shower and get ready for dinner in peace.

My boys, who were six at the time, loved going to the Squok Club, which operates from 9am to 11:30pm daily for the 3- to 11-year-old crowd. My guys loved Squok not because it was the biggest, flashiest or most high-tech space (it's not), but because of the warm and engaging mostly Italian youth staff and the fun games organized. My boys appreciate the old fashioned stuff, and so they enjoyed the relay races, guessing games, quizzes, Uno tournaments, bowling and beanbag toss competitions.

As a parent, I also appreciated the more personal vibe of the Squok Club. Unlike some ships where parents are blocked from setting foot in the playrooms or even peeking in and must drop their kids off at a closed door, the rules aboard Costa Atlantica weren't so Draconian. I could come into the playroom for a minute and have a quick chat with the counselors -- Giovanni was my and the boys' favorite -- and a look at what the boys were up to and who their little friends would be for the week. That's when I witnessed a priceless moment, something that really defines the multi-culti Costa experience in Europe. I watched my boys bond with a kid named Daniel. When the three of them spotted each other, they lit up with giant smiles and immediately started playing together. What I didn't realize right away was that Daniel didn't speak a word of English. And it didn't matter one bit. Daniel was Russian and though they didn't understand each other's words, they clearly played the same language. When they'd see each other around the ship, they'd always light up and wave vigorously.

On a few nights, the boys went back to the playroom after dinner for an hour or two to enjoy themed activities, from pirates to wildlife and Olympics, while mom and dad had a nightcap. Our sailing was typical for a summer Costa cruise, with about 300 kids onboard -- another plus, the playroom was never over-crowded like some lines that see upwards of 800 kids on a similarly sized ship. The Squok Club was not only a fun place for the boys to play, but it was also a microcosm of the international Costa experience. Who wants to cruise with only a bunch of North Americans anyway? Bor-ring! Costa draws a mixed bag of passengers, the majority from Europe. On our July cruise, of the more than 2,400 passengers, 737 were Italian, 508 Spanish, 297 French and 259 German. Of the rest of the more than 30 other nationalities, we sailed with 32 Americans, 33 Britishers and 86 Turkish nationals. Announcements were given in five languages (English, Italian, Spanish, French and German) and on our cruise, there were nine hostesses to assist the largest groups of nationalities on board (the five main language groups plus Russian, Japanese and Portuguese).

Dining

The Atlantica has three main dining venues to choose from: the bustling Tiziano main restaurant serves a two-seating dinner and we dined there each evening; the well stocked Botticelli buffet with its efficient multi-station lay-out was our breakfast and lunch spot; and sans kids my husband and I ate one evening in the much smaller and intimate Club Atlantica (which has a $23 per person cover charge).

Overall, we were pleased with the food and dining staff, considering there were more 2,400 mouths to feed. On the four Costa cruises I've taken over the past decade, the food gets better each time, with meals ranging from solidly average to very good. For instance, on the formal night dinner, where garb ranged from tuxedos to designer jeans and polo shirts (but no matter what, Europeans always have beautiful shoes), the meal was delicious. I ordered a shrimp salad, trofiette pasta with pesto sauce, and a pork escalope with marsala sauce, and served with mashed potatoes, carrots and mushrooms. On other nights, highlights included an excellent baked ziti, apple pie and millefoglie (a flakey puff pastry cake layered with cream or chocolate).

Both the Tiziano and Botticelli restaurants were extremely bustling places at meal time, with tables and people occupying nearly every square inch. The scene was lively and perfect for social types and extroverts who enjoy the sport of people watching; not ideal for privacy seekers, loners or lovers of quiet dining. In Tiziano, the wait staff is very professional, as Europeans demand, and overall are definitely not as gushing and playful as some restaurant crew are on American-centric cruises. Still, during the second half of the cruise our waiter and assistant waiter began performing quick little magic tricks for us at the end of the meal with salt, wine corks, napkins and other props -- the boys were smitten. We really appreciated the later seating times that are tailored for the European market. For us a family dinner at 7:00pm is ideal (late seating was 9:30pm) as opposed to the too-early 5:45 and 6pm first seatings on some US-based lines.

Our table for four was on the small side, but elegantly laid with white linens and full service -- even real candle light on the formal evenings. Next to us was an elegant senior couple from Italy or France we surmised who always gave us a warm "bion giorno" each evening and a big smile. Given the full load of passengers, champing at the bit to eat after a full day of touring, the waiters had to hustle from table to table, but they were an experienced bunch who performed well under pressure (though I did often have to wait a long time to have my water glass refilled).

In the Botticelli restaurant, the many different food stations kept long lines at bay and we were impressed by the variety of offerings at lunch that appealed to the many nationalities on board, from a range of seafood (a whole salmon, whole prawns, fried calamari and various seafood-y salads), to the beloved parmigiano cheese wheel and proscuitto ham (imported from Italy of course), cold cuts and salami, daily hand-tossed pasta of the day, and cruise staples such as stir fries and burgers. The pizza, as you might imagine on an Italian ship, was delicious and featured toppings from salmon to gorgonzola cheese. Nice European touches were warm milk for coffee and an afternoon tea spread that featured yummy cakes, cookies, pastries and mini sandwiches (with proscuitto of course).

In the alternative, reservations-required Club Atlantica high up deck 10, the mood was quiet and sophisticated, with doting service and a menu of mostly steaks and seafood. We enjoyed the intimate setting with just a few other diners at tables set far a part, but couldn't help notice the vibrations felt being so close to the funnel. Our waiter told us this was typical whenever the engines were on. Oh well, after a few glasses of wine I didn't notice it anymore. Highlights were a calamari and lemon appetizer and a vegetable pasta main course, which were tasty, but no better than the best meals we had in the Tiziano dining room. Come to Club Atlantica for the atmosphere, not the food.

European culinary customs added color to the cruise experience, from seafood that was generally served "whole" with eyes, tentacles and shells in tact, to bartenders asking if you wanted ice with your soda (ice is a very American thing). Tiny espresso cups were ubiquitous around the ship and bottled water was a must at all meals (Europeans don't drink tap water).

Entertainment & Activities

In keeping with a European sensibility that appreciates visual slap-stick humor and musical acts, and also to offer a repertoire that speakers of many languages could appreciate, the Atlantica's entertainment ranged from a ventriloquist act to musical performances (Latin, Jazz, classical and pop), ballroom dancing, a crew talent show and standard Vegas-style productions (where, on my cruise, the dancing talent far surpassed the singing). At dinner time the bustling lounges off the atrium were the venue for the goofy comedic antics of several Carol Burnette-esque cruise staff dressed up in frumpy cleaning lady garb and crazy wigs, mopping and sweeping their way over people's shoes and shoulders. They whisked feather dusters on the heads of bald men and handed little children mops, drawing giggles or at least grins out of even the most somber and serious guests. My kids loved it.

By far the most popular and best entertainment came at the late-night (starting around 11:30 pm) theme parties that ranged from a Mr. Costa Atlantica competition to a passenger talent show and a hilarious "sexy games night" that had four couples pitted against each other in silly pseudo-erotic dance moves and skits. Dante's Disco got going around 1am, in keeping with the typically late-night European nightclub ethos. There is a busy, glitzy casino and plenty of venues for a cocktail or a coffee (espresso for the caffeine-addicted Europeans) on decks 2, 3 9 and 10, with one of our favorites being Caffe Florian, a faithful copy of the real one in Venice. A violinist and pianist perform there from 6pm to 1am nightly, creating a wonderful mood.

During the day (the Norwegian fjords itinerary has one sea day), activities ranged from daily adult's arts and crafts projects (such as paper box making and cap painting) to lively dancing lessons on the pool deck, trivia games, and handball, shuffleboard, basketball, volleyball and ping pong tournaments. I signed up for a combo back massage and facial, which was very relaxing, though shorter than the billed 50 minutes; and my husband headed for the ocean-view gym whenever he had time.

Though the Norwegian air was chilly (average summer temperatures are typically in the 50s and 60s Fahrenheit), some guests did venture into one of the three pools and my boys braved the cool Scandinavian breezes to use the snaking water slide several times, high above the stern at the top of the ship.

A nice touch cruise director Gabriele Di Gangi orchestrated throughout the cruise was playing a CD of Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli on the ship's PA system while leaving port, creating a romantic and dramatic mood to compliment the spectacular and grand scenery.

Wrap-up

Overall, as large, bustling mass-market ships go, the Costa Atlantica offered a great family vacation in a beautiful cruising region for rates that in the summer of 2010 will start at $1,399 per person for an inside cabin and $2,919 for a Panorama Suite. The ship's décor is tasteful but fun, with lipstick red leather chairs, warm wood tones, lots of art, and Italian marble everywhere. A playful theme throughout the ship focused on the films of famed Italian director Federico Fellini, with several lounges featuring huge stills from his classics and blown-up paparazzi photos of stars. Plus, each deck is named for a Fellini film -- La Dolce Vita, La Strada, and so on. The Italian-ness of the ship, from its mostly Italian officers to the delicious pastas and pan-European clientele, added an enjoyable dimension to our Norwegian voyage.

I was impressed at just how well-maintained and clean the 10-year-old Costa Atlantica was; though I tried I couldn't really find a dent or a stain anywhere (the ship was refurbished in 2008).

Of course, nothing is perfect. Pushy sales tactics are a bane of the cruise industry and the Costa Atlantica hasn't been spared. Like on many other ships of many cruise lines, waiters repeatedly told us about drink packages in the restaurants and bars and I was shocked to see a spa demo going on smack dab in the middle of the main atrium lobby during the busy evening hours in the hopes of drumming up some business. Several passenger volunteers hopped on massage tables to be wrapped, rubbed and poked for all to see right in the ship's version of Time's Square.

Oh well, truth is the demo attracted a huge crowd of gawkers who seemed to be happily entertained. Fellini would be proud.