The Line in a Nutshell
Imagine a Carnival megaship hijacked by an Italian circus troupe: That's Costa. The words of the day are fun, festive, and international, with big, bright new megaships providing the venue. Expect a really good time, but don't set your sights too high for cuisine, with the exception of pasta and pizza. Sails to: Caribbean (plus Europe, Asia).
For years, Costa has played up its Italian heritage as the main factor that distinguishes it from Carnival, Royal Caribbean, and the rest -- even though the line is part of the Carnival Corporation empire, and many members of the service staff are as Italian as Chico Marx. Still, there's an Italianate essence here, with more pasta dishes on the menu than on any other line; more classical Italian music among the entertainment offerings; Italian-flavored activities facilitated by a young, often Italian, and ridiculously attractive "animation staff"; and a huge number of Italian Americans among the passengers. The interiors of the line's newest ships are by Carnival's designer-in-chief Joe Farcus, who took inspiration from Italy's traditions of painting and architecture but still stuck close to his signature "more is more" style -- think Venice a la Vegas.
Most of Costa's ships sail in Europe, where 80% to 85% of its passengers are Europeans. In the Caribbean, it's about the same ratio aboard the Costa Atlantica. But no matter the nationality or itinerary, Costa attracts passengers of all ages who want lots of fun and action, and like the idea of cruising on an Italian ship. In general, Costa passengers are big on participation, the goofier the better. We've never seen as many guests crowding the dance floor, participating in contests, or joining arts and crafts projects as aboard Costa's ships.
In the Caribbean, Costa appeals to retirees and young couples alike, although there are more passengers over age 45 than under. Typically you won't see more than 40 or 50 kids on any one cruise, except during holidays such as Christmas and spring break, when there may be as many as 500 children on board. Because of the international mix, public announcements, lifeboat drills, and some entertainment are given in English, Italian, and often German, French, and Spanish if there is a large number of guests on board from countries where those languages are spoken. The cruise director and most officers are typically Italian and much of the activities staff is composed of multilingual Italians.
Costa's origins are as Italian as could be. In 1860, Giacomo Costa established an olive-oil refinery and packaging plant in Genoa. After his death, his sons bought a ship called Ravenna to transport raw materials and finished products from Sardinia through Genoa to the rest of Europe, thereby marking the founding of Costa Line in 1924. Between 1997 and 2000, Carnival Corporation bought up shares in Costa until it became sole owner. Today, Costa's Italianism is as much a marketing tool as anything else, but it must be working: The line's presence in Europe is huge -- and it's even got a foothold in the Far East, too -- and in the past decade it's introduced eight new megaships: Costa Mediterranea and Costa Fortuna in 2003; Costa Magica in 2004; Costa Concordia in 2006; and Costa Serena, which debuted in Europe in spring 2007; Costa Luminosa and Costa Pacifica in spring 2009; and Costa Deliziosa in early 2010.
With its main presence cruising in Europe, at press time only one ship, Costa Atlantica, offered itineraries in the Caribbean, so the review here covers that ship and sister Mediterranea.
Though it varies from ship to ship, Costa's cuisine has definitely improved over the years. Pastas are totally authentic and are often very good, and the Sicilian-style pizza is fantastic. On a recent cruise, the crusty Italian rolls baked from scratch were addictive, and it was difficult to sample the parmigiano cheese wheel and prosciutto ham at the lunch buffet in moderation. The millefoglie, a flaky puff pastry cake layered with cream or chocolate, is one of the best cruise ship desserts coauthor Heidi has ever eaten.
Traditional -- Each dinner menu features five courses from a different region of Italy -- Liguria one night, Sicily the next, and so on -- plus several alternatives for each course, including the traditional pasta course. Most of the pastas, from fettuccine to spaghetti and ravioli, are shipped in direct from Italy. Many of these dishes are heavy on the cream and oil, and so are richer than some Americans are used to, but they're definitely the dining highlight. If you feel like a change from the pasta course, try one of the interesting risottos -- the crabmeat-and-champagne selection on our last cruise was fantastic. Otherwise, expect cruise staples such as poached salmon, lobster tail, grilled lamb chops, roast duck, and beef tenderloin, plus classic selections such as Caesar salad and baked or grilled fish or chicken. Vegetarian options are available at each meal, and Health and Wellness menu selections are listed with their calorie, fat, and carbohydrate breakdowns. On the second formal night, flaming baked Alaska is paraded through the dining room and complimentary champagne is poured. Other desserts include tiramisu, gelato, and zabaglione (meringue pie).
Specialty -- The ships have a reservations-only alternative Tuscan steakhouse restaurant ($23 per person) serving tenderloins, T-bones and other cuts, seafood, and a few pasta dishes like fettuccine Alfredo and spaghetti ai gamberi (prawns). The ambience is considerably quieter and more romantic than in the main dining room, with pleasant piano music and a small dance floor if you feel like a waltz between courses. The main caveat is the vibrations that can often be felt from the nearby funnels (but after a few glasses of wine, you won't notice anymore).
Casual -- There's a large buffet restaurant with multiple serving areas. Breakfast is a standard mix of eggs, meats, fruits, cereals, and cheeses. At lunch, several of the stations will serve standard dishes while others will be given over to a different national or regional cuisine (Spanish, Greek, Italian, Asian, and so forth). Casual dining is also available nightly until 9:30pm. The line's fresh-baked pizza (served in one section of the buffet noon-2am) looks a little weird, but trust us, it's fantastic -- one of the highlights of the food on board. It's real Italian pizza (very thin, without excess cheese and sauce) and the homemade crust is so much better than the rubbery, doughy stuff most cruise lines use. Out on deck, there's a grill serving burgers and hot dogs, as well as a taco bar at lunch. If you're looking for another afternoon snack, head over to the ice-cream station in the buffet area, with daily special such as fresh banana or coconut, along with traditional flavors.
Snacks & Extras -- Most cruise lines have scrapped their midnight buffets, but Costa still offers them a few nights per cruise, often focusing on a theme taken from that evening's activity, whether it's Spain, Germany, France, or Asia. On another night, the guests may head below to the ship's massive galley for the buffet. Room service is available 24 hours a day.
Waiters and servers are on par with the professionalism of the other big-ship lines, and many are hard-working, efficient, and friendly. On coauthor Heidi's last Atlantica cruise, her waiters and the bar staff were excellent, real pros.
For tipping, like many other lines, Costa adds an automatic gratuity of $10 per person per day to passengers' onboard accounts.
More than anything else, Costa is known for its lineup of exuberant activities, and passengers on these ships love to participate. In keeping with a European sensibility that appreciates visual slapstick humor and musical acts, and to offer a repertoire that speakers of many languages could appreciate, the entertainment ranges from a ventriloquist act to musical performances (Latin, Jazz, classical, and pop), ballroom dancing, crew talent shows, and standard Vegas-style productions. At dinnertime, one of the bustling lounges off the atrium might be the venue for the goofy comedic antics of several Carol Burnette-esque cruise staffmembers dressed up in frumpy cleaning lady garb and crazy wigs, mopping, dusting, and sweeping their way over people's shoes, shoulders, and bald heads. Late-night (11:30pm) entertainment is well attended, with theme parties typically ranging from the likes of a Mr. Costa Atlantica competition to a passenger talent show and a hilarious "sexy games night" that pits four couples against each other in silly pseudo-erotic dance moves and skits. The disco gets going around 1am, in keeping with the typically late-night European nightclub ethos.
During the day, activities include arts and crafts projects (from paper flower making to origami and T-shirt painting) and cooking classes, as well as traditional cruise staples such as jackpot bingo, dance classes, art auctions, horse racing, bridge, Ping-Pong, and fun poolside competitions in which teams have to put on Roman-style costumes or don silly hats. The ship has a combo library and Internet center, as well as a large card room. Aerobics and stretch classes are usually held on the covered pool area's dance floor, which also sees live steel-drum music throughout the rest of the day. Luckily, there's lots of deck space across several levels for sunbathing, so you can escape the noise if you want to. In the stern, a fun all-ages water slide operates a couple of hours per day.
A Catholic Mass and a nondenominational church service are held almost every day in each ship's small chapel.
To entertain the mix of nationalities on board a typical Costa cruise, even in the Caribbean, expect concerts, operatic soloists, Broadway-style productions, talent shows, mimes, acrobats, and cabaret -- no language skills required. On a recent cruise, one of the shows had a unicycle-riding, ball-balancing, flame-juggling, plate-spinning entertainer -- the kind you used to see on The Ed Sullivan Show. Other featured performers included an operatic tenor singing a program of high-note crowd pleasers and a classical pianist performing Beethoven and Gershwin. The line's production shows mostly follow the typical song-and-dance revue formula; on recent sailings, creative costumes and choreography got big points, and so did the enthusiasm and versatility of the dance troupe. Participatory shows are much more fun overall, and more in tune with what Costa passengers seem to want. The Election of the Ideal Couple and a Newlywed Game takeoff, for instance, both clip along at a frantic pace, with the cruise staff helping and hindering as appropriate to get the most laughs. Who knew the criterion for being an ideal couple was the ability to burst a balloon with your butt? On a recent cruise, a hilarious "sexy games night" had four couples pitted against each other in silly pseudo-erotic dance moves and skits, and it was hilarious.
Both ships have glitzy casinos as well as hopping discos, which often get going only after 1am.
Costa's kids' programs aren't nearly as extensive as those on Disney or Royal Caribbean (or Carnival's Conquest-class and Spirit-class ships), but then, there are usually far fewer children on board. At least two full-time youth counselors sail aboard, with additional staff whenever more than a dozen or so kids are on the passenger list. Supervised activities are offered for kids ages 3 to 18, divided into two age groups unless enough children are aboard to divide them into three (3-6, 7-12, and 13-18 years) or four (3-6, 7-10, 11-14, and 15-18 years). The Costa Kids Club, for ages 3 to 12, includes such activities as arts and crafts, scavenger hunts, Italian-language lessons, bingo, board games, face painting, movies, kids' karaoke, and pizza and ice-cream-sundae parties. The ships each have a pleasant children's playroom and a teen disco. If there are enough teens on board, the Costa Teens Club for ages 13 to 18 has foosball and darts competitions, karaoke, and other activities.
When ships are at sea in the Caribbean, supervised Kids Club hours are typically from 9am to noon, 3 to 6pm, and 9 to 11:30pm. The program also operates during port days, but on a more limited basis.
On Gala nights, there's a great complimentary Parents' Night Out program from 6 to 11:30pm during which kids ages 3 and older (they must be out of diapers) are entertained and given a special buffet or pizza party while Mom and Dad get a night out alone. All other times, group babysitting for ages 3 and up is available every night from 9 to 11:30pm at no cost, and from 11:30pm to 1:30am if you make arrangements in advance. No private, in-cabin babysitting is available.
Children must be at least 6 months old to sail with Costa, and kids sail free between ages 6 months and 2 years.