More than any of its other brands, Carnival Corp.'s Costa Crociere, acquired in 2001, has taken the mantle of its big sister Carnival Cruise Lines and has parlayed it into "Cruising Italian Style" with savvy flair. Upon boarding Costa's newest ship, Costa Magica, which debuted in November of 2004, there's no question that you have just entered the whimsical world of Joe Farcus (Carnival's longtime interior architect and designer) ... with an Italian accent.
Costa Magica is enormous, especially for Europe, at 105,000 tons and carrying 2,720 passengers. (But it isn't the first: Its sister Costa Fortuna debuted in 2003 to equal success.) And on Costa Magica, "Cruising Italian Style" takes on new meaning since the interior theme of the ship is Italian holiday spots. Blown-up posters (manipulated by computer to look like Impressionist-era paintings) of destinations as diverse as Portofino and the Italian Alps line the walls and center the Italia Magica Atrium theme; the public rooms are also named for these places.
So this is most definitely a ship that is Italian in style and substance. "Cruising Italian Style" in Europe is an experience in cultural diversity that shouldn't be missed. Not only is it great fun -- and occasionally challenging -- but it's also eye-opening in terms of societal differences. I learned that kids are kids (and behave the same way in any language), that Europeans love to dance and will find any opportunity to swing around a ballroom floor, and that Americans, Canadians and Brits were the only people who attempted to stand in line for anything until finally giving in to the chaos around them.
Almost every public room onboard Costa Magica has entertainment of some sort or another, whether it's the pool band, individual vocalists, the classical duo in the atrium or the pianist in the Capo lounge.
The production shows in Europe tend to use fewer vocal effects due to language issues, so except for a Broadway show-tune revue (which is pretty much universal), the nightly offerings consist of a lot of dancing, acrobatics and magic.
The sail-away parties and music are particularly enjoyable ("Ciao Ciao Barcelona," for example) with music and revelry either at poolside or in the Grand Bar Salento, and the dancing in Salento and Capri lounge is fantastic, whether it's tango, polka, waltz, cha-cha or merengue. Whole families dance together, or get together to learn the steps. It was wonderful for me to watch even though I didn't participate.
There are lively art auctions, bingo (10 Euros for one card, 20 for three), and games around the pools and in the lounges ... Name That Tune, The Hat Game, Magic Box ... in all the languages, of course. And at dinner time, one or another of the soloists is on hand to serenade the diners.
Costa Magica's two main dining rooms, Costa Smerelda and Portofino, operate on a traditional set schedule for dinner and an open seating for both breakfast and lunch. Dining hours are later than North Americans expect: 7 p.m. for the early seating and 9:15 p.m. for the second. Costa Smerelda, located at the aft, is bigger and more attractive in that it's surrounded by windows on three sides, including the entire aft end overlooking the stern wake. Both dining rooms are listed as Deck 3, but both are two stories with second-floor seating around the rim of the main floor. Assignments are generally based on cabin placement: Forward cabins get assigned to Portofino, cabins further aft to Costa Smerelda.The maitre d's do attempt to place non-Italian-speaking guests at tables that are language-appropriate; English with English, German with German, Spanish with Spanish. Furtheremore, the wait staff for that section is well-versed in that language, so there are no barriers to ordering. (I was traveling alone and was accidentally placed at a table of Russians. No one spoke to me at all; it was as though I weren't there. The waiter informed the maitre d' who rushed over to apologize; he had meant for me to be assigned to the adjacent table, which had two American couples, a teenager, a single gentleman, and then ... me).
The food at supper is ample and attractively served by attentive waiters who go out of their way to please. The pasta and rice dishes were absolutely spectacular on my cruise, some of the main courses (the osso buco, listed as "braised veal" in the English menu, and most of the beef dishes) were excellent, and the rest were merely OK, filling but not fantastic. The appetizers are good, sometimes unusual; we were curious about a smoked duck with tuna sauce (tuna sauce??), so one brave soul at our table ordered it ... and then quickly ordered something else. Desserts and salads are largely uninspiring.
Note: The waiters in the American and Canadian sections ask their guests if they want salad served with the main course; otherwise, it's served at the end of the meal.
A wine-and-water package is offered, with six bottles of Italian wine (three reds and three whites -- some very good) and six bottles of either still or "gas" (sparkling) water, at a cost of 99 Euros, which everyone said was an excellent buy. "Free" water will not be served at mealtimes; your only option is bottled.
Costa Magica's dining rooms offer seagoing traditions with a decidedly Italian twist: One night, waiters stopped mid-serve to waltz with guests, and on another, what we would call the Parade of Baked Alaska was carried out with light sticks and sparklers and had everyone cheering.
The Bellagio Buffet on the Lido Deck aft is surprising for several reasons. For one thing, it's big and expansive -- fitting for a ship this large, but unusual for a Europe-based cruise -- and for another, the food is really good, with several stations around the restaurant (and outside, both front and back) offering Italian specialties, international fare, grilled items and pizza. And finally, most surprising of all is the 24-hour coffee set up, with a robust brew available all day and night, practically unheard-of in Europe, plus tea bags, hot chocolate packs and milk (hot milk available in the morning). There's also an ice-cream station which has three flavors of self-serve ice cream available most of the day.
Trivia tidbit: The coffee and ice-cream stations use Carnival's cheerful green, blue and yellow plastic mugs and bowls. It was fun to watch people as they got their coffee; Americans and Canadians filled the 12-ounce mugs nearly to the top; the French and Italians only put about an inch in the bottom of the mug (except at breakfast) because they are accustomed to using tiny cups with small amounts of very strong coffee.
The room is big enough to accommodate most everyone quite comfortably, plus there's a second floor gallery and outdoor sections both forward and aft of the restaurant with tables and chairs. Problems arise, however, due to the limited number of hours that the buffet is open ... and when the pizza line and tea-time starts at 4 p.m. (after the buffet has been closed for two hours, and people have returned hungry from shore excursions and have only until 5 p.m. to grab a bite), there's a stampede that strains the resources of the facility and causes flaring tempers.
Bellagio becomes a "pizza trattoria" late in the evening, from 9 p.m. until 2 a.m., and there is usually a midnight snack of some sort, either in the Bellagio, in the galley, or canapes served in the bars and clubs along the Deck 5 promenade.
High up on Deck 11 is Costa's alternative restaurant. Taking a page from the trend on U.S. based ships, Costa Magica has adapted its Vincenza Tavernetta Club into a quiet, 88-guest elegant space with cooked-to-order steaks and chops and personalized service. There is a 23 Euro surcharge to dine here.
Room service breakfast is an expanded continental offering, with a choice of rolls, croissants, Danish pastries, cereals, juice, yogurt, and coffee, tea or hot chocolate. It's served by white-gloved attendants; coffee arrives in heavy porcelain pots, not plastic thermoses. While there is no charge for this (tipping is recommended at delivery), the rest of the room service menu consists of exactly three sandwiches (tuna, egg, and ham and cheese) for which your shipboard account will be charged 2 Euros.
|Fitness and Recreation|
The Saturnia Spa, located forward at the top of the ship, is a 4,600-square-ft. facility with all sorts of goodies for both men and women: Turkish bath, sauna, treatment rooms and beauty salon, plus a large workout room with new Technogym equipment. Work out while overlooking the bow and the vista ahead.
There are aerobics classes for all, no charge. Yoga, spinning and Pilates are offered for 11 Euros per class.
Spa treatments run the gamut from Swedish massage to (my favorite) an hour and a half special of full-body exfoliation, steam, milk-bath lotion rub, aromatherapy back massage and mini-facial for a special price of 99 Euros. Not bad. The salon offers hair care, manicures and pedicures.
Elsewhere on the ship, there are three pools on the Lido Deck, each separate and each with a different atmosphere, and six hot tubs. Although the forward pool is located next to the big slide, it is usually one of the quietest since most guests in that area use the middle pool. The aft pool is behind the Bellagio Cafe, under a glass dome, and was usually filled with families, as was the central pool. There seemed to be little oversight of kids on my cruise; there were many who were belly flopping in almost all of the hot tubs on board with no parental supervision.
There's a jogging track on top of the ship and a full, regulation-sized tennis court with stadium seating.
There are dance lessons by the pool every day with an aerobic beat to them, and dance lessons inside for salsa, merengue, waltz, tango, cha-cha and the like.
Carnival ships have always touted generous-sized cabins, but with the Destiny-class builds (Costa Magica is on a Destiny-class platform), the accommodations got comfortable and classy as well as spacious.
Of the 1,358 passenger cabins on Costa Magica, 843 are outsides, and 62 percent of those have verandahs, plus there are no fewer than 64 suites, from junior to penthouse.
The standard rooms, both insides and outsides, have ample closet space, deep vanity/desk combos, mini-fridges and leather seating areas. Baths are spacious, with a vanity and shower (suites have tubs and some higher-level suites have whirlpool tubs). Outside cabins have a large single-pane window without that annoying bar down the middle to ruin the panorama.
Bath amenities are simply non-existent on the European cruises. There is a very small bar of soap at the sink and a gel-soap pump in the shower. That's it. No shampoo, no lotion and no face cloths either.
What the cabins do have, however, which is another anomaly for Europe-based cruises, is ice. A tall, sleek ice bucket is filled in the morning and again at night for turndown. Since Europeans generally don't use ice in either soft drinks or water, it's surprising, and for me, it was greatly welcomed. And speaking of turndown, it is not elaborate in any way: The covers are turned back, your ice bucket is filled, soiled towels are replaced and your curtains are closed. It's a lovely way to return to your cabin; don't expect chocolates or towel animals.
All cabins and suites have large televisions with programming in many languages, but while Italian gets at least four stations and French, German and Spanish three each, there is unfortunately only one in English. BBC World, which is similar to CNN Headline, got boring after the third day, and there was no English alternative. It looked like there were pay-per-view movies, but I could not figure out how much they cost (and they were not new ones, anyway). I did watch an incredible documentary about whales in German (the only words I understood were Beluga, Inuit and Greenland), but the visuals were so fantastic that the language didn't matter. I watched dubbed-in-Spanish and dubbed-in-French versions of ER and NYPD Blue respectively (Andy Sipowicz's voice had a high, whiny quality in French, which had me laughing), and I actually answered three questions correctly while watching an Italian-language quiz show.
Lighting and storage options are terrific in all of the standard cabins, with little bedside lamps, vanity lighting and a low-light Murano glass art piece affixed to the large mirror across from the bed.
Verandah cabins are identical to the standard outsides, with the addition of a nice-sized balcony framed by a Plexiglas barrier. Furnishings are contemporary Italian-designed cloth mesh, low and sleek. Unfortunately the low chairs cause the balcony rail to fall exactly at eye level for anyone of normal height. And instead of using sliding doors as on most ships with verandas, for some reason these ships are all built with doors that open outward. Perhaps the idea was to keep people from leaving them open, but that doesn't work, and the end result is constant noisy slamming of balcony doors as people go in and out of their cabins at all hours of the day and night.Twenty-seven accommodations are configured for physically challenged guests (another anomaly in a European-centric ship) and the room numbers are even in Braille on all cabin doors.
A note about cabin selection: This ship is jammin' 24 hours a day while in Europe, so try to secure a cabin that is under other cabin space and not under public rooms or the Lido Deck area if possible. Cabin soundproofing is not very good, and you are likely to be awakened by pounding footsteps or scraping chairs at all hours. And, if you are contemplating the circular itinerary of Rome to Rome in an outside, try (as hard as you can) to get a starboard accommodation; the ship hugs the land, and the sights are often magnificent and are not visible from the port side.
Good heavens, yes! This ship is filled with families, and while the Squok Club was busy at certain times of the day and night on my cruise, families tended to stay and play together, even until the wee hours.
The Squok Club facility, located on Deck 12, is bright and cheerful with several computer stations and play areas. There is only one room for all ages, but the kids don't seem to mind. Their "counselors" run them all over the ship in any event; the groups of children, from age 3 to 12, can be seen as pirates or chefs or in dance or art classes. One of the most enjoyable moments onboard for me was the group portrait being taken at a photography station. Approximately 20 kids, all ages, were sitting cross-legged on the floor, all dressed in costume, cheerfully yelling the Italian version of "cheese" while the photographer clicked away.
Costa also allows parents to go on shore excursions while their children are in the club, and there is no charge for the service.
There is a separate teen club with various activities for the 13 - 17 crowd.
On the Europe itineraries, about 75 percent of the guests are Italian, with the rest being a mix of Spanish, German, French, Portuguese, British, Canadian and American, and a few from the Baltic regions. The ages range from very young families to very old seniors -- in other words, no one would feel uncomfortable onboard. Announcements are in several languages, which is wearing after awhile, and the multicultural mix can be chaotic, but I think that if world leaders took this cruise and saw how everyone managed to communicate and get along, we'd all be better off.
Casual during the day, smart casual in the evenings, with one formal night and one semi-formal night on a seven-day cruise.
In Europe, 6 Euros a day are added to your shipboard account as gratuities for the staff; in the Caribbean, the rate will be $10 per day. Most people give an extra tip on the last night to their waiters, the wonderful maitre d's and especially the hardworking stateroom staff.
One of the first things you notice on an exploration of Costa Magica's public spaces is the artwork displayed; in fact, there are 5,652 works of art on this ship, most provided by the Milan-based Brera Academy of Fine Art's students and professors. Vases, sculptures, original canvases and prints grace the walls, staircases, corners and crevasses throughout.
And then, of course, there is Joe Farcus's design, with royal golds and reds anchoring the other elements that celebrate Italy's vacation spots.
My favorite is the Grand Bar Salento, located mid-ship on Deck 5, with one of the largest bar and dance floor on the seas (along with that on sister Costa Fortuna). Pillars of gold and flashes of cherry red merge with the rich brocades of the loungers and chairs around the dance floor, which itself is inlaid with different woods in an intricate pattern at its edge. But it isn't the design of the space that had me so happy, it was the fact that this room in particular, a midpoint between the aft lounges and the atrium on the main indoor promenade, got the most use when there was music anywhere around it. In fact, the dance floor could be twice as big, and it would still get ample use.
The shops on the Deck 5 promenade are probably the most enjoyable I have ever visited, with high-end clothing, logo items, perfumes, jewelry, duty-free, baubles and tchotchkes in stores that circle the Italia Magica Atrium. The shilling of "inch of gold" and other specials still takes place in the corridors, but it seems like there is plenty of room and it didn't feel as intrusive as on other ships.
The Italia Magica Atrium itself is a pleasant spot to stop and have a drink or cup of coffee; you can watch the glass-enclosed elevators ascend; there is a glass dome over the space that allows light to filter in. On one side is the tour desk and on the other is customer service. Port side is the smoking section and starboard is strictly non-smoking.
The three-story Urbino Theatre, located at the bow, features a chandelier of Murano glass and columns inlaid with designs of musical instruments. This is where the nightly shows take place but is by no means the only entertainment venue on board.
Located at the aft of Deck 5 are three lounges: the Capri Lounge, designed to replicate the Blue Grotto, with blue lighting and shards of yellow granite; the Spoleto Lounge, unique in that it's entirely non-smoking; and the Capo Piano Bar, a delightful hideaway tucked into a corner at the aft end of the casino.
The Sicily Casino, located between the Grand Bar Salento and the aft lounges, is broken into two sections, with banks of slot machines on the starboard side of the ship and tables on the port side. On European itineraries, all gaming is in Euros. It's somewhat startling to be playing with a one-armed bandit and discover that your every move is monitored by a puppet, but there are, indeed, 65 puppets in glass display cases scattered around the room.
Deck 4 has the Internet Center, an expensive and almost useless affair, with trendy Italian-designed chairs that are so low (or computer stations that are so high) that you are working at chin level. In Europe, the cost is half of a Euro per minute; when the ship switches to U.S. waters, it will be 50 cents.
Adjacent to the Internet Center is the Grado Disco, which is also visible from the casino floor above. Oddly, while the Capri Lounge and Grand Bar Salento had crowds dancing the night away, including young people, the disco got very little use except for a couple of Pilates sessions that I noticed during the daytime and some very, very, very late-night stalwarts.
Also on Deck 4 is a small chapel and the quiet, attractive library. From here, you can also access the outside promenade where there are no deck chairs or loungers.
I found the flow on this ship to be problematic, even on Deck 5 which has the signature Carnival indoor promenade. To access most of the public spaces on the ship from either end, you have to figure out whether a restaurant, galley or otherwise closed structure blocks your path and work around it by going either up or down. On Deck 5, the crowds at the casino and in the Grand Bar Salento make movement difficult.There are a couple of meeting rooms on Deck 5, and the Photo Gallery circles the atrium on Deck 4.
Smoking is allowed only in certain places and not at all in the main theatre or in any of the dining venues, including the enclosed aft pool on the Lido Deck. Although it wasn't strictly enforced and although Europeans smoke more than do North Americans, most people were very respectful of the smoking restrictions onboard and followed the rules. The casino, which was filled with smokers, didn't get too smoky because it's a very large and well-ventilated space.
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