Costa Cruises' ships fall into two categories that I call "Before Joe" and "After Joe" -- the Joe in question being Joe Farcus. Farcus is best known as the designer of Carnival Cruise Lines' famously wacky and theatrical ship interiors. He's been importing the Carnival sensibility to new-builds in the Italian fleet since the debut of Costa Atlantica.
Costa Victoria, however, is a ship from the cruise line's "Before Joe" era and, as such, its decor is more Spartan, lacking the neon-tinged "wow" factor for which Farcus is known. It's an older ship -- launched in 1996 -- and, even though it had a major refurbishment in 2004 (adding 242 balconies and mini-suites), it's still a bit behind the times.
The layout is strange by today's standards, with the spa and gym buried on Deck 6 and what passes for a theatre -- it's more of a lounge with a big stage and terrible sight lines -- at the back of the ship.
The balcony cabins were an excellent addition in this day and age, but it's a shame they didn't spend a bit more money on modern conveniences while they were at it. Passengers are given both a room key and an onboard charge card; we would have preferred to have one digital room key that doubles as a charge card, as is available on many cruise ships. A programmable in-cabin safe with a numbered keypad would also have been nice. Costa Victoria's safes are locked and unlocked with a charge card -- if you're lucky. It took 10 minutes of frustrated swiping to lock mine one day.
It would also be nice if Costa invested in a new machine to swipe you on and off the ship -- one that brings up your picture when you insert your card, so you don't have to carry around a photocopy of your passport. It's not heavy, but it's just another thing to forget -- as, indeed, I did once.
On the plus side, the ship has so much open deck space and so many sun loungers that I can't imagine you'd ever need to do a dawn dash to grab a bed.
Because this is a multinational ship -- mostly Italians, but there were at least seven other nationalities on my cruise -- you should be prepared for endless announcements in different languages (which makes for an especially tedious boat drill) and a few cultural howlers.
The Italians' inability to queue upset some Brits, and Mediterranean laissez-faire attitude takes some getting used to. "Just coming" invariably meant a 15-minute wait. That said, the international crew were friendly and efficient -- three nights running, a bucket of ice was delivered to my cabin, less than 10 minutes after I had called room service -- and crew members' abilities to switch between languages never ceased to amaze me.
Overall, the food was good -- especially the pasta.
Costa Victoria has two dining rooms: Sinfonia, aft of Deck 5, and Fantasia, in the middle of the same deck. Both offer traditional, two-top dining in the evening at 7 and 9:15 p.m. or 9:30 p.m. Evening meals in the dining room always have six courses -- appetizers, soups, a choice of two pasta dishes, a main course, salad and cheese -- and dessert.
The appetizers and pasta were, invariably, the best meals. I had a delicious antipasto plate with Parma ham, chicken pate and apple salad one evening. On another, I chose smoked ham with artichoke hearts. But, for mains, I had a very acceptable lamb curry and a tasty vegetarian lentil dish.
I passed on the desserts, but my daughter reports critically on the chocolate souffle, but much more positively on the "yummy" chocolate mille feuille.
Fantasia is also open for breakfast and lunch. Hours varied, but, generally, breakfast was from 7:30 to 9:15 a.m., and lunch ran from 1 to 2:30 p.m.
The Bolero Buffet, on Deck 11, is open for breakfast from 7 (6:30 on some port days) to 11:30 a.m. and for lunch from 12:30 to 2:30 p.m. (3 p.m. on some port days). Afternoon tea is served there from 4 to 5 p.m. It is closed for dinner. My one complaint was that I could never get any hot food at the lunch buffet. It was always veering toward cold, which suggests it was lukewarm to start.
Breakfasts were the usual selection of scrambled eggs, bacon, hash browns and other fried food, plus rolls, fruit, cheese and a big selection of cold meats. You can get freshly cooked eggs and omelettes at a separate station.
At lunchtime, the egg station became the freshly-heated pasta station -- but the food was still never hot. (And, they didn't understand me when I asked them to heat the food a bit longer.) There were also salads, cold meats and a selection of hot dishes.
The Pool Grill and Terrazza Grill, the former by the pool, the latter at the Cafe Terrazza at the aft of the ship, serve burgers, hotdogs, fries, pizzas, fruit and more and keep the same lunchtime hours as the Bolero.
The Pizzaria serves pizza by the slice from 3 to 7 p.m. and made-to-order pizzas from 7 p.m. until midnight. There is also a speciality restaurant, Il Magnifico, set up in the La Tavernetta bar each evening from 7 to 9 p.m. You're supposed to reserve a table, but it was never busy. Dishes are priced a la carte. The menu was certainly impressive. I had my eye on the cold duck platter, priced at 7.50; the half-chicken, cooked with pepperoni and beans (7.50); and the baked shoulder of lamb with olives (9). I wasn't so sure about the lukewarm tomato soup with croutons of spicy pork cheek (6). I suspect it lost something in translation.
Just in case anyone is still hungry, sandwiches, snacks and pizza are served in the bars from 11:45 p.m. on, and there is 24-hour room service. Speaking of which, room service breakfast is served free between 7 and 10 a.m. The rest of the time, there is a 2 service free (waived for passengers in suites).
The Grand Bar Orpheus on Deck 6 and Capriccio Lounge, one deck above, were always busy in the evenings. The former was lively, the latter more sedate. The Concorde Plaza, on Deck 7, was also busy in the evenings. It has a ground floor and two mezzanine decks above.
The Planetarium Bar, across the atrium from the reception area, was invariably quiet, as was La Tavernetta, which doubled as the speciality restaurant in the evening.
These days, the bars usually have areas for smokers. In the Concorde Plaza, smokers can light up on the mezzanine decks, indulging their habits and enjoying the best views over the bow of the ship. There was also a large smoking area in the open-air Cafe Terrazza at the rear of Deck 11.
I noticed that passengers paid little attention to smoking areas and just moved the ashtrays to more convenient spots if they wished. There were lots of smokers, which would upset some people, but none of the rooms was ever smoky.
The casino had tables, but the banks of slot machines were more popular. Also, there were always a few people picking over the merchandise in the Portobello Market Square, which sold inch-of-gold chains and logo wear.
There is a small Internet cafe, but you have to swipe your charge card and pay 50 cents a minute. There's also a library, but it was only open for two hours a day.
There are 964 cabins, ranging from insides and oceanviews to balcony rooms and suites. Six cabins have disabled access. Sizes range from 11 square metres (118 sqare ft.) for inside cabins to 42.5 square metres (457 square ft.) for suites. Outside cabins are 13.5 square metres (145 square ft.) and balcony cabins are 18.4 square metres (198 square ft.), including the veranda.
All rooms have mini-bars, safes, hair dryers and old-fashioned, chunky TV's, which get satellite news stations and play about half a dozen films during a seven-night cruise, each in a different language every day. For instance, "Sex in the City" was on in English in Fujairah, in German in Dubai, in Italian in Bahrain and so on. The days and films didn't always correspond, so if there was one you really wanted to see, it was worth switching on the TV each day to check.
The bathrooms in the standard inside, outside and balcony cabins have toilets, basins and showers. No toiletries are provided.
Suite passengers get all of the above, plus pillow menus, bathrobes and slippers, and lunch and dinner menus are delivered each day. Bathrooms have showers and tubs, and toiletries are provided.
Standard cabins with balconies are on Decks 9 and 10, and mini-suites with balconies are on Decks 11 and 12. Suites do not have balconies. Balconies come with a couple of upright chairs and small tables -- ideal for watching the sea go by, but they're no good if you want to sunbathe.Our cabin had plenty of storage space for a week or two at sea, but also had a dire shortage of plugs. That was probably not an issue when the ship was built in 1996, but it is now, as we all have cameras, mobile phones, iPods and laptops to charge. My cabin had one European-style plug and one American, flat-pin plug, so at least there was a choice, but they were so close to each other that you could only ever use one at a time anyway.
Rather than optional gratuities, Costa Cruises has mandatory service charges, which are added to each account and cannot be removed onboard. If you object to paying, for whatever reason, you have to fight that battle when you get home.
The charges vary, depending on the length of each cruise. On Costa Victoria's seven-night Jewels of the Emirates cruises, adults pay 45.40, and children (ages 14 to 17) pay 22.75. There is no charge for children under 14.
There are separate children's and teens' clubs on Costa Victoria, but the rooms are small and sparse, a bit disappointing for kids who are used to the facilities provided on big, American ships. Costa can also be a problem for British kids, unless they happen to be good at languages. However, parents like Costa because the under-18's cruise for free if they share rooms with two adults.
The Squok Club, open daily on sea and port days (for children, ages 3 to 12), is split into two age groups: Mini Club for ages 3 to 6 and Maxi Club for ages 7 to 12. Both offer activities from 9 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. with breaks for lunch and dinner. Parents can leave the children in the club for free if they want to go on an excursion.
The teen club is for 13- to 17-year-olds and has limited activities through the day -- a basketball tournament one day, T-shirt-painting on another -- but comes alive with discos and parties late at night.
Costa Victoria was a bit like a floating United Nations. Of the 1,962 passengers on my cruise, the vast majority (1,124) was Italian -- no surprise, given Costa's Italian roots. (German was the next most represented nationality with 107 passengers.) There were also Spanish, French, Dutch, British, Japanese and Russian passengers.
It gives the ship a more European feel, but it can lead to a clash of cultures and make it difficult to strike up conversations, since you never know if the person next to you will understand what you are saying.
It also gives restaurant managers headaches when they allocate tables for dinner, as they have to make sure they are not mixing passengers, who will not be able to converse -- a job they do with consummate skill, if my experience is anything to go by.
The main entertainment every night is in the Festival Theatre and is a selection of singing and dancing that can be appreciated, whether you're Italian, French or Japanese. It was all pretty mediocre, but there were some good acrobatics one night from Italian performer Ada Ossola.
Once the show is over, the action moves to the Concorde Plaza, where the entertainment team leads passengers in popular dances like the YMCA. It's quite comical, watching them try to call out the actions in three or four languages.
A singing duo performs each night in the Orpheus Bar, and there is a piano in the Capriccio wine bar, but I never saw it being played. Maybe it's because the pianist was playing each night in the Bar Planetarium, instead.
On port days, there are the usual games around the pool.
The dress code on Costa Victoria was very relaxed -- the unexpected bonus of cruising with people from all over Europe. As the English-speaking hostess explained, "Gala" is the most posh evening, but each nationality has its own interpretation of what that means. On our Gala night, I spotted people in black ties and slacks with sweaters. Most of the time, smart casual is the norm.
|Fitness and Recreation|
The spa is hidden away on Deck 6 and offers massages, manicures, body wraps and facials, courtesy of Elemis. Prices are at the top end and are especially expensive for Brits, now that there is parity between the euro and the pound.
The spa also has the only indoor pool in the Costa fleet. You have to be at least 18 years old to use it.
The gym is compact, with just four running machines, three cycles, one hand cycle, two step-machines and weights. There is also a daily fitness programme. Aerobics and body toning are free, but there is an 11 charge for Pilates and yoga.
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