Thursday, October 15, 2009

Costa Atlantica - Thoughts After a Ship Inspection and Why Itineraries Can Matter

I preface this post by noting that Costa makes no claim that it is a luxury cruise line.  In fact, Costa makes no claim that it is a "North American" cruise line.  Rather it is, by history and design, a European cruise line...whatever that means. (For example, all Costa ships use the Euro as onboard currency except when cruising the Caribbean, where the dollar rules.  And North Americans will be in a significant minority on any Costa cruise....which can be a very interesting and enjoyable thing.)

The 2,000+ passenger Costa Atlantica has been in New York for a few days and I took the opportunity to, for the first time, set foot on a Costa ship.  This nine year old vessel is fairly well maintained, but to me it just had the feel of visiting someone's grandmother's house:  Dated styling, a bit darker, a little worn and just a bit uncomfortable.  However, I quickly note that there are many people that like that sort of stuff.  Just not me and no when I am cruising.  (Compare, for example, the Seabourn triplets - which are much older.  They have a more modern, brighter, style.)

Little touches like sparing use of Euro-style cocktail napkins (about 30% of the size and half the quality of the American type),  plastic coffee mugs and dishes in the buffet (like child-type plastic; not melamine), spartan cabin amenities, etc. are either of no moment or, for me, things that would grate on me as my cruise went on.

The main dining room was ordinary and, in fact, lacked even proper linens on the tables, with short rose colored table cloths reminiscent of an informal European café instead.  Large bottles of balsamic vinegar were permanently stationed on the tables.  Strangely, we were not given lunch, so I can't really comment on service or food quality (thought I do have some observations about same in other areas). 

The casual dining/buffet area was actually far more attractive with many nooks and booths to have a more private dining experience in .  The buffets, mirrored on port and starboard, were not large.  (As it was a turnaround day and very few guests were onboard, the offerings were minimal...but what was there was very ordinary.)  I think I would actually enjoy dining in this area rather than the main dining room in the evenings - though its food offerings might change that.  (Costa is known of lively themes and entertainment during dinner...another miss for me.)

The cabins, as I mentioned, are very basic, though some travel agents who specialize in Carnival thought they were very nice.  Lots of light rose color (flesh-tone) with virtually no artwork and old televisions, a small desk and small sofa.  There was nice storage, both hanging and drawer space.  The standard bathrooms were tough, with that sort of bluish fiberglass feel and ugly fluorescent lighting with a shower that was really part of the room (separated by a curtain and a water dam on the floor).  There were a few "suites", though I really don't think any of them were worthy of that moniker...and some just had a very strange layout (as if someone wanted to create a suite atmosphere out of a large cabin...so 20% of the space was lost to otherwise unnecessary walls.) 

The main and secondary show lounges both had very low ceilings which cut off views of the stage.  It was very uncomfortable for me to sit in those areas.  The feeling was one of "it functions", not grandeur or even being special.

After our ship's tour we were taken to the secondary show lounge on Deck 1.  There we were met by waiters holding large rectangular trays with virgin versions of various umbrella drinks.  This was followed by waiters passing a variety of four different canapés.  Unfortunately they were as cold as the drinks and at least half the time no cocktail napkins were offered.  As time went on waiters would come around and take away the glasses, but never removed any of the other items (used toothpicks, orange rinds, cocktail napkins, etc.)  So over the course of the hour we sat there - with no lunch - some people had nice little stacks of garbage...which the waiters would shuffle glasses around.

Remembering that I was just on the Celebrity Equinox for 13 days, I could not help but make comparisons.  But before doing so, it would only be fair to compare the prices.  Costa works pretty much on 7 day cruises while Celebrity European cruises tend to be longer.  I took an August 2010 cruise out of Civitavecchia for comparison.  Seven days on Costa in a balcony runs about $1,929 per person ($275 per day) and ten days on Celebrity runs about $2,549 per person ($255 per day).  That is what really hit me.

Celebrity Equinox is a state of the art ship that has five or more dining venues with very good food and service, great cabins and bathrooms, true suites if you want them, open soaring spaces, and lots of innovations.  While Costa's newer ships do have a number of improvements that make up some of the differences, the Celebrity Millennium class ships are the same age as the Costa Atlantica and they also have so many advantages, from cabins to public spaces, from cuisine to service.

So why would you cruise on Costa:  Itineraries.  Costa has some of the most interesting and unique itineraries out there.  Costa sails pretty much anywhere.  Mauritius, Africa, Middle East, Libya, etc.  Many places that other cruise lines simply do to go to.  Would I take a Costa cruise if the itinerary was perfect?  I am not sure.  Would others?  With over 60% of the Italian market and about 40% of the European market, the answer is a resounding, "Yes".