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George Smart

Age: 42

Occupation:Speaker

Number of Cruises: 20

Cruise Line: Costa

Ship: Costa Victoria

Sailing Date: November 19th, 2003

Itinerary: Eastern Mediterranean

Overall: Despite a near-spotless ship and friendly crew, the real star of this voyage is the itinerary. You can see the Pyramids, Naples, Sicily, Egypt, Cyprus, Santorini, Corfu, the hills of Capri, and the volcano at Mt. Etna -- all in just 11 days. And depending on terrorism in that country, you'll also go to two ports in Turkey. Bombings in Istanbul the second day of the cruise caused Costa to substitute Athens and Rhodes (not a bad trade). Victoria is the cleanest ship in which we've sailed, with fabulous Med ports and obliging weather. November is an ideal off-season time to cruise this circuit. Why? No crowds. We never stood in line in a port city for anything. And the rates can't be beat. Costa deeply discounts trips during November and January.

The ship: Costa Victoria was built in 1996. Billed as an "Italian" carrier, we expected things like food and wine to be superb. They weren't. In fact, the food was the most disappointing part of the trip (more on that later). Carnival owns the Costa line and from a customer's viewpoint has pretty much left Costa's Italian-themed operations alone. However, Costa's website could greatly benefit from some upstairs consulting. It is unfriendly and nearly unusable - the worst of any line. On this trip, the ship was full: 1200 French, 500 Italians, 100 Germans, 100 Spanish, and 100 English-speaking. We left for Europe determined to avoid being the stereotypical "Americans on vacation" who complain about everything and want to be treated differently. To blend in, we dressed European (black, no sneakers, small logos), tipped everyone where appropriate, and were generally very nice. As it turned out, we had nothing to worry about, as the French took first place at being obnoxious. Politically, we have nothing against the French, but they were pointedly rude to everyone, not just to us. The Italian crew was clearly irritated by constant complaints and the French habit of breaking into lines - everywhere. 65-year-old French women would literally elbow their way to the front of any line, husbands and families in tow, as if each event from the buffet to the shore trip was the last lifeboat on a sinking ship. Our cabin (1115) was well appointed with a big porthole in one wall. The cryptic TV remote will require some experimenting to choose channels. Like an ancient puzzle, getting channels above 10 took some time and patience. The Photo staff took excellent pictures. With backdrops such as the Pyramids and the Parthenon, that wasn't too hard a feat!

The staff: Captain Giacomo Longo and his officers kept a low profile. A first for us, the Victoria has a full-time Chaplain who led services daily in a dedicated Chapel (deck 7). Cruise Director Cristina DioGuardi was also scarce except for opening and closing staged events in the theatre. She speaks (at least) five languages fluently - French, Italian, German, Spanish, and English - and delivered each announcement flawlessly in all five. Rarely do we comment on someone's appearance, but for such a public position it begs mentioning. Cruise Director Cristina's teeth, in obvious disrepair, distract from a nice smile and detract from her professionalism. Big thanks to English host Paolo, who graciously offered to help a group of us get transportation out of Savona and ended up with much more hassle than he bargained for!

Best Deals

The most romantic spot is in the Concorde Plaza, deck 7. This spectacular 4-story club has a central elevator. Take it to the top level (3) and there are two hidden rooms, one on either side of the ship. We prefer starboard (wink, wink) right as you exit the elevator.

Embarking is fast - arrival to onboard in 15 minutes, even at peak times. There is a brand new port building in Savona (it opened the week we returned) clearly indicating Costa's presence in this small port city.

Costa does not allow advance tour booking on their website so do it first thing on board. We did not hear of a bad trip from anyone. Very few were cancelled due to weather. The Pyramids trip from the port of Alexandria to Cairo is long (12 hours, including 7 in the bus) but well worth it to see this Ancient Wonder of the World. Take the Jeep trip on Corfu to see old world Greek villages in the mountains, with little old ladies guiding donkeys through the streets and the best local wine served with local feta.

Costa has a "Honeymoon" drink special that's an exceptional deal and you don't have to be on a honeymoon to buy it. For $48, you get a bottle of wine, 16 sodas, and two margarita-style big drinks.

Tips are $3 less per person per day than in the US, $7 instead of $10, given the last day of the cruise. Costa will not let you charge them to your account as has become customary in the US.

A taxi from Genoa to Savona is $100, so if you have time is to take the train ($13 each person, plus $40 cab fare to and from the stations). The Costa shuttle is the best deal at $65 a person round trip.

There were no good Spa deals. In fact, the Spa/gym area was unusually small for such a large ship. Although they offered some in-port discounts, usually those were the most interesting ports! See Alessandro for a massage - people come back glassy-eyed from an hour with him.

On the way home, we stayed at the Regent Palace Hotel in London, a great location (25 feet from the Piccadilly Circus metro stop) and a great price ($99 a night).

Don't go on a cruise without getting cruise insurance. www.quotesmith.com has rates that are always better than what the cruise lines will offer. There are so many things that can go wrong when travelling to Europe (and making connections) that insurance is absolutely essential. We've used TravelGuard many times, including once when we had to file a claim. They were superbly responsive and did not drag their feet on payment.

Not So Great

The shows were hit or miss, mostly miss. Costa could do a better job of briefing American entertainers that American jokes don't go over well to a mostly European audience, especially when 90% of the ship speaks in another primary language than English. The Peter Terhune dancers sang and danced their way through the whole voyage, performing at least five different shows. The opera singer and the 'instant fashion' presentation were outstanding.

Unless you're betting on a perfect series of flights, stay the night before in Genoa or Savona. You'll want the extra time to look around town. In both, however, beware of Gypsies and pickpockets. The woman showing you her new baby is also robbing your purse with a little sleight of hand. We met three victims of such crimes - not a nice way to start off your vacation.

Internet is expensive at 60 cents per minute, very slow (about 14.4 I'd say) and there's no deal to get unlimited access. Portside Internet cafes were $2.40 for half an hour.

The food? Oh my. It was not what we expected - or liked. The Italian selections were no better than I could get at a nearby Pizza Hut, and while the dining crew was friendly and helpful, the food was often bland, small, cold, tasteless, or mysterious. Just about every night a fish we had never heard of before appeared on the menu (and tasted like Cod). "Dentex" was my personal favorite cod-like offering. We were not alone in our assessment. No one ever commented positively on the food. There is a pizza/salad/ice cream station except the hours change every day. There are no specialty restaurants by theme, just one premium restaurant ($25 per person) where the food is actually very good. Other casual restaurants and buffets close for dinner. There were three formal nights, but people were all over the map (within limits, like no jeans, shorts, short sleeves) in what they wore. Expresso and cappucino were available in the main dining rooms for breakfast and lunch but not dinner.

There was no 'free cruise' bingo on the last day, but everyday bingo has a pot around $6000 if you hit in 46 numbers or less. We did not hear of anyone winning. The casino is small, with stingy slots and a remarkable absence of passengers.

Conclusion: Dream ports, good ship, great value!

To see all our reviews, visit http://www.strategicdevelopment.com/travel.

Happy Cruising!
George and Eleanor

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