Number of Cruises: 3
Cruise Line: Costa
Ship: Costa Victoria
Sailing Date: April 3rd, 2003
Itinerary: Western Caribbean
This was my first cruise with Costa, and will most
likely be my last. I booked at the last minute because of a cut-rate deal I got
as a single passenger.
I should say first of all that I am 40 years old (but look 25 or so), a New Yorker through and through, Asian, female, fit, active, and well traveled. I've traveled in groups and alone, and had cruised twice before, on Orient Lines to Greece and Turkey in 1996 and on Renaissance to Portugal, Morocco, and Spain in 2001. I have a background in finance, theater, and dance. I am a foodie, which means I am as happy eating a $1 street meal as I am in a five-star restaurant, as long as the food is fresh and tasty. Indeed, one of the reasons I travel is to sample food from other places. I enjoy traveling alone because I meet more people that way and have to worry only about pleasing myself.
A nightmare. Embarkation was scheduled to begin at 1pm. I arrived at 12:30pm to find the crowds already there. Porters, who are not Costa employees, are quick to relieve you of your bags and not at all shy about asking for tips up front. As I was debilitated from food poisoning (from a convention at the Radisson Deauville hotel in Miami, if you're curious) I was generous and handed almost everything over, including a carry-on I usually carry myself. I asked for, but was denied, a wheelchair, and cut to the front of the line – not my usual practice at all – to get into the terminal as quickly as possible to find a seat. I was handed a group number, my bags were X-rayed, and I collapsed into a seat, which was difficult to find.
Embarkation didn't actually begin until 1:30pm. The woman making the announcements was rude in a funny New York way, chastising passengers for getting up before their group was called. I was group 14 and so had to wait until 2:30 or so before my group was called. Unfortunately, the wait still wasn't over as we were merely admitted to a large hall and yet another line to check in with Costa agents. There was only one long counter with about 10 agents working, so checking in 2,000 passengers took some time. And even after checking in, there was yet another line to board the ship. There were two cruise members waiting to take pictures with passengers, but thankfully they were not stopping people and causing a further delay. I didn't reach my cabin until after 3:00pm.
My advice to future Costa passengers is forget the welcome buffet. Forget arriving early with a large group expecting to find seats together. It ain't going to happen. Instead, eat before you leave for the port and arrive midway during the boarding process (at least two hours after it is scheduled to begin). You will have a much less stressful time. You can always order from a (admittedly limited) room service menu once you are on board.
I haven't traveled on a large ship before, and I enjoyed the choices of bars and lounges afforded me. The ship is neither glitzy nor "elegant" as people usually seem to define the term. (I have to say that I was not impressed with the Renaissance R1, which usually got rave reviews in this regard. I found the fake wood and gilding, well, cheesy.) The CostaVictoria was okay; it reminded me of a large mall. A little worn in some spots, but perfectly passable. Lots of blue, brushed stainless steel, and bird's eye maple laminate.
Since I don't gamble I can't really comment on the casino, which looked fairly large and well attended. Shops were fine but the merchandise was unimpressive. The two most attended bars, the Capriccio and the Grand Orpheus, were midship. At times it could feel like running the gantlet getting through those bars as the only way from aft forward was walking through them and you were definitely getting checked out along the way.
The Concord Lounge, at the bow, was an underused space during the day – a great place for good views and peace and quiet. Likewise the aft Tavernetta Lounge, which in the evening became the "Magnifico" restaurant, offering reservations-only dining for an additional $20 (plus 15% service charge) and, later, a bar/dance space. The Planetarium Atrium, from decks 5 through 7 midship, made a good parking spot for waiting – for dinner at the Fantasia restaurant, for the front desk, for the tour desk.
The library has no lounging space for hanging out and reading, but does have a decent selection of books in several languages. I never used the gym or the spa, as I was on vacation from dancing and the rest of my usual strenuous fitness program. Likewise, I never used the tennis court, the chapel or, thankfully, the medical center. The Internet café was like all shipboard Internet cafés: slow and expensive at 50¢ a minute. As an Internet junkie, I still checked email on board ship, but found (slightly) cheaper Internet access ashore when I could (in Key West and Grand Cayman).
One thing I will definitely say in CostaVictoria's favor is deck space. There always seemed to be enough deck chairs, perhaps not immediately around the pool, but I never had trouble finding one somewhere. There is a small tennis/basketball court aft, and golf lessons are available from a former Italian national champion.
I loved my cabin, #10547 (deck 10, aft, on the port side) which was perfectly adequate for one person and perhaps would feel a little cramped for two. I personally like modern Italian design and so the bathroom/head, with its sleek Italian fixtures, really appealed to me. The bathroom came equipped with a pathetic 900-watt hair dryer, and you were forbidden to plug your own in because the electrical system supposedly couldn't handle it. I didn't test this assertion, just took twice as long to dry my hair.
A rare occurrence: there was enough light and a large enough mirror in the bathroom for me to do my hair and makeup, and another large floor-to-ceiling mirror (with a table and two chairs) facing the large porthole which allowed for daytime makeup. There's a full length mirror in the closet as well. Storage seemed adequate for two people who don't overpack, with space for two suitcases in the closet and perhaps more under the bed. My queen size bed was comfortable, though I could really feel the joint between the two twin beds they'd pushed together to make it.
My only quibbles about the cabin were the noise from the TV being watched by the teenagers next door and the noise at certain times of day from the Bolero Buffet above me when the staff were clearing the deck and moving tables and chairs around. Otherwise, I was very comfortable and liked the small, almost private, aft deck on deck 10 which most passengers didn't seem to know about.
My Indonesian cabin steward was what all cabin stewards seem to be: Asian and a bit obsequious. But my cabin was always sparkling clean and the steward rarely guessed wrong when he guessed I had left and the cabin was free. There was one night when the A/C regulator in my cabin broke down and I woke up freezing. I asked the cabin steward the next morning to take care of it, but by evening decided he had forgotten and called the information desk to make sure it was taken care of by the time I went to bed. It was.
Bars and wait staff were populated by Asians, primarily Filipinos and Indonesians. As warm and friendly as you might find on other ships (much better than the Eastern European staff on the Renaissance R1), but I am always uneasy at the clear racial divisions in cruise ship crews. Must the service staff always be Asian and the officers always "European" (i.e. white)?
The "animators," who were responsible for contests and games among the passengers, were very friendly and very good at getting people involved in doing silly things they would never do at home. They taught everyone who was willing the "Bom Xi Bom" Costa dance. They were also very friendly with the passengers – one of them was a little TOO friendly with me. Something about a woman traveling alone seems to send the message to men that she is just desperate for them. Not.
I also unfortunately witnessed a racist, offensive scene enacted by the animators during the disembarkation talk, where they were illustrating different greetings around the world. The "Japanese" greeting perpetuated offensive stereotypes of Asians and confused Japanese with Chinese, a bit like the Italians mixing themselves up with the French. This sort of racism seems to be par for the course among cruise lines, but I nevertheless lodged a written protest with the cruise line, as did other Asian Americans on the cruise. I have yet to hear from Costa.
The most disappointing aspect of the trip. The breakfast buffet was passable – hot and cold cereals, yogurt, fresh and canned fruit, boiled and scrambled eggs in trays and eggs/omelettes made to order, sausages, bacon, corned beef, potatoes, French toast, scary-orange colored pancakes (not sampled). Bread throughout all the meals was uniformly terrible; after sampling a roll I was afraid to try the brioche/croissants/danishes. I did notice donuts but don't eat them.
I usually ate breakfast fairly late, so skipped lunch and went to the snack buffet. This consisted of mediocre tea sandwiches, not even worth it cookies and quick breads, fruit, cold cuts and cheese, and really, really bad pizza. Dinner in the Fantasia restaurant was generally not up to scratch as well. I ordered a filet mignon "on the rare side of medium rare" and it was barely pink. I did get another one cooked as ordered, but the meat was tough. A salad that was supposed to feature hearts of Romaine, bib lettuce, red oak leaf lettuce, endive, and goat cheese consisted of iceberg lettuce and a smear of goat cheese. A cheese course consisted of a slab of supermarket-quality cheese with plastic-wrapped saltines. Desserts were usually a disappointment: "featured" desserts were old-fashioned choices like crêpes suzette, cherries jubilee, and baked Alaska. The soufflés were very good, but I had one taste of a strawberry mousse that tasted like Frankenberry cereal. Pastas were dependable, but not of the quality you might expect from an "Italian" cruise line (albeit one now owned by Carnival).
However, I soon discovered that the pizzeria, deck 12 starboard aft, served decent pizza (at least it was freshly made) and had dinner there a few times. It seemed a lot of my fellow passengers also skipped meals at the restaurant, as many tables were nearly empty almost every night. I ate with two other elderly male passengers at my eight-seating table when I did eat at the restaurant. People did not generally dress up, except for the two formal nights.
I had plenty of free time as a lot of regular cruise ship activities are not my cup of tea. I did take a group dance lesson from the ballroom teachers, who were very sweet and friendly. I also was recruited a couple of times by the animators into silly activities and enjoyed myself. I took a golf lesson from the pro and enjoyed myself thoroughly – he was very dedicated to making me a golfer.
I didn't attend most of the shows as they are not usually appealing to me. My dinner companions, however, raved about them, particularly the Italian tenor and the magician. Musicians at various locales included a classical violin/piano duo (pretty good), a "calypso" band (the usual cruise stuff), a duo that one night did a spot-on Bee Gees imitation, a couple of lounge singers, and a couple of other duos that played more contemporary music.
The "Rock Star" disco (someone at Costa should really rethink that name) had a small dance floor that was usually crowded with teenagers, but on a few nights there was late night dancing for the rest of us. The DJ played songs from different eras, but had no idea how to mix: transitions were rough, and he could really kill the mood of a lively song by following it with a dead one. I heard the same songs (badly) mixed the same way two nights in a row.
Not the most sophisticated lot in the world, as you should expect when you pay a cut-rate price. A lot of the teenagers were unsupervised by their parents and seemed to spend most of the cruise getting as drunk as possible for as long as possible, despite the supposed 21 year-old drinking age. I had one conversation with an 18 year-old boy who boasted of spending the entire day in Cozumel in a bar, waking up on the floor of his cabin in the evening with $1 in his pocket left from the $300 he had had at the start of the day.
I enjoyed meeting the European passengers, who seemed to be a bit more worldly than many of my fellow Americans. There were French doctors attending a medical conference on nutrition on the cruise and they were bemused by the irony of watching us Americans engage in the sport of overeating.
Tours/Ports of Call
Key West: The bike tour ($25 for 2 hours) sounded interesting, but I didn't take a tour here as I had been to Key West independently before. I just wandered around and enjoyed the sunshine. If you opt out of the tours, I recommend that you walk away from the port and explore some of the quieter residential streets north of Duval Street, or around the Truman Annex southwest of Mallory Square.
Progreso: I was lucky enough to have chosen the Uxmal tour ($82.50 for 8½ hours) at this stop as it was pouring when we docked and the rain followed the tour to Chichen-Itza ($93 for 8½ hours). Costa really pushes the Chichen-Itza tour and I've heard it's very impressive, but Uxmal has a perhaps more beautiful site and is less crowded. Lunch for the Uxmal tour was at a hotel adjoining the site and was perfectly fine. We did also get a short drive through the regional capital Mérida. They provide Pepsi-Cola (and diet Pepsi) and beer for the return bus trip; if you want water you should bring a bottle, order a bottle at lunch, or buy one at one of the stores just before entering the Uxmal site. The only downside of the whole day was the final stop at a souvenir site in the middle of nowhere, where those of us nonshoppers had to hang around for half an hour with nothing much to do.
Our guide, Manuel Turriza Rodriguez, was one of the best guides this usual hater of group tours has ever encountered. You can arrange a private tour with him by contacting him at email@example.com or 011-52-9-44-63-65.
Note that the sea was pretty rocky leaving Progreso as we were following a storm and as we were entering the Caribbean waters. A lot of people on board were ill. I was already on Dramamine so I was fine.
Cozumel: Because of the storm a lot of the water-based tours were canceled. I had booked a tour to Tulúm, which was crowded but so gorgeous it's worth it. The cliffside setting of the ruins is just spectacular, and there is a small cove where you can go swimming if you plan ahead and wear your suit. There is nowhere to leave your belongings, however.
We took a short bus ride to a 45-minute ferry ride to another hour-plus bus ride to get to Tulúm. Along the way they took us to a rest stop where we were told we would have the only opportunity to buy souvenirs. This isn't exactly true as there are souvenir shops at Tulúm. Nevertheless, I bought a small Tulúm guidebook, which I've always found worth it as you can then wander off from the group and still be able to figure out what's what.
There is a fifteen minute or so walk in the hot sun from the parking lot at Tulúm (where the shops) are to the actual ruins, and they offer a $1.50 trolley ride for those who want to skip it. The guide takes you around with him for half an hour or so and then you are left to your own devices to wander around for about an hour and a half. This is where, you can decide to return early to the parking lot and do some shopping. Lunch, provided by Costa, was sandwiches from the Subway franchise at the parking lot, junk food (Cheetos, packaged muffins), Pepsi-Cola, and beer. Once again, if you want bottled water you'll have to buy it.
I did buy one souvenir which was available in both Progreso and Cozumel and which I thought was well worth it. An archeological institute offers a $25 facsimile Mayan book that explains the Mayan calendars and includes a personalized sheet of amate paper with your birthday in Mayan (as well as your name). They take your order – name and birthday – at the beginning of the day and deliver the book to you at the end of your tour. There's also a $10 map of the Mayan world. They only take cash, so bring enough with you.
Grand Cayman: Grand Cayman is known for snorkeling/scuba diving and banks. There is also a turtle farm, a sandbar where you can feed sting rays, and a town called Hell you can mail postcards from. I've been to many islands in the West Indies before and none of the tours appealed to me except perhaps an intro to snorkeling/scuba diving – but again, because of the storm we had been following those tours were canceled. We also didn't dock at Georgetown because of the swells and docked at Spots Bay (further southeast) instead. We were charged $4 per person to get to Georgetown in minibus taxis. Once in Georgetown, ask for the public bus depot at get a bus (another minibus) back to Spots Bay for $2.50. You also can get a small slice of Cayman life by doing so, as the bus stops to let islanders on and off.
* * * * * * *
I did manage to have a good time and I thought the cruise was worth the bargain price I paid, but I wouldn't recommend Costa to anyone unless they understood those terms.