Images of sinking ships aren’t normally the best advertisements for cruise lines, but after watching the Discovery Channel’s documentary on the ill-fated Costa Concordia, it made me want to book a cruise. And not just any cruise – a Costa cruise. Why?
I’ve traveled extensively in more than 50 countries over the last two decades on almost every imaginable mode of transport – cars, trains, ferries, planes and buses – but I haven’t been on a cruise since a family trip way back in 1985. I had a blast on that cruise but somehow in the intervening years, I acquired this fuzzy notion that cruises were for families, senior citizens and inexperienced travelers incapable of exploring on their own.
But after reading Pico Iyer’s convincing story, “Confessions of a Cruise Convert,” about the merits of cruising in Conde Naste, I resolved to give it a shot. With the Costa Concordia crash in January, and an engine room fire aboard the Costa Allegra in late February, it’s been a rough year for Costa. But while others were recoiling in horror while watching the NatGeo and Discovery documentaries on the Concordia this spring, I still wanted to check out Costa on my own.I checked Costa’s website and, sure enough, found some great deals. Prices for a seven-night cruise departing from Savona, Italy, aboard the recently renovated Neo Romantica started at just $399 for adults and $159 for children for a mid-April departure. The itinerary included stops in Barcelona, Palma di Mallorca, Valletta, Catania and Naples. I did the math and realized that we might spend more money on our own, staying in hotels, eating at restaurants and traveling by train around Italy.
I don’t take the safety issue lightly. Particularly because I’m traveling with my wife and two children, ages 2 and 4. But my parents have traveled with Costa before and had nothing but good experiences, and, in light of the Concordia fiasco, I guessed that there’s probably no safer time to travel on Costa than right now. What follows is a brief review of our experience on the Neo Romantica.
Safety. In the wake of the Concordia disaster, Costa now distributes red cards to each passenger that they have to turn in to prove they attended a security procedure briefing prior to departure. I had an opportunity to interview Salvatore Donato, the ship’s captain, and he was quite candid in discussing what went wrong on the Concordia.
“We are more than safe,” he said. “Safety for us first, before everything else. We all have families and want to go back home safely.”
Donato has been with Costa since 1990 and knows Captain Schettino, the Concordia’s captain who is now under house arrest and is facing criminal charges in Italy.
“We all know Schettino, and still, none of us can believe he would act as he did,” he said. “Every one of us, we are still asking ourselves, why, why. I think he lost his mind after the incident, not before. After he hit the rock, too much information arrived in his brain and the light switched off. The light switched off.”
During our cruise, we encountered some brisk winds and mildly inclement weather at times, but none of us ever felt seasick. In fact, the gentle swaying of the boat helped us sleep at night.
Moving past the Concordia. Our ship had a capacity of 1,800 and there were 927 passengers on board, with only 28 from English speaking countries. The majority of the ship’s passengers were from Italy, France, Germany and Switzerland, but we met people from around the world, and most seemed motivated by Costa’s prices. No one I spoke to was the least bit concerned about safety issues.
Jacomien Melis, a woman we met from The Netherlands, told us she booked her cruise before the Concordia sank, but didn’t think about canceling for a moment.
“You can crash at any time, doing anything,” she said. “Riding in a car, on a bus, on a plane.”
At the port in Savona, a family from Kelowna, British Colombia that had just completed a cruise on the Costa Atlantica told me that Costa sent them a letter after the Concordia disaster offering them the opportunity to cancel their cruise with a full refund, but they elected not to cancel and were happy they didn’t. They said their cruise had 1,600 passengers out of a capacity of 2,500.
Staterooms. The Neo Romantica was completely renovated in 2011, after a fire aboard the Romantica, and the ship was beautifully remodeled. I had an opportunity to check out a variety of cabins (see videos below) and I thought they were all quite smartly designed and furnished. The beds have memory foam mattresses, which are superbly comfortable, water pressure in the showers is excellent, and the rooms come equipped with brand new, 47-inch Samsung flat-panel TV’s. The toiletries they leave in the room are super high-end and the housekeepers leave ice and fresh water in the room every day.
Food. One of the advantages of choosing an Italian ship is the food, which we found to be almost uniformly excellent both in the main dining room and the buffet. Every evening, I looked forward to returning to our cabin, where we’d find that evening’s menu in our mailbox. I went a bit crazy, I have to admit. At most dinners, I ordered 1-2 appetizers, a cheese plate, 1-2 pastas, 1-2 entrees, gelato, plus another dessert, if I was feeling particularly gluttonous, which I usually was.
Our kids are extremely picky eaters, but the staff was willing to make them anything they wanted, within reason. The kids’ menus featured standards like hot dogs and chicken fingers but also gourmet items like braised leg of Spanish spring lamb and chicken Milanese.
As one would expect on an Italian ship, the pastas and gelato were outstanding. Potato gnocci, pumpkin ravioli and agnolotti with a Piedmont style meat sauce were a few of my favorites. The ship also has a pizzeria with Neapolitan style, wood-fire pizzas, at a cost of 7 euros for as much as you want.
Service. The mostly Filipino waiters and housekeepers are extremely friendly and outgoing. Diner in the dining room takes about 1.5 hours per night, a challenge for families with small children, but that’s what you get when you order 5-10 courses per night, as we did. If we ate more modestly, it wouldn’t have taken so long.
Ports. For me, Malta was a highlight, so I was happy we had a full day in Valletta. We also had a full day in Palma, which I was lukewarm on, and half days in Barcelona, Catania and Naples. If you don’t take the ship’s excursions, it’s hard to go very far from the port in Catania and Naples on your own without worrying you’ll miss the departure.
Entertainment. The floorshows weren’t my cup of tea but they had a few musicians that I loved – a classical ensemble, a flamenco guitarist and a blues/folk singer from Poland.
Room for Improvement. Internet access is an issue on most cruise lines and I found the speed on the Neo Romantica to be hit or miss. At times, it was quite good and other times it was practically unusable. If you buy access in three-hour increments, it costs 8 euros per hour, which isn’t bad by industry standards.
The only other issues I had with the ship probably come down to its size and concept. The Neo Romantica is Costa’s smallest ship, and that has both plusses and minuses. We found out after booking that the Neo Romantica is probably the least kid-oriented ship in the fleet, and indeed, there isn’t a lot for kids to do on board. They have a kids’ club, but it’s only open to children age 3 and up. We have a 4-year-old and a 2-year-old who’s almost 3. I’m told that the best Costa ships for kids are the Costa Favolosa and the Costa Fascinosa.
Conclusion. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the Neo Romantica but it’s probably best suited for families with older children, couples and seniors. If you’re looking for a nicely renovated ship, with quality staterooms, great food and an interesting itinerary at great prices, it’s probably a great option for you.
[All photos and videos by Dave Seminara]