Costa Cruises - an idyllic way to
see the world
|Costa Luminosa entering Dubai harbour|
The Costa Cruise line, with Europe's largest cruise liner fleet, is based at Genoa, northern Italy. Its current (2011) fleet comprises 16 vessels, ranging in size from the 25,000 tonne, 1000 passenger Marina to the 114,500 tonne, 3800 passenger Favolosa. My wife and I have done three cruises with Costa, on the Europa, the Classica and the massive Deliziosa. The Europa was sold in April 2010, following (but not because of) a very unlucky accident on 26 February which left 3 crew members dead, 3 passengers injured and a big hole in the hull. She now sails under the name of Thomson Dream. Since then Costa have had another, even worse, and entirely preventable accident, with the sinking of the Concordia on 14 January 2012 - final outcome still undetermined (15/01/2012). Until the causes of the last tragedy have been fully analysed, these mishaps don't undermine my faith in this cruiseline and I hope its reputation will not be badly damaged, though financially it is sure to suffer.
Some years ago we would never have considered a cruise as a holiday option, but as we got older and a little less adventurous, we realised that cruising is an excellent, relaxing way to catch a glimpse of many countries in a short time, with virtually no hassles and all accommodation, meals and entertainment included. The reasons we chose Costa were that the itineraries took us to interesting places we'd never visited before and, importantly for us, the very reasonable cost of the cruises. Costa may not have the most glamorous of fleets, but their offerings represent good value for money when booking at their discounted early-bird prices.
|Amazing Mediterranean harbours
On the Europa we did an 11-day Mediterranean tour, departing from Savona and calling in at Napoli, Alexandria, Limassol, Rhodes, Tripoli and Valetta - all cities with a lot to see (click on the picture to see a brief slide show of their amazing harbours). This was probably the most interesting of the 3 cruises and the best value, although the ship was showing obvious signs of wear, with one or two lifts out of action most of the time and the smell of sewerage toward the dining-room end of the boat. All the crew and most of the passengers were very friendly. The cruise meshed in nicely with a Trafalgar coach tour of Spain, Portugal and Morocco, preceded by one of our usual visits to India, giving us all-in-all a holiday to remember long afterwards.
The Classica was our favourite ship. Starting and ending in Singapore, it took us to Ho Chi Minh, Da Nang, Sanya, Hong Kong, Manila, Kota Kinabalu and Bandar Seri Begawan. Again, quite friendly crew and passengers. The crew made a complete balls-up of our disembarkment at Singapore, but it didn't matter much. We totally enjoyed that trip and thought it was good value too.
Our last and shortest cruise, on the huge Deliziosa, was in the Persian Gulf, unfortunately at a time of unrest in the Arab world. However, we only missed out on one port (Bahrain) and there were no signs of trouble at any of the others (Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Muscat). Apart from Dubai, which is the most extraordinary modern city I've ever set eyes on (we spent a couple of days here), most of the land excursions were not very interesting, although the Sheikh Zayed Mosque in Abu Dhabi is worth a visit. Incidentally, we flew to Dubai via Sri Lanka, which was actually the high point of our holiday. However, I did not know then what I do now, and would not now advise anyone to visit this country until its leaders, its government and its military have answered to the heinous atrocities which they allegedly perpetrated on the civilian population of their own country during the final months of their battle with the Tamil Tigers.
Despite its size and newness, the Deliziosa was the least satisfactory of the 3 liners (it's just too big) and the crew was the least friendly and helpful. The information desk team in particular didn't know the boat at all well and provided me with incorrect information on at least 3 occasions. As for the other passengers, well! They weren't exactly a classy bunch, to say the least, and very few of them spoke English. (I think they were mostly Italian, German and East European.) The whole atmosphere on this ship was entirely different to the other two, and the cruise overall left us slightly disappointed.
Of course, Italian is the principal language spoken on board, and this is occasionally a disadvantage for English speaking sea farers. More of a nuisance for other foreigners though. On our cruises many of the crew members appeared to speak better English than Italian. After all, most of them were hired in places like the Philippines and India, where English is commonly spoken. The policy of Costa is to ensure that virtually every passenger understands what's going on - a mammoth undertaking and at times disconcertingly laborious, particularly during the lifeboat drill and at theatre performances. But on the whole it was handled quite well, with language groups being separated for meetings where important information had to be disseminated.
On all 3 ships there seemed to be plenty of space, the accommodation was pretty good, the food excellent and the waiters terrific, but clearly not all passengers agreed. Indeed, one of the chief drawbacks of cruising is having to put up with complaining passengers - especially whingeing Poms at the dinner table - "too tough, no flavour, too much salt, not enough salt". We thought the fantastic array of well prepared tucker was one of the great delights of travelling with Costa - certainly a drawing card that might tempt us to do yet another cruise with this company.
On all our cruises we opted to take shore excursions, pre-booked with Costa, at every port except the departure/arrival ports. This added considerably to the cost of the cruise, as Costa's excursions, whilst very convenient, are sold at greatly inflated prices. It would certainly help to know where you can safely get away without using excursions arranged through Costa. At many ports Costa offers a free shuttle-bus service that will at least get you out of the port area, usually to the city centre. Unfortunately I can't remember the places where the land content really needs to be pre-booked, except for Dubai, which is a very safe place and always has stacks of taxis parked at the port with cheap, metered fares.
Once you've done a few cruises with Costa your Costa Club membership quickly gets upgraded and you'll be able to save a bit on future bookings and services (but not shore excursions!). Peanuts really: the first-time offerings of some hotels are much better. By the way, you're not allowed to take drinks (or food) on board ever, and of course drinks purchased on the ship are expensive. (It's possible to smuggle in the odd bottle, but be careful where you keep it in your cabin!) There's also a flat service fee which is charged up-front, so it's really unnecessary to do any extra tipping. On our first cruise, strangely, they gave passengers the option of foregoing this fee if they were unsatisfied with the service.
As for the ports of call, on the Mediterranean cruise all were fabulous and well worth visiting, possibly the least interesting being Tripoli. On the Asian cruise, I'd rather have by-passed Sanya, a singularly unexciting place, and stayed an extra day at one of the Vietnamese ports. Nor has Manila got much to offer. In the Gulf only Dubai is outstanding, but if you want to see this city, forget the cruise, just stay there. By the way, you won't find many Arabs in town. There are more burqas in Sydney than Dubai! The workforce consists almost entirely of Asians - Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, Indians, Philippinos, Singaporians, Indonesians etc. The permanent UAE residents mostly hold positions of high office.
The worst part of the Costa experience? - their wretched website, by far! We booked all our cruises on the internet, but it was a struggle, especially the first time. The Costa website is one of the most formidable I've ever come across - totally illogical, slow and tedious to use, especially when dealing with the shore excursions. An absolute bastard, if I may say so. For one of the cruises, where we wanted to make a substantial change, I had to phone a Costa agent in Shanghai. She was extremely courteous and helpful.
However, most of the irritations I’ve mentioned are minor and hardly detract from the joys of cruising. So next time you start to get itchy feet, why not look into Costa Cruises? There’s sure to be an itinerary that will suit you.
A Star Virgo cruise to avoid
Star Cruises operates a widely advertised cruise that runs week after week, year after year, sailing up the west coast of Malaysia to Phuket. The ship itself, the Star Virgo, and the onboard dining are fine - very comparable to Costa. But every other aspect of the cruise is bloody awful. I should mention that we travelled towards the end of October and booked an outside cabin with a small balcony, for the full 5-day cruise. Most passengers take the 3-day or 2-day cruise options (see their website).
Here's a list of the things that we found unacceptable: online booking procedure and website (even worse than Costa's), instructions to passengers, price, boarding procedure - 1-hour queuing even for priority ("red carpet") passengers, itinerary (they didn't even take us where we wanted to go), shore excursions, stage shows and - perhaps worst of all - other passengers. The vast majority were of Chinese or Indian ethnicity and the general behaviour and unfriendlinass of the majority almost succeeded in turning me into a racist. (My wife, who is also of Indian ethnicity but from a different part of the world, was no more accepting of this crowd than me.)
I shall not go into any detail - it's all too dismal to relate. But you may wonder why we chose this cruise in the first place. Well, on paper it doesn't look too bad, our time frame was extremely limited and we wanted to visit Malacca, Phuket and Penang - ports we had not been to before (unfortunately the boat by-passed Malacca altogether). A bad, rather expensive, mistake. Having said all that, we made the best of it and actually enjoyed ourselves very much, as usual. If you do choose to go on this cruise, I'd suggest taking the 3-day option and pick the time of year carefully, because of the company on board and the risk of bad weather.
........Dabs of Grue..........24/06/2011........................HOME