Cruise from Santos (Brazil) to Venice (Italy) in 23 days (including flights from Europe) on board the COSTA FORTUNA, a large ship of 102,000 tons with a capacity of 3,200 passengers launched in 2003. On this trip, we were about 2,300 passengers on board. We are a French Canadian couple and traveled with our close friends, a couple living in Paris.
Because of the world media attention regarding the circumstances of the tragic wreck that befell the COSTA CONCORDIA and then of another COSTA liner in the Indian Ocean that ended up being towed to the Seychelles Islands, some friends were actually concerned that the writer and his spouse were going to spend over three weeks on board the COSTA FORTUNA. There were many e-mails with humorous advise, the most common being to follow the captain as he was sure to get out of the ship safely...! This was no joke for some people; on the first day at the lifeboat drill while talking to another passenger, this reviewer was told that a couple of his friends had cancelled their cruise and were quite willing to loose half of its cost.
There were no such fears on our part. Before leaving however, our friends teased us with a great deal of joking about: 1) navigating near the coast, 2) if our captain was a happy-go-lucky playboy like his (former) colleague, 3) to be sure to follow the captain in an emergency as he would be safe, and so on. One thing for sure, the regrettable incidents noted above were (and remained) on people's minds. COSTA thus has an enormous challenge to restore its image as a credible cruise company.
Internet access is an outright "King's Ransom" by these later day web buccaneers of the High Seas. For the princely sums of $10 for one (1) hour or $24 for three (3) hours, you can check your e-mails, etc. The only respite is logging in just to take your messages and log out. But even then, they have it figured out; this is not High Speed broadband but some "dialup" that seems to date from the days of Alexander Graham Bell. One night, out at sea between the Cape Verde and the Canary Islands, 16 messages took over 20 minutes to come in...! This is a 21st century version of extracting booty from unwilling and helpless hostages, when one thinks that, in my country, a month's broadband service is cheaper than six hours on board the appropriately named COSTA FORTUNA. Fortuna indeed!
While the COSTA FORTUNA is very nicely appointed, one wonders about the management of some of the furniture upon which the passengers sit. 1) The bench-like arrangement in the dining areas, at least those sat upon, were invariably sinking one's bottom alarmingly low; this can be a real and painful experience for the more elderly who have backbone, sciatic nerves and kneecap pains. 2) Two chair's whose wooden armrests were broken and detached themselves were noted on deck 3, Buenos Aires hall. It is surprising that these "health and safety" issues are not attended to.
Having a suitable dining table can be an experience... In our case, our two couples had: 1) a table at the other end of the ship at the late second service whereas a table at the restaurant almost next to our rooms and at an earlier service was, for various mobility and medical reasons, preferable. 2) Having obtained table 22 at the Michelangelo Restaurant nearby soon proved to be the coldest frigid air spot on the ship as well a being rather minuscule. Staff told the writer that no one wanted to sit there and directed us to the Maitre D who was under assault by a horde of dissatisfied clients. 3) At length, another table was assigned, consisting of benches under a stairway, which now proved unsuitable when one of us, who has serious back problems and mobility issues, could only rise with great effort and much pain from this unholy bench of penance. Even the staff, kind as always, was alarmed at seeing him gasp in agony as he grasped the wall panels and the Maitre D quickly assigned another table for the next night's diner. On the 4th try, this simple but welcomed round table with chairs proved to be relatively suitable, but it was noisy around and conversation difficult. Our kindly waiter eventually solved the difficulty by putting us at another free nearby table, the 5th and last after a week and a half of diligent efforts.
The daily "Today" newsletter that listed the next day's activities was always delivered rather late on the COSTA CONCORDIA, usually at about 10 pm or so. This was annoying because it either prevented us to plan activities with our traveling companions for the next day, or else made it a late night affair. It would be very helpful if it could show up earlier, as has been our experience on past cruises.
On Thursday March 29, the daily "Today" day's program announced that N. Carta Llenas, international singer, would be giving a representation at the "Rex Theatre", but when we got there, we were turned back, rather rudely I would say, by what seemed to be an enormous "bouncer" telling us that there was a cocktail for the German passengers instead. Why was this not announced in the "Today" for the information of passengers?
The COSTA Tours were, well, an expensive mixed bag. The buses were comfortable and the guides adequate. However, nearly every tour in Brazil took us to the "world's most beautiful beach" and to a handicraft market whose offerings seemed usually similar at every stop. (Hence this reviewer's theory that there exists somewhere a huge factory for these items...). It was frustrating to be whisked rather quickly through the lovely historic quarters of Salvador de Bahia and Olinda (both UNESCO World Heritage Sites) only to be deposited two (frustrating) hours in a beach restaurant at Salvador's outskirts and to a prison turned into craft market at Recife, thus missing the intensely unusual and interesting 17th century Dutch forts in that city. Beaches and handicraft markets don't have entry fees so that COSTA Tours' greed was proven considering a museum entry rarely exceeded $5. In fairness, it must be said that the tour of Salvador seemed somewhat better. The tours averaged $200 to $300 for four people, which was ridiculously expensive for hours at beaches and old prisons turned into doubtful crafts markets. We had regrettably reserved COSTA Tours in advance for stops in Brazil, but gave up on the COSTA Tours as not offering value for the money paid and took taxis at European ports, which proved to be much cheaper and far more enjoyable.
Indeed, there seemed to have been a "passenger revolt" of sorts once we reached Europe. A tour of Malaga was suddenly offered at $39, which was still a waste since one could walk there in 15 minutes. Few must have "bitten" because tour buses at the ship were few. On the other hand, Costa now charged $7 for shuttle buses that were previously free... Always expect a new twist with those tour buccaneers! To top it off, stops in Malta and Corfu were only a few hours and, in Dubrovnik, passengers were landed at about 10 am, which left roughly two hours in that lovely place before heading back to the ship.
It proved to be impossible to find shaving cream, shoelaces or a cord for securing one's eyeglasses in this 102,000 tons ship. This in spite many shops within selling eyeglasses, perfumes, purses and every imaginable souvenir trinket and jewellery.
The ship's minuscule "library" is woefully short of books. There were hundreds of passengers from France as well some from Quebec to share about 30 or so books their native language! The situation did not seem very hopeful for other languages, not even English. There were some nice hardcover books, most about COSTAs glory days, but these could not be loaned and read in one's cabin. So...bring your own books or iPad with previously downloaded books, etc.
Being "nickeled and dimed" to death is a disagreeable, but seemingly inescapable feature of life on a cruise ship. However, thanks to these later-day buccaneers, a peak of sorts was reached by the offer to visit the ship's machinery, command deck, kitchens, etc. for a mere $69 per person (or $138 per couple)! Certainly something that should be offered for free to passengers who, after all, paid several thousand dollars each to be on board. A kitchen tour was later offered free, but for a "limited number" of passengers...
The food was generally all right, but cannot be rated as outstanding for cruise ships. Some Canadian and British passengers told this writer they ate better on CARNIVAL cruises in the West Indies where such things as good smoked salmon and shrimps were always offered at buffets. A German passenger confided much the same from his recent cruise experience in other lines. Recollections of our own previous three-week cruise to the Tierra del Fuego on the COSTA ROMANTICA bears this out. It does not seem the chefs and their staff are unable to present a good fare; the root of the faults was that some of the "upper notch" ingredients were not as readily available, presumably because of budget restrictions. Thus the old adage that one eats better on a COSTA ship because of its Italian origin seems, sadly, no longer true.
The ventures into French cuisine were disappointing. One night the menu proclaimed "confit de canard" which turned out to be a dentures-defying affair that also should have been served sliced; the "crepes Suzette" were, at our table, as good as thin cardboard; a cup of orange sorbet was strangely reminiscent of the "Tang" American powdered drink and the "Poire HelÃ¨ne" while made with decent ice cream, did not seem to have much in common with Chef Auguste Escoffier's inventive recipe. The writer did mention duck "confit" to the Matre D when asked how the food was. On the whole, the Italian dishes usually were the better ones on the COSTA FORTUNA, at least the for pasta dishes and the pizza was also always a good simple fare. The evening meals of the last three or four days were noticeably better...
The wine list was not outstanding, but decent with, as expected, a varied offering of Italian wines. Regrettably, they were overpriced and certainly not in line with the recent price tumbles of many European wines due to market conditions and of the Euro's devaluation versus the dollar (US and Canadian). While the writer and his spouse were once active in wine societies, they are not addicted to overpriced wines and were quite happy to drink water instead, especially as the food did not usually create an overwhelming desire to order wine. Had the wine been more reasonably priced and the quality of the dishes proposed more predictable, we would have been pleased to spend our money.
The COSTA training schools might devote more time to basic proper service of wine. One night, our most kindly, but obviously insufficiently trained waiters, brought half of a remaining bottle of white wine warm and, rather than put it in a bucket with ice, served it warm and left the bottle on the table. Needless to add that, after this, we did not order any more white wine.
Another odd instance of insufficient instructions was that, at the beginning of the cruise, the writer (who does not mind paying for good coffee) was told that such thinks as espresso, cafe latte and cappuccino were not served at breakfast in the dining room...until the last day when it turned out that it was. Personally, this mishap was lamented as a great pity.
There was a "Club Costa" supposedly superior restaurant on the COSTA FORTUNA. However, a hefty $33 charge per person was also levied. That, for four, comes to $132 (or about â‚¬100), which, from the wine and food performance experienced elsewhere on board, seemed like an overoptimistic bet. The writer went to see the premises, which apart from being on an upper deck and smaller, did not seem all that extraordinary; there was further doubts about the place having its own real "Cordon bleu" chef of repute, which seemed unlikely having tasted the general downgrading in the ship's kitchens. So we decided to invest the money in a good restaurant we know in Venice instead.
A rather odd event was an unabashed "pitch" given at the final meeting. A good part of it concerned the COSTA comments form we were asked to fill out. This writer (who has attended French, American and British learning institutions and published widely in both languages) was interested to learn that there were great differences between the French and American meaning of the word "excellent". Francophones should know that the Americans bandied about "excellent" all the time, that the form was provided by COSTAs American owners so that the answer "excellent" was really what was meant by "very good". So Francophones should mark "excellent." Mmmmhhh...
Further reasons given were that, after all, it was a wonderful cruise, the crew tried its hardest, the American owners were watching (but it was not mentioned that the Costa family had sold the line to the American Carnaval cruises and a British booking firm since the mid-1990s) and everyone loved us. For our part, the four of us were not especially well disposed after this unabashed pressuring.
Neither great or bad:
Entertainment was, in general correct, the best show being that put on by crew members. An odd and annoying practice was that performers (of "international" fame, naturally) were announced in the "Today" program, but what they would play or sing was almost never announced. One night, there was the exception of the "Trio Tango" who would play "Classics" so we expected classical music, but what they played instead were musical themes of various cinema classics such as "Love Story", "Casablanca", etc.
It can be added that a lot of the entertainment was of rather loud "rock" music with "go-go" dancers and so on that was certainly "out of sinc" with the age of most passengers, the great majority seemingly in their 60s and 70s. This betrays a lack of considerate effort on the part of they who plan the entertainment, especially as the COSTA line has the age group data weeks if not months in advance through the bookings.
One wonders why there was no cinema offered (as the writer recalls on an earlier three-week COSTA cruise). Indeed, it might have been much better and less expensive for the shipping company than some of the entertainment on this Atlantic crossing. One night, the four of us evoked just for fun the "classic" films that could have been presented and came up with about a dozen European and American films.
The elevators are fast and efficient for the number of passengers therein. Well, most times except diner time.
First and foremost: the staff of the ship. They were seemingly mostly from the Philippines with a large contingent of Brazilians led by Italian managers. Ever smiling and cheerful, ever polite and trying to do what they could to ease the problems that faced many passengers on the COSTA FORTUNA. They were remarkably versed in languages generally being able to have a basic understanding of English, French, Italian and Portuguese. They obviously had undergone a rigorous training and generally applied it well, although diner service tended to be long and there was an instance when lunch took some 45 minutes to arrive in spite of having signaled that we had an early tour to catch -- we made it just in time, but it was a disagreeable experience. The staff's efforts and good cheer can only go so far by what are, by our observations, faults in various levels of management control and resolution processes.
One must also praise remarkably patient staff putting up with some truly horrid passengers who seemed to think they were the world's navel. This reviewer recalls a disgraceful "dressing down" by a lean and bearded young man in a rage at an Italian staff member because the stern of deck 9 only had plastic cups and that he never drank out of those (a wise COSTA regulation to prevent broken glass on a deck with many barefooted bathers). Or the irate mature lady proclaiming that she was a "hostage" who was imposed a table, a menu, a dining hour, etc., and that she would therefore only be served in her room, which of course was declined in spite of great exclamations of dubious anger. Then there were the bullies who charged in elevators, stairways and doorways, practically knocking ladies down on their hurried ways; whoever they were, they were not gentlemen (or ladies in some cases).
The COSTA line has something of a long-standing reputation for having consistently hired some of the best designers for the interior decoration of its ships. The COSTA FORTUNA is indeed a very tastefully appointed ship, the decorative themes being about early explorers and cruise ship travel from the 1930s. The buffet restaurant featured reproductions of a fine collection of early maps on wall panels and table tops, which are a delight and intriguing to examine. There are several fine models of some of COSTAs past ships such as the "Michelangelo" that used to do the Italy to New York run in the 1950s and 1960s. It was a joy just to walk about the ship.
The COSTA FORTUNAs cabins are also quite nicely appointed; the decoration is very relaxed and yet quite thoughtfully set up. We had a balcony and certainly recommend it. The rooms seem practically sound proof from other cabins. The air-conditioning was not at all aggressive and "out of control" as on older COSTA and MSC ships, which was a great bonus. All in all, a very comfortable ship.
Barmen were cheerful, knew their business and swiftly prepared good drinks. Naturally, there was a good offering of Italian wines (and the white ones were served chilled). Curiously, ten year or older Tawny Port was not on board (I would not recommend old vintage Port on a moving ship). Pity.
Staff was invariably very helpful to solve minor problems. Our cabin's door sometimes jarred so that, at times, we wondered if we might not have to phone for help to get out. Our Stewart was advised and he quickly had it fixed.
One can't be too sure about what COSTAs policies are just now, but, from what was observed, a comprehensive management review of this firm by its owners would seem a good idea. At this point, the Italy-based management appears to be waging a desperate struggle to retain its independence from its owners. To show profits, it appears to cringe on some passenger benefits and also influence those same passengers to say everything is excellent. Which is, in this writer's view, rather dubious.
Otherwise, apart from some most frustrating tours and rather odd food at times, it was a nice crossing.