We (DW and I) just returned from sailing on the Costa Fascinosa September 10-17, a seven day cruise departing from and returning to Venice. For those not interested in reading this whole thing, here's a synopsis: loved this cruise and had a great time.
Here are some thoughts from two seasoned cruisers who have been on fifteen previous cruises (Crystal/1, Princess/6, HAL/2, RCI/2, Celebrity/3, Costa/1):
Pre-cruise. We spent four days in Venice prior to sailing. We stayed at the Hotel Antiche Figure. We wanted a nice hotel close to Piazzale Roma and the People Mover tram that is located there. As you may know, the People Mover offers a quick, easy and inexpensive way to get to the Marittima cruise terminal on embarkation day. We could not have picked a better hotel. Its stellar reputation on TripAdvisor is well-deserved. Superb location, superb staff. Recommended.
Leaving home we managed to get the belongings required for the pre-cruise stay and the cruise itself into two pieces of luggage (one each) in order to avoid the charge ($100) that Lufthansa extorts for a person's second piece of luggage. We also were able to keep the weight of each piece a hair's breadth under Lufthansa's 50 lb. (23 kg) per piece limit and thus avoid the odious $150 charge that the airline sticks to people if any item of their luggage exceeds the weight limit. Think about this: Lufthansa punishes travelers to the tune of $150 for a suitcase that weighs but a few ounces over their 50 pound limit; yet a 250 pound passenger's airfare is exactly the same as the one that a 40 pound child pays. Go figure. But I digress.
That's "lug"gage as in lugging, and in Venice this of course means hauling 50 pounds times two up and down centuries old bridges that have steps, not handicap accessible ramps. One of the best features of the Hotel Antiche Figure is that schlepping from P. Roma to the hotel involves traversing just two manageable bridges. If you plan to stay in Venice before your cruise, do yourself a big, big favor and pick a hotel near Piazzale Roma because that is as far as your bus or taxi from Marco Polo airport will be able to take you.
Embarkation Day. We went walked from the hotel back to P. Roma and on to the People Mover. After we got off the People Mover at Marittima stop (first stop after boarding at P. Roma and reached in just a couple of minutes) we headed straight to the terminal with our bags. From the tram it is a several minute walk along a marked path to the entrance to the terminal. We entered the terminal and soon realized we were the only ones there with bags.
At the terminal we found out that the actual boarding protocol is that you must first drop off your luggage at a separate building apart from the terminal. So we had to retrace our steps and wheel our bags for a couple of minutes back along the pedestrian path and then cross the street in order to make our way to a half circle building (a Quonset hut-looking thing) which is the baggage drop-off point. You leave your bags and you get a boarding group number (we got #12) and a health questionnaire. Then you go to the terminal. As it turns out, and as we belatedly discovered, there actually is a (small and easily missed) sign indicating baggage drop-off. However, if you exit the People Mover and obliviously follow the marked pedestrian path and the Costa signs to the terminal as we did then there is a high likelihood that you will never see this sign since it is completely across the street from where you are walking. Final note: it was interesting to me that when you leave your bags you are not in any way hustled for tips by the baggage handlers as you are at almost every US cruise departure terminal. You just drop them off. Quite refreshing as well as unexpected.
We made it back to the terminal at around 1PM. The terminal itself is modern and clean with plenty of seats. Although it was 1PM, and 1PM is the official start of boarding time, Group #8 was already being called. I have no idea when the first group was called; it may have been before noon. I also have no way of knowing how crowded the terminal was when they first called group #1 but at this time it was not crowded at all. Our group, #12 was called at about 2:15. Once called, you queue waiting to see an agent. The agent checks your boarding pass and passport. This moves quickly. Note that you do not receive your Costa card room key before boarding. The cards are waiting for you in your cabin. Then another queue to go through security. This also moves quickly. Then on to the gangway to head on to the ship. This does not move quickly. The hold up is that the ship's photographer makes everyone boarding pose for the usual "Welcome Aboard" shot.
When we made it on board we headed to the cabin and lo and behold our bags were already there outside our door. This is the fastest we have ever gotten our luggage.
On board. The ship is lovely. Yes, a tad ostentatious and glitzy, but, after all this is Costa. But not overly gaudy or over the top.
We had a mini-suite, cabin 7438, at the very aft of the ship. Tastefully decorated. It was a corner unit so our balcony actually wrapped around two sides of the cabin. This also gave us windows on two separate walls. It was really nice. Two deck chairs, a lounge chair, and a small table on the balcony. We were on the port side and this gave us a perfect spot to watch Venice glide by when the ship headed out.
Unlike mini-suites we have had on other ships, there was no tub, just a shower, but this was not a big deal for us. Small bottles of shampoo, conditioner, body wash, and after-sun lotion in the bathroom. There are bars of soap but also a body wash dispenser in the shower. There is a hinged makeup mirror in the bathroom in addition to the vanity mirror. Everything was functional and pretty.
Other than the wooden chair at the dressing table, there was only a single chair for sitting in the cabin; there was no love seat nor a coffee table as we have had in mini-suites on other ships. This may have been because it was a corner cabin, but I don't really know. There was a three section closet with two sections for hanging clothes and a third with shelves and the safe. Adequate storage overall. The draw pulls are the same as on other newer Costa ships, small loops of heavy cord. Not the most convenient configuration. One bureau drawer in particular required and iron pinch with thumb and forefinger and a hearty pull. There was a wall-mounted flat screen TV with (I think) 4 English language channels (international CNN was one, but no ESPN for sports fans).
No towel animals and no chocolates on the pillows.
Cabin service from our steward Orlando was superb.
Food. We sailed previously on the Fortuna and the dinner offerings on that ship left a lot to be desired. A whole lot. On the Fascinosa I am happy to report that dinner was terrific. Appetizers to entrees to desserts were wonderful. Dinner was equal to, and occasionally better, than anything we have had on any other cruise line with the exception of (no surprise) Crystal. Before this cruise we would always say that the dining room food on the Fortuna was at the bottom of the list. Not any longer. Interestingly enough, we learned that in the last two weeks the Fascinosa had fired the old executive chef and brought on board a new one. Considering that the Fascinosa was only just launched in May, Costa must have been getting some bad feedback and didn't waste much time making things right. And dinner was very right.
We received first class service from our waiter Rogelio.
We had late seating, table for two. Late seating starts at 9:30PM, the latest starting time of any ship we have sailed on. Yes, I know this is Europe, but on the first night I still found it a tad bizarre to be surrounded by not one, but two tables for 10 both filled with parents and their (crying) infants in highchairs as well as their cranky toddler siblings still eating dinner at 11PM. In the Gattopardo dining room there is an entire row of tables for two across the back of the dining room; they are sort of sandwiched in an aisle in front of a row of tables for 10. This is where we were. It sure seemed like Costa had designated these big tables, located at the far back of the room, to keep families and their noisy monsters, oops, I mean youngsters, on the fringe of the dining room. A noble gesture, but, unfortunately, also making it extra dumb to put the tables for two right beside them. Aren't the tables for two going to be requested by couples seeking solitude and quiet? On our way out that night we spoke to the matre de and asked for, and were switched to on the second night, a table less evocative of a meal at Chuck E. Cheese. Our second table was fine.
Breakfast and lunch? Oh, well. The breakfast and lunch buffets are still at the bottom of our list. Tasteless, boring, uninspired. No, we did not go hungry, but neither did we ever look forward to breakfast and lunch as we have on other lines (RCI excluded). There is a pizza station in the Tulipano Nero, the self-service buffet. Pizza service is a woefully inefficient setup even with two lines. From either line people can serve themselves from one red pizza and one white pizza. The red pizza always disappears first so expect to always wait in the line for the next red pizza to be put out. There is no such thing as "grabbing a quick slice of pizza". I wondered this on the Fortuna and I am still wondering: how can an Italian cruise line not be embarrassed to offer such mediocre pizza? It's edible but it is not even close to good. The pizza on Princess is sublime, both Princess and Costa are owned by Carnival, what is going on here?
There is a panini area one staircase up from the Tulipano Nero. But unlike Holland America where the paninis are made to order right there in front of you, here it is self-service from pre-made items. We didn't try them.
There is no omelet station at breakfast. First ship without one for us. All omelets and eggs are pre-made and self-serve. No toast and no toaster. The scrambled eggs are pretty close to awful.
There is a huge potential upside here if Costa could get it together in their buffets.
There is also the Bagdad Caffe Coffee & Chocolate Bar on deck 5 near the casino. I guess this concept sounded attractive during the planning of the ship. Here there is a glass case with chocolate desserts and chocolate candies. They cost. Otherwise it's just a plain old bar. I never saw anyone eating anything, and rarely drinking anything for that matter. It was always nearly empty. Back to the drawing board for Costa.
Customer Service. The front desk personnel were a delight. They could not have been more helpful or more polite. Somehow the knuckleheads at Travelocity, through whom I booked this cruise, screwed up my OBC and it did not appear at all on my account. Instead of blowing me off and telling me it was a travel agent issue, which they had every right to do, the Fascinosa front desk folks instead invited me use the ship's phone to call Travelocity. And despite promises to look into the problem and fix it and send me an email, Travelocity instead did nothing. So later in the week the Costa front desk was more than happy to let me call again.
Have you read reviews of Costa where the reviewer goes ballistic about poor service at the front desk? I have. Have you read reviews of Costa where the reviewer claims the whole cruise was ruined by uncaring people at the front desk who didn't resolve something to the cruiser's satisfaction? I have. Perhaps those reviews were written by someone just like the woman who stood next to me at the front desk. She was going nuts because 1) Costa was charging her a daily service charge and 2) she expected the WIFI on board to be free. This woman was in full rant mode threatening to write the CEO about how she was being cheated and how unhelpful the front desk person she was yelling at was being. I was thinking to myself how could she NOT know there is a service charge? Has she never cruised before? Did she not do any research? Did she not read her travel documents? And where on earth did she get the idea that the WIFI would be free? The Costa website, the Fascinosa daily program, and the signage on board all say "WIFI available". In her mind "available" meant "use all you want for free". How laughable. Yet there she was giving it to the Costa front desk person who remained calm and reasonable. The woman left beet-faced and in a huff, no doubt promising to write a scathing review of the miserable customer service on board Costa and promising to tell everyone she could how she would never sail Costa again. I can only sympathize with the customer service people who have to endure this nonsense.
Drink Package. We bought the drink package ahead of time. Money well spent! Loved it. Paid 273 euro for the two of us. You have only a choice of red or white when ordering a bottle of wine with dinner. The red was a Chianti and the white was a Pinot Grigio, both were very nice. But, in addition, through the week, we had loads of cappuccinos, espressos, specialty coffee drinks, mixed drinks, beers, bottled water to bring on our excursions: all included. Best part? Seeing 0.00 on your bill for each and every consumed beverage!
Gym. We always use the gym on our cruises. Except this time, a first. No time. So I can't comment on it.
Shows. We usually go to shows about board but on this daily did not go to any. The port-intensive itinerary and 9:30 dinner time made it too hard to work those in. Instead, we spent time in the casino and dancing.
Casino. The table games area in the casino was usually quite deserted, sometimes shockingly so. There would be times, like before dinner, when we (DW and I) were the only two passengers actually playing at any of the tables. Fellow passengers seemingly enjoyed watching people gamble, but never would sit down. We might be the only two playing and yet there could be a dozen spectators or more gathered behind us. Really weird. The casino crew was really nice. There is a regular BJ table, a Fun 21 BJ table, a 3 card poker table, an electronic Hold'em table, a roulette table, an electronic roulette table (that no one ever, ever played). And of course a slot machine area separate from the tables. Table minimum was 5 euro, although occasionally they would lower the minimums to 1 euro or 3 euro for 60 minutes or so during a "Happy Hour". The electronic Hold 'em table would open at 10PM and attracted a handful of players; I never saw it completely full. There were two poker tournaments on our one and only sea day. There were no blackjack tournaments nor any slot tournaments which are usually staples of ship casinos.
Bar Service. Spotty. In the Cheri Lounge I never once had a waitperson come to the table to take an order. I always had to order at the bar. Service was good at the Grand Bar and in the casino. Since I had the drink package there was no automatic gratuity so I always give the server something in cash. In no time some were addressing me by name when I first sat down. Funny how that works.
Smoking. We are not smokers. On the Fascinosa smoking and the smell of smoke were not an issue for us at all for the entire week. There are non-smoking areas everywhere. We sat in them and never were once bothered by smoke. For example, in the Topkapi Grand Bar where we spent a lot of time, there is a smoking side and a non-smoking side. Ditto for the outdoor pool area. We made every attempt to avoid the smoking sides. No complaints from us on this (often hotly debated) Costa issue.
Dancing. Costa being Costa, they continue to set the bar in offering the best dancing at sea. The Topkapi Grand Bar, with its large wooden floor, was a delight. The floor is the same dimensions as the one on the Fortuna. Traveling dances work perfectly. The Blue Velvet piano bar could have been a super hangout for dancers but Costa blew the execution. It had great danceable music from a talented piano player, but the floor is made of marble, or some marble-like substance. Whatever it is, it was virtually impossible to turn on. Very, very unfortunate. The Angelo Azzurro Lounge has a small stage and small wooden dance floor, two or three couples max. We enjoyed dancing here. We also liked the Cheri Lounge with its wooden floor somewhere in size between the Topkapi floor and the Angelo Azzurro floor. Terrific, danceable music by talented musicians in all three venues. We dared not venture into the disco. Just opening the door at the top of the stairs leading to the disco brought forth an unbelievably excruciating audio assault. But gazing down through the glass walls in the casino that surrounded the disco (one deck below) showed that it was crowded at night. In contrast, we enjoyed having a drink and listening to and dancing to the music in the discos of the Grand Princess and HAL's Westerdam, an activity unthinkable on the Fascinosa.
Of possible interest to fellow American ballroom aficionados, a scorecard for the week: we heard zero east coast swings, zero west coast swings, zero merengues, one foxtrot, one tango, one samba, a couple of hustles, a handful of cha-chas and salsas. There is a heavy emphasis on polkas and oom-pah-pah music (not our thing). Many rumbas, boleros, nightclub 2-steps. Lots of the romantic stuff along with some what-the-heck-is-that stuff.
Dress code. This is Costa. The dress code is not a "code"; it's more like a vague suggestion. On the two formal nights I saw zero, yes, zero, tuxedos. Generously speaking, perhaps one third of the men had jackets on, and of these maybe half of them bothered with a tie. For the two thirds of the men who did not wear jackets, many seem to opt for donning their "nicer" pair of jeans. For the rest the difference in attire between formal nights and informal nights was indiscernible. One the first formal night, I saw a teenager in shorts and flip-flops walk by our table at dinner in the main dining room. On Costa the operative word is "whatever".
Many women wore cocktail dresses on formal nights; other women wore their "nicer" jeans.
On other ships the matre de might normally be found at the entrance greeting the diners as they arrive. On the Fascinosa on several nights no one at all from the dining room staff was at the entrance; you just strolled in and went to your table.
Passengers. The ship sailed full, 3800 passengers on board. Of these, 700 were children. By my estimate, this is, give or take, about 700 more than optimal. The same parents who were sitting with their broods at late seating and were content to let them roam freely around the table when they got antsy late in the meal were the same ones who found it adorable when their two year olds ran wild at midnight on the dance floor (mom and dad giddy with delight while filming it with their cameras). It was heartwarming to see the family bonding taking place while mom and dad let their infant sleep in the stroller next to where they were playing the slot machine at 1AM. My favorite memory though was looking down through the glass at the disco at 2AM to see a father, toddler on his shoulders, bouncing to the music. We mistimed this cruise, one week later and most of the 700 sea apes would have been back to school.
We only met four other Americans on board. Part of the appeal of this cruise is being constantly reminded this was not a Caribbean sailing out of Fort Lauderdale.
Itinerary. Bari -- no planned excursion. We simply headed off into town on our own. It is within walking distance. We loved just strolling around and enjoying the city. At lunchtime we looked for a place where locals seemed to be partaking. We found Binacofarina where we had the best pizza I have ever had in my life. Later we window-shopped and had due gelati before heading back to the ship.
Katakalon. This is the port in Greece where you dock to see Olympia, site of the original ancient Olympics. We booked the only ship excursion (#0845) of our cruise. The description of all the tours at this port were so similar that is was impossible to distinguish one from another. Virtually the same price and same duration. We just randomly picked. We loved this tour. We had a great guide and so few passengers who signed up for it required an English-speaking guide that our entire group consisted of just 9 people. Contrast this to the German groups that seem to number about 60.
Rhodes. We booked a private excursion via the internet prior to the cruise. We used Rhodes Private Tours. Just the two of us and a taxi driver, Domenic. The taxi is a Mercedes. Loved this tour. Intimate and personal and so interesting to hear about Rhodes from the personal perspective of someone who has lived there for his whole life. Unlike a tour bus guide we could simply ask him to pull over if we wanted to take a picture of something. Curious about the lawn maintenance for a yard on Rhodes? Or the difference in dating habits for young people in Rhodes today vs. thirty years ago? Or a perspective on the current Greek economy from someone who has spent his whole life in Rhodes? We learned all this and much more. A thoroughly enjoyable time.
Santorini. We booked a catamaran sailing on the internet. Got picked up in town and dropped off there in Fira by the catamaran company. Sailed around the island, went swimming from the boat, and were served a delicious Greek lunch that was prepared on board. One Italian woman and 8 Canadians (none from the ship, just vacationers in Santorini) and us plus a crew of three. A beautiful day and beautiful sight-seeing from the water. Note that the wait for the cable car when returning to the ship in the afternoon is long. We stood in line for an hour. Since the cable car serves 1200 people per hour you can see how many people were in line when we joined. If you take cable car, note the time of the last tender and plan accordingly. Optionally, be prepared to navigate the donkey poop minefield and walk down the steps.
Dubrovnik. Pre-arranged a tour with a well-known and beloved Cruise Critic contributor who happens to expert on Dubrovnik. She shall remain nameless. Thank you, Carol, for a wonderful time.
Weather. Six gorgeous days and one day of rain. Which day? The one and only sea day. Nothing like rainy weather on a sea day to remind you that there are 3,800 passengers on board. Clogged hallways and not a seat to be had in the Tulipano Nero for lunch. We instead headed for the Gattopardo dining room and had a pleasant lunch there, so that turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
Disembarkation. The ship was due back in Venice at 9AM. Our flight was 12:55PM. I took a chance that four hours from docking to take-off would be sufficient. Our plan had been to take the People Mover back to Piazzale Roma and from there the ATVO bus back to Marco Polo Airport. There is no self-disembarkation offered on the Fascinosa. This meant the usual putting out of the suitcases on the last night and retrieving them after leaving the ship. We asked for and got the earliest disembarkation time, 9:30, thirty minutes after scheduled docking. On the last afternoon of the cruise the ship announced that a passenger had a medical emergency (turned out to be that an elderly woman at the pool had slipped and dislocated her shoulder) and that the ship would be making arrangements to evacuate her on the way back to Venice. As such, scheduled docking would be pushed back from 9AM to 9:30AM.
We had been asked to leave our cabins by 8AM on disembarkation day. Breakfast was available in the Tulipano Nero buffet or in the dining room. At the disembarkation lecture we were strongly discouranged from trying Tulipano Nero as it would probably be mobbed. So we opted for breakfast in the Gattopardo dining room where we quickly were escorted to a table and where the ship had self-service buffet stations set up. This went smoothly.
We then reported as instructed to the Topkapi Grand Bar to wait for our color to be called. Docking was indeed complete by approximately 9:30 and I anticipated being able to leave the ship slightly after 10AM, thirty minutes after our revised docking time. Our color was not called until closer to 10:30. Our huge color group from Deck 5 needed to proceed down a staircase where we ended up merging with another huge group that was filing out from somewhere on Deck 4. Since the entire red group should have been in the Grand Bar I have can't imagine who these other people were. But there were a lot of them. Traffic bottlenecked at the bottom of the stairs. This was not smart by Costa. At this point I became slightly concerned about making our flight.
Once we got off the ship, finding our luggage was easy, but by now it was about 10:45. I anticipated there would be a line for the People Mover, which itself does not hold that many people. In addition the ATVO bus to the airport only runs every 20 minutes so it was conceivable that we could also end up waiting 19 minutes at P. Roma for the bus to leave. However, there are taxis waiting right outside the cruise terminal. We took one of these. Best 45 euro I spent on the whole trip: no muss, no fuss, and it dropped us off at the airport 20 minutes after getting in the cab. I felt even better about it on the way out of the terminal area when we drove past the enormous line of people waiting at the People Mover stop.
There are many stories on the internet about what a zoo the Venice airport can be. This was not the case for us. Just a tiny line and a short wait at the Lufthansa ticket counter and soon after we soon breezed through security. Marco Polo is a modern and attractive airport.
Summary. We had a super time. There is so much negativity on Cruise Critic regarding Costa that a natural reaction would be, "there must be something to this bad Costa vibe". But based on this cruise my counter reaction is: no, there's not. If you are booked on the Fascinosa, may you have as enjoyable a time as we did. Buon viaggio.