This was a very special cruise for us. We went with our disabled daughter and her disabled husband and two grandchildren as a special treat for the whole family. We chose a cruise as we had three members of the party with dietary intolerances and with the limited mobility of two members it was an opportunity to see several interesting cities and countries in a short time and give our grandsons aged nine and thirteen a chance to sample other cultures.
CHOICE OF CRUISE
We chose Costa mainly on the ports of call and the low cost and the fact the cruise covered the spring bank holiday week. We read all the criticisms but were happy to be on a more relaxed ship with many different nationalities
TRAVEL TO VENICE
Organising the travelling ourselves was important to cater for the limited energy levels of our disabled passengers. We travelled to Gatwick airport on the first day from Dorset taking five hours and several stops to arrive. We then flew on a BA flight to Venice. Travelling with 2 disabled mobility scooters was fine and we got priority on boarding. The only down side was there was no gluten free food on short flight but we had bought our own snacks with us.
We had a free shuttle transfer to the Best Western 'AirVenice' hotel (near Venice) and spent a restful night there with a great breakfast which had gluten free options. We can highly recommend this hotel for cruise stop-over.
The day of the cruise we took a taxi to Venice cruise terminal and had a very smooth embarkation, given priority because of our disabled passengers. The taxi was arranged by the hotel at a much lower rate than had been offered by other taxi companies we tried to book on-line from the UK..
We were on the 10th deck in two disabled and one inside cabin.There was a welcome pack for our gluten free passenger. All were spacious and well appointed. . The disabled cabins had special status so you could have breakfast or room service without extra charge. The only slight criticism was that the wardrobe space was quite small in the disabled cabins
Many aspects of the cruise very really good. The ships staff were friendly and helpful and catered for food intolerances very well. The food was fine. There was some repetition of spaghetti Bolognese and fried chicken fillets but that suited our lactose intolerant nine year old. The octopus stew was divine and all though we ate several courses the portions were small so we did not put on loads of weight.
WATER INTO GOLD
The one problem we found which we had not anticipated was the policy on non alcoholic drinks. I had read on various blogs that food and water were not allowed to brought onto the ship and that bottle water was costly. But reviewers had written that water coffee and tea were always available at the self service restaurant on deck nine and that tap water could be asked for in the restaurants.
In fact there is a new policy this season and tap water is no longer offered in the restaurants so you are forced to purchase bottled water or go without a drink with meals. We sent £100 on bottled water on our 7 day cruise, a cost we had not budgeted for. Unlike other cruise lines there was no free coffee or tea at the end of the meal in the restaurant either. We were not able to eat in the self service buffet because of our food intolerances, so this policy discriminated against people with food allergy. When we complained to the English speaking Costa rep (despite her sympathetic response) she was unable to get this policy eased with the Hotel Manager and Catering Manager on the ship.
The self service restaurant also closed the drinks stations down at various times so you had to hunt around to find one open. This is a very strange policy as we had free wine on Gala night and Italian night ( 5 out of 6 on our party were non drinkers) but were denied a glass of free water. We were on a limited budget so the cost of water meant we were not able to buy other soft drinks so the cruise company did not gain any extra income from us. This policy means we are unlikely to travel with Costa cruise line again. The difference in policy for the sit down restaurants and the self service restaurant appears difficult to justify and discriminates against people with serious dietary needs. Due to the medications taken by the disabled members of our party, their drinking water needs were higher than normal with one person needing two large bottles just during the night.
We did not feel that Costa Cruises management were in any way empathetic to the problems faced by some disabled passengers in this regard.
There was less activities than other cruise lines. We did take part in a few quizzes but there were no lectures or film shows- I guess catering for so many languages on board made this difficult. However the ports of call took up most of the day and we were always busy. We particularly likes the free sauna and steam room on deck 11. They both had huge picture windows so you could watch the islands passing by as you had a good soak. The pools were very good and the children in particular enjoyed them and the giant slide.
Our 9 year old enjoyed the children's club and coped with the mixture of different nationalities taking part. They put a blue streak of face paint on his cheek to show he was an English speaker. The activities were varied and interesting for a 9 year old and he soon made friends with other children.
Most of us were too tired to go to the shows but the children enjoyed the Shanghai acrobats and my husband and I saw a couple of the shows which were a very high standard. There was music in several of the bars but most of us were tucked up in bed by 10.30. We loved the Italian night when the waiters sang and danced and waltzed with the passengers.
We chose this cruise because of the ports of call and we were not disappointed. With our special needs we did not use the costa excursions. In Athens we hired a stretch limo for 4 hours who took us right up to the entrance of the acropolis and was one third cheaper than the ship's tour. We got in the site for free and used the scary disabled lift up to the top of the acropolis.
In Bari we used the ships shuttle nearly 9 euros each to go less than a kilometre, nearly £50 for six passengers!. We took the mini train tour around Bari for ten euros (Children 5 Euros), a big contrast to the Costa shuttle cost for just a few minutes ride. The mini-train tour lasted about 2 hours with an excellent guide. You do not stay on the train but get off at various locations to visit the individual sites like St Nicholas church, cathedral and Castle. In Katakolon we did not go to Olympia but spend a pleasant couple of hours in the local fishing village. Athens was one of the highlights followed by Izmir where we again took a taxi and visited the bazaar. The taxi driver acted as tour guide for no extra fee. It is quite different to have people with varied interests in the party and try to cater for everyone, but we all had a good time. In Dubrovnik there was another expensive Costa shuttle bus - no reduction for children. We loved walking round the town and saw some ladies and men in ethnic costumes singing and dancing in the main square.
Our plane home was not until 11 pm so we had all day in Venice which was wonderful and exhausting, but far from easy with two disabled adults in wheelchairs. Public toilets were very difficult to find and not disabled friendly, not to mention the 1.5 Euro cost of a pee!.
On holiday on our own, my husband and I usually rush round all the museums archaeological sites and palaces so it was quite refreshing to take things a bit slower and concentrate on one activity in each port. We learnt that everything takes a lot longer with disabled mobility scooters!
STAFF AND SERVICE
All the staff were very friendly and helpful and the service in the restaurant and elsewhere was very good.
On the whole the information on the boat was less clear than on other cruise lines. The public toilets were not marked on the boat plan we received. We were not always sure what dress code we needed for any particular night.
This was very smooth. We got off the boat before the appointed time and found our cases easily. We had booked a large taxi to take us to the airport (the same company that the Best Western AirVenice hotel had arranged, and at the same lower cost) where we left our cases and then came back into Venice for the day. Taxis in general on the day were much cheaper than booking on line in advance from the UK and large taxis were available in most towns which could take our group and the mobility scooters. We had a Luggie scooter and a Mobie - both fold down quite small but were very useful on the holiday.
Often the information on the cruise web sites is limited. When comparing companies the hidden costs need to be known and made clear. Costs like non alcoholic drinks, shuttle buses need to be known in advance. Our view is that the hidden costs on Costa Cruises are greater than we have experienced on other cruise lines we have used, including Cunard, P&O and Thompson. This especially applied when paying for six people on short Costa shuttle bus services (no children's discounts) and obtaining on-board drinking water.
All in all a good holiday experience only marred by the higher than expected hidden costs and intractable on-board senior management that would not accommodate special needs.