The Costa Concordia Northern Mediterranean Cruise, April, 2008
First: This cruise was my 6th. I was on Holland America for Alaska, Princess for 2 Mediterranean cruises, Renaissance for Greece and Turkey (pity it went out of business—it was an awesome cruise line) and Princess for the Panama Canal. All of these cruises were excellent.
If arriving at the Civitavecchia port by train (the express from Rome's Termini takes about 25 minutes and cost 11 Euros each one way), you can easily walk North along the waterfront to the port—it's about 6 blocks. Buses at the entrance to the port will take you to your ship (the buses are labeled). Pulling luggage, it took us only 15 minutes to walk there. Civitavecchia is a small town with limited facilities, so you probably would not want to spend a vacation there. (Train tip, given to us be a local: If the train is crowded, then just sit in the restaurant. By a coffee or glass of wine and you can stay there for the entire trip).
The Concordia is, above all, an Italian ship. 90% of the passengers were Italian. For anyone who enjoys the European experience, it can be entertaining, but the Italian culture is definitely not American. If you are not comfortable with lots of smoking, lots of kids running around freely, crowding on elevators (in fact, not even waiting for exiting people to get off first), and lotsa pasta, it's not the ship for you.
If the culture differences are acceptable, then you have to consider the size of the ship. It's huge, carrying over 3000 passengers and all of the staff. Due to this experience, I will stick to smaller ships in the future (I like 700-1200 passenger ships). It took 5 minutes just to walk from one end of the ship to the other—and that's when the corridor is a straight shot. On this convoluted and garishly decorated ship, a deck is often interrupted and you have to go either up or down a deck to cross over. AND, they shut down the main elevators whenever passengers are disembarking or embarking, which is at all the European ports. It was quite annoying to have to walk to the port or after elevators since the staff was using the main elevators to load and unload luggage.
We paid $799 each (yes, dollars) for an 8-day cruise. At that price, we paid $100/day for a floating hotel, transportation to various ports, food, evening entertainment and water activities (pool and hot tubs). It's a good deal. Yes, we booked at the lowest price and were on deck 1. We did not care since we got access to everything and spent very little time in our room.
The room was a typical cruise ship room. Limited space, but adequate. The bathroom was actually a bit nicer and larger than any other ship I've been on. The decorating was muted and not displeasing. The service was adequate.
The meals in the dining room varied. Some nights the seafood was excellent. Other nights the food was mediocre. But it was never bad and the pasta was always good. We had several dishes that were excellent, such as the scampi and the calamari. The desserts were typical cruise ship fare: Pretty to look at and sweet, but no real flavor. Our waiters did a good job.
Breakfast was a buffet and it never varied. But I don't vary it much at home, so I was content with it. The lunch buffet was always typical buffet food. Some items were quite tasty, but cooking en mass for buffets automatically means that excellent is not an adjective that gets applied to the selections. If you want decent coffee, you have to buy the coupon books. The free coffee is the shameful equivalent of what imagine sewage sludge to taste like. Since Italian coffee is generally quite good, the cruise line should be embarrassed to offer such swill.
The entertainment also varied. Some nights it was surprisingly good and other nights it was so bad that we left early. The flamenco was terrible, but the drummers were surprisingly good.
The spa and gym are exceptional. I had an excellent massage in a well-appointed facility and I used the gym every day.
The shear size of the ship meant that we had to deal with crowds. It got old. We also got tired of dealing with the extremely rude customer service. I won't go into that drama, but they certainly do not know what service means. And be aware: All announcements are in 4 languages: Italian, German, French and English.
We chose to skip the rainy, gray day at the port of Genoa (well, actually at Savona, but everyone said that it was a boring, industrial town). Instead, we spent a lovely afternoon in the hot tub, drinking wine. It was the only way to spend time in one of the hot tubs without playing sardine. Whenever most of the passengers were on board, the hot tubs were full. The pools were also somewhat disappointing in that the "adult only" pool was always full of kids. The Italians seem to ignore signs and even if the Concordia staff chased the kids off, the kids would come back within 15 minutes.
Savona/Genoa: We skipped it. After the long flight from the US, and due to the rainy, gray day, we decided to spend the afternoon in the hot tub, drinking wine. Other people told us that Savona is disappointing, just an industrial town. Genoa is apparently interesting, but a train ride away.
Barcelona: With only 6 hours in port, we did not have time to do Barcelona justice. We chose to walk to the easily accessible Las Ramblas (we did take a cab back to the ship). The street performers were fun to watch. The Boutiqueria is a local market. While I find it interesting to walk through such venues, nothing about it was particularly distinguishing. The so-called Gothic area was disappointing since many of the shops were vacant. Along Las Ramblas, many of the shops can be found anywhere. I would have liked more local handicrafts and art. Just fyi, everyone we talked to who had taken the "Highlights" tour (offered by the cruise line), said it was disappointing.
Palma de Majorca: The day before we arrived, Concordia announced that it was offering a free Pearl Factory Tour. We signed up. The drive was about 30 minutes outside of town, so we saw some lovely country-side and also stopped at the main cathedral on our way back into town. I suspect that Concordia has an arrangement with the Pearl Factory and guarantees a certain number of visitors whenever it is in port. Too few people signed up, so they offered the bus ride for free. And seeing how the pearls are made was actually quite interesting.
Tunis: What a HUGE disappointment. It was our first visit to Africa, so we were quite excited about it. Having done some research, we knew that we wanted to visit a local artisan shop in the downtown area of Tunis (we like to do early Christmas shopping and we did find some beautiful lacquered olive wood with the local jasmine flower decorations). We expected to get off the ship, book a cab, and then tour the old medina. However, the taxis ALL wanted 100 Euros round-trip to the medina (about a 25 minute drive each way)! They were rude and pushy (no doubt cultural, but unpleasant just the same). The taxi drivers insisted on staying with you for the entire time that you were exploring. And many people told us that their drive "hi-jacked" them and insisted on stopping at a local carpet shop (no doubt run by their uncle, brother or other family member). We were fortunate in eventually finding a driver who took us where we wanted to go, and for a bit less than 100 Euros. The terrain is dessert. Sand. Brown. Dry. Our dinner companions said that they felt downright unsafe in the old medina. Bottom line here: It's a good place to book a tour...any tour that is of interest. Everyone who took a tour seemed to have a much better experience than those of us who went out on our own. The Tunisians would be better served by building a bridge from the port to the old town so that tourists can more easily spend their money on local goods instead of taxi fares.
Malta: This island proved to be the unexpected highlight of our cruise. We got off the ship and with some British friends we rented an open-air jeep for the day (120 Euros total, plus the tips for the guide). The native languages are Maltese, English and Italian, so we got a wonderful English-speaking guide named Albert. For just a little over the cost for one person at the cruise ship rates (90 Euros/person), we rented a jeep for the entire day for all 4 of us...it was a very reasonable deal. Many tours are available right at the wharf. The Maltese have also been quite smart and built an entire line of attractive-looking restaurants and shops right by the docks. Besides getting an excellent tour that touched on local history, geology, museums, flora, fauna, and prehistoric megalithic temples (Tarxien Temples), we also bought some beautiful silver filigree jewelry for which the island is famous.
Palermo: This Sicilian city is like most big cities: Some nice parts and some tawdry parts. The ship docks right by the city of Palermo, so we enjoyed a day wandering around Palermo, but most people who took tours or went off on their own into the countryside raved about the island.