Here is info about our recent trip departing 1 May on the Costa Concordia, western Mediterranean leaving out of Barcelona, with my hubby, son (21) and daughter (20). All in all, the ship was wonderful, the service was excellent, and it was a really fun itinerary. Being an English-only speaker was not really a big deal in most situations. On the negative side, the regular restaurant/buffet food was not very good, and you need to be pretty self-sufficient (or take the cruiseline tours) in order to get the most out of the ports
HOTELS IN BARCELONA BEFORE AND AFTER CRUISE
The night before the cruise, we stayed at the Eurostars Gran Marina. It was a 20 Euro cab ride from the airport (two to three people in a cab if you have any kind of luggage, more than that and you need two cabs). On Priceline we paid $159 per night. What a great hotel!! All of the staff was incredibly helpful and nice. The rooms were very large and comfortable, there was (wired) internet access (although for 27 Euros per day!!). Amazing toiletries, nice robes. The rooms had the best showers ever including several horizontal jets on the walls—my kids wanted to take 10 showers the one night we were there. We had a great dinner in the hotel restaurant that night. The hotel is right on the water in a pretty plaza. The next morning, we walked ten minutes up to the foot of La Rambla and strolled down that amazing street. We found a sidewalk cafe there and had lunch. It was a Saturday, so people were everywhere, which was fun. After lunch we went back to the hotel, collected our luggage, and the hotel shuttle bus took us to the cruiseship for 25 euro for all four of us, it was a quick and easy ride.
For a post-cruise hotel, we'd had a hard time finding any reasonable rate because of a Formula 1 race in town that weekend, so we had our travel agent book through Costa their standard post-cruise hotel for us, Hotel Tryp Apolo for $139 per night.
Note that the hotel rooms slept only two people each.
There is so much to do in Barcleona. We also went to Tablao de Cordobes, a flamenco dinner show that was really enjoyable.
This goes very smoothly, because passengers get on and off at each port, so there are not the crowds you see on ships where everyone gets on and off at the same place. I think about 1000 of the 3000 passengers got on/off in Barcelona. When we arrived for embarkation at 2:30 there were no lines, we quickly checked in at the desk, went right onto on the boat, and went to our rooms, where our key cards were waiting for us on our beds. There was a fruit basket for those in the suites (replenished every day) and on embarkation day there was also a plate of canapes (toast with salami, prosciutto, caviar) and a bottle of sparkling wine. On the gala nights there were two small chocolates as well. Before the cruise I had gone online and pre-ordered some things to be delivered to the cabin on the first day, but they never came. I didn't have a copy of my receipt with me, so I never went down to ask about it
On our cruise of over 3000 people there were 10% English speakers. The biggest group of course were the Italians (35%), then the next largest group were French, then German. Of the English speakers many were British and Australian. It was not difficult to get around and get along on the ship as an English-speaker. In the restaurant we think they put the English speakers together in one section perhaps using their best English-speaking waiters. As suite occupants supposedly we were supposed to get a 'premier' table (which on other lines has meant 'waterview') but here we had no view and had a pretty bad table smack in the middle of the dining room—the tables were all close together, we had waiters crashing into our chairs constantly, and we were so close to the next table that my daughter couldn't pull her chair out or she hit the lady behind her. All announcements are done in multiple languages including English when relevant. This had a downside—for example the 'get ready for the fire drill' announcement that loudly blasted into our cabins lasted about half an hour. My kids in particular were annoyed by the quantity and length of the announcements, particularly the ones made in the morning (when they were trying to sleep). In fact my son said he would likely not want to go on Costa again because of this (he is 21 and likes to stay out late then sleep late on vacation).
We picked this cruise over others primarily because it is a European ship, and my kids wanted a non-American experience. I personally am glad we did, even if it did make some things more difficult. We enjoyed getting to know different people, and also seeing cultural differences. For example many times we started to get annoyed when people didn't seem to have the same respect for 'personal space' that we do. Also people apparently don't have the same kind of 'line rules' that we do—e.g. people at the front of the bus or plane get off first, row by row. Here, we had people from the back mowing us down on buses, planes, elevators. People also cut ahead in lines all the time—at the buffet, at the line for the bus or taxi, to get into an elevator.... We told ourselves that this likely wasn't considered rude in many cultures as it is in ours. We also wondered what things we were doing that the Italians/others were likely considering rude
The suites were really nice, comfortable, and big enough. We had two—one for the kids and one for us. Each had two large closets with hangers, one 4-drawer dresser, and lots of storage space. The bed was two twins pulled together, very comfortable, and there was a pillow menu so that you could order your favorite. There is a small couch with storage drawers underneath, and a desk with a small minibar (with obscenely expensive drinks). There are bathrobes for use on the ship. The bathrooms are of a good size, with a separate 'changing room" (with a mirror and vanity) and then the bathroom with a Jacuzzi tub and two sinks. The cabin is replenished with ice and cold water a couple of times a day. The balconies were ok, two comfortable chairs. I'd recommend trying to get a port side cabin though—we were on the other side and overall didn't have as nice views throughout the cruise
Besides the cabin steward, the suites have a 'butler' which is basically a concierge to help with whatever you need. For example our butler arranged our tour tickets and dinner-club reservation. It is not the same however as the RCL concierge, who really has knowledge of the ports and can help you with figuring out what to do with your day. Our butler said she didn't know anything about any of the ports. She was otherwise incredibly helpful and attentive, as was our cabin steward
The interactive part of our TV was broken so we couldn't order tours or watch pay movies. It took three days to get fixed, our butler kept asking for someone to come up but apparently they were busy or forgot or something. It worked two days then broke again and we didn't bother asking again
Note that there is not the same 'tipping' scenario as on US ships. Instead of the self-tipping system where you fill your own 'envelopes' for your servers, on Costa (likely throughout Europe?) they automatically add a per-person service charge onto your bill of about 7 euro per day per person.
There is no wireless internet anywhere. Very odd for a newly built ship. A lot of the time our phones and blackberries didn't have service either, especially when we were at sea. There is an internet cafe where you can get fee-based internet through the Costa computers. First of all, it is one euro for every two minutes. Second, it is VERY slow. It usually took six to eight minutes (3-4 Euro) just to load my AOL mail, then a long time to read anything. I wonder if this is because most Europeans unlike Americans truly don't work during their vacations so there is not the demand for internet service on Costa...
THE SHOWS, THE POOLS, ETC
The shows were ok—my kids said they were 'lame'. The casino was not as small as I thought it would be, and my kids ended up winning a couple hundred each so they were happy. The pools were nice and the retractable roofs were a good feature. I didn't use the spa. There were a lot of bars but sometimes they got too smoky for us to tolerate. The disco didn't open until midnight. There were a couple of shops—typical cruise stuff. On TV there was BBC, that's about it. Also a few pay-for-view movies in English. The ship provides an 'international news" handout each day in English, which was nice
The food in the main restaurants was not good. The sauces were thick and bland, the meats were tough and not seasoned. The soups were watery and tasteless. The desserts were not that great either. Here are some things we had that were pretty awful:
From the "Always Available Every Night" Menu: Chicken Milanese (dried out), Grilled Veal (tough, bland), Braised beef (tough)
Any kind of pasta with cream sauce: Pasta is mushy, cream sauce is like wallpaper paste.
Here are some things that were good:
Lamb chop, beef filet, duck l'orange, and pasta with pesto (all on gala nights), Spaghetti with garlic/oil/chili as a pasta course one night; roast chicken and paella on the lunch buffet
We tried once to eat breakfast at the buffet and that was very, very bad. Even the pastries were not good. The waffles made a noise on the plate when you dropped them they were so hard and cold. I found grapes and apples on the buffet and an Italian lady nearly tackled me to ask me where I had found them. We had breakfast once in the main dining room and it was pretty much the same as the buffet except there were eggs-to-order. Our waiter that day didn't speak English and when I ordered two eggs I received two orders of two eggs each. Also, they seated you as you came in, so we ended up being seated with a French couple who spoke no English, and we spoke no French. We tried for a bit to communicate but it was rather uncomfortable, just a lot of smiling at each other.
Because we had suites, we received one dinner each for free in the "Club Concordia" restaurant. That food was all excellent, and the service was amazing. We all had beef or veal, tender and tasty, not at all like that served in the main dining room. For dessert we had sherbet, which the waiter made at our table by mixing peach juice with liquid nitrogen creating a Harry Potter-like cauldron of smoke, and then voila, peach sherbet.
Also keep in mind that there are lots of 'extra charge' items. For example on Gala Night they came around to our dinner tables offering after-dinner aperitifs. We went to take one from the tray, then we saw the sign saying they were 4.5 Euros each
We ate lunch when possible in the ports
There is a 'Chocolate Bar' which offers European-style hot chocolate, very thick and delicious. That Bar also a chocolate fountain which puts off quite an aroma every time you walk through that room on the way to the casino
We don't drink much alcohol so we bought a boys and girls club card for sodas, which gave you 20 sodas for about $3 each. What a bargain. Just two sodas each at dinner cost us $24 for the four of us. Alcoholic drinks were about $10 each. We bought some bottles of Limoncello in the ports as souvenirs—the first time they didn't even say anything as we took it board ship, the second time they asked us how many days we had left before getting off and when we told them three, they let us take the liquor to our cabins with us.
Costa does not provide the hand-holding about ports that other lines we've been on do. You are pretty much on your own particularly if you are English-speaking-only. I HIGHLY recommend that you do your homework before you leave, printing out maps, etc. I had printed out all the port guides from CruiseCritic.com before we left, and that saved us. Otherwise we would have had practically no information. There is an English-speaking host that can help, but he has 'office hours' one hour a day. We tried to find him at office hours twice but couldn't, he was probably attending to others or with late-arriving tour groups. Many of the ports we arrived in were not within close walking distance of anything.
The ship docks quite far from anything. In order to get to the "old port" you pre-buy a ticket from Costa for their bus which is 7 Euro round trip, leaving every 15 minutes back and forth. It is extremely convenient. At the old port there are lots of restaurants and shopping, and you can easily find your own tours there. There was a cute little trolley tour right where the Costa bus dropped us off. We didn't take any tours but rather sat in a sidewalk cafe and ate delicious mussels and profiteroles. We also found Galleries Lafayette (department store) about three blocks from where the bus dropped us, and since it was Saturday there were some local farmers markets as well as a craft market that we found as we were wandering around
SAVONA - GENOA (GENOVA in Italian)
There is really nothing much in Savona. I have no idea why the boat docks there rather than Genoa. A cab driver said it had something to do with a dispute between the city of Genoa and Carnival (owner of Costa). So most tours involved a one-hour trip to Genoa.
We decided to try our own trip. We wanted to try a restaurant in Genoa we'd seen on CruiseCritic.com, Zeffirinos. It was the best part of the entire cruise. The French-speaking host helped us figure out how to get there (when we couldn't find the English one): We took a cab from the ship to the train station in Savona which cost 15 Euro flat fee. There, we found the train to Genova that stopped at Genova Plaza Principe (there are about 9 train stations in Genova so be careful). It cost 3.3 Euros each for a one-way train ticket, which you buy in the little store at the entrance of the station. It takes between 30-60 minutes depending on whether you get a local or express train. At the Genova Plaza Principe train station, we took a cab to Zeffirinos (at Via XX Settembre, 20) which cost 10 Euro. It is famous so all cab drivers know it.
I have eaten in a lot of restaurants including many in Italy, but this was one of the very best meals I have ever had in my life. The owner invented a dish for Frank Sinatra (also served it to a couple of popes) which has been called "summer on a plate" on one of the other CruiseCritic.com reviews—vegetable-filled ravioli with a creamy pesto. It was so delicious I cant even describe it, but my son said that it did in fact taste like summer on a plate Anything with basil sauce there was amazing, and the homemade pasta was out of this world. We had an amazing dessert, the house special, I don't even know how to describe it, some sort of creamy stuff between pastry: At the end, they brought out some sort of grappa machine, which we of course had to partake of:
Sr. Zeffirino came out several times to talk with us, he took photos with us, and he showed us the photos of him with the popes... There is apparently a branch of this restaurant in Las Vegas—if it is even half as good as this one in Genova it would still be outstanding
After that we didn't want to try to catch a cab to the train to another cab to the ship. We were pretty sure that if we tried that, after everything we had eaten and drunk, we would get lost and miss the ship and end up in Italy forever. (Costa took our passports away from us on the first day as we got on the ship) So we just had a cab take us all the way back to Savona. The driver was hysterical, he was telling us in his half-English and our practically-no-Italian that he loves America because of Miami Vice and Baywatch, even though he thinks George Bush is an ***. The trip cost 100 euros but was worth it because we didn't know how hard it would be to find cabs at the train station back to the ship... Also trains are sometimes delayed... We rationalized that split amongst the four of us it wasn't that bad!
We did not go into the town of Naples. Instead we went on Costa's Pompeii-Sorrento tour. After disembarking, our tour group boarded a bus to the Naples train station, where we got on a very nice train that was just for this excursion. There were 30 of us on the tour and 100 seats on the train, so it was very comfortable. The ride was nice and we saw some of the coast. After arriving at Pompeii, we spent a lot of time at the ruins. In my family's view, too much time. Although there was a lot to see, we only saw part of it, but since the tour was both in French and English, so it pretty much took twice as long to see anything—a lot of standing around. Also, the devices used to hear the tourguide were not that great—many of them had their batteries run out during the tour and at that point there were no extras available. Pompeii was truly amazing though, and we were glad we went. After tramping around Pompeii, back on the 'private' train farther along to the town of Sorrento. This seemed to be a wonderful little town, but unfortunately there was not close to enough time here, about 40 minutes including time to walk back and forth to the train station. We trekked with the group down two streets to a shop where they gave us shots of Limoncello, then we had 15 minutes in which to both shop and make the 8-minute dash back to the train station. We really, really wished we had just gone to Sorrento on our own and spent the whole day there. There were lovely little shops and sidewalk cafes, little tour buses, etc.
We did not receive any map for this portthey told us they had run out. In looking out at the city from our balcony, it seemed that there was nothing interesting in view, just commercial buildings. So we went to the tour office and they told us they ran out of maps but to get one from the Tourist office in the city. So then here is how the rest of that conversation went:
Me: I don't have a map so I don't know where the Tourist Office is?
Costa Guy: I don't know either, somewhere by the Cathedral.
Me: I don't have a map, so I don't know where the Cathedral is?
Costa Guy: I don't really know either.
So off we went anyway. After getting off the ship and crossing the street, there is a small circular information kiosk with a guy giving out maps. We asked him for directions to a particular restaurant that we had found on the internet, and he told us where to go. Unfortunately he gave us directions to the wrong place, on a very sketchy street. We had to turn around and start over. We finally found the restaurant, Trattoria Biondo, Via Carducci 15 which was actually only a few blocks from the port. Here is how you get to it: Go up the main street from the port, Via Enrico Amari. When you get to Via Della Liberta (by the huge Teatro Politicama Garibaldi) turn right. Go one more block to Via Carducci and turn left, it will be on your right hand side. We went there looking for pizza (it said "Pizzeria" on the internet site where we read about it) but alas no pizza. We did have an amazing meal though. Starting out with Parma ham/fresh mozzarella, then on to Gnocchi Sorrentino (red sauce), then followed by beef fillets in truffle sauce, then a great cheesecake and 7-layer chocolate thingy. Delicious! The hosts were awesome too, and when we left they gave us a gift of a really beautiful huge ceramic platter painted with the cathedral and with "Trattoria Biondo" and their address. That just made our whole trip to Sicily something we will never forget. If you go to Palermo, definitely go to Trattoria Biondo, it is easy to get to from the ship (maybe a 10 minute walk), and we didn't see many other restaurants as we were walking in the city...
It is very easy to shop in port—along the Via Enrico Amari which is the road leading from the boat there is a great ceramics store, Tre Erre Ceramiche (at #49, about two blocks on the right hand side)... they will wrap your items beautifully with their logo-d giftwrap and ribbon, enclosing a brochure. There are also places along that street for buying limoncello, gelato and pastries (don't forget to try a cannoli here—there is a very nice pastry/gelato shop/winebar, Bristol on the lefthand side one block from the port at Via Enrico Amari #28... When you go in, go to the cash register first and tell them what you want, pay, get a ticket, then go over to the ice cream/pastry counter with your ticket), souvenirs, etc. Also a Polo store. If you want to do some girly shopping (Louis Vuitton, Zara, Frette) those shops are all along Via Della Liberty. But beware! The retail stores are generally closed between 1pm and 4pm, so plan accordingly
Advice for this port: book a cruiseline tour rather than doing it on your own. If you decide to go it yourself, when you arrive at the port city of La Goullette, you will need to get a taxi, and the taxis insist on taking four people. People who did this on our trip reported they couldn't find a taxi for less than 20 Euro each, which included the return trip. The problem however is that the very pushy, aggressive taxi drivers then take you to their "favorite" shops. An Australian honeymooning couple who did this reported that the shopowner their taxi took them to exerted so much pressure that they felt personally unsafe, and they bought something only because they were really afraid at that point not to. The shopowner grabbed their arms and tried to take them to the bank machine when they reported they didn't have enough euros to buy all of the things that the shopowner had helpfully loaded into a 'thinking bag' for them as they walked through the shop. At another place, as they were walking along the Australian husband was offered 200 camels in exchange for his pretty bride. He wasn't quite sure whether this was serious, but he thought it might have been.
Our family took the combined "Medina/Souks/Carthage" tour which was generally great. After getting off the bus in the Medina, we saw some of the government buildings, then walked through and saw some of the buildings in the souk. We then were taken by the tourguide to the obligatory "tour-recommended" shops—one was a cooperative and the other a rug store. The cooperative the guide took us to had prices three times higher than other places in the souk, and the rug place was a timeshare-like sales job disguised as an educational experience which was a waste of 20 minutes. I don't think anyone in our group bought a rug which seemed to upset the shopowner. After that we had 30 minutes free time in one of the main souks - it was not as bad as we had thought after reading blogs, much less pressure etc than for example Haiti or Jamaica. We bought a few things—some saffron, a pashmina scarf, some ceramic bowls... If you are looking for a very small inexpensive rug, for example to hang on the wall, we saw a Japanese couple bargain to get four 18 inch x 18 inch rugs, for 25 euro for all four. I'm sure they weren't great quality, but they were a nice souvenir.
The Carthage part of the tour was good—a lot of getting in and out of the bus to look at different sites for short amounts of time, which was great with us. We saw aqueducts, a ruin of one of the largest baths in the world, a lovely garden, and the place where royal families sacrificed their firstborn sons to appease the gods in times of trouble.
Note that there is a really amazing dutyfree store in the cruise terminal when you are coming back to the ship—with not just the typical dutyfree stuff but also the souvenir-type stuff that you saw in the souk. For example I had been so proud of myself for bargaining the price of a big jar of saffron down to 5 Euros in the souk, after I'd seen it earlier in the 'cooperative' tourguide store for 15 Euros. But then in the cruise terminal store that same jar was 4 Euro, no bargaining required...
A lovely port! The ship had run out of maps for this port, and thank goodness we'd printed out port info from CruiseCritic.com for guidance because we wouldn't have known where to go. There were a lot of taxis at the port, but people just really seem to have a hard time in Europe with the concept of waiting your turn in line. After about 10 people cut in front of us in the cab line, we finally got a cab to the Cathedral (10 Euro) and then went for tapas at Taberna de La Bodega for lunch (open until 4pm and then reopening for dinner at 8pm). Then we went shopping on the main street, including El Corte Ingles (large department store) and Majorica (the simulated pearls for which Mallorca is famous). From that part of town it was about a 40-minute walk back to the ship, and about halfway back is a new Hard Rock Cafe. We couldn't stand it anymore, we were dying for a burger, so we stopped there for dinner. Yum.
We were kicked out of our cabin at 8am which was slightly annoying because we couldn't pick up our passports in order to disembark until 9:45am. I understand they have to clean up and turn around the ship by 1pm for the next crowd though, but I have never been made to wait elsewhere for that long on other ships, particularly when in a suite. We were assigned to the "VIP area" for disembarking rather than the larger theater, but this was so crowded there was not enough seating for everyone and it was very uncomfortable. The luggage pickup was easy, and it was easy to get a cab at the port