My wife and I decided to cruise on Costa for the first time for our Baltics cruise. The Costa Mediterrania had an itinerary we really liked and the cost for a balcony cabin was reasonable. We had read mixed reviews for Costa, but wanted a more European versus American experience with this cruise. We figured we were really cruising for the itinerary and not the ship. We had a 10 night Baltic cruise with 8 ports of call including embarking and disembarking in Copenhagen starting on September 2nd. It was a port intensive itinerary with only 1 day at sea. I have broken our review of the cruise into the categories below followed by the ports of call.
Embarking the ship was truly a fascination to watch. Costa is cruising Italian style and this was clearly shown with the embarkation process. The best way to try and describe it is "Organized Chaos." When we arrived to check in, we were given a group number. You do not check in as you arrive. Once our group number was called, everyone in that group herded through a corded off line up to about 4 check-in attendants. The group sizes appeared to be 150 to 200 people. It was over 1.5 hours from the time we arrived at port until we were on the ship. When you enter the ship, they take your photo for your cruise card and then you can go to your cabin. Our cruise cards and luggage was waiting for us in the cabin. Overall, the check-in process seemed very disorganized until you boarded the ship.
The Costa Mediterrania is a very beautiful ship. Very Italian in decor with Murano glass in the main hall areas. Some of the colors are quite loud in the main hall, but overall the ship is very nicely decorated. There are several lounges throughout the ship for drinks. There were 2 pool areas and a waterslide. The hot tubs were supposed to be restricted to 16 and older, but we always saw children in the hot tubs anyway.
The ship had the main dining room, the buffet area, an upscale restaurant, and a pizzeria. They also would have buffets in different lounges and in the pool area at certain times. We dined in the main dining room every evening. For breakfast and lunch we split between the main dining room and the buffet. The buffet was the usual fare along with egg stations for breakfast and pasta stations for lunch. There were also tables for fresh fruit as well. The pasta stations and pizzeria were quite good. We enjoyed the food in the main dining room very much. It was interesting to try different dishes and we liked everything we tried. Our waiters were very friendly and fun. Sometimes service can be slow, but I think this is due to how Europeans dine as compared to how Americans dine. But we were usually done with dinner within an hour and a half.
We had the X1 package with unlimited house wine, beer, soda and bottled water during lunch and dinner. The house wines were Italian and very good. We would enjoy a bottle or two with dinner. Drinks in the lounges are a little expensive with the dollar to euro exchange rate. However, they would have the drink of the day special and 2-for-1 specials as well.
We only went to a couple shows as we were exhausted from being in port all day. We went to the first show that had a piano and violin duet and to the Russian folklore dancers. We did enjoy the two shows we saw.
We did not participant on any ship excursions. We did all of the ports ourselves and had private tours in St. Petersburg, Tallinn and Gdansk. We did take the ship's shuttle in Riga as we docked 15km from the old town area and in Travemunde as we docked in a secure area and could only leave by shuttle.
The staff was nice and our English speaking hostess, Melissa, was great. Since we prepared before the trip with info on our ports of call, we did not have much need to interact with the staff with many questions. We only went to the Guest Services desk a couple times with quick questions and were treated nicely. We would also ask some questions to the port and shopping guide, Andrea, to find out which berth we were docking in to prepare our day. One thing we did notice compared to other cruise lines we have been on is that the staff does not bombard you with sales pitches for drinks, collector glasses, etc. If you are in the pool area or setting in a lounge, a server will stop by and ask if you need anything. If you don't then they leave you alone until you call them over. We liked this because on other cruise lines we sometimes felt like we were always being hit up to buy something.
Every day you would get a newsletter with all of the activities for that day and port information. They did not announce the activities over the intercom. We found this refreshing compared to other cruises where they were announcing some activity every few minutes. The lifeboat drill was the afternoon of the first full day as it was our sea day. This did take some time as the announcement is done in several languages. However it only took about 30 minutes and did pass quickly.
Compared to the embarkation process, disembarking was really smooth. We were given color-coded luggage labels the evening before disembarkation. We then set our luggage outside the cabin for collection. The daily newsletter tells you which lounge or theatre to wait with an approximate time for your color to be called. When our color was called, we walked off the ship, right to our luggage, and out the door. It was very quick and easy.
We enjoyed the cruise and the ship very much. It was nice to try something different and have a different experience. There were times that some passengers could be a little rude, but we did not experience this much. We also enjoyed that they were not always trying to sell you something when you are trying to just relax in a chair by the pool or sitting in a lounge. Then main thing we feel they need improvement is in their embarkation process. The X1 package is a great deal if you like to drink wine for dinner and have beer or wine for lunch.
Ports of Call
Stockholm was our first port of call. We ended up docking in Stadsgarden near the old town instead of Frihammen. This worked better as we could just use the hop-on-hop-off boat to get around instead of taking a bus from Frihammen. We met up with another couple from the ship and went to the Vasa Museum first. This museum is dedicated to the Swedish Man of War, Vasa, as it sank in the harbor on its maiden voyage in 1625. It is a very impressive museum built around the recovered ship and a must see in my opinion. The ship itself is well preserved and quite large. They also have several artifacts from the ship on display as well. We then went over to Gamla Stan, the old town. We spent our time walking around the old town, shopping, and had lunch in a nice little cafe. We then walked by the town hall and over to Nybrokajen to get on the hop-on-hop-off boat back to our cruise ship. Stockholm is a very beautiful city and we enjoyed it.
Helsinki was our second port of call. We docked in Lansikartta, which is a little distance from the city center. There was a tourist information center at the dock and we purchased a 1 day transport card for all public transportation. One block from the dock is a public bus stop for buses 14B and 16 into the city center. We caught the number 16 bus into the city center and it dropped us off near the market square. We walked down to the public ferry port there to catch the ferry to Suomenlinna Fortress. The ferry was included in our 1 day pass. We walked around Suomenlinna for a couple hours or so. It is a well preserved fortress on an island a few minutes from the city center by ferry. We then headed back to the city center and had lunch in the market square. We then hopped onto the tram 3T and rode out to the Rock Church. This is a unique circular church blasted into pure rock. The inside was really intriguing and the acoustics inside are incredible. We then used the metro to go to Senate Square. After that we saw the Russian Cathedral and went back down to the market square to look around before catching the number 16 bus back to the ship. Helsinki was a nice surprise as we were able to leisurely take in the sights.
St. Petersburg, Russia
St. Petersburg was our third port of call and we were there overnight for 2 days. We had arranged a 2 day private tour with Anna at http://www.petersburgguide.com/. She is a licensed tour guide and capable of providing the "blanket visa" for cruise ship passengers so that you do not need to get a Russian visa. We preferred this option versus the ship's excursions because we could see more sights, not be herded around in a large group and have more control over our itinerary. Our ship docked at the new cruise ship terminal. The new terminal is very modern and efficient. Costa did not hamper or discourage in any way the disembarking of independent or private tour passengers. Costa did ask us to show our tour ticket with Anna to ensure we had a private tour arranged, but that was all. We were off the ship and through Russian immigration within 5 to 10 minutes. Thank you Costa for not harassing private tour passengers in St. Petersburg as some other cruise lines had been doing.
We had a packed first day on our itinerary. Our guide's name was Ina and our driver's name was Sergei. From the cruise ship we stopped at St. Isaac's Cathedral on our way to Peterhof, the summer palace. At Peterhof, we toured the gardens and watched as they turned on all the fountains. We then toured through the palace. Ina took us through the rooms narrating each as we passed. She also explained how the palace was destroyed in WW2 and completely rebuilt. We then drove back to St. Petersburg and then took the metro to see some of the richly decorated metro stations. We then stopped at a Russian pie shop for lunch. Ina explained that this type of fare was left over from the Soviet era and very tasty. The pies were filled with meat, salmon, mushrooms and different fruits. We then headed over to the Winter Palace and The Hermitage. We toured the Winter Palace and Hermitage for a couple hours. The architecture and works of art at the Hermitage were incredible. After that, we proceeded to the Church of the Split Blood. This church was built on the spot where Alexander II was assassinated. The inside was decorated with amazing and colorful mosaics. Our last stop of the day was a farmer's market.
Our second day was a little more relaxing. We traveled from the ship to Tsarskoye Selo to see Catherine's Palace. We toured through the palace and the Amber Room. Such a shame it was ransacked in WW2. We then toured the gardens outside the palace before heading back to St. Petersburg. For lunch, Ina took us to a local Russian Brewhouse where she would go with friends and colleagues. After this we went to the Peter and Paul Fortress. We toured the fortress, Peter and Paul Cathedral and the prison. After this we shopped for souvenirs before heading back to the ship. St. Petersburg was the highlight of the cruise for us and we really got to fully enjoy the city with a private tour.
Tallinn was our forth port of call. It has an incredible medieval old town that is well preserved. We had arranged a private guide ahead of time for our own walking tour. A few people from the ship joined in with us also. Anne was our guide and she met us at the port. We walked from the port to the old town. It is a short walk and only took about 10 to 15 minutes. She took us through the lesser and upper towns explaining the history and architecture. She was also able to give us insight to the Soviet occupation and revolution. After our tour we spent the rest of the afternoon walking around the old town. Tallinn is a hidden gem on the Baltic itinerary.
Riga was our fifth port of call. One of the reasons we chose this itinerary was because it did stop in Riga. We docked about 15km outside the city center, so we took the Costa shuttle into the city. We started at the tourist information office and got a map of walking tours. We then found a guide in the square advertising a walking tour of the old town area for 5LATS ($10, 7 Euro) per person. We were with another couple and we decided to hire him for a tour. He took us throughout old town explaining the sights, architecture, history and cathedrals. He was a history major and very informative. We then did our own walking tour of the Art Nuevo area just outside of the old town following the map from the TI office. We then spent the rest of the afternoon shopping and walking around the old town before catching the shuttle back to the ship. Riga is charming and looks like a fun place to visit.
Gdynia was our sixth port of call. This is the port for the tri-city area of Gdynia, Sopot and Gdansk. We had arranged a private tour ahead of time and another couple from the ship joined us. Our guide, Magda, picked us up at the port and we headed out for Gdansk. Along the way we stopped at the Olive Cathedral. Gdansk has a colorful old town area that was completely rebuilt after WW2. Magda took us around the old town highlighting the most important points as our time in port was only half a day. We also did some amber shopping and had coffee at a cafe. We then drove to Sopot and when to the pier. This is the longest wooden pier in Europe. We then headed back to the ship. We wished we had more time to spend in Gdansk as we liked strolling around the old town.
Travemunde was our seventh port of call. It is a small seaside resort town in Germany. Since we docked in a secure port area, we had to take the Costa shuttle into town. From there we caught the train to Lubeck. Lubeck is an UNESCO World Heritage site for its medieval old town. We just spent our time walking around the old town, shopping and eating lunch in the square. We just wanted to relax at this stop. We then took the train back to Travemunde and walked around there for a while before heading back to the ship. It was a nice and relaxing stop before disembarking the next day.
Copenhagen was our eighth port of call and our disembarkation stop. We disembarked and a friend of ours there picked us up. We stayed with friends for a couple days as we toured the city. It is an easy city to walk and very enjoyable. We enjoyed our time and it was good to see our friends again.