COSTA ATLANTICA - EASTERN CARIBBEAN - NOVEMBER 2009
St Thomas San Juan Puerto Rica Grand Turk
First, let me start by saying that this is the first cruise taken by my wife and I, so we have nothing to compare it against and the comments in this review relate to our expectations and and not to anything we have experienced before. That said, we are savvy travellers and used to booking things independently.
Rip Off Britain
Time for a small rant. Once again if you live in the UK you are being ripped off. Although I eventually used a travel agency to book my holiday, I initially priced this cruise via the Costa Website. On the UK website, a balcony cabin was around £700 ($1,120). On the US website it was £440 ($700) but of course you can't book via the US website from the UK. We also discovered when on board that most US citizens had booked via a cruise agent and paid $299 (£186) for an inside cabin and $499 (£311) for a balcony cabin. They stared open mouthed when I told them what I had paid for the same week, same accommodation, same food etc. We really are a nation of mugs.
Initially we wanted to sail on the Princess Emerald but were advised that this was 'full' and some good deals with Costa. Prices were the same for both, so I don't know what was special about Costa. Anyway, after I had 'booked' they phoned back to say were asking for a £175 per person peak time surcharge. Moan, complain, so I got an upgrade to a balcony cabin and a full sized car (see Rip off Britain above.) Holiday included a week in the Quality Inn Orlando (which we didn't use) plus a hire car. Flying from Manchester, the total cost was £2,800 (£1,400 per person.) Flight, car and accommodation vouchers arrived 10 days before holiday. Cruise tickets did not arrive. Three, half hour phone calls and an un kept promise that they would be couriered to me eventually resulted in the tickets being e-mailed to me, despite this request being previously turned down. I have since discovered this is common with the TA. Not good. As an aside however, my wife took ill on the day we were due to fly with a stomach bug (V+D). We had actually checked in for the flight on Sat, but she was so ill we needed to cancel. To Manchester Airport and the TA's, they retrieved our bags, got us back out of the airport and onto a bus back to our hotel. They also rebooked us onto the 12.30pm Sunday flight. Luckily we were able to travel on the Sunday and the only additional cost was an £80 ticket re-issue charge, not the full £700 x 2 cost a single one way ticket. Well done.
The embarkation process took around 2 hours from arrival in the terminal at 1.30pm until getting on board at about 3.30pm. As there were around 2,100 people trying to get on board I didn't find this too bad as we all had to go through the usual security checks etc. Bags arrived at our cabin a little after 4.00pm.
The size of the cabin took us a little by surprise. I thought it was on the small side but other more seasoned travellers informed me that it was fairly std. The balcony was a reasonable size and fully screened either side with two chairs and a small table. Shower and toilet were fine and the bed was actually quite comfortable.
As you walk on board you enter the main atrium which contains the lifts, guest services desk, excursions desk and a piano bar. This is where you are photographed and your image is tied to your Costa card which is needed for buying anything on board and for leaving and entering the ship at each port. You collect the card in your room. For a first time cruiser, this part of the ship is very impressive. There are 3 wall mounted glass lifts (elevators) on the right hand side as you walk in going from deck 2 to deck 9. There is also another lift lobby with 4 lifts just behind them. I don't think that we ever had to wait more than 30 to 40 secs. on a lift even at busy periods. Once we'd visited our cabin, it was time for a tour of the ship. I won't bore you with a detailed description of each and every area, but suffice to say that this is a large ship (although only 92,000 tonnes.) and we spent the rest of the afternoon until dinner time just wandering around and looking at everything.
I will start by saying that this is an Italian Cruise line with very Italian traditions. All the senior operational staff are Italian including the Doctor, Cruise Director and the ships Chaplain. None of the day to day staff are Italian but instead come from a variety of countries ranging from Philippines India, Nepal, Brazil and a host of others, including Russia, Rumania, Germany etc . They work VERY hard and VERY long hours. They seemed to be on 8 month contracts and work a 7 day week. Our cabin steward was on the go from 7.00 am until about 1.30 pm and then again from 5.00 pm until 10.00 pm - this is a 12 to 13 hour day every day. Just try and remember this when the odd little thing goes wrong. Our cabins were kept spotless and there was also a turn down service each evening with some nice decor touches such as towels being made into swans etc. The Italian aspect comes into play with some of the timescales. Our American friends on board made it obvious that waiting 5 minutes for a drink to appear after being ordered was not acceptable - they obviously haven't been to Italy a lot. Some of the bars e.g the Corallo Ballroom could have done with additional waiting staff. There were generally only 2 waiters and 1 bar person on duty here. When moderately busy it could take about 10 minutes to get a drink. The problem I think was that the waiting staff took 4 or 5 orders at a time and then had to make the drinks up themselves at the bar. The Florian Cafe on the other hand was rarely very busy but had 3 waiters and 2 bar staff. That said everyone was very hospitable and tried to keep a smile on their face, although I did hear some of the supervisors giving staff a hard time.
There are 2 main restaurants on board. The Botichelli Self Service and the Tiziano formal restaurant.
We had breakfast each morning in the Botichelli and this was probably the worst experience we had on board. It was usually busy and seating could be difficult to find. Cups were plastic (don't know what that was about,) and the food became cold very quickly. They also served that horrible American/Canadian streaky bacon. I had also been looking forward to some hash browns but we got some kind of fried potato's instead. The fresh fruit was a good choice and they also had a selection of cereal's and would make a fresh omelette if you wanted one. The Botichelli seemed understaffed as tables were frequently not cleared quickly enough and weren't wiped and cleaned adequately. The milk dispensers often ran out of hot and cold milk which could mean a trek around the deck to find one that worked. Overall the choice of food at breakfast was good - it was just that sometimes the quality was a bit lacking. We also had lunch a couple of times in here as well and have to say that they make an excellent roast be it beef, turkey, ham or pork. We had an early 6.00pm sitting for dinner which meant that we could not really enjoy the lunches. If you want lunch I would recommend the 9.00pm dinner sitting. Dinner was in the more formal sit Tizziano restaurant. We were at a table for 6 and our dining companions proved amiable company. Dinners were 7 courses (if you really wanted them) and the menu changed daily. It was Table d'Hote not A La Carte, but the choices were plenty and I found that in general the quality of the food was good - not great but not bad. Dinner on the 1st night was excellent, but gradually the service did deteriorate a little. This may have been because one food waiter and one wine waiter seemed to cover at least three or four tables with some having up to 8 people at them. Our waiters never really got to know us by name and never spent time chatting, although that may have been because their English was not that good - but then again I don't know ANY Indian. I found the food to be a little on the cold side by the time it was delivered to our table. It seemed to be plated in the kitchen, then carried down and left to sit on a table at the waiter's station for anything up to 5 minutes before it was served. I think some means of keeping the food warm needs to be investigated. Our table companions had cruised before with Holland and America, Royal Caribbean and Celebrity and they were not over enamoured with the quality of service. A comment was made that on their other cruises there had been 3 waiters dedicated to each table. Having a waiter dedicated to each table would certainly have helped speed up the delivery of food - although this varied by the day. On one occasion one of our table did not get the soup they had ordered and I heard other people complaining about this during the cruise.
Full details of the ship and the reason for naming it's decks after Fellini films can be found on the Costa website. For a 'virgin' cruiser, the ship did seem to be on the large side. However after a few days of exploring, it was fairly easy to find your way around. All of the action took place on decks 2, 3, 9 & 10. The Corolla Ballroom was at the bow of the ship on deck 1 and the theatre spanned 3 decks from 2 - 4 again at the bow of the ship. Decor was sumptuous, well maintained and colourful to the extent that some may find it gaudy. The ship was also kept exceptionally clean and we saw evidence of regular maintenance being carried out when the ship was in port and most of the guests were ashore. One issue we had was that they did a drain down and chlorination of the water supply system which was supposed to start at 1.30pm and end at 4.00pm on a day when most people were spending time at the beaches on Grand Turk. Needless to say, they ran behind programme and the water for showers WC'c etc. did not come back on again until 6.00pm, which was when the 1st sitting should have been having dinner. This should really have been done over a night shift as no access to cabins was required. There were numerous bars on the ship and the one we frequented most was the Venetian styled Florian Cafe, with its three piece ensemble playing classical music. This was also popular with the Captain and ships officers. None of the bars were exceptionally busy and you could generally always find a seat somewhere. We were informed at one of the talks that its capacity was 2,650 guest and that on this cruise there were just over 2,100. We never found that the ship was crowded and there was always somewhere you could go to have some quiet time for yourself if you wanted. There was a Casino on board and a small selection of shops, with a variety of goods to suit all tastes and pockets. Decks 9 & 10 were the Pool and Solarium decks. Pools are on the small side and the pool at the rear of the ship has a water slide, which didn't go into the pool. Deck 10 also had the gymnasium and the SPA. Gym was actually quite good, with lots of machines, whirlpool, and saunas if you wanted them. There were also individual shower cabinets in here, which allowed me to have a shower when the other half wanted to use the en suite at the same time. The ship had a full time Catholic Chaplain who said Mass every day - which is good if you are a practising Catholic. I don't know how unusual or not this is?
Again we were unsure what to expect here. Daytime activities at sea were I am told, pretty average for Cruise Ships and ranged from Bingo to Art Auctions and from Bridge Clubs to Dancing lessons. We did not go in for anything in particular but enjoyed the quizzes and had a bash at bingo once or twice. Most of the time we wandered around , lazed about and just kicked back and read some books. There were the usual presentations from the Cruise Director on the available excursions at each port of call, but these simply involved going through them one by one and telling you what good value they were - or not as it turned out. There was also an on board 'shopping consultant' but the least said about that the better.Shows at night were generally entertaining. The dancers were fair to good but the 2 singers were pretty average. Our fellow seasoned cruisers were not that impressed however, but what you like is a very personal choice and the shows only lasted 45 minutes each night.
On the penultimate night the regulars had time off and amateurs from the crew had a go at entertaining us - with mixed results. This was more an attempt to let you know that Costa had an 'Academy' in a variety of countries all over the world and did their best to train people and give them some marketable skills.
This went like a dream. Coloured tabs for luggage which was removed the night before, ticket telling you where to meet and at what time. We were off the ship and through customs in 30 minutes. Excellent. I won't comment on the Dollar Hire Car fiasco - but there were no buses for pickup and they seemed surprised that so many people were arriving at the same time. I had to telephone their office in Ft Lauderdale to get buses to come and pick us up. Very poor.
My wife wasn't too sure about the cruise beforehand. We'd had a week in the Florida Keys prior to the cruise and when pushed she actually said that she had marginally preferred the cruise. We were lucky not to have suffered from sea sickness, unlike many others on board, so I suppose this helped, but generally we didn't find too much to complain about. The ship was clean, the food was okay, the staff were good, the weather at sea was mixed, the itinerary was good (better than I thought it would be,) and the accommodation was comfortable.
Apart from being ripped off on the cost of the holiday, the main complaints above were fairly minor.
As a first time cruiser it did not put me off - in fact my wife, initially unsure about cruising, now keeps pointing out great deals to me in the newpapers. Overall I would give the Costa Atlantica 7.5 out of 10