Background: This was the 5th cruise for my wife and I, the 4th for our kids - ages 14 and 11. We have cruised once on Norwegian almost 20 years ago, twice on RCCL and most recently on Carnival in late December 2009. My family enjoys an active vacation and looks forward to enjoying the shows on board a cruise ship, the company of fellow cruises and nice meals in the main dining room where we can eat a nice, relaxed meal - something we seldom experience in our normal, daily lives. We're not drinkers, gamblers or ones for cruise ship sponsored excursions, so we pay most attention to the no (additional) cost features of a cruise.
This was our first cruise on Costa and reading the mixed reviews on Cruise critic, I was a little nervous about what the experience might be. Most of the negative comments posted on this site relate to either the quality of the food, the perception of service or the behavior of fellow passengers. That said, we approached the cruise with an open mind. Since we are not really "foodies" and even our kids are open to trying new things we were cautiously optimistic with regards to the menu. I guess it helps that we are all pasta lovers and if all else failed, we could eat pasta with every meal! We also figured that we would approach the trip as more of a "cultural adventure" given the more diverse makeup of fellow passengers and crewmembers.
Booking experience/price. We decided on booking this cruise for one main reason - PRICE. Costa was promoting a kids cruise free special. We initially booked an E1 (obstructed ocean view) cabin but as priced dropped we upgraded to a B9 Balcony. Booking through an online travel agency I was able to get extra frequent flier airline miles, but calls to get additional information or request upgrades was a little more complicated than dealing directly with the cruise line. With less than a month until sailing another price drop took placed and I noted that Panorama Suites were now priced less than our B9 Balcony. A call to my agent resulted in an upgrade to the Panorama Suite, but no refund or onboard credit of the difference in price. Oh well - I was now in a suite for four on a seven day Spring Break cruise for less than I paid for an OV on a Carnival 5 day back in December between Christmas and New years! (I kept the upgrade a secret from my family - they were still expecting the E1.) Through the Costa website, I reserved two boys and girls drink cards ($22 + 15% gratuities each) as well as two additional meals in the specialty restaurant (for the kids) as the suite included dinner for 2.
Embarkation: I am going to go into a lot of detail here as a lot of questions are always asked about these matters. We arrived at Fort Lauderdale at about 2:15PM on Saturday and took a cab to Port Everglades ($13) reaching the terminal in about 15 minutes due to some traffic at the entry. We tipped the porters $5 for 2 large bags and pulled our carry-on luggage with us. Once in the terminal (about 3:15PM) we passed through security and walked straight to the priority embarkation line counter with nobody ahead of us (only about 3 parties ahead of us on the regular line at that time) and was told that our ship appeared to have mostly Canadians and Texans aboard as opposed to the usual European majority. (I believe that this observation may have impacted our cruise experience significantly.) We then walked directly onto the ship spending not more than 10 minutes in the terminal! WOW. We walked into the atrium and proceeded directly to Cabin 6217. I opened the door and let the rest of the family in first. Upon entering the suite, the kids both responded with "Wow, this is a really nice room!" My wife gave me a concerned, puzzled look and asked me if we were in the right cabin to which I responded "Yes, I had been keeping an eye on pricing and was able to get us upgraded." The room was beautifully appointed with lots of little storage cubbies - some more useful than others, nice crown molding and trim as well as a separate make up/closet area just off the main living/sleeping area on the way into the bathroom. The bathroom had nice double sinks, a Jacuzzi tub and shower and several little shelves for toiletries, etc. Two robes hung on the inside of the bathroom door. And there was a set of shower gel, shampoo, bath salts and lotion as well as a care kit adjacent to each sink. Back in the main room, a basket of fruit containing grapes, kiwi, mango, apple and an orange sat on the small desk. On the table in front of the sofa bed (with bunk overhead) sat a tray of canapEs next to an ice bucket containing a bottle of Spumanti. On the bed was a welcome letter, a receipt for the Boys and Girls Drink Cards (The cards were actually tear off coupons which were given to us by the server during dinner the first evening.), an invitation to a VIP Captain's Cocktail Reception and a pillow menu.
Our Cabin Steward, Mariness came by and introduced herself and took "our pillow orders - two flat hypoallergenic, one low memory foam and one contoured. Next, our butler, Orestes introduced himself and explained that he would be delivering our "Today" programs, lunch and dinner menus and that if we wished to have breakfast in our cabin, he would be happy to deliver that as well as long as we filled out the order tag and placed it on our doorknob outside before we went to bed the night before. He also reminded us of the VIP reception with the captain. He offered to assist us with making reservations for the specialty restaurant, Club Atlantica, and that that the complimentary dinners were not just for two, but for the four of us! He suggested we eat at the specialty restaurant on evenings when neither the gala dinner nor the VIP reception was scheduled. I mentioned I had already requested two additional reservations (kids) for the specialty restaurant on a gala night and after discussing options, he indicated that he would change the reservation to a non formal night (evening of Puerto Rico port call) and see to it that we were not charged for the additional two meals. I knew I was going to like this guy.... I thanked him and discretely handed him a twenty.
We picked up our passes and proceeded to the main atrium and approached the Kiosk to the right of the reception desk where a crew member was present to help us register a credit card on our account. With her assistance it took less than a minute and we were on our way to the Buffet to get a quick bite to eat. Ship's water was cold and tasted great. Spaghetti with basil and olive oil was delicious and we had some cheese and antipasto as well. We proceeded to the Aurora Bar and met with some of the Cruise critic members from our roll call - Great to put faces to the names as some of us had been corresponding through the forums for months. Before we knew it, it was time to go to dinner. We stopped by the cabin on the way to dinner and our bags were waiting outside our cabin door.
I will switch the format of the review to different areas of the experience.
The Ship: The Atlantica is quite a beautiful ship. My wife says she liked the dEcor of this ship the most of all we have cruised. The light fixtures in the atrium were beautiful and there are many interesting forms of seating throughout the ship. Some of them could be considered pieces of art, themselves. Most of the ship was in excellent shape, the exception being some of the carpeting in the hallways of the cabin only decks which seemed worn in several areas. As noted above, our cabin was spotless and beautiful. Elevator waits were never a problem and there seemed to be plenty available at all times. Identifying where you were on cabin only decks was a little difficult due to the zigzag nature of the hallways causing you to loose some perspective.
Deck space: There seemed to be plenty of deck chairs and one could usually find a chair or two regardless of the time of day. Granted, chairs by the pool were hard to come by but there were usually available chairs back on deck 9 or 10 back by the funnel. Unfortunately, this is not the quietest area to relax as there is a lot of mechanical noise in the background. There are multiple, small, compartmentalized areas around the funnel, slide and club restaurant skylight that have chairs on them if you do a little climbing and searching. The aft deck space by the Aurora Bar was very popular for its adult only pool. The pools closed down relatively early and the crew would stack the lounge chairs and clean the deck. BEWARE - the flooring around the pools gets VERY SLIPPERY when wet.
Athletic Facilities: We did not use any of the spa facilities, but my son and I spent some time in the gym during one sea day. It has a nice layout with a variety of machines arranged in a terraced layout permitting nice views of the ocean. My son is currently in the midst of his track season so he was running on a treadmill when he was approached by Costa staff and told he had to leave. (We did not realize that the minimum age to use the gym is 16 and he is 14.) Therefore, those who wonder if age limits are enforced will be pleased to know that the Atlantica enforces age limits in the gym even if an adult parent is present with an appropriately behaving youth. Anyway, we did not protest and left when asked to do so. One disappointment was that there was but a single ping pong table on the entire ship and what few paddles on board were terribly deteriorated and seemed to be hogged by users and not returned when not in use. It seemed that the only time we could use the table was during the evening when second seating was eating and the first seating were in the shows. There were also two foosball tables that were a little easier to enjoy. Ping pong balls and foosballs are obtained with tokens that you purchase for $1 each. If you want to play ping pong, I suggest packing you own paddles and going early or late to grab the table. The sports court is used for basketball and other goal oriented sports, but is at the high up and at the forward end of the ship and is prone to wind interference when underway.
Some Special Areas: While areas like the atrium and the Caffe Florain get a lot of attention, the Garden Terrace areas flanking the Caruso theatre on deck 3 provide a beautiful, peaceful sanctuary that is probably never seen by most passengers. Also forward on deck 4 is the ship's chapel. This is where daily Catholic Mass is held. This worship space is beautiful with its paintings and statues and is in sharp contrast to the generic chapels in most ships. Costa ships all sail with a Catholic Priest on board. He is an officer and serves as Chaplain, ministering to both passengers and crew. During the cruise, he welcomes couples to renew their marriage vows during the onboard Masses. (We did this) The outdoor promenades on Deck 3 are seldom used and permit quick, unobstructed travel between the Tiziano Restaurant (aft) and the Caruso Theatre (forward) as well as a quiet, shaded area to enjoy some fresh air on deck.
Dining: All of our breakfast were delivered and served in our cabin by our Butler Orestes. You specify a 30 minute time range for which the breakfast is to be delivered. The door hanger menu has a check list of items and you can handwrite specific items such as pancakes, omelettes, etc as well. Orestes usually delivered breakfast near the beginning of the specified time. I goofed up the first night and while I changed my alarm clock for daylight savings time, I forgot to adjust it for our change from CST to EST - DOH - so I was surprised when Orestes knocked on the door at what I thought was an hour early!
We ate our lunches either off ship, in the main dining room (GREAT meatloaf) and only once in the Botticelli buffet restaurant. Everybody seemed to line up fine and I did not see any significant pushing or shoving. In fact, I never experienced any problems with fellow passenger behavior the whole cruise. While I noted Italian and German being spoken often, the most frequently encountered language was English.
Dinner in the Tiziano Restaurant was during the early seating at 6:00PM. We were seated at table 129 on the lower level, center area, towards the aft end of the room. The open area provided a nice open view but the noise levels were rather high, making conversation a little difficult. Our servers Alexio and Joy were pleasant and efficient, though not overly engaging. To date our most personable dining room service has been on RCCL - perhaps because gratuities were not automatically charged. Still, our orders were always correct and they moved through the many courses efficiently and we always had plenty of time to get good seating for the evening shows. A small pet peeve of mine is having to wait go get a water glass filled and Joy always filled my glass before I needed to ask. The food was just fine and the pastas were always cooked just right. The only disappointing pasta dish for me was the Gnocchi. Fish generally seemed dry as is frequently reported here. Deserts were enjoyed by all and while they were not generally as sweet as we had hoped, the excellent gelato made up for any shortcomings.
We originally planned on dining at the Club Atlantica on the evening of day in Puerto Rico but that ended up being Toga night. Orestes, our butler, came to the rescue once again and switched the reservation to the last evening of our cruise at our request. Unfortunately, this ended up being a bit of a self imposed disappointment as the last evening was on a Friday during Lent which meant no meat for my Catholic family. We had to settle for pasta and seafood. Still, the atmosphere was very nice and relaxed - a nice change of pace from the relatively noisy Tiziano restaurant. The menu was more diverse than in the Tiziano and selections appeared to be of higher quality. There were some items listed on the menu that never appeared in the main Dining room.
One bit of caution for those who might dine in the club restaurant. While it is a very elegant setting, the seating on the starboard/right side of the restaurant was prone to severe vibration that I never felt anywhere else on the ship. It was so bad that the glassware and lighting on the table would visibly shake and the vibration would noticeably affect our speech!!! We asked to move to another location and the host jokingly remarked that he was hoping that the movement would aid our digestion. Plan on missing any show in the theatre when dining in the specialty restaurant as the restaurant opens at 7:30 and dinner lasts about 2 hours. Shows generally begin at about 7:15 for 2nd seating guests and at 9:15 to 9:30 for first seating guests.
Entertainment and Activities: All the shows in the Caruso Theatre were enjoyable. Andrea did a remarkable job switching between the different languages. When he asked about the nationalities of the people in the theatre the first night, it seemed like over 50% of the guests were from Canada and the second greatest number from the US. As the week progressed it soon appeared as though the majority of the dialogue or announcing in the theater was in English and announcements in other languages became much less prominent or detailed. The dance shows were fine, though a little less polished compared to those on RCCL or Carnival. The tenor was very good and even my kids could appreciate him. The comedy and variety shows were fun and the Hungarian acrobats were simply outstanding. A pleasant treat was the "I Have a Dream" show which consisted of "ordinary crew members" displaying hidden talents - Housekeeping staff singing, etc... Toga night was a blast and our group was tough, sending several performers to the lions for their efforts. Plan on getting to the Caruso Theatre almost a half hour early for the best seats as lower level seats can be set pretty far back and even the first row of second and third level seats are not desirable as the glass barrier in front of the first row has an annoying metal trim along the top level that places it right in your line of sight. Further back than the second row on the top level seems to put you too far back from the action. There is also a large sound board/control center on the second level that blocks what should usually be prime seating for a couple of rows just behind it. No the best design....
There are many opportunities for dancing and learning to dance. Unfortunately, scheduling conflicts prevented our family from participating in any dance lessons. My family also enjoys watching and participating in Karaoke. Unfortunately, Karaoke was usually scheduled either at 5PM - while we were usually getting showered and ready for dinner or too late at night. In hindsight, it appeared to me that having the late dinner seating tended to result in less scheduling conflicts. Each day, there was some sort of Arts and Crafts activity - painting, napkin folding, origami, paper flowers, ceramic painting, etc. My 11 year old daughter is extremely creative (She paints, sculpts and even has a cake decorating business - working with rolled fondant, butter cream and royal icing.) Unfortunately, all the arts and craft activities were designated as "for adults only."
Poolside entertainers were good and the music and cruise activities staff encouraged participation in games and dancing. There was actually quite a variety of entertainment venues - solo piano players in various lounges or bar areas, a jazz band, tropical music at the pool, classical music in the Florain. Simple carnival type games and crafts were offered during some of the informal themed nights. These were held in the main atrium on deck two.
There were also some other unique educational experiences. For example, Andrea, the cruise director, gave a presentation on "Quantum Physics and Religion: An incredible journey between faith and science" and he also held two stargazing sessions at the stern of the ship. While at sea (during a new moon no less), the lights on deck were turned off and Andrea used a special laser pointer to point out planets, stars and constellations.
This was not as strong as on our other cruises with RCCL or Carnival. The age groups were too broad and there was no real dedicated space for teens. My daughter usually gravitates to the kids programs on ships and she only went to two activities on this cruise. My son did enjoy the sports competitions in foosball, ring toss and ping pong, but there were just too few dedicated or organized facilities or options for teens during the day.
Seizing an Opportunity:
As I mentioned previously, my 11-year-old daughter has a cake decorating business. One day by the pool, I saw Antonio, the executive chef standing nearby. I walked up to him and asked if he would allow me to take a picture of him with my daughter. After he obliged, I showed him some pictures of my daughter with some of her cake creations. He was visible impressed and indicated if she would like, he might arrange for her to spend some time in the ship's galley. Unfortunately his limited English and my non existent Italian left us unable to work out any details so I indicated I would speak with someone in the dining room to clarify when we should come by. Unfortunately the gentlemen in the Tiziano Restaurant said they could not help and I would need to get any details from Antonio himself.
So.....Who ya gonna call? ORESTES, our butler. I explained the situation to our chief problem solver and within a day he said he had spoken with the guest relations people and only asked that I given them the names and cabin numbers of another 2 parties and they would make something happen. A day later we were presented with an invitation to a tour of the galley and before arriving in Nassau we were met at the Tiziano Restaurant by the Director of Services and the Guest Relation Manager. Over the next 30-45 minutes we were shown though the galley and stopped for some pastries and cookies while Antonio greeted us and both he and the Director of Services answered any questions. We were not rushed at all and in the end we all enjoyed this behind the scenes peek at the meal operations onboard this beautiful ship. BTW - The galley was SPOTLESS!
Ports of Call/Excursions:
St Thomas: We arrived at the Crown Bay dock on time and had no problem getting off the ship by 8:15. We had prearranged transportation to Red Hook to meet the Independence, a 44' ketch for a full day snorkeling sail to St John. The taxi fare is regulated/fixed at $12 PP each way for the roughly 20-30 minute trip. (Yes - that was $96 R/T for our family of four.) Still, we made good time and Captain Pat (Who, BTW, was an absolute pleasure to correspond with via email) met us at the dock with the dinghy t about 9AM and transported us to the Independence were we met first mate Ray. The day was beautiful, the water calm, the snorkeling great, but the sailing....well....while the calm or absent winds which provided the ideal conditions for smooth water and easy snorkeling, they were no help in propelling the 44 foot monohull through the waters between St Thomas and St John. Still, Pat and Ray were great hosts/guides and we enjoyed our time with them and the other couple that joined our family for the sail. Lunch was a boat made pasta primavera accompanied by a delicious salad and a chocolate lover's desert. They made a great Rum punch and passed on their recipe to us. The boat was very comfortable and had plenty of space for all of us to relax whether we wished to be in the shade or sun. I would recommend Pat and the Independence WITHOUT RESERVATION. Our driver met us back at the dock by 4PM and did his best to return us to Crown Bay while avoiding as much traffic as possible. He stopped at 2 lookout areas for us to take photos while on the way. In the end we made it to the dock in about 40 minutes. We returned to the Atlantica and our cabin in time to see the OASIS (docked next to us) pull out of Crown Bay. In all - a beautiful day.
San Juan: We arrived in San Juan with plans to walk around Old San Juan until about 10:20AM at which time we would take a cab ride to the San Juan Bay Marina for our Jet Ski Tour with Aquatica. Upon leaving the pier we were approached by a multitude of individuals promoting different tours. A polite "No thank you" typically was enough to ward them off. We tried to hop on the free trolley to bring us to El Moro, but never saw one, though we passed several marked stops along the way. By the time we reached the large long in front of the fort, we realized we would not have enough time to explore the fort before needing to make it to the marina on time. We walked back to the pier stopping at the San Juan Cathedral along the way. We picked up a cab and the 5 minute cab ride cost us $13. As we approached the marina, I was a little anxious as while Aquatica has received generally favorable reviews, the company is notoriously difficult to correspond with. Thankfully, as soon as walked down to the dock, the owner, Ivan greeted us and said he was ready for us and that we were his only customers for this time, so it would be essentially a private tour. We were fitted with life vests and he proceeded to educate us in the operation of the Jet Skis. We had two riders per Jet Ski (less expensive, plus the kids were too young to drive themselves) and we were soon headed off down the channel back towards the ship. These Jet skis are much more powerful than the models typically rented and in the flat waters of the open channel, you can get up to some seriously fast speeds. Ivan tends to encourage you to drive fast, but when it soon became clear that my wife was not up for the high speeds, he would slow down and let her catch up with us while at the same time giving her encouragement. At several points we would pause for some historical facts about some sights and buildings and Ivan would take pictures of us with a small digital camera. (We knew ahead of time that we would not be permitted to take any cameras with us and that the pictures Ivan took would be offered on CD at the end of the tour). We went out of the inlet into the Atlantic where the water was open and the waves got pretty high. Ivan led us to several areas where the waves would build and even break offshore. He led us through the rougher areas in a manner that kept us away from the breaking waves, though it did get a little tense at times as we would have to speed up to stay ahead of some breaking waves. Eventually, we reached calmer waters where we were encouraged to jump off the jet skis and take a dip before we headed back to the marina. In all, Ivan took 52 pictures of us during the 90 minute outing - The price for the CD - $35. While about $10 more than I expected, I rationalized that it was still way less per picture than the cruise ships generally get for their photos and most of them were quite good! While not an inexpensive outing, it was certainly a unique and exciting experience. We were pretty tired afterwards and decided to abort our planned trip back to El Moro and decompress back on board the Atlantica.
Nassau: Considering our more adventurous choices for the other ports, we chose a low key day at the British Colonial Hilton, with its small private beach area less than a 15 minute walk and within sight of the cruise pier. We arranged for the passes via an online company prior to leaving home and when we arrived at the property, we checked in, paid our balance and received the vouchers for the towels and food & beverage allowance (totaling $100) for the three adults and once child. The pool and beach were relatively crowded compared to previous photos I had seen online, but we still had no trouble finding 4 beach lounge chairs and a table for four by the pool bar where we ordered lunch. The grouper fingers were delicious and loved by all. We had some sodas, tropical alcoholic and non alcoholic/virgin drinks. We asked for an updated tab after each offer so we could budget how much credit we had left. Unfortunately when we ordered Ice cream for dessert, we were told that the pool freezer had broken earlier in the week and that there was no ice cream. I walked to the font desk and explained that we had been hoping for the ice cream and would appreciate either a credit/refund or perhaps another desert from the inside restaurant. A quick phone call and a gentleman met us back at the pool bar with a selection of ice cream choices. I was very pleased with how they resolved this situation. In the end, we left using all but $3 of our voucher credit. (Stuff is good, but it isn't cheap!) The beach was OK - nothing special, but close to the ship and relaxing - just what we were looking for.
Alas, all good things must come to an end. The Atlantica reached Port Everglades probably around 6AM. Early self debarkation is available very early and you can get off the ship as early as 7AM in some cases. As suite guests, we were invited to meat in the Club Atlantica for a continental breakfast and leave the sip at about 8:30 or when we were ready. We left two bags outside the night before and chose to eat in the Tiziano for breakfast before gathering our things from the cabin and we ended up making our way to deck 2 to debark at about 8:20AM. Several crew and cruise director staff members were lined up near the gangway to bid guests farewell as we debarked - a nice touch. We walking into the terminal, immediately identified our tow bags and gathered them up and walked directly to a customs agent and left the terminal - total time 7 MINUTES!!!!
Upon leaving the terminal, I immediately saw shared rental car center bus and approached it as we had rented a car for the morning and early afternoon prior to our departure from FLL. The driver said he was full but another bus was already on its way and right behind him. Fifty minutes later the bus pulled up and we were on its way to the rental car center. Oh well - as I said - all good things must come to an end....
We spent did a 90 minute tour on the Carrie B and my family enjoyed the trip through the canals and intracostal waterway - even into the port for part of the trip. The guide was very entertaining and had a wealth of knowledge about the people and properties in Fort Lauderdale.
Final thoughts: In the end, I always to consider what made a particular cruise special. For our week on the Atlantica, I would highlight three areas.
First, even though the mix of passengers was less European than typical, my family enjoyed the international flavor aboard the Costa Atlantica. Cruising "Italian Style" was fun and this recurring theme along with the more international mix of people aboard prompted us to try to greet and thank both passengers and crew in their native languages.
Second, the "suite life" was sweet. Our suite was spacious, beautifully furnished and we enjoyed having that large balcony - it will be hard to go back to our usual inside cabin after this cruise. Orestes, our butler was simply wonderful. He was pleasant, knowledgeable and always available to attend to our needs. He worked very well with our cabin steward, Mariness. Tips for the butler are not automatically charged to your account so we made sure to take care of him at the end of the trip. We also tipped Mariness a little extra.
This brings me to my third observation. There was a "feeling" of teamwork and support evident amongst the crew. There were several occasions when I witnessed our butler and cabin steward chatting together in the hallway as if they were friends. Orestes commented that he knew the head pastry chef personally and would try to get my daughter some time with him if possible and that he had hoped we would be served by another friend during our dinner in the Specialty restaurant. The cruise director's staff acted as though they were genuine friends beyond their working relationship. Finally, the Chaplain commented how life at sea could be very hard for the crew members that must be away from loved ones for so long and he was there primarily to tend to their emotional and spiritual needs.
Would I cruise with Costa again? Absolutely! Was the cruise perfect? No. The kids program is not on par with those on RCCL and Carnival. The pictures taken by the ships photographers were either not well taken or well developed and this was the first cruise that I chose not to purchase any pictures. Did the food blow me away? Not exactly. However, these are small complaints. In the end, my family had a great time aboard the Atlantica and got to enjoy the luxury of a suite at an incredibly reasonable price. What's not to love about that? I guess we'll hold onto our togas a little bit longer....