We've just returned from the May 1, 2010 sailing of the Costa Romatica out of Singapore (stops in Ho Chi Mihn, Da Nang, Hong Kong, Manila, Kota Kinabalu and Bandar Sari Begawan). While many reviews of the ship, staff and Costa line in general have been pretty tough, my overall assessment is that this was a decent trip and the destinations were worth the problems. Having said that, many of the points raised in the tough reviews are true and lots of improvements are needed. This review comes from a very experienced business traveler with high but realistic standards and experience on four other cruises on Princess, Norwegian and Carnival. This cruise was my first experience with Costa. My wife and I are Canadians in our early 40s and traveled with our 1.5 year old son. We chose this cruise despite reading the negative reviews based on the itinerary. We really wanted to visit Vietnam and a cruise is a great way to see some harder-to-visit places with a young child.
The Ship This ship is older, but is in decent condition and still has many elegant touches. The large lounge on the 8th level deck is particularly elegant, albeit quite retro-looking. It is a small one so is easy to figure out but lacks some amenities of other ships. As other reviews note, Costa appears to have a far more liberal smoking policy than other ships and the corridors had a fairly heavy smoke smell. I am very sensitive to smoke, so am pleased to report this did not penetrate the cabin at all. One of the other problems is that on three occasions, there was a strong smell of fuel on our deck. While it was quickly addressed (within an hour or so), it did lead me to wonder what was the source of the problem. One of the other issues was the very weak air conditioning. AC was non-existent in the common areas like elevator banks, weak in the halls and cabins, but decent in the dining rooms and show lounge.
The Cabin We had an outside cabin (for some reason Costa would only allow us to book an outside cabin with our small child) on the 4th level. The cabin was in decent shape, a good size, and had a reasonable amount of storage space. The furnishings were fine and everything worked. The room had both European and American power outlets, which was helpful. The carpet was filthy - it had stains everywhere and needed replacing, not cleaning. The bathroom was functional but wasn't well cleaned upon our arrival. There were two dried contact lenses on the bathroom counter as well as some hair bands from a previous guest in the shower. The shower also had mildew in several places. On the positive side, I did mention this to our cabin steward and she did a "deep clean" of the shower on the second day and removed most of the mildew. One of the other complaints was the water supply. There was no cold water at all in the cabin. In fact, even when on a full cold setting, the water was almost hot. I am not sure if this was due to the steamy Asian itinerary, but was strange to me. More importantly, the water was also quite yellow on several occasions. I suspect this was due to receiving different water supplies in different ports, but it did seem to vary from day to day. Some days were fine, others less so.
The Itinerary/Tours This was the primary reason for our choice of this cruise (and it appeared to be the same for almost everyone on board) and we weren't disappointed at all on this score. The itinerary was fantastic and the problems we encountered on board were certainly compensated by the fantastic itinerary and tours. We did Costa-arranged tours in Ho Chi Mihn (Exploration of Ho Chi Mihn), Da Nang (My Son Holy See and Shopping at Hoi An), Manila (Tagaytay Tour and Panoramic Manila), Kota Kinabalu (Rainforest Trecking, Sun and Sea) and Bandar Sari Begawan (Brunei City Orientation). I'd have to say that all tours were good and some were excellent. They were a bit expensive (not too much more than other lines though), but the tour operators were very good. Several tours provided bottled water and small gifts (like ballcaps) which were unexpected, but appreciated. Vietnam was definitely the highlight for us. We loved the Da Nang tour and despite the extreme heat, had a great time even with a 1.5 year old in tow. The Vietnamese were incredibly warm and generous and despite visiting about 60 countries in five continents, wowed me. We saw workers in straw hats behind oxen and water buffalo in rice fields - and it wasn't a Disney-like show for tourists. An old vendor selling trinkets offered my boy a little gift from his shop and wouldn't take any money when offered. The visit forced me to think about how well we live in the West and, like many other visits to developing countries, reminded me to worry less about the petty stuff about which we spend too much time worrying. Of course, many of the other places we visited were rich and wonderful in their own ways. Singapore is an amazing and fun Asian bubble and Brunei showed its enormous oil wealth alongside its rich and beautiful Muslim heritage. My photos of the mosques are amazing. As we had friends in both Singapore and Hong Kong, we did our own things and both ports are very easy to do that. As Costa was involved in choosing the local tour operators and setting the itinerary, I'd give them high marks for that.
The Food/Dining The food quality was also quite high. It was clear that money was spent bringing in good quality ingredients (cheeses were excellent and portions were large). Each dinner had seven possible courses (appetizer, soup, pasta, main dish, salad, cheese and dessert). This is where the Italian heritage of the cruise line showed - the food quality and preparation was very good. Many pastas were fantastic (my favourite course). There were always many options for each course and the menu continued to change throughout the cruise (I'm not sure there were any repeats in 14 nights). As a North American, many options were more suited to the European palate (different meats and/or cuts and the preparation was quite different than at home), but I can't imagine anyone not finding something to their liking. I didn't like everything I ordered, but that's the case with anyone, anywhere. I think other reviewers were far too hard on this aspect of the cruise. Costa did a good job in the kitchen. I heard good things about the pizza restaurant, but due to its terrible hours (only opened from 9 pm to midnight), we didn't get to go a single time (remember, we had a 1.5 year old with us). My major complaint about the dining were the restrictive times and options. Several days into the cruise we skipped our early seating dinner and were surprised to learn that the buffet was not open for dinner. If you missed dinner, the only option was to order from a limited list of room service items (with a two euro charge). I have to admit, our Norwegian cruise really sold us on the "anytime" dining idea. The buffet was open for breakfast and lunch and was of surprisingly good quality. A few special stations were open (made to order eggs, fresh pasta and other items) at each meal time as well. I do not understand why a small buffet wasn't available for dinner. There were no specialty restaurants on board. There was an outside grill for hamburgers and hotdogs at lunch, but these again were not up to North American standards. Both the hotdogs and hamburgers were gross. Chicken and lunch steaks were available and were a bit better at the grill. As many have asked, the buffet had soft ice-cream machines open at certain times, but while it was ok, it wasn't great. My comments about the service in the dining area will follow.
Staff/Service The service levels on the ship were a mixed bag to be honest. I struggle to write this section as several staff people were very good (Nilesh, our assistant waiter was a super nice guy), but overall, Costa staff were noticeably less friendly and service-oriented than other lines. I generally hate to make generalizations, but I will make a few. Typically, staff from the Phillipines (whether on a ship or not) are among the most kind and hardworking people you'd ever meet. You have to work pretty hard to get a Filipino to stop smiling, but it appeared that something did just that. Many, many staff seemed quite unhappy and I found that I would often say hello or smile long before they did. I suspect this may be due to the ship's management. I'm generalizing again, but the Italian management staff was quite unfriendly and seemed to brush by passengers without a greeting or even a smile. I did hear that staff wages were recently cut drastically and the ship wasn't full, so perhaps that affect staff morale. Still, the ship seemed to run reasonably well. Meals were delivered, rooms were cleaned, tours were arranged, so it wasn't all that bad. But as many of us travelers know, the attitude of staff towards the guests makes a huge difference in one's perceptions of the experience. If other Costa sailings are like this (and reviews suggest this may be true), a major tune up of management is in order. I will say that despite Costa being part of the Carnival family, it definitely does not have an American level of service.
The Passengers Let me add that while other reviewers didn't like the fact that announcements were made in many languages or the degree of diversity among the passengers, this was a nice thing about the cruise from my perspective. I'd say that the largest groups on the ship were Italians, Australians, New Zealanders, Germans, French and Russians. As is typical of longer and pricier cruises, it was an older crowd. I really enjoyed meeting people from around the world and everyone was super nice to my little boy.
I was surprised to see several children (perhaps 10-15) and even a baby younger than our son. We did visit Costa's children's program a few times and I can see why it is well-regarded. The Italian manager there was just excellent and his staff was very kind too.
Pricing We paid about $2200 US per person for our outside cabin for a 14 night cruise. After an awesome deal on a South American cruise with Norwegian last year ($750 for a 12 night cruise for a balcony), this did seem high to us. I will say that staff was definitely not pushy about trying to get more money out of passengers like on other lines. I can't recall anyone asking us to buy or upgrade anything, which is a difference between the American lines. Photos were available, but not in your face or forced on you. There was a modest amount of shopping and prices didn't seem too bad. Internet usage seemed far less expensive than on other cruises. I believe I had 2-3 hours of time for about 30 euros. Everything was priced in euros, but the financial crisis seems to have helped us as even our Canadian dollar was at a decent exchange rate with the euro. Other than cruise tours, we didn't spend a great deal of money. We had the odd soft-drink or glass of wine and prices seemed about the same as other cruises (expensive but not ridiculous). I will say that bottled water seemed pricy especially as the ship water was so terrible. Either provide passable tap water or don't charge so much for the bottled stuff is my opinion. Laundry services were available but at a fairly high price. There was no ability to launder your own stuff in pay machines (I liked Princess for that). Other lines have at least had an occasional deal to do a bunch of stuff at a flat rate (all you can stuff in a bag). Costa did offer this, but only the second to last day. On such a long cruise, I would have thought they'd do this a few times (like other lines). Drinkers may have benefited from a drink package (some had to be purchased in advance). We didn't do too much of this, so a package wouldn't have made sense. Traveling with a Small Child As I mentioned earlier, I think a cruise is a perfect way for parents with small children to travel. This was Kennedy's second cruise. We took him on a South American sailing with Norwegian (Buenos Aires to Valparaiso) when he was six-months old and on this Asian sailing at 1.5 years. He is a good traveler (he's been on 150 flights and four continents now), but I think most kids could do this more exotic sailing with some degree of ease. The time zone change was tough (it is exactly 12 hours different for us), but our trip was almost three weeks in total so there was time to adjust. The ship was well set up for kids (high chairs for dinner, the ability to request certain foods, milk given to us by the litre, a play-yard to use for sleeping, a decent kids club and play area). I should say that while the ship had two small pools, both had salt-water and were very deep (the shallow pool was over five feet deep at a minimum). This wasn't great for our boy as even in my arms he didn't like being in such deep water. As a result of traveling with a child, I'm not able to evaluate the evening shows. We did attend a few lectures on Asian history with an Italian professor and they were very good. While it was some work (the heat, pushing a stroller in tight Asian streets and alleys), we had a blast showing our son another part of the world. We have some amazing photos of him in Asia which we'll proudly show him in future years. Cruises really do allow you as a parent to see some exotic places while offering your child a degree of structure, safety and standard food to eat. The best part for parents who have to pack a million items is that you can pack and unpack once, while seeing many terrific places. Kennedy has his Hep A and B shots (and the other standard shots for kids of his age), but we did not have to give him malaria pills or other tougher treatments. We enjoyed almost everything with him (we couldn't do the Cu Chi tunnels in Vietnam as he was too young). We were careful to bring a few food items with us to avoid having to feed him on the street, but otherwise, he enjoyed everything with us. The other passengers (likely as most were grandparents) were terrific and patient if he had the odd cry or fussy moment.
Overall Assessment I'd give this cruise a B minus overall. The itinerary and tours were excellent, the food quality was very good, but the service and some ship amenities were lacking. I wouldn't recommend this cruise to those wanting the full, pampered experience available on some sailings and lines. My first taste with Costa was that it is a lower to mid-range line that is in need of some major management overhauls. Still, I'd give them another chance and would do this cruise again even with the problems as the itinerary was so fantastic. If you are looking for a great itinerary and don't mind some challenges on board, then this cruise is for you.