When Costa Romantica was launched way back in 1993, the ship was designed and built for Costa Crociere, then an independently owned Italy-based cruise ship operator. Of course, Costa has since been acquired by Carnival Corporation, and while its newer vessels reflect a decidedly more American sensibility, Costa Romantica has a distinct style of its own.
When I first sailed in 1998 aboard Costa Romantica to the Caribbean, I thought it was the most beautiful modern ship I'd ever sailed, reflecting more of a sleek and elegant Milanese style than, say, a rambunctious and frenetic Roman ambience. This spring, I headed to the Mediterranean to see how Costa Romantica had evolved over the past eight years.
The first observation: One thing that hadn't changed at all was the disorientation you experience when you sail on a cruise that is geared to numerous nationalities. On my cruise there were five languages: Italian, French, English, German and Spanish; sometimes, there are six, when Portuguese is added. On a previous Costa cruise, the English host gave a cocktail party for Americans early on, so passengers could meet some of the other English-speakers. On this cruise, the English host gave a party for Americans on the penultimate night, too late to help in identifying other English-speakers.
There are advantages and disadvantages to such an international passenger base (not to mention crew!). On the plus side, it's educational to be exposed to different customs, cuisines and points of view. On the negative side, people can seem rude. Because they assume most passengers will not understand them, they don't greet others in passing or apologize when appropriate. While Italian is the lingua franca of the ship, only Italians speak it onboard; the Filipino crewmembers speak English.
Passengers, including myself, have complained to Costa that announcements in multiple languages are tedious (and particularly off-putting to Americans), so there are now few announcements -- too few, actually. There were times when announcements would have been helpful -- for example, when local authorities had cleared the ship and it was time to go ashore.
Another change: Since my last visit to a Costa ship in Europe three years ago, smoking has been brought under control. Following Italian law, there is no longer smoking in any dining room, nor at any bar. There is, however, a smoking area in each of the lounges. The smell of cigarette smoke, while present, is nowhere near as pervasive as it once was.
Costa's crew, traditionally drawn largely from its home country, has like most lines in the industry broadened its base with a significant increase in crewmembers hailing from the Philippines. I had heretofore assumed that Filipinos went to sea because, given a limited education, it was the best option open to them. But on this voyage, a steward pointed out the large number of crewmembers with bachelor's degrees -- he had one in marketing. The Philippine economy cannot absorb all its college graduates, so some of them go to sea out of sheer necessity. (My assistant dining room steward told me her sister was studying acting in London and dreamt of being on Broadway.) This results in the topsy turvy scheme of Italian school-leavers (high school drop-outs) ordering around Filipino college graduates.
Even though Costa Romantica certainly shows its age -- in the low percentage of balcony cabins, for instance, or fewer recreational or dining options -- I was particularly impressed with its Club Squok program for kids. The children's facilities were, as was typical in the mid 1990's, quite small and cramped. But on my Easter week sailing -- a prime time for European families to cruise as students are on holiday -- the program was so inventive, using various public areas around the ship to complement the limited facilities, that all the urchins seemed well entertained.
I came away with my impressions of eight years ago confirmed. Despite some shortcomings, I did like this ship. I like her size, her style and her crew -- and I would return.