Costa Magica Travelogue
Sunday, December 17, 2006
We got the car loaded up and drove without problem over to Port Everglades in good time. We had considered parking at the Park n Fly for about $7 a day but the Costa Magica was docked at Pier 21 which was immediately next to one of the port's parking garages. We decided it would be better to have the car handy and found a spot on the 4th floor for $12 a day.
Our big suitcases that we bought in 1994 for our first cruise, and hadn't used since, had small vulnerable wheels on the bottom that allowed us to carefully trundle them along. But any cracks or inattention and they would quickly flop over. However they held a lot and worked well for the extra clothing required for cruising. We got them to the terminal where porters took them several inches from our hands to the Costa bins and we rewarded them with outrageous tips fearing the bags might end up on one of the other 5 cruise ships if we didn't tip.
The intake process was mostly painless once we were rid of our heavy bags. We had passports and tickets out and quickly breezed through various checkpoints. We gave them a credit card for billing and got our Costa cards and were allowed to board the ship. Your Costa card became your room key and was required to disembark and embark on the ship at various ports of call. They were also used to charge things on the ship so keeping them safe was important. There was a brief line on the ramp going up to the side of the ship and once we entered the massive ship everyone was quickly and efficiently steered to the Bellagio buffet. We had a lunch of barely edible pizza and then went to find our cabin.
Here is what I wrote on one of the message boards: Embarkation: We live in SoFla so we could pick our time to arrive at Port Everglades. We picked about 12:45 pm as our ETA and there was no crowd. The Costa lady behind the counter said we missed a big crowd and long lines when they first opened the doors.
Our room was correctly described on the Internet as: Private Veranda Stateroom -- Private Veranda Staterooms 10 include two lower beds that convert into a queen-sized bed, a private veranda, private bathroom with shower, direct-dial telephone service, minibar, TV, safe, and a hairdryer. Approximately 210-sq.-ft. stateroom. We were very pleased. Someone said to us once you have a balcony (veranda stateroom), you will never go back to an inside cabin. They were right, unless price is really the only factor.
We unpacked and fortunately the large suitcases fit nicely under the bed. In 1994 on the NCL Starward the crew took the bags to the hold for storage. It was nice to have the suitcases handy for storage and dirty laundry.
After we did a walk around the ship to shoot some video, we decided to take a nap and that was when we discovered the pounding of the treadmills. At first we had no idea what it was. It sounded like some throbbing engine noise to me. It was like being inside of a bass drum. I stuck my head out the door and the lady housekeeper who cleaned our room came in and immediately said it was from the gym on the deck above. I couldn't tell if this was a common complaint about this room from her expression.
From the Internet: Forward at the top of the ship, the 4,600-square-ft. Saturnia Spa offers a Turkish bath, sauna, treatment rooms and beauty salon. In the large workout room, with new Technogym equipment, you work out while overlooking the bow. They should add: while driving the passengers in the cabins below crazy. I was able to ignore it but it seemed to bother my wife who is a light sleeper.
This brings me to my second complaint. What would be the fun of a travelogue if I didn't find something to complain about? It was the thin mattress. Many have complained about the beds. The mattress was basically a 3" piece of foam on a hard surface. Later I learned if you complain they would bring you some additional padding but we just accepted it as is.
We went to dinner at 5:40 pm at one of the two split-level restaurants. We were assigned to the Costa Smeralda restaurant at the early sitting. We dined while still at the dock. Our table was in the very middle of the ship right at the stern by a large window giving us a wonderful view of the ocean. We had this great view as long as it was daytime. But after the sun goes down, and it is dark at sea, it is all black. This is one of three large fancy restaurants on the ship. There was another split-level restaurant in the middle of the ship called the Portofino which served the same menu. There was a 3rd fancy restaurant which was not free which we did not visit. From the Internet: High up on Deck 11, the quiet, elegant, 88-seat Vincenza Tavernetta Club offers cooked-to-order steaks and chops, personalized service, and a surcharge. We did look in the windows from the jogging track. It looked very nice but we balked at paying extra for food. It was bad enough they charged you for Coca Cola by the can.
Let me make some overall food comments. The buffet: The hot breakfast buffet was good but not as good as Vegas of course. There were two or three custom omelet stations and the eggs, bacon and corned beef hash were good. There were tons of fattening sweets if you wanted them. For lunch the hamburgers were not that good IMHO and the pizza was well below what we get at home. But it was always there if you were hungry.
The dining room: We usually ate in one of the two dining rooms. It was nice to have 7 pieces of flatware and crystal glasses and all the removes. We were assigned to the Costa Smeralda restaurant at the stern but discovered if we wanted to eat lunch at the mid-ship one, the Portofino Restaurant, we were cheerfully accepted. The food at the Smeralda was good considering they had to prepare 15,000 meals a day. I was determined not to gain weight so I tried to always leave half the meal on the plate and keep the breads to a minimum. I succeeded. Also it is a good chance to experiment on dishes you would never normally order and have to pay for. One morning I ordered both Eggs Benedict and Scottish Kippers. And I learned for free that I really hate Scottish Kippers. The point is, they will bring you whatever you want on the menu, you just have to ask.
The three-story Urbino Theatre, at the bow, featuring a Murano glass chandelier, presented nightly live entertainment shows which we did not attend. Nothing against the hard working performers, it is just not our thing. We were usually tired and after a turn on deck, we were ready for bed. But passengers at our table often had favorable comments about the previous night's entertainers. And we did attend a welcome aboard seminar, a captain's cocktail party and a disembarkation seminar in the beautiful theater. We were sorry they didn't use it or some other part of the ship to show first run movies which we might have attended. But that would have lowered the profits from the pay-per-view movies on the cabin's TV.
Monday, December 18, 2006
The treadmill pounding at 5:40 am woke us up. We called to politely complain and they promised to send security up but the pounding continued. I went up to politely complain in person but by then it was 6 am and gym was open. They promised not to let anyone in the gym before 6 am in the future.
We ordered breakfast in our room and at 7 am it was delivered. That was the earliest option for breakfast in the room. From the Internet: Room service breakfast is what might be termed expanded continental -- a choice of rolls, croissants, Danish pastries, cereals, juice, yogurt, and coffee, tea or hot chocolate. We got the cereals, juice, coffee and hot chocolate and tried to avoid too many sweet carbs. It was good. We usually followed it up with eggs or an omelet later at the buffet.
We were up on deck just as Key West was coming into view. We watched the docking with great interest. We had to dock at the restricted US Navy pier because of the other cruise ships docked at Mallory Square. I wondered if the USS Maine docked at this pier before going over to Havana to blow up and start the Spanish American War. Even though the Navy base looked barren and neglected, you were not allowed to walk into Key West on base property and they provided Conch Tour Train open trams and small buses. Since we did not sign up for an excursion there was no assembly time to worry about and we caught one of the first trams to leave.
Historic Fort Zachary Taylor was in view from the ship and the tram offered to stop if anyone wanted to visit the fort which is open to the public. We have visited the fort before and were happy to view it from our balcony this trip. Briefly: Construction of the fort began in 1845. In 1850, the fort was named after U.S. President Zachary Taylor, who died in office earlier that year. Throughout the 1850s, construction on Fort Taylor was slow. Yellow fever, shortages of material and men, remoteness and hurricanes had slowed down progress. When the Civil War broke out the fort stayed in Union hands. This was an impressive deterrent to the Confederate navy. Proving to be a severe loss for the South, Fort Taylor remained in Union hands throughout the Civil War. By the time the three-story fort was finally finished in 1866 (21 years after it was begun), there were many impressive features included. Items such as sanitary facilities flushed by the tide and a desalination plant which produced drinking water from the sea were available as early as 1861. A total of 140 guns and a large supply of ammunition were on hand to secure the fort.
The tram dropped us off at Duval and Front Street near the historic harbor area. Okay, here I digress and bring up ship complaint #3. The air conditioning. It was never cool enough in the cabin for me during the day and got too cold at night. Playing with the thermostat did not seem to make a difference.
Sunday night I was freezing so my shopping goal was to buy a cheap sweatshirt in Key West. The first store we came to that sold sweatshirts was a motorcycle biker shop. Mixed in with all the black leather stuff and the faux World War 1 German Picklehaube motorcycle helmets, they had these bright orange sweatshirts that, I guess, weren't selling well to bikers, so they were half priced.
From there we walked up and down Duval street checking out the shops. We stopped in Sloppy Joe's bar and bought a Hemmingway T-shirt. We stopped into a CVS drug store for a few forgotten things and then rode the tram back to the ship. By now there was a long line of people waiting to go into the town. We heard later one woman fell off the tram on the dock and was immediately surrounded by the ship's hospital medical staff which I believe is located on deck 1 at the entrance door.
We went to the service desk and politely complained about the treadmill just in case our phoned in complaint or our complaint at the spa was ignored. At all times all the crew and service personnel were very nice and I believe did their best to satisfy our complaints given the situation. In spite of the treadmills we took a nap and woke up just in time to take some video of us leaving the port passing by Fort Taylor.
About then we had our mandatory life boat drill. On our first cruise in 1994 they had this drill while still tied to the dock so I was a little worried that this ship waited so long to hold their life boat drill. But that is the way it was. No harm, no foul.
We dressed up for the Captain's cocktail party held in the three-story Urbino Theatre. I was concerned when a waiter coughed on the hors d'oeuvres he was passing around. We got up and danced with others on the large stage. It was fun. I regretted not getting a last minute pre-trip review lesson from our summer dancing teacher. Monday night was a formal night for dinner and all the men had on coats and ties but no tuxes. Here is the English subtitle translation of the menu which was in Italian and [x] indicates my selection:
[x] Escargot á la Bourguignonne Beef carpaccio with black olive tapenade and shaved parmesan Caribbean Fresh Fruit Cocktail
Cream of forest mushroom flavored with fresh tarragon [x] French onion soup Chilled gazpacho soup
[x] Risotto royal with Alaska crab meat and Champagne Fettuccine alla Buzara tossed in tasty cretaceous sauce, shrimps, tomatoes and chives
Grilled tuna steak with crushed black pepper corn served with garlic red mashed potatoes, carrots parisienne and broccoli [x] Atlantic shrimps sautEed with a delicate combination of tomato. Garlic., onions and peppers sauce, served with rice and broccoli Crispy roasted duckling complemented by the traditional orange sauce with berny potatoes Roast beef tenderloin served at your preference with truffle demi glace, castle roast potatoes and a bouquet of premium vegetables
[x]Tossed spinach salad with bacon bits, chopped hard boiled eggs and croutons, choice of dressings Fresh sliced tomato and heart of lettuce with onion rings, choice of dressings
Tuesday, December 19, 2006
After the 6 am treadmill pounding woke us up, we started out with a continental breakfast in the room at 7 am. We watched Cozumel come over the horizon and were happy to see we were able to dock at a pier and not have to anchor and use tenders. At least 4 other huge cruise ships were anchored nearby. We had signed up for the most expensive excursion to Tulum and Xel-Ha which would last all day and since Cozumel is an island, would require a boat trip to the mainland. It would leave no time to explore Cozumel nor do any souvenir shopping on the island. But we wanted to see Mexican Mayan ruins and this seemed like our best bet at the time. Candidly we had no idea what was at Xel-Ha, thinking it might be another Mayan ruin, but it turned out to be a pleasant surprise.
We were required to meet at a certain place on the ship depending on the excursion and we were assigned a bus number. Ours was 10 and a guide carried a paddle we followed like lost sheep. Our group was led down the pier to a jetboat for a 45 minute ride over to the mainland. The ride was a little choppy and my wife was feeling a little seasick. Now and then it was a little rough going. We were locked up inside this large room (cabin) and the crew was passing out plastic bags. It would have not been a problem if we could have been up on deck watching the horizon.
Once we docked at the ferry dock for the town of (I think) Playa del Carmen, we joined the masses from other cruise ships all going somewhere on the mainland. We followed paddle 10 and it turned out to be a long walk from the dock to the buses. My wife estimated it was half a mile, it seemed longer to me, and they kept us moving at a brisk pace. A lot of buses including ours were parked by the airport fence. Our bus was air conditioned, thank goodness. It was hot and humid, and this was winter. You do not want to be here in the summer.
The bus was comfortable for our hour long ride and Enrique, our Mexican-Mayan guide, kept us well entertained with a Mayan history lesson. There was one stop at a solitary store for souvenirs and you could buy a soda pop or use the bathroom. The Mexican chair hammocks were about $60. We had our water bottles so we did not buy refreshments.
Tulum was a disappointment for me. Once we arrived and worked our way past the souvenir vendors, there was a long walk from the bus to the monument. Our guide said they used to park the buses closer but the exhaust fumes were damaging the monument. They had had recent rains and the muddy road had many puddles.
We followed our guide around the monument while he lectured. He was very proud of his Mayan ancestors and said he lived in Merida on days when there were no cruise ships. He was extremely happy the tourist industry provided good employment for him and other Mexicans and he loved his job. He was a good guide and took good care of his group. Once we entered the grounds of Tulum we were not able to actually go on or in the monuments. They were all roped off. And the two or three dozen tour buses in the parking lot should have warned me the public pathways would be very crowded with cruise ship tourists. Getting the pictures I wanted took a lot of patience. And IMHO the stone monuments were just not very impressive compared to the cost and effort we put into getting there.
Xel-Ha was a short bus ride away and it turned out to be a seaside lagoon swimming resort. The lagoon part was perfect for snorkelers and you could rent equipment. The lagoon water was very clear and, when finished swimming, there were several restaurants and bars to enjoy. I tried to buy ice cream at a stand but they would only take Mexican money which I didn't have. The restaurants would take plastic and automatically convert pesos and many on our bus elected to order food. They also had several large natural pools for the Dolphin encounter which was another excursion you could buy. The whole place reminded me of Typhoon Lagoon at Walt Disney World only in a natural setting.
Not having swimsuits, nor the desire to swim and snorkel, we spent our time watching the Dolphins and humans swimming together. This was not a Sea World Dolphin show for spectators like us but still it was interesting to watch the tourists in the water from benches along the bank. There were two Dolphins and each person got to have a Dolphin ride. That is, they would lay flat on the water on their tummies with their feet pointing down and the two Dolphins would push on the feet with their noses and sometimes get the swimmer airborne if the person was not too heavy. They had 3 fenced off sections with two or three Dolphins in each section and about 10 swimmers and 3-4 trainers to each section.
Because our ship's departure at 5 pm was tight for our long excursion and it was a long bus ride back to the dock with a 45 minute boat ride to Cozumel, we were told there was no time for souvenir shopping at Playa del Carmen. Our bus parked almost at the same point from which we departed so it was another energetic forced Bataan death march back to the ferry dock where, like cattle to the slaughter, we had to form a line to wait for the jetboat to be loaded. Once on the jetboat we tried to sit closer to the stern to avoid seasickness which turned out not to be a problem. (Just kidding about Bataan and the cattle.)
Once back at the pier at Cozumel we were surprised to see another cruise ship docked across the pier from the 106,000 ton Costa Magica. It was the smaller 48,000 ton Norwegian Dream. The pier was only about 100 feet wide so there was an interesting canyon effect on the pier. It was also fun to pretend to look down our snobby noses on the Norwegian Dream from our upper decks.
Because we had nothing to eat on our excursion we were hungry and headed for the buffet for an early dinner, skipping the formal meal in the dining room. I got hamburgers at the buffet and am sorry to report they were far below Burger King or McDonald's quality. But they were edible.
The TV in our cabin had many channels and since many passengers were from Europe, there were different language channels available. But most were in English. Two were shipboard channels repeating topics of interest or recorded live events in the theater. One channel gave our global position and sea condition information. Another channel alternated between the bow and stern TV cameras which you can see on the Internet webcam. One channel ran a popular G rated movie. And 4 channels were ordinary commercial TV stations, CBS, NBC, ABC, and FOX, all from Denver, Colorado. So on Tuesday night we were able to watch the re-run of HouseMD. But the interesting thing was a blizzard was about to hit Denver from the south and once it hit all the channels went into blizzard coverage 24 hours a day. So deep in the Caribbean we got blizzard coverage in excruciating detail. I often pondered why Denver? They were pulling this off a satellite link. Why not pull in CNN, ESPN, WGN, WOR or MSNBC? Anyway continuous messages of what survival gear to keep in your trunk in case you get stranded in a snow drift on I-25 was something novel for someone from SoFla. I believe I can now attach tire chains blindfolded.
A brief word on other excursions at Cozumel. Other passengers we met gave very high marks to the ATV excursion which sounded like a lot of fun. Also I got the feeling that the Costa website where I ordered our excursions did not list as many as were available to the passengers who booked their excursions at the onboard ship's excursion desk.
Wednesday, December 20, 2006
This morning we decided to eat breakfast at Costa Smeralda restaurant at the stern. As I mentioned earlier, I decided to order the Eggs Benedict but I noticed they also had Scottish kippers on the menu. I had no idea what they were other than fish but being of Scottish descent, I felt now was the time to order them since it was free. So I ordered both and they brought me two breakfasts without batting an eye. I can honestly say that was the last time I will ever order Scottish kippers. They were awful and I only had one small bite.
Our stop today was Belize City and unfortunately we had to anchor about a mile and a half off the coast of Belize and use tenders. Since the murder rate in Belize City is 6 times that of the USA, and the embassy had a dire warning for tourists (Residents, tourists and American Embassy personnel have been victims of armed youths on bicycles in what is considered the safer zones of Belize City), we signed up for the city tour thinking and hoping it would be the safest bet. Belize City is very poor and the city tour was depressing even in the wealthy side of the city. But the tour guide made it clear they were extremely grateful for the tourist dollars from the ships.
Once back at the walled tourist compound where our tender docked, my wife was afraid to go out on the street to shop at the souvenir shops. We came close to having an argument over my safety beyond the green zone compound walls. My wife won the argument. Fortunately the compound had a modest shopping mall that satisfied all my T-shirt souvenir shopping needs and they took US dollars.
Once the tender got us back to the boat other passengers enthusiastically praised the cave tubing adventure and the ziplining or rainforest adventure. Others raved about the Belize Mayan ruins (Altun Ha and Xunantunich) which were an hour outside the city. These tours apparently included a city tour as they passed through the city of 70,000. I don't remember seeing anything about a Belize Mayan ruins excursion on the Costa website and believe these were offered only on the ship.
We ate dinner at our assigned table in the Costa Smeralda restaurant and it was Italian night. At the end of the dinner the waiters had everyone up dancing around the dining room and singing. It was great fun. As we were dancing we were waiving our napkins like lassos and I mentioned to my wife if we didn't catch the Norovirus now we never would. Up on the 2nd floor balcony some of the more athletic waiters did a choreographed performance to Italian music that was very well received.
After a breath of nighttime sea air, checking for icebergs , we returned to our room to watch Denver dig itself out of the blizzard. We chose not to go to the Urbino Theater at 8:45 pm to watch our cruise director Max present Myth Trio in Circus of the Seas. We also missed at 11:15 pm in the same theater The Newlywed Not so Newlywed Games which were rebroadcast on the ship's TV channel for the rest of the cruise. I mention this merely as an example of the nightly live entertainment available. I saved Wednesday's 8 page Today newsletter that was slipped under our door each night to keep everyone advised as to the many things going on. It was impossible not to be delightfully entertained unless you just wanted to be alone.
Thursday, December 21, 2006
Since we had to get up at 6 am, I went down to the buffet and got coffee for me and my wife. We had coffee on our balcony and watched the island of Roatan pass by on our side of the ship. We ate our corn flakes at 7 am and then went for a real breakfast at the buffet's omelet station. At the appropriate time we met for our tour leader in the ball room and received our bus numbers. We joined our group and followed our leader out onto the pier. After a short wait we were led to an air conditioned minibus. It was hot and humid and we were thankful for a good air conditioning system on the bus.
From a Roatan website: Roatan offers many interesting things to do. There are plenty of scuba dive operators, and our beaches are great for swimming, snorkeling, and sunbathing. Renting a car, motorcycle, or moped can provide you with the means to explore all the hidden places and see the island as it really is; since there is only one paved highway on the island, it isn't easy to get lost. Or you can hire a taxi at the dock to take you where you want to go. We weren't interested in any water sports so we signed up for a tour of the western end of the island. But it was obvious, Roatan's clear water and many beaches and reefs are a best bet for swimmers and scuba divers.
On our tour we first stopped at the Butterfly Garden, a butterfly and parrot exhibit. Next time - bring mosquito repellant! Next we stopped for some free weak ice tea at a village called West End. This place looked poorer than poor parts of Belize City and the one narrow road wasn't paved because it hurt the bare feet of the residents. But while there we did see the kayak excursion go furiously paddling by. After way too much time hanging out there we were taken to the Botanical Gardens where a guide showed us a vanilla plant and cinnamon tree. I thought with just a little work our backyard in Florida could look just like this place.
Once back at the only pier on Roatan I told my wife I was going to brave the local citizens and leave the safety of the fenced off police guarded pier and go shopping down the one road. My wife returned to our balcony to watch out for me. Unlike busy and hard looking Belize City, this town called Coxen Hole, is one road and all the souvenir shops are clustered around the pier so there was no apparent danger from the local residents.
All the stores took US dollars. I bought a T-shirt, resisting the urge to invest in Honduras mahogany sculpture and woodcrafts. They had some nice stuff and our tourist dollars were important to the vendors.
Thursday night we had lobster for dinner in the Costa Smeralda restaurant. It was broiled and while it was unofficially all you can eat, it was at best only good and only one person at our table asked for seconds. It could have used some Old Bay seasoning.
Friday, December 22, 2006
This was a day at sea for us and we just kicked back and enjoyed the pools and deck chairs in different parts of the ship. We started as usual with breakfast in the room. Then my wife went up to the gym to use the treadmill while I went back to sleep. When I got up she was still gone so I went to the buffet and got an omelet and fried eggs. When I returned to the cabin my wife had come and gone. It was a big ship and surprisingly difficult to find someone if you get separated without a meeting point. I finally went back to the cabin and my wife showed up after getting tired of searching for me.
We attended a lecture by Max in the big theater on the procedure for leaving the ship on Saturday morning. They ended the lecture with a lesson on how to tie on your toga. After that we got some sun and walked around and ended up taking a nap.
We got up for dinner and I had steak. For desert I had both New York cheesecake and Tiramisu. Everyone else at our table was wearing a bed sheet tied as a toga. The ship provided extra bed sheets for the toga party to keep you from having to strip the beds. We have nothing against those who went to the toga party and I am sure they had fun, but dancing the night away in a bed sheet is just not for us. We went back to our room and packed since we had signed up for the special 7 am disembarking that was designed for local residents who parked in the parking garage.
Saturday, December 23, 2006
We had to get up early for the 7 am disembarking and were annoyed to find we were not docked at pier 21, where we departed, but we were now at pier 29 which was about half a mile away from the parking garage. With all the post 9-11 port security, walking there on foot and bringing the car back for the luggage was impossible. But once through customs they had shuttle buses to get us and our luggage over to our parking garage. The Queen Mary 2 was docked in our spot at pier 21. I believe I counted 9 huge cruise ships in the harbor and they told us 46-50,000 people would be disembarking or embarking on that Saturday at Port Everglades.
That ends the travelogue. I want to add in spite of any complaints I voiced, we really had a wonderful time overall and someday hope to go again on another Caribbean cruise on the Costa Magica. I am not sure about how I would feel if 95% of the passengers didn't speak English as would be the case in the Med. But on this cruise, it is a huge ship and there was something for everyone. The ship was full with 3,140 passengers and yet you could always find a deck chair. I felt the service personnel were wonderful. We were always well treated. I was impressed at the way the ships officers maneuvered this massive ship through the tricky reefs off of Belize and in and out of ports using the bow and stern thrusters. If I sounded picky about the food. I think it is safe to say 90% of what we ate was delicious or at least pretty good considering the number of meals served. I complained about the air conditioning but it did cool the room a bit and keeping the door to the balcony closed during the day helped. I managed to fall asleep quickly on the thin mattress every night except one. The treadmill pounding wasn't constant. I think only heavy runners really achieved the bass drum effect and we just put up with it. Otherwise our cabin and balcony were wonderful. All the Costa employees were very nice and worked hard to make our cruise wonderful. And while there were a lot of children on board, I never felt they were seriously underfoot. Generally all the passengers we met were very nice and enjoyed the cruise. And lucky us, we had sunny days, relatively smooth seas, and no rain. Read Less