NOTE: My cousin just returned from the Costa Magica and emailed me this review. I felt it worthy of posting due to the rich 45 year first hand history of Key West. He tells things as they were and are, and it adds insight to this cruise and line. Fred.
We just got home from a weeks cruise. We got in on a 'good deal' a week for $380 apiece. Inside cabin, low deck. It was on an Italian cruise line.... Costa... We visited Key West, where we were stationed in the navy, back during the Cuban missile crises, in the 1960s. Back then, Key West was a quaint little village that was, basically, at the end of the earth (being at the end of U. S. 1, 160 miles south west of Miami). It had a rich history, but a small town atmosphere, being heavily influenced by Cubans. Cuban refugees, fleeing the Castro regime, would try to sail across the 90 mile straights between Havana and Key West. They would have had to hid a boat, and the preparations for the crossing, from the Cuban authorities. Sometimes in our change, we would get some Cuban money, which was the same size and denomination as ours. We'd receive the Cuban radio and TV station, 'QMCA', which would feature Fidel Castro telling what a wonderful, desirable place Cuba was.... They used to advertise on the (Key West) radio station, a jewelry store on Duval Street....that it was on the longest street in the world...it stretched from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico.... (14 blocks long). There is a famous landmark on Key West at the pier on the southernmost point of the island, designating that it is 'the southernmost point in the continental United States'.... Henry Flagler (back around the turn of the century) built an upscale hotel there. To get the potential guests to the hotel, he built an overseas railroad.... (I guess, getting 'there' would be a big part of the trip). However, a hurricane knocked down the railroad tracks, and the subsequent financial loss was more than Mr. Flagler could weather. They (U. S.) eventually took over Mr. Flaglers wrecked railroad bridges, linking the islands in the chain of keys, and used the steel girders, to build a highway from Miami to Key West. It is a beautiful drive, the first time....(but, boy, does it get repetitious, from then on...especially when we were only making $205 a month and are limited on staying in an expensive motel in Miami).. The fresh water we got, was piped down from Miami.... The sun beating on the 160 mile pipeline heated the water, such that when you took a straight cold shower, the water was so hot, that you started sweating...in the shower. About 60 miles west of Key West is the tiny island speck called 'Dry Tortugas'.....dry signifying that there is no source of fresh water, and tortugas, the Spanish word for turtles. There was a Civil War fort built on the islet. But the weight of the bricks was so heavy, that the foundation sank in the sand. And, although it was used, the walls settled and cracked terribly. It was eventually used as a federal prison.... Their most famous 'convict' was a Dr. Mudd....who had the misfortune of setting John Wilkes Boothe (who assassinated President Lincoln) broken leg.... The government thought that he was part of a conspiracy, and sentenced him to the prison on Dr Tortugas.... He was a model prisoner (being an upright honest citizen, anyway)... he eventually became the prison doctor, ministering to the other inmates... People in Key West had their own chickens....whether this was for poultry (to eat), or for their personal egg production, OR for the sport of cock fighting, (which was influenced by the Cuban culture). Termites were a big problem with wooden houses there. We had a friend (also in the Navy) who bought one of these old 'Conch' houses (for $20,000), and every time we went to visit them, there would be piles of sawdust on the floor, under the furniture, where the termites were eating the wood. At one time, there was a famine there, and the people resorted to eating the insides of a sea animal called a 'conch' (pronounced konks....rhymes with honks).... You've probably seen these pretty pink conch shells. Anyway, the rest of the country called the people 'conchs'....sort of a derogatory name. The people also did some sponge fishing and shrimp netting. When we were there, there was a definite 'pecking order', socially. The top tier were the white local people, second were the people in the Navy, third were the shrimp fishermen, and lastly were the 'people of color'. The high schools were still segregated....and the local colored high school was named 'Douglas' High. (I used to get teased that the high school was named after me). There are reefs surrounding the keys, and ship navigation was dangerous. The government had set up marker buoys and light houses, to help the mariners navigate safely.... But the local people would go out, and change these marker buoys and light houses, to cause the cargo ships to wreck...and then they (local people) would go out and loot the wrecked ships.... These people (I call them 'land pirates') were called 'wreckers'...and it became a (locally) acceptable profession. Some famous people used to live on Key West.....James Audubon, Ernest Hemingway (who was a local drunk, that made good in his writings), and Harry Truman had a permanent 'summer white house' on the Navy base there. One of the streets in town was re-named in his honor....Truman Street. One of the cross streets (on Truman Street) is Margaret Street. Thus there is a road sign that has the names 'Margaret' and 'Truman'.... which is a popular 'Kodak moment' place to take pictures (President Truman had an ugly daughter named Margaret). The Navy had a big impact on the local economy....there was the main navy base, which also had a submarine detachment, a sonar school, an underwater swimmers school (the basis of the future 'SEAL' team), Also, a hospital (which if you donate blood to, you got the rest of the day off....we called it 'vampire liberty'), an electronic test and evaluation detachment (which I was assigned to), an on the next island up, a navy air station called 'Boca Chica'. Where we lived, was right under the flight path of the incoming jet fighters. Kitty Corner from where we lived, there was a base ball field that had a high concrete block fence around it. During the 'Cuban crises' the Marines came in, and strung coils of barbed wire around the top of that wall, and installed NIKE missiles....pointed south, towards Cuba. We could see the white tips of the missiles. We had a radar installation, as part of the Boca Chica base, that would track air craft on the island of Cuba. By the time an airplane reached tree top level (there) we had already picked it up, and was plotting its speed, and direction.... There was a popular 'tourist attraction', which you caught down town on Mallory Square...a 'conch train'... which was a jeep with a wood cover over it, that made it look like a train engine, which pulled little open cars, which went around the island, and narrated the things that you were looking at. (Key West is the only town in the continental U. S., where the houses don't have chimneys....because they don't need any heating systems). Anyway, to talk about the Key West of today..... Key West is 'gay friendly'. The Flagler Hotel has been taken over. The local taxi cabs are painted purple. The chickens have gone feral (wild) and roost in trees, and poop on people and cars. (Key West is a bird sanctuary....and chickens, being birds, are 'protected'). The navy bases have all but closed down. In fact, big cruise ships now tie up at the main navy base. Mallory Square is a huge tourist trap place now. Diamonds International (a very expensive chain of jewelry stores that capitalizes on the cruise ship trade) is now in Key West. Duval Street is still the longest street in the world....No one has ever gone the whole distance and stopped and had a drink in every bar....there are now 68 bars on Duval Street. The one thing that we did find quite interesting was Mel Fishers salvage museum. He discovered (after years of fruitless searching) a famous ship wreck called 'the Atocha' (there is a long Spanish name for the ship, but I can't remember it) that was loaded with very precious cargo. Gold bars, silver bars, coins, precious metal dishes, etc. It was only in 39 feet of water.. A lot of the recovered stuff is on display there... They also have stuff for sale....But what they have, for example various 'silver coins' recovered from the sunken ship (say, for between $185 to $300)....is really silver from the ship, but the coins are modern day duplicates.....they do have real recovered coins for sale.....but add two more zeros to the aforementioned price (say, $18,500, on up to ???) They did have some gold bars, in a clear Plexiglas display case...the case had a very small hole in it, that you could reach in and actually lift a gold bar....(which is really heavy)...unfortunately, the hand hole is only big enough to get your hand thru..but not big enough to twist the bar so that it would line up to be taken out.... Those same 'conch' houses that sold for $20,000 back in the 1960s are now beginning at $250,000....if you can find one that's been put up for sale. We left Key West and went to Cozumel, Mexico. There were a lot of Canadians, and other 'northerners' on board, so any water activity...sun bathing on local beaches, snorkeling, scuba diving, etc. was very popular. (because we live in Florida during the winter, beach activity was not appealing to us....we did go ashore, and 'bummed around'. All the shops have the same junk for sale.... I think that someone controls the manufacture and distribution of the stuff that's for sale to the tourists.... Prices were extremely high.... Picture post cards that you can buy at a local Wal-Mart store, here in the U. S. for 20 cents, were 50 cents.... everything was priced up, accordingly. When were were in Cozumel, there were 7 big cruise ships....the next day, 12 cruise ships were due in.... It was defiantly 'Feliz Navidad' (Merry Christmas) for the local shops... There were a couple of Diamond International stores there, along with other high priced jewelry stores (Hey, what I know about diamonds.....someone could take a hammer to a coke bottle, and tell me the chunks of broken glass was high class diamonds....and I wouldn't know the difference!!!) The ship tied up, right down town Cozumel. The exchange rate was eleven pesos to a U. S. dollar. We then went to Belize City (country of Belize)...which is the only English language country in Central America. We had to anchor about a mile and a half out from the town, and take a tender (water taxi that holds about a hundred people) in. The big touristy thing in Belize was the Mayan ruins. We'd been there before, (and the beaches were not a drawing thing for us), so we wandered around town. Belize City has a population of about 70,000. And the highest building we saw was maybe 4 or 5 stories.....thus, we assume that the city is big, in area. We bought a big bag of peanuts from a local street vendor, (for 50 cents), and fed the pigeons, and ate some of the peanuts, too. The vendor said that he got up at 4 A. M. that morning, to roast those peanuts. (sure)... Anyway, they were the littlest peanuts we'd ever seen.....4 or 5 would make one peanut that we are used to. We bought a bowl of rice beans, beef, pigtail, and other stuff, from a woman who had a (street) stand near one of the banks. ($2 U. S.). It was very good. We only bought one, because we had seen the size of the bowls....and had adequate... The exchange rate was two to one....and our 'buying power' was about double what it is here in the U. S. But U. S. dollars are accepted everywhere, I did get some Belize coins to bring home. The people are poor....we did see a couple of people that weren't wearing shoes....but almost all of the people did have shoes...even if it was sandals....which we were wearing. The weather was warm....in the 80s.... and humid... We got a mini version of USA today, on the ship, and while we were worrying about keeping hydrated (because of the heat), we saw where the nations low temp was in West Yellowstone, MT. a couple of days....37 below zero, one time, and 27 below zero, another. We also got a couple of U. S. TV stations on the set in our cabin, and watched in amazement at the blizzard in Denver....and about the travelers being stranded in the Denver airport, as it shut down all air traffic. I think the most interesting port was Coxans Hole, on the island of Roatan in Honduras. We tied up at the pier (we were the only ship in). Basically, the same thing regarding the tourist souvenir stands.... All the same knick knack junk at each stand. I bought some post cards to mail, and went to the post office. The woman there said that they were out of stamps!!! I guess that it was just a branch post office. I did find a souvenir shop that did have some stamps for sale...she charged me $1 per stamp. Their exchange rate is about 19 Lempira to a U. S. dollar...thus their smallest paper money (one Lempira) is only worth just over five cents.... and the coins are 50, 20, 10 and 5 pesetas. Their smallest coin is barely worth more then the metal (aluminum) that it is made out of. I went to a bank to trade in a ten Lempira note for five (5) one Lempira notes, and five Lempiras worth of coins; I walked out of the bank with a handful of coins, and told the people in line 'Soy Rico' (I'm rich)...and the handful of coins I had was worth 23 cents U. S. People there smiled at me... We also saw some people who were not wearing shoes...whether it was because they were poor, or chose not to wear shoes because of the heat.... Friday, coming home, was a 'fun day at sea'. We did put our swim suits on, and soak up some rays (and some Zs).. The entertainment (floor shows) on the ship was probably the best we've ever seen. There were three main restaurants, and numerous others. The food was prepared Italian style....lots of olive oil... The lobster was 'oven baked'....very dry....they weren't very good...I only ate two of them. We had two formal nights (wear a suit for supper), but not everyone adhered to this...some people were casual....but that was OK. The Baked Alaska was laced with raisins.... Being the couth lad that I am, I plucked them out, and put them on the side of my plate!!! Debarkation was easy... If you had a valid U. S. passport, and could handle your own luggage, they let us off the ship around 7 A. M. We had parked near the airport at 'Fly and Park', and there was a line to get on their shuttle bus, when it came.... We took the last two seats, on the first shuttle. And was on the road, by 8 A. M.