This was our 9th cruise overall but 1st on Costa, with previous on Princess, Celebrity, and Carnival to the Caribbean, Alaska, Panama Canal, and Western Mediterranean. The cruise probably has the best itinerary with ports of call covering 3 continents, 6 countries, and thousands of years of culture and history following the footsteps of Caesar, Antony, Alexander, Aristotle, and Cleopatra. Even a little bit wary after reading the user reviews before the cruise for going on an Italian ship with passengers of various background, the experience turned out to be highly positive and exceeded our overall expectations. We were also lucky in having good weather, dinner table mates, and a close call for visiting and getting out of Egypt at the last minute before the political riot really broke out. So the decision to take the off-season winter cruise to avoid the summer crowd, heat and humidity, and higher fares turns out to be an excellent choice! Highly recommended.
Since we boarded a Western Mediterranean cruise from Civitavecchia in 2006, the same routine of staying in Rome for one night to adjust to the jet lag before and two nights after the cruise for visiting the attractions was followed. The port to city transfers were arranged through and seamlessly taken care of by Italian Airport Limousine. It may not have the lowest price but it was responsive, courteous, and speedy.
The embarkation process was different from our past experience but very effective. We arrived early around noon, were given a number for 1:30pm boarding with our luggage taken, and then quickly hopped on the shuttle bus to Civitavecchia city center. After a walking and shopping tour of the port city with its community theater, open Farmer's Market (we bought 5 oranges from Sicily for less than $1), and tourist shops (we bought leather bag and wallet with good price), we went back by shuttle and were promptly directed for boarding. The only wait in line was to get though the security checkpoint for belongings for about 5 minutes. After that, it was a straight walk up the ship after submitting our check-in form without being asked for anything else including the passport. Once in our cabin, our cruise cards, ship and shore tour information sheets, and our luggage were already waiting for us! I feel that there is more trust and respect from Costa toward its clients. On the others, we were not allowed to board until we show them the money by registering with a valid credit card or cash deposit. May be it is the European way.
We had the 1st seating for dinner at mostly 6:15pm. The waiting staff was wonderful - attentive yet non-intrusive. Our head waiter, Sherwin (Joseph) Toral from Philippines, was always calm, courteous, helpful in selections, accommodating, prompt in delivery under the obvious rush, and always wore a smile. I have the nasty habit of ordering multiple appetizers, entrees, or desserts while skipping some other courses, and Joseph handled the serving beautifully in synchronization with the dishes of other guests so I did not feel out of place. With the 2nd seating at 8:45pm, our table often had so much fun in our conversations and sharing of the onboard and shore tour experiences that we still sat there after 8:30pm. Not once did we feel being rushed. But obviously we felt a little guilty after realizing the time, or lack of it for the staff to prepare for the next seating, and left. Information on the dining venue choices the next day was always conveyed and a handshake extended by Joseph at the end of dinner. He even performed an excellent card trick at the end of the cruise! We've had excellent cruise waiting staff in the past who remembered all our preferences, but I have to say that Joseph is the best!
We bought the Easy Selection beverage package that comes with 4 bottles of wine and 7 bottles of mineral water for €69 including the service charge. There are choices of 2 red and 2 white wines and the left-over bottle was always stored and brought back the next evening. The package seems to me a good value. The Classic Selection is €99 with 2 more bottles of wine.
We read about the disappointments on the quality and selections of food onboard and we reluctantly echoed the sentiments. There are seven courses to choose, from appetizer, soup, pasta, salad, cheese, entrEe, to dessert. There are regularly choices of fish, meat, chicken, and vegetarian for the entrees. It was not bad food, and it was served warm, but rarely was it a delicacy. The taste may be bland sometimes for American palates. Please also do not expect lobster or escargot. Overall it is acceptable for us since we do not expect a feast. I also went to the midnight buffet for the 1st time in many cruises after dancing late right after the theater show. As expected, it was more of the visual than the gastronomical treat. We also learned that there is normally no dinner buffet available so the pizzeria was the only choice if the normal dining time is missed.
The shows and entertainment onboard were good with varieties if not spectacular. Unlike the other cruise lines which share and ferry the entertainers onboard, the performers on Costa seemed to be resident and they were stationed in the various lounges and bars when not performing on the big stage in the theater. As the result, the level and quality of performance seemed to be higher in general. As classical music lovers, we enjoyed the daily performance by the Trio Rhapsodia in the Wien Wien lounge but only wished that they did not play the same old tiring Strauss waltz over and over again. Come on, you are a classical music trio and how about some real trios by Dvorak, Schumann, Beethoven, or Brahms. Of course we realized the general crowd may not appreciate what we like. Some classical music was better than none. On our Panama Canal cruise on Celebrity Mercury we really enjoyed the classical trios while being served the afternoon tea.
One bonus on the sea days for me was the five free beginning Italian lessons offered, each lasted just over an hour with handouts. The instructor, Emanuela, is young, energetic, bubbly, helpful, encouraging, and persistent. We learned the basic greetings, numbers, time of day, 7 weekdays, 12 months, colors, basic grammar, and asking for and replying with names and directions. I really enjoyed the lessons with quite a few others. A final written test was given before a certificate was signed. It was interesting to hear the Italian spoken with the distinct accents from German, French, British, American, and yes, even Spaniard.
There are quite a few treadmills, stationary bikes, and exercise stations in the gym in the front of the ship on the 11th floor. They are of good modern quality and I used them on the sea days with ocean but not horizon view. With the off-season crowd generally older in age, the gym was not crowded. There were volleyball events mentioned on the Daily program sheet but nobody showed up on this winter cruise so my bump, set, and spike had to wait for another day!
As this was our first cruise on Costa, I was expecting some looseness in its logistic operation associated with the deserved-or-not Italian reputation. But my fear was proved unnecessary over and over again. For example, the evening show on the big stage started on-time every day. The dining venue opened before the specified time. The Daily program guide covered everything in detail with nice touches. Imagine it had to be published in at least five languages every day. The mandatory fire-safety drill with life vests was carried out like a military exercise with passengers actually lined up evenly and counted. The instruction and demo was done five times under five languages. So you can tell that I was impressed with the operational efficiency and effectiveness of Costa. As a retired IT worker who used to manage the corporate logistics, I know it is not easy to keep all the ducks in a row especially when they are of feathers of different colors and tongues. Both Costa and its parent Carnival ought to be applauded for running a tight ship under the soft economy. After learning that Costa sails around the world with destinations in South America, Asia, Northern Europe, and so on, we would not hesitate to book another Costa cruise in the future.
All the greats and not-so-greats from the above do not distract from the focus of the cruise which for us is the unbeatable shore destinations without too much crowd, heat, and humidity. We booked all our shore tours in advance on the Costa website after a little difficulty with the web page was attributed to the hyphen in my registered name and was consequently resolved after a phone call.
We docked at Savona and picked up most of the European cruisers. We took part in Tour of Genoa and the bus spent almost an hour getting there. We did not realize that Genoa is the largest port in Italy and has a very rich history dating way back. The house of Christopher Columbus was interesting and the San Lorenzo Church spectacular, and the Municipal building grand-looking. History could be observed everywhere among the evidence of modern industry and infrastructure. I liked the view of the sea port between the tall pine tree canopies from high up in the old city with the snowy Italian Alps in the far background. I will think of you, Genova, the next time I have a Focaccia bread.
We went with the tour Olympia & Archeological Museum. The preserved and restored artifacts in the museum were very well presented. But the real treat for us was to see and cover the original Olympics track from start to finish since my wife and I met each other in our college varsity track team. Instead of an oval circle, it is a wide straight track with judges’ seats by the side right in the middle. Now I can almost still hear the race start signal, the grunts of the athletes, and the cheers of the crowd. If the ancient Greeks could stop the warfare and conflicts before participating in the open and fair competition without cheating, let’s hope we can do the same and more after almost 2,800 years of learning from the history. Let the Olympics spirit flourish!
It was obvious that Athens is a big city looking from the top of the ship approaching the port of Piraeus early in the morning. With the Athens & Cape Sounion tour, we went to the Acropolis in the morning and Cape Sounion in the afternoon. As envisioned, the Temple of Athena and Parthenon were spectacular, the well-preserved amphitheater awe-inspiring, and the panoramic view from the top of Acropolis all-encompassing. After a bountiful lunch including the Greek salad, we drove for about an hour to Cape Sounion for a view of the Temple of Poseidon and the beautiful coastline by the Aegean Sea. I read before the cruise that this was the place where the Aegean Sea got its name in a memorable ancient saga.
For the lack of both my knowledge and Turkish tourism promotion, Izmir and Ephesus was a pleasant surprise. We took the tour that goes to Ephesus, Church of St. John, and the House of Virgin Mary. Even with only a small percentage unearthed, the ancient site of Ephesus was spectacular proving its significance as the 2nd largest city in the huge Roman Empire. The evidence of the advanced Roman civilization could be observed everywhere I walked – from the elaborate temples, libraries, monuments, amphitheater, to the public marble bathroom with running water. It is a site that we could come back for more. We had an excellent guide who offered a lucid and organized presentation with a little bit of editorial. He later confirmed my suspicion that he actually is a teacher of Turkish History. After visiting the religious sites, we stopped at the port of Kusadasi for an observation of Turkish rug knitting before going back to the ship in a late-afternoon thunderstorm. The ship promptly left the port after we got on!
After a much needed sea day to rest after 3 consecutive days of shore tours, we arrived at Ashdod and joined the tour of Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Hearing some negative comments from the fellow cruisers and our English host on the ship at the start of the cruise, we almost decided not to go to Bethlehem because of the rumored delay in border crossing and lack of guide support in Palestine. Were they wrong! We were so glad that we stuck with it! The border crossing into Palestine and back took less than 10 minutes each way and our tour guide in Palestine was way better than the same in Israel. We visited Mt. Olives, the Old City, Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher, and the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. We were told that the crowd was much thinner this time of the year and we could actually see and touch a lot of stuff with our own eyes without much of a line. It was a great scene to see that people of all different races and faiths live together peacefully most of the time.
We arrived at Port Said early in the morning and immediately boarded the tour bus for the 13+ hour journey of Pyramids, Saqqara, Camel & Jeep Adventure before getting back to ship in Alexandria 9:30pm. It was surreal to see the huge cargo ships looming right next to the highway in the parallel Suez Canal. After seeing the Freedom Bridge which arches over the Suez Canal, we turned to Cairo and crossed the Nile River. It took over 3 hours and we finally arrived at Giza with its towering Pyramids. After walking around and taking pictures we drove to the lower valley to see the Sphinx with Pyramids in the background. Then we went to the Saqqara Country Club where our Jeeps were waiting and took us to the top of the nearby desert where more of the Pyramids were in sight. At the end of the Jeep ride a long caravan of camels could be seen sitting in the desert. One person, one camel, and remember to lean back just before the camel stands up or sits down. The 30-minute camel ride back to the Country Club was exciting if a little shaky. With my hands tied holding to the camel during the ride, I appreciated that the Costa ship photographer took our pictures in motion. He also did a good job before at the Sphinx site. At the end of the camel ride, lunch was served at the Club before we went to Saqqara to appreciate the Step Pyramid and the amazing funerary complex of Djoser with the outstanding and vivid display of daily lives over 4,600 years ago! The artistry and the level of advanced civilization was simply unforgettable.
We knew in advance that there was some political unrest in Cairo but we never realized that it turned into a full-blown riot while we were touring the city. Apparently the curfew was imposed while we were in the area and the driver rushed us back to the ship docked at Alexandria. After turning on TV and watched the BBC program onboard did we learn that we in fact made a close escape, an exodus, out of Africa! We were wondering why there was a security guard on the front of our tour bus all the way with us who wore a suit and tie but carried an automatic weapon. Putting together, it seems to make more sense now. Within 10 minutes of us boarding the ship, Costa Pacifica quickly sailed away from the troubled water towards its home ports in Italy.