Costa Cruises adds Italian spice to Caribbean sailings

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Despite the popular notion that seven-day Caribbean cruises have become a cookie-cutter commodity, some less-familiar products in the market actually cut against that stereotype. 

A recent voyage on the Costa Fortuna demonstrated that a cruise ship can evoke the feel of the so-called "global village," where cultures and nationalities mix easily and amicably. With an onboard product and passenger base that skew more heavily European than those of competing lines, Costa's seven-day Caribbean cruises immerse ethnocentric Americans into an eye-opening melting pot not typically experienced on vacations near our shores.

Launched in 2003 and sailing year-round in Europe until now, the Costa Fortuna made its North American debut this season. Befitting her heritage, this Italian import is stylish and sexy. Although the ship's superstructure is based on the Carnival Destiny-class platform, her interior design is Italian-focused and themed to pay tribute to Costa's past transatlantic liners. 

Extensive use of Carrara marble, Murano glass and mosaic tile evoke a Venetian feel, while the soaring, 10-deck atrium and public spaces evoke Italy's creative talents and smart style. But the diverse current of lifeblood coursing through this vessel is what makes a Costa cruise a truly unique experience for Americans. Groups of Italians, French and Germans typically constitute up to a third of the passenger mix in this virtual United Nations at sea, promoting some refreshing international encounters, despite the obvious language barriers.

Satisfying a varied international clientele with a single product is a trademark Costa skill, nowhere more evidently demonstrated than by the range and quality of the nonlanguage-dependent entertainment provided.  Variety shows spotlight circus-style acts that rely on physical skills rather than the spoken word. 

Ubiquitous lounge entertainment, available in seven venues nightly, is provided by pianists, duos and trios performing a wide range of American pop material, Italian love songs and international standards. Couples have plenty of room to express themselves on large dance floors in each venue. 

Production shows in the Rex Theater 1932, featuring a cast of 13 singers and dancers, are impressively choreographed and costumed, and often feature singing in multiple languages. Where speech is required, the multilingual social staff conducts games, contests, fashion shows and other events in up to five languages with amazing precision.

Costa Kids, the line's program for junior cruisers, also provides an international experience. My 4-year-old, Sasha, enjoyed playtime with European children without any preconceived notions of ethnic differences.  All played together nicely, forming a cohesive bond that today's world leaders would envy.

Despite the idyllic vision of a global village, however, not everything works perfectly for North Americans, who make up the majority of Costa's Caribbean clientele.

There are more smoking areas aboard Costa's ships than on other major lines, and the resultant odor sometimes wafts into adjoining nonsmoking areas. 

The Health & Wellness selections on the dinner menu didn't always mesh with Americans' expectations. On one night, for instance, three out of the four "Salute e Benessere" dishes -- an appetizer, soup and pasta -- were creamed.

All things considered, however, these were mere blips on the radar on an otherwise smooth sea. 

On the menu

Although Costa reworks its Mediterranean-focused menus significantly (in the Caribbean) for the American palate, choices in both main dining rooms and the buffet reliably reflect the line's Italian heritage. In all venues, pastas -- two choices at dinner and up to four choices at lunch -- were authentically sauced and delicious. 

Other memorable menu items included octopus carpaccio and grilled cuttlefish.  The popular pizzeria serves slices from 11 a.m. until 3 a.m.

Guests seeking alternative dinner options often prefer to be casual, so the Lido buffet area's nightly transformation into an Italian trattoria neatly fits the bill.

The venue features a self-service spread consisting of pizza, pasta, a salad bar and most of the evening's dining room menu choices.

Suite passengers receive a complimentary dinner for two in the Tuscany Club, a serene, reservations-only setting located high up on Deck 11.

The menu roughly corresponds to that of an upscale American steakhouse, and the service, while eager and accommodating, doesn't approach the professional caliber one would expect here.

The club is a nice perk for suite passengers, but the relatively limited menu and a-la-carte pricing don't attract others looking for a gourmet alternative to the dining room.

Italy at sea

Led by effusive, veteran hotel director Attilio Sissa, Costa Fortuna's Italian management staff effectively drive the product delivery, and their radiant warmth and hospitality filter down to the largely Filipino crew.

The Italian-style hospitality "becomes a way of life onboard, and it all starts in our Genoa headquarters," said Lynn Torrent, outgoing president and CEO of Costa Cruise Lines, North America, who will be moving to Carnival Cruise Lines as its senior vice president of sales and guest services next month. 

As the ship transitions from the Mediterranean to the Caribbean, staff and crew must adapt their service delivery to meet guests' needs. "Rather than retraining, it's really a reorientation to American preferences," Torrent said.

This is a paradigm shift that affects many shipboard products and services, such as adding ice to water served in the dining rooms, turning up the air conditioning onboard and providing bagels and cream cheese at breakfast.  

The line does a credible job of backing up its "Cruising Italian Style" tagline with two themed nights that showcase the home country's legacy.

The signature Festa Italiana turns the ship's atrium lobby into a boccie court, while surrounding areas host pizza-tossing, pasta preparation, Venetian mask-making, Italian singers, paper-flower-making and tarantella dancing lessons.

The Roman bacchanalia, meanwhile, is a tribute to ancient Rome's excesses, minus the orgies.

Guests fashion bedsheets into togas, and the passenger talent show is turned into a raucous, if slightly more benevolent, version of the Roman Colosseum.

"The key is having the crew onboard make it all come to life," said Torrent. "That's how we create 'La Dolce Vita.' "

Ultimately, English-speaking guests benefit from the pan-European environment while still enjoying what is largely a U.S.-focused product, at a price point in line with the mass market competition.

The international orientation, however, effectively narrows the target passenger demographic from the broader mass market.

It might take a worldly traveler to appreciate the product's nuances. Relatively unsophisticated travelers could be put off by announcements in five languages, for instance, or might not get the context of the entire experience. Costa's Caribbean cruises really are a window to Italy, just south of Florida.

Costa Fortuna and Costa Mediterranea will sail seven-day Caribbean itineraries through mid-April, when both vessels reposition to European waters.

Costa Fortuna will return to the Caribbean region for the 2008-2009 winter season, but the Costa Mediterranea will be deployed to serve the booming South American cruise market.

Two Costa ships will again return to the Caribbean during the 2009-2010 winter season, however.

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