Costa Marina makes many nationalities feel welcome

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Carrying mostly Italian, French and German passengers, the Costa Marina is a cultural destination as much as its ports of call. A sailing on the Costa Marina is a trip to Europe, even on a Southeast Asia cruise.

By the end of a recent 11-night cruise out of Singapore to Thailand and Malaysia, I was smitten with the quirky, cozy, multicultural ship. At full capacity, the Costa Marina can carry nearly 900 passengers. However, my early January sailing had only half that.

It was a comfortable number on such an intimate ship. Most couples onboard were in their 40s, 50s and 60s.

Unlike today's megaships, where it can take days to figure out where things are onboard, the Marina's three main entertainment venues are on one deck, and there are only two restaurants from which to choose.

Though guests coexist in relatively close quarters, they're not necessarily interacting with each other much.

One North American passenger who didn't seem to mind said, "I love this ship because I don't have to talk to anyone. I don't understand them."

It's a different story for the international crew. Most speak English and Italian, and many speak French, German and Spanish, as well. Though announcements are kept to a minimum, they're translated into all five languages.

Listening to charming Italian Cruise Director Clem Cimini effortlessly glide between them all (she also speaks Russian and Mandarin) was entertaining all by itself.

"Costa has had an international clientele for years," said Augusto Fazzio, the ship's hotel director.

He added that Costa understands the subtle and not-so-subtle differences between the nationalities.

Americans, for instance, tend to like the air conditioning turned on high. Australians enjoy beer; Italians enjoy espresso. Germans prefer quiet, but the Spanish don't. And the list goes on.

In the restaurants, the candlelit Cristallo and the indoor-outdoor buffet, everyone's tastes were considered.

Good food and wine

The Marina offered by far the most impressive cuisine I've had on a Costa ship to date.

At breakfast, the crusty Italian rolls baked from scratch were addictive. The Parmigiano cheese wheel and prosciutto at the lunch buffet every day were imported from Italy.

A tasty Sicilian-style pizza was part of the spread at tea time and appeared on the children's menu.

Delicious, freshly tossed pastas, from a three-cheese penne to curry gnocchi to spaghetti with tomatoes, zucchini and shrimp, were available each day at lunch and dinner. Seafood and meats were also served daily.

The international corner of the lunch buffet had a different theme each day.

Asian specialties, for instance, were sweet and sour pork, papaya salad with crushed peanuts and spring rolls.

At dinner in Cristallo -- and occasionally on the buffet, when it was open in the evenings -- appetizers such as grilled eggplant, seafood salad and baked provolone with soy sauce and oregano were scrumptious.

The Italian wines were something to look forward to after a long day of touring. Particularly memorable was a 2005 Beni di Batasiolo chardonnay.

The diet-busting millefoglie, a flaky puff pastry cake layered with cream or chocolate, was one of the best cruise ship desserts I've ever eaten.

Only the tough chicken and beef were consistently disappointing.

"It's challenging to serve people from a lot of different countries," said Piero Mezzalama, the ship's executive chef. "But we try to please everyone."

One way was by asking questions. Our Romanian waiter, Valentin, for example, inquired if we wanted our salad before dinner, in the American fashion; with dinner, as the Italians prefer; or after dinner, as is the English custom.

No problem keeping busy

The young, friendly social hosts were pros at figuring out how to engage passengers of all nationalities. Once or twice a day, a lively dancing lesson, which ranged from mambo to meringue, was offered by the pool.

On sea days, an arts-and-crafts class was well attended. Passengers were guided through making everything from batik T-shirts to paper flowers.

The occasional cooking demo, Italian language classes and port talks were sprinkled throughout the week, as well, though there were no enrichment lecturers or live music on the pool deck.

Sunbathing, sometimes topless, was a popular pastime, as were card playing, reading and napping.

In the evenings, things picked up. The impressive repertoire of entertainment acts were performed with the festive verve for which Costa is known.

Even though the show lounge and small stage were very basic and the music was taped, the performances were excellent.

The performance troupe included six talented dancers with boundless energy and a pair of lead singers, who expertly pulled off opera, ballads and classic evergreens as well as rock 'n' roll.

Favorites from around the world were worked into their routines, such as "Quando, Quando, Quando," "Danny Boy," "You're a Grand Old Flag," "Memories," "Love Me Tender" and "Another Brick in the Wall."

Several nights, a magician did scarf tricks, made a scantily clad assistant disappear and performed other sleight-of-hand tricks to the delight of the audience, despite his occasional mixed-up translations.

A crew talent show brought down the house, and on two occasions during extended stays in Thailand, local folk dance troupes were brought aboard.

Theme parties included an island night complete with leis, beach balls, Latin music and drinks served in coconut shells; a costume night; and a 1950s music night.

Uncommon decor

There's no denying that the Marina, which was built in 1992 (the hull and engines actually date back to 1969), has personality. Unlike newer ships, staterooms have real wood cabinetry and teak bathroom floors.

The 170-square-foot standard cabin has generous storage; a neat, little, round vanity table; and quirky nautical wall prints. It's refreshingly different compared with the generic hotel look of most new ships.

The understated, retro-style atrium and generous use of wood in cabins are appealing, while the cluttered children's playroom, paltry library, dreadfully slow Internet connections and low-tech show lounge were not.

Few cabins have balconies -- the eight suites do, but they're open to the deck above. Most twin beds cannot be pushed together. The oddly configured gym and small spa didn't get much business on my sailing.

Not a cookie-cutter vessel by any means, the Costa Marina has a decor that includes the typical upholstered cruise-ship lounge furniture plus more eclectic touches such as leather chairs with chrome frames; ship models in display cases in the Marina Lounge; cream-colored leather banquettes and oversized portholes in the Cristallo restaurant; and an abstract, green, glass atrium sculpture my 4-year-old son Tejas aptly named "The Lettuce."

At the end of the day, one of the things that makes a Costa Marina cruise desirable is the price.

According to Charlie Funk, co-owner of Nashville-based Just Cruisin' Plus, an oceanview cabin on a 14-day Marina cruise in the Indian Ocean next January is going for about $200 a person a day, about half of Star Cruises' Asia sailings.

"Experienced cruisers who want to see exotic ports on a smaller ship without paying a bundle will find the Marina a pleasant experience and an excellent value," Funk said.

To contact the reporter who wrote this article, send e-mail to [email protected].

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For more details on this article, see "Costa Cruises learns by trial and error in the Chinese market."

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