The Costa Fortuna: Italy's answer to the QM2

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n the 1930s, when the first Queen Mary was built, great Italian ocean liners like the Rex and the Conte di Savoia plied the North Atlantic.

Seventy years later, Italy still is contributing major tonnage to the cruise industry.

Its latest addition to the global cruise fleet is the 2,720-passenger Costa Fortuna. At 105,000 tons, the Fortuna is the most massive vessel sailing in the Mediterranean this winter.

The Fortuna also is Costa's largest -- so large, in fact, that it can't transit the Panama Canal.

"This ship is to Italy what Queen Mary 2 is to the U.K.," said Micky Arison, chairman and CEO of Carnival Corp., Costa's parent company. "It's the largest ship ever built for an Italian owner."

Even as Costa is looking forward with bigger and bigger ships, the Fortuna takes a look backward -- sort of.

Costa Fortuna's interior design pays tribute to legendary Italian liners. Architect Joe Farcus said he was inspired when Costa contracted the ship at the same Genoa yard that constructed legions of liners, from the Rex in 1932 to the Michelangelo in 1965.

In fact, the prolific Italian shipbuilder Fincantieri (which also churns out vessels for Costa's sister company, Carnival Cruise Lines) revived its dormant Sestri Ponente yard expressly to give birth to the Costa Fortuna. It's the first ship in more than three decades to emerge from the historic yard.

Farcus dreamed up rooms, such as the two-story Michelangelo 1965 Restaurant, where a 20-foot-long model of the liner Michelangelo fills the foyer. And he created the 1,100-seat Rex 1932 Theater, its stage flanked by towering funnels to recall the powerful Rex, which held the transatlantic speed record from 1933 to 1935.

Although Costa never operated ocean liners, the ships of the "Cruising Italian Style" brand are not forgotten in the design. Inverted scale models of Costa vessels past and present glide across a ceiling of blue over the bar of the Costa Fortuna's large atrium, and the fleet is re-created in a soaring art deco-style mural.

Modern conveniences ...

Even though the design motifs harken back to the glory days of the transatlantic, the Fortuna is planted firmly in modern-day cruising. If the nine-deck atrium reminds cruisers of other ships, it's with good reason. The Costa Fortuna's layout is modeled on Carnival's Destiny class.

Here, on the Fortuna, is a pair of main dining rooms, a "supper club" alternative restaurant, a casual lido buffet restaurant, ample spa and fitness facilities, shops, a chapel, an Internet cafe, children's and teens' areas and three swimming pools.

"This is the entrance of the megaship for the Mediterranean market. I think it will do very well," predicted Erica Drake, president and CEO of Dream Vacations International in St. Petersburg, Fla., who was among 80 top-producing U.S. travel agents invited to inaugural activities in Genoa in November.

Drake said Costa Fortuna will appeal to her clients because of its newness and the fact that it offers amenities U.S. cruisers demand: plenty of entertainment choices; a host of bars and lounges; and cabins big enough to unpack in and spread out.

"The decor throughout was very nicely done. There was great use of space, giving a nice, roomy feel," Drake said.

Costa Fortuna is the 10th ship in Costa's rapidly expanding fleet, which is Europe's largest cruise line. European itineraries traditionally carry about 85% Europeans and 15% Americans.

Those percentages reverse in the winter when Costa deploys two ships from Fort Lauderdale dedicated primarily to the U.S. market. This winter, the Costa Mediterranea and the Costa Atlantica will sail from Florida.

To sail on the Costa Fortuna, however, clients will need to book winter cruises to Spain's Canary Islands and summer voyages to the western Mediterranean from the emerging Italian home port of Savona.

... with historic touches ...

While researching the Costa brand, Farcus observed that Europeans gamble less and dance more than Americans do. Accordingly, he reduced the size of Costa Fortuna's casino to make way for the Conte di Savoia 1932 Grand Bar, with its huge parquet dance floor.

Conte di Savoia was one of Italy's most elegant ocean liners, and that elegance is reflected in the room's sweeping black granite bar, marble and granite inlaid floor and gilded fabrics. At 11,000 square feet, this space is touted as the largest bar afloat.

The silver tea and coffee service on display was designed by Gustavo Pulitzer, the architect of the Conte di Savoia liner, but the set was never produced. Costa discovered the designs and commissioned the service from an Italian silversmith.

While the Grand Bar was created for European tastes, it's also U.S. agent Drake's favorite room.

"It acts as a central meeting place," she said. "One shortcoming of other big ships is that you never run into the same person more than twice. On Costa Fortuna, everyone ends up here or in the discotheque."

Notwithstanding, the Vulcania 1927 disco is another Drake favorite. A glass wall surrounds the upper level of the disco, so gamblers in the casino one deck above can look down onto the dance floor.

Named after the liner Vulcania, the disco features a large mechanized figure of Vulcan, the mythical god of fire, who pounds out fiberoptic sparks on an anvil in time to the music.

Another appealing public room is the Leonardo Da Vinci 1960 Lounge, which displays reproductions of masterpieces like the "Mona Lisa" etched onto large glass canvases.

Inspired by the grand ballroom of another liner, the Conte Verde 1923 Lounge features an emerald-green ceiling and large malachite vases of Murano glass that sprout topiary trees.

Instead of a sports bar, there's a little gem of a room for cigar smokers, the Classico Roma 1926 Bar. Tucked beside the Grand Bar, it's easy to miss but worth seeking out. Tobacco-colored leather armchairs and a faux fireplace make this a dark and cozy hideaway.

... and homemade pastas

When it comes to dining, Italian specialties like homemade pastas are highlights of Costa Fortuna's two-story main restaurants, the Michelangelo 1965 (which is located aft and features big windows in the stern) and Raffaello 1965 midship. Casual meals and pizza are served in the spacious Cristoforo Columbo 1954 buffet restaurant.

And perched high on Deck 11, the Conte Grande 1927 is the Fortuna's by-reservation venue with Italian dishes by Zeffirino, the famous Genoa-based restaurant that U.S. travelers might also know from its Las Vegas branch. The cover charge is $23.

The Fortuna accommodates passengers from several European nations, but Drake marveled at the ease with which the crew switched from language to language.

With Costa traditionally sailing its two newest vessels from Florida every winter, that means the percentage of U.S. customers is growing as the line introduces larger ships. Yet the company is not as well known to Americans as sister brands like Carnival, Princess Cruises and Holland America Line.

"If you ask a client to name three cruise lines, are they going to name Costa? In the American market, the answer is no," Drake said. However, she expressed confidence that Costa Fortuna will appeal to her clients. "Americans will find it elegant."

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

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