The new CostaMediterranea: Now, that's Italian

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NAPLES, Italy -- Chances are most U.S. travel agents have never heard of Ines Sastre. Ditto for Cristina Parodi. But having attended the June christening ceremony of Costa Cruises' newest ship, the 85,700-ton Costa-Mediterranea, I can tell you that they are, respectively, the Julia Roberts and Katie Couric of Italy.

Sastre, a Spanish model and actress, christened the ship, and Parodi, an Italian television broadcaster, served as master of ceremonies for the event. The Italian paparazzi buzzed around the two women like bees looking for nectar.

Chances also are good that many U.S. travel agents are not familiar with Costa's fleet of nine ships, as a large portion of the company's business is mined from outside North America.

I'm a case in point: Although I've sailed on more than three dozen ships, I had not sampled the Costa product until my sailing last month.

The stylish christening ceremony served as an apt analogy for the line, and for that matter, the ship. Just as Sastre and Parodi are virtually unknown in the U.S., they positively rule in Europe, just as Costa does.

The line has been "Cruising Italian Style" for 30 years, said Dino Schibuola, president of the North American division of Costa.

"If you like Italy, and Italian restaurants," he said, "you'll enjoy a Costa cruise."

CostaMediterranea's 10-deck-high atrium, above, pays homage to Italian architecture and art. Those agents who are not all that familiar with Costa's ships would be well-served to pay attention to the line. This is a company that really wants your business -- and has become particularly aggressive in capturing more of the group market.

"We find the best way to address this [group] market is through agents," said Schibuola.

He has set ambitious goals for his sales team. By year's end, he wants 50% of Costa's North America business to come from groups. Currently, 30% of the line's business is derived from groups.

Travel agent incentives, featuring commissions that can top 17%, include a commitment on the part of Costa to help agents find group prospects. The line will provide sales leads, make joint sales calls and help create cruise nights.

That's not to say that the CostaMediterranea is right for any group.

For instance, prospective passengers who might be uncomfortable when English isn't always the first language spoken have no business on a Costa ship. Conversely, those travelers interested in a multicultural experience are apt to love sailing on Costa.

It's virtually impossible to provide an in-depth critique of a cruise ship during a three-day preinaugural cruise, when industry folk, rather than paying passengers, are sailing. Bearing that in mind, this is what I found: The CostaMediterranea has all the trappings of any number of megaships from other cruise lines.

And yet the ambience is distinctly Italian -- a mood that was exactly what Carnival Corp. architect Joe Farcus was aiming for.

Farcus, who is best known for creating the interiors of the ships in the fleet of sister company Carnival Cruise Lines, said he used Costa's marketing slogan, "Cruising Italian Style," as a "literal motivation in designing the ship."

The design thread that ties the ship together is the palazzi (palaces) and castles of Italy.

"I drew inspiration from palazzi and Italian art," Farcus said.

Passengers also will find allusions to history and mythology. For instance, the CostaMediterranea's decks use such mythological names as Narcissus, Prometheus, Pegasus, Pandora and Medea.

When I first embarked the ship and entered the 10-deck-high atrium, I was struck by the liberal use of Murano glass. The ship was, figuratively, dripping with it. The entire atrium area is decorated in shades of tangerine and paler oranges, with mirrors and metallic surfaces creating a baroque effect.

Palazzo-themed public areas include:

• Salone Giardino Isolabella. This 355-seat saloon is modeled after the palazzo that Count Carlo III Borromeo built for his wife, Isabella d'Adda, in 1632. It is decorated with richly textured Flemish tapestries and black marble mirrors.

• Canal Grande Casino. This gaming venue was modeled on the design of the 15th-century Palazzo Barbaro on Venice's Grand Canal.

• Osiris Theatre. Sitting on three levels, this Egyptian-themed room is inspired by the Palazzo Massimo alle Colonne in Rome, renowned for its Doric columns and courtyards.

• Perla del Lago Buffet Restaurant. This casual dining restaurant was inspired by Villa Melzi d'Eril in Bellagio, a 19th century neoclassical structure appointed with Greek accents and ornate tiling.

My favorite public area was the dining room, the Ristorante Degli Argentieri, which can accommodate 1,320 guests in two seatings on two decks.

The best thing about this restaurant is that it feels like many diminutive eateries in one grand space. There are 66 little nooks, so passengers get the sense that they are actually in a much more intimate venue.

Guests opting for an a la carte dining experience should try the 123-seat Club Medusa, which charges $20 per person per dinner. Here, tables are set with stunning china designed by Versace.

If the preinaugural cruise is any indication, passengers should be pleased with the quality of food on board. Service in the dining room and Club Medusa was also excellent.

The ship features 58 suites and 999 staterooms, 684 of which have balconies. Seventy percent of the staterooms are outside.

Although Costa's officers are Italian, the crew is a melting pot of nationalities, with a large contingent hailing from the Philippines. Because of the multicultural guest complement, many crew members -- particularly the bar and wait staff -- must be prepared to converse in a number of tongues. One bartender told me he speaks five languages.

The vessel will operate on seven-day Mediterranean itineraries through October, sailing roundtrip from Genoa to Naples, Italy; Palermo, Italy; Tunis, Tunisia; Mallorca and Barcelona, Spain; and Marseille, France.

The CostaMediterranea will reposition to the Caribbean from November to March, sailing seven-night alternating eastern and western Caribbean itineraries from Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

For more information, call (954) 266-5600 or visit Costa's Web site at www.costacruises.com. For information on booking groups, call (800) 33-COSTA.

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