Full disclosure – my first (last and ONLY) cruise on a large ship is the basis of this article. I have been struggling with writing this all week because, well, I don’t WANT to be a Mean Girl. In a perfect world, I want everyone to love me and to laugh at what I write. I still hope you’ll laugh at what I’ve written . . . but come back next week when I plan to tell you about the other side of this trip where I will be the Happy Girl and Satisfied Customer. Okay? Okay.
So I booked my first/last/only Mediterranean cruise with the Costa Cruise Line. I traveled with my easygoing friend Fran and she loved it, proving that there are at least two sides to every story. However, here’s how the trip unfolded from my point of view . . .
We flew into Rome steerage – I mean coach – on an overnight United flight from Newark. Since I can’t sleep on planes I was very tired. And when I’m very tired, I tend to descend very easily into the Land of Cranky. Waiting for people to remove their assorted bags from the overhead bins so we can finally get off the plane can put me over the edge. And when was the last time you did not have to wait for people to screw around with their belongings before they finally stumbled to the exit? Never? Right. So I headed into baggage claim cranky, as usual.
I wish I could sleep on planes, but when I sleep sitting up, I jerk awake every time my jaw drops open. My subconscious screams, “Wake up! You’re drooling in public and you look hideous!” I even do this at home by myself in the recliner, so apparently I am so self-conscious about being observed in this unlovely state, I can’t even risk it in my own living room with only the dogs as witnesses. Maybe I should start traveling wearing a hoodie backwards so I can sleep and drool in private. It’s worth considering..
But let’s talk cruises. A Mediterranean cruise used to make me think of champagne toasts at the Captain’s Table. Of exchanging world views and sparkling repartee with other thoughtful world travelers. A visit ashore would find me gracefully gliding through a colorful port side market in my espadrilles and oversize sunglasses. Very Jackie-O. At sea, I might lounge on a deck chair with my book, discreetly lifting a hand to summon a steward to bring me a cappuccino or lemonade.
There may cruise lines that offer that kind of experience. If so, please don’t enlighten me since I’m pretty sure I can’t afford it. My quest to see as much of Europe as possible without spending a fortune led me to choose Costa Cruises, the Motel 6, Hometown Buffet version of cruises. A wise man once said, “You get what you pay for.” So true, Grasshopper. So true.
Knowing I’d be too tired and stressed to deal with multiple train connections (not something I’ve done gracefully in Italy even under much better circumstances), we hired a driver to take us from Rome’s Fiumicino Airport to the Costa Cruise dock at Civitavecchia. It was about an hour’s drive away, if I remember correctly. I knew we wouldn’t be able to actually board the ship for several hours, but hoped we could pass the time exploring Civitavecchia, or at least relax in the terminal and grab a bite for lunch.
Instead, our destination turned out to be a gigantic Quonset hut on a pier too far from the town to allow for a casual stroll. We dragged our bags inside the cavernous metal building to find rows of plastic chairs connected to one another and bolted to the floor – kind of like the driver’s license bureau from hell. Our only option for lunch turned out to be a selection of candy bars and chips in a few battered vending machines. Rather than preparing for a Mediterranean cruise, it felt more like we were about to be inducted into a third world army and the cruise staff were our unsmiling drill sergeants.
By the time we were finally summoned to pass through security, check in our bags, and slowly proceed like cattle to the open maw of the ship, I was hungry, tired and ready to throw myself on the bed in my cabin. I can’t complain about the cabin, but will advise you to bring your own soap, shampoo, etc., if you choose to cruise with Costa. I think they pick up their supplies at the Italian version of Dollar General.
After a little rest and feeling in better spirits, we set out to explore the ship. Now, I adore Italy. I knew Costa was an Italian line and thought it would be fun to cruise like a European. Italians! Italian food! Italian everything! Sounds awesome, right?
I was wrong. And for many reasons.
It soon became obvious that sharing a great big boat with nearly 3,000 Italians (plus a few other Europeans and a handful of American and Canadian passengers thrown into the mix) may not be quite as pleasant as I had imagined it would be.
To begin with, if you’ve traveled overseas, or even just spent some time around large groups of foreigners in places like, oh, Disney World, then you’ve probably noticed that different cultures have different ideas about how to go about some pretty basic things. Please note: I’m saying DIFFERENT. Not necessarily wrong or stupid or ridiculous. No, I would not make that judgement call. You can decide for yourself. Let’s start with the elevators.
If a large group of Americans is waiting at a bank of elevators in a hotel, people generally will wait for a newly arrived elevator to empty before getting in themselves. Also, they will almost surely look to see if the elevator is headed up or down, then get into one heading the right direction. Not all Americans. Not every time. But you know what I mean.
This, apparently, is not the Italian way. On our way to dinner the first evening, we learned that our cruising companions seemed to have a different take on elevator protocol. In a fairly spacious lobby area with six elevators, three on each side of the space, large groups of people dashed from one elevator to another, jockeying for position to be in front of the doors the moment a car stopped at this level. There was the usual overhead display indicating whether the elevator was going up or down, but that was not relevant.
As soon as any elevator stopped and the doors cracked open, people threw themselves inside and reached to push every button on the console. At the same time, the poor people who wanted to get off at this floor had to push past the people charging in, causing log jams in the doorway and general mayhem on both sides of the door.
In addition, since we had inadvertently booked our cruise during a holiday week for all of Europe’s schools (in October? Why?!), the many Italians on board all seemed to be traveling en famiglia. There were poppas and nonnas, dads and moms, teenagers, ankle-biters and bambini in strollers. What was that Woody Allen movie where the convicts escape and try to run through fields and streams, shackled together by ankle chains? That’s what it reminded me of. Groups of six to twelve people, huddled as one, stormed the elevators in their beach cover ups and flip-flops, propelling strollers over bystanders’ toes. It seemed safer to get out of the way and wait for the next elevator. But wait. As you patiently stand aside, two more families charge past to commandeer the next elevator . . . .
We took the stairs a lot.
On a Costa cruise there are a few options for meals. A huge formal dining room has two seatings for dinner with assigned tables. The same dining room serves a hot lunch with open seating. A limited menu was offered for each meal and the food was quite good. Since this was a budget cruise, all beverages were purchased separately. In fact, I’m pretty sure coffee and water were the only free beverages on board, and only during the hours that the cafeteria was open (more about that in a second). Although the water coming from the taps in the cabins isn’t potable, signs on the water dispensers in the cafeteria told guests not to fill water bottles there. If you wanted water to drink in your room, or even just to brush your teeth, it was necessary to buy bottled water from one of the bars.
The other food outlets included a fancy restaurant where you could reserve a table for an extra cost, a kind of snack bar by the indoor pool, and the cafeteria. The snack bar offered the European equivalent of hot dogs and burgers and fries and was popular with the kids, as you’d expect. The cafeteria was the only choice for breakfast and was an option for a casual lunch or dinner. The food was plentiful, varied and adequate. I thought there would be Love Boat-style buffets with tropical fruit displays and ice sculptures, but no. It was a cafeteria. As such, it also was treated like a cafeteria by the marauding youngsters and their tired keepers.
After filling a tray with selections from the steam tables, it was time to search for a free table among the gangs of hungry diners. I have never felt so invisible. Because we were middle-aged women and obviously American, we were somehow inconsequential. It’s hard to put my finger on it and I don’t think people were intentionally rude, but here’s an example. One morning at breakfast Fran and I were finishing our coffee and chatting when a man about our age at the table behind us got a call on his cell phone. He was there with his large family and rather than disrupting their breakfast and conversation, he stood up, turned his back to them, and proceeded to talk loudly on the phone – leaning over our table!
Fran and I just stared at each other wide-eyed, then had to laugh. Did he think since we didn’t speak Italian and wouldn’t understand him, it didn’t matter if he carried on his one-sided conversation essentially at OUR table? It was just weird, guys. Like being pushed aside so others could get on the elevator. Like bartenders who seemed to ignore us when waiting to order a drink (well, that happens over here, too; the life of the invisible older woman is another story of its own).
I think on any cruise line, shore excursions can be cancelled if not enough people sign up for a given excursion. Something to consider if you’re cruising on a foreign line is that there may be fewer excursions available with English-speaking guides. It’s not that you couldn’t choose to go with a group speaking Italian or German or Japanese – but if you don’t understand what’s happening and no one is available to interpret, you may find yourself wondering what’s next when the bus stops somewhere and people scatter. They all know they have 30 minutes to shop, and where to find the bus at the end of that time, but you may just be SOL if you can’t find someone to fill you in.
At our first stop in Palermo, Sicily, the English-speaking excursion we had chosen was cancelled due to lack of interest. Having prepaid for that trip, we were talked into transferring over to the only English tour that had enough people, “Palermo’s Scary History” (or something like that). We joined others to visit the Palermo Cathedral, the 12th century Norman Zisa Palace, and the Capuchin Tombs (which actually was really creepy and kind of terrifyingly entertaining, but we were disappointed at missing the charming fishing village). Happily, there were enough English-speaking passengers for the excursion to Aix-en-Provence when we docked at Marseilles – and that was a delightful trip.
Okay. I’m about done picking on Costa. I think, for me, the biggest turn off really was the size of the ship and having to deal with the huge crowds of people who were everywhere, all the time. I have loved going on several European river cruises where the boats carried 120 to 140 guests. Most of each day is usually spent in a port exploring, and in the evening passengers enjoy dinner at tables lined along the panoramic windows. You can sit where you like, make new friends, and watch as nighttime falls and lights come on in the towns and farms on the banks of the river.
It’s a gentler, more thoughtful approach to travel – which isn’t to say I haven’t had great fun and silliness and much laughter on the river cruises. And did you think only old people go on river cruises? Well, you’re RIGHT! And it’s awesome! I get a kick out of being one of the younger people on board and I love it that practically everyone else wants to be in their jammies by 10 pm, too. That’s my idea of a CRUISE.
But on a big ship, the fun seems to focus on water slides and smoky casinos and midnight floor shows. You’re more likely to be awakened by a boisterous bachelor party stumbling loudly back to their cabins at 3:00 am, and squealing kids calling out to their nonnas as they chase down the hallway a few hours later.
Just not my cup of tea, guys. But that’s just me. The Mean Girl. The Mean Girl in her jammies.
Having ranted about Costa and large cruise ships in general, there are still a number of reasons why Costa Cruises could be a wonderful choice for YOU – and I’m going to tell you more about that next time. Thanks for joining me! Ciao!