Friday, May 18, 2012

More serious reflections on our cruise

Saturday, May 5
We were warned beforehand to buy a cruise from an American company, a Dutch company, a British company—anything but an Italian company. But we had a good rate on a ship leaving from an Italian port not far from where we were living, so we went with Costa Cruises. We signed up in January, paying only $527 per person for our five-day itinerary. Mandatory tips would add another $45 per person.

Looking inside Vesuvius, we saw a wiff of smoke coming out of this
little dome.
At about $115 per day per person, we found this to be an incredible bargain. If we were taking a round-trip ferry between each of the five destinations, we would pay almost that much just for transportation—and that wouldn’t include the cabin, complete meals, entertainment and the free spa service we received. We would give our experience a 5-star rating.

This is our first cruise ever, so we find it hard to make comparisons, but before the trip, we read some online reviews about Costa, and while the Italians generally gave high ratings, many of the reviews written in English were not as enthusiastic. Critics were mostly people who had taken cruises with other lines and found Costa lacking in customer service and organization, though they still praised the food in the restaurants. Some said the Italian passengers and crew members were standoffish or even rude.

We are in our final day of the cruise, and we have absolutely no complaints, although I can see why some would say it is a drawback to be a foreigner aboard a ship in which the majority of the passengers are Italian. One of the reasons people take cruises is to meet like-minded travelers. That is not likely to happen if one can’t speak the main language of the ship, so we can see why English-speaking passengers might be disappointed in this respect. Even though we speak enough Italian to get by, it is an effort for us to maintain a casual conversation with Italians. We met a nice Italian mother/daughter pair on our tour of Vesuvius, but other than that, our conversations with Italian speakers have been minimal.

A long-necked turtle. That not its name, but I forgot its actual name.
Another drawback is that the on-shore excursions offered by Costa are more limited for non-Italians. For example, of the 10 excursions available in Napoli, only two were offered with English-speaking guides. We went to Vesuvius anyway, even though the guides only spoke Italian. We just count that as part of our daily language lessons. We took only one other official Costa excursion, to the tortoise park in Corsica. Our bus had guides who spoke English and German, and we discovered a lot about the 130 different species of tortoises and turtles in the park. We learned that some rare turtles sell for 20,000 euro, that the oldest turtle was 255 years old, and that turtles were around in the age of dinosaurs. We even heard two of them barking. 

So we peered into the smoking crater of Vesuvius, explored Malta with a taxi driving tour guide, hiked up the hill in Cagliari, Sardegna, to visit an archeological museum, and saw turtles and tortoises of every size and description in Corsica. But still my strongest impression of the cruise is that we were treated almost like royalty, especially in our nearly private restaurant.

Without paying any additional fee, we somehow were assigned a Samsara suite, which gave us free use of the spa, two free massages (or one massage and a facial for Lucy), a free body metabolism test and consultation, and use of the Samsara dining room. I would say that maybe only 10 other couples had Samsara privileges, so we sometimes had the whole dining room to ourselves, with three attendants waiting to put our napkins in our laps, make sure we had enough antipasto, refill our drinks or brush bread crumbs off the table (I’m not exaggerating). In any other restaurant, the four-course meals we received would have cost in excess of $60 each, I have no doubt. Of course, we had a window seat each time and could watch the cities, islands and other boats slip by.

We were lucky enough to sit right next to a very pleasant American couple, two of only four Americans we met the entire week. Orlando was actually born in Italy but added American to his citizenship about 30 years ago, and Joy is a mixture of Thai, Portuguese and American. We went with them in Malta and Cagliari, and I’d have to say we would have felt a little lonely if we hadn’t met them—one of the drawbacks of going on an Italian ship to mostly Italian ports.

Overall, I’d have to agree that Americans would be best served by going with a cruise line that caters to Americans, with all the tours in English and the majority of the passengers English-speaking. For us, though, it was a great opportunity to continue our study of the language and culture while being totally pampered for a bargain price. I wouldnt have minded if it lasted a couple more days.

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