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Copyright © 1995-2003 
Linda Coffman


Costa Atlantica
December 16, 2001
Eastern Caribbean sailing

Uniquely The Same
By Jim MacQueen


The important reason to write about the CostaAtlantica is that by doing so, I am also writing about Carnival Cruise Lines' Spirit, Pride and Legend which were also built (or are being built) by Kvaerner Shipyards at 88,500 tons. But the important reason to write about the CostaAtlantica is that she is operated by Carnival subsidiary Costa Cruise Lines, which makes sailing on her a unique experience. Uniquely different, uniquely the same, these ships are a lesson in market positioning.

It's not often I take two cruises back to back. I am in the business of organizing events, sports tournaments, and meetings. Occasionally, travel becomes a component of my business planning, and when the opportunity came to learn more about organizing group tours and meetings on a cruise ship (especially since I was already in Florida coming off a vacation cruise on another line, and thus saved an airfare), the decision to go was a no-brainer. I simply transferred from Miami on Saturday, stayed overnight at the Hyatt Pier 66 resort in Ft. Lauderdale, got treated to the Christmas boat parade and a dockside examination of the Forbes yacht Highlander, and then boarded the CostaAtlantica on Sunday.

A few words about Costa and some perceived changes are in order. Costa Cruise Lines is one of the oldest and most popular lines in the world, founded in Italy in 1854 by Giacomo Costa, with a long record of freight and passenger carriage. In fact, many of the Costa's early cruise ships were actually converted freighters and ferries. When cruising caught on in the '70s and '80s, Costa made its reputation with the slogan, "Cruising Italian Style". This was more than a motto. It was a way of life on the sea and approach to every aspect of the product that clearly differentiated Costa from all other lines. It was certainly right for the European market. Costa was and still is the most popular cruise line in Europe. Several years ago, the Carnival Corporation acquired a majority interest in the company, but has continued to allow Costa to operate as a totally separate brand, a strategy also employed with other Carnival holdings such as Holland America and Cunard. Today, while a cruise on a Costa ship will certainly be different from a cruise on any other ship in the Carnival fleet, and unique from any other popular cruise line, the influence of Carnival on several aspects of the cruise experience is unmistakable, and not always for the better.

That having been said, it is also true that not all passengers, particularly those from North America, have always appreciated the uniqueness of the Costa experience. In fact, some Costa representatives have gone so far as to say that the line is not the best choice for first-time cruisers because the experience is atypical in so many ways… a large percentage of other nationalities, more smokers, a preponderance of Italian dishes on the menu, a bit more formal dress code, naked children around the pools, less on-board production shows, more on-board lounges and lounge acts, announcements in at least five different languages, an Italian festival theme night and a Roman bacchanal toga party night, etc. This European flavor is either a plus or a minus in the US market.

Interestingly, at least on this particular cruise on the CostaAtlantica, round-trip from Ft. Lauderdale to eastern Caribbean ports, I thought I could perceive a certain amount of Carnival creeping in. Perhaps it is normal for the line to adjust the product to the US and Canadian winter markets, or perhaps this is just the result of economies of scale in purchasing and training. It's really rather hard to judge. For instance, condiments such as sugar, jams, sauces and such still come in packages packed by the line's European suppliers. If there are attempts at economy of scale in purchasing food ingredients and products, the passenger does not see them in these items, so the European flavor and texture remain. On the other hand, the embarkation procedure in Ft. Lauderdale is straight out of the Carnival operations manual for Miami, Tampa, and other ports. A relatively quick and painless (very short lines when I arrived) check-in procedure at a main desk inside the terminal building is followed by a rather long wait in an upstairs lounge as groups of 150 or so are boarded by a numbering process. While the food in the dining room is certainly more Mediterranean in preparation, ingredients, presentation, and dining room operations are now much like Carnival… announcements, dancing waiters and busboys, little reminders about the tipping process. The bottom line seems to be that Costa and Carnival are now uniquely the same, different in the really obvious ways (party life and Vegas glitz vs. European sophistication and elegance) yet the same in many of the underlying details.

And this is certainly going to be the same for anyone who attempts to compare the CostaAtlantica to her Carnival sisters. They may be the same size and their layouts may be very similar. They may have the same interior designer in the ubiquitous Joe Farcus. They may even all have water slides! But they are going to come across to anyone as very different, all the way from the CostaAtlantica's three blue stacks compared to the winged stacks on the Carnival ships, to the details in the furniture and carpeting used in each. The Murano hand-blown glassware in the alcoves on every landing of every Atlantica stairwell is as different from the artwork on the Carnival ships as the tile is different from the neon.

The first thing you notice about the CostaAtlantica when you begin to explore is just how long this ship is at 960 feet. Another interesting feature is that by a rather unique way of designing the main showroom, the Caruso Theatre, there are actually three decks on which it is possible to completely circumnavigate the vessel. The Caruso is not pushed all the way into the bow, but rather, set back a bit so that on the top of the three levels, the chapel, arcade and children's areas are all placed BEHIND the stage. This also allows for a passage behind the theatre on the second level on the La Strada Deck. This (Deck 3) then becomes the official "promenade" deck on the liner. All the decks have interesting names with Roman derivations, although there are two unexplained exceptions in the "Clowns" and "Fred & Ginger" decks.

The upper decks 10 and 11 are more or less sun and sports decks, with walking track, access to the indoor gym and spa, a basketball court, water slide, etc. One nice thing about the ship is that virtually every roof space can be accessed from a deck, so there are number of small, more private patios and sun areas on top. One even is equipped with two powerful telescopes! The pools are on Deck 9 (Ginger & Fred… oh, I get it… those are the NAMES of the pools!) and one of them can be covered by a solarium roof in rainy weather. The posh Club Atlantica (lounge by day, alternative dining restaurant by night) can be reached from Decks 10 and 11, or more spectacularly by taking a glass stairway from Deck 9. Be careful of this staircase. At night, you are hanging out over the ship's atrium, and it almost seems you have no visible means of support. Several passengers reported they simply were not able to climb those stairs at night without a serious case of vertigo, and I can report that my own bifocals caused me to be extra careful on my one and only climb down.

Decks 8 through 4 hold most of the cabins, and approximately 80% of the cabins on all the ships in this class are outside cabins with a verandah. This is very well designed in the respect that there are three elevator/stair stacks nicely positioned and reaching all the decks, plus another far forward stair stack. Because you can walk from bow to stern on all the cabin decks, and cross from port to starboard at all the stair stacks and at the stern, this is a very easy vessel to get around.

The main public decks 2 and 3 can also be walked from bow to stern, and there are no unusual detours to reach any of the public rooms. The design is very similar to most Farcus ships with the starboard side used as a long walkway along which all the shops and lounges are positioned to port. The three-level theatre is in the front, and the main two-level Tiziano Restaurant in the back. Outside the theatre is the Garden Terrace, which boasts a very large card room. This is another "European" feature of the Costa product as European cruisers travel with playing cards and a large number of board games, and on sea days, it is actually hard to find tables in this area.

Just a little further back is the Café Florian. Personally, I think this is one of the most elegant yet underused spaces I've seen on a cruise ship. The lounge is modeled after the famous Café Florian in Venice, with a number of smaller "rooms" divided from the main space, and the seats and chairs finished in red velvet. There is a full-service bar, but the main offering is coffee and espresso in all its variations. A string duet plays in the evening, so this a great place to take after dinner drinks or your evening coffee. An area is also set aside as a cigar and brandy lounge late at night. Although the Atlantica is so large one never feels crowded and there seem to be many quiet spots, I personally felt the Florian did not get the traffic it deserved the week I was on board.

From this café, you can take the curved walkway aft through the various shops of Via Della Spiga, then passing through the atrium, arrive in the conference area, called the Paparazzi Lounge and meeting rooms, and then the upper level of the restaurant. Go down one deck, and you are at the main entrance of the Tiziano dining room. Down one more floor, and you are in Dante's Disco, decorated with some of the most spectacular pieces of glass artwork on the ship. Don't miss them even if dancing is not your thing.

Back up to Deck 2, appropriately also called "La Dolce Vita" (the good life) because on a Costa ship, this deck really is the center of activities. There are a number of bars and lounges here… the Via Veneto just outside the dining room, the La Dolce Vita Bar in the Atrium, the Casino Lounge inside the casino, and Piazza Madame Butterfly which serves as both a lounge and meeting room. It is located directly under the Café Florian, and there is a spectacular grand staircase between the two rooms. Further forward and under the Caruso Theatre is the Coral Lounge with its undersea theme. If you can't find a place to get a martini on the CostaAtlantica, you probably don't drink them anyway!

A word or two about the "ride" of this ship is in order. A number of experienced cruisers commented on it, and there have been comments from Carnival Spirit passengers, which are similar. Simply put, the CostaAtlantica seems have a bow to stern pitch when under way. It is not unpleasant, although it is very noticeable in the forward parts of the ship, but it is unusual. When on open decks, you can see the horizon rise and fall in much the same way you would see it on a much smaller sailing ship. It's not going to make you seasick unless you are prone to mal de mer in the first place, but in these days of stabilized cruise ships, its odd. Now, one thing that may explain or affect this ride is the fact that the CostaAtlantica made a flat out run from Ft. Lauderdale to San Juan the first 18 hours out of port. That's pretty much top speed running at just about 24 knots. The seas were calm, but perhaps the ship's stabilizers tend to "plane" the currents, accounting for the rise and fall of the bow. Or maybe not; I'm no ship engineer.

In summary, the CostaAtlantica made a very nice movable hotel over this seven-day trip. She was as different from the first week as were the ports. I took an inside stateroom which was more than adequate for one person. I had plenty of unused drawer and closet space, and if my wife had stayed with me, all the things we had on the other cruise would have fit into this room too. There was nothing particularly special, either or good or bad, about the cabin, and I would rank it as well designed, functional and pleasant. The service was particularly good, and on a couple of days when I was being bothered by a minor oral infection, the cabin steward was helpful and understanding.

The trip itinerary is really not very special on the CostaAtlantica's eastern Caribbean swing, although perhaps the western route is more adventurous, calling as it does in a couple of ports off the beaten track. For one thing, the eastern trip starts off with that long sail to Puerto Rico, getting in mid to late afternoon. This means you really don't get a chance to see much of San Juan. If you've been there before, no big deal, but if you wanted to see the old city, this schedule doesn't work. However, if you, like me, try to take some meals off the ship for the sake of variety and local flavor, it is nice to get an opportunity to have dinner instead of lunch in a port city. Since the ship docks right downtown, within walking distance of several hotels and restaurants, the late arrival and early morning departure worked out for many passengers.

Next up, comes a day in St. Thomas. The US Virgin Islands are best for beaches and shopping. A stop here doubles your duty-free allowance. And of course there are the Magens Bay and Coki beaches. Only a few ships call at Catalina Island, the de facto private island stop for Costa. It offers the opportunity to also visit the Dominican Republic and Casa de Campo, the Oscar de la Renta private resort which features three golf courses (one by Pete Dye), an equestrian center and Altos de Chavon, an artistic center designed as a 16th century Mediterranean village overlooking the Chavon River on which much of Apocalypse Now was filmed. Of course, the Dominican Republic is a dictatorship, so don't expect to be allowed to see the real country. Benevolent dictatorships do not have zits.

After another day at sea, the final stop is Nassau. This used to be one of my favorites, but since the original Straw Market burned down, the natives seem restless and much more pushy. Frankly, if you've been to Las Vegas, there are much more spectacular theme casinos than Atlantis located in the desert city. It sort of makes the day there seem long, and maybe even a waste of time. I'm not quite sure how they get all those people on those 3- and 4-day cruises anymore with Nassau as their main destination. I suppose I'm missing something.

If this brief description of the stops has given you the impression there is more to do ON the CostaAtlantica than OFF it (at least on the Eastern swing), then you get my point. This ship has three large outdoor pools and more deck space than a full compliment of passengers can use. It has the biggest exercise and training room I have personally seen at sea, with every sort of computerized treadmill and bike you've ever dreamed of, and all the weight training you can stand. With spas and sophisticated beauty parlors and lounges everywhere, there is little reason to get off. Although I personally thought the shows were not up the standards found on lines like Norwegian and Royal Caribbean, the nightlife is exceptional in its own way. Rather than concentrating on signing and dancing, the staff has developed a tradition of theme nights that in many ways are more entertaining, and certainly a refreshing change. From Caribbean night around the pool to Italian night in the atrium, there are plenty of activities on the CostaAtlantica you won't find on another cruise line. And you sure won't find a toga party! There must have been a lot of past Costa cruisers on this trip if the number of custom-made togas that appeared the last night were anything to judge by.

There was, in my opinion, a downside to "Cruising Italian Style". Maybe it's just the Carnival influence creeping in again, but the food was simply nothing to write home about. I think you expect that an Italian cruise line will have that part down pat, but in fact (and this comes from someone with significant restaurant dining experience) even the Italian dishes were more often misses than hits. As a matter of fact, there are really a number of very negative things I can report about the dining experience. On the first formal night, for instance, the CostaAtlantica completely closed the buffet line. This means that anyone choosing not to dress up for the captain's reception, or who was feeling a little under the weather, could not get anything to eat except through room service. And the room service offerings give a new definition to "limited".

On the first night out, about the only offering worth trying was prime rib. On an Italian ship? It was what you would expect… not the world's finest prime rib. Thankfully, the meals got better from there, but they never reached the level of better than the rubber chicken banquet circuit. Many of the passengers even found things to complain about in the pasta offerings, and certainly creative presentation was not part of the program. About all I can say positively is that there were always enough choices on the menu so that something sounded better than it turned out to be, and there was always enough food so that no one went hungry if they could get to the dining room. Frankly, I think Carnival actually does a better job!

The dining room service was pure Carnival. The same theme nights, the same dancing waiters and recorded music, the same headwaiters working the room for tips, even the same baked Alaska (although an Italian version which was supposed to be Vesuvius, I guess). My waiter did a pretty good job, particularly making up for the faults of a lazy busboy. The busboy should be fired. Good thing the tips were prepaid by the group sponsoring the clinic.

On the final night, rather than be a lonely single toga-wearer, I tried out the Club Atlantica alternative dining room. Here, at last, I found some classic Italian cooking worth writing a little about. Here was a wonderful salmon appetizer with pear sauce, some excellent fish, and a creative pasta interlude. The sommelier even went out of her way to find me a good half-bottle of classic Chianti. As is the case with most alternative dining spots on cruise ships today, there is a cover charge, which in reality is just the tip for the service staff in this room (who would not be included in your regular tips otherwise). I wish more people understood this as too many people are complaining about paying extra for some meals. If they could get it that this is a service charge, maybe they should think about tipping the dining room staff a little less for the nights they don't go to the regular dining room.

That particular set of criticisms aside, I think this class of ship is going to be the "next thing" for Carnival. While it might seem that the last thing they need is a class of ships which are 20% larger than the Fantasy class which makes up the majority of the fleet, the fact is that the Spirit class which includes the CostaAtlantica, is in many ways very right for the marketplace. These ships offer a better passenger space ratio and more amenities, yet can operate in the same ports of call. I think it was a very wise decision to place one of these ships with Costa, because it gives the Carnival Corporation the kind of niche fulfillment necessary to compete in a market that may have more berths than it needs. Finally, I think that overall the CostaAtlantica experience is a very good one, and that anyone serious about cruising as a hobby or main recreational activity should give it a try.


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