November 14-21, 2004
By George and Eleanor
Itinerary: Venice, Bari, Olympia/Katakolon, Izmir/Ephesus, Istanbul, Dubrovnik,
Costa Mediterranea offers a spotless ship, reasonably sized cabins, and lots to do -- in any of five languages, English, French, Italian, German, and Spanish. For true pampering, choose another line like Princess or Celebrity. But for getting around inexpensively and comfortably to exotic places, Costa is best. As the largest cruise line in Europe, their ships go to unusual locations like Turkey, Malta, Egypt, Cyprus, and Tunisia. You can bet they'll be first to Libya when it opens up.
November, the end of the cruise season, is the best time to go. You'll risk rain but you avoid summer highs of over 120F in Turkey. There are no crowds (except in Istanbul, where there are always crowds) and fares are low. This cruise had only 1700 aboard out of a possible 2200: 86 people from the US and 250 English-speaking overall. Service is attentive, friendly, and responsive. The Captain is a gracious host, and unlike other ships which have dropped this maritime tradition, you can have your picture taken with him.
Ports: Izmir offers the ancient ruins of Ephesus, the resting place of John the Apostle, and the "house" of the Virgin Mary. I'm all for shrines, but the only thing connecting this particular structure to Mary is a woman's vision from the 1800's. However, the site is indeed quite serene with nuns chanting as they wave the crowds through the tiny building. Olympia is the site of the original Olympics, especially meaningful if you are into track and field. The site of tourists taking a little jog around the ancient track is undeniably moving. Dubrovnik is a classic fortress town, much like Rhodes in Greece and Carcassonne in France, with a gorgeous, enchanting view of the Adriatic. Once inside the city walls, go to the end of the central street, turn right, go up the stairs, turn left, and find the "Cold Drinks, Beautiful View" bar outside the castle wall for a truly breathtaking vista. Bari is a nice little port town but not worth an excursion, many said. Costa stops there mainly to take on passengers from southern Italy. Istanbul, straddling Asia and Europe with 15 million people, is a must-see for its history, mosques, bazaars, and unbelievable traffic. The Sultan's Palace, Topkapi, has a Treasury showing extraordinarily large diamonds and emeralds (70-80 carats) plus alleged body parts of the prophet Mohammed, creator of Islam. You're taking this on faith, as 1400 years of trading in alleged relics makes such items suspect. As an example, all the pieces of wood said to be bits of the True Cross would probably fill a tractor-trailer today.
On the Ship: As widely reported, the cabins are great but the beds are hard and the food is just OK. Remember, you're here for the ports. Just keep chanting this over and over. I'm here for the ports. I'm here for the ports. Good.
1. Cabins: Buy at the low end of the cabin class. For example, the lowest price balcony is the same size as the highest price balcony and offers no additional amenities. Although we heard of no one getting sick, we suspect the onboard water was somehow less than pure. Our second clue was the brown water in the cabin sink which mysteriously went away when the steward was called. Our first clue was low-level indigestion which went away when we switched to bottled water and Cokes.
2. Food and Drink: Food options other than main dining are limited. The 23 Euro per person menu at Club Medusa, the specialty restaurant, is delicious and well-prepared. Try the black venus rice and the
crème brulle. The buffet is closed for dinner. Pizza is open erratic hours 11am-130am. Nothing is open 24 hours except for room service, but they stop answering their phone around 2am. A candy bar from the cabin fridge runs $3.50. Costa sells a "Boy's and Girls Soda Card," 20 soft drinks for 36 Euro. Costa has no problem letting adults use the children's version, saving about 16 Euro versus paying for soft drinks at the bar. The 46 Euro Honeymooner's Card (no proof necessary) is a good deal, too, and includes prosecco, soft drinks, and some alcoholic drinks.
3. Tech: Internet prices are steep at 65 cents per minute on a slow connection. Save by finding an internet cafe in port for 2 Euros per hour. Phones, as always at sea, are extremely expensive at $8 a minute plus an $8 setup fee. Calls from a portside Internet cafe run only 15-30 cents a minute. Or, bring your GSM-enabled cell and chat like crazy the entire trip -- if your calling plan allows it cheaply from Europe.
4. Spa: Avoid the bad spa deals like $65 off after buying three $130 services. Even though the staff knows when things go on sale, they won't tell you until the day before. The industry standard 20% discount while in port was sometimes in effect, often not. If the spa traffic is slow, the best deals will be on the last three days. The gym is free and full of excellent workout machines. The five-head spa showers are fantastic and much better than what's in your room. The hair salon is expensive, $32 for men, much much more for women.
5. Procedures: Costa gives you something very official-looking called a landing card for re-entry from Turkish ports. This is just a silly formality. No official from either Turkey or Costa checks for it, and the cards end up in a pile of trash by the gangway. If you get Turkish or Croatian currency while off the ship, you're stuck with it as Costa does exchange these currencies This isn't a problem, however, as Turkish and Croatian shops gladly take Euros. Be sure to haggle in Turkey. They expect it, and if you don't then plan to pay 2-3 times more than the item is worth. Coming back to Italy, smile to yourself during the "extensive" Italian immigration/customs process. It's just one guy asking if you bought any Turkish rugs (just say no)!
6. Getting There: Costa's airport buses at $15 per person are cheaper than a taxi for two people. For four people, get a cab to the port for 35 Euro. Boarding starts at 1-130pm for VIP's and
suite holders, 2pm for everyone else. If you're planning to arrive the night before the cruise, save the hassle of schlepping your luggage all over Venice by staying near the Piazza Roma bus depot, where a free Costa shuttle will take you to the boat on embarkation day starting at 11am. The Hotel Airone is an exceptional value at 65 Euros per night including breakfast. To see Venice cheap, get the one-day 10 Euro tourist pass for unlimited use of the vaporetti (like subway cars but on water) which go all over including the surrounding islands of Burano, Murano, and Lido, among others. Finally, as it is easy to miss when travel planning, Delta has a direct flight to Venice every day from JFK, the only direct flight on a US carrier.
7. Odds and Ends: There's a charming chapel called Capella hidden away in the front of deck 4. Since there's no direct access from deck 4, follow the hall to the left of the Osiris Theatre on Deck 3, then go up the stairs and turn left. Catch Costa favorite Alfred Nocera's "Instant Fashion" for the most original entertainment you'll ever see on a ship - a hit with both men and women. Robes are no longer available except in suites -- even at the spa.
For our other cruise reviews, see www.strategicdevelopment.com/travel
George and Eleanor