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Baltic Cruise
Sept. 3-10, 2006

by George Smart and Eleanor Stell

Itinerary: Copenhagen, Tallinn, St. Petersburg, Helsinki, Stockholm, Copenhagen

Costa does Europe in five languages (English, French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Russian and Japanese) least expensively with the most interesting itineraries and convenient schedules. We enjoyed four previous cruises on Costa around the Med, including one last year on the Magica. The food was so bad we could not believe it. Bland, never hot, and sometimes unidentifiable. So this year we were not happy that the Magica was the only Baltic ship fitting our schedule. This is the last Baltic run of the season before the ship relocates to Savona for the fall. After enduring painfully uncomfortable economy seating on SAS Airlines to Copenhagen, when ship embarkation opened at 12 we were in our room asleep by 12:20.

Costa, like many other cruise lines, has changed the way tips work. In the “old days,” which were only a few years ago, each passenger received envelopes at journey’s end to tip their waiter, assistant waiter, cabin steward, and head waiter. Staff members went out of their way during the trip to chat, entertain, and delight passengers so as to increase tips. Each dinner had entertainment by the dining staff. Cabin stewards were extra attentive, always around your cabin, fixing or cleaning it up in nice or unusual ways.

Now the accountants are running the ship. Taking tips out of your control, Costa simply tacks on 6 Euro per person per day to your onboard bill. No longer dependent on impressing customers, the staff doesn’t need as much time to serve, and therefore Costa has cut back slightly on personnel. While you have a nominal waiter and assistant, they are simply order takers and servers, moving at lightning speed to move ’em on, head ’em out. The cabin steward is simply a housekeeper as in a hotel. You’ll get a chocolate on your pillow and a clean cabin but no towel animals or any other of the old kitschy gestures. Technically you can withhold tips upon checkout, but rarely does anyone do so. Not that the service is poor. The staff does a fine job efficiently. It is just that the charm is gone. Years ago the crew was almost all Italian. The accountant’s cost cutting has brought on massive numbers of Filipinos, Chinese, and Indonesians who work very hard and cost less than Europeans. Consequently, there’s more Italian influence in your local Olive Garden than on a Costa ship. Cruising “Italian Style”? Baloney.

The Magica’s food this year was still poorly prepared. We’re not food snobs, but there’s nothing elitist about wanting meals hot, tasty, and fresh. Every English-speaking passenger we spoke to, from Canada to NZ to UK to Australia, found the food primarily bland, tasteless, and lukewarm. One would think on a supposedly Italian ship the Italian food would be awesome. We’ve had better in an Olive Garden. Almost every entrée is frozen before cooking and you can taste it. Costa goes out of its way to inform you the frozen items have been prepared using techniques of highest quality. Well, Costa, it may be sanitary but if it doesn’t taste fresh, so what? We can’t figure out why a giant ship stopping in a major port nearly every day can’t serve more fresh food. Grilled fish dishes and fresh fruit are your best bets. Skip the awful pizza, tough steaks, overly sweet fruit soups, and over-frozen shellfish. Even getting to dinner can be a mystery. Smeralda Dining Room can’t be accessed from its own floors 3 and 4. One has to go to 2 or 5 and go up or down. Club Vincenza, the alternative restaurant on the 11th floor, serves up a better, hotter meal for 20 extra Euro per person. That’s a lot to pay for basic quality you should be getting in the main dining rooms. 

There are few good deals on board as those accountants have their hands constantly in your pocket. Spa services such as massage run $2 per minute or more. They will tell you ANYTHING to sell spa products, including pseudoscience about your “toxins” and skin care that would send any stateside dermatologist directly to jail for fraud. Hour long gym classes, formerly free in the “old days”, are now $15. The internet café is the worst rip-off at $35 per hour for 14-28k in this age of fat pipe wireless, which, by the way, isn’t available at all, even for a fee. Getting any drink other than water, coffee, or tea is 2-3 Euro. The buffet staff treat the free orange juice machines like prized champagne fountains, opening them only for a few hours a day and allowing only half a glass at a time so as to discourage use. Formerly free shuttles from the ship to town now cost $7 roundtrip with long lines for tickets. The casino offers house-heavy games such as blackjack, slots, and roulette – no poker. 

Tips: Buy 13 liters of plain or sparkling mineral water for $30. Into wine? Buy a multi-bottle package your first day on board. And since this was the last cruise of the Baltic season, everything Baltic goes on sale midweek for 75% off. Looking for a great make-out spot? Walk all the way forward on Deck 9 to a private panorama overlooking the bow.

Hey, enough about the boat. We were here for the scenery. This time of year, the weather could not have been nicer for touring. Tallinn, Estonia, is a classic medieval town recovering from Soviet occupation and a struggling economy. Russian St. Petersburg, formerly Leningrad, has the vast Hermitage museum and way too many tourists surging through. Helsinki is a typically clean, well-run, cloudy Scandinavian capital whose tour guides constantly remind you how much they still distrust the Russians. Despite being one of the most peaceful countries on earth, Finland still refuses to remove landmines on their Russian border. Stockholm is the most beautiful of the Baltic capitals, with canals and islands and rivers and grand architecture connected by the world’s best mass transit system. Skip the Costa-sponsored 83 Euro Ice Bar tour and do it yourself for 15 Euro. A very fun experience, drinking Absolut vodka at 20 or so degrees in provided ice parkas! (There a re also Ice Bars in London and Milan).

Having attained enough points from previous cruises, we reached “Pearl” status which is the highest past passenger level. Pearl gets a bottle of cheap prosecco, a little fruit basket, 10 Euros for the casino, a small model of the boat, an advance copy of the menu every night, and a cocktail party with 800 others. Yawn. This just doesn’t reflect benefits wanted by super-frequent passengers. Note to Costa accountants--put terry cloth robes in the room, provide free internet, private kitchen tours, and free soft drinks for equally inexpensive and much more appreciated perks!

Finally, Italian and Spanish women will routinely cut in front of you on tours or to exit the ship. Tell them nicely to go to the back of the line. Despite the fact they will pretend not to understand, repeat it and they will comply. At buffets, it is an accepted practice once you hit the tray line to dart in and out, unlike waiting your turn like you learned in grade school. If you’re an obese North American woman, leave those shorts in the cabin. You’ll be helping international relations immensely. If you don’t like any of the food, just politely set it aside. Barking criticism at the dining staff is embarrassing for everyone. They really can’t help how lousy the food is. Blame the accountants. 

Bottom line: Take Princess or Royal Caribbean to the Baltic. They will cost more and take a few more days, but you’ll be glad you did! 

Note from the authors: If you found this review useful, please let us know. Happy cruising--see all our cruise reviews at

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