Fun and International Flair on Costa

| June 1, 2007

What do you get when you mix Italian enthusiasm and style with the fun atmosphere of a Carnival Cruise? You get Costa Cruise Lines. We recently cruised aboard the 3,400-passenger Costa Magica to Bermuda and thoroughly enjoyed the European atmosphere. This international feeling was evident not just to my husband and me, but also my children. I thought it was good for them to be exposed to kids from different cultures and have to try to communicate with them.

My five-year-old son particularly enjoyed the endless exuberance of the mostly Italian youth counselors in the kids' program. Although we cruised in late April when there weren't many teens aboard, my 13-year-old daughter still enjoyed the cruise, especially the Italian and Mediterranean-themed nights. And my husband, who lived in Italy for a few years when he was young, relished the wonderful pasta dishes served daily at lunch and dinner.

On our cruise, the passengers were about 75 % American and 25% European. According to the Costa Magica's Captain Claudio DeFenza, that percentage is flipped when the line sails in Europe during the summer. Although announcements on the public address systems and those made by the youth counselors in the kids' program take longer than on other cruises - they are made in English, German, Italian, Spanish and French - it is all part of the international experience that makes Costa different yet familiar enough for American families to feel comfortable.

Family Friendly Facilities and Activities At 100,000 tons, the Costa Magica is a big ship with lots of room. The outdoor deck area is especially spacious with many small deck areas at different levels, giving it a less sardine effect than some other lines. Family friendly activities outdoors include four swimming pools (one is adults only; two for all ages; and one splash pool for little ones); a fun and popular spiral waterslide; jungle gym with slide for little ones; and basketball court.

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Water fun for Kids   Top of the Slide   Spiral Water Slide

Indoors, my son's favorite room (after the youth room) was the games arcade with about a dozen different games. Near the buffet seating area were two foosball tables, often used by the teens, as well as ping pong tables. My teenaged-daughter Alex was thrilled that internet access was "only" 25 cents per minute compared to the usual 50 cents per minute on most other lines.

While not labeled as "family activities" per se, my family and I participated in and really enjoyed the many themed nights which are offered on each Costa cruise year round. My son Ethan got involved with Italian night by having his arm painted, playing bocce ball, and even convincing the Venetian mask makers to decorate his mask with a snake on it. There was also a zany pizza tossing contest which unfortunately was past Ethan's bedtime.

Alex and I had a lot of unexpected laughs at the Mediterranean night. Every half hour there were four shows offered which lasted about 15 minutes and focused on a cultural aspect of France, Greece, Spain and Turkey/Egypt. Guests traveled from show to show to get their "passport" stamped. Once you got all four stamps at "passport control" booths, you could redeem it for $100 off a future European or transatlantic cruise.

While Mediterranean night's Spanish cultural offering was a bit mellow with singers and dancers, we enjoyed the lively Greek dance lessons. The most amusing, though, were the Can-Can dancers of the French show, especially the "Can't Can't" dancers who were men dressed up as bumbling can-can dancers, lead by two lively, male staff members. Another funny show was the Egyptian and Turkish belly dancing lessons, once again with appearances by a male dressed up as a female belly dancer. All brave souls who participated in the belly dancing lessons received a fez hat (males) or beaded veil (women) as a memento.

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Venetian Masks   Face Painted   Italian Night Face Painting

The last night of the cruise was toga night, which is a Costa tradition. Not many people on our cruise, however, dressed in their togas to dinner. Part of this is because we only had three port days and the third port day ended right at dinner time on toga night. This was also the last night of the cruise and many of us were packing too. Hence we, like others, were too rushed getting on board, packing and getting dressed for early seating to have time to construct a toga from the sheet we were given. My daughter and husband, though, enjoyed the traditional passenger talent show that night which is presided over by Julius Caesar and a whole court of lively staff dressed up as Roman centurions.

Youth Program Details There is a large banner in the spacious, 3,000-square-foot youth room that set the tone for the youth program. It said "Welcome" on it in five different languages. The youth room was very colorful with a large video screen, crafts tables, games, and children's library filled with books in English and Italian.

The youth program is for children who are three to 17 years old and toilet trained. The "Mini Club" is for three to six year olds; "Maxi Club" for seven to 12 year olds; and teen club for those 13 to 17 years. All Costa ships have a dedicated youth room.

The youth program hours were definitely more European in nature than on other lines. Costa's were 9 a.m. to noon; 3 to 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. Most cruise lines' youth program hours are the same in the morning as Costa, but in the afternoon and evening they are 2 to 5 p.m. and 7 to 10 p.m. Unfortunately Ethan didn't attend the evening programming (even though he wanted to) since he's ready for bed at 9 p.m. when it just opened up again. I strongly recommend that the line consider changing the evening youth program hours so that it starts earlier and thus more young kids can participate. Twice a week (usually on formal nights) the counselors take the kids to dinner. On those nights, the youth program hours started much earlier so Ethan participated those nights. The hours of the youth program on the days that the children go to dinner with the counselors is: 9-12 noon; 3-4:15 p.m.; and 5:30 to 11 p.m.

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Splash Pool   Costa Squok Merchandise   Magica at a Distance

Every night, the youth counselors offer group babysitting in the youth room from 11:30 to 1:30. Unlike most other lines (except Disney Cruise Line), this is a free service. On port days in Europe, the youth program opens at 7 a.m. for parents who want to drop their kids off before heading out on sightseeing tours.

Youth Counselors and Activities After having observed the youth program on many occasions, I felt that the youth counselors really made it a great program. While there aren't quite the high tech offerings of activities that some lines have these days (no hands-on science programming nor environmental classes or drama workshops), the youth counselors made every activity festive. Five out of the six youth counselors were Italian and very exuberant. One counselor, Marco, reminded me of the main character from "Life is Beautiful" whereby everything he said and did was a game, which the kids loved. When youth counselors needed the children's attention in order to introduce a new activity and give instructions in different languages, they would lead the kids in shaking their hands and yelling "ohhhhh". When they walked the children to the buffet for afternoon snacks, the counselors would lead the kids chanting, "Squok, Squok, Squok" (the name of the youth program's mascot). Since we live in congested New Jersey, my son is used to loud environments and thus he got a kick out of the whole atmosphere. If your child is very quiet, though, he might find all the enthusiastic noise a bit overwhelming.

"It makes us feel good when we have children who change from not wanting to come to the kids' room at the beginning of the cruise to not wanting to leave," said Rossella Rizzo, lead youth counselor. She added that even if kids don't all speak the same language in the kids' club, they do have a way of understanding each other through gestures or games. Most youth counselors on Costa ships speak about three languages and between all of them, they usually know English, Italian, Spanish, French and German.

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Club Squok   Youth Counselor Marco   Squok in five language

The youth counselor who lead the teens was very lovely and made my daughter feel comfortable. However, our cruise had just a handful of teens and most didn't attend the teen activities so there wasn't much for Alex to do as far as the teen programming. A few times she met the youth counselor to do some crafts, but otherwise she mostly hung out with us and enjoyed the water slide, pools, themed nights, arcade and time ashore. While the youth program has many engaging activities, the teen program could use more creative activities that teens want to do so that when there is a full ship of children and teens - as there was in late March and early April - the young adults will want to participate.

The most popular and best executed youth program activities revolved around themes. For example, one theme was animals and was sponsored in conjunction with the "World Wildlife Federation." My son loved that his face was painted like a panda and enjoyed the animal guessing game, whereby a photo of an animal was projected on to the video screen. Another fun theme was carnival night which included counselors painting kids' faces, giving them clown noses to wear as well as Squok tatoos. The children had cards that were punched each time they participated in a carnival activity; at the end of the night, those with all the spaces punched were eligible to win a prize. Some of the carnival activities were spin the wheel, magnetic fishing, balloon animals and card tricks. On the last sea day, the youngsters were visited by the Captain. They children prepared questions ahead of time for him which he warmly answered during the visit. You could tell he had a young child, since he was very friendly and comfortable with the kids.

Throughout the cruise, children who participated in the youth program received "Squok" dollars. (Squok is the line's mascot and is half shark and half dolphin.) The kids save the Squok dollars and at the end of the cruise they get to "buy" Costa logo merchandise with their dollars. Ethan was pretty pleased that he came home with a wallet, baseball cap and CD holder.

Cruise Details: Service, Cabin and Food The service throughout the trip was good. Our room steward was extremely conscientious and the Italian maitre d's were very friendly and aimed to please. Captain DeFenza sets a good tone for the entire staff - he is the most visible and outgoing captain that I have met on a big cruise ship.

Our quad cabin had one queen-sized bed and a lower and upper berth. The mattresses were extremely hard as were the pillows. I mentioned this to our aim-to-please room steward and he put a softer foam pad over the mattresses, which helped immensely.

Food varied from excellent to lacking taste. The chefs excel at baking delicious European-styled breads, pizza, and unique Italian pasta dishes. While I usually don't order a pasta dish in addition to my main course, I did almost every night. There were two reasons for this: they were so great but also a few times my main course wasn't that flavorful and I instead filled up on the pasta. We loved the daily made-to-order pasta station at the lunch buffet too. The Mediterranean-style food at the buffet was wonderful. Some of the American style buffet choices, though, lacked luster and taste. We were also a little disappointed in the dessert selection -- we saw the same sheet cake with fruit on top served daily at the buffet.

We thoroughly enjoyed Club Vincenze, the alternative restaurant. At a cost of $20 per person, we dined on very tasty steaks, complimented by many well-prepared vegetable sides and a wonderful soufflé for dessert. The ship really doesn't publicize the alternative restaurant much and they should, since it boasted a classy atmosphere and fine food.

Costa is one of the few lines that still offer a midnight buffet nightly. Many of the buffets have themes and passengers especially raved about the Italian night buffet.

If you cruise with Costa in Europe, be aware that dinner times are much later than when Costa cruises in the Caribbean. In the Caribbean, dinner seatings are 5:45 and 8:30 p.m. while in Europe, they are 7 and 9 p.m.

Fleet and Itineraries Costa Cruises' fleet continues to grow by leaps and bounds. There are now 12 ships in the Costa fleet. The latest newcomer, Costa Serena, was just christened in Europe. This ship, along with the Costa Concordia, has a Grand Prix simulator on board so that adults and teens can feel like they're racing at high speeds in a European race car.

The Costa Magica is sailing Northern European and Baltic itineraries this summer. Next winter, she will cruise South America and head to Europe in the spring of 2008.

This fall, the Costa Fortuna and Mediterranea will be the two Costa ships offering Caribbean itineraries, not the Magica. Each year, Costa offers a "Kids Cruise Free" promotion for its Caribbean sailings. This is a great incentive to try a Costa family cruise. If you do, I think you and your kids will come back feeling like you had fun and that the world is a little smaller place. And if you enjoy the pizza, pastas and bread like we did, you'll also come back feeling a little fuller around the waist!

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