Costa who? That’s the reaction I received when I told friends that I was taking a Caribbean cruise aboard Costa Cruises‘ Costa Mediterranea. I had never sailed Costa before and was looking forward to my seven-day Western Caribbean cruise in early January. While Costa is Europe’s biggest cruise line, it is not well known in North America. That’s about to change, however, now that Costa has positioned three of its 12 ships in Caribbean waters for the winter season.

There is no mistaking a Costa ship; they are easily identified by their signature yellow smokestacks, each sporting a giant blue “C.” Once I got in the terminal, I noticed something else different: All the announcements were made in five languages (English, Italian, French, German and Spanish). Clearly, this was going to be a cosmopolitan cruise. Unfortunately, embarkation was a mess and led to some people shouting about the delays to get on board. Several incidents led to the delay, including a late transition of the ship from Miami to Fort Lauderdale and a bomb scare involving a Royal Caribbean ship in Miami. It made for a hectic start.

Palazzo at sea

Once aboard the ship, it was easy to forget the embarkation circus. Mediterranea’s “wow factor” is high, especially in the spectacular atrium, designed by Maschera d’Argento, which rises 10 decks to huge skylights. This is the heart of the ship and a hub of activity encompassing bars, a restaurant and the information and tour desks. High above the ground, bronze sculptures of dancers dressed in old-century costumes present some mysterious revelry in suspended animation. Looking up, it’s like witnessing a surreal masquerade party.

Carrying 2,114 passengers, the 86,000-ton Costa Mediterranea has a layout similar to the Spirit-class vessels of Costa’s parent company Carnival Cruise Lines, but there is no mistaking this ship’s Italian heritage. Its unique personality, which is inspired by 17th- and 18th-century Italian palazzi, is given a vivid contemporary flair courtesy of ship architect Joe Farcus.
While some of the décor is over-the-top, the ambiance remains very traditional. All over the ship you will find interesting paintings, elements of baroque architecture and unusual sculptures; together they add up to a lush, very European elegance. The exquisite glass lighting fixtures crafted by artisans in Venice’s Murano glass factories are special standouts. One twist is the Asian-themed Roero Bar and Oriental Lounge, which seems out of place — until you notice its large Italian water fountain. Despite its elaborately Old World theme, Mediterranea has all of the latest big-ship amenities, including plenty of trendy shops and an Internet cafe.

Staterooms

The focus on Mediterranea is on balcony staterooms; of the 1,057 staterooms, 742 have balconies. Standard balcony and ocean-view cabins are 210 square feet; more spacious digs can be had in one of the ship’s 58 suites, which range from 352 square feet all the way up to 650 square feet. The smaller inside cabins are 160 square feet, and eight cabins (in several categories) are handicap-accessible.

All cabins have a tasteful, golden-hued décor and are outfitted with twin beds that convert to a queen, TV, telephone, hair dryer, safe, mini-fridge, closet and bathroom with shower. Suites have a private sitting area, two TVs, a marble bathroom with regular or whirlpool tub, plush bathrobes and slippers, and butler service. “Grand Suites,” in the back of the ship, have the most amazing wraparound balconies and come equipped with plush-cushioned teak loungers and chairs.

Before I set sail, I was warned that Costa’s beds are very hard. Fortunately, Mediterranea had been outfitted with brand-new mattresses just the month before, and while mine was not the kind of super-plush mattress you get on other cruise lines touting new bedding, it was very comfortable. All Costa ships will be outfitted with these new mattresses by the end of the year.

One of the neat things about the staterooms is that they have videos about the ship for your viewing enjoyment. One offered a look behind the scenes with various crew members; another showed the ship being built from start to finish. I learned interesting factoids about the Mediterranea. For example, it has 4,300 loud speakers, 220 miles of piping, 1200 miles of cable, and 40,000 lights. Who knew?

Dinner and a pasta show

In addition to the half dozen bars and lounges on board, the ship has three restaurants. The ship’s main dining venue is the visually stunning, two-level Ristorante degli Argentieri, which takes its inspiration from a grand 18th-century palace. There is open seating at breakfast and lunch, and assigned seating (generally at tables of four or eight, in two shifts) at dinner. I was pleasantly surprised to see a large number of tables for two, which is romantico for couples.

The dinner menus play up Italian fare, with a different region of Italy highlighted each night, and they are accompanied by an excellent selection of wines. As in Italy, a perfectly prepared pasta course is offered before the entree. On my sailing, entrees ranged from excellent to just OK. One evening I had a terrific grilled halibut fillet, but on another night I had overcooked snapper. I found several soups and some appetizers to be on the salty side, but the desserts were scrumptious and creative, and the gelato was to die for. The service was unfailingly excellent: exceptionally prompt, efficient, friendly and courteous.

Perla del Lago, the ship’s casual buffet restaurant, is broken into several serving stations, which are sometimes devoted to different ethnic cuisines; it also houses a pizzeria, pasta station and ice-cream machines. Other more casual venues include two poolside grills offering hot dogs, hamburgers and the like.

Club Medusa, the ship’s $20-per-person, alternative specialty restaurant, was my personal favorite. The two-story venue, located on Deck 10, overlooks the atrium and is accessible by a glass spiral staircase that angles out into the atrium. I found the entrees excellent and well worth the price. Late night, the area converts into a cigar bar.

If you need a big bedtime snack, then you’re on the right ship, for Costa is one of the few cruise lines to still offer a midnight buffet. Each night presents a different theme, and one night you get the over-the-top “Buffet Magnifico,” which is just that.

Spa and fitness offerings

After eating pasta and midnight buffets for a couple of days, you will definitely need to work out. Joggers and walkers can head to the Deck 12 jogging track, while those who prefer to pump iron can head to the Olympia Gym at the front of the ship. This is one of the nicest shipboard gyms I’ve seen. The large, multi-level facility offers sea views from every piece of equipment. Adjacent to the gym is a glass-enclosed solarium for tanning, as well as a whirlpool.

The Venus Spa and beauty salon are operated by Steiner and offer the usual spa fare. There are separate saunas and steam rooms for ladies and men, and they have sea views. The spa also has many private treatment rooms.

Beer, bellies and boobs

It goes without saying that “Cruising Italian Style” features plenty of sun, fun and crazy activities. Ordinarily, Costa’s Caribbean itineraries draw mostly American travelers, but for some reason more than half the passengers on my sailing were European, and there were large groups of Germans and Italians. The mix of nationalities made for some lively fun.

The big entertainment hits were the passenger-participation spectacles facilitated by special staff called “animators,” who got the party started. On the first sea day, there was a “Belly Flop” contest in which men dressed in old-fashioned striped “unitard” bathing suits took the plunge. A male animator dressed as Heidi was the master of ceremonies, urging those with the biggest bellies to make a big splash. Heidi-man later led a well-choreographed “sausage parade” around the pool deck to get the “Sausage & Beer Festival” going. This festival was followed by a pasta festival, of course.

After all the sausage, beer and pasta eating, you can imagine the preferred activity was the lounge chair flop around one of Mediterranea’s three pools — one of which has a retractable dome. The dome wasn’t the only thing that retracted — so did the European ladies’ swimsuit tops, which got the heave-ho so the ladies could tan their personal domes. For more water sport, there is a huge winding slide on Deck 11, but it was open only two hours a day (weather permitting). There weren’t many kids on board and I never saw it being used.

The ship does provide for children with such events and activities as the “Squok Club.” Experienced kid-cruisers will find this space disappointing, because it is small and rather isolated, but it will serve well enough for children under 8. Programming is geared to three different age groups (ages 3- 5, 7-12, and 13-17) and varies with the number of kids on board and their ages.

Evening entertainment is presented in the three-tiered Osiris Theater, whose decoration leaned heavily on pyramids and pharaohs. I didn’t get how this décor suited an Italian-themed ship until a crew member explained that the motif was developed from murals decorating a Roman palace built in the 1400s. Acts ranged from “Show time!” extravaganzas to more intimate performances. The most popular show during my sailing was two performers from the Moscow Circus, whose acrobatics were astonishing considering the ship was buffeted by gale-force winds during their performance. Various lounge acts played during the evenings, and while the ship’s disco didn’t get moving until the wee hours, the casino was always hopping.

Toga, toga, toga

The highlights of my Mediterranea cruise were the various theme nights, including “Fiesta Italiana,” an evening based on a traditional Italian street festival that included bocce games, tarantella dance lessons and Venetian mask making. The last evening of the cruise was memorable for its Roman bacchanal and toga party — a Costa tradition. About half the passengers donned togas (created from sheets with directions supplied by the ship). Some returning Costa cruisers went all-out, even bringing togas and accessories from home. Some of the toga stylings were a bit crazy, especially those that featured the garment worn like a diaper. Regrettably, some inebriated passengers wore only underwear under their togas despite the windy conditions on deck, giving a whole new meaning to the expression “three sheets to the wind.”

You could say that cruising on the Costa Mediterranea is like visiting all of Italy on one ship. It doesn’t have a lot of trendy cruise features, but it has an international passenger list, silly toga parties and festivals, and savory Mediterranean cuisine. Personally, I loved it. In fact, I found “Cruising Italian Style” downright magnifico.

Sound off! Do you have a comment, an idea, a complaint or a problem for Anita to solve? Send her an e-mail and you might find yourself in her next column.