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Archive for February, 2007


Costa Mediterranea: Magnifico

Posted by Anita Dunham-Potter On February - 26 - 2007

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.

Filled Under Reviews

How to pack for a cruise

Posted by Anita Dunham-Potter On February - 19 - 2007

Cruise packing can easily go wrong, and the biggest mistake is overpacking. I know this from personal experience, because I have spent lots of time sitting atop an overstuffed suitcase battling to zip it closed.

Now that the airlines have imposed a 50-pound limit on suitcases, I pack much more judiciously. And while it is true that your cruise wardrobe depends less on your taste than your cruise line, I do have some observations and packing advice that will apply to most every sailing.

Customs are changing

Many passengers look forward to dressing up in the evening; others truly dread it. But these days you don’t have to fashion yourself after the latest issue of Vogue to enjoy cruising. Dress codes have loosened up along with dining options — all in response to the changing tastes of the many passengers who prefer a more relaxed shipboard atmosphere. For example, Norwegian Cruise Line’s “Freestyle Cruising” policy calls for “resort casual” attire; Windstar Cruises has also gone over to resort casual.

However, formal dress standards are enforced on such luxury cruise lines as Crystal Cruises, Cunard, Regent Seven Seas Cruises, Seabourn Cruise Line and Silversea Cruises. On Cunard’s Queen Mary 2 trans-Atlantic crossings, formal attire is expected on three of the six evenings at sea. Some luxury lines do waive formal dress requirements for some itineraries. On a recent Alaska sailing with Regent Seven Seas, for example, I found there were no formal nights, only “country club casual” evenings. Conversely, some passengers on casual cruises like to indulge in swanky attire on occasion. Attend Formal Night on a Carnival ship, and you’ll see passengers decked out in ball gowns and diamonds alongside those wearing T-shirts and spandex.

With attire running the gamut from L.L. Bean to Neiman Marcus, it can be hard to know what to pack. But don’t fret. Your cruise line will send you information spelling out its dress policy for your cruise. The one thing you really must keep in mind is that cruise cabins are very small, so you have to pack smart.

Here are some packing tips that will keep you looking fresh — and keep you out of the ship’s laundry room, too.

Day wear

For warm-weather cruises, bring quality swimwear, as you’re likely to spend a lot of time in or around the pool. For women, sarongs, coverups and sundresses are necessary, since most cruise lines require that you wear more than a swimsuit in the dining rooms.

If the ship holds an event requiring “smart casual” wear, you’ll be fine in dress shorts, a skirt, or trousers along with a short-sleeved shirt or polo shirt. The rest of the time you can dress pretty much as you like. Useful accessories include flat shoes with a good grip for wet decks, sunglasses and a sun hat.

If you are going on an Alaska cruise or other outdoor adventure, bring hiking shoes and rugged clothes for the shore excursions. The key to an Alaska cruise is to dress in layers since the temperature can go from cold to hot very quickly.

Evening wear

Most cruises will have one or two formal evenings a week. Men are expected to wear a dark suit or tuxedo; women should wear an evening dress (long or short) or a dressy pantsuit. Men can often rent tuxedos on board. For evenings that are less dressy, women can get away with silky tops and trousers. Be sure to pack a dressy sweater or jacket, especially for the newer cruise ships, whose air conditioning can be quite powerful. I always bring my pashmina wrap; it’s versatile and provides an extra layer in the evening, and it does double duty as an airplane blanket.

Remember to pack some loose-fitting clothes. Most passengers find they put on a few pounds during a cruise.

Versatility counts

I am a big advocate of wearing outfits more than once. If it looks good and is appropriate, who cares how many times you wear it?

Linda Coffman, editor of Cruise Diva, a cruise Web site, and author of “Fodor’s Complete Guide to Caribbean Cruises” agrees. She suggests changing your look from the waist up while wearing the same “bottoms” — slacks, skirts or shorts — throughout the trip. (“A simple scarf and jewelry can change the look of a basic outfit,” she points out.) Coffman is also a big fan of reversible women’s clothes, which give many different looks for minimum packing.

If you’re concerned about running out of clean clothes, don’t worry. Most vessels have self-service laundries along with valet laundry service for a fee. And remember, if you forget to pack something or don’t want to do laundry, most ships offer a good selection of clothing, swimwear and accessories in their onboard shops. What you can’t get on board, you can easily find in any port of call.

How to pack

When I was a flight attendant, I lived out of a suitcase 165 days a year, and I learned a few packing tricks. If you follow these basic, common-sense tips, you can pack only what you need, safeguard expensive items and keep track of important paperwork.

* Pack your airline tickets, cruise documents, jewelry, medication, eyeglasses, makeup, camera and computer in your carry-on luggage, not in your checked baggage. Also, bring photocopies of your passport and prescriptions in case these items get lost.

* Also put a swimsuit and a change of clothes in your carry-on bag. It sometimes takes hours for your luggage to be delivered to your stateroom, and you don’t want to miss any ship time stuck in your traveling clothes.

* Pack heavy items like shoes and toiletry kits before packing the more delicate ones.

* Use shoe covers to pack shoes, and stuff socks, belts and other little items inside shoes to save space.

* Turn jackets inside out and fold them in half, then put them in dry cleaning bags. The plastic bags minimize wrinkles (which is why dry cleaners use them).

* Pack the bottom of your suitcase with trousers, letting the legs hang over the edge of the bag. Then pack the rest of your clothes, with lighter materials on top. In the end, drape the trouser legs back over the pile; they’ll keep their crease and won’t get a fold line.

* Mark your luggage with bright-colored yarn or tags to make them easy to spot and less likely to be picked up by someone else by mistake.

* Bring an empty soft bag for souvenirs, but don’t forget to claim it when you get off the ship. I recently did this; fortunately, I remembered it before I left the pier.

* Watch the weight of your luggage. Most airlines have a 50-pound limit; if you go over, be prepared to pay a hefty surcharge. If you are traveling to Europe, know that many European airlines will assess fees according to baggage weight; also, British Airways recently began charging an extra fee to travelers who check more than one bag. Baggage rules change all the time, so always check with your airline before you start hauling out the suitcases.

Packing is a chore, but if you pay attention to the details, you can pack some of your cares away.

Bon voyage!

Filled Under Advice

Man-cruises

Posted by Anita Dunham-Potter On February - 5 - 2007

What’s a “man-cruise”? It’s a cruise that doesn’t leave the testosterone at the dock, and there are more of them than you might think. Look past the spa treatments and the umbrella drinks, and you’ll find that some cruises offer plenty of opportunities to celebrate such traditionally male pursuits as golf, baseball, wine guzzling, swimming with big fishes and — alas — gawking at bikini-clad women.

Here is a list of cruises and cruise lines that offer some activities for the manly man.

Man-Venture

Want to swim with the really big fishes? Then jump in a Zodiac and hang out with some gray whales. You can do that when you take a small-ship cruise to Baja California, Mexico’s wild side, with Lindblad Expeditions, the world leader in adventure cruising. Not feeling quite that manly? Then you can do your whale watching from the ship. Other activities include hiking miles of uninhabited beaches and desert, kayaking in pristine waters, snorkeling among reef fish, and sunset beach barbecues.

Man-Golf

You can’t practice your drives off the back of the ship anymore, but many cruise lines are adding many more golf opportunities to their itineraries. For example, golfers can play a variety of beautiful and challenging courses throughout the Caribbean, Canada, Hawaii, Mexico and Europe on select cruises offered by Carnival Cruise Lines. The cruises also offer the services of a certified golf professional, who conducts private lessons, specialty golf clinics and putting contests; accompanies golfers on golf excursions; and organizes golf tournaments. Golfers also have access to the “V1” Digital Coaching System, a swing-analysis software that captures the golfer’s swing and puts it up on a split screen for analysis and comparison with legendary golfers and the hotshots on tour. Carnival also offers sales and rental of Nike equipment — everything from clubs to shoes.

Norwegian Cruise Line America offers a year-round “Golf Hawaii Package” that lets avid golfers play on courses in Hilo, Kona, Maui and Kauai. Golfers can also rent the line’s state-of-the-art Callaway equipment.

Man-Pirate

It’s as close to a pirate’s life as you are likely to get: standing in the crow’s-nest 50 feet above deck. And Captain Jack Sparrow would be mighty envious of the 420-foot Royal Clipper, the biggest of the world’s tall ships and the largest vessel in Star Clipper‘s fleet. The ship carries just 227 passengers, and the best news is that it’s a hands-on experience. Passengers can help hoist the sails, steer the ship — even clamber up the rigging to the crow’s-nest. For connoisseurs of sail cruising, the Royal Clipper offers the ultimate seagoing experience.

Man-Fan

Baseball fans can step up to the plate on MSC Cruises‘ sports-themed itineraries in the Caribbean. In fact, they can rub elbows with some of the greatest players to have ever taken the field on the 11-night Caribbean “Baseball Greats” cruise departing April 18. The all-star Caribbean lineup includes four-time All-Star Vida Blue, Earl Weaver, Stan Bahnsen, Randy Hundley and Cito Gaston. Each baseball-themed cruise includes free interactive activities with the players, including a player-hosted trivia game in which passengers test their baseball knowledge, question-and-answer sessions with the players, and a bull session where players talk freely about themselves, other players, and the game. Players will also host pitching, hitting and defensive strategy clinics for guests. Perhaps the most popular activity is the free autograph session at the end of the cruise.

Man-Spa

OK, me hearties, the spa may not seem like the manliest place on the ship, but look at it this way: Chicks dig soft and kissable skin. Luxury cruise line Crystal Cruises has designed a new “Time for Men” therapy menu exclusively for men, offering a masculine focus on what was once primarily feminine territory. Treatments include a pro-collagen shave, frangipani hair conditioning, skin IQ facial and aroma stone therapy massage. What? You don’t know what that means? Well, pluck up your courage, man! Go find out.

Wine-Man

This fall CruiseWest offers an unusual wine experience, taking its 138-passenger Spirit of Yorktown from San Francisco on three- and five-day cruises up the Napa River and Sacramento Delta for a great Napa Valley wine experience. Activities include winery tours, hot air balloon rides, local history and wine seminars, as well as expert wine-tasting tips. I think we can all drink to that.

Filled Under Advice