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Cruise Ship Review

Costa Atlantica - Ship Review provided by Cruise Critic

Imagine if Botticelli, the 15th-century Italian painter, and Joe Farcus, Carnival Cruise Line's bold 20th-century interior architect and designer, collaborated on creating a 21st-century ship. The result would very likely be a dead ringer for the Costa Atlantica.

The minute you walk into Atlantica's soaring 10-deck atrium, with its eye-popping colors and glass elevators fringed with flashing lights rocketing up and down, it's hard not to see the hand of the designer who never met a primary hue or DayGlo color he didn't like. But on the other side of the equation, this high-energy atmosphere is diluted and softened with the classics: Carrara marble and Byzantine mosaics -- elements of Italy's classical Roman, Baroque, and Renaissance eras -- with Murano glass counterpoints, all tied together with the signature of an artist whose work is emblematic of post-World War II Italy, filmmaker Federico Fellini. Each of Atlantica's decks is named for one of his films: Deck 2 is La Dolce Vita Deck; Deck 3 is named La Strada, and so on.

In addition to the soaring main atrium, there are mini "atria" extending two decks, sprinkled throughout the ship. Many public rooms cluster around these hubs, dubbed "piazzas." They give the ship's public areas a bright and open feel. Another primary design element is the use of winding or sweeping stairways, linking two decks. In addition to the typical uses for grand entrances to the restaurant or lobby, there are graceful sweeping stairways skirting the secondary atria, and a tightly spiraled staircase descending into the depths of the appropriately named Dante's Disco. But the most dramatic of all these stairways curves around the perimeter of the upper two levels of the central atrium. It is fashioned completely of glass, and a glance down the yawning chasm between your feet approximates the sense of peering over the edge of a 10-story building.

Costa describes its product as "Cruising Italian Style," which means it is a combination of a bit of Old World culture infused with the energetic, demonstrative, welcoming warmth that is the essence of the Italians. If first-time Costa passengers from the States expect a majority of stuffy Europeans barely tolerating the upstart New World minority, one glance at the interior style will end that myth. Gone are the days of public address announcements in five languages, the last of which was invariably English. Nowadays only two languages are used, Italian and English. During the Caribbean season, English takes precedence over Italian, with the order reversed during the summer season abroad.

Dining

Besides their effusive warmth, if there is one thing Italians are noted for it is great cuisine. Unfortunately, and surprisingly, this is one aspect of Italy which comes up short on Costa Atlantica. No single aspect stood out, and most passengers we talked to were less than overwhelmed.

The most frequent complaint we heard concerned Botticelli, the sprawling buffet restaurant on Deck 9. At breakfast, Botticelli serves from a large number of small buffet modules, though none offer unique choices. There is some variation between these areas -- one may serve mainly cereals, another the standard selection of scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage and the like -- but inadequate signage defeats the diner who wishes to go to that station directly. Very little is offered on a cooked-to-order basis. Bagels and white bread are pre-toasted and sit wrapped in napkins in a steam table tray. There was a very low-key omelet station -- again, not a stitch of guidance from signage -- on the fantail, in what becomes the sandwich/grill station at lunch.

At lunch the number of choices in Botticelli is equally lacking, though two stations offer daily changing themed cuisine. One of the breakfast buffet stations transforms into the Napoli Pizzeria from 11:00 a.m. through 2:30 a.m. Botticelli also serves a nightly alternative casual dinner.

The glittering two-deck Tiziano Restaurant is the ship's main dining venue, serving all three meals at traditional fixed sittings. The room is longer (fore to aft) than wide due to the placement of the galley along the side walls. Seating choices range from a handful of two- and four-tops to a number of large tables, including more tables for eight or more than is typical on American ships. Tables are placed close together, and with the room's hard surfaces, noise level can be prodigious.

Though passengers may choose their table at breakfast and lunch, and need not dine at their regular sitting time, the ship, curiously, still maintains formal seating times, closing the doors a half-hour or so after the beginning of first seating, and reopening them at the regular time for second seating. This schedule is maintained even on port days, when volume is minimal.

Breakfast food and service were competent. The lunch menu, in the continental tradition of making the noontime meal the largest of the day, is the most varied, with the most courses and the most choices per course. The typical full lunch menu includes appetizer, soup, pasta, deli or salad course, entree and dessert. Selected items from the main menu are grouped together to make five-course specialty menus, including the "Salute e Benessere" (Health & Wellness) menu as well as one for lacto-vegetarians.

Though the Tiziano did a credible job with lunches, dinners were a disappointment. Service, though fairly attentive, seemed rushed. While most seafood dishes were fresh-tasting, meats were often tough. Most courses came to the table closer to warm than piping hot, and, until they inexplicably improved in the last couple of days of the cruise, pasta courses were cooked way past al dente.

Costa Atlantica has joined the fine alternative dining revolution with the addition of Ristorante Club Atlantica, a 158-seat reservations-only eatery with a menu designed by Michelin three-star chef, Gualtiero Marchesi. Diners can choose between a "Tuscan Steakhouse" a la carte menu and a fixed "Tasting Menu." The room's atmosphere lacks the warmth and intimacy typical of these venues on other ships; nonetheless, the best meals on the ship can be found here. There is a $20 service charge plus a $3 gratuity. Since there are so few seats for a ship of Atlantica's size, making reservations early is essential. One major caveat: for some unfathomable reason, the balcony of the restaurant becomes the designated cigar smoking area of the ship at 10 p.m. each night; so, unless you enjoy having your coffee and dessert in a cloud of cigar smoke, make your reservation for early in the evening.

There is 24-hour complimentary room service from a limited menu (sandwiches, snacks, desserts, etc.), and complete breakfasts can be ordered between 7 and 10 a.m. Suite passengers may order from the regular dining room menus at appropriate times.

Public Rooms

Nearly all of the public rooms on Atlantica are situated on Decks 2 and 3. Based on this arrangement, Costa Atlantic should have superlative passenger flow, but it is seriously degraded by three totally unnecessary self-inflicted detriments. On each of these two public decks, the problem area is smack dab in the middle of the path of heavy traffic from the aft restaurant to the forward show lounge. On Deck 3, it's the Via Della Spiga shops, situated on both sides of a sinuously curving polished marble walkway. Unfortunately, the width of the pathway is as little as six feet.

Worse, half that width is taken up by the nightly placement of sale tables arrayed with hundreds of rings, watches and the like. Since literally hundreds of passengers tread the route from bow to stern and vice versa each night through a space as narrow as three feet, it makes for a serious bottleneck. The alternative is Deck 2. However, following the same path on that deck forces the passenger to walk through the casino, as this room stretches the entire width of the ship, and the casino is far and away the most smoke-polluted spot on the ship. The third problem is Atlantica's inadequate signage. Though there are little lighted signs over doorways to tell you what's in the very next section, the directional information does not extend further along the length of the ship, except in the case of the most major venues -- restaurant, casino and show lounge. Worse, the public decks are devoid of any deck maps, (i.e., "You Are Here"). They do exist, but only on cabin decks, where, presumably, passengers, having at least found the right floor, should be able to find their cabins by simply reading the cabin numbers on doors. As a result, even six days into the sailing, it was not uncommon to find passengers on public deck stairway landings looking lost and adrift.

Atlantica's library on Deck 3 is incredibly small given the size of the ship and the fact that its book collection includes separate sections for numerous languages, even Japanese. Though the library doors are open around the clock, the bookshelves are only unlocked for one hour twice a day. The library also serves as the Internet cafe. Internet access is sold at the rate of 50 cents per minute. Be forewarned though that hookup onboard seemed as slow as or slower than land-based dial-up, and proved to be a frustrating and costly experience.

Cabins

Costa Atlantic's cabins are bright and spacious, and well laid out with ample storage. Colors run to the subdued pastel oranges and greens, a nice counterpoint to the vividness of the public areas. Trim is in light-colored wood veneers and laminates. The ship's small inside cabins, totaling only 22 percent of the total, measure a decent 160 square ft. But the really telling number is 678: that is the tally of staterooms with balconies, a figure that represents more than 80 percent of the total number of oceanview cabins. Of these, 58 are suites, ranging from Grand Suites (650 square ft.) to Panorama and Oceanview Suites (360 square ft.). Suites have comfortable deck furniture usable for scenery viewing, conversation, and limited dining. Ocean view staterooms with verandas measure 210 square ft. The Category Four ocean view cabins on Roma Deck (Deck 4) have obstructed views. There are four handicapped-accessible cabins.

Most accommodations have twin beds which convert to a queen. All staterooms feature televisions, direct-dial phones, hair dryers, safe deposit boxes. Bathrooms have stall showers and a basket of toiletries. Cabin mini bars are refilled per guest usage as indicated on an "honor system" checklist. Stateroom televisions offer 14 channels of English-language programming. An interactive channel allows selection of pay-per-view movies ($7.95), shore excursion booking and shipboard account review (though this was not working properly when we sailed). There are five channels showing ship-produced programming -- everything from bridge-cam to GPS and navigational display to live shipboard activities, shore excursion and shopping presentations. There is a channel for commercials of shore-side merchants, and a gaming information channel. The remaining six English-language channels include major cable and broadcast channels.

Special amenities for the suite passenger include whirlpool tubs, terry cloth robes and slippers, additional toiletries, sparkling wine and cold canapes (embarkation day only), daily fruit baskets, an additional Captain's cocktail party, and complimentary dinner at ClubAtlantica. There is also personalized butler service, though we found the butler largely invisible and ineffective (a request for a shoeshine resulted in shoes being returned the following day -- unshined -- along with a selection of cellophane-wrapped self-shine products). There is also priority embarkation and disembarkation, though only the disembarkation portion of the equation worked. Check-in personnel at Port Everglades knew nothing about priority check-in.

Caveat: The electrical power in cabins is primarily 220-volt. Although there is one 110-volt outlet, in some cabins it is inconveniently situated (in suites it is located in the bathroom). There are no converters available for loan onboard, so bring an extension cord or your own converter.

Entertainment

Costa Atlantica has a huge number of lounges, bars and other private rooms for a 2,000-passenger ship. What is notable -- and a departure from lounge architecture on American ships -- is that every lounge has a stage and a large dance floor. Even the main entry lobby has a wood-inlaid dance floor at its center.

Three notable venues are Caffe Florian, Dante's Disco, and the Coral Lounge. Florian, a total clone of its Baroque-era namesake in Venice's St. Mark's Square -- down to the floor tiles, wall and ceiling artwork, upholstery and table placement -- is a nice spot to meet for a glass of wine or cappuccino and one of the more intimate lounges onboard. The Coral Lounge, placed far forward and on the very bottom deck, is a wonderfully evocative alternate performance nightclub, which carries the sense of being at the bottom of the sea. Dante's gets our nod as cruisedom's most atmospheric disco. On the entrance level on Deck 2 is the bar, cocktail tables, and a countertop overlooking the dance floor one full deck down, where at random times, special effects machines fill the dance area with dense, smoky fog. Descending the spiral staircase feels like descending into Hades itself.

All lounges come into play for Atlantica's prodigious range of activities, day and night. The three-deck Caruso Theater is the ship's main show lounge. The auditorium is foreshortened, achieving seating quantity through vertical extension (a three-deck showroom for a maximum seating of a thousand is unusual). Though no seat is far from the stage in terms of number of rows, sightlines are seriously compromised. Moreover, there is a claustrophobic feel to the lowest deck seating, as all but the forward-most seats are well under the balcony's overhang. Seats on that level have fixed position tables; the upper levels have deeply cushioned plush theater seating with fold-up cup holders in the armrests. Our recommendation is to go for the front row in the first balcony; it seldom gets filled until right before show time and has the best sightlines in the room. Costa presents the usual combination of individual performers, variety shows and two major production revues in this room.

Daytime activities include bingo, art auctions, horse races, port and shopping talks -- typical cruise ship fare.

Where Costa Atlantica really shines (and the asset that, on its own, would make sailing this ship worthwhile) is with the entertainment and activities produced by its own cruise staff. Compared to industry norms for a ship this size, the cruise staff is quite large. There are 11 members on what is called the "animation" staff plus a cruise director plus selected dancers from the production company, so that on major events there are as many as 20 or more staffers in action.

In some cases this means more activities; instead of one trivia game per day, for example, Atlantica has as many as five or six, even on port days. Poolside games and contests occur two or three times a day.

At night there are themed games and entertainment, such as Mediterranean Night with passengers experiencing a series of four games or shows, one each from France, Greece, Spain and Turkey. "Festa Italiana," an Italian street festival at sea, features Bocce ball, mask making, Italian karaoke, Tarantella dance lessons, and the indescribably hysterical Mr. Pizza contest.

The ultimate entertainment event, occurring on the final night of the cruise, is "Roman Bacchanal," where passengers dress in togas fashioned from bed sheets (provided), and Caesar (a k a the cruise director) presides over the wackiest passenger talent show afloat, charging the toga-clad passengers in the audience to pass thumbs up or down on the performers, sending them either to the midnight buffet, or to the lions. In all cases these cruise staff antics are as zany and over the top as those on a Carnival ship (there are Mr. Sexy Legs contests and belly flop competitions), but what makes them different here is the Italian factor, a kind of a sweetness and innocence that is hard to describe, but is quite endearing. Think of Roberto Benigni crawling over peoples' heads to get to the stage to accept his Oscar for the film, "Life is Beautiful."

Shore excursions are efficiently handled, and there are Costa shore excursion staffers at the gangway, at meeting places, and in some cases on the excursions themselves.

Fitness and Recreation

Costa Atlantica's top three decks are devoted to fitness, spa and sun. Hearkening back to the style of classic liners there is much open space on all three decks, and an ample number of chic, modern chaises fashioned from brushed aluminum and stretched fabric. On Deck 9 (Ginger & Fred Deck) the centerpiece is the twin pools, one of which has a retractable dome, though we could never get it straight whether it was Ginger or Fred that was the domed one. At the aft end is the open fantail with a third pool, the Aurora. At the very forward end is the lower level of the two-tiered Olympia Gym and the Ischia Spa. There are four whirlpools: one inside the gym, one with the Aurora Pool aft, and two with the main pools amidships.

It is possible to make a complete circuit of the teak decking on Deck 10 (E La Nave Va Deck), but there is a designated jogging track on Deck 11 (La Voce Della Luna Deck) circling the miniaturized tennis court, about 3.25 circuits to the mile. Deck 11 is also the location of the children's pool area, and a twisty, two-deck waterslide.

Steiner of London maintains the spa, beauty and fitness facility. The gym is one of the best we've seen, descending aft in terraces from Deck 10 to Deck 9, affording all exercisers a view over the stern through the glass wall. All the machines are produced by Technogym Italy, and are part of a self-guided circuit training system, kind of a personal cyber-trainer. Users insert an electronic key in each machine and then in a computer at the end of the workout, which summarizes the workout and makes suggestions for future sessions.

Gratuity

$8.50 per person, per day (50 percent for kids between 4 and 17) is automatically charged to shipboard accounts on the last day of the cruise.

Family

In the great tradition of famed Italian lines of the past -- notably Sitmar and the Italian Line -- Costa places a high premium on families, and the friendliness of "Cruising Italian Style" carries over to the kids' program. Costa Kids Club offers extensive programs for youngsters, and guaranteed relaxation for parents. Though the kids' facility, the Pinocchio Children's Room, is smaller and less extensively appointed than those of cruise lines known for catering to families (such as Carnival and Royal Caribbean), the physical shortcoming is more than made up for by the large children's "animation staff," made up of from four to seven kids' cruise directors. The Kids Club is broken into two groups, Mini Club, (ages 3 to 6) and Maxi Club, (7 to 12). In addition there is Costa Teens Club, which continues through age 17. For teens there is the Mondo Virtuale (video game room), and teen hours at the disco (through midnight each night).

Each age group has hourly games, tournaments, treasure and scavenger hunts, arts and crafts (t-shirt painting, animal balloons making), special snacks, treats and parties.

In addition, Costa offers two Parents Night Out evenings (gratis), where kids enjoy supervised group activities and special buffets or pizzas while parents enjoy time alone from 6 through 11:30 p.m. Additional nights of group babysitting are available on request for purchase (age 3 and up; must be out of diapers); check current rates onboard.

There is a special children's dinner menu, with pasta, soup, fish, chicken, hot dogs and burgers, pizza, sandwiches and desserts. There is a fountain card available for purchase at any bar, entitling kids up to 20 alcohol-free drinks at a flat rate of $35 (plus a 15 percent service charge).

Besides suites, for families traveling together -- and wishing a bit more space and privacy -- there are 28 pairs of adjoining cabins with connecting doors, including two Grand Suites which connect to standard ocean view staterooms.

Fellow Passengers

On Caribbean sailings, about 80 percent of passengers are American, the balance equally split among European countries. In Europe, the ratio is reversed. Of the Americans onboard, a large number are of Italian-American heritage. Average age is 57+, though the ship attracts a more fun-loving, dynamic demographic than the raw age figure would suggest, so it seems more youthful. During school vacations there are many families.

Dress Code

Europeans tend to dress fancier for daytime activities than Americans, so expect a style show at poolside, especially on European sailings. Off the ship, "casual" is dictated by the climate and choice of activity. There are two formal nights, with about 50 percent of men in tuxes. Women tend to go quite formal on formal nights. All other nights are casual, including toga night (sheets provided, but bring accessories if you wish), and Festa Italiana (suggested dress: red, white and green).

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