Costa is a company in a quandary. After the disastrous loss of the Costa Concordia and a nose dive in profits, the line still seems to be in a state of flux. Not all of the ripples in the whirlpool have settled yet, and that is putting it mildly.
In the wake of this awful event, I was curious to see the company in action, and to record my impressions. Costa seemed less keen. They were not prepared to entertain the idea of a press trip. I booked anyway, and flew out to Venice to board the 114,000 ton Costa Favolosa, introduced as recently as July 2011.
The Favolosa is the almost identical twin sister of the late Concordia, so no better place to gain a feel for how things are now. As big ships go, she is quite beautiful, with the single, black and yellow stack really making her quite distinctive. But appearances are one thing, and delivery is another.
This brings me neatly to the lifeboat drill, which took place prior to leaving Venice. Costa have come up with the good idea of leaving a red, plastic card in your cabin- not unlike your cruise swipe card- that has to be handed in at the start of the drill. These are checked off, and properly. Those not attending were made to come to a make up drill next day. So far, so good.
All passengers are assembled, with life jackets, at their outside muster stations. All 3,500 of them. And this is where Costa, like many other cruise lines, run up against a brick wall. Or, more accurately, a wall of sound.
On these multi- lingual ships, every instruction had to be repeated in each of seven languages. Sadly, the passengers around me babbled and clowned about to such an extent that I was unable to hear any of them, in any lingo. They were completely and utterly blase and uninterested in any aspect of the drill.
I was stunned. This was not just any ship, but the TWIN SISTER of the Concordia. It had all only happened only five months ago. Yet here they were, flippant and unfazed. Amazing.
Of course, all of this will be familiar to most passengers embarking on mega ships anywhere in the world. Quite what can be done about such attitudes is difficult to tell. Far as I could see, Costa made the best job of it that they possibly could.
Then, a little bit of karma. As the Favolosa got under way and loomed out of Guidecca, the ship tilted briefly as thousands of passengers thronged to rubber neck at Piazza San Marco. There seemed to be one sharp, nervous intake of breath for a moment. It served to concentrate minds quite wonderfully, if only for a few seconds. Then we were passing the Doge’s Palace, and moving towards the open sea.
What followed can aptly be described as ‘twenty thousand sales pitches above the sea’. Costa filled the Favolosa by offering rock bottom prices, and then hanging price tags on everything on board. The low point had to be a ‘display’ of massages, complete with models draped across massage tables ,held in the atrium lobby during cocktail hour. The usual, excellent cocktail musicians were shooed aside for this grub-a-thon, while the cruise director shrieked for ‘applausa!’ from the stunned throng standing around.
I don’t know what this did for spa sales, but I do know that it emptied the very full bar quicker than a Justin Bieber tribute act would have done. I have never seen anything so puerile in more than thirty years at sea.
Cruise wise, we had wonderful weather, and the ship was always big enough that you could find somewhere quiet. Food was average to good at best, with poor quality cuts of meat and- incredibly for an Italian ship- lack lustre fruit.
Service was all over the place, from some exemplary South American bar and waiting staff, to plain sloppy. Drinks would arrive not properly dressed, and sometimes without place mats. When these did arrive, they were small, thin and useless- an obvious, and totally self defeating, cost cut.
On the other hand, there was more than enough entertainment to keep everybody diverted and amused; a key consideration on a week long trip.
Physically, the Costa Favolosa is fantastic; a floating theme park full of enough whimsical charm to leave you wide eyed with wonder. And that’s all well and fine. But when you are falling down on product delivery in other crucial key areas, it is only a matter of time before some tipping point is reached- pun wholly unintentional- and you decide that the glitter can no longer outshine the grime.
So yes, on the whole I enjoyed my week. But if Costa is to regain it’s pre-eminence as a product, it needs to look long and hard at just what is a practical economy, and what will cost them far more than it ultimately saves. Time alone will tell.
This article is reposted in view of the charges outlined against Francesco Schettino and his officers in relation to the tragic loss of the Costa Concordia.