To cruise or not to cruise: That’s the question facing millions who love being at sea but are deeply concerned about increasing their exposure to COVID-19. Fortunately, the 3-year-old Costa Smeralda, one of the world’s largest ships, now provides a positive and affordable answer.
Blending an affordable and appealing itinerary with limited-capacity restrictions that are part of an intense anti-virus operating campaign, Europeans have been flocking to its weeklong clockwise circumventions of the Mediterranean Sea. And now, Costa wants those living outside Europe to join them.
Current weekly ports of call include Barcelona and Palma de Mallorca, Spain; Messina, Rome, and Savona, Italy; and Marseilles, France. Passengers can start and complete their voyages from any of these ports.
Key to the vessel’s success is Costa’s vigorous pro-health policy. Though the 20-deck behemoth can host 6,554 guests, capacity has been reduced by more than a third. That’s opened up spacing that makes their anti-virus campaign successful. Masks are mandatory except during eating or drinking, and elevators are limited to four passengers at any time. Menus have been replaced by QR codes, so passengers use their cell phones when they want to order.
They are encouraged to take their temperatures daily at stations throughout the ship. Hand-washing stations are at all restaurant entrances, plus there are many sanitizing gel dispensers wherever you go. A COVID-19 test is required before initially boarding the ship and again on the fourth day of sailing.
Other health protection steps include the absence of traditional packed dining areas and endless buffet lines where passengers serve themselves. Instead, there are now numerous smaller dining areas, and adjacent seating is actively discouraged.
Of course, that’s just aboard the ship itself. Each country where the ship calls has its own—often frustratingly complex—set of health documentation that must be completed and approved. Being savvy at dealing with computers is a real plus here.
Perhaps even more frustrating is that passengers are banned from leaving the ship during their trip unless they are part of a scheduled, Costa-arranged tour. Prices are moderate, but the inability to simply depart in a city such as Palma–where in normal times most passengers would get off, find transportation and explore on their own, then come back on board prior to departure—is an inconvenience.
That now is the strongest “no” in the ship’s roster of passenger regulations. It has less impact on tours to places harder to reach on one’s own, such as Taormina, an hour’s drive south of Messina, a popular historic town at a location founded by ancient Greeks in the second century B.C. This would have been unreachable, COVID-19 or not, given the short stop at Messina. And while the ship tour was crisp and intelligently moderated, participants were required to avoid any but a single designated shop. Trying to enter elsewhere earned “offenders” a stern rebuke from the leader.
To emphasize Costa’s seriousness, a line executive said some passengers on an earlier voyage who left a tour returned to the ship only to find their luggage awaiting them at the pier. Then, they were informed they were no longer permitted aboard.
However, while grumbles do ensue, Costa insists this “keep everyone together” strategy is vital to their ultimate effort to ensure that all passengers are as far from potential COVID-19 exposure as possible. And Costa executives insist that these “bubble tours” will go away as soon as COVID-19 no longer looms.
Onboard, food is tasty and beautifully presented by a savvy corps of international servers. Although this is an Italian ship, English-speaking guests have no problem being understood. Without fail, staffers are patient and empathetic to passenger requests, even those they have heard hundreds of times before.
Most important, Costa Smeralda is a family fun festival. Multigenerational groups appear to be everywhere, and adult-designed entertainment is copious. One favorite is a series of descending water slides where anyone can spend hours floating down tubes that range in levels of challenge. Many quieter areas both in and out of the water offer adults some peace and quiet.
One highlight is the CoDe (Costa Design Museum), a calm retreat filled with examples of a century of superb Italian design. Everything from fashion and transportation to ceramics, furniture, appliances, and even toys are highlighted for a fascinating change of pace.
A week aboard the Costa Smeralda is definitely a bargain, even if—unlike most European passengers—U.S. citizens require a trans-Atlantic flight to get to their point of embarkation. But with rates starting under $1,000 per person, passengers can get a compact, attractive balcony cabin. Individual tour prices are well below those of competing steamship lines, and moderately priced specialty dining ranges from excellent pizza to the exuberant teppanyaki restaurant. There, clever chefs juggle utensils and ingredients while chopping and preparing to conjure up tasty seafood or beef dishes on a large open grill.
For Americans needing first to fly to a Costa Smeralda port, one plus is that many are great destinations on their own. Therefore, before (probably best to clear out jet lag) or after your sailing, explore, for example, Barcelona, Rome, or Marseilles on their own.
When You Go
Costa Smeralda: Information and bookings: CostaCruises.com
Olivia Plaza Hotel in Barcelona provided comfortable digs for several days prior to our embarkation with excellent design, a central location, and helpful staff: OliviaPlazaHotel.com.
Robert Selwitz is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at Creators.com. Copyright 2021 Creators.com