Costa is like floating on a slice of Italy

When chunks of parmesan grace the buffet lines in bowls the size of washtubs, when each table burns a red candle at dinner, and when a multi-cultural group of cabin attendants greets you in the morning with a chorus of “Buon giorno,” you know you are cruising on a Costa ship.

Costa now floats its slice of Italy around the world on a fleet of 15 big cruise ships, with another scheduled to debut in 2012. In North America, Costa sails out of Miami to the Caribbean and even on these itineraries passengers will share the ships with an international crowd, as Costa’s mass-marketed, price-competitive voyages entice travelers from nearly every nation.

The all-Italian theme plays well in Europe, Asia, South America, and North America, where Italian restaurants are among the favorite places to eat and where visiting Italy is near the top of most U.S. travelers’ wish lists.

I find that preparing for a vacation with Costa is more like a trip to Europe than a typical North American cruise. It helps to know something about Italian culture and food, and to place your expectations less with a healthy slab of prime rib and more toward pasta, buffalo mozzarella, tomatoes, cold cuts, cheese, wine and the desserts of Italy, especially gelato, served in little cups as a snack from a cart at the main pool.

While English-speaking staff are on all Costa ships, North Americans may also want to bone up on their Italian words, not only to respond to “Bon giorno” — a greeting heard as often on Costa ships as “hello” in the United States — but also to fully appreciate the experience, including wines and cheeses and dining specialties.

If you are looking at a Mediterranean cruise out of Venice yet this summer or a 2011-2012 winter sojourn in the waters near Dubai, you might consider Costa’s newest ship, the 3,800-passenger Favolosa, which is an exhibition of design, materials and ingredients with a “Made in Italy” stamp.

Some 500 Italian companies were involved in designing, furnishing and building the Favolosa. In Italian, favolosa means fabulous and is related, says Costa, to favola which means fairy tale.

Favolosa furnishings came from Molteni, BB), Rossi D’Albizzate, Moroso, and Tonon. Sicis decorated the Samsara Spa. Rubelli of Venice provided fabrics. Cotton came from Frette, and equipment for the fitness center from Technogym .

The art collection aboard ship includes 400 original works from 28 Italian artists.

The collection of wines is reason enough to study your Italian wine makers and prepare for a week of tasting from among Amarone di Aneri , Marchesi Antinori, Fazi Battaglia, Fantinel, Castellare in Castellina, Batasiolo, Fontanafredda and Pasqua.

“The Costa Favolosa is like a pavilion about Italy,” said Massimo Bottura, chef for the gala dinner at the Favolosa naming ceremony in Trieste in July. Bottura’s restaurant, Osteria Francescana in Modena has two Michelin stars.

Vacationing on a floating slice of Italy also means, of course, that Costa delivers some of the characteristics of behavior in Italy that you may or may not like — so be prepared as well for occasional lack of organization and apparent disregard for exact schedules. My lifeboat drill on the new Favolosa, for instance, was not the smoothest, and the ship chose a particularly scenic time to operate it, so I missed some views. Ship activities did not always start at their announced times. “Forgive us,” said a Costa staffer with a smile. “In Italian time, 10 minutes may range from 10 minutes to a day.”

For me, the big bowls of parmesan made up for any scheduling issues. I grabbed a chunk each time I cruised through the buffet line in the lido restaurant, overindulging for sure. One lunch, as we sailed off the coast of northern Italy, I sat on deck in the sunshine, mixing some parmesan with broccoli, a salad, slices of Parma ham, with potato, and a breast of chicken. It all tasted of Italy.

David Molyneaux writes monthly about cruising. He is editor of

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