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Old Italian Line Tries a New Look : The CostaClassica emphasizes glamour over gelate . Some passengers were disappointed.


FT. LAUDERDALE, Fla. — To the average cruise passenger, Costa Cruises means "cruising, Italian-style," the popular if somewhat corny concept of offering plenty of what many North Americans consider Italian--a lot of pasta and pizza, dark-eyed Italian waiters and cabin stewards tossing lavish compliments to the ladies, and everyone dressing up on costume night in Roman togas supplied by the cruise line. We've all seen the ads for years.

But now, aboard the CostaClassica, its first brand-new ship in more than 25 years, Costa has said arrivederci to Mario and Tony at table side, the shipboard pizzeria, the gelateria . In the new brochure, instead of page after page of glossy food pictures, there are trim young couples in the gym, by the pool, in the casino.

Apparently, the 132-year-old, family-owned Italian shipping line felt the need for more glamour. And so EuroLuxe Cruises was born. To quote the ship's brochure definition: ". . . a standard of elegance, entertainment and personal service so unprecedented, there was not even a name for it until now. EuroLuxe."

We boarded the $325-million EuroLuxe ship in Ft. Lauderdale for its third scheduled cruise, along with 1,350 other passengers--a full load since the vessel carries 1,300, based on two to a cabin (some cabins aboard the CostaClassica contain third and fourth berths).

The ship itself is impressive. It has a dramatic but understated, almost offhand, stylishness with the sort of sleek, stark look Italian designers have made classic in architecture, fashion and furniture. Acres of Carrera marble and glass, teak and cherrywood, accented with polished brass and ceramic tiles, create a shiny, handsome if somewhat cold ambience.

But if luxe means "luxury, elegance, sumptuousness," as at least one dictionary defines it, then the "luxe" stops here.

While hyperbole has always been part of travel advertising, the danger with the CostaClassica is the possibility that some passengers will board expecting something softer and more traditional, carpeted and draped, such as one gets on the Royal Viking Sun or Crystal Harmony.

Although most of the passengers seemed to have a grand time, especially on toga night, which, surprisingly, continues to be a part of the EuroLuxe package, a few were vocally unhappy, complaining that they had expected much more luxurious surroundings and more pampering from the service staff than they were receiving.

The vast, marble-floored dining room was the focus of much of the complaint, both for the noise from the clatter of dishes and silverware and the less-than-polished meal service from a new staff of European, Central American and Asian waiters. Except for a few dining room captains, the flirtatious Italians that used to characterize Costa dining room service are gone.

Food was generally well-prepared, with the dining room pastas, offered at every meal except breakfast, uniformly delicious. The light, luscious lasagna from Austrian executive chef Peter Kofler was the best we've ever tasted.

And a trio of musicians strolling nightly at dinner did strike an elegant note, along with double-skirted dining tables, Limoges china and fine crystal. Some evenings, theme dinners are enhanced by the addition of painted scenic backgrounds of ancient Pompeiian villas or Renaissance towns, created by a scenic designer for the La Scala opera house in Milan. Another plus is the relatively large number of tables for two--rare on vessels this size.

La Trattoria, the casual self-service dining cafe, is little more than a basic cafeteria, with the lifeboats blocking the view from the windows. The only dessert offered the day we lunched there was a bowl of chopped fresh fruit. The adjacent outdoor seating area called the Alfresco Cafe is quite handsome, however, with apple-green wicker chairs and marble-topped tables, covered by a wide canvas awning.

The two deck pool areas are stunning. Amidships, the Trevi Piazza is anchored by a triangular blue marble fountain, with rows of wicker chairs and tables like sidewalk cafes at one end and cabana-like cubicles framed with blue-and-white striped awnings along the sides. At the stern pool area, the teak decking is stepped down on several levels to the pool, each level framed with slender chrome railings.

The show lounge is steeply raked over a two-deck area, with good sight lines to the stage from the various levels and comfortable seating on red plush upholstery divided by dark wood walls. It looks like a Roman amphitheater mixed with a courtroom from London's Old Bailey. A laudable policy prohibits smoking in the lounge at all times, as well as forbidding cocktail service during the shows.

Also well-designed are the handsome shops, a spacious conference center and the Caracalla Spa, a 6,500-square-foot area with exercise room, sauna, steam rooms and whirlpools, plus spa treatments such as seaweed body wraps, facials and herbal therapy massages.

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