Text and Images by SUIEE SUAREZ
One of the smallest in the Costa group’s global fleet of 16 ships, the Costa neoRomantica has been homeported in Japan since 2017. Built in 1993 in Triste and refitted in 2012 in Genoa, it weighs in at 57,100 tons and measures 221 meters in length (around three jumbo jets end to end). Designed and built in contemporary Italian fashion, it has a crew of around 620, catering to as many as 1,800 passengers, housed in 789 smartly appointed cabins on 14 decks, which are named after famous cities: Paris, London, Amsterdam, etc.
Newest to the fleet is Costa Venezia, which set out on its maiden voyage from Triste, Italy to Yokohama, Japan in March this year. It is much larger at 323 meters long, 135,500 tons. With 14 decks, it can take 5,260 passengers aboard. Still another ship is expected for launch this October, Costa Smeralda, which will be stationed in Europe. In line with the company’s thrust for sustainability, this new ship will be powered by cleaner-burning liquified natural gas, but more on Costa’s sustainability efforts later.
Being shorter and having less than half the mass of its larger, newer siblings is an advantage for Costa neoRomantica, enabling it to navigate shallower waters and explore coastal towns. This was what we had in our itinerary on a nine-day cruise from Tokyo that took us through off-the-beaten-path destinations, such as Kobe, Keelung (Taiwan), Miyakojima, Kochi, and back to Yokohama.
DREAM COME TRUE
“To me, it was my dream,” says Capt. Federico Sias passionately, as he explains what it is like to sail the Costa neoRomantica, which he refers to as a lady, “a gentle lady, you have to drive gently.”
Driving the ship, he says, is hard to describe. It involves a lot of intuition, pointing to his nose as if smelling the air, as he adds, “There is a link between the captain and the ship— it is natural.” In true Officer and A Gentleman fashion, he says, “All of the ladies you have to take care.”
At 14, while other young men bought scooters in his native Venice, Capt. Federico bought his first sail boat. “Sailing is imprinted in my soul,” he muses. Thus, began a lifelong relationship with the sea, where he served in the Navy, Coast Guard, and eventually in Costa, with which he has been since 2000.
A father to two sons, would he like his children to follow in his footsteps? Capt. Federico says he encourages both to pursue what they want, not what he wants, to reach for “their dreams, not my dream, because my dream, I already have.”
“Our advantage is that we move our ships (to) where the request is,” says hotel director Benedetto Minuto, explaining that cruise ships are like hotels that move to where the demand is. “Our strategy is the opposite: We go where they are.” In 2006, Costa started with one ship stationed in Asia. Now, it has four ships in this market, including its newest and one of its biggest ship, Costa Venezia, whose twin sister ship, Costa Firenze, is expected to be launched in October 2020, to be stationed in Asia as well.
SUSTAINABILITY AT SEA
Reducing the impact on the fragile ocean environment is a great concern in the maritime industry, and Costa goes the extra mile (or miles) to do its share.
Gray water, waste water that’s been processed and sanitized by the onboard sanitation equipment, is discharged at least 12 miles from the nearest coast in accordance with international maritime regulations. Solid wastes—glass, plastics, and paper—are segregated at their sources and offloaded landside for proper recycling or disposal. Soon, a new ship will join the fleet, Costa Smeralda, which will be propelled with liquified natural gas (LNG), a cleaner burning fuel that can cut polluting emissions of nitrogen oxides and sulfur oxides by 90 to 95 percent compared to heavy fuel oil, as I read in a Reuters report.
Hailing for Napoli, executive chef Pasquale Ciarmiello is passionate about his pizza. “I really come from the house of the pizza,” he says, which is why he is very proud of the pizzeria onboard the Costa neoRomantica, which he says uses almost all ingredients sourced from Italy, particularly the special flour blend, San Marzano tomatoes, buffalo cheese, and Parma ham. Only the fresh vegetable toppings are sourced from local markets. The dough is made fresh with mother yeast and given 36 hours to mature naturally, in carefully controlled conditions in the onboard bakery. Most notable is how the pizza is cooked in a wood-burning oven, the only one of its kind in the entire Costa fleet, which cooks the pizza in just 40-60 seconds and imparts a smoky taste, that’s a must for authentic Napoli style pizzas. Magnifico!
While your cruise package offers five full meals per day, it is definitely worth visiting the ship’s pay outlets that offer very good value. Top of my list is Cassanova, a fine dining Italian outlet, where for $59 per person, you enjoy an eight-course menu prepared by Chef Umberto Bombana, five Michelin Star restaurant winner for his restaurants in Shanghai, Beijing, and Hongkong. La Fiorentina Steakhouse offers a set meal, which includes a starter, 150-gram grass-fed Angus ribeye steak, sides, salad, and dessert, all for $33.50. Looking for some vino to help cap your day at a sea? Head over to the Enoteca wine bar where you can taste six different Italian wines, from delicate whites to bold reds, paired with eight different kinds of cheese, all for just $20 per person. Finally, to satisfy your late-night hunger, there’s an Ippudo Ramen outlet onboard that serves authentic Japanese noodle soup from 8 p.m. ‘til midnight for $8.50.
FEEDING A SMALL TOWN
More than a third of the crew is dedicated to preparing and serving meals. Behind the scenes, working almost continuously are 120 staff in five kitchens and two pantries. They have their own bakery and butcher. Interestingly, food is cooked using steam from the engine and electricity—open flames are not allowed in the kitchen, except for the pizzeria. In a week, they go through as much as 24,000 eggs and 2,000 kilograms of chicken.
The view from my porthole was soon filled with worn industrial port structures, which reminded me of the port of Manila, minus the crowds, jeepneys, and traffic. Keelung is on the northeastern tip of Taiwan, a country of 23 million people on an island about the same size as the Netherlands (36,000 square kilometers), 70 percent of which is mountainous.
Our day tour took us to a mountain village called Chuifen, which in Mandarin means “nine portions,” a reference to when only nine families lived in this village during the Ching Dynasty. It became a boom town when gold was discovered in 1890 but has since gone to decline from its glorious mining days when the precious metal ran out. Chuifen has become a tourist attraction due to pop culture, recent award-winning movies, and the fabulous views of the ocean and the jagged land features of Keelung. Visitors disembark at the designated parking and must do a bit of walking up the stairs through the tightly packed houses and shops that cling to the sides of the steep mountain slopes, reminiscent of Baguio. Here you can get lost in the winding corridors, while sampling the local delicacies such as their delicate Oriental Green Tea, taro balls on shaved ice (similar to our halo-halo, but without the milk), a wide selection of steamed buns, black peanuts, mochi concoctions, xiao long bao (of course), stinky tofu on a stick, and Taiwanese-style beef noodle soup.
The Kobe port opened in 1865, at the beginning of the Meiji Restoration, Japan’s emergence from two centuries of isolation. Foreign traders and diplomats from western countries like the US, the UK, Germany, and Spain settled here. They loved living near the sea and built western style homes, called iijikan, or “foreigners’ houses,” in the Kitano neighborhood on the foothills of the nearby Rokko mountain. Examples of these houses operate today as restaurants, boutique hotels, and tourist attractions. At the harbor area is Meriken Park, named after American (‘merican) visitors who frequent the area, where the 108-meter-tall Kobe Port Tower stands. Shaped like a traditional Japanese hand drum (Tsuzumi), it is best to visit this observation tower at sunset, to catch great views of the city of Kobe, as well as to capture stunning nighttime images of the tower itself.
A visit to Kobe cannot be complete without sampling its world-famous beef. We came upon a small restaurant in the Mosaic mall, where we saw families dining, always a good sign. The staff recommended a set meal of Kobe beef shortribs and Marucho (small intestine, a local delicacy). Expectedly, the beef was tender and juicy while the Marucho, mixed with the warm thick gravy and a bit of nutty crunch from the sesame seeds, was an explosion of flavors in the mouth. It was a delight!
MADE FROM MINERALS
Miyakojima is the fourth largest among the 113 islands that make up the Okinawa prefecture. Measuring 16 square kilometers in land area, it’s about the size of Quezon City, and one can drive around it in just three hours. The island is made of a unique mineral, Ryukyuan limestone (a white coral rock that reminds me of the Bohol stone), which is made into traditional pottery. The island has a population of around 56,000. It’s a popular destination for Japanese holiday makers due to its white beaches and diving destinations. Main produce from the island are pineapples, sugar cane, mangoes, and its world-famous Miyakojima salt, a fine powder that can be used plain or flavored with chili, mango, hibiscus, etc. or infused into daily essentials like toothpaste and soap. Houses on Miyakojima are made of concrete, mostly one or two stories tall, with flat cement slab roofs. With the island’s highest elevation at just 100 meters, structures must be very sturdy as there are few natural defenses against the many typhoons that visit Japan every year.
Our day excursion took us to Nishi Hennazaki Cape on the northern tip of the Miyakojima. Here you can get a view of the white sands, the blue ocean, a couple of the island’s wind turbines, and the adjacent island of Ikema, joined to Miyakojima by a 1,425- meter-long bridge. Noteworthy was the Miyakojima Kaichu Park aquarium, which provided visitors a view of ocean creatures four to five meters below the surface. Finally, our bus took us to the market where you can shop with island residents and sample local food and drink, such as the Miyakojima cider (taken cold, it’s quite refreshing). Right next to the market is the post office, in case you want to send a postcard to loved ones back home.
HISTORY AND HERITAGE
The penultimate port of call was Kochi. It was a short visit, just enough time to take a 20-minute coach ride from the port into the city center, to visit the Kochi-jo (Kochi castle) and back. Built in the 16th century, this is one of the only 12 intact castles in Japan and has the distinction of being the only one that has the original structure in its innermost defensive ring dating back to between 1729 and 1753.
For those who took to their excursions early, there was enough time to walk from the castle to the adjacent block and visit the market to sample the famous local dish, kastsuo tataki, a seared tuna dish, or maybe buy a Tosa knife, a brand from Kochi, whose history goes back as much as 400 years.
SAIL AWAY, SAIL AWAY
After more than a week on the cruise, I realized that this type of holiday would require a different mindset. While cruises offer amazing value for money— accommodations with five meals per day, with premium amenities, all at a fraction of hotel costs—this definitely qualifies as an affordable luxury. But to truly enjoy it, you must let go of what you’ve left back on land—work, email, social media—and just tune out, slow down, and enjoy your own little world that is Costa neoRomantica. Special treats are the short visits to the quaint, unfrequented port towns, which are joys to discover. What really provides a great deal of warmth and comfort on the days and nights away from home is the great service provided by many adorable and smiling Filipino crew members.
Maraming salamat sa mga ate at kuya ng Costa neoRomantica! Mabuhay kayo, mga kabayan!
Before boarding, follow essential information provided in the instructions given before the cruise, such as printing your own luggage tag and not bringing food and drinks on the ship. While aboard, refer to the ship’s newsletter Today, which provides guests information on what’s happening the following day such as entertainment, food and drink offerings, activities on and off shore, and even the weather. This is delivered every afternoon to your cabin and available in PDF from the Costa website.
Comfortable closed shoes are recommended, such as trainers (rubber shoes), since you’ll find yourself doing a lot of exploring on and offboard, or in the gym, working out those calories you’ve piled on while at sea or to make space for the sumptuous dinners. These shoes are a must during periods of rough seas to help you steady yourself.
If you’re susceptible to sea sickness, consult your physician ahead of time and pack motion sickness medicine to last you throughout the voyage. Drink it before boarding because, when you feel seasick, it’s already too late, and it could significantly diminish your cruise experience. Experienced cruise staff advised us not to drink water while recovering from seasickness.
Make the most of the limited time on shore by booking tour packages in advance. Excursions in English have limited slots. Coaches with their own tour guide and accompanying Costa staff will take you to the best places that will enrich your experience at each port of call.
Finally, let go. Surrender yourself and the next few days to the sea. Plans may change, the schedule could shift due to the weather and sea conditions. Ports of call may be altered or canceled. Be flexible. There is no certainty that you’ll arrive at your port of call as originally planned or published. For the duration of your cruise, you are at the mercy of King Neptune. Or Aquaman.