Marydasan John sails through six ports in three countries and finds himself on a high

Thirteen decks at a height of 60 metres; its length close to one-third of a kilometre; 1,300 rooms with nearly 3,000 passengers and over 1,000 staff members; all weighing over one lakh tonnes.

That was Costa Magica, the spectacular and mansion-like ship which slowly left the coast of Savona in Italy for the blue waters of the Mediterranean on a sunny but chilly evening this past month. It was also the beginning of our cruising holiday stretching over seven nights and eight days, touching six ports in three countries.

Did Costa ring a bell? It probably did for it was Costa Concordia, the largest ship from the Costa Cruise group, which partially sank on the night of January 13 off an Italian coast killing 32 passengers. But 4,252 people were rescued from the ship that was as long as three football fields.

The sound of the ship horn faded slowly. Mesmerised, we continued to stand in the red carpeted walkway of deck no. 2. Suddenly, we were jolted out of our reverie. It was time to settle down in our allotted space — a four-bedded room with a desk, almirahs, a safe, a refrigerator and cushy chairs. The luggage entrusted at the entrance of the “dream liner” had arrived at the doorstep. We were given smartcard keys which doubled as identity cards for embarking and disembarking; for purchases at the glitzy onboard shops; boozing at different bars; for a go at the sauna and spa, the Internet cafes and casinos — all located on different decks.

Moving out of the room, one entered long corridors — sandwiched between rooms — the other end of which was hardly visible to the naked eye. As we traversed from deck to deck, we were awestruck by the eye-catching decor, furnishings and prolific paintings — over 5,000 stunning Italian art works — along the hallways, stairs and inside the lounges. The elegant and relaxed setting was overwhelming.

Life on the ship invariably started with a visit to one of the restaurants. With food available almost non-stop — breakfast, tea, lunch, high tea and dinner — we constantly made trips to one or the other eating joints. Except for dinner, it was buffet all the time in the expansive restaurants. There was a wide variety of cuisine — Italian specialities like pasta, pizza and lasagne, grilled items, meat, seafood, egg preparations, cereals and cheese, breads and salads. Only an epicurean can taste all that was lined up in the dining halls. There were over 30 culinary delights available both at breakfast and lunch. Even during tea time, one could choose from over a dozen items of bread, pancakes, sandwiches, French toast and more. The seven-course dinner was more formal with guests given fixed tables and waiters assigned to serve them. Fruit salads and ice-creams to be washed down with a variety of juices were available to wind up every meal.

We moved to tables on either side of the restaurants overlooking the serene waters underneath. Sipping tea or coffee, it was a sheer delight to stare at the Mediterranean waves as far as the eye could survey.

As the gigantic ship sailed at 24 nautical miles (45 km) per hour, we took a round of multifarious facilities available on the various decks. Of all the splendour and magic, the most tempting of all places was the top deck where swimming pools were located. Guests in droves spent hours at a stretch sunbathing on the reclining beds. The sight of the young and the old lying down in their swimsuits and bikinis made the whole deck look like a beach.

After the pool, we moved to some chic places like the ballrooms, discotheques, theatres, indoor games courts or casinos. For the religious, there was a chapel located on one of the decks.

The cruise itinerary was such that the ship sailed through the night and reached a port, where it was anchored for the day. The guests were free to disembark and take a trip to the port city. There were no visa hassles as one began the sojourn with a Schengen visa valid in over 20 European countries. But the guests mustn’t forget to get back to the ship at the stipulated time, lest the ship would sail away.

During our seven-day cruise, the ship moored at six ports, the first being Barcelona, the second biggest city in Spain. Passengers got almost half-a-day to move around the city. One could avail the expensive excursion facility offered by the ship or take the local buses to the city centre. From there, we walked along the cobbled stone paths, soaking in the old world charm of the city baptised by the Romans.

The next day, we reached Palma de Mallorca, the principal city of the Island of Majorca, inhabited by a Spanish commune of little over four lakh inhabitants. It is known for its beaches and is rich in hotels and tourist villages. We lost our way while walking back to the ship. By a sheer quirk of fate, who should we come face to face with? A waiter who looked Indian and was standing outside a wayside restaurant. He turned out to be a Pakistani from Kashmir, yes the Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir as we know it. His glee and excitement, as if he had come across someone of his ilk, had to be seen to be believed.

As we traversed through various cities, we saw many Punjabi, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and African migrants vending assorted items by the roadside. It is illegal and they do it stealthily, always on their toes to pack up and take to their heels at the sight of a policeman.

Navigating in the Channel of Sicily, we reached the port of La Valletta, the Capital of the island of Malta, the next day. A city that stood like a rock behind the British and the United States during World War II, it has war memorials in the town square, including a citation plaque of commendation from the Queen of England. It is one city where tourists can converse with the locals in English, unlike most other places. As we walked along a broad pathway, we came face to face with two soldiers. They stood as still as statues at the entrance of an imposing building with arched gates. In an otherwise indistinguishable environment, we were surprised to find that it was the entrance to the Parliament. Situated in the middle of the Mediterranean, the city is dotted with palaces, churches, forts, watch towers and gardens — a tourists’ paradise indeed.

By next day, we were back in Italian territory. The ship lowered its anchor at the port of Catania, a land known for volcanic eruptions. We were lucky enough to see an active volcano as we left the port city later in the day.

On the penultimate day, the ship docked in Naples, noted for its architectural beauty. It is the third largest city in Italy after Rome and Milan. The historic centre of Naples, listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, is a sheer architectural beauty. The Piazza del Plebiscito, one of the largest squares, is where the plebiscite that made Naples into a unified kingdom, took place in the 19th Century. With 448 historical churches, it is one of the Catholic cities in the world with the maximum number of places of worship.

There was not a moment of ennui. The sheer mix of travellers was a learning experience. About 75 per cent of the guests were Italians, with the rest being a blend of Spanish, German, French, Portuguese, British, American, Chinese, and others. It was no surprise that announcements were made in as many as six European languages.

Surprisingly, eight of us belonging to two families were the only Indians among the 3,000-odd guests. But, among the 1,000-odd crew, there were about 100 Indians, most of whom were Goans, Tamilians, Maharashtrians and the omnipresent Keralites. The other crew were mostly from Brazil, The Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Argentina besides various European countries. “We rarely get to see an Indian family onboard. Last time we met a family from Tamil Nadu,” said a Malayali crew member who was thrilled to enjoy our company during his long hours on the line of duty.

Life on a ship was quite informal. One could breeze in and out of most places without a care. Guests wore casuals during the day, but in places like the casinos, discos, theatres, and the prayer hall, smart casuals or formal dresses were in vogue.

With the sun setting past 9 p.m., we had plenty of time to spend on the top decks, looking at the open skies, gazing at the distant horizon or staring at the calm waves rolling on the Mediterranean in disbelief. Swayed by the air impregnated with freshness, one could feel the chilly nights with the stars looking at you from a distance and the strong winds trying to sweep you off your feet.

Coasting through the costs

The charges vary depending on the season and how early you book. On an average, the cost is less than €400 per head — with one-fourth rate for children below 17 years — for the entire trip. The charges go up phenomenally if you choose a room with a private balcony overlooking the sea. The rate includes accommodation, food and use of most of the service areas. However, steer clear of services-on-payment. Keep these tips in mind — opt for window-shopping at the swanky shops, carry enough of your favourite drinks when you embark instead of ordering drinks in the bars; avoid Internet cafes unless absolutely essential; rely on local buses or take a walk in port cities instead of the excursions arranged by the Cruise, as port cities are within walking distance.