(The following is a guest column by Si Liberman, noted travel writer and journalist.)
By SI LIBERMAN
Friday, Jan. 13, the day disaster struck the Costa Concordia, was going to be just another lucky day at sea for us, you might say. My wife and I were cruising the western Mediterranean in unusually calm waters, unwinding and enjoying the comforts and privileges of the exclusive Yacht Club section of the Italian-owned MSC Fantasia when the news hit TV screens.
Having sold our Jersey Shore home, we had just gone through a frenetic 2½ weeks, disposing of nine rooms of furnishings and collectibles and moving to Florida. This was to be a long-sought period of R&R — a respite and opportunity for relaxation, fine dining, entertainment and exploration in a luxury setting.
That it was; however, the unfolding tragedy cast a shadow over passengers and crew members who came from more than 50 countries and numbered 4,400, about the same number on the sinking Costa Concordia. The shocking news set off an avalanche of reassuring phone calls and e-mail messages to families and friends at home.
A few days later, our ship passed within three miles of the Italian island of Giglio, where the capsized Costa Concordia was the target of feverish search and rescue efforts — and the subject of headlines around the world. It was late at night as we sailed nearby, and we couldn’t see anything.
By then, stateroom TV screens and elsewhere on the Fantasia were repeatedly showing movies describing safety and emergency procedures. And a shipboard newsletter urged passengers to participate in a scheduled lifeboat drill while the vessel was docked in Genoa, Italy.
No new safety measures or instructions for the crew were called for, insisted Giovanni Massa, Fantasia’s hotel manager and comandante. “We have weekly drills. The crew is trained to cope with all kinds of emergencies.”
Massa said he had a nodding acquaintance with the Costa Concordia captain, Francesco Schettino, as a resident of the same hometown — Sorrento, Italy — and knew him as a longtime seaman and commander of the Costa Concordia for five years or so.
“What went wrong with the Concordia? It’ll be months before we really know,” he rationalized.
Yacht Club Perks
As veteran cruisers, we’ve usually favored smaller ships for their casual atmosphere and the uncrowded, unhurried feel along with a seemingly greater opportunity to make friends. What aroused interest in the Fantasia was a review of the 4-year-old vessel on the Cruise Critic website (cruisecritic.com ). It touted the Yacht Club feature as “a fantastic splurge — a ship-within-a-ship with a luxury enclave of cabins and private facilities ideal for travelers who want to blend a luxury cruise experience with big ship features and amenities like entertainment, spa, kids’ programs.”
That, as well as the 12-day itinerary — Barcelona, Spain; Casablanca, Morocco; Tenerife, Canary Islands; Madeira, Portugal; Malaga, Spain; and Genoa — and the fact that January daytime temperatures in those areas rarely slip below 50 proved inviting. We were pleasantly surprised to find some Yacht Club perks not mentioned in the Cruise Critic report. Among them: availability of a personal butler, complimentary alcoholic and other beverages, dining privileges in the intimate L’Etoile restaurant, daily delivery of newspapers of choice, and 24/7 availability of complimentary light snacks and drinks in the club’s posh Top Sail lounge. Also not mentioned in the review was the Yacht Club fare — about twice the $2,034 per person price tag of a balcony cabin.
The club section is a sealed-off area on Deck 15 under the bridge with 71 deluxe staterooms, two lounges and service of a concierge. Entry can be made only with a specially engineered cabin key.
We were the only Americans among the more than 100 club passengers. Two of our neighbors, as it turned out, were a Russian billionaire, and a Saudi Arabian prince and his petite, dark-haired wife. Eying the Arabian couple one night being escorted into L‘Etoile, a waiter quipped, “They could probably buy this boat, maybe our whole company. Why they’d want to sail with so many people I don’t know.”
Our butler, a bright, 37-year-old Ukrainian who had trained as a ballet dancer, was the only female among the dozen or so other butlers serving club guests. After being told my father had emigrated from her country, she treated us like relatives, insisting on escorting us to dinner most nights, serving as an interpreter, urging us to visit her and her husband in the Ukraine and bidding us goodbye with a kiss on both cheeks.
The L’Etoile experience each day was a highlight, allowing leisurely dining in the formal, narrow restaurant while ensconced in comfortable maroon velvet seats and updating the day’s events with a friendly Australian Yacht Club neighbor and his teenage son. Meals were strictly Italian style with two choices of pasta nightly with entrees found on most upscale restaurant menus — rack of lamb, filet mignon, lobster tail, a fish choice, etc. After telling the mâitre d’ cannelloni is a favorite Italian dish of mine, a few nights later he surprised us with a pair of the blintz-shaped edibles specially prepared for us by the chef.
The Yacht Club clearly adds a new dimension to cruising, offering a small luxury boat feel amidst one of the largest ships built in Italy and clearly exceeded our expectations aside from a couple quibbles. The nightly ship newsletter lacked sufficient information about shipboard activities and port destinations, and no-smoking rules seemingly were un-enforced in some areas.
When we disembarked in Barcelona on Jan. 20 and flicked on the TV after checking into the five-star, triangular-shaped Hilton Diagonal Mar Hotel, the search for bodies on the dying Concordia was still the big news of the day.