All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveller is unaware—Martin Buber

Why cruise for pleasure? Rest, relaxation, renewal, hope, laughter, music, new friends, food, drink—it can be for many reasons.

And the newest pleasure travel ships, circa 2018, will be adding laser games and robots to refresh the older cruise culture of billionaires in gowns and tuxedos, the Noel Cowardisms, grand pianos, chandeliers, cognac. Perhaps to lay to rest the Fedora and pencil moustache wearing ghosts of cruises past, their strains of  Cole Porter songs overtaken by the insistent beat of non-stop Cannes and Ibiza style partying.

But the entire thing is all very new to India, exposed to little beyond shore—hugging steamers and passages to England or Basra from an earlier time.

The Costa NeoClassica is an Italian cruise ship, built in the nineties. But it was comprehensively refurbished recently. It is one of 12 Costa cruise-ships sailing the world with great savoir faire.  They are all part of the Carnival Group, currently the largest cruise-operators in the world. 

The first surprising thing that we noticed on boarding the ship at Mumbai is that most of the passengers were Italian, indicating considerable interest in India and the Maldives. There were some French and English too, but just a minority, perhaps no more than 20%, of Indians. A sizeable crowd of jubilant life insurance salesmen did board late in the day at Mumbai, rewarded for their performance with a four night cruise to Kochi.

The sumptuous food catered generously to the tastes of Europeans and Indians alike, with a considerable variety of offerings. The Chefs also made sure that the vegetarians and those who do not eat beef or pork had plenty of chicken, sea food and fish to choose from instead.

There were sit down options with linen, cutlery and waiter service at a grand restaurant, as well as multiple buffet stations in two informal café settings. And all this—breakfast, lunch, high-tea and dinner, was included in the price—but there were fixed timings. In addition, there were restaurants and bars which have to be paid for separately, but were open practically at all hours.

The entire ship including all the toilets was kept scrupulously clean with Housekeeping and the plumbing working perfectly well. Dedicated Cabin Stewards made up the rooms to suit passenger time preferences.

In the evenings, there were acrobats, dancers, musicians and light shows in the auditorium. A jazz combo with regulation crooner played dance music in the grand bar. At least one or two Bingo games gave away impressive prizes of 500 Euro or more.

A casino catered to the gamblers but only in international waters, and after dinner  there was peppier live music and dancing in yet another lounge. Many people, fat and lean, unabashedly learned Latin dance steps on deck 11, taught the moves by  rhythmic staffers.

There was a supervised toddlers’ lounge with deep pile carpet and safe toys to give young mothers a break. And another with racks of “princess” dresses for little girls to live out their favorite fantasy (and be photographed doing it).

The Gym, Sauna and Turkish Bath (Steam Room) were included in the price, though the Spa treatments and Massages were charged for.

There were several lifts at either end of the ship and double sets of staircases for  those who wanted more exercise even after using the artificial grass-turfed jogging track.

There was a quixotic inconvenience with drinking water however, that forced the entire shipload to forage periodically, jugs and empty water bottles in hand, up to the deck 10 buffet dining area.

The Costa NeoClassica came along as recently as the December 2016 season.  Their first and only cruise so far goes out from Mumbai to Mangalore over three nights, taking one more to Kochi, all along the Arabian Sea, and then three more to Male in the Maldives, out in the Indian Ocean.

It returns via Colombo in Sri Lanka, and Goa. Costa has plotted its first route on a visa- free course, though you do need valid passports to book. It takes on and disembarks passengers at each stop, and allows ample time for shore excursions, both independently, or at vast prices in Euros, if one chooses to use the Costa travel operators.

Holiday-makers can customise both the duration, from a 3/4 nights minimum, to 7, or even 14 for the round-trip, and accordingly, the cost of the cruise.

Free travel of children under 12 in the same cabin is standard, presumably with bunks of their own. A single passenger however, has to pay 1.5 times to justify occupying a cabin designed for two. There is quite a lot on the look and feel of the ship and its facilities online.

There were 600 odd cabins, both sea-facing and inside. And decks at 11th, 12th, 13th   levels with restaurants, bars and swimming pools/sunbathing areas interspersed, were popular with the guests. There was also a plush air-conditioned 360 degree view observatory lounge at the 14th level, and quiet lounges with comfortable seating everywhere. Wi-fi was extra, as was use of the ship’s laptops. Calls to shore from the reception however, were free.

Over 1200 passengers, including children, were served by as many as 600 staffers—Italians certainly, but Indians, Brazilians, Filipinos and others too.

There was no cash,(US Dollars/Euro), accepted on the ship except in bill settlement. Instead, the “Costa Card” was room key, identity and credit card rolled into one. Alternatively, a credit card could be linked for on-board payments. Passports were held over till the port of disembarkation.

There were duty free shops with special offers- perfumes, watches, bags, souvenirs, liquor, cigarettes, funny hats.

A daily newsletter from the Captain announced the activities around the ship, themes, dress codes and other cruise arcana. There was a de rigeur Captain’s Evening for a general dress up, an Indian night for Italians to try out their sarees, and Bollywood music from 6 pm every evening at deck 11.

There was, reassuringly, a well equipped and staffed hospital on the 3rd deck and its attentions were included under the on-board insurance for those who paid for it. Costa is the first company that has chosen to seize the first-mover advantage from India’s exciting new Cruise Tourism Policy. Since India has over 7,500 km of coastline, is strategically placed between West Asia and South East Asia, and has much to offer the sightseer and souvenir shopper, it is surprising that it hasn’t been done so far.

The logic for it all is impeccable. Some 120,000 well-heeled Indians go on cruises every year now, taking ship mostly from Singapore.

There is a huge potential. Fifty-nine cruise ships docked in India in fiscal 2016 with 1.76 lakh visitors, many of whom came ashore to spend their money.  And yet this represents just 0.5% of the global cruise market of 2.3 crore travellers.

Meanwhile, temporary ones have been opened in erstwhile goods storage sheds at Mumbai’s faded Alexandra Docks, and at the other ports of New Mangalore, Kochi, Goa, and Chennai, the last on the Bay of Bengal. These five are the only ones amongst India’s12 ports that can currently berth the sizeable ships. Though in Male, the ship anchored off-shore, and we went ashore on wildly swaying tenders.    

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