Neil Porten has tender memories of his time enjoying the European-Asian fusion aboard this sophisticated and intimate Italian cruise ship.

Tenerezza — tenderness — is a couple embracing, her head on his shoulder, leaning forward as one, their hair whipped by the wind but otherwise motionless at the railing of the ship's aft deck. Standing 3.25m tall, this sculpture in fire brick and corten steel by artist Bruno Lucchi is a totem of the charm and sophistication to be found on the Italian ship Costa neoRomantica, which cruises from the Japanese ports of Tokyo and Fukuoka from April to November. To the only New Zealander onboard this six-night out-and-back trip from Japan's capital to Kobe, Fukuoka and the South Korean island of Jeju, it's also the embodiment of a satisfying duet of an Asian destination experienced on a quintessentially European cruise line.

The cruise holiday market is increasingly split between the smaller luxury ships, many of them newer and carrying fewer than 1000 passengers, and the modern mega liners with 2500 or more passengers.

Costa neoRomantica, built in 1993 and completely refurbished in 2012, takes a middle course: you don't get the adrenaline-pumping theme park amusements, the multi-deck casinos, or a dozen dining destinations. But 1800 passengers get great value and a sophisticated experience, enjoyed in a series of intimate and beautiful on-board spaces. As its name implies, this ship is perfect for romance. But it also works for families and groups of friends. You can glad-rag with the Italians at the Captain's Cocktail Party if you choose but it's equally fine to karaoke with the Chinese in the Tango Disco bar, or soak in the spa pool like the hardy Russians.

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I'm aboard to enjoy the cruise on my terms: relax, recharge, eat well, and see new places from the unique perspective only a ship provides.

Wicker chairs and cabanas at the Lido Bar. Photo / Supplied
Wicker chairs and cabanas at the Lido Bar. Photo / Supplied

Cruise mode

Costa neoRomantica usually docks at the Harumi Passenger Terminal in Tokyo, about a 5km taxi ride from Tokyo Station but, for some unexplained reason, this sailing was from the more remote Oi Container Terminal. The ship docked at Harumi on its return.

Check-in is stress-free and efficient. Your luggage is delivered to your cabin, where you'll find your Costa Card, the keycard for your room and your security card for getting off and on the ship. It's also the means by which you make all payments on board. Prices are in US dollars. A per-day service fee is charged, instead of tipping your cabin steward or the waiting staff.

My oceanview cabin on Deck 4 had plenty of wardrobe and shelf space, and enough large mirrors to conjure a feeling of extra space. The bed was comfortable and firm, the bathroom sparse but utterly clean. While my cabin was right by the stairs and lifts, I was never troubled by noise outside the door. The rumble of the engines was noticeable but didn't bother me.

I want to be alone

Being autumn, it wasn't surprising to find the outdoor areas, apart from the sheltered Saint Tropez pool deck, largely deserted despite a sunny week of cruising. I did spot a Russian mother and her daughter alternating between the hot tub and the pool on the Montecarlo Lido deck, watched over by Tenerezza. But the rearmost oasis, the Lido Bar Montecarlo, with its deep wicker chairs and cabanas was cruelly underused. And apart from a few of the evening shows, and also during happy hour in the Tango Disco bar (11pm-midnight, all you can drink for US$10), I never found myself in a lounge or bar with more than a handful of fellow passengers. Lack of a crowd is a good thing, in my book. For a quiet spot, try the Tango Disco at the back of the boat during the day, or the oversized chairs by the windows in the wine bar.

Cruiser Neil Porten takes a selfie-at-sea. Photo / Neil Porten
Cruiser Neil Porten takes a selfie-at-sea. Photo / Neil Porten

Sea, food

You will never go hungry eating the food included in your fare on neoRomantica. If you miss a meal timeslot, there's always a smaller spot providing a late breakfast, afternoon tea, or late evening snack. European and Asian tastes are catered for at every meal and I enjoyed every morsel produced by the ship's fine kitchen staff.

Botticelli is the main formal restaurant and in the Italian style, lunch and dinner consists of several courses. Each menu is themed for a specific region's food. The pasta was always good, naturalmente.
Less formal is the Giardino buffet, a light and bright restaurant at the stern. This was my go-to spot for breakfast, essentially to load up on the excellent pastries. Taking the stairs is a scientifically proven method to cancel out the calories in a half-dozen selection of danishes, doughnuts and cannoli, isn't it?

Service was attentive and friendly in all the dining places. The thing I couldn't get my head around was why, at lunch and dinner in the Botticelli restaurant I had to pay for bottled water. A free water option was not available. But if I dined at the buffet restaurant I could help myself to cold water.

You can also pay to eat at other spots and I found them all good value. At La Fiorentina Steakhouse you get multiple courses, including a generous scallop entree, a fish course, steak, salad, cheese and dessert for US$32 (NZ$50).

Fire is a great danger at sea; gas is not used for cooking due to the hazard of naked flames. And yet, neoRomantica is the only cruise ship with a woodfired pizza oven. For about NZ$14 you'll enjoy a large tasty pizza like nowhere else at sea.

Tossing dough at the Napoli Pizza Bar. Photo / Supplied
Tossing dough at the Napoli Pizza Bar. Photo / Supplied

Casanova, the ship's premier eatery, is a collaboration with Italian chef Umberto Bombana. On this sailing, the eight-course menu was reproduced from his three Michelin-star Hong Kong restaurant, 8½ Otto e Mezzo Bombana. It's fancy food in a beautiful setting, with the New Zealand scampi carpaccio, the two cuts of wagyu beef, and the tiramisu the stand-outs for me. I'd happily pay US$59 again to linger over another meal like that.

Pamper me

The neoRomantica's Samsara Spa is a wonder to behold. The beautiful space is on two levels at the front of the ship; the tranquil Japanese tea house and a gallery of loungers overlook the thalassotherapy pools and gym below. Also on the lower level is my pick for luxury on-board treat: the thermal suite. It's an arcade of rooms — steam room, cold room, tepidarium (to us plebs, that's a room of heated ceramic loungers), laconium (all hail the dry sweating room!) and sauna. There's a deal that gets you unlimited access to all these facilities in the spa for the whole cruise Hedonistically, there's a full smorgasbord of spa and beauty treatments to be savoured too.

Are you not entertained?

I was curious to see if the entertainment on a cruise aimed at the Japanese market and Costa's traditional European clientele from Italy, France and Germany would hold any attraction for New Zealanders.

Take Italian Night: Bonkers! At dinner, the wait staff, all in white with tri-colour aprons, start twirling white napkins above their heads as Italian songs are played. The diners all join in. Then the waiters begin dancing with diners, which segues into conga lines snaking throughout the restaurant. The mass hysteria ends only after a group of young waiters bust their best dance moves surrounded by a throng of wildly cheering passengers. All this before we'd even seen the cheese course.

Verdict on the entertainment: I chose to love it all. I'm not a dancer, but I loved the mad dash of those desperate to get a turn in the arms of their favourite hunky trouper during the Dance with the Senior Officers and Latin Dancers. Opera is not my favourite music genre but, boy, I loved the looks on the faces in the front row as the tenor belted out aria after aria to a full house. I loved the magic show and I loved the Mister Bello Bello audience participation singing/drag queen/striptease elimination competition.

Something to see here

Each of the three port destinations is worthy of its own story. Here, what's most interesting to me is what I can see from the ship.

Kobe is a dense city, forming the narrow northern arm of the massive urban area surrounding Osaka Bay. The steep rugged mountains behind the port have limited expansion inland leading to reclamation, including the enormous Port and Rokko islands and Kobe Airport.

Arriving at Jeju Island is to be reminded of the volcanic field of Auckland; the flat-top coastal mountains suggest Mt Eden and Mt Wellington, and the distant inland summit of Hallansan, South Korea's highest mountain, hints at the familiar outline of Rangitoto.

Departing Fukuoka is spectacular in the late afternoon, as the low sun softens the ranks of mountains behind the city and the peaks of the islands in Hakata Bay. Trawlers with green decks and white hulls returning to port are overtaken by jets making their approach into the airport.

A few hours later, in the dark, our ocean-going ship becomes a river cruiser navigating through a strait separating two of Japan's main islands. It's a wonderland of illuminated offices and apartments crowding both shorelines, Shimonoseki on the Honshu side and Kitakyushu on the Kyushu side, a vista that slides past for miles. Then, after passing a neon-lit ferris wheel we glide beneath the huge Kanmon suspension bridge connecting the two islands; it's quite simply awesome.

Our final approach to land is a four-hour journey through what the ship's captain describes as "heavily trafficated" Tokyo Bay. Sunrise reveals flotillas of tankers and container ships on all sides. Eventually, under clear blue skies and the towers of the Tokyo CBD we berth at the Harumi terminal. I'm lingering at the back of the ship for the last time, taking photos, delaying the inevitable disembarkation back to reality. Tenerezza is here with me; the lucky couple will get to continue their romance.

Tenerezza, by Bruno Lucchi. Photo / Supplied
Tenerezza, by Bruno Lucchi. Photo / Supplied

Checklist

DETAILS

Cruise World

has four-to-six night packages sailing on the Costa neoRomatica between Japan an Korea through to August, with prices starting from $649pp (without flights).