When Costa Cruises launched Costa Serena in 2007, I wondered how the Europeans at whom it was aimed would react to an American designer's concept of classical mythology, with polystyrene Greek gods floating above the atrium, Pan's hairy goat legs supporting the red, glittery stools in the nightclub and green tentacles adorning the cocktail bar's ceiling. But they seem to love it.
Owned by Carnival Corporation and built in Italy with both the European market and European cruising in mind, Costa Serena is the largest in the Costa fleet, along with its sister, Costa Concordia, at 114,147 tons, with a maximum capacity of 3,780 (all berths). It's the line's 12th ship.
Although there are subtle differences, there are many Carnival hallmarks in the layout: the amazing nine-story atrium lobby, the top-deck waterslide, the busy thoroughfare of Deck 5, where almost all the bars are located, and the pair of two-deck dining rooms, Vesta and Ceres, at the centre and aft of the vessel.
I sailed when the ship was at almost 100 percent capacity, which was quite an experience. There were hordes of people everywhere -- all the time. At one point, I counted 23 people in a Jacuzzi that looked more suited to 12, some of them standing in the middle as there was nowhere to sit.
The ship does, however, absorb its 3,780 passengers well, provided you don't want to sit directly by the pool, where plenty of territory is staked out with towels.
Having said this, American passengers have to be prepared for the broad cultural mix on this ship. Southern Europeans, particularly Spaniards and Italians, are exuberant holidaymakers, dancing by the pool, dancing in all the bars and moving around in large family packs. Children are rarely put in the kids' club and swarm all over the pool areas, including the adult pool. Everybody goes to bed late, whatever their age. There's no regard for standing in line, whether waiting for an elevator or trying to assemble a salad at the buffet. In the main, it's one big, happy, multicultural family. But if you don't like crowds, kids or noise, choose another ship or travel in low season.
Dinner times reflect Southern European culture: 7:30 p.m. for the early sitting and 9:30 p.m. for the late.
There are two main dining rooms, Vesta at the centre of the ship and Ceres at the aft, allocated according to the location of your cabin. Each spans two decks. I preferred Ceres (at the aft end of the ship) as it has lovely views of the ship's wake. The menu in each is the same, typically, three appetisers, two pastas, two soups, three main courses and a couple of salads.
Food was average with a dash of surprisingly good; the pastas, risottos and soups were excellent (particularly a stunning cheese risotto and a rich tomato soup), but salads indifferent and surprisingly small, and mains inconsistent. Veal is a big favourite of Italians and featured regularly. Fish tended to come with cream or wine-based sauces. My companion ate lamb or beef most nights, but struggled to find anything memorable.
Both restaurants are also open for breakfast and lunch, with waiter service and open seating.
The lido restaurant, Prometheus, is enormous, leading onto the central, bright yellow pool area and spanning two decks at the top of the ship. There's a big buffet breakfast in here with plenty of variety, including a lot of breads, cheeses and cold cuts, although the scrambled egg was watery and the orange juice, which comes out of a machine, is essentially orange squash. There was surprisingly little choice on the lunch buffet in Prometheus, especially if you're used to Royal Caribbean or Carnival ships. Most days there was a basic salad bar, a seafood area, a choice of pizzas and three kinds of pasta, which were suitably al dente. In Katakolon there was a Greek theme, which the chefs had clearly enjoyed preparing -- superb stuffed vine leaves and a light, crispy spinach pie. In the evenings, the area becomes a pizzeria until 9 p.m., with linen tablecloths and faux candles.
There's a grill on deck, but I avoided it -- the burgers were pre-cooked and heated up, as was the chicken.
Costa Serena also has a "healthy" restaurant, Samsara, for the guests staying in the 99 spa cabins (see Cabins section), although you can pay a supplement to dine in here, which I recommend if you like quieter surroundings. It's oddly placed on Deck 3, next to the Vesta, so not physically connected to the spa cabins in any way. And it was half empty most nights, which begs the question, where were the spa cabin people eating, given that the ship was full? They missed out. The service was superb; really attentive and the waiters quickly learned our names.
The menu in Samsara is lighter -- more salads, more fish and more veal -- and you can also dine from the main restaurant menu. House wine in here cost from 18 euros, although we found a very good Californian Chardonnay for 24 euros. Water isn't served anywhere; you have to pay. A package for 99 euros buys six Italian wines and six bottles of water, so represents good value.
The piece de resistance of Costa Serena's dining is Club Bacco, the ship's for-fee gourmet restaurant, masterminded by Ettore Bocchia, a famed Italian chef known for his "molecular cuisine," a scientific approach to cooking to preserve depth of flavour.
Everything in Club Bacco, located above the Prometheus buffet, is priced individually. For two of us, the food came to around 50 euros, still cheaper than you would pay in a similar restaurant ashore, but quite an investment if you want to eat there regularly. Wines start at 21 euro. I kicked things off with a pink goat cheese and grilled vegetable salad, followed by vegetable crepes, which were delicious, and swordfish. My companion had lamb, but complained that it was grey and that the sauce it came with had a strange, slimy texture.
We were given a demonstration of the famous molecular cuisine, which was quite a performance. Peach pulp, sugar syrup and champagne were combined in a container, then flash-frozen with great panache using liquid nitrogen. After a lot of frantic stirring, the concoction was poured into Martini glasses. It was a strange, although not unpleasant sensation; not an ice cream and not a sorbet, but something very smooth with an intense flavour.
Room service isn't a big feature of Costa Serena. The Continental breakfast was extremely basic ("breakfast pastries" means one white roll), and there is a sandwich selection for other times of day, with a service charge of 2 euros.
At the centre of the ship, there's a very tempting chocolate shop, displaying cakes and pastries and a chocolate fountain which is served with cubes of fruit (at .90 euros per cube). An espresso costs 1.30 euros and a cake 2 euros. The presence of an espresso machine means that this is a popular gathering place for Italians after dinner.
|Fitness and Recreation|
On the top decks, there are three main pools: one forward, with a waterslide; one at the centre, surrounded by a two-deck-high gallery and flanked by weird yellow Jacuzzis (this area has a retractable roof); and a supposedly adults-only pool at the aft, which was always full of children. There's also a baby pool in the kids' club on Deck 10.
The Samsara Spa on Costa Serena is gorgeous, festooned with beautiful shimmering tiles and various influences of feng shui -½ splashing water, wind chimes and teak Buddhas. There's a huge variety of treatments, including proper ayurvedic therapies by a qualified practitioner and treatments tailored to men and couples. Individual rooms have private outdoor areas looking onto the solarium, where you can relax with herbal tea after your session.
Thirty five euros buys a day pass to the thermal suite. It's expensive, but something of a sanctuary, particularly the big thalassotherapy pool, with bubbly beds and jets. There are two steam rooms (one with aromatic steam) and one big relaxation room with stone heated recliners and floor-to-ceiling windows, as well as a rest area with Balinese day beds. A row of tanning beds looks out to sea, apparently popular with Italians in winter on cloudy days.
Next to the spa is a large gym and fitness area with machines, weights and fitballs. Some classes are free but yoga, Pilates and spinning carry a 9 euro charge -- pretty standard these days.
Being Italian, Costa carries huge numbers of children (800 on my cruise), who are catered for in the Squok Club on Deck 10. Being Italian, most of the passengers go nowhere near it and keep their kids with them all day, swarming over the pools and running around the ship.
Although babysitting is offered, late at night Deck 5 was packed with exhausted toddlers crashed out in buggies or slumped on tables.
In the club (Squok is its mascot, half dolphin, half shark), kids are divided into three groups: 3 - 6 year olds, 7 - 11 year olds and 12 - 16. There's always an English-speaking counsellor on hand. Activities are pretty standard: treasure hunts, games, books, movies and computers. Rather sweetly, there is a children's choir on the Christmas cruise.
Interestingly, there are two parallel policies onboard regarding alcoholic beverages. European kids can drink at age 18 while Americans have to wait till they are 21!
The forward end of the ship is occupied by the Teatro Giove, which is just stunning, a "real" theatre with sharply raked seating and superb sightlines. Black and brown marble, pin spots, a marble table at each seat and shiny steel railings give the theatre are really luxurious feel. The shows were a mixture of comedy, magic and dance; despite the mainly Italian audience, they seem to be aimed at all nationalities, with most of the songs in English at the production show I saw. This moved at a rather hectic pace with only a few lines of each song being sung.
Other than this, the passengers tend to make their own entertainment, dancing in all the bars until late.
At the aft end of the ship is the Salone Luna, a big entertainment lounge adorned with green moons and stars, and windows on three sides. We wanted to try this, but it tended to be used for private functions most nights.
Just outside the lounge is the Sala de Ballo Cupido, with a Cupid theme (big sofas shaped like lips) and a no-smoking policy, which meant that on this cruise it was completely empty. On the starboard side is the Piano Bar Minerva, where we had pre-dinner drinks most evenings. The ceiling is adorned with huge green tentacles, which takes a bit of getting used to, but the seating is comfortable and the ventilation such that I could sit with my smoking companion and not be bothered. There's a good atmosphere in this bar: decent martinis, generous helpings of peanuts, a classical pianist and a cornily romantic Hungarian piano/violin duo.
The casino, forward of here, spans the whole width of the ship, but is broken up by the disco in the middle, a witty design around the theme of the god Pan, with a flashing dance floor and cute stools around the bar supported by Pan's goat-legs, with red, glittery tops. The casino itself is dedicated to the two-faced god Janus and is embellished with acres of shiny red and black. Minimum bet on the tables is 5 or 10 euros.
The Bar Sport Victoria was packed on my cruise, as the European football championship was taking place. There's a small dance floor and a lot of green marble, the ceiling adorned with giant silver laurel wreaths (which I thought were crab claws at first glance). Stools shaped like black and white footballs add an amusing contrast to the lashings of gold and silver decor.
The secondary show lounge has an enormous dance floor and was always busy, with people shimmying and jiving under the pink and red lights, little flames looking like miniature stalactites.
Costa is very proud of the Formula One simulators on Serena and its sister, Concordia, which come with their own black and white chequered bar, Bar Scuderia, and a range of packages from 10 euros for a rookie drive to 30 euros for a championship experience. Strangely, the simulator was empty every time I walked past; people on this cruise seemed reluctant to part with money for anything.
Italians are fervent sunbathers and all the action in the daytime takes place around the Lido pool, which is dominated by a huge screen. There are game shows, aerobics, even yoga in front of hundreds of sunbathers. On my cruise, during the Euro 2008 football tournament, the whole area was converted into a giant sports bar at night and the atmosphere was fantastic. Evening entertainment includes a range of game shows and theme nights, from togas to flower power. The standard was pretty low-brow most days, including the popular "Superrrrr-Bingo" and "Macho Costa Serena" (a male beauty pageant).
The dress code is pretty much a case of "anything goes" in summer. There is a formal night, but only a handful of tuxedos appeared; smart casual is fine. A lot of people stick to swimwear for the lunchtime buffet.
Six euros per person, per day is added to the bill, and there is a 15 percent service charge on all drinks bills.
The overall theme of Costa Serena is Greek and Roman mythology, which becomes apparent the minute you enter the nine-deck high atrium lobby, with gold moons and suns on metallic blue adorning the walls, and figures of gods, clad in outfits from the famous Verona Opera, gazing down from clouds suspended from the ceiling.
Deck 5 is the social hub of the ship, one long string of bars and lounges from forward to aft. Because each area has its own theme, it's like walking through a series of scenes in a movie, with a crooner in one bar followed by the ker-ching of the casino and then, the flashing lights and thudding music of the disco. Specifics are provided in the Entertainment section.
The shops around the atrium sell the usual fare: cigarettes, alcohol, jewellery, perfume, logo items and for once, a selection of clothing that the fashion-conscious cruiser might actually wear. Interestingly, there is also a Greek and Turkish selection of souvenirs, handy if you fail to find anything in the markets.
A lot of space around the atrium is also devoted to a huge photo gallery. Ship's photographers pop up everywhere, paparazzi-style, and are more persistent than the vendors in the Turkish bazaars.
The library is an attractive space and somewhere quiet to sit during the day, but there are very few books in English.
Internet usage is very expensive at .50 euro for one minute. There were no packages on offer and hardly anybody seems to use Deck 4's Internet room. It's better to travel with a laptop and pick up the free Wi-Fi in port, or use cyber-cafes. In Izmir, I used a cyber cafe that cost .50 euro for a whole hour.
Costa Serena has 1,500 cabins, 575 of which have a balcony and 28 of which are designed for disabled guests.
Decor is calmer than elsewhere onboard, with warm woods and blue and apricot colours. My standard balcony cabin was a decent size -- 220 square ft. -- and laid out exactly like the cabins on the newer Carnival ships. Two big mirrors give a further illusion of space. One has a decoration of coloured Murano glass smack in the middle where your face would be if you're anything over five feet six. There are no bathroom amenities at all apart from soap and shower stuff, although you can ask for shampoo and moisturiser.
Top marks for the 99 beautiful Samsara Spa cabins and suites, highly recommended if you plan to make good use of the spa. These have bamboo-effect doors and restful decor -- orchids in vases, calming colours combined with more sumptuous bedding than the standard cabins, as well as eco-cotton bathrobes, herbal teas and a lovely box of Elemis goodies in the bathroom. The spa cabin package includes a welcome consultation, two spa treatments, two classes, two tanning sessions, dining in the Samsara restaurant and unlimited access to the thermal suite.
Apart from 350 Americans, a handful of Brits and 400 Spaniards, all the passengers were Italian on my cruise. The balance is different on Costa Serena's winter European cruises, with a much higher proportion of German and British passengers as well as those from Portugal, France and the U.S. Ages in summer range from babies and children to teens, 20-somethings, older couples and extended families -- the whole gamut, in other words, creating a much younger feel to the ship than on, say, a Royal Caribbean or NCL vessel cruising in Europe.
Announcements were made in Italian, English, Spanish, French and German, but fortunately were few and far between and not intrusive at all; so much so, that several passengers continued to lounge around the pool during the lifeboat drill.
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