Is it possible to feel like the only couple on a ship of 3500 passengers? The answer on Costa Cruises' new behemoth ship, the Serena,
is a resounding yes! My husband and I chose a seven-day cruise in the
eastern Med for the itinerary and because, with two busy work
schedules, we want someone else to do the organizing. But will we feel
herded from place to place? Will the staff be too overwhelmed to
respond to individual requests? Our concerns are soon set to rest.
We arrive at Venice's Marco Polo International Airport early on the
morning of our sailing—without any arrangements for transfers. Scanning
signs for a means of transport to the pier, I spot the Costa booth. A
staff member, fluent in five languages (a feat amazing to North
Americans), finds our names and cabin on a master list. For a small
fee, we can ride on the Costa bus leaving in five minutes. Our bags are
tagged, and we board a comfortable air-conditioned coach.
At the pier we drop off our bags and are offered a free shuttle to
Piazzale Roma, a jumping off point for exploring Venice. We've given
ourselves several hours before check-in. What a bonus to spend those
hours wandering unencumbered through Venice on a sun-drenched May
morning! Only when jet lag slows our pace do we return to begin the
embarkation process. We steel ourselves for a lengthy wait in a
jostling crowd, but our choice of a mini-suite allows for an expedited
Again in a fraction of the time we expected, we stroll into our cabin
to find we've hit the jackpot! Not only is it roomy, spotless, and
tastefully decorated, but the wrap-around balcony yields views from
both aft and port sides. Other guests will no doubt flock to the pools
and enjoy the camaraderie of the common areas. For us, 30 feet of
balcony with six private deck chairs is prime real estate and a source
of sheer delight.
The Costa Serena departs Venice at 6 pm and the view is
mesmerizing—even for those who know the city well. We can't drag
ourselves away for the 6:15 seating of dinner. (The alternative 8:45
seating is favored by Europeans but doesn’t fit our up early
lifestyle.) Eventually we make our way to the buffet on the Lido deck.
Its offerings of pasta, pizza, and salad are the daily alternative to
more elegant fare.
A new day brings us to our first port—the Italian city of Bari. Many
guidebooks give this working harbor a pass, but the Serena glides
into a jumbo berth and we stroll down the gangway to check out the Old
City. Two excursions are offered but are unnecessary. It's a
five-minute walk, and we simply follow the crowd. Many of our fellow
travelers seem to take this opportunity to buy alcohol, and we hear a
distinct clanking of bottles as bags are put through security on our
For most passengers, the second stop at Katakolon, Greece—port for the
city of Olympia—is the real beginning of the adventure. The ruins of
ancient Olympia are a 35-minute bus ride inland, and many passengers
have wisely booked an excursion. There is no local tourist
infrastructure capable of transporting the passengers streaming off the
Serena, but the Costa staff is prepared. With extraordinary efficiency
we are assembled into groups and whisked onto buses. Native
English-speakers are a minority on the Serena, and our tour group
includes Poles, Danes, and Brazilians whose alternatives were tours in
Italian, German, French, or Spanish.
We reach the site where Greeks once assembled to pay respect to their
gods and participate in the premiere athletic event of the ancient
world, the Olympic games. Long deserted and only recently excavated,
foundations, fields, and a few pillars are all that remain—yet our
guide brings them to life. We follow her along the path taken by
ancient athletes onto the running track. We marvel over the pit where
every Olympic torch (ancient and modern) has been lit. And because our
guide expertly maneuvers us away from fellow tourists, we feel neither
rushed nor crowded. Any hesitation about signing up for future
excursions is banished.
At our next stop Izmir, Turkey, we are back on the bus headed for the
extraordinary ruins of Ephesus. Our travel time is just under an hour,
and again the trip is organized down to the smallest detail. Our guide
provides insight into Turkish history and culture and we're not
subjected to an unscheduled visit at a carpet shop (worked into any
tour booked independently). However, the layout of the ruins funnels
visitors down a single thoroughfare. When the buses from the cruise
ships arrive, there is no way to escape the crush of visitors. Ephesus
is a sight well worth seeing but ideally under different circumstances.
At the excursion's conclusion, we are happy to escape back to the
privacy and comfort of our cabin.
Day four of our cruise brings us to Istanbul, a city that straddles two
continents, and the historical meeting ground of East and West. With
only a day, we decide to explore on our own and visit the best-known
attractions. Istanbul is a port where it is possible to walk off the
ship, grab a cab to almost anywhere and explore with guidebook in hand.
Everything we want to see today, the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sophia, and
the covered Bazaar, is within walking distance (for the hardy). It is
here that we are most aware that our cruise is a tasting of ports and
that a larger serving requires a return visit.
As longtime sailors, we've been looking forward to our day at sea.
Most cruise lines (Costa included) schedule only one such day on a
seven-day cruise and it's an opportunity to visit the gym, book a spa
treatment, or sit by the pool. We intend to check out the Samsara spa
but find that reading on our private deck provides the perfect zen
experience. Some passengers are booked into Samsara cabins and eat
health conscious meals in its special restaurant. We have decided to
make the ports the focus of our holiday and try (but not too hard!) to
make our own healthy choices.
Our final stop is Dubrovnik, Croatia. The Serena pulls into the harbor
at noon and drops anchor. Tenders transport us to the dock—with those
who have signed up for an excursion on the first boats. Again we opt
out. Dubrovnik is easily explored on foot without a guide. The city
walls circle the Old City and for a small fee visitors can hike the
parameter (about 1 kilometer including stair climbing) and enjoy a view
that is nothing short of breathtaking. After a flurry of picture
taking, we descend back into the city to search for souvenirs and
indulge in an ice cream. No signs of modern commercialism detract from
this medieval setting. Croatians know Dubrovnik is something special
and have preserved (and restored) it beautifully.
With our cruise coming to a close, we pause to evaluate. The Costa
Serena, its crew, and the quality of our onboard experience have
exceeded our expectations. Top-notch organization and an extraordinary
attention to detail are the keys. We disembark in Venice convinced we
have enjoyed the unique experience we hoped for...and planning our next