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

Costa cruise.