We have little experience of cruising and our judgements are necessarily based on limited experience. The story so far ........ We went on our first ever cruise last October on Costa Mediterranea. If you read my review of that trip (October 2013) you will see that we had to abort in Savona a few days short of finishing the cruise from Rhodes to Marseille. My wife had back problems and we had a horrendous time getting off the boat and making our way to Nice airport. As I warned then, help from the Insurance company via the ship was pitiful and we were largely left to our own devices. I am sure we would have done better on a 'British' ship with a British doctor and speaking in English. We managed however with my limited Italian and rather better French (and help from friendly natives) to get home.
With persistence we managed to persuade the Insurance company to pay up, my wife had her operation and we thought to put the money towards doing the bit of the Med we had missed before the insurance premiums went up. This turned out to be rather naive as the company would not cover such a recent operation even though my wife was completely cured.
So off we went to Barcelona at the end of March only adequately insured; wife had forgotten her walking stick, but didn't seem bothered. I was. It's a great device for avoiding queues and eliciting sympathy. We had a night before the cruise in Barcelona, the weather was fine and the hotel central. I highly recommend getting to the cruise port the night before embarkation; it takes away a lot of stress even if it does cost a few pennies more in taxi fares. The letter we received from Costa gave the wrong embarkation time but we rolled up at the Cruise terminal at about 12:30 and were drinking our first cocktail an hour later. Barcelona embarkation is comparatively luxurious and has a good duty free section. Thus we managed a decent bottle of wine to celebrate, and a large bottle of water. Although we had booked the all inclusive, it is rather pleasant to have your own bottle of wine on your own balcony for when the extensive fire drills kick in at every port and everything shuts down. Embarkation at Rhodes had been primitive and slow. One for the Serena.
The fire drills on Serena were well organised, intelligible and reasonably deft. They managed to lose us on Mediterranea and we all sort of drifted off in different parties into the darkness when nobody seemed interested. Never found the muster station or perhaps we did. One up to the Serena
We had booked a Premium cabin this time, but I can't honestly say there was a lot of difference and I wouldn't pay for it again. The coffee they bring with the breakfast is barely drinkable One up to the Mediterranea - The Classic cabin there was slightly larger/wider, although the balcony at the back of Serena wake-watching was fantastic and you are allowed to smoke.
We are very much occasional smokers and there has been a big policy shift in smoking since last October. Nowhere inside is set aside for smokers except for a so called Cigar bar, which does not have a bar and as far as we could tell no air extraction system either. One poor chap had to don a gas mask to clean the ashtrays and pose for photos; we only went in once. Better for everybody if they dispensed with it altogether in that state. There are windbreaks on the deck with a bit of a canopy. We haven't smoked inside at home for years and so were not much inconvenienced. A pity on a ship that size that there is not a place where smokers and non smokers can interact in a degree of comfort, but I do realise there is a sea change. A draw.
The decor. Just silly on the Serena with the plastic Gods and Goddesses reclining on their polystyrene clouds. One for the Mediterranea.
Cleanliness is next to Godliness, I suppose, and both ships were kept immaculately. More could be made of the hand sanitizers but they were there and we did use them. Unlike on the Mediterranea however all fixtures and fittings worked, so one to Serena.
Signage or is it signeage? I managed to get lost frequently on Serena, my second cruise and almost never on Mediterranea my first. Principal difficulties were with the way off ship/exit. We spent a good deal of time in the bowels of the ship trying to find the exit. Deck 0 is fascinating with the panoply of waiters and stewards and cooks and laundry and logistics operatives, but we felt we should not be there. It was a bit like one of those Science fiction films where you are wandering along a very white long passage waiting for someone with a meat cleaver to leap out from a side bay. On the last day we were told to proceed to deck 5 and await announcements for disembarkation which we duly did. We were then told to go to deck 0 which we did by the nearest lift. It was a dead end. We went back to deck 5 and found our English hostess who seemed to think it was quite a hoot. It seems a shame that most people who are only on the boat for a week, waste considerable time because signs are just not there. I found the gym on four mornings but not easily. Mediterranea much better.
The gym and facilities on the Mediterranea were superior to those on Serena, although they were both pretty good. The locker system on Serena involved putting in a PIN number, but few of the locks were working. On the Mediterranea there were locks with a physical key and lovely big fluffy towels and showers with water coming at you from all directions, so one to Mediterranea.
There was certainly plenty of food on both ships with lots of variety. I would not recommend either breakfast or lunch in the Main Dining Room, mainly because there was so much more choice elsewhere. Lunch in MDR seemed to take forever and the breakfast coffee served up is stewed and poor. We never had afternoon tea, but sampled the pizza bar in the evening. If you want a pizza you are better waiting until 21:30 when they serve individual pizzas on deck 10, which are rather better than the slices on deck 9 earlier, although baked in the same oven. It is a sit down meal with friendly waiter service too. The evening meal in MDR was a highlight of the day; we had attentive waiters and a speedy refill of empty glasses. We were fortunate in getting along extremely well with our co-diners which made the waits between courses speed away. Everyone enjoyed the Italian evening. I think both ships provided us with an excellent meal time experience but Serena shades it just.
On our first cruise the wife was virtually wheelchair bound and on this one we were not going to trip the light fantastic either and slip another disc, so it would be unfair of us to comment much on the dancing and late night carousing. We heard it, but at a suitably muffled distance. We did go to a couple of shows and listened to some accomplished bar piano/singers ply their trade early evening. There were some very popular dance line dance instruction classes in the pool areas and when these were not operating the wide screen showed a variety of entertainment during the day including virtually a whole Pavarotti concert and of course football. Still it was quite a joy to be away from England during the 20/20 cricket cup in Bangladesh. My only contacts with it were a couple of texts from my son and they didn’t spoil my Prosecco at all. For entertainment therefore Serena just gets the nod.
Ah, away from England into some warm sunshine. Those of us from more northerly climes must enjoy our Mediterranean holidays more than those who can take the weather for granted, living there all the time. The only unexpected disappointment was Tunis, where we could not land because of thick fog. We had a bonus docking at Palma de Mallorca instead. That was our only booked excursion; for the other ports we just went a few hundred yards from where the ship docked. The highlight for both of us was the archaeological museum in Naples which is a 10 euro hairy taxi ride away and has to be the most stunning museum I have ever been to. The exhibits are so accessible. You should not of course touch them, but you could. We have been to Herculaneum and Pompeii and got lost driving in the Naples traffic, but the boat drops you so close. The Sunday food market in Savona was good too.
The shopping experience on both ships was geared to the expensive ‘duty free’ merchandise and neither sold things you might actually need, like a razor for instance although we did buy a blow up Costa Serena for the bath – not for us you understand.
It suited us better to spend another night in Barcelona at the end of the cruise and we had an enjoyable enough day on the hop on hop off tourist bus, but I think that with a little more confidence next time we would try the Barcelona card which includes the train ride from and to the airport.
So both ships are of course offering a similar product and experience. For those of you who were counting, Serena won 5-4, but then I chose the categories! Probably because we felt that Serena was better organised. Nothing to choose between the crews who were mostly delightful, smiling and very hard working – honest too; my wife’s mobile phone was handed in within minutes and a phone call made to our cabin via the resourceful waiter. We tipped those who served us most individually and should have taken a pack of little envelopes and notelets which we found very difficult to obtain; rather less embarrassing than just handing over banknotes.
Next time we shall try a different line and a different sea, but I for one who was very sceptical about cruising at all have been converted by Costa!