This review is intended primarily for Americans and other English-speakers who are planning a Costa Cruise or perhaps another cruise departing from Venice. I will try to include information and tips that I found useful and other information discovered through experience that I would have found useful.
My wife Nancy and I are frequent European travelers and have taken a number of Mediterranean cruises (large ship) and river cruises (small ship). This was our first non-English speaking cruise but language was not a problem as all of the Serena crew (many of whom are Filipino) speak English. Since Costa is an Italian cruise line Italian was the primary language and the passenger distribution was mostly Italian who probably made up at least half of the approximately 3,800 passengers. English speakers accounted for about 350 passengers made up of Americans, British, and quite a few from Hong Kong. Most of the other passengers consisted of German, French, and Spanish speakers. We chose the Serena Eastern Med cruise because of the itinerary which included Izmir and Istanbul, Turkey.
We booked the cruise with an on-line cruise company which we have used before and who was able to secure us a small discount above the best price offered by on-line booking directly with the cruise line. We booked cruise only and booked our own flight arrangements from Washington Dulles to Venice Marco Polo. We departed on Thursday for a Sunday sailing from Venice because we wanted a couple days to explore Venice prior to departure and also to ensure that we didn't miss the sailing because of a flight mishap. This was our first visit to Venice and it was a treat (http://europeforvisitors.com/venice/ was a great help to me as was the Rick Steve's guide to Venice). We stayed at the Olympia Hotel right across a canal from the Piazzale Roma (if you drive from the mainland to island of Venice this is where you leave the car or bus and switch to water transportation). The Olympia was perfect for easy access to the cruise terminal for our departure. Hotels near the Piazzale Roma are easy to access from Marco Polo airport via the ATVO bus service and less expensive than hotels near the Piazza San Marco. The ATVO ticket counter is in the airport terminal after you clear passport control and you catch the bus on the traffic island in front of the terminal for a half-hour ride to Piazzale Roma. You can see the Hotel Olympia from the bus stop - about a hundred-yard walk across the canal. The location is also convenient to ATMs (you need Euros in Venice) and to the vaporetto stop (public waterbus - think London tube on the water or use a water taxi if you're more into limo-priced transportation). Buy a 24, 48, or 72-hour unlimited pass for the vaporetto, which you must swipe across a terminal each time you board. Our favorites in Venice were: Piazza San Marco (Basilica di San Marco, and Palazzo Ducale), Gallerie del'Accademia, Rialto bridge, Frari church, and wandering the back alleys, small canals, and squares.
Costa provides a free shuttle bus from the Piazzale Roma on the afternoon of sailing. The bus takes you to the Maritime terminal beside the ship where you will go through some cattle-car crowds and lines to check your luggage, register and board the ship. Boarding started at 1:30 and ended at 5:00 for a 6:00pm embarkation; we boarded at about 3:30 and were able to miss a lot of the initial crush of boarding passengers. Get used to the fact that, culturally, Italians appear to have no concept of queuing in line or waiting in turn for service or entry. This was frustrating for the various Brits, Germans and Americans who do wait in line for their turn. The Costa staff, who are mostly Italian, also seem oblivious to passengers who are waiting their turn and serve first whoever crowds to the front. Just get used to it, ignore personal space issues, and crowd forward with everyone else and you'll save yourself some frustration. Expect the same routine in buffet lines, customer service desk and anywhere there's a crowd.
The Serena is a huge ship and not always easy to navigate from fore to aft when searching for a specific location but if you go to one of the passenger decks or deck 5 you can actually get from the bow to the stern. Our cabin, 7441, was on the starboard (right side of the ship) side near the stern. It was a spacious cabin with queen-size bed (high enough to stow suitcases under bed), couch, table, bathroom with shower stall, plenty of closet space and balcony with two chairs and a table. Our experience was that cabin steward and wait staff in the dining room were very attentive and excelled at providing whatever was wanted. We opted for the X-1 prepaid drink package (unlimited wine, beer and mineral water by-the-glass at dinner and lunch) which is about $14/person/day and we thought it to be a good value. At the first dinner in the dining room I tipped the waiter and advised him that there would be another tip at the end of the cruise and every night there were two bottles of wine (red and white) and a bottle of mineral water waiting at our table. For lunches we picked out an area near the buffet lunch and a bar where befriending the bar tender resulted in similar service for as many drinks by-the-glass as we wanted. The only drawback to the X-1 package is that the prepaid package is good only during meals in the dining room and at bars near the buffet areas and you may miss out on bar hopping the many other bars where drinks are pricey. I learned of the X-1 package from other Cruise Critic reviews (it is not to be found on Cost's web site and appears not to be advertised) I had the cruise booking company arrange it with Costa. Meals were good consisting of the following courses: appetizer, soup, pasta, entrEe, salad, cheese, and dessert - each course has several choices and you order as many or few as you like. If you are disappointed with a dish your waiter will bring you a different choice. The meals are comparable to what you would find in real Italian restaurants and are not geared to American tastes although there are always substitute dishes available such as steak or seafood (this is probably not your Mom's cooking).
Because this was a short cruise and there were port calls on six of the seven days, we didn't use the exercise facility, jogging track or participate in much of the activities/entertainment which are conducted primarily in Italian.
Here are some personal thoughts on the ports of call: On our cruise the Serena docked at all ports but sometimes in Katakolon and Dubrovnik the ship anchors off shore and tenders ferry passengers ashore which could present a bottleneck. We booked Costa tours in Izmir and Istanbul, you may find less expensive alternatives but you will want to make sure you get back to the ship on time. BARI, ITALY - small town, skip the tours and walk it yourself to see the fort and Basilica St Nicolas. KATAKOLON, GREECE - another small town, enjoy the shopping on foot or take a tour to Olympia, site of the original Olympics. We walked the town and had a fine time. IZMIR, TURKEY - Turkey's third largest city, we took a tour of Izmir museums and the ancient agora ruins and skipped the tour to Ephesus. Don't bother exchanging currency, Euros or Dollars work fine in Izmir, Istanbul and Dubrovnik. ISTANBUL, TURKEY - Great city take a tour because there is too much to see on your own unless you already know what you want. Some highlights are: Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia museum, grand bazaar, and Topkapi palace museum. DUBROVNIK, CROATIA - another small town, Costa provided shuttle bus service for a fee to the walled Old Town where you will want to go. Skip the tours and explore by foot, and don't miss walking the fortress wall which will provide some serious exercise as well as spectacular views.
We found the Serena cruise to be a good value and enjoyable vacation that provided all that we expected, and our stay in Venice exceeded expectations. steve & nancy