First up I have to declare that cruising has never really appealed to me. The thought of being stuck on a ship with several thousand strangers and being forced to don a tuxedo before being allowed to eat anything just wasn't my idea of fun.
However having received glowing reports from numerous friends and relatives who have cruised recently, including the news that dress codes weren't as rigid as they used to be, I began to think that it might be worth a try.
I managed to get some (unexpected) time off work to coincide with my wife's October holiday and decided I would surprise her with a cruise (it was her 50th birthday.)
Being forced to book at short notice and at a peak period I discovered my choice was pretty much limited to 7 nights onboard Costa Serena cruising the eastern Mediterranean. As there were limited places left I booked it there and then, having no more knowledge of this company or ship than a quick glance through the brochure in the TA's.
At the time of booking (about 2 weeks before departure) Costa and the TA were unable to confirm availability, final price and times of the connecting flights so the booking was made on the understanding that if any of these were unsuitable then the holiday could be cancelled without penalty.
Unfortunately I did not get this condition in writing as when the flight times were confirmed they didn't suit me and I tried to cancel. Both Costa and the TA then denied having agreed to cancel and refused to refund my money. Not a good start.
Having accepted that I was sailing Costa I then started to do some research into the Serena and found Cruise Critic. Oh dear! The reviews on this site (and others) did not make promising reading. However we decided to approach the holiday as open minded as possible and make the most of it whatever.
We decided the J2 drinks package might be worthwhile for us and contacted Costa to try to clear up exactly what was included. After being given three different versions we were none the wiser but decided to book it anyway, at which point Costa tried to raise the price. When I pointed out that they had already agreed a price (in writing this time - I learn quick!) they backed down and accepted the original price.
As mentioned we booked our flights through Costa and flew from Glasgow to Venice via Amsterdam with KLM. The only problem here, and the reason I tried to cancel, was that we had to be at the airport for about 3 am meaning no sleep the night before the cruise started. The flights themselves were perfect and all ran on time or better.
One pleasant surprise when we arrived at Glasgow Airport was a Costa rep waiting to greet us and see us on to our flights. A nice touch.
On arrival at Venice Marco Polo we were again met by a Costa rep who directed us to our coach for transfer to the port. En-route to the port we were given instructions on the embarkation process. We were also advised that as we were early we should book in our bags, collect our boarding number then go and enjoy Venice for a few hours before boarding the ship.
This was excellent advice as we were able to spend about four hours exploring Venice by which time our number had been called and we were able to walk straight onto the ship on our return. On boarding the ship we were pointed in the direction of the lifts and pretty much left to find our cabin by ourselves. It wasn't too difficult but given the size of the ship a little more assistance would have been appreciated.
On arrival at our cabin our luggage was waiting for us - as was someone else's! One of our suitcases was also damaged. Costa did contact us regarding the damage, offering to carry out a temporary repair and give us a letter for our insurance company. We declined, as neither was necessary.
We had booked an inside guaranteed cabin and expected to be allocated somewhere in the bowels of the ship next to the engine room. We were pleasantly surprised then when we found our cabin to be second from the front on deck eight. The cabin itself was slightly larger than expected, spotlessly clean with more than adequate storage space. The ensuite toilet/shower room was likewise immaculate with a good powerful shower that always had plenty of hot water.
We did lose our water supply one night and the toilet also stopped working on one occasion, but both problems were quickly resolved when reported to the cabin steward. Talking of the cabin steward, he did an excellent job of keeping the cabin clean and tidy. It was almost as if he was in hiding waiting for you to leave and had the place spick and span before you returned.
I thought the ship itself was superb. Ok the themed dEcor was a bit tacky in places but it was good fun and didn't offend me in the slightest (although others we spoke to were less impressed). Cleanliness in most areas of the ship could not be faulted. One exception to this was the buffet/pool dining areas where staff were sometimes a bit slow to clear tables making it almost impossible at times to find a clean unoccupied table.
We were told that there were 3850 passengers on board which is slightly over the Serena's posted capacity and you did get the feeling that there were more passengers than the crew could comfortably deal with.
Navigating about the ship was tricky at first but nowhere near as bad as some posters would have you believe. It is a very large ship and naturally it does take a bit of time to learn where thing are but after a couple of days it all starts to fall into place.
I had read that deck 5 was the only deck that allowed you to go from one end of the ship to the other. This is simply not true. In fact most decks allow you to do this, the exceptions being decks 3 and 4 (split by the Ceres and Vesta restaurants) and a couple of the upper decks which don't actually run the full length of the ship. For example on deck 8 the corridor our cabin was in ran the full length of the ship (probably the longest corridor I have ever seen) and this was replicated on other accommodation decks.
One area I thought the layout could have been improved was the positioning of the Casino. This is supposed to be an adult only area yet its position straddling the middle of deck 5 means that it is necessary to pass through it to reach other public areas. I have no doubt that this is a deliberate design ploy to encourage people to use the casino however the result was that there were always children within the casino and on occasions they were playing the slot machines.
By positioning the casino at the rear of the ship and restricting access to adults this could be easily avoided.
I know this is a very subjective topic but for me this was one area where Costa and the Serena really fell well short of expectations. For me dining out is a large part of a holiday. I enjoy trying different cuisines and experimenting with food from the various countries I visit. My wife on the other hand is a fussy eater with a quite limited diet. Unfortunately the food on the Serena failed to satisfy either of us.
For dinner we had opted for second sitting and were allocated a table for two in the Vesta restaurant. This was scheduled for 9pm but the restaurant rarely opened on time. The food was at best average and the service left a lot to be desired. Our waiters seemed to be covering about ten tables and nobody was served until all the tables had ordered. Thereafter the various courses (7 in total) were only served after every table in the group had finished the previous one.
This meant that if you skipped a course you could have an incredibly long wait for the next one. If for instance you chose not to have the appetiser and soup it could be after 10pm before you received any food at all. It was also often after 11pm before you were finished.
Another problem with this system was that the food was brought from the kitchen in large batches (great balancing act by the waiters incidentally) and then left at the side for long periods before being served. This I believe was the reason for much of it being lukewarm.
After a couple of nights in the main dining room we decided to try the buffet instead. Big mistake. While there is a fairly good variety in the buffet (and poolside grills) at lunchtime, after about 3pm it is all removed and all that is available is pizza (and even that is not very good). Even the fresh fruit is removed and all of the ice cream machines are switched off. If you are expecting 24hr dining on this ship you will be very disappointed.
Entertainment on board could be split into three categories: 1. The Theatre 2. The Animation Team 3. The musicians in the bars.
The theatre was beautiful although a lot of the seats had restricted views due to the positioning of various pillars and railings. The acts themselves did not really live up to the venue. The ships own onboard singers and dancers were very good but it was the guest performers who really let things down. To call them third rate would actually be quite complimentary and the shows were very short (30-40mins) although in some cases that was actually a blessing.
Best show of the week for entertainment value was the staff show on the last night. A bit like week 1 of X-factor with Simon speaking Italian!
The Animation Team
Think failed Butlin's Red Coats and you have the Costa Serena's Animation (entertainment) Team. Can't really think of much more to say about them.
Most of the bars at night had some kind of live musicians providing either dancing or background music. Most of them were quite good. My only criticism would be that some of the background musicians seemed to find it difficult to stay in the background and played at a volume that made conversation virtually impossible.
Customer service onboard the Serena varied considerably from very poor to excellent. Strangely the higher up the pecking order you went the worse the service became. Without question the Phillipino crewmembers, who appeared to be allocated the lowest grade jobs, were consistently the friendliest and most conscientious members of staff.
I had four dealings with the customer service desk. I could have had more, but there was always a long line of people waiting to speak to them so I let some things go rather than spend my holiday standing in a queue.
On the first two occasions I was lucky enough to deal with the same member of staff. She spoke excellent English and was able to deal with my enquiries quickly and effectively. I began to doubt all those who have criticised Costa's customer service on this board.
On my third and fourth visits I was not so lucky. The staff I encountered on these occasions were arrogant, defensive, and completely unhelpful. I might add that on no occasion did I approach the customer service desk in an argumentative or confrontational manner, although on the latter two occasions I certainly left that way!
Suzanne, the English-speaking hostess, gave a couple of very informative talks and seemed very nice. However she was about as much use as a chocolate fireguard if you actually had to approach her with a problem. Her stock answer was to direct you to customer services and she seemed to be completely powerless to deal with anything herself.
The Italian Officers were something else. They seemed to spend most of their time strutting about the various public areas of the ship in their dress uniforms looking very pleased with themselves. Better entertainment than the animation team actually.
I read a lot about smoking on this ship prior to sailing and it was something that really worried me. As a lifelong non-smoker and coming from a country where smoking in public buildings has been banned for a number of years, I am about as intolerant of cigarette smoke as it is possible to be.
I really need not have been concerned. Yes there are some areas of the ship that are smoky. The casino is probably the worst and as previously mentioned you have to pass through it to get to other parts of the ship. At busy times this was quite unpleasant.
However there are plenty of areas on the ship that are entirely smoke free. All of the restaurants, the theatre and the Cupido bar are completely non-smoking. All of the other bars have smoking and non-smoking areas and the ventilation system seemed to be completely effective at keeping the non-smoking areas smoke free. Likewise in the Lido areas one side of the ship was for smoking and the other non-smoking and the overwhelming majority of passengers stuck to the rules.
Unfortunately this protocol didn't seem to apply to the outside sunbathing areas and occasionally we had smokers sit next to us which we could have done without. This could happen in any outdoor area ashore though so I don't know that it's really valid cause for complaint.
Most importantly there was no hint of stale cigarette smoke in our cabin.
Yes there were a lot of children and teenagers on this ship but I have to say it was rarely an issue for us. I never saw large gangs of kids running wild, as has been described elsewhere, and the vast majority of kids were well behaved and under the watchful eye of their parents (and grandparents and great grandparents in some cases - holidaying Italian style is definitely a real family affair!).
We spent a lot of our time at the adult only pool at the rear of the ship and this was the only area where kids were a bit of an issue. Although the pool is advertised as adult only it would appear that the surrounds and the Jacuzzis are not. Also the adult only rule in the pool is largely ignored and although I did see Costa staff asking parents to remove kids from the pool on a couple of occasions, more often than not there were more kids than adults in it.
Costa need to either tighten up on this one or else abandon it completely - at least that way you would know what to expect.
We read a lot on here about pushy Italians and their bad manners but having been to Italy before we had a good idea what to expect. Yes things are different to what you would expect in the UK or US but the secret is to accept it for what it is - a different culture with different rules - and don't let it upset you.
People won't physically push you out of the way to get to the front of a line, but rest assured that if you leave a gap it will be filled. Personal space definitely has a different meaning in different countries. If you have ever travelled on the Rome underground system you'll know what I mean! It's nothing personal and you really shouldn't take offence - just learn to play by the same rules and you'll do fine.
Again we read a lot of pros and cons on here about the various drinks packages and were unsure which of any to take. We decided on the J2 package and overall it was the right decision for us, although not without its problems.
While the bar and restaurant staff all seemed to have been fully briefed regarding the package the cabin steward did not have a clue. As a result the first time we used something from the mini-bar we were charged for it. I spoke to customer services who sorted this out and told me not to sign for anything else.
Unfortunately there seemed to be no communication between them and the cabin steward who then refused to restock the bar unless I signed for the items I had used (2 cans of coke). This happened on the second day and we were basically denied use of the mini-bar for the rest of the trip - not a huge problem as we could obtain the same drinks from any of the ships bars, but an annoyance that should not have happened all the same.
The other thing we encountered was that some of the bar/waiting staff were noticeably less keen to serve J2 holders than they were passengers who were paying for drinks on the ship. This was very apparent on the occasions that we were in company with 'paying' passengers. The contrast in service was striking.
Value for money wise though J2 was well worth having and I would still recommend it despite the problems we encountered. If Costa got there staff trained properly and fully informed them of the services they are selling to customers then J2 would be excellent. Alternatively they could just reduce their drink prices to a more realistic level and then there would be no need for them to offer drinks packages at all - don't see that happening though.
If you like posing for pictures you will love the Costa Serena. If not go elsewhere. The photographers onboard the ship are pushy and intrusive in the extreme. At mealtimes they have this bizarre ritual of arriving at your table with a person in fancy dress who works his way around the table sticking his face next to the guests, often while they are trying to eat, while the photographer merrily snaps away. I found this very annoying, and one passenger nearly came to blows with them when they refused to accept no as an answer. He never returned to the dining room after that.
PORTS OF CALL/EXCURSIONS
In general the ports of call were very good and the main complaint in most of them would have to be that the length of time in port was just too short. In particular the first stop in Bari only allowed for about an hour and half ashore and you definitely got the feeling that the main reason for stopping there was to uplift more passengers rather than as a point of interest for those already on board.
The ship's excursions were very expensive and we decided to do our own thing at most of the stops - a decision we didn't regret.
If you are boarding at Venice I would recommend that you either stay over a night before or after your cruise, or make sure your flight times allow you some leeway to explore the city before boarding or after leaving the ship. Venice lives up to all expectations and it really would be a shame to pass through without a chance to explore (as some passengers on our cruise had to do.)
One top tip, given to us by a charming elderly Venetian gentleman who spotted us floundering with our map, is to buy a daily ticket for the waterbus. For 16 euros each this allows you unlimited access to the waterbus network for a 12 hr period. More than enough to let you see all the sights and a fraction of the price of a Gondola ride (120euros for 45 mins).
Venice is very expensive, particularly the cafes around St Mark's Square, where the average price for a glass of coke was 8 euros and a beer 10 euros. Walk a little bit away from the square however and the price drops considerably.
By the time we managed to get off the ship here we only had about an hour and a half before we were due back on again. We had decided to just have a brief walk around the town but as we were leaving the port we encountered a number of open top tour buses and the green train offering a 1-hour sightseeing trip for 15 euros each and guaranteeing to have us back in time for our departure We decided that it was probably the best chance we had of seeing all the sites in the time available and it worked out pretty well. Having said that, as the tour progressed, it became obvious that most of the places visited were within walking distance of the port, although without knowing your way about you would probably have struggled to fit them all in on foot.
Being big sports fans my wife and I were both keen to see the birthplace of the Olympics. I'm fairly confident driving abroad so we decided we would rent a car from http://www.rentacarkatakolo.gr/cars.htm, which we had seen mentioned on various posts on Cruise Critic.
We arrived in Katakolon in the middle of a thunderstorm and the heavens really opened up as we were walking from the port. As we were sheltering from the rain we met a couple from Slovenia with their young daughter and agreed to share transport to Olympia with them.
While they hid from the rain we ran for the car hire shop which is situated right outside the port entrance. The car rental guys were stars. When they saw us coming they ushered us into the shop and produced towels for us to dry ourselves. When I explained that we had friends still sheltering back in the port they immediately gave me a car to go and fetch them.
I don't think the Slovenians had quite understood why we ran off from them so the look on their faces when I arrived back in my Fiat Punto to rescue them from the rain was a picture!
The car rental was good value (53 euros incl. Fuel) especially when split with our new friends.The guys at Katakolo car rental also gave us a map and directions to Olympia and it turned out to be an easy drive on good quality roads.
Olympia itself was very interesting although most of the site is very much in ruins and it can be quite difficult to visualise what you are looking at. There are very few signs to help you and if you do go without a guide I would recommend buying a guide book before you start your tour - they aren't expensive and are money well spent. Entry to the site and museum is about 9 euros each.
We got back to Katakolon with about an hour to spare, which gave us enough time for a quick look around the town, which is really no more than a single street packed with tourist shops and cafes.
In her introductory talk Suzanne recommended Ephesus as the 'must do' tour of the week. As Ephesus was the best part of 100km from the port we decided it was probably safest to do the ship's excursion rather than risk being late back. We were well warned that the ship would only wait for latecomers if they were part of an official tour.
I have to say that this trip was outstanding. Ephesus is an incredible place and our guide was extremely knowledgeable and spoke excellent English. I found the detail the guide provided to be more than I personally needed, however she constantly checked with the group to gauge what level she should pitch her talk at and the majority were happy to soak up all the information she could provide.
This actually worked out ok for me as I could listen to her introductions and then jump about taking photos while the others were listening to her detailed accounts.
On the way back to the ship we had the mandatory stop at a ceramic factory, where we were given a brief demonstration of the products being made before being shown to the shop where we could purchase the wares. I was pleasantly surprised to find that there was no hard sell during the visit and we were left to browse the shop in our own time with no pressure to buy whatsoever.
We got back to the ship about half an hour after the posted 'all aboard' time so I was glad we had opted for the official tour. All in all highly recommended.
Istanbul was the only full day stop in the itinerary and the ship's excursions were very expensive. Pre trip research suggested that most of the 'must see' sights were in the same area and could be reached easily from the port by taxi so we decided that's what we would do.
On leaving the port however we again encountered the waiting open top tour bus. This one offered a full tour of the European side of Istanbul with a hop on hop off service at various points around the city for a reasonable 20 euros each. This sounded pretty good value and from previous experience we new these tours are usually a good way of getting a feel for the layout of a city so we hopped on.
The bus was equipped with headsets through which you could obtain a commentary in a number of languages. The English commentary was clear and concise and it turned out to be an excellent way of seeing the city.
We hopped off at the Blue Mosque and decided to take a look inside (free admission). Prior to entry you must remove your shoes and ladies must cover their heads (scarves are provided for those who don't have their own).
I was shocked and embarrassed by the number of western 'ladies' who removed their head covering once they were inside the Mosque. Such a lack of respect for the culture and religious beliefs of the country you are visiting is in my mind disgraceful and I was amazed that they weren't thrown out of the building.
The Blue Mosque itself was a magnificent building and well worth visiting (but please respect the rules).
We then headed over to the Grand Bazaar for some shopping. We had a bad experience a number of years ago in the Kasbah in Tangiers and we found the Grand Bazaar just too similar, with my wife in particular feeling quite uncomfortable, so we cut our trip short and headed back to the ship. This was more to do with us than the place itself and most of the people we spoke to onboard thoroughly enjoyed the experience of bartering for 'genuine fake watches' etc. Just be warned that if you're a bit claustrophobic you may find Istanbul to be a slightly overpowering. DUBROVNIK
The ship had to sit at anchor outside Dubrovnik and we were ferried ashore in tenders. This took quite a while meaning time ashore was very limited which was a great shame as Dubrovnik is a really beautiful place and we would have loved to spend much longer there.
There is really no point taking an excursion as everything worth seeing is within walking distance of the harbour. We tried to walk the city walls but had to stop half way round due to lack of time, which was a shame. Likewise there were lots of lovely looking cafes and bars that we would have visited had time been on our side.
The people here were very friendly and the shops were cheap so it is worth getting some local currency. There are plenty of ATM's though so it's easy to get money when you arrive. Most of the shops would also accept Euros and their exchange rates seemed fair. You will need the local currency to pay for the wall walk though.
We had booked on a ship's tour of Venice on the last day, having some time to spare before we headed back to the airport. Unfortunately Costa cancelled the trip the day before due to lack of numbers. This was a bit of a pain as we had been relying on the trip to get us off of the ship in the first group!
As it turned out we were allocated 10am disembarkation, which was only an hour later than planned so not a huge problem. This still left us time to leave our bags with left luggage and head into Venice for a few hours before our transfer to the airport.
The disembarkation process itself went reasonably smoothly considering the number of people leaving the ship and the ground staff dealing with left luggage and transfers to the airport handled things very well.
Despite some of the negative comments in this review we did enjoy our week aboard the Costa Serena. A holiday is only ever going to be what you make of it: we went with the intention of having a good time and we did.
The highpoints for us were the places we visited and the people we met and befriended on board the ship.
Low points were the disappointing food and service and the apparent couldn't care less attitude of (some of) Costa's staff.
Overall I don't think cruising is for us. For example we didn't enjoy the food on the ship. In a hotel that would not have been a huge problem, we could have walked out the door and gone somewhere else - not an option on a ship.
So will our first cruise be our last? We met many regular cruisers on board the Serena and every one of them said the same thing to us -
"Please don't judge cruising on what you have seen on this ship"
With that in mind we probably will try another cruise sometime - but it won't be anytime soon and it almost certainly won't be with Costa.