First impression: The ship is huge. Even walking from one end to the other takes time, and this creates a 'village' feel, where numerous people attend any event or activity, be it lunch, darts, aerobics, casino or nightlife.
Meals: Breakfast is on par with a land-based good 5-star hotel. Cooked varieties of all types, including custom-ordered pancakes, eggs or sausages. 4 choices of cereal in the normal section, and 2 more choices in the 'healthy' section. 3 choices of milk including soy. Fresh fruits, yoghurts, sweets and pastries. French toast, bread of all kinds and everything in between. The missing component: A good (Italian) coffee. Granted, you can help yourself to unlimited machine-poured coffee or take a sachet of Nescafe's "Grand Aroma" available in sachets, but if you want a proper Espresso or Capuccino, you must pay for it. More about pricing later.
Lunch is a choice of the buffet on the 9th floor or free seating on the 4th floor (My Way and New York, More
New York). We preferred the 9th floor, where the food was simply incredible. At the extreme end of the restaurant next to the pool there was always some cooking station going on, which cooked fresh pasta, fresh fish, spicy beef on the Mexican night, and so many other delicacies which would have cost an entire day of cruising in an equivlent restaurant. Portions are unlimited, and the food quality was excellent. Desserts always included a huge variety of fresh fruit, unlimited ice-cream in chocolate, strawberry and vanilla, and a massive variety of mousse or cream-based sweets which were individually presented in bowls.
Pizza in 4 flavours was available 24-hours, as was (machine) coffee, ice and water. Water was also freely served during dinner, in jugs which were continuously re-filled.
Tea-time was 1 hour between 4pm and 5pm. This offered a huge variety of sweets and fruit. Tiramisu featured regularly, as well as apple strudel, cream cakes, and fruit cakes of all types. Not to be missed!
Dinner was based on 2 fixed-seating arrangements. The tables are huge so it is shared with other families. Our table seated 11. Food was a' la carte, with a 7-course meal with choices at each stage. You can also choose 'off-the-menu' dishes, such as spaghetti bolognese, fries, chicken and meat choices .. the meal always included a cheese platter and dessert. Food quality again was extremely high and presentation of dishes was superb. My only complaint would be the cheese platter, where the same 4 cheeses were offered each night, even though the menu stated things differently!
If you fancy wine at dinner, a purchase of 6 bottles as a 'pack' will set you back 99 Euro. The wine itself is usually sold closer to 4 Euro a bottle from a normal shop, but I expect you need to pay the premium as in good quality restaurants. We were almost 'conned' by the waiter telling us that the menu we had picked up on deck was the 'old' one, and the 'new' one offered 5 bottles of wine for 92 Euro, but we held firm and got the 6 bottles after all. On deck they were still touting what had been called the 'old' menu. On the 7th night there is champagne served during the Gala dinner anyway. Entertainment during dinner was great with waiters doing their best to dance and sing. Highly entertaining, and very enjoyable.
On the Spa/gym side, there is a gym reserved for over-18 although it said over-16 in other places. However, the staff insisted on over-18. Gym is very well equipped, lots of machines, although it can get pretty full at peak times. The view from the gym is incredible while using the treadmill or cycles.
On the cruise downside, you feel that there is an element of over-selling. One time during lunch we were approached 7 times or more by waiters selling the drink packages, which we had already bought anyway. Also, several Spa 'informative' sessions are just marketing their products and treatments. No hard selling however - the moment you indicate non interested you are set free :)
Pools are crowded as expected with some 3,000 people on board. Of course it depends on timing - the decks get very quite when ashore and during lunch. The water slide is pretty cool, and the jacuzzi was fun too, although kids were uncontrolled, and were jumping the queue to the water slide, or jumping wildly in the jacuzzi. Could have been just the group of kids on our cruise though :) However the crew did nothing to prevent it happening.
Excursions were either pre-booked or else there was usually a help-desk at port to help the individual travellers. Usually offering some money-saving advice too, like purchasing the day-card in Rome (Civitavecchia) and taking the public shuttle (rather than the Costa shuttle) in Barcelona!
Midnight buffets were especially spectacular. Ice sculptures, carved fruit, staff entertaining .. each night was an event by itself. This was mainly on the deck on the 9th floor. Apart from this, the Stardust theater had a performance nightly - some were absolutely fantastic events, but other nights can only be classified as amateurish. It was all good entertainment, however. On the 'good' nights the place gets crowded, with people even sitting on the stairs and standing all around. After midnight, two areas were heavily attended: The Rhapsody bar with dancing for the older generation, and the Fever disco for the younger generation. On some nights there were parties on the 9th floor in front of the massive screen, with animators leading the way.
Incidentally, the animators had an excellent control of english, but this varies in the ship. A large percentage of the crew are either from the Philippines or possibly Brazilian, so both English and Italian were not their native language!
The Playstation area was a disappointment, since the consoles were there but you needed to somehow purchase the games to play. On the other hand, the F1 simulator was great. Although it was not as realistic as promised, since there was no 'manual' mode, it was great fun. Euro 10 gets you the sample 3 minute ride, then Euro 20 gets you into the feel of racing. Excellent fun, and the feel of the full-sized car is incredible.