We had a fantastic cruise and could not be happier. I admit that we went with pretty low expectations having read all the criticism on the forums based in the US and UK. I would like to set the record straight as we feel that Costa gets a lot of bad press which from our experience is completely unfounded. I have previously cruised with Princess and Royal Caribbean and Costa is certainly in the same league and should not be under-estimated.
1.Food and Drink
• Breakfast - room service is only free for breakfast and includes cappuccino / expresso coffee which has a charge in the restaurant. So we ordered free cappuccinos plus juice from room service at 7am and then went to the restaurant for breakfast. There is a menu or buffet in the Ceres restaurant on deck 3 plus the extended buffet on deck 9. Breakfast is also available at the Urano grill for late risers. In the Ceres restaurant there are huge windows at the back which provide a superb view of the ship's wake as you are tucking into your breakfast. The waiters don't expect you to order off the menu in the restaurant as most diners prefer the buffet set up in the middle but we ordered items not in the restaurant buffet which included corned beef hash, Lyonnais potatoes, smoked salmon, omelettes and smoked haddock.
• Lunch - There are several lunch options from waiter service in the restaurant (Ceres deck 3), to an extensive buffet in the Prometeo buffet, with additional grill choices at both the indoor pools (deck 9). We tended to eat in the buffet at lunch and were really impressed how they changed the hours to ensure passengers could still eat on board when port stops hit the lunch hour. In Dubrovnik we arrived at 12.15pm, so the full buffet was available from 11am. Similarly in Izmir our port visit was the morning so the restaurant service was from 1pm - 2.30pm so passengers didn't miss out.
• Afternoon tea - served 4-5 in the Prometeo buffet, little sandwiches and cakes. One afternoon they also offered a selection of Chinese teas (I recommend the cinnamon and the ginger) as well as the herbal teas, regular tea, coffee and iced water which are always available.
• Evening meal - We had a table for four at 6.15pm (first sitting) in the Ceres restaurant situated at the back of the ship. There was always a basket of freshly baked bread rolls and bread sticks on the table when we arrived. The menus were in English with the Italian name above it if you wanted to order in Italian instead. The evening menu consisted of 6 courses, starter, soup, pasta / risotto, main course, cheese and dessert. There was a good choice and the food was consistently very good. Take your waiter's advice if he recommends something, more than once he suggested a course that I wouldn't have ordered and I was delighted that I did. The children were given a children's menu eat night with some items such as burgers, spaghetti bolognaise and fish fingers always available and others such as pork escalope, lamb chop, beef escalope changed daily. In addition, children are able to order from the main menu and our two both did during the week. We had a jug of iced water every evening with our meal and decided not to opt for the various drinks packages. Several evenings the waiters put on a show before the dessert course, singing, dancing and creating a real party atmosphere with diners swirling their napkins above their heads and clapping. Waiters were helpful and professional throughout and nothing was too much trouble. Alternatively the pizzeria offers waiter service from 9pm - 1am, with buffet pizza available early evening.
• Midnight buffet - There were several midnight buffets during the cruise but we were usually tucked in bed by then. I did make it to one with the vegetable and fruit carvings and the ice sculptures were phenomenal. That night the midnight buffet was pineapple flambE and ice cream plus there were waiters walking round with trays of food. I had a doughnut ball from one waiter which was delicious and the flambE was tasty.
Wi-fi was available on all decks. We had a four berth outside cabin on deck two. We had a double bed (twin beds put together), a sofa bed plus one bunk above the sofa bed. There was ample storage space, in fact we had more storage space than in our mini-suite on Princess or balcony cabin on Royal Caribbean as there were two huge drawers below my daughter's bed. Suitcases fit comfortably under the bed. The safe opens and locks with any magnetic strip card so we used my husband's cabin card. We brought a four bar plug socket with us which proved very handy to recharge everything. There was only one European socket and one US socket which were so close together it is doubtful whether you would be able to use them both. The bathroom had a shower with shower gel and soap provided. Towels were changed throughout the day if required and our cabin steward made a variety of towel animals during our stay.
3. Daily programme
I was really impressed with the daily programme on Costa as there were always things to do (the only problem was trying to decide what to do when things were on at the same time!) The Sole Poolside on deck 9 below the big screen was a main area for activities such as tournaments, games, dance classes (I did the cha cha cha class), stretching classes and dancing. They also celebrated the Oktoberfest here. The Pan Disco on deck 5 was the main location for the Art and Craft sessions which were offered am and pm. During the week I designed a t-shirt, made jewellery, decorated a fan and painted a ceramic pot which all made great keepsakes from the cruise. Aqua aerobics was in the Urano pool. I also went to an Italian class and one of the seminars on health and beauty in the Samsara spa which resulted in me getting a free facial as I happily volunteered. There was a chocolate demonstration, ice sculptures by the pool and seminars in English about the ports and the ship.
There were two main indoor pools on deck 9 each with 2 Jacuzzis (for 16 years and above). The indoor pools had a retractable roof. There is also an outside pool and a swirly slide. The Samsara Spa has an adult only pool.
5. Evening entertainment
The Giove Theatre is on decks 3, 4 and 5 at the front of the ship. The invited entertainment was very impressive and the acts were all worthy of being on the television they were so professional. On the first night Dennis Bullock an American singer / saxophonist blew us away. The second night we were entertained by Duo Deltai, who did a balancing and acrobatic act which couldn't have been easy as that night we had high winds. Adam Medini did a show called Voyage one night and seemed to be able to do everything (juggling, playing the xylophone with a ping-pong ball using his mouth, tumbling from ribbons suspended from the ceiling, hand shadow puppets, handstands with one hand holding his body horizontal to the floor!) and in the middle of the week we saw Connie Boyd a female magician who has won awards in the USA for her act and we could see why. The dance troupe and singers did the show a couple of nights, the male lead singer was excellent and the black male dancer was superb. In addition, every bar and lounge had musicians and singers entertaining everyone, including easy listening in the piano bar, ballroom music in the Apollo Bar and disco music in the Pan Disco. With eight venues for musical entertainment in the evening there was certainly something for everyone.
6. Children's club
Our children were in the Mini (3-6 years) and Maxi (7-12 years) Squok club and thoroughly enjoyed themselves. They met the captain, visited the kitchens, went on a Treasure Hunt, took part in a pirate parade and had a variety of games, craft and free game time. The children earned Squok money during the sessions for winning competitions or sitting and listening nicely and then at the end of the cruise they swapped their Squok money for prizes. The children both got a Squok baseball cap, a bag and a sticker with their money. Squok club have two themed evening dinners that coincide with the formal nights. In addition, they can have lunch at Squok (they just need to be signed in by 10am that day). We enjoyed eating as a family but let the children have one Squok lunch and dinner during the cruise. The club hours are 9am -11.30pm and if you have an excursion with Costa that leaves early, club will open 15 minutes before your excursion. We never used this service but especially on the day we went to Izmir many children stayed in club while their parents visited Ephesus. At 4.30pm they have snack time which is not a biscuit but slices of pizza upstairs in the buffet! Goodness knows how my two were hungry for dinner but they were.
7. Languages and Costa
This was one area that I thought Costa really excelled. Perhaps they have taken heed of previous criticism because our experience was extremely positive. There were 3100 passengers onboard from all over the world. 342 were English speakers and a surprising 1700 passengers were French including a French group of 700 from the Lorraine region. We had a Welcome on board talk on the first day with the English Hostess Helen. The talk was entirely in English and Helen explained useful information about the ship such as which decks run from the front to the back of the ship. For example, if you are on deck 3 at the front and eating in the Ceres restaurant on 3 you need to go up to 5 and down again. Deck 5 and 9 are the main walk through decks. Helen was available every day and the times were always posted in the Today information delivered to your cabin. She was also available at the excursions meeting point to answer any questions.
We attended a port lecture also delivered entirely in English with the port Lecturer Marco which was very informative about what to do and visit if you are not on a pre-booked excursion. He obviously delivered the same talk at different times in other languages so everyone was equally informed. Helen also gave a disembarkation talk on the sea day. The talks were recorded and then available to watch on the television in your cabin later if you preferred.
There were occasions when you had all languages spoken one after the other and the only time it was long winded was the fire drill and let's face it there is no way they can get round that! The cruise director was hilarious and always did a closing couple of sentences in every language after the show, but because he put in a little curtsy or funny noise in each time it was really funny waiting for repetition in each language. He made the multiple languages entertaining, not irritating and made everyone laugh. English did seem quite a dominant language on the ship even though the ship is Italian. The bar and restaurant staff were mostly from the Philippines and therefore spoke English. The Art and Craft lady was from China and explained the activities in English (which I then translated into French for the francophones)
The excursions are organised according to your language so your guide will only speak English if you are on an English tour and likewise for other languages. We only did one Costa excursion and did the rest of the ports independently. Our excursion to Olympia was excellent. The guide was enthusiastic and spoke from the moment we boarded the coach giving us information about Greece and the local area before we got to the archaeological site. We also had much longer because we were on a tour. Boarding time was 12.15 and our coach didn't get back until 12.40. Let's just say we were glad we were on an official tour!
9. Embarkation and disembarkation
We dropped off our suitcases in the morning at 10am at the port and collected a boarding number. We were then free to go off and explore Venice. When we returned in the afternoon we were able to board immediately and walk passengers who had been waiting for two hours! Fruit juice was available for free in the terminal building and there were representatives from the bars selling packages and Squok so you could find out information before boarding which was good. We organised an early disembarkation and were told to be in the theatre for 9.30am. At 9.30 we were able to disembark and find our suitcases in the luggage area of the terminal building. Both embarkation and disembarkation were hassle free for us but I understand that with only 3 or 4 Costa staff checking in passengers the wait for some may have been quite frustrating.
10. Final impressions
The Costa Serena is a beautiful ship that is extremely stable. We had high winds and rough seas a couple of days and you would hardly know as it felt so smooth. It is decorated with a Greek mythology theme and the main hall has glass lifts that zoom up to the top decks past all the decorative gods which our children loved. It was very easy to find your bearings on the ship and a free cup of tea, coffee or iced water was never far away if you were on deck 9. We found the cabin corridors very wide and spacious and although the ship was full it never seemed over-crowded. The staff were all polite and friendly and seemed genuinely happy to be working for Costa. Costa clearly values all its crew and make sure that you know how important all the people behind the scenes are which was good to see. It is also a very green ship and recycles most of its waste on board. I am pleased to say that I would highly recommend Costa Serena to anyone who enjoys crusing.