Having long wanted to visit the area of the Indian Ocean (Mauritius, Seychelles, Madagascar, La Reunion) covered by this cruise, we were pleased to find the one operator, Costa, who seemed able to include all these in a two-week, very reasonably priced package in a circular cruise starting from Mauritius.
We took the gamble of booking a reserved but unknown balcony cabin and were pleased to find it was no more expensive to book our own flights than pay for them via the cruise company, so we were able to spend a few days before and after the cruise in Mauritius.
It was only after booking that we started to read the sometimes horrendous accounts of experiences on this ship on English-language websites including this one. So it was with some trepidation that we lined up to board on February 1st. To be fair, first impressions weren't great as we had to queue for nearly an hour in the heat under a canopy to check in, though there were accessible cold drinks during that time. Once inside , however, we were very pleased to find our spacious balcony cabin on Deck 6, with no restricted view. Suitcases went easily under the bed and generally there was easily enough storage room, also in the bathroom which is not always the case. The bed was quite hard but very comfortable and we slept extremely well throughout the cruise. The one disappointment in the room was the TV, most of whose numbered channels did not work or varied from day to day. It was only after a week that we discovered that channels like BBC World did exist on unannounced obscure numbers like 768 (!) which we came across purely by chance. Our cabin steward Juan from Honduras was always pleasant and helpful and kept the cabin clean.
Part of our deal had been to leave open the dining time. To our dismay we found we had been allocated the 9pm sitting, but an immediate visit to the maitre d' on the first afternoon sorted that out and we had the earlier 6.30 sitting we wanted. We were allocated to a table for 8 which we shared with 3 Americans and later a Dutchman travelling alone. Fortunately we all got on very well and even shared a number of our own excursions. Opinions on our table about the food were mixed, but we thought that generally it was of a perfectly acceptable quality, the best dishes being the various pasta dishes ("primo piatto") and some very good desserts. Main courses were OK if less exciting. The theme over the two weeks was supposedly to showcase the cuisine of a different Italian region every night. Service was good and professional by the same dedicated waiters each night. Gustavo and Joseph were great in that respect and provided us with lots of "insider" information too! One annoying thing which Costa could certainly improve on is that there is no advance info on the dinner menu during the day, so you arrive blind and can't make an educated choice about your dining options on any one day.
Our experience from previous cruises had taught us to avoid the buffet as much as possible and eat breakfast and lunch also in the main dining room. This was exactly the same here. Breakfast there was the same buffet choice each morning which was perfectly adequate but could have got repetitive for any more than two weeks, but was improved by a choice of British, American, Norwegian, Spanish etc. breakfasts which could be ordered separately. Lunch was by order and the only meal which on two occasions was very slow to be served. We only ventured up twice to the buffet for "special" lunches - a supposedly typical German lunch - so,so - and a Spanish paella lunch - quite good. On both occasions it was a nightmare to try to find somewhere to sit and eat. A small slightly quieter section of the buffet is set aside for the extra cost pizza meals which we used one evening and it was OK but no better than being downstairs in the main diner. There is also a special restaurant, the Medusa, on Deck 10 which tried to give off a very exclusive air. Mere plebs like us were not allowed in. I think it might have been possible to eat there for something like 40€ a head extra, though whether the menu was any different or better was hard to say. One issue which seemed to cause a lot of upset to some passengers was the way Costa charges for absolutely every "extra" - including items other cruise lines would consider basics, such as water with lunch and dinner or coffee after either (in the dining room). We were bombarded on board with offers for all sorts of drinks packages as well as the chance to pay extra for lobster, steak etc. Most fellow passengers seemed to be on one or more of these packages, but we didn't get one as you have to both buy the package for it to work. As my wife doesn't drink much, it worked out much cheaper for us to pay as we went e.g. for the odd cocktail, beer, lots of bottles of water and bottles of wine I got at dinner and made last for two or three days. While it is certainly galling to have to pay for a decent coffee after a meal and especially water with it, our view was that you have to work out the overall cost with the cabin and even paying for all these extras it still worked out much cheaper than other cruises would have been.(One piece of advice. Join the Costa Club on Day One. It doesn't cost you anything and you get 25% discounts on some drinks e.g. bottles of wine and 50% off some of the extra cost meals.)
Our fellow passengers were the most internationally-mixed group we have travelled with before. Out of over 2000 passengers I was told only 18 were Brits with probably a similar number from the USA. So if you are an English native-speaker you have to adapt and quite rightly so. The largest group were French speakers, most of whom boarded in La Réunion. There were also many Italians and other Europeans. Announcements were therefore always in Italian, French, English, Spanish and German. As linguists, my wife and I had no problem with this. In fact it made it interesting to sit down at breakfast and lunch and talk to all sorts of people from several different countries. The multiplicity of languages does have some logical repercussions however on activities the ship can provide. It restricts the number and depth of "interest groups" which can take place.
Despite this, we were pleasantly surprised that there was a very good craft group which met twice a day on ship days for about 30 minutes and my wife said it was very interesting and well run (by Corrado, an Italian with enough languages to keep everyone in line). Jean-Christophe, the resident destinations lecturer, gave good background talks on each of the destinations which he repeated to different audiences in English, French and Spanish. We only attended a few of the shows. mostly pleasant if not scintillating singers with mainly Italian, French and Spanish song repertoires. Also some quite good acrobats. The Osiris theatre itself is quite impressive over three floors and had very good sound and light effects. I went to quite a few of the quizzes, mostly picture-based questions to avoid the language issue.
There was a good rep, Laura from Scotland, for the designated "English speakers" - which in effect meant everyone who was not French, Italian, German or Spanish. (They got their own reps as well). Otherwise information for each coming day is provided quite late each evening in the "Diario di Bordo". This comes in the various languages. However, what we did miss was a daily news print-out relevant to your home country in the various languages. All other cruises we have been on have provided this. Internet was available at the usual high cost, but we found we couldn't get the Costa system to work anyway, so gave up and just waited till we got to ports to log in.
The gym was very adequate and mostly not too busy. I always like to walk round the deck and although you can't do that completely on Costa Mediterranea, you can manage an almost full circuit of about 500 metres on Deck 10 - easier in the early morning before all the loungers are out!
The ship's decor takes some getting used to! It is very gaudy and completely over the top at times. So it's best just to laugh along with it. It is certainly geared up for lots of bars and dance floors. I found it strange, though not a problem, that all the main rooms, casino, theatre, restaurant were concentrated low down on Decks 2 and 3 with the majority of cabins higher up. Movement around was usually very good with an adequate number of lifts and disembarking at the ports was faster than I had expected.
I can't say much about the ship's excursions as we just took the one which was really just a 20€ coach ride to drop you off for a few hours in St. Denis on La Réunion. Other people I spoke to complained about the cost of excursions and often their content too. We always try to be independent. The destinations were very good, also the fact that we had three overnights each allowing two consecutive days of sightseeing. On the Seychelles we drove our own hired car for the two days which worked out well. On Madagascar we had trips pre-booked with a local agency which took 5 of us in their minivan with English-speaking guide and were really enjoyable and instructive. On La Réunion on the first day we bartered with a minivan driver and 7 of us had a full day round the whole island and up to the Cirque de Salazie, fantastic views.
So how to judge the overall experience? With the little niggles I have mentioned apart, I have to say we thoroughly enjoyed it. We had a balcony cabin for the first time, managed to find enough activities to keep us amused, met some great people, were satisfied with the food and, dare we say it, rather enjoyed not being in a totally anglophone environment for once. Yes, it's true that Costa is not as refined as many of the other cruiselines and if you are a stickler for "refinement" you will be disappointed. But it does what it sets out to do pretty well and at an amazingly reasonable price, much lower than we could have found for any other cruiseline plying these waters. So would we go on Costa again? If the itinerary were right, certainly.