In the world of cruising, Costa Cruises is known for its extravagant and costly inaugurals. Indeed, Costa's newest ship, Costa Serena, the largest Italian cruise ship ever built, was recently christened amid much pomp and circumstance, with the whole city of Marseille, France, participating. The ship was launched with a nonstop half-hour fireworks-and-laser-lights extravaganza illuminating Marseille's five famous monuments: the Basilica of Notre Dame de la Garde, Lighthouse Cove and Residence, Sainte Marie Majeure Cathedral, Entrecasteaux Castle and Fort Saint-Jean. In the words of one French guest, it was a "C'est wow!" moment.
Costa Cruises is a member of the Carnival Corporation family, and the Costa Serena has the same design as Carnival's Conquest-class vessels. But the similarities end there. There's something about the interior of a Costa ship that gives it a totally European ambiance. It is extravagantly furnished and decorated, it has many pampering amenities, and it provides more venues for guests to see and been seen. You could say it's la dolce vita at sea.
Among the ship's amenities are: Samsara Spa, the largest spa-and-fitness center at sea; three swimming pools, two with their own retractable glass dome roofs; a giant movie screen; five Jacuzzis; a Grand Prix race-car driving simulator; a chocolate bar that offers nine kinds of fruit dipped in a chocolate fountain; and menus created by the Italian culinary innovator Ettore Bocchia. As on other Costa ships, you'll find a towering atrium and theater, Internet café and library, shopping promenade, kids club and pool and 13 bars that are always thronged with guests. Accommodations include 1,500 well-appointed staterooms, including 70 suites and 99 Samsara Spa cabins and suites, which have private spa access.
Unlike my Caribbean cruise in January aboard the Costa Mediterranea, Costa's European cruises offer no toga parties or Roman Bacchanal. In Europe, the onboard pursuits have a more cosmopolitan flair. Carnival Chairman Micky Arison tells me, "You come onboard Costa in Europe for an Italian and French experience, not an Italian-American experience. If you love to dance and hear good music, this is for you."
The ship was designed with the winter Mediterranean season in mind - hence the two covered pools and the spa solarium, which allow guests to enjoy sunny skies on days that can get chilly. But it was also styled to capture the region's ancient past. Like its sister ship, the 112,000-ton Costa Concordia, Serena was designed by Joe Farcus, the Miami-based architect who for many years has designed Carnival Cruise Lines' "Fun Ships," which show off his distinctive style of glitz and glamour. For Serena's theme, Farcus plays tribute to Roman and Greek mythology with a surprisingly elegant flair, giving ancient gods and demigods new roles in modern venues.
For example, Farcus designed the Giove Theater around the Roman god Jove, also called Jupiter, whose trademark lightning bolts were incorporated around the theater in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. "I thought since the shows would be high-energy productions, Jupiter was appropriate for this venue," Farcus says. Similarly, Farcus casts the two-headed god Janus as guardian of the Giano Casino, representing the two sides of luck -- good and bad. The theme continues to play out in 6,000 original pieces of art created by 34 international artists, making Serena a veritable floating gallery.
The ship's two main dining rooms, Ceres Restaurant and Vesta Restaurant, serve dinners in the traditional manner, with assigned times and assigned tables (breakfasts and lunches are open seating). The dinner menus play up Mediterranean fare, with a different region of Europe highlighted each night, and they are accompanied by an excellent selection of wines.
Prometeo Restaurant, the ship's casual buffet restaurant, is arranged into several serving stations, which are sometimes devoted to different ethnic cuisines; it also houses a pizzeria, pasta station and ice-cream machines. Club Bacco is Serena's specialty restaurant, offering menus from the masterful Italian Michelin-starred chef Ettore Bocchia, creator of "molecular cuisine." Bocchia was recently named a consultant to Costa and began overseeing new menus fleet-wide on June 1.
Another dining option is the Samsara Restaurant, reserved exclusively for passengers in Samsara Spa cabins, where guests can dine on health-conscious fare.
The big problem with "Cruising Italian Style" is all those excess calories. After eating lasagna and fettuccini for a week, you're likely to leave the ship with a little -- or a lot -- more to love. Luckily, there's more to cruising on this ship than eating, drinking and sunning by the pool. In fact, the ship boasts the largest spa-and-health facility at sea: the 23,000-square-foot Samsara Spa.
You can go two ways here: You can relax into the calming embrace of the Asian-inspired treatment rooms or you can do some serious calorie burning in the gym. The relaxation begins the moment you enter the door as the staff welcomes you in Asian style with Namaste, a Hindi greeting offered with hands in a prayer position and a quick bow forward. The treatment offerings include a huge thalassotherapy pool, rock sauna, aromatic Turkish bath, VIP Treatment Suite and Oriental Deluxe House -- to name just a few. Many treatments are ayurvedic, i.e., they are based on ancient, holistic healing practices from India that aim to balance body and soul. Every treatment begins with a shanti foot-cleansing ritual then lingers through a series of relaxing and revitalizing attentions. Before and after treatments, guests are encouraged to relax with a cup of tea in the Japanese Tea Garden or in the winter garden solarium, which has comfy loungers and canopied beds with sea views and relaxing music.
Need to burn off the pasta? The spa's large fitness center offers users state-of-the-art Technogym machinery and personal trainers. Aerobics, cycling and Ashtanga yoga classes are also offered daily.
Last year, with the launch of Concordia, Costa found that the Samsara spa cabins were a big hit, and it's easy to see why. These cabins offer direct access to the spa, as well as special decor, amenities and dining privileges at the Samsara Restaurant. On Serena, the number of Samsara cabins was doubled, offering guests a veritable wellness vacation only steps from their stateroom.
If you like everything Italian or are just looking for the ultimate seagoing spa vacation, it's hard to beat the new Costa Serena.
If you go
Costa Serena will depart from Venice every Sunday on seven-night Mediterranean cruises from June through November. For the winter season, Serena will offer 10- and 11-night cruises in the Canary Islands.
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