From Venice to Croatia Aboard the Costa Serena

From Venice to Croatia Aboard the Costa Serena
My husband and I chose a seven-day cruise in the eastern Med for the itinerary and because, with two busy work schedules, we want someone else to do the organizing. But will we feel herded from place to place? Will the staff be too overwhelmed to respond to individual requests? Our concerns are soon set to rest.

We arrive at Venice's Marco Polo International Airport early on the morning of our sailing—without any arrangements for transfers. Scanning signs for a means of transport to the pier, I spot the Costa booth. A staff member, fluent in five languages (a feat amazing to North Americans), finds our names and cabin on a master list. For a small fee, we can ride on the Costa bus leaving in five minutes. Our bags are tagged, and we board a comfortable air-conditioned coach.

At the pier we drop off our bags and are offered a free shuttle to Piazzale Roma, a jumping off point for exploring Venice. We've given ourselves several hours before check-in. What a bonus to spend those hours wandering unencumbered through Venice on a sun-drenched May morning! Only when jet lag slows our pace do we return to begin the embarkation process. We steel ourselves for a lengthy wait in a jostling crowd, but our choice of a mini-suite allows for an expedited check-in.

Again in a fraction of the time we expected, we stroll into our cabin to find we've hit the jackpot! Not only is it roomy, spotless, and tastefully decorated, but the wrap-around balcony yields views from both aft and port sides. Other guests will no doubt flock to the pools and enjoy the camaraderie of the common areas. For us, 30 feet of balcony with six private deck chairs is prime real estate and a source of sheer delight.
The Costa Serena departs Venice at 6 pm and the view is mesmerizing—even for those who know the city well. We can't drag ourselves away for the 6:15 seating of dinner. (The alternative 8:45 seating is favored by Europeans but doesn’t fit our "up early" lifestyle.) Eventually we make our way to the buffet on the Lido deck. Its offerings of pasta, pizza, and salad are the daily alternative to more elegant fare.

A new day brings us to our first port—the Italian city of Bari. Many guidebooks give this working harbor "a pass," but the Serena glides into a jumbo berth and we stroll down the gangway to check out the Old City. Two excursions are offered but are unnecessary. It's a five-minute walk, and we simply follow the crowd. Many of our fellow travelers seem to take this opportunity to buy alcohol, and we hear a distinct clanking of bottles as bags are put through security on our return.

For most passengers, the second stop at Katakolon, Greece—port for the city of Olympia—is the real beginning of the adventure. The ruins of ancient Olympia are a 35-minute bus ride inland, and many passengers have wisely booked an excursion. There is no local tourist infrastructure capable of transporting the passengers streaming off the Serena, but the Costa staff is prepared. With extraordinary efficiency we are assembled into groups and whisked onto buses. Native English-speakers are a minority on the Serena, and our tour group includes Poles, Danes, and Brazilians whose alternatives were tours in Italian, German, French, or Spanish.

We reach the site where Greeks once assembled to pay respect to their gods and participate in the premiere athletic event of the ancient world, the Olympic games. Long deserted and only recently excavated, foundations, fields, and a few pillars are all that remain—yet our guide brings them to life. We follow her along the path taken by ancient athletes onto the running track. We marvel over the pit where every Olympic torch (ancient and modern) has been lit. And because our guide expertly maneuvers us away from fellow tourists, we feel neither rushed nor crowded. Any hesitation about signing up for future excursions is banished.

At our next stop Izmir, Turkey, we are back on the bus headed for the extraordinary ruins of Ephesus. Our travel time is just under an hour, and again the trip is organized down to the smallest detail. Our guide provides insight into Turkish history and culture and we're not subjected to an "unscheduled" visit at a carpet shop (worked into any tour booked independently). However, the layout of the ruins funnels visitors down a single thoroughfare. When the buses from the cruise ships arrive, there is no way to escape the crush of visitors. Ephesus is a sight well worth seeing but ideally under different circumstances. At the excursion's conclusion, we are happy to escape back to the privacy and comfort of our cabin.

Day four of our cruise brings us to Istanbul, a city that straddles two continents, and the historical meeting ground of East and West. With only a day, we decide to explore on our own and visit the best-known attractions. Istanbul is a port where it is possible to walk off the ship, grab a cab to almost anywhere and explore with guidebook in hand. Everything we want to see today, the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sophia, and the covered Bazaar, is within walking distance (for the hardy). It is here that we are most aware that our cruise is "a tasting" of ports and that a "larger serving" requires a return visit.

As longtime sailors, we've been looking forward to our day "at sea." Most cruise lines (Costa included) schedule only one such day on a seven-day cruise and it's an opportunity to visit the gym, book a spa treatment, or sit by the pool. We intend to check out the Samsara spa but find that reading on our private deck provides the perfect "zen experience." Some passengers are booked into Samsara cabins and eat health conscious meals in its special restaurant. We have decided to make the ports the focus of our holiday and try (but not too hard!) to make our own healthy choices.

Our final stop is Dubrovnik, Croatia. The Serena pulls into the harbor at noon and drops anchor. Tenders transport us to the dock—with those who have signed up for an excursion on the first boats. Again we opt out. Dubrovnik is easily explored on foot without a guide. The city walls circle the Old City and for a small fee visitors can hike the parameter (about 1 kilometer including stair climbing) and enjoy a view that is nothing short of breathtaking. After a flurry of picture taking, we descend back into the city to search for souvenirs and indulge in an ice cream. No signs of modern commercialism detract from this medieval setting. Croatians know Dubrovnik is something special and have preserved (and restored) it beautifully.

With our cruise coming to a close, we pause to evaluate. The Costa Serena, its crew, and the quality of our onboard experience have exceeded our expectations. Top-notch organization and an extraordinary attention to detail are the keys. We disembark in Venice convinced we have enjoyed the unique experience we hoped for...and planning our next Costa cruise.