Costa Smeralda - Her final cruise before the shutdown - Mar 9th 2020

Day 1 Barcelona

And so  we find ourselves on a Jet 2 flight to Barcelona. Its a cool March morning as we pass over the channel & spy the Isle of White. This cruise was booked on a launch deal for the Costa Smeralda. Shes been at sea for almost 3 months having ironed out any niggles and problems.

We tend to have a rule that avoids brand new ships for a month or so - let them bed in and allow the staff to get used to its operation - especially hotel side. Speaking of hotels we have chosen the most excellent 5 star Hotel Miramar and Spa for our pre cruise stay. A beautiful hotel atop Montjuic with striking views of the city and port from its terraces. Normally Barcelona's port would be busy with several cruise ships but March is still off season and the only ships your likely to sea in the Med will be Costa or MSC vessels. Most of the other lines will have moved their fleet over to the Carribean etc.

Of course the world is just beginning to feel the start and effects of the C word and it is necessary for us to have our temperature taken as we check in over a glass of champagne. The rooms are modern, large and comfortable with that typical boutique style of having the bath in the room. Theres a private terrace and separate shower and bathroom area and a whole bank of wardrobes - safe etc hidden down a passage towards the back of the room.

Everything is top class including a nice selection of L'Occitane products for you to soak in and remove the traces of airport grubbiness. We have a great dinner downstairs at the bar (the hotel also has a cpl of full restaurants with set tasting menus which we will definitely try next time)

Cava & freshly squeezed OJ for breakfast ( plenty of food also available!) overlooking the whole of Barcelona, what could be better? At 11am we order our taxi to the port (more Cava as we check out). Our ship awaits just down the hillside a short distance away.

The Smeralda is Costas latest addition to the fleet and takes over from the route previously allocated to the Diadema which we took a couple of years ago. Its a very traditional 7 night route taking in all the major ports of the Western Med. However little did we know that on this occasion it would be doing no such thing.

Its after 1pm by the time we board and have a full body heat check before boarding. We drop our hand luggage straight off in the cabin as its ready, grab our key cards & check which MDR we are allocated: "The Columbina" for a nice table service lunch. We are both immediately impressed by the hand cleaning stations on board this ship; as well as the usual hand santizer gel globes we are so used to seeing now, every  restaurant has banks of machines that wet wash and sanitize your hands automatically. Its also worth remembering that all this equipment was built and installed from day one launch so its good to see that these are not just additions because of the current crisis. 

If you have ever read any of our other reports you will know that we have never been great users of  buffet restaurants so its also great to see that Costa are offering a sit down service every day of the cruise for lunch and not just on sea days.

Jack chooses the seafood main course which is delicious and I choose a rather hearty venison and beef stew. We have the Brindiamo drinks package so its all washed down with a lovely dry Pinot Grigio and a very drinkable Cabernet for myself. Hopefully this will be the last time we see the main dining room as we plan to upgrade to club level, something  we had discovered was well worth the money on the Costa Favolosa last year.

Then its time to explore the ship and find a place to sit and relax with the excellent coffee that Costa is so famed for.

The whole ship  is more moderno Italian design than the usual bling on Costa Diadema. Its tasteful with clean lines though some of the colour choices in the stateroom corridors are slightly OTT.

Your never going to forget what deck is yours on this ship.

Bags arrive quickly to the stateroom and its soon time for Costas muster which takes place in the Jazz Bar. By the time we have unpacked its time to get a quick aperitif and find the maitre 'd to sort out our restaurant options. The Smeralda does not actually have the equivalent of a club restaurant - instead they have two private restaurants on deck 8 one dedicated to suites (the Panorama)  and one for perla diamante Costa Club members (The Bella Vista).

A quick chat  with the head waiter and we are encompassed in the extra refinement of the Panorama restaurant for breakfast, lunch and dinner. A small room with (as the name would suggest) panoramic windows across the port side wall. Service is excellent - food is delicious & piping hot and wine glasses are refilled before you can blink. 

Starter of  marinated trout tartare with quails egg

Spinach and Ricotta Cream Malfati

Crispy suckling pig with baked apples and fines herbe salsa

Heres an example dinner menu to wet your appetites  -You can of couse mix and match netween the main al a carte items (which always include fillet steak and the giant prawns) and the chefs suggested menu of the day which tries to be representative of the area you have just visited. And if its not on the menu just ask.

As we eat dinner the ship finally releases its hold on the Spanish mainland and we set sail- This has to be one of the most silent and smooth ships I have ever sailed on. The usual vibrations from bow thrusters and azipods that mark your departure just isnt there at all. Also noticeable is the lack of  the grey and black smoke from the smoke stack  as this ship is powered totally  by LNG (liquid natural gas).

Tomorrow we are due in Palma (again - its only a few weeks since we here last here) early in the morning.

Costa Smeralda - Part 2 Palma Mallorca and onwards

Day 2 begins with a lovely warm morning  where the view from the cabin reveals that we have arrived  in Palma Mallorca. To be precise we have docked at the  Palma Estación Marítima 6 (cruise port 6) which is possibly the furthest point you can get from the city when arriving by sea - as fate would have it though we find we are in the perfect position to visit an area Jack knows from her early trips to Mallorca.

However first things first - Breakfast in the Panorama is absolute paradise  - perfect service and perfectly cooked food in a small quiet private dining room - such a luxury compared to the noise and hustle of the buffets. To be fair the Smeralda like most cruise lines does actually have an MDR open for table service breakfasts everyday and to balance things even I must admit that if the weather is suitable there is nothing quite like eating your breakfast out on deck (something we usually do when aboard NCL ships).

As we were only here a few weeks ago on the NCL Epic the  plan we have come up with is to walk (google maps tells us its 30 mins away) to the Sant Agusti area which Jack had previously stayed in her teen years with girlfriends. Its a sort of nostalgia trip combined with a good bit of solid exercise. As we approach our destination she remembers being on this road whilst the police held up the traffic & a fleet of rather grand vehicles drove through the gate. This gateway actually leads to the summer residence of the Spanish Royal family.

So part of what would have been the palaces grounds have now been turned into public gardens and art displays. Its actually a slightly longer walk than it looks from the port. (mainly because the port is so huge and google maps is useless when you indicate walking - wanting to take us on the most indirect route possible) . However we pass through beautiful turquoise coves (and shortcuts through petrol stations) until we  finally  arrive.

Many  moons ago one of  our first  Spanish trips found us touring the central areas with Magic of Spain travel company. In the  city of Madrid we visited the Prado and as always happens found ourselves looking for a gift from the gallery. We settled on a lovely wooden block jigsaw/puzzle/ornament that was designed around a Joan Miro work of art. 

This entire tranquil park is dedicated to surrealist artist Joan Miros sculptural works. Rather like our wonderful little wooden jigsaw puzzle from the Prado its best if you dont try to link the title of the work with what your looking at otherwise you'll be scratching your head for quite some time. The surrounding town area does seem to have declined in popularity though and has a tired and neglected look about it. So with nothing more than closed fast food establishments on offer we find a taxi at the rank and head back to the ship for lunch.

One advantage of eating in the Panorama is that all those dishes listed as "supplement" are included in here. These giant prawns are sweet and tender and washed down with a few glasses of cold and dry white wine a perfect lunch for a sunny day.

One thing that the Smeralda has got right is the sheer amounts of outdoor space. Decks even on the promenade are extra wide and spacious. And its nicely split up into various rooms and levels using wind breaks so your never really staring at miles and miles of decks and sunbeds.  There's also plenty of shade should you need it.

Every new ship now seems to have a glass walkway. Here you can stare down at the rear bar ( Spanish Steps) on deck 6 from the heights of deck 18.

Tomorrow will be a full sea day as we head from Mallorca towards Italy and Rome; already news is starting to filter through that this may not quite be as straightforward as it sounds. There has been  nothing official announced yet, but it doesnt take more than a few glances at the internet to realise Italy looks like it may be preparing to lockdown more than the Lombardy region.

Day 3 At sea

Sea days, calm waters, good books and quiet spaces (and great great great coffee) - paradise on the ocean waves. In case you're interested its Peter Swanson's latest (as the latest Elizabeth George is bigger and probably weighs in at more than the Bible).

Its another nice warm relaxing day where its rather easy to forget the drama and chaos that is slowly unraveling around the world. Its possible some of that is down to the fact that this is one of the most clean and hygienic environments I have ever set foot on so we feel wonderfully looked after and safe.

By mid afternoon we get the full details of what the current plan is regarding the  Italian ports. The plan is  we will be visiting each port on schedule but only to disembark those passengers who have reached their final destination. We will each receive immediate compensation for every port missed in the form of onboard credit which will be refunded in cash at the end if unspent. Luckily we have actually done this route before on the Diadema and have visited Rome and Italy in general  many times before; and I'm sure we'll be back many more times in the future. To be honest I think its what most people were expecting as things are  now changing in Europe on a daily basis.

Back to life onboard I realise I have not mentioned the evening entertainment. I have to say the Smeraldas theatre is actually a strange and perhaps not quite as successful affair as the rest of the ship. Seating on the second level has a lot of restricted view areas and for a ship that has one of the best lighting rigs I have ever seen on a vessel the sound is a bit quiet,dull and lacking any ooomph.

To be honest we only actually visited the theatre once during this entire cruise and never actually watched any of the shows in the Colosseum area (which is sort of a cross between an Atrium with an elevating stage and a theatre) so can't really comment on how that set up works.

Our favourite spot after dinner has rapidly become the Jazz club. A wonderful band made up of Spaniards and a Canadian pianist; they sound superb and can turn their hand to a great variety of music styles. They split the sets up between Jazz songbook classics (including a superb rendition of Americano) to rock classics sessions including Dire Straits (the guitarist is superb) Gary Moore, Beatles, Queen etc. We pass the nights drinking Gin and Tonics or Camparis and Sodas. Service in the bars has been fantastic.

As the sun sets over a calm Mediterranean its time to  relax into  a few days on board a ship that will be disembarking passengers daily without replacing them. Marseilles now looks like it will be the next port where we can disembark which is 4 days away - its a good job we are used to the slow calm pace of transatlantic crossings :)

Costa Smerelda her final cruise before Lockdown pt 3

And so we begin our sedate tour  of the west coast of Italy. Over 4 relaxing days the captain keeps us close to the coast at a constant 5knts so that we can take in the scenery of the Cinque Terre. Fortunately for ourselves we have visited all the ports before on previous trips. It does help immensely that there is plenty of space and plenty of things to see and do on this vast ship which is slowly emptying day by day although not noticeably.

As Daria from  La Belle Notte jazz bar points out, the captain is taking some rather amusing  routes to  pass the time overnight & we only stay in port long enough to disembark those passengers who are due to be leaving. As the numbers slowly thin we  meet one other English couple one night in the Jazz bar; rather unfortunately for them  this is not only the very first cruise they have embarked upon but they have never visited any of the counties we were supposed to be seeing either - now that is bad timing.

Buried in the aft of the ship is the 'Costa design Museum' dedicated to Italian design and style  - be it Vespa bikes, fashion, furniture, Campari bottles or art. When I heard of this I initially thought that's a  a waste of space, rather like those silly art gallery fake auctions   that many American lines always have tucked away.

But actually on the Smeralda this really works well as you will recognize items from the ships public areas or which have contributed to aspects of the ships interior design.  For instance the original 60s Starke chair in the museum is replicated and used in many of the bar areas.

Speaking of cleanliness the public bathrooms have been spotless though I think they must have had Cam (Modern family) in his Fizbo the clown mode in charge of the design.. Everything is non touch including the door openers which also cater for the Nora Dursts (from TVs Fargo) among us who can never activate the damn things.. they even have kick ones at floor level.

Cabins are simply designed (perhaps slightly thinner than the norm) with all the latest fittings you would expect. The  USB sockets if you cant find them they are hidden behind the art wall which houses the TV. Sockets are the usual mix of European and US.

There are some nice design touches in all the rooms (several of which have now been opened up for anyone to walk around as if it was press launch day)

Here we have a veranda  room that comes with a sunroom before the large balcony. Its a nice idea but I'm not quite sure if it would get that much use and I think the space would be more valuable in the actual cabin. Then again if someones a snorer its the perfect place to put them to bed at night.  If the rooms have one weakness its wardrobe space which is a little tight no matter what level of cabin.

Day six arrives and we slowly pull away from the coast of Savona after shedding more passengers (in fact probably the majority as Savona is the home port for Costa). 

We head up for lunch as usual and are just settling down to another fine meal when the captain comes on the PA with an important announcement. Spain has now officially closed the port of Barcelona and will be entering a stage of lockdown. Everybody will therefore be disembarking in Marseilles. It wasn't altogether unexpected but it does raise the slight worry of how do we actually get home - as we have made all our arrangements  (flights, transfers etc) independently from Costa. 

The Captain then goes on to explain that if Barcelona is your final destination coaches will be arranged to get you there from  Marseilles. An instant thought is that we would be better off trying to get flights back to Manchester from Marseilles, rather than having to drive to Barcelona (some 6 or 7 hours) and spend a night in a hotel. 
We are instructed to make our way later in the day to one of the (now unused) main dining rooms where Costas staff will be available to take the remaining passengers details and find a way to get you home.

We visit later in the day after relaxing around the decks; it's as simple as telling the crew your final home destination and leaving the rest to them. That evening a letter is left in the cabin; we have tickets and instructions to take a transfer and then an Air France flight from Marseilles via Paris and home to the UK tomorrow afternoon. I have to admit I was extremely impressed with how smoothly this was organised by Costa at no cost to us and how quickly we were compensated for missed ports etc.

We leave after saying goodbye to all the wonderful staff who have looked after us in the Panorama restaurant and Jazz club this past week. Then its a quick and smooth disembarkation into the port of Marseilles where an endless line of buses awaits to move people onward to their homes. It occurs to me that this si the first time we have seen the outside of the ships since Palma.

Full marks to Costa, they organised everything smoothly and fairly. Credit for all the missed ports etc arrived back in our bank account a couple of weeks later. Onboard I felt safe and have never seen a cleaner ship with more innovative hygiene facilities especially around the restaurants - in fact that's one reason I would not hesitate to sail her again in the future.