It's a Med world
CRUISING IS one of the few areas coping well in the recession-hit travel industry, but the choice of cruise lines, ships and itineraries can be bewildering.
I've tried a range of options in the past -- western Mediterranean, Canary Islands and even the Caribbean -- but the eastern Med wins my vote each time.
Sipping a cocktail while slipping past the myriad Greek isles, stopping off in historic Balkan cities, sailing down the canals of Venice -- it's an unbeatable combination of sights and sensations.
Costa is one of the lesser-known companies operating in the Irish market, but it's worth a look, particularly if you want a different experience from those offered by the excellent American giants.
And our ship, the Costa Serena, offers an unbeatable (and rarely found) choice of must-see destinations, including Venice, Dubrovnik and Istanbul.
I boarded Serena at Venice port, which is a cinch to get to. Fly to Treviso with Ryanair or Venice with Aer Lingus and take the bus to Piazzale Roma in the city; from there shuttle buses will take you to the port, which is just minutes away.
Sailing out of Venice is one of the highlights of any cruise fan's life. Even the most jaded traveller can't fail to be impressed as the ship glides past the beautiful church of Santa Maria della Salute and looks down from high on bustling St Mark's Square.
As tall as a 23-storey building, Serena's got a staggering 1,500 cabins, five restaurants, 13 bars each with their own personality, a fine theatre, a Samsara spa and one of the most spacious gyms on the high seas.
The decor is brilliantly OTT -- think Liberace redesigning the Sistine Chapel -- and it's got great pizazz.
If you've got kids, forget about the tired old notion that cruises are for senior citizens only. My nine-year-old dragged me up the deck staircase again and again to plunge down the looping slide into the water below. They'll also love the chocolate-dipped strawberries counter and the free ice-cream machines.
If you want to take a trip out of high season, go for it. Serena's got two huge indoor pools, each with a retractable glass roof, and plenty of sunloungers inside the glass promenade, so the weather's never a factor.
If you like Italian cuisine, you're in heaven here. Pizza and pasta are always an option in the buffet dining areas (sitdown also available for lunch), but it's nice to dress up for dinner at your assigned table in the main dining room. Dining is upscale, but there's room for a bit of madly Italian-inspired craic. On one night, the entire waiting crew broke into O Sole Mio.
Itinerary-wise, you get to taste a smorgasbord of cities and countries.
The first stop is Bari, an Italian port city where time has stood still and where the local mammies, doing the washing out on the street, say buongiorno to friend and stranger alike. It's also got some great bargain shopping.
Next stop, the sleepy village of Katakolon in Greece. Excursions are available to the ancient ruins of Olympia -- birthplace of the Olympic Games -- but we decided on a culture-free stop-off, enjoying the shops, market stalls, cafes and restaurants in this quaint town.
Then on to the city of Izmir in Turkey. It's a place that reminds me of Las Palmas in the Canaries, a real city that's not aimed primarily at tourists. Excursions are available to the likes of Ephesus and Pergamon if you're a bit of a culture vulture.
The next day, waking up in Istanbul is a shock. While Izmir has the feel of a Mediterranean seaside city, Europe's biggest city feels like you've been transported overnight into the mysterious Orient.
Opening the curtains, a beautiful mosque provided our new vista. Opening the doors, the chaotic sounds of a bustling city filled our cabin. Istanbul is just crying out to be explored, and Europe's latest Capital of Culture doesn't fail to deliver.
Shopping-wise, the Grand Bazaar is aptly a Byzantine-like maze of spices and clothes, while, if you want modern, it's good at that too (it's a city where Starbucks and pipe-smoking tea shops go hand in hand and it all somehow works).
It's hard to leave the friendly people and stunning views of Istanbul behind and, if I had only one complaint about the cruise, it's that an overnight stop in this metropolis is more than justified.
On the way home, you'll get your last fix of old civilisations with a stop in beautiful Dubrovnik (taken there by small boats from the liner), a city that grows on me with every visit.
Cruising and culture might seem like strange bedfellows, but it works so well on Costa. What are you waiting for?