See what it’s like to leave the daily grind and cruise like an Italian on Costa Smeralda, the world’s fifth largest cruise ship.
When you embark on a Costa Smeralda cruise you have to place all luxury pretense aside and transport yourself to the land of pizza, pasta and Fellini.
This is a ship where fashionistas stroll the corridors while flocks of energetic ragazzi e ragazze play on waterslides and in game rooms. All the greatest hits of Italy are here and, if you can get past some of the cultural differences, Americans like us can jump head first into the Italian mashup.
Costa ships like the Smeralda serve plenty of Italian cuisine and they do it well. But you’ll need to embrace a variety of Italian cultural quirks when sailing on this ship since only 10% of its passengers are US citizens. Food is just one Italian aspect of the Smeralda experience.
→ Discover our Italian food favorites.
This isn’t a cruise where passengers should expect to be served hand and foot. However, considering the value of the rooms, it’s easy to justify paying for extras like individual pizzas, a range of Italian salumi, homemade pasta and an excellent steak or two.
During our voyage, we traveled from Barcelona to Rome with two exotic Mediterranean port stops along the way. However, we felt like we arrived in Italy days before we actually disembarked the ship in Rome.
Italian Style Cruising on Costa Smeralda
The Italian style of cruising with Costa Cruises is immersive.
We caught the vibe as soon as we boarded the Smeralda and observed an interior layered in chrome and daring 60s retro furnishings. On this ship, chairs are shaped like high heeled shoes and marble laden lounge areas resemble a cross between ancient Roman temples and hair salons. Even the ship’s public bathroom stalls sport a uniquely stylish striped decor that evokes memories of old-school ice cream parlors.
Curious cruisers can peruse CoDe, the unique Costa Design studio curated by Matteo Vercellon. This onboard museum highlights Italy’s role in the design of couture, furniture and automobiles.
However, we were most struck by our initial lunch buffet filled with dozens of cured meats like Proscuitto di Parma, Mortadella and spicy, spreadable Calabrian Nduja… and that was just one station. Another station served piles of cheeses like Parmigiano-Reggiano, Fontina and Mozzarella. The kitchen pulls fresh mozzarella on board the ship. You can’t get more Italian than that.
Bruno Barbieri, a Michelin-starred chef and TV personality hailing from Emilia-Romagna, helms Costa’s culinary program. His influence is best experienced in specialty restaurants like the Bellavista Club where dishes include Blinis topped with Italian caviar and freshly made Buffalo Zizzona cheese balls that, in an Italian nod toward unsubtle sexual suggestion, look strangely bosom-like. (That being said, the creamy, fresh mozzarella was super tasty.)
And, while it’s easy to find pizza and gelato on board, there’s plenty of uniquely Italian entertainment too. On this ship, performers croon hit songs like Mambo Italiano without translation or irony. We found oft-performed Italian hits like Musica leggerissima harder to shake from our heads than an Italian attempting to shake a cigarette habit. Good news! Costa Smeralda is non-smoking except in designated areas and on private balconies.
Despite details like marble floors and velvet chairs, cruising on Costa Smeralda is a relatively affordable way to experience Europe without a big price tag. We liken it to RyanAir with its austere, unadorned cabins and an overwhelming number of foods available for additional fees. Since most extras aren’t expensive, we recommend splurging without hesitation on items like sushi, pizza and gelato.
We can easily visualize a group of hipster/gen X friends having a hoot on this Italian cruise. There’s not much better than singing along to That’s Amore and gorging on pizza while floating across the Mediterranean. These kinds of memories last forever.
Cruising with Costa Cruises During the COVID 19 Pandemic
Any fears we had about post-pandemic cruising were alleviated by Costa’s comprehensive health protocols that included on-site COVID testing and daily temperature checks as well as mask requirements in all public spaces. The cruise line is also limiting capacity to 60% at this time.
If you think that the Costa Smeralda cruise ship is big, you are correct. It’s one of the largest cruise ships in the world. Currently, only four ships exceed its size.
Not only is Costa’s flagship vessel the world’s fifth largest cruise ship, but it also has 20 decks, 2,612 cabins and capacity for 6,554 passengers. Launched in 2019, the ship also sports 11 restaurants, 19 bars, a wellness spa with 16 treatment rooms, four pools and one massive water park.
Beyond its impressive stats, Costa Smeralda stands out for its ‘pace not waste’ approach to serving food and its utilization of liquefied natural gas (LNG) fossil fuel.
Staying in a balcony cabin during our cruise was a comfortable way to travel from Barcelona to Rome. Simultaneously simple and comfortable, the 205 square foot room included a firm queen bed, couch, desk and chair. It also featured basic amenities such as a smart television, hairdryer and wi-fi.
We particularly appreciated the cabin’s 45 square foot balcony. This private outdoor space was our ‘happy place’ for viewing sunrises and chilling after a busy day at sea.
Although our bathroom had ample amounts of soap next to the sink and in the shower, neither shampoo nor conditioner was provided. Be sure to pack these necessary toiletries unless you’d rather purchase them on the ship.
Staff and Service
Considering that Costa Smeralda employs 1,678 crew members, it’s no surprise that it’s easy to find assistance when necessary. That being said, many crew members work behind the scenes to ensure safe, stress-free journeys for the ship’s international passengers.
We primarily interacted with food service personnel during our voyage. We found these crew members to be both professional and polite. Further, they were all proficient in English even if it wasn’t their primary language.
With four pools on the ship, swimmers and sunbathers didn’t have to search long for a spot during our autumnal cruise. As a bonus, some water spaces are designed for families and that’s not counting the ship’s ginormous water park.
There’s no bliss like the bliss of a getting a massage during vacation. We achieved this enviable state during a couples massage in Smeralda’s Solemio Spa.
However, massages aren’t the most interesting aspect of the ship’s spa. Unique offerings include a thalassotherapy pool with swings and a snow room filled with actual snow. Brrr.
While gambling isn’t the main event on this family-friendly ship, Costa Smeralda has a full service casino with more than enough tables and machines to satisfy risk-taking cruisers with euros to burn. Gaming options include roulette and black jack as well as video-enhanced slots.
Costa Smeralda’s entertainment stands out for one main reason – much of it is presented in Italian.
Many of the ship’s performers sing Italian songs, some of which are familiar and some not. To us, the Italian entertainment was a fun element, especially the shows performed in small venues and intimate settings.
Fans of more elaborate entertainment can join the crowds at the ship’s Colosseum and Sanremo Theater. Options at these venues included Broadway-style productions and acrobatic feats during our cruise.
Food is the main event for the majority of cruise enthusiasts… including us. Accordingly, we were pleased to discover a vast variety of dining options during our Costa Smeralda cruise.
While most items available in the main dining room and at the buffet are included in the base cost, the cruise’s more interesting food options require extra fees. While these fees are relatively minor, they can add up if one isn’t careful.
When we cruised in Asia, we ate Asian food. When we cruised in France, we ate French food. Likewise, when we cruised on Costa Smeralda, we ate as much Italian food as was humanly possible.
To be clear, finding Italian food on the cruise wasn’t a problem. Instead, the challenge was to find stomach space for the ship’s wide range of Italian cuisine. We’re talking about Neapolitan pizza and Venice‘s Cicchetti.
After eating our way through Italy before we actually arrived in Italy, these were are favorites and the dishes you shouldn’t miss during your cruise:
Pizza at Pizzeria Pummid’Oro
We didn’t expect to find a full-service pizzeria on a cruise ship, even an Italian cruise ship, but that’s exactly what we found at Pizzeria Pummid’Oro. This cruise ship pizzeria has a proper pizza oven and dedicated pizzaiolos.
More importantly, Pizzeria Pummid’Oro serves excellent pizzas. We sampled the Margarita and Calabrese Piccante pies for research purposes and were more than satisfied with both.
Cicchetti at Il Bacaro Venetian Bar
After first encountering Cicchetti in Verona, we became fans of Italy’s small plate concept in Venice where Cicchetti bars are a mecca for aperitivo fans of all ages. To say that we were happy to encounter a Cicchetti bar on Costa Smeralda is an understatement.
We found the cruise version to be more formal compared to typical Venetian Cicchetti bars. However, it’s still a fun concept and one that we fully support.
Gelato at Amarillo
We rarely resist gelato whether we’re at home in Lisbon or in Italian cities like Bologna, Naples or Venice. After walking by Amarillo, Smeralda’s gelateria, numerous times, we finally succumbed and ordered a double decker cone to share.
Although that tasty cone was both our first and last during the cruise, we returned to Amarillo multiple times to drink the ship’s best cappuccinos. We also ordered a slice of cake one morning and called it breakfast.
Nutella Waffles at Nutella at Costa
Although the chocolate hazelnut spread called Nutella is available around the world today, it was originally an Italian specialty when Pietro Ferrero started selling his creamy creation in Alba back in 1951.
Costa Smeralda serves Ferrero’s Nutella creations at a dedicated kiosk near the ship’s largest pool. Options include croissants, muffins, pancakes, waffles and crêpes. We opted for a plate of waffles topped with Nutella, strawberries and whipped cream. It was a good choice.
Beyond Italian specialities, Costa Smeralda offers a range of venues that justify splurging on a special meal or two. These venues serve more upscale food offerings as well as cuisine with a global slant.
Since these specialty venues involve a surcharge, be sure to check the current fees and any reservation requirements to avoid unpleasant surprises or disappointment. Once again, we believe the surcharges are worth the extra expenditure. With a bit of planning, it won’t cost you that much to skip the buffets and eat excellently on board the ship.
We dined at a handful of specialty restaurants during our Costa Smeralda cruise and recommend the following:
Cruising Italian style doesn’t just involve eating Italian food. It also involves imbibing Italian drinks.
Since drinks aren’t typically included in this cruise line’s base fee, we recommend buying a drink package. This approach will allow you to fully enjoy the cruise without feeling ‘nickel and dimed’ every time you order a beverage.
We followed our own advice. Having a drink package enabled us to sample a wide range of beverages including soft drinks, wine, beer, cocktails and specialty coffee. After whetting our whistle at various bars and restaurants, these were our favorites:
No matter where we are in the world, drinking Negroni cocktails always reminds of Negronis we’ve imbibed during aperitivo sessions in Italy. We certainly felt this way every time we visited the ship’s Campari Bar.
Not only is the Campari Bar gorgeous, but it serves the most classic Negroni we’ve ever tasted at sea. The combination of bitter and sweet is one of our favorites.
Since its debut in Padua back in 1919, the Aperol Spritz has conquered the world one glass at a time. After drinking the bittersweet cocktail in bars in countries throughout Europe, we can now add drinking an Aperol Spritz at sea to our cocktail resume.
While it’s easy to order an Aperol Spritz at various bars on Costa Smeralda, the smart move is to head to the Aperol Spritz Bar on Deck 17 for the full Aperol Spritz experience. This funky bar is as orange as the cocktail itself which is to say that it’s as bright as the sun during a Mediterranean sunset.
Italy is a wonderland for oenophiles who covet excellent wine produced throughout the country. We’re no exception since we adore sipping Amarone in Verona, Brunello di Montalcino in Florence and Lambrusco in Bologna, just to name a few varietals.
As one would expect, Costa stocks a plethora of Italian wines on the Smeralda. Standout bottles during our cruise included a fruity Nebbiolo from Piedmont and a ruby red Aglianico del Vulture from Basilicata.
Taking a five-day Italian cruise is tiring for travelers who want to enjoy activities from dawn to dark. That’s where coffee comes to play.
Having a drink package allowed us to order cappuccinos at any and every cafe and bar. Ironically, we found our favorite cappuccino at the ship’s gelateria. Now that’s a sweet irony!
Cruise Ports and Excursions
Costa Smeralda’s Mediterranean route typically spans a week with stops in Palma da Mallorca, Messina (Sicily), Civitavecchia (Rome), Savona (Genoa), Marseille and Barcelona. However, unlike most cruise lines, this ship allows passengers to board and disembark at any stops along the way.
We joined the cruise in Barcelona and sailed to Rome with stops in Mallorca and Sicily. These were the highlights at each port:
Port 1 – Barcelona
Barcelona isn’t just notable for being our port of embarkation, it’s also Spain’s second largest city and the crown jewel of Catalonia. We first visited Barcelona during our honeymoon in 2007 and returned in 2016 after spending a few weeks in nearby Girona.
This visit was different. Prior to boarding the ship, we ate an assortment of Spanish favorites, experienced gastronomic wonders, scarfed down great pizza, savored fabulous desserts, sipped crafted coffee and drank more than our share of wine. In other words, we lived large in Barcelona before boarding the ship.
Port 2 – Palma de Mallorca
Located in the Mediterranean Sea due west of Valencia, Palma is a Spanish city that doubles as the capital of Mallorca. Popular with sun seekers and wine enthusiasts, the city was established by the Romans and later conquered by the Moors.
While in Palma, we participated in an informative three-hour walking tour that provided us with an introduction to Palma’s sites including the Escollera seafront, the Almudaina Royal Palace and the Cathedral of Santa Maria (also known as La Seu). With a quick stop for tapas and sangria, the excursion whetted our appetites for a return visit to further explore Palma’s food culture in the future.
Port 3 – Messina
Visiting Sicily was our key motivation for accepting Costa’s invitation. The opportunity to taste Cannoli, Sicilian Pizza, Arancini, Cassata and Granita at the source was too big to ignore. Unfortunately, due to pandemic rules, we’ll have to satisfy that travel goal in the future.
Don’t feel bad for us. Instead of eating our way through Sicily, we drank wine instead.
Our Sicily excursion took us from the Messina port to Santa Venerina. This incredible experience at the foot of Mount Etna more than compensated for our inability to explore independently.
In retrospect, this cruise excursion was one of the best cruise excursions we’ve taken. Ever.
While touring Tenuta San Michele’s cellar, we learned about the Sicilian wine-making process before tasting wine along with a spread of locally source meat, cheese and olives in the winery’s delightful garden.
This fun excursion gave us a firsthand introduction to Sicily’s vast viticulture. Enjoying snacks rumored to include donkey meat in a bucolic atmosphere among new friends made the experience even more memorable.
Port 4 – Rome
Ah, Rome. The eternal city keeps pulling us back thanks to its seemingly endless supply of pizza and gelato. Now that we’ve discovered specialty coffee in Rome, we’ll be well caffeinated every time we return to eat pasta dishes like Amatriciana, Carbonara, Cacio e Pepe and Gricia.
→ Discover our Rome food favorites that transcend pizza and pasta.
Final Thoughts on our Italian Cruise on Costa Smeralda
Cruising during a pandemic has challenges that start with nose swabs and masks and ends with bubble tours that replace independent exploration. For us, pizza, pasta and Italian cocktails justified the minor inconveniences.
Click here to explore Costa Smeralda cruise options. Who knows? Maybe you’ll find an itinerary that makes your heart sing with Italian lyrics.
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About the Authors
Daryl & Mindi Hirsch
Saveur Magazine’s BEST TRAVEL BLOG award winners Daryl and Mindi Hirsch share their culinary travel experiences and recipes on the 2foodtrippers website and YouTube. The married Food and Travel content creators live in Lisbon, Portugal.