Can a cruise ship -- with the incessant bells and blips of its casino, smoky bars at every turn and excess of unlimited eating options -- re-create a destination spa experience?

Costa Cruises, betting it can, unveiled the largest spa at sea this summer: the Samsara Spa on the 3,700-passenger Concordia. It is the first time that a cruise ship has offered cabins and suites within the spa itself.

The cruise line is advertising spa packages to passengers who wish to immerse themselves entirely in what it terms an "atmosphere of wellness."

I decided to stay in a Samsara cabin and see if it would be akin to total immersion at a shoreside spa. It's not.

At a land spa, wafting smoke from bars doesn't linger in the atrium as you walk to dinner at the wellness-themed restaurant. And pulsating sounds don't emanate from a disco as you head to bed.

Still, the Samsara's Tridosha sanctuary, Tea Garden and Temple of Peace, as well as its fitness facilities and classes, offer a unique luxury spa experience for someone who wants to couple port calls with a spa vacation.

(Full disclosure: I was on a truncated sailing on the ship's inaugural and spent only four days in the Samsara complex. In addition, the sailing offered fewer fitness and meditation classes than it normally does.)

" Day 1: I settled into my Samsara cabin on Deck 11. It was similar to the Concordia's regular, non-spa cabins except for its decor. Spa cabins have a Pan-Asian theme, with soft red, orange and gold hues. All other rooms onboard are decorated with European-style art and furnishings. Spa cabins, also have a small selection of sample-size Elemis spa products: lip balm, face refresher, shampoo, conditioner and lotion.

Spa cabins cost 20% more than regular cabins. Full access to the spa and some treatments are included in the price.

My room had a floor-to-ceiling window. The units vary from inside cabins to suites with balconies.

The two-deck, 20,500-square-foot Samsara Spa also has a Pan-Asian design and the staff, almost entirely Asian, greets guests with "Namaste," a Hindi salutation offered with hands in a prayer position and a quick bow forward.

This greeting is offered not only when guests first enter the spa, but whenever they are spotted walking down halls, up steps -- or anywhere else.

I walked the 20 steps from my room to the spa in my robe, running into non-spa guests waiting for the elevator. This uncomfortable encounter is unlikely to happen to people staying in spa cabins on Deck 10; those guests enter the spa via the spa's own elevator and staircase.

The spa is extensive and impressive. A series of rooms offer myriad forms of relaxation.

The Tridosha Sanctuary has several types of Turkish-style grottoes and chambers that release varieties of heat: dry, steam or with aromatherapy vapor. All have ceramic-tiled lounge chairs with large windows. They're coed, so bathing suits are necessary. However, saunas in the men's and women's bathrooms are single-sex.

" Day 2: Location, location, location. There's no excuse not to get up and work out at 8 a.m. when I can set the alarm for 10 minutes before, change and be on an exercise machine before I even open my eyes. Samsara's running and cycling machines look out over the ocean, and there are many of them.

It was chilly and rainy that day, and around 6 p.m., when I had a half-hour to kill before getting ready for dinner, I spent it relaxing in the sauna.

" Day 3: That morning, I had an excuse not to go to the gym: I was getting a Samsara Aroma Stone Therapy Polynesian treatment at 7 a.m. It was nice not needing a locker, walking right from my room to the massage table.

Many treatments at Samsara are Ayurvedic, meaning they're based on ancient, holistic healing practices from India that aim to balance body and soul. Every treatment begins on the room's indoor balcony with a Shanti foot-cleansing ritual.

"Shanti" means peace in Sanskrit, and the process is meant to bring guests "into the present" by dipping their feet in a bowl of water and basalt stones and scrubbing away the past.

Samsara treatments don't end with the usual "take a minute" on the table. Before and after treatments, guests are encouraged to relax in the Temple of Peace, a meditation room with canopied beds, a couch and large floor cushions where guests can relax and meditate. The quiet space is beautifully appointed in dark wood and leather.

Before I headed to the Temple, my masseuse took me to the Japanese Tea House and prepared a soothing cup of tea that I sipped while looking out at the sea. (I would rethink the fake coals, painted orange to look like they're lit, that lie in the middle of the tea circle.)

The Tea House extends off the Golden Sun Garden, a covered balcony with chaise lounges that wraps around the spa. 

" Day 4: Before going ashore to tour Rome, I took a 7 a.m. stretching class. On another cruise, I would never have bothered if I couldn't sleep until 6:55 a.m., take the 50-minute class and still be ready to leave the ship by 8:30 a.m.

After a 90-degree day spent in Rome, I felt a bit gritty. I decided to cleanse in the spa's thalassotherapy bath, where the seawater jets supposedly have healing properties that relieve arthritic pain and sore muscles and reawake one's vital energy. True or not, it is relaxing and rejuvenating. I avoided looking at the huge, scary dragons that loom over the glass-enclosed pool. 

Dinner that night was in the Ristorante Samsara. This eatery is open to spa cabin guests only.

Inspired by "molecular cuisine" chef Ettore Bocchia, the Ristorante Samsara's lighter fare includes tomato and mozzarella salad, steamed sea bass, roast duck and an exotic fruit dessert.

The best part about staying in the Concordia's spa cabins was that I felt compelled to take advantage of all the facility had to offer -- and I did.

I left satisfied that I had enjoyed the fun of a cruise but left invigorated and in better shape than I had been at embarkation.

To contact reporter Johanna Jainchill, send e-mail to [email protected].

JDS Travel News JDS Viewpoints JDS Africa/MI