The MS Europa: The top-ranked cruise ship in the world
By Lillian Africano
Douglas Ward loves the Hapag-Lloyd flagship, MS Europa. The man who writes the Berlitz cruise guides and who has been described as “the world’s foremost cruise expert,” consistently awards the ship a 5-star-plus ranking, making Europa the only cruise ship in the world with this distinction.
My two cruises aboard the Europa were unlike any others I’d experienced. Both times, my guest and I arrived a half-day before sailing; both times we were taken to a local luxury hotel and offered tea and pastries and a place to relax until was time to be shuttled to the dock.
There, we were greeted by crew members, who checked boarding passes, took charge of luggage and passports and escorted us onboard, where champagne, hors d’oeuvres and music awaited.
The Europa is an “all suites” ship; 80 percent have private verandas. In our spacious suite (almost 300 square feet) were an attractive floral arrangement, fresh fruit (replenished regularly) and champagne chilling in a bucket. The mini-bar was stocked with soft drinks, beer and mineral water; all were complimentary and all were replenished regularly.
All suites have a comfortable seating area, flat-screen TVs, Cruise Net, a complimentary TV information network with private e-mail, a good selection of movies, music on demand, cruise information; and, for an additional charge, the Internet.
Our walk-in closet was the size of a small room, fitted with shelves, racks and a safe — space enough for even the fussiest passengers taking a long cruise. The marble-tiled bathroom had a full-size bathtub, a glass-fronted shower and two cabinets for personal items. Thick cotton robes, slippers and large size high-end toiletry items were provided.
The luxury level was amped up considerably for passengers in the ten Penthouse Deluxe Suites (484 square feet) and two Penthouse Grand Suites (915 square feet). The penthouses have a teakwood entrance hall; spacious living room with full-size dining table and four chairs; fully stocked refrigerator/drinks cabinet; butler service; complimentary bar set-up (replenished with whatever the passenger requests); laundry and ironing service; priority spa reservations, caviar (always available on request); hand-made chocolates, canapés, petit fours—and just about anything else that can be eaten or drunk. The two Penthouse Grand suites have private saunas, large flat screen televisions and large, private, wrap-around balconies.
The four SPA suites are steps away from the Asian-style Ocean Spa and are decorated in the same shades of red and gold as the spa. These have whirlpool tubs; windows between bathroom and living areas, which allow an unobstructed ocean view. The small, but well-equipped Ocean Spa has a full menu of services, a hair and makeup stylist, sauna and solarium.
Regardless of accommodations, the level of service is a major factor in the ship’s high rankings: the Europa claims the highest staff-to-passenger ratio in the industry, with 280 young, multi-lingual staff members for 400 guests.
Meal time was like dining at a fine restaurant. All passengers are served at a single seating in the Europa Restaurant, by both a waiter and a chef de rang (assistant waiter). The waiter is always at the station, with the chef de rang acting as runner – so there is no waiting for anything a diner might request.
There is no additional charge for the two specialty restaurants: the Euro-Asian Oriental (featuring custom-made Bauscher china) and the Italian Venezia (featuring Rosenthal china).
Complimentary champagne is offered at breakfast; at the first gala dinner, large portions of caviar were served over ice, with mother-of-pearl spoons. “We are the second largest consumer of caviar (after Lufthansa),” said Hotel Manager Robert Peukert. At one sitting it was mentioned that the price was 1,600 Euros a kilo.
“We strive for excellence in food and beverage and service,” he added, “and we also cater to passengers who require special diets. When they inform us of their restrictions, the chef creates meals that meet their needs.”
At the Lido Café, the casual dining venue, there were no long lines and service is attentive, with beverages brought to the table. Several buffet stations offer a variety of cooked foods, salads, desserts and cheeses. At lunch and dinner, the chef presents grill and pasta specials. During “theme” nights, matching alcohol is complimentary (e.g. raki for Turkish night).
At Club Belvedere, afternoon tea, made from an extensive selection of premium leaves, is served in individual pots, along with cakes and scones and sandwiches. Classical music recitals also take place here.
“When the ship was built in 1999, we had a casino,” said Peukert, “but it was used so little that it was taken out a year later.” (The space is now used for meetings and cocktail parties.) Acknowledging that an American passenger might miss a casino, he said: “If a German passengers were on a ship that did not serve brown bread, they would probably miss that.”
Lectures and entertainment take place in the Europa Lounge. There are other lounges and bars and a well-stocked library with Internet access; about 20 percent of the books are in English, the remainder are in German, French and other languages.
The 20×75-meter pool (rarely crowded) is partly covered with a dome and a hot tub is nearby. In addition to a fitness room, a tennis court, golf simulator, driving range and shuffleboard, the Europa has a deck for those who enjoy nude sunbathing. Although the ship has a children’s playroom, it is really an adult ship.
The Europa is very quiet with no vibration. Capt. Friedrich Jan Akkerman explained that the ship’s electric motors and propellers are suspended in pods beneath the hull; these improve efficiency and handling by pulling, rather than pushing the ship through the water. Cap. Akkerman also pointed out that at only 650 feet long, with a shallow draft, the ship can dock in places where larger vessels cannot. The Europa carries seven Zodiac inflatable boats for use during shore excursions in specific areas (e.g., the South Pacific).
Shore excursions, offered in both German and English, balance cultural and active options. For example, an English jeep tour in Portimao, Portugal, was partly off-road and included a climb into the mountains of the Algarve and tastings of local specialties. The guide was exceptionally knowledgeable and kept up a running commentary on Portuguese history, both recent and ancient.
German is the primary language onboard (English is the second language) and most of the ship’s passengers are German, with only a few Americans on each of the cruises I took. (There was, however, a good number of Australian and British passengers.)
During one cruise, I spoke with an American couple from Princeton, N.J. — older, well-educated and well-traveled — who said they were comfortable being in a minority on Europa and that they were attracted by the itinerary and by the level of luxury and service.
Peukert said: “We are strong in Germany and we have 80 percent repeaters. Like the US chains, we cultivate high service levels, so our ship becomes like a family — so that passengers say ‘I feel like I’m coming home.’”
Acknowledging the difficulty in attracting American passengers to a ship where English is a secondary language, he said, “Americans would need an open mind, the ability to enjoy something different, like a new destination.”
He suggested that Americans might find some of the Europa’s theme cruises — particularly the golf cruises — appealing. “Some of our gastronomic themes might be of interest. We often work with famous Michelin-starred chefs from Europe, South Africa and Mexico. People who love music would have enjoyed the celebration of Mozart’s birthday, when we had 40 musicians from the Vienna Philharmonic.”
The bottom line: The Europa is a special ship that would be a good match for a particular passenger, one who has traveled extensively in Europe and who is comfortable with other languages being spoken and who, as Peukert pointed out, is open to “something different.”