Ask any number of cruise agents about Europa and they will tell you that she is a German ship run by Hapag-Lloyd in Hamburg.
They will also tell you that it is targeted at the German market and therefore extremely popular with Germans. They know too that its crew is largely German and the language on board is German. As a result the food is German, the wines are German and the music is German.
And there’s one final thing. The ship is always full and there are no discounts. That’s it then. No point in considering a cruise on this ship.
But hold on a minute. Did you know that for the last 11 years Europa has consistently won the accolade of best ship in the world from the highly respected Berlitz Guide to Cruising and Cruise Ships? Its author, Douglas Ward, stubbornly makes it the only 5-star Plus ship that he’s sailed on and he’s been on just about everything that floats.
And just like Germans know a thing or two about making cars (they even make Rolls Royces now) Hapag-Lloyd is showing the rest of the cruising world how its done when it comes to attracting customers.
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When every other cruise company is slashing the cost of its cabins and offering hundreds of pounds of on-board credit to attract passengers, Hapag-Lloyd flatly refuses to do so. Not for them the cut-throat world of cruising says Josef Gruber, Europa’s Hotel Manager. “We simply don’t have to do it. We are always full and some people are booking two or three years in advance just to get their favourite cabins.”
So when we join Europa on a 13-day cruise from Kiel, calling on such classic Baltic ports as Stockholm, Helsinki and St Petersburg, then turning about to drop anchor off lonely Gotland and Bornholm, before transiting the Kiel Canal to Hamburg, we are keen to discover why nearly 400 Germans are happy to pay through the nose to get on this famous ship.
At 11 years old Europa is getting on a bit but you would never know it. She still shines like a new pin. Weighing a tad under 30,000 tons and measuring 200 metres long she has a nicely rounded stern, a wrap around teak promenade deck and, another German thing, a nude sunbathing area.
There is a 17-metre swimming pool, partly covered by glass, and a whirlpool; inside there are three lounges which play host to music recitals, a 24-hour library, cinema, golf simulator, business centre, an Italian and oriental restaurant, (both open for lunch as well as dinner at no extra cost), Lido Cafe and the main dining room. There is a Spa with an endless range of treatments, including hot stone massage, a steam room and mixed sauna, a separate gym and beauty salon. There is no casino or slot machines (the passengers don’t want them). Add to this four diesel electric engines that drive a pod propulsion system which makes the ship vibration free and she is already up there with the best of them.
We quickly settle into our cabin and slide open the balcony door which lets in the sound of the sea sloshing along the bow; this is the essence of cruising – simple pleasures like lying on deck in a steamer chair sipping bouillon.
An alternative on this ship is the afternoon ritual of waffles, cherries and ice cream served on the pool deck. They are terribly addictive. The dress code is casual for tonight so we head for the main dining room hardly bothering about our outfits. The maitre d’ greets us with a smile and leads us through a mix of tables already full of elegant 60 and 70 something ladies in smart dresses and gentlemen in crisp shirts and ties, jackets and suits.
Everyone looks remarkably lean, fit and rich. Gold watches and classy jewellery curl around tanned arms and necks; no sign of shell suits or white trainers here. This, we learn, is another German trait and even at breakfast we spot two guys in suits.
But it’s not just the passengers that pass muster on this ship of ships. The waiters and waitresses, who are nearly all German, are immaculately turned out in their uniforms and on formal nights they wear tails and trousers.
Tonight we will meet Captain Friedrich Jan Akkermann and his officers at the welcome dinner where lobster and caviar and champagne will be served.
Ralph Grizzle who runs the extremely popular American based website Avid Cruiser is on board for a few days and I am keen to get his take on the ship. “There are quite a few ships that would give Europa a run for its money,” he tells me. “And Americans are used to an all inclusive product which includes, alcohol, shore excursions and flights. These days you’re not even in the game if you don’t offer at least 60 per cent off your brochure rate but amazingly this cruise line hasn’t had to do that,” he says with a laugh. So would he recommend it? “If you can afford it you should try it. For my part I like being the innocent abroad. Everyone has treated me so politely and I’ve enjoyed the experience of seeing the Baltic destinations and then coming back on board this German ship to live the German lifestyle; it really enhances the experience.”
Ingrid and Alfred Harrison, both American citizens, couldn’t agree more. “It’s a beautiful, small ship; very elegant and the service is incredible. Overall I give it a very high rating,” Ingrid beams. They are taking part in the golfing programme (also available on Columbus), which they love.
Not caring about our waistline we take afternoon tea in the Belvedere Lounge where 30 loose teas, (no teabags in sight) several kinds of coffees, including liqueur coffees, along with a selection of sandwiches and cakes, made fresh every day. They are served to the accompaniment of the classical pianist on board.
The next day the sun is shining from a clear blue sky and the sea is calm. It will take us a full day and a night steaming at 14 knots to reach Stockholm. For breakfast we choose a table overlooking the stern of the ship. Our waitress Jasmine brings us delicious coffee and hot milk in silver pots and we order fresh mango and pineapple (all organic), Bircher muesli, freshly-squeezed orange juice and yoghurt from the buffet. I opt for Eggs Benedict, and my wife has French toast but we leave the gourmet breakfast of beef tartare, carpaccio of smoked tuna and goose liver terrine for another day.
Tonight we will meet Captain Friedrich Jan Akkermann and his officers at the welcome dinner where lobster and caviar and champagne will be served. An amiable man he mixes easily with the passengers and tells us that we will reach the archipelago of Stockholm with its thousands of little islands early in the morning. “The pilot will come aboard at 5am so don’t miss it.”
We make it on deck just in time to see the first rays of the sun creep out of the sea. Within minutes it turns the myriad of rocky islands, with their neatly painted little houses made from timber, into dream hideaways.
As Europa slips silently by, a waiter appears with a tray of coffee, Danish pastries and croissants.
We say Guten Morgen to a few of our fellow passengers. Wunderbar we all agree and then we realise that this ship is the very tops and we have barely started on our Baltic adventure.
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