Hapag Lloyd’s Europa is considered to be one of the best small ships in the world. Jessica Tooze went to the Adriatic to find out what makes it so special

Europa docks at Split, Croatia

The rumour on board is that a mini Octoberfest is happening. Waiters are scurrying about looking conspiratorial and passengers seem to be foregoing their usual mid-morning snacks on deck. Lazing by the pool I suddenly spot a member of the crew sneak past dressed in a full set of lederhosen. He looks rather sheepish.

Heading for our usual lunch spot at the Lido Café we abruptly leave the ship’s customary serene tranquillity and are transported to what can only be described as a bonkers Bavarian party. The entire place is decked out in blue and white state flags, waiters and waitresses dressed in full Bavarian costume carry trays brimming with beer while chefs roast whole pigs or serve up a bewildering array of sausages and Sauerkraut. An enthusiastic waiter with an inflatable beer barrel on his head approaches us with a grin. “Germans like meat and music,” he says, laughing at our bemused expressions.

As we tentatively tuck in, the Bavarian band becomes progressively more animated, waving their instruments and pints of beer in time to the music; it’s clearly going down well with the German crowd. Soon half the guests and most of the crew are up doing the conga round the restaurant, in the middle of the Adriatic Sea.

These sorts of shenanigans are far from the norm on board Europa, however, and generally a sense of serene sophistication prevails as befits her ‘five star plus’ rating from the Berlitz Cruise Guide 2013. The German cruise ship offers an unsurpassed level of luxury and elegant extravagance that consistently leaves others in her wake.

The Grand Canal, Venice

But Europa and the three other vessels in the current Hapag Lloyd fleet have remained somewhat unknown to British holidaymakers, and indeed to those from other non-German-speaking markets. Now the cruise line is offering increasing numbers of bilingual holidays (where all event programmes, announcements and menus are in English, as well as some lectures and excursions). On sister ship, Europa 2, due to launch next year, every cruise will be bilingual.

As we arrived at the ship in Venice, docked on the beautiful Zattere waterfront promenade, a welcoming party of ship’s crew cheerfully sang “guten tag!” as we made our way past. But we very quickly realised that every single crewmember we encountered spoke exceptional English, and many addressed us in English immediately without us needing to explain we didn’t speak German.

In fact, other than the two gala dinners on board, where the entertainment in the grand red and gold Europa Lounge was in German, we never felt at all as though there was anything that we missed out on as non-German speakers. And during the welcome gala, we had the International Relations officer Séverine translating for us via small headsets, even while she was on stage herself being introduced by the captain.

On our particular voyage there were eight non-German passengers. My mother and I enjoyed several dinners with an American couple, and we met Colin Bell, a Scot, who was having a great time on his third Europa cruise with his family. As a regular cruiser for many years he said that he found the attention to detail and outstanding service on board to be second to none.

The food was also extraordinarily good – every single meal unfailingly excellent, from the relaxed buffet-style lunch in the Lido Café to the artfully clever menu in the three-Michelin-star Dieter Müller restaurant. A highlight for me in this endless array of top-class cuisine was a truffle evening in the elegant Europa Restaurant, where one waiter’s role was to traverse the room with giant truffles that he shaved in decadently large flakes on plates of shiny pasta. My mother asked if he’d foraged for the delicacies himself, and he immediately joked back: “yah, just me and my own personal pig!”

A creation from the Dieter Mueller restaurant

Formal dress was required on two nights of our week-long cruise, but on other evenings many people were no less glamorous, and everyone changes for dinner. The ship doesn’t feel stuffy though and there were quite a few children on board who could often be found on the Lido Deck enjoying the pool and hot tub. Nowhere did the ship seem crowded or hectic and there is enough space for every one of the maximum of 408 guests to find a quiet and secluded spot on board to watch the changing views or curl up with a book. An understated panache prevails and a composed, genteel atmosphere pervades.

Europa is constantly sailing on a round-the-world itinerary to some of the most beautiful and fascinating places on earth. Passengers can choose to book the incredible World Tour, or sail segments of this journey just for a week or two. We chose to explore the Adriatic for a week around the ship’s last European ports of call before it headed off towards Dubai.

In advance of the ship’s arrival we entered into the holiday spirit with a couple of days exploring Venice, the glorious splendour of the Hotel Cipriani on the island of Giudecca providing the perfect prelude to the stylish ship. Setting sail, we departed the lagoon with an informative voiceover from the bridge (in German and English) explaining the history of the city and pointing out the sights as we passed.

After Venice, there was a new port of call every day, from the colourful fishing port of Rovinj on the western coast of Croatia’s Istrian peninsula to the sun-baked shores of Corfu from where the hazy hills of Albania seemed to be within swimming distance. We took advantage of the excursions offered in English, and were pleasantly surprised to find that the lack of non-Germans on board meant that we almost always had our own private tour. This was especially enjoyable when we docked at Split, the second-largest city in Croatia. With our own guide and chauffeur-driven Mercedes we set off to explore the ancient city of Salona before heading 20km up the coast to the charming historic city of Trogir, a UNESCO World Heritage Centre.

A relatively small ship, Europa is able to visit interesting ports which many cruise ships wouldn’t consider and we enjoyed a stop at the picture perfect seaside resort of Otranto in the region of Puglia, right on the heel of southern Italy’s boot. Captain Friedrich Jan Akkermann joined we English-speaking passengers on the final evening for cocktails, and laughed at how the Otranto port authorities were surprised when Europa radioed in asking permission to drop anchor. We docked quite a way outside the port, but the nifty tender boats made regular trips to and from the ship to ferry passengers over the turquoise-blue waters to the whitewashed walls of this pretty town.

And it is this flexibility and variety that makes Europa truly special. No request is too great and no detail is missed, ensuring each and every passenger experiences a level of luxury and relaxation that is truly remarkable. This magnificent ship really does travel the world in a class of her own.

Jessica travelled on the Adriatic Sea – Autumnal Journey Through Time cruise with Hapag Lloyd Cruises. To book a similar holiday, visit hl-cruises.com or call +49 (40) 3001 4580.