Why would you choose to take a cruise on a ship where the main language is not English? Onboard Hapag-Lloyd’s brand-new Europa 2, on a Mediterranean voyage, announcements are made first in German, then English. Passengers wish you a pleasant “Guten Tag” in passing rather than “Good Afternoon.” And on its menus, which focus primarily on a formal, continental European style of cuisine, the feel-good comfort foods are more Wiener Schnitzel than cheeseburger and fries.
Despite being the kind of American who fumbles with any language other than my own, I love cruising “foreign”. This is my third trip on Hapag-Lloyd, the Hamburg-based luxury-minded operator, whose original Europa is considered by some to be the best ship in the world. And in January, I had an absolutely marvelous cruise on MSC’s Fantasia (its new Divina, a sister ship, will be homeporting year-round in Miami beginning November). On that Mediterranean sailing, dominated by Italians and Spaniards, the only other passengers to attend our get-acquainted session with the ship’s international hostess were Romanian and Finnish. (And indeed, the safety drill was in five languages but we got through it reasonably quickly).
Why cruise “foreign?” The onboard atmosphere is pleasantly exotic, offering flavors, from food to entertainment, of the home country (plus their local passengers). If you love Germany, for instance, you’ll feel at home cruising on a ship like Europa 2, no matter where in the world it travels. Same goes for Italophiles on MSC Cruises, especially its Europe-based itineraries (though headquartered in Switzerland, the company is resolutely Italian in its culture and in its marketing).
Another plus: Itineraries on foreign-flagged ships are often quite different from those offered by U.S.-based lines. On Hapag-Lloyd’s Europa, our Middle East cruise embarking from Oman’s Muscat through the Suez Canal, made two stops in Yemen. Then and now, no American ships called there; it was an unforgettable few days (though even German cruise ships don’t currently visit Yemen, due to unrest). Our dead-of-winter Mediterranean trip with Fantasia was also fairly exotic for someone more used to the Caribbean in January; we traveled from Genoa to the Canary Islands.
There’s a downside, to be sure, to this type of cruise. It’s harder to bond with passengers whose first language is not yours (though communicating with crew members, who are required to speak English, is as easy as usual). Though efforts are made to serve dishes that appeal to all nationalities — and omelets, eggs Benedict, grilled steak and Caesar salad are all universal — sometimes you may crave a cheeseburger served without any international flourish, such as a fried egg on top, or squelched with Russian dressing. The worst occurs when cultural and enrichment activities are not offered in English, as was the case with some events on an otherwise amazing opera-themed cruise we took on Europa last summer. The music was enchanting but the commentary in English was non-existent.
And sometimes, service may not be what you are used to (I remain convinced that some U.S.-based lines have the absolute best cruise service in the world). On European lines, service can be quite stiff and formal. Unlike on many American-oriented ships where crew enjoy interacting with passengers, telling them about home and family, the mostly Western European staffers onboard Europa 2 are more efficient and less outgoing. It’s a cultural thing.
Nonetheless, North American cruisers have increasing choices to “go foreign.” While the cruise industry continues to be dominated by lines operated out of the U.S., there’s a growing number of companies based in Germany, Spain, Italy, France and Switzerland, among others, who are welcoming English-speaking passengers, among them Hapag Lloyd, Pullmantur, Costa, Compagnie du Ponant and MSC.
If you’re intrigued, but a bit intimidated, some cruise lines are making huge efforts to meet in the middle. When MSC’s Divina moves to its new year-round homeport in Miami this fall, it will adapt its traditionally Italian onboard operations to suit North Americans (for instance, the New York Italian institution Eataly will have a restaurant/shop onboard). On its U.S.-based trips, you’ll be able to get iced tea. And on Hapag-Lloyd’s new Europa 2, where patrons habitually prefer their water in bottles (still or sparkling), a big effort has been made to introduce a no-extra-charge “ice water” option.
Of course, it’s still a work in progress. One request for “ice water” at lunch took 25 minutes and two different queries (whereas the wine was brought promptly). But it’s a small inconvenience to pay for a genuinely unique onboard experience.
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