The four cruise ships of Hapag-Lloyd, the German shipping company, are well-respected in Germany but little-known in the United States. Only some of their cruises are marketed to English speakers. It's a shame. We cruised on the expedition ship MS Bremen from Nova Scotia to Greenland, leaving June 14, 2008, and disembarking in Iceland June 30. What an experience! There were some shortcomings, and while the Bremen considers itself a four-star ship, it probably falls a little short of that. Still, this was a cruise to be remembered always. The Ship. The Bremen, which features an ice-hardened hull, is nearly 20 years old. It is attractive, it looks like a ship should look, and it is well-maintained and staffed by a friendly crew, most of whom spoke good English. Getting around the ship is easy. The captain and other top officers were frequently available to talk and answer questions. The bridge is advertised as being open to passengers, although too frequently it was closed. Smoking is unfortunately allowed in some areas, though not in the main dining room.
The Bremen carries up to 164 people in pleasant staterooms that are typical cruise-ship in size and decor, with typical cruise ship bathrooms. Some have balconies. Ours, No. 428, did not and I can not see why anyone would need a balcony. Our room had two chairs and a desk but no sofa. Storage space is good. The rooms readily allow noise from adjoining cabins. The ship television system was not worth much.
There is one main dining room, which serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, and a club/bar that serves a breakfast and lunch buffet, plus afternoon tea and a late-night snack. Dinner is one sitting. Service is good but not great. The library is small and does not offer enough to English speakers. The internet worked some times, but not other times. The daily report of news from the USA and the world was poor. The ship has a small pool, no whirlpool, but a decent exercise facility. There is a large meeting room on the top deck, with excellent views, and an outdoor stern sitting area where passengers can take drinks and food from the club. Being an expedition ship, there was little entertainment and no casino, which was just fine with the passengers. This was advertised as a bilingual cruise. All announcements and written material were in German and English. We had about two dozen English speakers aboard. A single English speaker on a cruise like this would feel very lonely.
The Food. Sometimes the chief purchased food from locals along the way. One morning in a little Greenland town, we observed cod, just recently caught, being loaded onto the ship. Breakfast was very European, with heavy emphasis on sliced meats and cheeses, not something that appeals to all Americans. Eggs, bacon and pancakes were available. Lunches and dinners followed a varied menu. Dinner offerings were particularly ambitious, sometimes featuring game dishes like hare. The food was almost always good to very good, sometimes excellent. The duck breast, wild boar and venison were superb, the beef Wellington won raves. There was a surprising lack of shrimp, and veal appeared on the menu too often. Failures did occur. The halibut one night was overcooked. The prime rib was so bad it should never have left the kitchen. The chef was personable and frequently available. But hints to him that ice tea should be provided for American guests went unheeded.
The Cruise. The passengers were nearly all adults over the age of 30. We embarked in Halifax, with very smooth procedures, except that luggage delivery was terribly slow. We left on time and headed for Greenland. We had an ambitious itinerary, in a difficult travel region just above and below the Arctic Circle, in a part of the world where cruises ships do not often venture. Things did not always go according to plan, but we had fabulous times. The ship sailed by ice bergs as large as office buildings. One morning we encountered whales, so the ship slowed and circled while they swam around us. High, barren mountains were often seen ashore. One highlight was a visit to a glacier, where the ship entered an uncharted inlet surrounded by ice bergs, stopped, launched the Zodiac boats, and took passengers as close to the glacier as was safe. Before returning to the ship we were dropped off on a rocky beach, walked to the top of a rise, and found to our surprise that the chef had set up a hot dog lunch with warm spiced wine. What a treat! We had interesting sociological visits to several Greenland towns. But there were frustrations. Three towns we were scheduled to visit were dropped because of weather/ice conditions. Two other towns were substituted, but it was not an equal tradeoff. We had knowledgeable lecturers aboard, but their talks did not always convey the flavor of the places and societies we were about to visit. Yet, when we talked to the lecturers ashore, they were frequently illuminating. Preparations for shore visits were lacking. We visited one town on a national holiday, which meant many businesses were closed. In another town, no one told us about the best local souvenir ship-we found out from a local resident. Museums and churches too often were closed, and reported efforts to open them failed. We were not given nearly enough time in Nuuk, the capital of Greenland. Nice restaurants were available in some of the towns for a ship-wide luncheon, but that was never done. In no town did the mayor or other civic official meet us and answer questions. Surely, in some places, that would have been possible. We had expected more Zodiac boat landings in unusual, uninhabited places, but that did not happen. Ice conditions and weather were issues. We encountered far more floating ice than expected, which hindered navigation. Some days were glorious, sunny with temperatures in the 40s and 50s. Other days were foggy and gray. The sea was rough for several days and very rough for two days, when dishes and silverware flew from dining room tables and walking in the hallways was difficult. Sickness bags were placed on hallway railings. We did not need the ship doctor, but other passengers did. He was said to be excellent. The cruise ended on schedule in Reykjavik, where we spent several delightful days on our own.
Was the Trip Worthwhile? The cruise cost us about $7,500 a person, not including airfare and hotels before and after. We met interesting fellow passengers from several countries, dined and resided in fine fashion on a cruise ship for more than two weeks, learned about the Inuit culture, Greenland and Iceland first-hand, and saw parts of the world not a lot of our friends will ever see. Would we book the cruise again? That is the ultimate question of worth, and in our case, the answer is absolutely yes.