Athens (Piraeus) to Hamburg, Voyages EUR0910, EUR0911, EUR0912, EUR0913. We first heard about the MS Europa when we were on a cruise on another German ship, the MS Deutschland in 2007. Passengers were referring to the MS Europa with some deference and comparisons were made between the two ships.
We had made travel arrangements for a vacation to Europe in March. However, changed circumstances made it necessary for us to defer our plans for a couple of months. Looking for a suitable alternative cruise in Europe, we came across a Mediterranean cruise on the MS Europa. The itinerary suited our intentions and we decided to take 4 sections consecutively from Athens to Hamburg. MS Europa of Hapag Lloyd, did not advertise any of these sections as bilingual, in other words, on this cruise, the Europa catered in the main, but not exclusively, for German passengers. We are not native German speakers; my wife speaks no German apart from a few words, but I am fairly proficient in the language. Our experience on the Deutschland had prepared us for life on a German ship, and we enjoyed our cruise tremendously. So without trepidation we booked on the MS Europa.
Even though this cruise was not bilingual, the staff and crew spoke English and apart from the occasional misunderstanding, we had no difficulty in communicating with anyone. The MS Europa have excellent International Relation hostesses, who helped with the translations of the menus and the daily activity sheet in English. The daily news was provided in German only.
The male hosts on board spoke excellent English and were a great help. The concierge sorted out shore-going trips and outings. So the Europa with regard to accommodating non-German or English speaking passengers is fully prepared.
People cruise for a variety of reasons, but the expectation of good food and service usually is one of them. It is surprising, therefore, that the Europa thinks it should cater to the German taste only. German travellers also want to experience international and country specific cuisine. Why go on a cruise to be served food you can find in any half decent restaurant anywhere.
My harshest remarks will be reserved for the standard of the food and its style, and the lack of innovation on the menu. Even though we were offered caviar several times, this does not make superior cuisine. The food in the main is well presented but bland and tasteless.
The hotel manager and executive chef are responsible for the standard and quality of the restaurants and they must meet passengers' expectations. The executive chef is not hands-on overseeing the restaurant's out-put at each service, because there were some near disasters. There were complaints and rumblings from German passengers aswell. We had some very good meals, but also many mediocre meals. This inconsistency shows a lack of quality control. The Europa has great serving staff, who at times have to make up for the shortcomings of the kitchen.
We met with the hotel manager who looked into our concerns; the result was that staff, probably having been told, became obsequious. That was the last thing we wanted, and for the rest of the cruise we kept our concerns to ourselves.
Our criticism of the standard and quality of food does not apply to the speciality Italian restaurant Venezia. We ate here on a number of occasions and each time we came away with having experienced a wonderful meal. The food is classic Italian; the menu is frequently changed to include regional Italian dishes. The Italian restaurant manager knows how to please his guests and went out of his way to arrange for us some of our most loved Italian dishes. The table service is friendly and impeccable. The other special restaurant is the Oriental restaurant, serving dishes from the Orient, with regional themes. Bookings for both of these restaurants is required and it is wise to do so early in your cruise, because the restaurants are usually booked out. We booked the Asian restaurant, but our booking was cancelled because of a function. We did not re-book and never ate in the Oriental restaurant. There is no additional charge for dining in the speciality restaurants. The restaurants are open for lunch and dinner.
Cruise ships such as the Europa, with fares* among the highest in the world, are expected to deliver new dining experiences and to provide thoughtfully conceived and perfectly prepared food. On the Europa there are a number of areas where this falls well short of best international practice. Passengers are entitled to expect more than a slogan (Weltbestes Kreuzfahrtschiff) to make a cruise memorable. *The fare includes travel cancellation insurance, but the Europa is one of the few cruise ships which still imposes a daily fuel surcharge.
The disappointment in meeting our expectations on the MS Europa lies in the main with the cruise director who is responsible for creating the right atmosphere and conditions for the full enjoyment of the cruise; to organise exciting entertainment, passenger activities and leisure programs. We acknowledge that the entertainment was directed at a German audience, but there was some bad programming and often a poor timing of activities.
The ship itself is well run; all schedules were met, we arrived on time and left on time. There were no break-downs. The ship is extremely quiet and stable and even under bad weather conditions there was no discomfort.
We had read up about the MS Europa and were looking forward to the advertised wellness programme. On our first day on board we found that there were no Yoga classes, no oriental type massage, as there was no masseur on board who did oriental massage. Matters did not improve when I ordered my first hot breakfast in the Lido; the outcome was very disappointing.
We flew from Australia via Dubai to Athens. Hapag Lloyd had a hospitality suite in the Hotel Royal Olympic in Athens. We had booked into another hotel and took a taxi to the hotel, where we were welcomed and our luggage was taken care of. Light refreshments were available. We had time to spare so we revisited some sites in Athens until it was time to depart by bus to Piraeus and we were on board in no time. After handing in our passport in exchange for our cabin card (and charge card) we were shown to our cabin.
We were aft on Pacific deck. Flowers, champagne, chocolates and strawberries awaited us. The bar fridge was stocked with juices, beer and soft drinks. Passengers have their fridge restocked daily with beverages of their own choice. The cabin was large with a separate sitting area, a good size balcony, a sleeping area with twin beds pushed together (at our request), a walk-in wardrobe, a bathroom with bath and shower. All finishes were of the highest quality and of modern design. We were also provided with a bathrobe, slippers, soaps, plenty of coast hangers, etc.
A good feature in the cabin is the interactive television/radio/internet entertainment centre. With our travel papers we were given a personal e-mail address; so we could receive and send e-mails (but no attachments) from our cabin. There was a choice of TV stations, mainly German, but included CNN. The ship's daily programs and activities, menus in the restaurants, port lectures etc. were screened each day. A selection of different music, classical, jazz, rock etc. is available, as well as videos, including a good selection of titles in English.
The Europa was built in 1999. It is a comfortable and very spacious ship with a nice dEcor. The most surprising thing is that so much of all that space is seldom used. There is the Club Belvedere with a beautiful forward view over the sea. It is used for afternoon tea, church services and the occasional musical performance. During the day we found the church paraphernalia were often left in place, or the blinds were drawn. At other times this lounge was used for practice by the performing artists. Passengers seldom used this lounge, and no wonder.
Then there is the Clipper lounge on deck 4. In all the time we were on board it was only used for one performance; the ship's band plays there from time to time. The rest of the time this lounge is not used. The Havana bar, opposite the Clipper lounge, the place to enjoy a cigar and a drink, is rarely used; perhaps because smoking is still allowed in many areas of the ship. The auditorium on deck 8, a nice little theatre and ideal for lectures or film screening, seldom used. The art workshop or hobby room; we are not aware of any activities organised or conducted here. There is also a well set-up kids' club and a gallery. There were some exhibitions of artists, with their work for sale. There is a comfortable library with plenty of books, magazines and games. Alas non in English.
Most of the entertainment and special events take place in the Europa lounge. Also port lectures, in German only, readings, etc. were conducted here. They were well presented and always attracted good attendances. The nightly shows are performed here. Before the show, the ship's band plays music for dancing. The band is capable, but seemed rather tired. Their repertoire is limited, and therefore the same tunes kept coming up. After the nightly show, the most popular place for relaxation is the Sansibar; a small bar with a narrow extension onto the deck. It was usually crowded and noisy and in our opinion inferior to the other venues.
The Europa is now 10 years old and it shows. The dEcor of the ship, the pictures and decorations were state of the art at the time of building. The problem with all 'modern' fit outs, is that they date so quickly. The Europa's overall appearance is nice enough but it lacks a timeless elegance.
During our extended cruise, there two special events. The first, a charity gala off the coast of Cannes. This was a three day cruise from and to Nice. It was a fund raising event for "Menschen fuer Menschen" and we understand it raised a considerable amount of money for the charity. Most of the activities took place on the Lido deck and for the occasion a special temporary stage was erected over the swimming pool. Extra waiting staff, and a band and entertainers were brought in. The stage, tables etc. were beautifully decorated with imported flower arrangements. There were many invited guests, celebrities, lots of press and television. The event was spectacular with among other things a helicopter showering rose petals over the gathered mass on board. Later that evening there were fireworks from a barge moored between the Europa and the city of Cannes. The festivities carried on well into the night. This event was good public relations and advertising for the Europa. During these events all drinks, including in the restaurants and lounges, are free. The Europa does not skimp on food or drink.
The other event was on the last segment to Hamburg. In Antwerp, on board the Europa, we experienced Europe's Best Cuisine. Again, the ship was packed with guests and the media. Chefs from a number of well known restaurants in Europe had been invited to show off their best dishes. On the Lido deck, brand-new Gaggenau cooking stations had been set up for the chefs to cook their signature dishes for the guests and passengers to sample. There were cheeses to try from France, wines from Germany and elsewhere. That evening we had another fireworks display over the water. The quality and variety of food was an eye opener after the mundane offerings from our regular restaurant. Passengers and guests seemed to relish this food experience. It also suggests that management of the Europa should not think it necessary to cater mainly for the German taste in their daily food presentation.
The Europa had a new port of call almost every day, and there were very few sea days. We used these sea days to catch up on e-mails, domestic chores. etc. Incidentally, there is no laundry on board, but there is an ironing room. On sea days we had our massage in the Ocean Spa. Here also is a sauna and steam room, and relaxation area. All very stylish and relaxing. The facilities are mixed company.
As soon as the sun comes out people are out on the deck. There are plenty of deck chairs, towels and blankets. We did not find many secluded spots for a quiet read, or a place to keep out of the sun. However, there are umbrellas aplenty and deck staff will position them to your liking. Drink service is available on deck.
Our daily routine began fairly early. My wife did her yoga exercises by herself in the exercise room, and I was in the gym by 6.30 am. The gym is very well equipped with exercise apparatus on a lower level with a forward view over the Lido deck, and on a higher level weight lifting and like equipment. From here there is also access to the FKK (nude) deck. Towels and cold water are available.
On port visiting days we had an early breakfast in the Lido cafe and then took off for the town. We did not go on shore excursions because they were all conducted in German. The evening before arriving in port, information was available in English about the port and we prepared our own plan. The concierge often provided additional information. In all ports the local tourist office has either an information stand or a representative on or near the ship. We consulted the local tourist people first. They would tell you the best places to go to, how to get there, and how much it would cost. Where the main tourist attractive is not at the port of call, as for instance, in Cadiz to go to Seville, we hired a taxi for the morning or day. You negotiate a price beforehand, and you are then free to go where ever you want. This gives you much more freedom than on an excursion. It often is also cheaper to make your own arrangements.
MS Europa is one of the few ships that we know, that allows visitors on board. This is great if you have friends or family in the ports of call. We made good use of this and we had visitors in a couple of ports. Your visitors can eat on board for a small charge. To obtain some further privileges, we joined the Hapag-Lloyd Kreuzfahrten Club. There is a joining fee, but for every sea mile, you earn bonus points which can be used for purchases on board. You also obtain discounts on future cruises.
The Europa is not an "all-in" ship; you pay for drinks ordered in bars and the restaurants, services such as hairdressing, massages, excursions, etc. Although the Europa advertised that tipping is included in the fare, tipping is nonetheless allowed or suggested for exceptional service. This defeats the whole purpose of the so-called inclusive tipping. We noticed that most passengers tipped.
We did not find the Europa a convivial ship. Apart from the customary "Morgen" or "guten Tag", passengers did not reach out and kept very much to themselves. Before leaving the cruise we were asked to complete a satisfaction questionnaire, and whether we would consider a return visit. We believe that MS Europe management needs to change their approach and attitude, regarding dining and passenger activities, and accommodating non German speakers, before they can be truly regarded as part of that select group of international luxury cruise ships. In our opinion, as it stands at present, it will not be "auf Wiedersehen" but "Good Luck".