It was with some trepidation that we embarked on this cruise aboard MS Europa, a ship primarily designed for German speaking passengers. Not that the language concerned us as the cruise was "Bilingual" and my wife and I have a reasonable working knowledge of German. Rather I had read a fellow member's review shortly before we left and it was lukewarm at best. On the other hand Douglas Ward (a somewhat better known and renowned cruise critic) had just awarded the ship "Best in the World" for the umpteenth year running. With open minds we set off for Rome and soon had no difficulty in forming our own view. Read on to find out with whom we were inclined to agree!
We had spent a few days in a lovely old town near Rome before joining the ship and our hotel had organised a taxi to take us to Civitavecchia. We were told to expect embarkation at 4 pm and we arrived exactly on time. With no fuss, we were checked in very swiftly (having already received our cruise cards in advance) and offered fruit juice and canapes whilst we walked the few steps to security. No requests for credit cards nor any queues in sight.
Almost immediately we were greeted by a selection of crew members and personally escorted on board by a delightful English speaking stewardess who helped with our baggage and made us feel very welcome. Once on board we were offered complimentary champagne and escorted via glass lift (operated by a piccolo) to our suite conveniently situated on deck 7 (one below the lido deck).
We were given information about the suite's facilities and as we had sent our luggage in advance (we were travelling with two children, one a seven month old baby so "Carry M Luggage.com" was a godsend!) we were soon unpacked and ready to enjoy yet more complimentary champagne for our sail away.
A welcome bottle of champagne, strawberries, chocolates and treats for the children had also been placed in our suite awaiting our arrival. These were all delicious. A mini-bar had also been stocked with complimentary juices and beer. Other drinks were charged to one's account though it was never necessary to sign as the crew knew us and always greeted us with our name.
The suite was of a good size for a family and comprised bathroom (with bath and separate shower), dressing room (with credit card operated safe), bedroom and (separated by a curtain) lounge where the children slept. The furnishings were of good quality and the carpeting looked new. The floor on entering is wood. Our stewardess was first rate and serviced our suite twice a day with plentiful towels and handsome size toiletries.
Although Europa celebrated its 10th birthday shortly before we joined, it is well maintained and had been freshly painted from bow to stern.
No vibration could be felt when the ship was at sea and we seldom realised we were on a ship. However, the situation of our accommodation up front meant that we did hear the anchor being lowered in tender ports and the bow thrusters being used frequently. This could be quite noisy and usually early in the morning!
The public rooms are delightful and not in any way glitzy as are found on many ships these days. Very understated but comfortable and spacious. I believe that Europa has one of the highest space per passenger ratios (70 plus) and even though the ship was full we rarely felt part of a crowd.
Soon after embarking we were given an English safety demonstration in the Clipper Lounge and we quickly realised that we were the only 4 English speaking passengers on board! Nonetheless we were afforded the services of an international hostess who looked after us impeccably and was always available.
Our fellow passengers were mainly from Germany, Austria and Switzerland and unfailingly polite and eager to engage in conversation (especially about our baby daughter!). The crew spoke excellent English and all menus were available in English in the dining rooms and on our in suite TV system (called cruise net). Cruise net also featured free e-mail and a good selection of English films and music.
Entertainment in the main lounge was provided by an excellent 8 piece band comprising talented musicians (especially the pianist)and two vocalists who sang a variety of musical styles. The "international" flavour of the cabaret artists was limited but as this was a classical music cruise, there was always a good variety of concerts available. These were held in the Europa lounge (where the Steinway was somewhat inferior to the Bosendorfer in the Club Belvedere) and also on shore at 2 venues in Malta and Split.
The classical musicians were from the German Music Foundation and though most of them were not (yet) professional artists, they certainly made up for their lack of personality with their considerable musical talent and virtuosity. I particularly enjoyed the young tenor whose rendition of "Caro Mio Ben" at the concert in Split I will never forget. He also sang some delightful Scottish songs by Haydn with almost brought a tear to our Scottish eyes! The young pianists, cellist and violinists were also stunningly good. It was very appropriate that Hapag-Lloyd donated the proceeds of the auction of the cruise chart to the Foundation giving their coffers a well deserved boost.
Hapag-Lloyd always went the extra mile and "no" was never an answer. If a port of call could not be reached because of weather (twice on our port intensive cruise) they would try (and succeed) to find an alternative. Our hostess even arranged for English movies to be shown in the small cinema with pop corn and drinks on the house. These touches were appreciated and enjoyed. An overnight stay was arranged in Split so that the aforementioned classical concert could be arranged.
As for dining, once again nothing was spared. We had our own table in the lovely Europa restaurant for the entire cruise and could dine there whenever we wished. The service was exemplary both by the waiters and sommelier (who succeeded in converting us to German and Swiss wines). The menus were extensive, the food presentation excellent and the choice incredible. From foie gras, caviar, lobster, oyster to suckling pig, truffles, every type of food was available at breakfast, lunch and dinner. All beautifully served and extremely tasty.
We tried both all of the alternative restaurants and the Oriental and Venezia restauarants (situated near the Europa main restaurant) featured extensive menus which changed on a regular basis. The food and service were first class and there was never a supplementary charge. The Lido cafe too served an excellent breakfast buffet until 11am (with hot food as well as an excellent choice of fruit, bread, German sausages, cheese etc). At lunch it provided a stunning buffet as well as grills cooked to order. We also ate at the Lido several evenings when the theme of the cooking matched the ports - eg Sicily and Greece.
Other nice touches were canapes on deck when leaving port, ice creams and drinks sailing up the Grand Canal in Venice and of course Waffles by the pool in the afternoon. Sadly these proved very popular and could take some time to order! Otherwise there were very few lines even for self-service buffets with a full complement of passengers. In the evenings there were also lovely canapes availale and (after our concert in Split) a fantastic gala buffet.
The childrens program was well organised (though not used by our children) and we counted at least another twenty or so children on what was billed a family cruise.
Shore excursions were good value for money and included a varied selection in English. In Libya the company also arranged for our visas with no fuss, something which had proved an obstacle in the UK before departure.
Even after disembarking Europa, Hapag-Lloyd transferred us to a nice hotel to awit our transfer to the Airport on the way home. Their hospitality was again well received and it was refreshing to travel with a cruise line who did not see their responsibility ending up at the gangway.
Were there any minus points? Very few. Contrary to Douglas Ward's book, there were far too many announcements on our cruise. Certainly the ship will require to be upgraded as it ages but that is missing the point in my view. It is the people aboard Europa which make it such a highly valued product. They try their best all the time and succeed in making the cruise experience what it used to be with some other lines. If they build another ship, they should also cnsider an indoor pool. This is missed by many passengers of the old Europa (which still sails and passed us in the Med).
Will we return? Most certainly. We have booked to return next October from Monaco to Greece and (God willing) we look forwar to seeing some familiar faces on board.
Would it suit everyone? Obviously not but, then again, there is no accounting for taste!