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Sail Date: October 2017
I recently completed a 13-day cruise on the Hapag-Lloyd (HL) highly rated small luxury ship the Europa 2 ( E2), 516 maximum passengers. Our route started in New York City with two weekend overnights, then went down the east coast of the ... Read More
I recently completed a 13-day cruise on the Hapag-Lloyd (HL) highly rated small luxury ship the Europa 2 ( E2), 516 maximum passengers. Our route started in New York City with two weekend overnights, then went down the east coast of the U.S. to Baltimore, Charleston, Miami for another overnight, Key West, Harbour Island (tender), and ended in Nassau. I had done one prior 16-day E2 cruise over the Christmas holidays 2015-2016 around South Africa and Namibia in a PH suite with my husband, and a 14-day classical music focussed cruise ( Ocean Sun Festival) on its sister ship the MS Europa September 2016 in the Mediterranean in a veranda suite, solo. I am comparing this experience with the two prior with HL. My travel partner this cruise was an old German friend. We were in a veranda suite a bit towards the bow. I rated the two prior cruises with HL 5/5, and have compared features of HL on those cruises with other small ship luxury cruises on SS and SB. Overall, though I enjoyed this cruise and absolutely do not regret doing it, there were periodic service issues, and (less frequently) also some food and beverage problems, that prevent me from rating it 5/5 again. So I can only give it a strong 4/5. GENERAL ATMOSPHERE AND PASSENGERS: The ship is beautiful, comfortable, and contemporary, and the overall atmosphere is unpretentious and elegant. Passengers ranged in age from a handful of small children to a lady who seemed to be pushing triple digits, averaged around 60-65, with wide variance. There were few extremely old people, less than we have seen on SS and SB cruises. The ship was immaculately maintained and had just finished a dry dock refurbishing. The only sign of wear and tear I saw was washed out faded text on the high tech light switches near the night stands in our suite, which made it difficult to tell what button did what until I had memorized the grid. There were no formal nights. Dress code was casual during the day (most people dressed elegant casual) and no tie or jacket was required at any venue event at night. At dinner, however, many men voluntarily chose to wear jackets to dinner in the Weltmeere (MDR) and four smaller dining rooms, but not in the most casual indoor/outdoor Yacht Club (YC) eating venue. Even there no one dressed like a slob, though one of the performers fancied jeans that intentionally had more holes than cloth. Most of the passengers were polite and stuck to themselves and their friends as is the German way, (Germans are not prone to chit chat with strangers, as is common on English language lines). There were a few rude and pushy characters (the types of which I have also seen on SB and SS, though with a different style of rudeness). Passengers always arrived early or at least punctually for talks, performances and excursions, as is still typical for Germans, they take pride in punctuality which also suits my style just fine. Most seemed to be reasonably fit, some were very fit. All but 22 of the pax were from German-speaking countries. At the gathering for international pax, I learned that even some of the latter had German relatives with them, or understood and/or spoke at least some German for various reasons. The international crew members that interact with passengers officially speak both German and English, but some (officers and front line administrative personnel) speak English much better than others. The lower position Filipino and other Asian crew, which includes some housekeepers and food servers in the YC who dish out food, typically spoke English better than German, which made it easy for English pax. All official announcements, menus, and programs were available in both German and English, and there was a friendly international hostess available. BOARDING We boarded at the Pier 90 NY cruise terminal, exactly at 16:00, as is the case for all HL cruises, there is no early boarding for any pax even in higher suites. The cruise director personally greeted all new pax. We showed our boarding cards that we had received a couple weeks before departure, boarded and then a photographer offered to take our picture with the traditional welcoming large stuffed bear, Captain Knopf. We each were offered a handywipe and a glass of Duval-Leroy champagne in the reception area, plus we found a half bottle of the same waiting for us chilled in the suite. Assorted tasty boarding appetizers were available at reception. Friendly and welcoming crew checked our passports after boarding. We did not have to produce a credit card, we just paid at the end of the cruise with credit or cash. Suites were not ready for another hour due to U.S. port authority inspection delays, not HL’s fault, so we explored the ship and had tea in the 9th deck upper Belvedere lounge in the bow during that time, looking out at NYC. When we got the call to go to our suites, we found the luggage piled up nearby in the hall and dragged it in. We did not see our stewardess at all the first day, much less before the 19:00 muster on the pool deck. I later learned many crew were busy dealing with U.S. Coast Guard members who were on board checking for terrorism risks, or at least filling out paperwork indicating they were doing so. We had to wear the life jacket to and at the pool muster, which lasted 20 minutes. There was a separate English language muster offered in a different area. The Grill at the aft 9th deck YC was open when we boarded, as it typically is between 12 and 5 (both during the lunch hours of 12:30-2, and after), and the bow 9th deck Belvedere coffee and tea lounge was also open in case you needed more than boarding appetizer., A pianist played soft tunes, then and on each day 4-5, at other times he played in the reception bar area. PUBLIC AREAS — the ship is stunningly beautiful, comfortable, uncrowded, and spacious. It has the highest reported space per passenger ratio on cruise ships, and it shows. It is easy to find a lounge chair, and the cushions are comfortable. I especially liked that dozens of the chairs on the pool deck 9 and the deck above it deck 10 face out towards the ocean where you are separate from any noise at the pool and can focus on the sounds of the sea. Other loungers faced the 15-meter pool, even more are on the roof deck lounges and outside the spa on deck 5 aft. You can also sit on a series of cozy covered day beds aft on Deck 10. The pool deck has a retractable roof, (Magradome) which got closed on cold days so people could still swim and lounge and hear bands in comfort. One thing I did not like is that the ambient temperature in the indoor public areas runs at least a couple degrees higher than on other luxury lines, because Germans fear air that is as cool as Americans and Brits usually like. There is still wide-spread belief, especially amongst older Germans, science notwithstanding, that AC and breezes lead to respiratory infections. Also, the indoor part of the YC, which is air-conditioned, was constructively often only partially air-conditioned, as crew typically left the door wide open to the outdoor part of the YC during lunch and dinner, thereby diminishing the power of the indoor AC. At lunch, unless weather outside was cool and a space was available under an umbrella, I therefore avoided the YC on hot days and went to a specialty restaurant, which had full AC and still had ocean views. The GYM and SPA are well-equipped and have ocean views. There is a 6-8 person capacity Jacuzzi tub (not very hot) in the front of the spa indoors that anyone can use 12 am to 6am, it looks out at the sea, and there are several saunas at different temperatures. Beware that some Germans choose to use the spa facilities naked so you may need to 'overt your eyes' if this bothers you and you happen to be there when they are there (when I was there I was alone, in a suit, though when my friend went, also in a swimsuit, she told me she encountered both an overweight naked old lady and two naked and definitely not overweight young performers getting in and out of the spa and open showers, they all ignored each other. Two bilingual personal trainers were on board, and offered misc. free fitness sessions, plus individual training options for a fee. There was also a bilingual bicycling expert who led biking excursions at ports. The outdoor jacuzzi, on the highest lounging deck on the roof, unfortunately, though in a magnificent location in the bow, is set to 28 degrees C, so it is not really a "hot” tub per se. The pool, which you can conveniently use any time you want including evenings or the middle of the night, is pleasant and warm, and has a reserved adults only hour in the morning and afternoon, plus a dedicated kids’ time hour each half-day, other times everyone is welcome. There are instructions daily in the program that at all times "respect should be shown to all.” The mostly German pax followed the rules, but if there are kids on board, I would not recommend attempting lap swimming during the one morning and one PM hour dedicated to kids having exuberant aquatic fun. LAUNDRY: there is no self-service laundry, but laundry fees are very cheap (e.g., 1 Euro for underwear, 2 Euros for a casual T shirt) and services provided were professional and per international laundry standards. You get laundry back the day after giving it out, 50% extra charge for same-day. There is also a clothesline over the bathtub for hand laundry. I had the seamstress repair a pair of trousers, she did very good work. ANNOUNCEMENTS — these were very limited as is typical of luxury lines, only twice a day, in both English and German, and you could turn the volume off in your suite. PHOTOGRAPHY — though photographers were available on board to chronicle the journey on a DVD, and occasionally offered to take pax pictures while pax entered the theatre, on boarding with the stuffed bear, etc., they were inobtrusive. You could hire a photographer to photograph you on your journey, if you liked, e.g., on excursions, etc. FOOD AND BEVERAGES were usually, though not always, good to very good in all venues except, surprisingly, Serenissima, the small Italian restaurant, where after two visits and attempts at six dishes between us, the only dish I thought outstanding this time was the porcini mushroom soup. However, tastes may vary. There was a wide variety of food offered in the casual YC buffet for lunch and dinner, a good choice for food adventure if you do not mind the buffet style of dining and dodging people carrying plates around, usually without easy access to assistance . We could see the menus for restaurants on the TV in advance each day, so if we were not going to a specialty restaurant we could decide whether to eat at the YC or the MDR. In the YC there were many different offerings of fresh salads, daily shellfish including lobster and crab, meats with and without sauces, fish with our without sauce (the ship did a good job with various fish varieties at the YC), grill options, many cheeses, and made-to-order pasta from a list of ingredients you can select (though heavy on tomato, eggplant, and olives), plus a couple daily pasta specials were offered if you could not decide. There is also an Italian ice cream bar, you can order with or without freshly whipped cream, usually six flavors available. The MDR had a more limited daily menu, with typically one or two special daily appetizers, entrees and dessert specials, plus the base a la carte menu which included lobster, fish, beef, duck, and vegetarian dishes, with various adorning sides and preparations, about 10 international entrees to choose from total each day not counting the 4 vegetarian options that seemed to remain the same most days. The MDR is closed at lunch, but three small dining venues (the Italian Serenissima, the French Taragon, and the Asian Elements, though not the Japanese Sakura) are open at lunch without reservation, never for an extra fee, and provide easy seating and good service because they are typically uncrowded at lunch. Most people are either on the go, skipping lunch, or grabbing a bite in the YC. Wine and beverages outside the suite besides coffees (including fancy coffees), iced teas, pool punches and special alcoholic offerings (which are quite frequent) are not included in the base fare, and even water has a small fee in dining rooms ( some English veteran luxury cruisers could find this troubling, even though prices are very reasonable and no signing or paperwork is required). We had a 400 Euro beverage credit for our suite (routine) to help take care of this. There are several hundred wines from various countries to choose from, many offered by the glass, or "Karaffe" which is 250cc, so you can get exactly what you want, or explore. You do not have to present your room card to order, or sign anything, unless you want to so you can add a tip (none is required, expected, or requested) or want to keep precise track of what you ordered on paper (I tracked my account on the TV and it was consistently accurate). The suite has a fridge with complimentary beer, juices, waters and soft drinks, (but no free wine, or free spirits as we had in the PH suite ), and can be customized to accommodate your tastes. There are many cocktail options available, (the usual and specialty) and many spirit selections (including several dozen gins), plus there was a complimentary gin tasting session. There are several bars. You can often order wine by the glass portions as small as 0.1 liters on many wines to assist with experimentation. You can also bring alcohol of your choice on board if you like, no fee, no cover, or order reasonably priced ship liquors delivered to your room, e.g., I paid 25 euros for a full bottle of Baileys, (compared with Oceania, where they wanted $100 for the same sized bottle). As it took over a half hour to get the Baileys delivered to the suite by a tired-appearing waiter, who did not bring ice with it, I tended not to order any drinks to the suite. At breakfast, orange and grapefruit juices were fresh-squeezed, not frozen. Eggs benedict made to order in the MDR were very good, best of any cruise ship. You could also get American style made to order waffles, bacon, eggs, and ham, or even goose liver pate at your MDR very civilized sit-down breakfast, (this was my favorite dining time and venue), on top of the extensive buffet. Breads at breakfast were abundant, and included everything from crispy little white breads (Broetchen) to hearty pumpernickel, though genuine baguette pieces were only offered in Taragon, the French restaurant. There were multiple cheeses and cold meats to choose from (though this cruise the meats centered around cruise-durable salami and prosciutto and after the second day my favorite style “gekochter Schinken” ham had disappeared) , smoked salmon, creamed herring, liverwurst, teewurst, veggies, fresh fruits, cereals and yoghurts were all at the breakfast buffet . Unfortunately, croissants were not the real thing, and though they were buttery enough, they were not fluffy and were probably thawed from a freezer sack rather than freshly baked (they were better on SB on our spring 2017 cruise in France, and on Oceania in Alaska). The steak at a “surf and turf” meal in the MDR was perfectly prepared, with prime juicy and tender meat. The kitchen also did amazing things with salmon, it was tender and flavorful, not dried out like we repeatedly experienced on Oceania on our Alaska cruise. The salmon offering in the YC early and late in the cruise could stand up to any upscale San Francisco or New York restaurant (we had eaten at The Modern in NYC prior to the cruise, for reference). The one meal we were able to eat in the "reservations required" Japanese dinner restaurant Sakura was phenomenal, frankly the best Japanese meal I ever had (and I live in an Asian neighborhood loaded with Japanese restaurants). The duck dish in Tarragon was excellent. I tried multiple cream soups in various venues which varied daily, all were very good, and I usually had to restrain myself from crudely tipping the bowl and loudly scraping out the last bits ( or I could have just ordered another bowl). New tuna steaks were picked up in Miami and new orders of salmon, prepare in different ways in Key West. One night near Charleston on our cruise, southern fare was offered with jambalaya, fried chicken, ribs, and a roasted pig. Waffles or strudel with fruit sauce was offered at the pool 3-5PM, popular with the younger and thinner set.. Cheeses were very good, but If you order a cheese plate at room service remember to also ask for crackers or bread, as they will not come automatically with the cheese, and if you want ice with your ordered beverages, specifically ask for it, or have your stewardess set it up daily, it is not routine. Nor is it routine to have iced waters at meals unless you ask for them. Goose liver pate is available to preorder to your room for room service breakfast every day, if you like. Neither the MDR nor the French Tarragon restaurants officially offered beef tartar except on one day, but you could ask for it. I did, it was fine though not as good as last time. Veal cutlet in Tarragon at lunch was juicy, flavorful. Oysters were available every day. Desserts were luxurious and often rich, e.g., Valrhona chocolate with orange zest was luscious, and appropriately small because by the time you got that far in your meal, you were full from eating good food. Lighter fares, vegan, gluten-free and vegetarian options were available though more limited, but I would say much of the food here was not designed to help you live to 100, but rather to remember why life at any age on a luxury cruise is a celebration of good fortune and peace. Coffee was usually good (and I am fussy about it). There is a Nespresso machine in the suites with an offering of different strengths, to allow for early pre-breakfast caffeination prior to encounters with civilization. The Belvedere lounge also offers a couple dozen different loose leaf teas and a couple different strengths of coffees throughout the day (the captain’s coffee is robust and rich). Fresh fruit was brought to the suite daily and could be customized. For early risers and the restless who did not want to use their Nespresso machines, between 6 and 7AM there were Danish, juices, coffee and tea at the empty pool bar area. Unfortunately, though overall food was good, there were more misses on food items this trip than there were on my first E2 trip. I tried risotto twice, two different venues, both times it was tasteless. The pasta carbonara in Serenissima fell flat, compared with the spectacular carbonara I had on the MS Europa last year, and on the E2 the year before, which I frankly could have eaten daily. The escargots, tried twice two different ways, lacked flavor and proper decadence in the sauce, what I had on SB last spring was way better. Vegetarian options other than soups, which I greatly enjoyed on SB last spring as lighter fare, were not very interesting, a few exceptions. Tomatoes lacked flavor, as did asparagus, and too many dishes involved tomatoes or tomato based sauces in some way. Elements, the misc. Asian restaurant, had very good appetizers and soup, but our main dishes were either too hot (though marked with only 1 pepper on a scale of 0-3) or not very good. Breakfast pastries were ok for a ship, but always the same basic units. Caviar was on the menu one day in the MDR was a big blob placed on your dinner plate set next to a bit of beef tartar and spicy sausage. The waiter offered what were supposed to be white toastettes to go with it, but they were soggy, (I tried two different sets to rule out having gotten a bad batch, no luck). They had apparently absorbed moisture sitting out all day. No other accompaniments to the caviar were offered, e.g., no chopped egg, onion, blini, sour cream, special spoon, etc., as we had had our last E2 cruise. A couple mornings when coffee was poured in the MDR it was clear it had been sitting out a while and came from the bottom of a pot, so I sent it back. A red wine I liked and was fond of ordering by the Karaffe arrived one evening tasting as if it had been sitting out uncorked or unpreserved for a day or two. None of the pre-meal little “greetings from the kitchen” a la amuse-bouche at dinner this trip were memorable except a bite of quail. To be sure you secure specialty restaurant reservations for dinner, be sure and head straight to the restaurants after boarding to make your bookings, as annoyingly you cannot book them online before the cruise, and they can quickly fill up (highest level suites get priority though in theory everyone is entitled to dine at least once in each specialty restaurant at dinner). Fortunately specialty dining is unlimited at lunch, though with more limited menus, and unfortunately the wonderful Sakura is closed at lunch, so no mid-day Tempura for me. There are no extra fees for specialty dining, once you secure your reservation. I also recommend you be careful about the YC closing times — e.g., at lunch it is typically listed as open 12:30-2, but at 1:45 things start disappearing from the buffet, i.e., they start “abbauen”, and they may or may not give you warning, so you must unfortunately either watch the clock or grab what you can in advance if you start eating later in the window. I had similar experiences on SB last spring. What is nice, however, is that even though 12:30 may be the official opening time, unlike on SB and SS where the doors are locked, the doors are usually already open, so you can come early and find a nice seat before crowds come, there just won’t be any service until the official opening time. Dining hours varied a bit, but were generally: 6-7 AM pool juices, coffees, tea, and pastries; breakfast 7-9:30 or 10 in the YC and MDR (Weltmeere); and 10:30-2 late risers can get some smaller breakfast options in the Sansibar (including white sausages, quite tasty). Lunch in all venues was usually 12:30-2, the Grill at the YC was open 12-5 with fish, meat, vegetable, or sausage; afternoon tea had cakes and mini sandwiches in the Belvedere, dinner in YC was 6:30-9 and MDR 7-9:30, Sansibar offered late night snacks, and of course room service 24/7 had a limited menu of basics. So there was always a venue where you could get food other than at room service, even at odd late morning or mid-afternoon hours. SERVICE: In the beautiful and immaculate suite, service was thankfully respectful of privacy and do not disturb signs. No one charged into the room when I had the sign on, as they not uncommonly did on SB recently and on SS 2 years ago. Most days (not always, especially at the end) the room was cleaned within 2 hours of our putting out the “please clean room” sign. Our stewardess Katharina required a little guidance at first as to what we wanted, but she caught on quickly. We could tell when her assistant, Jacqueline, whom we never saw, was covering, as then things would be done oddly and required reminders. The lever to switch between bathtub and shower mode in the tub was extremely stiff when we arrived, (even with two hands I could not lift it while sitting in the tub) and it required a couple reminders to Katharina to call someone to fix it. This was followed by a debate with an Asian crew repairman who spoke poor English and even worse German and who initially tried to pass the stiffness off as “normal” to us two presumptively tech-ignorant women, to convince him it was not functioning as intended. I told him I had bathed in hundreds of bathtubs around the world during my travels and I was confident it was not working as smoothly as it should. Finally, we got it fixed ( i.e., he reluctantly replaced the unit). Room service for a couple pre-excursion breakfasts arrived close to the requested time, and was fine, though with cold but still crisp bacon once, and no salt/pepper or butter were on the tray when we had ordered an egg dish and a bread basket which was supposed to include butter. I had requested foam toppers for the beds before the cruise, and they were there. I had requested extra bath towels always be there, which required periodic reminders when a couple would disappear after cleaning back to the base of 3, or hand towels would not appear at all, but generally with persistence we got things set up as we wanted. Toilet paper was in the German style (a bit rough, but always ready). A troubling negative was that the crew appeared understaffed at the lower levels, a trend now possibly extending from SB, SS and Crystal to HL. Many (certainly not all) maids, bar personnel, and dining area workers looked tired, disinterested and overworked in the warm weather, and this was new since my last E2 cruise. In the MDR and YC , unless you came right at opening, getting drink orders or wine refills could often take longer than ideal. Once we waited 30 minutes before a friendly though busy waitress in the YC came over to take our drink order, as staff were so busy running around they did not think to look around to be able to see us trying to wave to them to order, average wait until wine got ordered and came was 15 minutes. This is one downside to the absence of all-inclusive wines, e.g., there are no waiters immediately coming up to you to offer the generic white or red of the day so you have something to sip immediately. There is no hostess to greet you when you come into the YC to help you find a seat and acknowledge you have come, which compounds the initial drink ordering difficulty (unlike on other luxury lines’ most casual venues where staff help you find a seat during crowded times). We also saw more delays in the clearing of dirty plates than previously, a minor problem to us, but some people care about this. Once a waitress spilled water she was pouring into my glass onto the tablecloth. After checking if I’d gotten wet, (no) instead of replacing the tablecloth, she took a rag and dabbed up the excess water, apparently to save time, then ran off. YC and MDR staff more frequently abruptly interrupted conversations than they did on prior cruises (when busy, just interrupting talking pax rather than waiting for an appropriate pause saves them time) and there were more “plate-snatching” or close call encounters than before, due to rushing and busy staff, though staff usually asked if we were done before removing plates. They definitely need more staff people at peak hours in the dining venues, and based on the tired faces, also in the housekeeping department. Even in the small Serenissima, at peak dinner dining time it took 25 minutes from the time I sat down until I received a sip of wine, due to wine service delays, (a separate person takes your wine order, another does your food, and sometimes others did delivery, so there was some confusion), e.g., appetizers were not uncommonly already on the table, but we still had no wine. I started having negatively conditioned Pavlovian responses to the idea of ordering wine and getting refills, more often than not an ongoing battle at the rate I initially consume my first bits of mealtime wine (my friend was a slow sipper so it did not bother her). I would have preferred if they had just left the wine bottles on the tables for self-service refills rather than make me get aggravated trying to locate the wine girl each time I wanted a refill, but staff tend to resist that idea as it is not considered luxury and makes them look bad (to whom, I am not sure, though a couple times I insisted on keeping the bottle on the table as they looked very busy and I was tired of delays). Things were a bit better the two nights we came for an early dinner, and if I were routinely an early diner and sat in the same place, problems might be less apparent. The bartenders also often looked tired, at least the few times when I came, and were very slow and casual with their mixing. They also answered phones, talked to other staff, talked to passersby pax they knew (and who perhaps tipped?) and did other things while our drink orders were pending for 15-25 minutes. After initial delivery, except in the Sansibar, they rarely came and asked if I wanted another drink. When we came into Club2 one evening during a performance and sat near the front, the two Filipino bartenders in back just ignored us the whole hour, chatting amongst themselves, and no one came around either to offer drinks toour empty table. At the end my friend, new to HL and not a demanding person, quipped to me, “For a bar, this sure is a pretty dry place.” The topper was the last day of the cruise, when at 4:15 PM my friend and I went to the reception area bar for a farewell cocktail. There were two bartenders behind the counter, and no pax. One had a bucket on the counter with dirty rags he was washing and wringing out, and the “oh no” scowl on his face when he saw us coming was indescribable. He said nothing, glaring at us while wring out a rage, and we paused a bit, but he ignored us, so we turned to the other reluctant bartender who was lining up champagne bottles. We ordered, and he brought the drink 15 minutes later. We saw him reading up on it in a book (it is one of the E2’s featured cocktails), answered phones, etc. He did not ask if we wanted refills. I would likely have spent twice as much as I did on various alcohols on this cruise in various venues if it were not such a battle to secure orders and refills. The worst two incidents of non-luxury service were in the MDR at dinner. One evening at 8:15 the greeting host waiter was overtly hostile and sarcastic and uninterested in trying to find us a suitable table when the dining room was full ( part of it was closed off, which did not help with availability). The wonderful hotel manager, Katja Klar, stepped in to easily resolve the problem, because she was customer oriented, and she did not look or act tired even if she might have been. Another evening a young German waiter (Philip) was physically literally pulling on a plate of soup he was trying to take away from me after an initial order mixup when two dishes arrived (the wrong one and the right one), and I had then said I would prefer to just eat both. He firmly insisted that I was only allowed to have one appetizer, not two, and *had to choose* (!), so that is why he tried to pull one plate away from my hand (BTW it is not correct that you are only allowed one appetizer — you can eat five or six or more, if you like). I was too tired to go complain about him, he probably came from service in a German hotel where it was his job to make sure guests did not get more than they were entitled to, and HL did not properly educate him. I did comment on the understaffing and inadequate training in my final written commentaries about the cruise. Once early in the cruise when I went for tea and asked for the tea menu, the tired-looking waitress did not see one handy to grab, so she instead just asked what general kind I wanted, apparently uninterested in going to find the menu so I could choose from the array, she just wanted to be done with it. On afternoons, there is a dead zone between 12 and 5 when you cannot book excursions, book private cars, complete photo orders, or do much of anything else related to ports because no one is on duty for those functions. Reception often doesn’t answer the phone during that time even though they are physically there 24/7 because they are busy dealing with walk-ups, and there was no reception answering machine for messages, the phone just rings and rings if no one answers. It is “off” time for crew who work on excursions booking. Restaurant booking is also shut after 2PM (bookings must be done at each restaurant separately), and unless you are in a higher suite with a butler who can take care of restaurant booking for you (like we had on our first E2 cruise), you have to resume your pursuits later even though afternoons is when you have time to conveniently do things. Reception, if you reach it, will just politely tell you you have to wait until they open 5-8 to book your excursion or a private car for a port, they will not pass on messages, i.e., they tell you to check at the Touristik center, which takes no messages either. Predictably, people then line up right at opening as they want to finish so they can get ready for dinner and the evening. Fortunately, I had pre-booked most of my excursions before the cruise, on-line, but for unclear reasons you cannot pre-book specialty restaurants or spa appointments until you are on board, perhaps to allow flexibility for higher suite pax, or to avoid having to deal with multiple cancellations. In my opinion SB did a better job by having SB Square personnel available all day, where people could go with a variety of problems and crew would be there almost all hours to deal with issues. Dining room crew and others do not typically address you by your name, as they often did on SS or SB. They also do not offer their arms to guide you to the tables. I did not care at all about this (and actually dislike arm-offering except on stormy sea days), though some used to being greeted on luxury lines may miss it if they cruise on HL. If one always went to the same area of the dining room, at the same time, staff might get to know you and recognize you, but we tended to vary our times of dining depending on the ports, and usually just cared about getting our wines, refills, and food as ordered at a table that was not at one of the uncomfortable upright seating options they have near the front of the MDR. The night before disembarkation, we had received information in the program that our suites should be vacated by 9AM, and planned accordingly. At 6:20 AM, while my friend was still sleeping, I left the suite with the Do Not Disturb sign still on to go to reception to clarify a minor error, with intent to return and then get ready for breakfast. As I left the suite with just my room key in hand, a very young Asian housekeeper I had never seen immediately approached me in the hall and said, “Can we make beds?” I said “no, we are still using the suite and are not yet ready to leave”. She persisted, “But can we make the beds now?” I replied, “No, because my friend is still *in* the bed!” She seemed very disappointed, apparently keen on changing the beds up for the next guests, but relented. When I returned at 6:30, she and other housekeepers were hovering in the hallways outside suites, some were vacuuming and chatting, and on the deck two guys were already aggressively mopping our veranda with soap and water splashed all over the place, so you could forget about a goodbye cup of coffee on your balcony prior to disembarkation. When we then went to breakfast in the MDR at 8 (the program indicated open hours of 7-9 that day), the waiter at the entryway had a look of great horror and disgust on his face as we arrived, though he quickly got a grip and then assumed a professional manner. We already had our hot dish and drink orders in mind, anticipating we would need to keep things moving on the last day, and he seemed relieved to get them over with. I noticed some favoritism towards known pax (or perhaps expensive suite pax , as with one couple I frequently saw and whose high suite status I knew) e.g., more time spent by staff talking and interacting, more details given about specials, more attentive service at dinner, etc., providing them with window seating even if they came later than us where it is supposed to be first come first serve, etc., but I have seen this on all luxury lines I have cruised with to varying degrees so it is not unique to HL. Owners suite pax can also reserve tables in the YC and daybeds at the pool, and of course pay very high suite fares. There was a raffle held on behalf of the crew at the end of the cruise, 5 Euro a ticket, the equivalent of a crew fund on other lines. Prizes were an E2 construction digit, a pocketknife, or a towel that said E2. You signed a log at reception after purchase of your tickets indicating how many you had bought. I was among the first 10 to sign on, and noticed one man had bought 300 tickets. Before me on the list, most people had bought 5 or 10, and let’s just say I bought more. The final result of the auction was 2800 Euro, so if you subtract the exuberant 300 ticket guy, it appears most people either gave nothing in extra tips (as service is officially all “included”), tiny amounts, or just tipped individual crew, unknown. In sum, overall service on the cruise was still very good, but there were not infrequent non-luxury experiences. I think they are understaffed and also have some inadequately trained personnel. INTERNET This was slow, and cost 0.19 Euro a minute, with no unlimited plan. I understand ship internet will be slow, but when it is often very slow, there should be an unlimited plan available for purchase, as SB had for $399 for the cruise, otherwise you are paying 0.19/minute for not much yield as you watch the gears grind. It did at least actually work in our suite, unlike on SB on our last cruise in the spring where it only worked at SB Square (we were in suite 625 on the Quest, Barcelona to Dover). I therefore used it very sparingly and as we were in American ports most days, I just used my unlimited cellular service in port for surfing and major downloads and uploads. HL does, however, offer tablets in the suites for basic free email functions, games, and ship info, I did not use the HL tablet. ENTERTAINMENT AND ACTIVITIES There was a nicely done get-together for English speakers with champagne with refills in Sansibar and high quality appetizers including caviar on crackers. An international hostess and other staff were there to make English speaking guests feel welcome. There was a get-together of doctor passengers who met with the ship’s doctor for an hour for friendly chats and story-telling, e.g., one passenger had to be removed on the first day due to acute pancreatitis. The 24/7 doc sees 30 people/day, half of whom are crew. There is one nurse. If you want dialysis while cruising, HL will secure services of a nephrologist on board. Bridge tours were offered on two days, AM and PM sessions, They were informative, and casual (come and go as you please) with both the captain and an officer there. Of course they speak English, as do most nautical officers. There was an artist on board showing his paintings of NY, and there were sessions where you could be taught to paint, I did not go but saw it in the program. I saw space for a cooking school, but no offer for a cooking class. There is no trivia playing in any language, but the daily program suggested you try and contact reception if you were interested in finding a chess or bridge partner. There were free gin tasting sessions (though staff mixed up the date I had initially ordered, then again pushed it back, twice), and for a high fee wine tasting of CA wine was offered (I skipped that as I live surrounded by CA wineries) , and for a high fee tasting of French champagne was also available. There was a lecturer who talked in German a few times about the history of the areas we were visiting and also about excursion options. He had a few of his facts wrong, e.g., claimed U.S., Prohibition started in 1912 when it actually started in 1920, claimed the Emancipation Proclamation was written at the end of the Civil War when it was actually written earlier, claimed the Bahamians are the most educated people in the Americas including the U.S. and Canada when that is not at all the case, and even claimed that since George Washington the U.S. never had a president who was elected more than two times (I guess he forgot about FDR). I was worried that correcting a German speaker who was presented as an expert, even privately, e.g., that it would be considered rude so I said nothing, and I doubt the captivated German pax cared about these inaccuracies. There were also a couple lectures for English pax which I saw a few English speakers attended, one topic was the last election. The topic of Trump popped up not infrequently on the ship and on excursions. Once I did not hear the entire talk, just a little bit while hovering at the door, when the speaker lectured that the last presidential election was not about blacks vs. whites but he opined that what separated voters was that some people see racism as a problem, and others or both races do not (sic). Theatre entertainment consisted of "The Tap Factor” (two talented women and two men doing complex tap dancing), which was fun, but they gave only two performances. We also had "Vintage Vegas”, which consisted of an odd trio, a German-raised Pole, Italian, and Brasilian in tuxedos and shiny shoes doing energetic but, to me, exhausting Sinatra old style music, and some original songs e.g., one called "I have a hangover” but most popular covers like “All of me” and “The Lady is a Tramp” plus a few of their own, almost all in English. They did two theatre shows plus a pool party. The crowd loved them, and for what they were trying to do they did a good job, but it was not my favorite style. There were other politically oriented talks by a couple Germans, both afternoons, and in the evening as the major “entertainment” event. I attended one with my friend, the content of which sounded like articles from the NYT and Washington Post. There was also a retired news guy and author who had once lived in Greenwich village, who fancied himself an expert on American culture, and who read excerpts from his book. Even most of the excursion guides inserted the most popular and expected political commentary about current American politics during their discourses in German, perhaps they thought such comments would endear them to Europeans. One night we also had a guest talented American singer doing blues songs in the small nightclub venue Club2, wearing a flapper dresser, accompanied by the ship’s talented band. The band had a woman on drums and another with muscular arms on sax, and half were from France. Many evenings there was no separate show in the theatre, either just the welcome, goodbye, political talk about US or Germany, or nothing at all e.g., the nights after boarding when we had two nights in NY, and nothing when we had an overnighter in Miami. But there was the lobby piano player, and little bands at the pool or Sansibar. It was opportunity for crew to see the cities, so was understandable.. So all in, there were only four nights with formal music or dance shows in the theatre, two with tap and two with Vintage Vegas, neither of which used Iive orchestras, but there was always music at night available somewhere, either in the Pool Bar, Sansibar, or Club2, and both lady singers (Brigitte Guggenbichler in particular) in the bands were talented and expressive as they sang English language popular songs to tiny audiences. There are in-suite movies on TV, both German and English, but no BBC, CNN or any English language TV news, you just get the ship USA Times delivered for news, or connect to the Internet. A limited selection of music was available (not much classical, surprisingly) to pipe in. The TV remote broke once, but the handy Katharina reset it, we had service most of the trip. SMOKING I do not recommend this ship for people who are extremely smoke sensitive. Though smoking is restricted to certain venues, some smoke periodically leaks out so you will likely experience some smoke here and there at some time on the cruise. Smoke from the Collins indoor smoking lounge often drifted out to the area near the theatre, as people often left the door open to the hall, and on the Vintage Las Vegas night it drifted into the theatre, which also had the door open (it crossed my mind it may have been deliberate, to create an old Vegas aura, but it was not). Smoke from the pool bar smoking area also wafts into non-smoking areas near the pool especially when the Magrodome is closed, and some drifts from outside smoking tables in the outdoor YC smoking area to non-smoking areas even though it is outside, especially if the ship is stationary. Our suite neighbors were smokers, as I learned when I briefly smelled their veranda smoke, three times the whole trip, and care more about their loud voices than their smoke. The only time smoke bothered me was when it came into the stuffy theatre one night, but I know others are more sensitive. Most of the time smoke was not apparent as the ship is mostly non-smoking. PORTS AND EXCURSIONS Some were offered in German only, one in English in each port, some were offered in both languages. It may be best for English-speakers to book an "only English" tour, or on your own if a tour is dubbed bilingual, to avoid hearing everything in two languages. Another consideration is that the Germans fear they will get sick if the AC on buses is running the way Americans expect AC to run, so they are prone to indignantly getting out of their seats to go tell the tour guide to demand the driver turn off the AC or at least turn it way, way down. My friend and I were the only ones who declared we liked it just as it was, cool, when the guide asked if we were comfortable, but no one else agreed, so we were overridden and resigned to sweat a bit on what were fortunately short drives. Two days later we heard one of the most indignant anti-AC Germans from the bus (one of several who liked to wear stylish brightly colored red or orange trousers during the day) still complaining at dinner to a dining companion about the time of the bus ride with the AC that was so cold, declaring “for heaven’s sake, people could have gotten sick!” , so it must have been very traumatic for him. Most Germans also fear breezes, even if they are warm breezes, e.g. “es zieht” (it is drafty) is a common complaint. We did excursions in Baltimore (to Mt. Vernon and DC, though I had been there before it was interesting seeing more from a new tourist perspective), Port Canaveral (Kennedy Space Center, an amazing place, highly recommended), and two in Miami (city tour plus a wild speedboat ride, great fun — there really was a huge breeze when the boat driver opened it up, so perhaps these were special Germans who never say “es zieht”) . We also toured the fantastic Villa Vizcaya (which has AC)). The excursions ran smoothly, and were well-organized by the E2 staff, though most of the port-based guides could not resist inserting political or other commentary which was either factually incorrect or inappropriate for a tour guide. However, what the guides say is not HL’s fault, e.g., they cannot help it if a Hungarian born guide complained to pax about how awful life has been for him in the U.S. since he immigrated there in 1991, or if a German-born guide in Miami who lived in the U.S. conveyed misinformation that in Florida up through the 1990’s state government still officially sponsored and sanctioned Jim Crow style school apartheid DISEMBARKATION Flawlessy organized and easy, no problems whatsoever. SUMMARY I enjoyed the cruise, and would sail with the E2 again on the right itinerary if I can get a reservation. Given my preference for cooler public areas than Germans like, I will definitely avoid the E2 in hot parts of the world. New cruisers to HL, if they can afford it, might prefer to book a higher level suite, e.g., PH, to have the butler available to help with table booking and deal with other bumps on the cruising road. I rated the cruise 4/5 instead of 5/5 as before because I am a little concerned about the service and food differences between this cruise and the holiday cruise 2015-2016 where there was nothing significant to complain about, specifics noted above. I provided relevant feedback in my cruise commentary at the end of the cruise (no mid-cruise questionairre was offered) and though I did speak up as appropriate as incidents came up, staff are very busy and the cruise was short. I did not want to spend what little free time I had setting up official complaint appointments like I did on SB last spring after an egregious incident. I hope the service changes I noted are not a sign of an ongoing downward trend. I also hope the MS Europa sister ship, which I am scheduled to sail on for my next cruise and which was absolutely wonderful September 2016, has not had similar declines in service quality. Ultimately one has to compare with what other luxury lines offer in the modern era, e.g., SB, SS, Crystal, Le Ponant, and soon also Scenic. Also, given the limited number of English country pax on this “international” ship and HL’s ability to fill their ships in advance with mostly Germans, (who per my friend and my experience tend not to be as discerning about what real luxury is supposed to be and are more willing to take things as they come — other than when it comes to AC), things may not change for the better until HL crew become unwilling to continue working as hard as they do for the wages they currently get. Other than the possible explanation that service is indeed on a slightly downward trend at HL, other variables that might explain the difference between now and before are: 1. On my first E2 cruise I was in a higher level suite, a PH suite with my husband. So overall, as the staff know your suite number as soon as you order drinks if they do not already remember you, low suite status may have created some negative bias when things were busy. Also, the butler can relieve you from having to deal with working to properly secure and time excursion, dining room, and spa reservations, and is more available for dealing with service issues. 2. my first cruise was a holiday cruise, so maybe the crew were on their best behavior as a result, plus extra money was spent per diem on food and entertainment then 3. I was cruising with my husband on my first E2 cruise, rather than a female friend, and in my experience traveling it never hurts as far as getting better service goes for a woman to have a man with her, especially when there are complaints. The E2 provides an alternative small ship luxury experience, with beautiful facilities, usually excellent food, interesting itineraries including overnights, and tremendous amounts of space per passenger. I hope she maintains her standards, and improves in the areas noted. Read Less
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