This was my first cruise with Hapag-Lloyd’s “most beautiful yacht in the world,” the MS Europa, 13 nights, Lisbon to Nice. I had previously cruised with my husband on the more modern, and advertised as bilingual, HL Europa 2 on a Christmas/New Years cruise December 2015 (see my CC review, Cape Town to Cape Town) and had greatly enjoyed that, which led to my interest in the Europa. I am comparing this cruise with the dozen or so other mostly luxury cruises I have been on, including with Silversea, Regent, Seabourn, and (briefly) Crystal. I did this cruise solo.
I also wrote a detailed “live" thread about this cruise on CC, with pictures of accommodations and ports and commentary. Below is the link to it, though if it does not work as a link, you can just cut and paste it into google. You can also find the review on CC under the “special interest cruising” forum, subforum “luxury cruising”, “Hapag Lloyd MS Europa”, then go to where the thread is called “Live from the MS Europa Lisbon to Nice September 2016”
CLASSICAL MUSIC: This was a special classical music cruise, the annual Ocean Sun Festival, with renowned classical musicians on board, which is why I picked it. However, my understanding from staff on-board is that classical music is also offered on almost every MS Europa cruise, though not generally as part of a festival. There was a one-hour long classical music performance almost every day (different artists at varying times, opera voices, piano, cello, string quartet). It was an exceptional pleasure to be able to hear these outstanding musicians in such a small venue, up close and personal, with very good acoustics in the Europa Lounge, the main entertainment venue, and just hearing them in such an intimate venue was worth the price of the cruise to me. The excellent Spanish ballet flamenco dancers, Istacion, also performed. For those not classically inclined, “Mr. Rod”, a Rod Stewart tribute singer, also did two shows (not my thing so I will not comment).
GERMAN: NOTE THIS IS A GERMAN LANGUAGE SMALL LUXURY SHIP, but with appropriate expectations, pax can comfortably get by if they speak no German other than “ja,” “nein” , “danke”, and “bier”. The ship holds 400 passengers, and we were about 80% full, 44 solos. The solos were overwhelmingly women, and like the rest of the pax, were mostly over 70, and spoke either no or very limited English. Pax demographics were overwhelmingly people from German-speaking countries, with varying apparent educational backgrounds, with only a handful of children, who mostly belonged to on-board performers. Staff informed me there may be more children during summer and holidays but the sister ship, Europa 2, tends to target families and on average younger people more than the Europa . German was the only official language on board, but key information is also available in English. Only very important safety and “must know now” information was announced on the overhead in both German and English. Muster was offered in both German and English, (held separately). All ship organized shore excursions were only in German, though always accompanied by a crew member from the tourist office who could if needed, translate into English key information (like where and when to meet back at the bus, if all you wanted to do is use the ship’s excursion bus to get to and from a venue with guaranteed return time and then explore on your own). I would probably not recommend that non-German speakers who are not at least partial German understanders go on the excursions that involve guided walking tours or tours that involve a lot of standing around listening to the local guide say things in German if you want to get the full benefit of the excursion. The commentary, sometimes long, prior to the playing of the musical numbers and other organized ship events was also only in German, but of course music can speak for itself.
Menus are translated into English by the international hostess if she knows English-speakers are on board, and customized help is available for excursion planning from the English-speaking international hostess or from the tourist/excursion personnel. Note that sometimes the menus may be awkwardly translated (e.g., "rabbit meatball" written in German got translated into “balls of rabbits” which conjures up some odd images) but generally looked fine. There was also one more serious glitch I heard about from the 3 Brits on board, who did not timely get disembarkation information and their color-coded luggage tags, (though they still safely got off on time with their luggage, no near-miss) so if you book this ship, you should be proactive and periodically check in with the international hostess or other staff to always make sure you have what you need. Pre-boarding ABC’s of the ship and travel documents are mailed out in English and your travel agent can work with Hapag Lloyd to assure smooth sailing and communication. The front-line staff including waiters also spoke English, as did the ship’s doctor, though to varying degrees, but frankly better than many of the staff I encountered on Silversea in the dining rooms and suites. If you book, you can also ask in advance to be seated where the assigned waiter is particularly proficient in dining room English (there is one named David who is outstanding), and you can also ask for a table for just you and your English-speaking party. 2 Brits were initially misasigned a table for 6, which meant they would almost certainly be sitting with other Germans, but when they complained the first day, it was immediately changed to a two-top.
My trip documents, information about the ship, information in my suite when I embarked, and the TV station in the suite were also in English or set to English language information, (though when I toggled back and forth between the German and English TV menus to anticipate what I would eat that night, I noticed the English menus were often out of date, though never in the dining room at dinner — the Brits told me they never looked at the TV menus so had not noticed).
The current entertainment host Randall Cooper is an American ex-pat for 30 years, a native of San Francisco , though I am not sure how long his commitment is to that position. The many Filipino basic staff on board for the most part not surprisingly seemed to speak better English than German, and the officers and upper level staff also speak very good English. My stewardesses were from Ukraine and Philippines and spoke better English than German. However, despite the ease of English communication with staff and the fact that as noted one can more than get by as an English-speaker, there were only 4 people on board registered from English-speaking countries, so if you think you will need a lot of English-speaking company besides whoever you will be traveling with to be happy while cruising, you might get lonely on this ship. On the Europa 2, held out as an international bilingual ship, there were only 12 guests from non-German countries, out of 516 pax.
One issue that could be important to English-speaking pax is the fact that the general nature of most Germans (which they themselves openly acknowledge, even in a HL promo-film about the Europa 2) is to be relatively reserved with strangers, even among other Germans, and mind their own business. It generally takes more than the duration of a cruise to get familiar without being rude. Though some may be curious about strangers (especially foreigners) most simply do not show curiosity, and thus will not pry into questions about who you are, or your life, and you should not pry too much into questions about theirs, especially not straight off. There is of course a spectrum of behavior. Roughly generalizing, but confirmed by my native German friends when I ran my theories by them, is that friendliness with strangers depends to some degree on age (less so with older people), region of origin in Germany (more friendly if from the southern areas) and alcohol intake, but the mean of behavior clearly gravitates more to a stick-to-yourself style, especially with only casual contact such as occurs on cruises. Both here and even on the Europa 2, the pax generally did not search out others to talk to, or even expect to introduce themselves at venues. For example, at the get-together for solos I went to where roughly 20 people showed up (already a pre-selected more social group), though all sat in a circle of sorts drinking free champagne and eating caviar snacks, the moderator did not ask people to introduce themselves, much less where they were from. It was just suggested that the purpose of the get-together was that if you see someone in the hall later in the cruise whom you met that day, you would know it is a fellow solo when you say hello, and then after that and more champagne a few people did indeed talk amongst themselves a little about themselves. If you do try to socialize with them, e.g., if you know some German or are trying to find out if they speak any English, I would suggest you not try and go first-name straight off, i.e., do not introduce yourself with your first name only, which would imply you want to know their first name and that could be perceived as rude.
On the cruises at the tables both crew and most pax addressed each other as “Herr ___ “ and “Frau __” or “Frau Doctor ___” or “Herr Professor ____” etc. and used the third person formal “Sie” instead of the familiar “Du” even after two weeks (you need permission to use “Du” so be careful), At my wetlands and paella-eating excursion I got seated with 5 Germans who at first asked nothing about each other, much less about me though I stuck out in several ways, and only vaguely talked about the nice surroundings and the food, and it was not until after about 45 minutes of sangria-drinking that we found out one couple was from Bavaria, but not much else. Then at the 1.25 hour mark during dessert and the third pitcher someone asked me where I had come from (probably because it was clear I was not from anywhere near Bavaria), and I told them. This led the Bavarians to describe how they had done a Holland America cruise a few years ago out of Los Angeles as the only Germans on board and they were appalled at how American cruiser women they saw wore so many shiny rings (I guiltily glanced at my ruby-based wedding ring), were always curious asking where people were from (I was happy I had not been the first to ask), smiled all the time (this was perceived as bad and fake) were too familiar by using first names (I knew better than to say my first name, or any name), and how awful it was that within less than 30 minutes of conversation they heard about the Americans’ jobs, diseases, etc. In short, I would say to be safe, if you are going to try and socialize with other pax, especially the older ones (which is most on this ship) go slow, give the alcohol time to get absorbed, and ask permission to ask something before you ask. In addition, there were a few (definitely not most) pax who were more than reserved but actually rude, e.g., one pushed himself ahead of me at the reception desk, another snatched away the cheese plate at an excursion sit-down that had been set in front of me by waiters because I was sitting at the end to then pass around, before I had a chance to take my piece, and did the same thing when the sausage plate came, when the wine came, etc. But of course we have also seen rude pax on other luxury lines (see e.g., my SB Norway cruise review from July regarding some of the pax with intrusive selfie sticks, price arguers, etc).
The overall personality difference with Americans, Brits, and Aussies, at least of older Germans, not just the language, is likely a factor in deterring some English pax, but if you are fine with sticking to yourselves anyway even on an English language ship, or dislike excessive cruise ship intra-pax familiarity, or bounce back quickly from minor insults, there would be no problem. When English-speaking pax went ashore, they either explored the towns on their own, or booked private tours. I should add, however, that with one exception all the crew were very pleasant with the Brits and me, more so than on Europa 2, though this cruise was not 100% booked so they likely had more time.
LUXURY, SPACIOUS FACILITIES AND EXCELLENT SERVICE.
Service, in suites and in dining venues, was, in short, next to flawless.
Reception desk, tourist desk, captain and his staff, the doctor, all key staff were, with one exception, outgoing people. Even the one exception was not surly, just vaguely disinterested.
My suite (a Veranda 4 on deck 5) was spacious and comfortable with a soft bed, comfortable couch and muted beige themed decor, walk-in closet, comparable in size to current base suites on the Seabourn Odyssey or Silver Spirit. However, the beds are in the German style, which is 2 separate, close together individual single mattresses with separate bedding, they are not fused in the middle, this of course has pros and cons. The spacious balcony had one adjustable lounger, a table, and two upright chairs, all with cushions, and a glass barrier. The mini-bar had free soft drinks, juices and beer which were replenished to your specifications daily. No free wine, no free hard liquor, no coffee machine like the Europa 2 had (I ordered coffee room service, which arrived within 15 minutes of calling on all but one day, or at a set time I ordered the night before). All wine and hard liquor and cocktails, and even bottled water in the dining rooms at lunch and dinner, except on special event days, is charged for extra, but with only modest mark-ups. There are literally several hundred bottles of quality international wines on board, a few dozen available in 0.1 liter and 0.25 liter portions, for sampling or lighter drinkers. I prefer this to the somewhat disingenuous “all-inclusive” approach of SS and SB and Regent, where of course none of these things are really free and you land up paying up front and then have battles over whether the included wines are good enough. I had fun exploring many new and wonderful wines. Staff will save leftover wine for you for the next day (I found this less and less likely to happen as the cruise went on), with proper recorking procedures, if you want, or reliably deliver leftovers to your suite ( as opposed to having it disappear, as happened to me on SS a few times). You do not have to sign for anything or show a card when you order drinks. You just verbally tell the barman what you want, give your suite number, and the barman or waiter takes care of the rest, simple honor system (they know who you are). If you want a receipt then and there, or want to add a tip (not required but not rejected either and absolutely not solicited), you can ask for a written bill. Otherwise your verbal orders will just appear on your on-TV account (set it to the English station), very simple, and I found only one error on my composite overall on-board account during my cruise which was immediately and courteously fixed.
Boarding was flawless, but precisely at 4, with welcoming champagne and snacks, and we sailed at 6, so there was no lunch option on the somewhat hectic embarkation day. HL provides pre-cruise and post-cruise holding areas at a hotel. There was more than ample space for pax in all venues, the main and Lido dining rooms, pool area even on hot days, lounge chairs, and entertainment venues. Most bars were sparsely populated most of the day, including the new, non-smoking beautiful Gatsby’s bar and lounge. Bartenders are friendly and competent in two (or more) languages. Late at night, even though the lounge pianist and the on-board lounge band with skilled musicians (including a terrific saxophonist) played, the bars were mostly deserted as people went to bed early, except for way on top of the ship some people hung out in the small Sansibar and seemed to debate politics a lot, I preferred Gatsby. But if you wanted to dance, the floors were yours, as most just did not dance, some like me with musculoskeletal problems were happy to just be able to stroll around, and others were in wheelchairs (the ship BTW is very disability friendly, I saw great attention given to the pax in wheelchairs or using crutches, including help at tea-time to get cakes from the wonderful pastry display. And if you need dialysis, even that can be arranged, they bring in a nephrologist, for a fee of course).
Also, very important to me, the “do not disturb” sign was invariably honored and the phone at reception was answered in less than a minute if not at once.
SMOKING: There is a separate dedicated smoking lounge, the Havana bar, and there are limited designated smoking areas, but note it is also allowed on outside balconies and a section of the atrium bar, so if you are super sensitive about smoke anywhere at any time, this ship is not for you. Not many people smoked, but I did catch a whiff of smoke here and there when I passed if the door to Havana was left open (not sure why it was), which did not bother me as it was minimal and transient, I am not presently asthmatic, and based on my ongoing review of the literature relating to second-hand smoke and other information, I am quite confident I am going to die of illnesses unrelated to minuscule exposures to second-hand smoke. I encountered more smoke from people in the ports than on the ship, e.g., France bothered even me a bit at some of the cafes. But if you are afraid of, or intolerant of, even small amounts of smoke exposure on board, I would not recommend this ship.
FITNESS AND OTHER ACTIVITIES
There is a beautiful exercise and gym room overlooking the sea, plus there are exercise classes and a custom trainer who can speak English. There is no “trivia” playing in any language. Of course there is a boutique and the personnel in there were actually helpful sales persons, I even bought something which I rarely do. The Ocean Spa is nice, as are the people working there, I had an interesting and frank conversation with a lively Russian-born childhood immigrant to Germany who (after the initial caution and topic permission-seeking) expressed concern about how the immigrant problem has changed her beloved northern German town. The pool is heated, but not used much despite great weather, not crowded, had a few lap swimmers off and on. The hot tub next to it is unfortunately below body temperature, not ideal for American tastes (DH likes it hot).
FOOD: A very strong point! Best food overall I’ve had on any cruise ship including the Europa 2 (by a hair). There are four dining venues not counting room service: the MDR (open breakfast, lunch and dinner, very pleasant, calm atmosphere, terrific waiters and food presentation style, international cuisine with occasional German flares); the Lido (indoor/outdoor casual extensive buffet dining and grill to order); Venetia, a small Italian venue (fantastic food and service with Italian waiters, I went for a lovely open-seating lunch); and the Dieter Mueller dining room (Michelin-rated chef) where small-plates series are served with pairing options (this was my least favorite of the venues, though good, but I only ate there once on an Asian evening, the menu did not change after that). MDR always had vegetarian options (I tried some for lighter dining, quite creative) and meats or fishes as entrees, creative appetizers, cream or clear soups (clear soups are only B+ to me), many fresh salad options too, daily fruit in the suite (I could not keep up). Lido had a big salad bar, fish and meat grill offerings with sides, and some theme evenings with regional, e.g., Portugese food, Spanish food, American (with American steaks and burgers), Mediterranean, seafood and shellfish, and the terrific Bavarian food luncheon not to miss with fun traditional German music and costumes (the same waiter wearing a tuxedo in the Dieter Mueller venue just a night or two before was then in Lederhosen, beer and Schnapps were free and refilled more than I needed). It took a week before I ordered something I did not like and did not try to finish (lamb ragout, was too spicy, probably more my problem than the food’s) and I only had two other taste misses (a beet terrine appetizer was uninspired, and one vegetarian fancy salad I got fell flat). Mostly I cleaned my plate and then some on this cruise (unfortunately gained 5 lb in 13 days).
Reservations are only required in the two little restaurants, Venetia and Dieter Mueller, or Lido for dinner, were not hard to get, ask when you get on board. In MDR you have your assigned table with others unless you need a two-top because of English, but any of you at a table can show up between 7 and 9:30 and start your dinner, you do not all have to start, or leave, or dine, together. If you dislike your tablemate you can ask to be rerouted. I had initially requested a table for myself but landed at a table with 3 Germans which turned out fine so I practiced my German, they were 2 old ladies traveling together and a solo older gent, they were all very nice. No lunch venue requires reservations, I favored the calm MDR at lunch. My waiter at dinner also knew I like to have a back pillow, so he always had it ready for me.
On most cruises I am keen to dine in port, for variety, but on this cruise, I preferred exploring the foods on board with the fine service, instead of dining in ports even when there was time to do so, I looked forward to getting on board for lunch. Usually in land luxury hotel restaurants I have had better service than on ships at dinner, but for comparison at the Four Seasons in Lisbon at 2 of 3 dinners I was ignored for almost an hour after the entree was brought, as they were understaffed, whereas on this ship there almost always seemed to be “hoverers”, wait staff looking around to make sure you had everything you wanted as you wanted it. Poor service can kill appetites for even the best foods, and that did not happen here.
ITINERARY: HL likes to mix up its annual itineraries, instead of doing mostly the same thing back and forth each year like some lines do.
The itinerary was very good, Lisbon, Portimaio, Sevilla (2 nights docked right in town), Almeira, Cartagena, Valencia, Barcelona, Marseilles, Calvi, St. Tropez, Nice. Excursions were well-organized, and used luxury buses with AC, but, as noted, were only in German. Some of the walking excursions which were rated as “moderate” in exertion level had too many people for my taste (16-24), and the guides twice walked too fast for me and a man with a cane, though the guide politely waited for us to catch up. If you come as someone who speaks only English and wants to do port excursions, for the best experience, unless you are with someone at least semi-competent in understanding key German, I recommend you either book your own in English in advance, or through the tourist office (they will help you, in English). Although you can get by on the excursions, you may not get the full benefit of the excursion if you really care about what the guides are saying as opposed to just about being guided through town so as not to get lost.
IN SUM, although the MS Europa caters primarily to Germans, select English-speaking passengers, with appropriate expectations, can be comfortable on this luxury ship. It provides a refreshing alternative opportunity for English-speaking pax who may be dissatisfied with other small ship luxury lines and who are interested in excellent service, fine dining with formal options, and classical music in an uncrowded and relaxing atmosphere. It is, per diem, a bit more expensive than the other luxury lines, when you factor in all the costs, but worth every penny, and I have therefore booked another cruise, the next one will be with DH (Australia). We plan to get either a table for two or a table with other English-speakers, and to book mostly private shore excursions in English through our TA. Read Less