SHORT VERSION: I greatly enjoyed the outstanding food, service, and classical music on this luxury small ship cruise and plan to return soon.
I am an American who did this two-week luxury small ship cruise solo from Nice to Bilbao. I chose it primarily for the intimate classical music experience it offered with its Ocean Sun Festival. To compare, I have done various other mostly small ship luxury cruises with cruise lines solo, with my husband, and with a friend. The cruise was outstanding, the best luxury ship experience overall, by far, despite the oddity of being an American woman traveling solo (probably the only one) on a ship where the official on board language is German.
EMBARKATION in NICE :
There was no actual embarkation terminal in Nice at the Quay de Commerce, so waiting to board was slightly uncomfortable, no fault of HL. The port authority did not allow HL to serve any beverages in the warm outdoor waiting area before 4PM, when crew started serving Duval-Leroy champagne. Embarkation commenced precisely on time at 16:00, as all HL cruises do, and between starting boarding and getting to my suite only 15 minutes passed. Unlike on my three prior HL cruises, I did not see any hors d’oeuvres offered in the atrium reception area, though the next evening canapés were offered at a captain’s gala. I was still full from my decadent truffle pasta lunch in Nice so it did not matter.
After a very short check-in period during which my picture was taken and passport confiscated (room keys were distributed before the cruise) a crew member escorted me to my suite, where a half bottle of champagne and 4 chocolate-covered large strawberries waited for me. My cases appeared 1-2 hours later (2 cases, separately).
MUSTER: orientation was on the pool deck at my actual muster station, with pax required to wear their new-fangled style life jackets. Then pax moved on to more safety lecturing in the Europa Lounge. A separate English muster was available. Muster took longer than expected, about 40 minutes, with a lot of time spent on exactly what to do when someone goes overboard (bottomline: yell, throw things, and point).
ATMOSPHERE: This is a contemporary-styled ship with cool, calm colors. It is fresh, well-maintained, uncrowded and comfortable, with an atmosphere of quiet luxury and elegance in the decor and amongst most crew and pax. There are plenty of deck chairs in various locations so there is no need for pushiness or lines. It is a very German-oriented ship, with almost all pax affluent, very affluent, or relatively affluent seniors and their family and friends from German speaking countries. There were only a few, mostly invisible, children. The only official on-board language was German, though frontline crew spoke basic English with the few people on board who do not speak much, or any, German (e.g., primarily some entertainers) . If there were any other Americans or Brits on board, I never heard them. Many of the Filipino crew spoke better English than German. However, this ship did offer many luxury international menu options daily, (definitely not just wienerschnitzel and sausages, though they had those available too). There was also quite a bit of English language popular music in venues as an alternative to the festival classical music presentations.
The MS Europa is more formal than its sister ship Europa 2, which caters to a somewhat younger and more casual crowd and which is officially German and English, and markets to international audiences (though very few non-German speakers travel on her) and has both German and English are on-board languages. Here on the MS Europa, HL has made a deliberate choice to only have German as the language on board (which should satisfy the few older Germans who, per comments overheard and read on the internet, previously resented having what rare announcements there were translated into English, and also saves the line translator money). HL can fill the ship just with German speakers well in advance. Getting a booking on any desirable itinerary HL cruise is a competitive process requiring advance planning if you are not retired and very flexible, so they do not really need to market to English speakers to fill their ships.
Announcements (other than safety-related), menus, and daily printed guides and tours were only in German, as warned, but announcements were very rare (twice a day a brief captain report about speed, latitude and longitude and perhaps a highlight of a key performance). Even the couple excursions I went on that were billed to be conducted in English by local guides landed up being given in German, e.g., with a museum guide or accompanying crew member talking in the local language to our German-speaking guide instead of English who then translated into German because half the people on the excursions could not understand English. I received essential pre-cruise vital information and a ship guide through my travel agent printed in English, and then while on board used the opportunity to refresh my German by looking up a few menu items and other things I did not know on my iPhone translation app or on the internnet.
Average age was around 70, with quite a few pax over 80. Pax were mostly quite mobile. There were a few other solo pax on board (mostly elderly German women) and I heard from the ship’s doctor, and nephrologist brought on, that there were two dialysis patients. We had 344 total pax on board plus a few dozen entertainers and speakers came and went, to fill the ship’s cabins to 400 or so. As is the older German style, whether solo or not, German or not, pax and on board entertainers mostly stuck to themselves and their known groups and made few attempts to socialize with strangers other than about very simple things, or (usually after alcohol) to talk about their local and international politics, e.g., rants about a well-known American political figure. There was also an (expected) style of lack of curiosity about strangers with most pax, and, unlike most luxury world cruising Americans, pax appeared to be of the attitude that other people’s lives and histories are mostly none of their business and asking personal details without special permission is considered prying. Gratuitous smiling (except by crew) is frowned upon by pax, as is too much jewelry. Mostly I was just ignored by other pax, as if I was not there at all (other than getting a few obviously disapproving and a couple envious glances relating to a little personal fan I carried), and was left alone, neither socially engaged nor negatively bothered. There were, however, a couple solo travelers' get-togethers announced that were not convenient for me to go to this trip (on my prior trip when I went 2 years ago, even there people were still very closed and stiff), and I also had an invitation to go join the cruise director and other "women only" for a Lido dinner which I also skipped as I had a small dining venue reservation the same day.
I was fine with this “leave you alone” attitude of German pax, and expected it, (I cruised this ship before and know Germans from before, and have German friends, so I understand the roots of the reservedness. I was here primarily for the classical music festival, and secondarily for the pampered dining and peace and quiet rather than to acquire new BFF (if interested, see my previous MS Europe review from 2016 where I comment on older German personality styles). Many would not be, or would feel lonely without others to talk to in their home language for two weeks, (crew are not supposed to waste too much time chit-chatting long periods with pax, German or English, though a little is ok, as that distracts them from their jobs to serve everyone), but I did not. Much as I love traveling with my DH and would enjoy sharing experiences with him, I often enjoy the enhanced powers of observation and concentration solo traveling offers. Just in case, I had an iPad and iPhone (on mute) and ear buds with me for reading books or listening to music if there were longer periods of waiting involved anywhere, e.g., on bus excursions when guides were not talking.
The DRESS CODE for days and evenings was casual elegant, and people really complied with it. Many people wore understated designer clothing, and what jewelry they wore was not garish. After 6 PM, the code was for men to wear jackets in all dining venues other than the indoor/outdoor buffet Lido. Ties were not required at dinner, but many men wore them anyway. There were also two formal nights (ballgown optional but not required or common, tux or dark suit and tie required for men, and something a little dressy or shiny for women seemed adequate, as on other luxury lines on formal night. As has been popular a couple years in Europe now, several men wore crisp brightly colored expensive trousers, e.g., red, bright green, or blue, both during the day (without a jacket) or in the evening (with a jacket), which is considered casual elegant. White trousers in the evening were also popular on men and women with varying tops (jackets on men in most venues) and these came in handy on the pool party night, when the suggestion was made for people to dress in white out on deck. No one I saw challenged the dress code by showing up with hoodies or untucked T shirts with logos, and I saw no blue jeans (not even the stylish pre-torn ones) at night on the MDR and entertainment deck 4. I did see an elderly balding gent with a red-orange blazer with black suede elbow patches, black capris, and no sox, with his bared feet slipped into very expensive black suede loafers, and similar other displays of Euro-chic that were great fun to see.
As on my 2016 trip, one thing I did not like is that most of the venues ran ambient temperatures that were subjectively too warm for me (though most of the pax liked it that way, as Germans generally greatly fear cold air and drafts and often say “es zieht"). I had my suite temperature on maximum cooling most of this Mediterranean trip and would have liked it to be even cooler during the day (temp was not indicated but it felt like around 73 in the suite on hot days with AC on max and at least 75 in the restaurants, so I was glad I had brought loose and linen clothing). However, I am very sensitive to heat due to some of my medication and anticipated this, so came equipped with assorted unobtrusive cooling tools that worked well for me.
FOOD AND BEVERAGE:
This cruise I had an assigned dinner table to myself in the MDR (per my advance request) as opposed to an assignment with others like I had last time (though I had requested a solo table then, my prior assigned dining companions had worked out ok for me ). I could have requested to be seated at a communal table assignment for dinner in MDR but did not want to risk getting stuck with a couple old and cranky married German couples who might have felt uncomfortable with me as a fifth and foreign wheel (there are some people like that). Dinner starts at your table anytime you like between 7 and 9:30, it is yours the whole evening. Breakfast and lunch are open seating everywhere (breakfast 7-9 in the MDR, 7-10:30 in the Lido indoor/outdoor venue, and there is also a 9-12 option for late risers in Dieter Mueller, plus there is 12:30-2 for lunch in MDR, Lido, and Venezia). Poolside waffles are 3-5. An elegant afternoon tea with cakes etc. (real whipped cream, “Sahne”, optional) was served 4-5PM, accompanied by soothing piano music, with pax who were thankfully respectful and not rowdy. Restaurants were uncrowded, and as I had a guaranteed table in the MDR at dinner, there was no need to line up anywhere for food except for the day of the popular Lido Bavarian lunch, “Bayrischer Fruehschoppen”, which offered traditional rich German food, spirits and beer, and a whole roasted suckling pig.
Some regular MDR menu items appeared daily as “classics", and then there were daily specials which did not repeat for the whole 2-week cruise. There were four different “international” vegetarian main courses each day, changed weekly (a green bean dish was particular tasty). The buffet had both daily specials and grill options for steak, fish, and sausages, and pasta. Lobster and shellfish were abundant in various presentations, and I had caviar and steak tatar in different forms 4 times each.
Reservations were only needed for dinner for the small venue gourmet Dieter Mueller dining experience and Venezia, the small Italian venue, (no extra charges) and for the Lido in the evening, though there is usually room in the latter even without reservation. There is 24-hour room service of certain items (including steak tatar) which I only used for a few breakfasts. Reservations should be made right on boarding to secure your choice, as should spa reservations ( no option for advance booking).
90% of my lunch and dinner dishes were outstanding, 10% were ok but I would not order again (e.g., a cauliflower soup that fell flat, as did the snails, there was a so-so fish course in Dieter Mueller and the “Boston clam chowder” was an odd greenish substance) . Breads were crisp and fresh (there were no rubbery rolls so many cruise ships, even luxury ones, seem to be specializing in lately), with rye and pumpernickel bread options.
Fresh fruits and veggies were plentiful. I did not see a single brown lettuce leaf. My wine pourer at dinner knew wines well enough to make intelligent suggestions (several hundred different wines are on board to choose from, many in 0.1 liter or 0.250 liter portions, with only a handful from U.S.). I enjoyed trying different kinds I do not get at home near wine country in California.
Unlike on other luxury lines, my morning room service tray, when I got it, always had what I had ordered, not once did they forget any item, and they customized as I requested.
After the first day or two, staff addressed me by my name almost everywhere on board.
The colorful Swiss bartender in the Gatsby’s lounge (who also spoke English) already knew who I was and what I would likely want to drink without my saying anything after the first night.
The food was so good and comfort level so high that I preferred dining on board to dining in port (which I cannot say for other luxury cruise lines including my favorite SB).
Minor negatives were that morning room service coffee was not strong enough for me, but still always arrived hot and at the requested time (espresso and cappuccino were available in the dining rooms). . Unlike on the sister ship Europa 2, there was no in-room coffee in the base suite. Note that beverages in dining rooms other than coffees, milk, teas and juices are subject to fees unless at special events (which are frequent) around the pool, or on return to the ship, including bottled water (other than that distributed on excursions), so technically the ship is not “all inclusive”. But the plus is you can pick exactly the wine you want, and what size, with a very fair mark-up, and there is no fussing about getting stuck with bad “included” wines. I never had to produce my room card, and only signed for beverages in the two smaller venues at the end of the meal, no service charge, though I added paper tips there anyway. I just verbally gave my suite #, on an honor system (they know who you are).
SERVICE: in short, outstanding. If anyone was in training, with one exception, I could not tell (compared and contrasted with my cruise on Seabourn in spring 2017).
The Do Not Disturb sign was thankfully very strictly respected, always. Laundry fees were cheap (e.g., 1 Euro for underwear) and results terrific, usually same-day even without extra charge. All service is officially included in the cruise fare, but unlike on English language luxury lines, the tipping policy is that none are required or expected, but are welcomed so a few pax quietly gave envelopes with tips to certain crew at the end of the cruise, in addition to contributing to the crew auction and end of cruise tip pot. No hands were ever extended expecting tips. Crew did not appear exhausted or overworked, (only one appeared cynical and resentful of his job), and at least conveyed a pleasant and relaxed unstressed manner.
There were no service comedies and no activities I dreaded due to anticipation of service problems, as it seems is increasingly the case even on luxury cruises. I did not have to be an important person, be pushy, or have an “in” to get luxury service, as is often the case on other luxury ships. With very rare exceptions, the crew were smart, polite, helpful, attentive, bilingual, and eager to help, and ran a finely tuned service machine. In the MDR they worked in efficient coordinated teams, with one key person assigned to beverages, another assigned to food, and a couple lower level staff hovered to offer more bread and whisk away dirty plates and be alert if you were waving for any need. Service personnel at my table were always the same and anticipated my needs. My wine glass was readily refilled without having to fight for it like I did on SB last year, and oddly also on the Europa 2 last fall (not sure why there is such a difference for the same cruise line now). Dining room staff were there when you needed them without being intrusive and there was no premature snatching of plates. Waiters checked to make sure your meals were satisfactory shortly after you started eating. There were no awkward delays or irritating mess-ups that can sour a luxury experience.
There were only a couple minor service glitches (e.g., once the waiter did not send the rest of my wine to my suite as I had requested but instead saved it for the next day; once a waitress got confused on my wine order, e.g., thought I had drunk a whole Karaffe where I had only had a glass, yet charged me for the whole; once crew showed up with the wrong appetizer, promptly rectified, and a pair of sox was lost after sending to the laundry, but then was found; and on the final gala night I waited all of ten minutes for a wine refill -- once, usually I never waited). The only minor service disappointment I had was that the crew member in charge of individual itineraries was not proactive in following up on my request to secure ship to airport transportation for my flight to Munich, and seemed a bit cavalier about its importance to me ( I had the last connection to the U.S. that day booked and missing my first flight was to be avoided at all costs), so I had to keep reminding him every day for almost a week to keep me posted, until resolution. But it all worked out fine anyway just as he said it would so I was needlessly anxious.
NICE — anyone reading this review has probably already been to sunny and luxurious Nice. It was Formula One weekend in nearby Monaco, so the place was hopping, and even more expensive than usual. I sought dining refuge in a little side street restaurant near the opera, Le Frog, and at a pleasant drink, snack and people-watching place called Balthazar on the main drag, which had surprisingly good service and comfortable chairs despite catering to tourists. I also ate at truffle specialty restaurant. As noted above, it did not have a cruise terminal building where we embarked.
BASTIA (northeast Corsica). This was a pleasant walkable little old town, easy to do on your own.
BONAFACIO (southern Corsica), tender. Tender crew were mostly skilled and experienced Filipinos. I did an excursion involving a combination of a boat ride to a grotto and a town walkabout, though it could easily be done individually.
ALGHERO (Sardinia), tender. A typical, walkable seaside town in the Med. Shoreside, MS Europa had a station set up with cold drinks and shade to wait for tenders, or just to rehydrate while touring the town independently on foot.
MAHAN (Minorca) — formerly under British influence, a gin haven, and home of Cardinal Richelieu’s original “mayonnaise" discovery! A side trip to Ciutadella, a cute seaside market town 30 miles away by road, with a sheep mascot, was worthwhile.
BARCELONA, overnight — the Catalonian center many cruises start and end at; this was my fourth time to this wonderful city, where many banners favoring independence were still visible. There are many well-known things to see and do here centered around Gaudi, see other abundant CC reviews for that. I did something more unusual this time, i.e., journied to the beautiful Palau de la Musica with its fantastic organ, and former Hospital de la Santa Pau (now a museum), with absolutely stunning architecture (not Gaudi, but Lluis Domenech i Montaner).
The ship also organized a brilliant, private classical Spanish music land concert for us with the Cadaques Orchestra and assorted classical soloists, and I had an awesome front row seat, was immersed in the orchestra.
VALENCIA I went on an interesting walking tour of the opera house and the very expensive (and over budget crazy modern architecture in the city. This is worth doing at least once, tours are available in English.
MALAGA I did not spend time in town, but went on a trip to the old, walkable town of Mijas about 40 minutes away, with a wine and tapas tasting excursion. The captain’s pleasant wife (a former East German of a privileged class) co-hosted. This could realistically be done with a private tour.
CADIZ (substituted for Portimaio, due to an anticipated port strike). Cadiz is a couple hours from Seville, but is a nice port for tourists in its own right. I did a city walking tour in the rain, and hiked up 156 steps on a tower with a Camera Obscura.
LISBON, overnight, something for everyone here, a wonderful tourist city, there are many reviews. I did a spontaneous private tour with a colorful old native who showed me nooks and alleyways and told interesting stories, and one to the Gulbenkian museum, which has some fantastic collections from antiquity to 20th century, and some gardens.
There was a sea day half way through the cruise, and just before the end, with music and talks and of course more eating and exercise options to keep you busy. No trivia in any language.
As noted above, the main reason for my doing this cruise was the classical music Ocean Sun Festival, which I had been very impressed with in 2017, and it was equally exquisite this year. World-class artists were brought on board, and/or we were brought to them in Barcelona for a private evening concert. We had harpist soloist Xavier de Maistre and the Cadaques Orchestra; soprano Sara Blanch; tenor Marc Sala; senior lady castagnettist Lucero Tena (a crowd favorite, as she was in top form despite her age, thus giving us all hope); the Munich Philharmonic String Quartet which did a stirring rendition of the Felix Mendelssohn string quartet in F minor; brilliant young Australian violinist Ray Chen; pianist Ohad Ben-Ari; clarinetist David Orlowsky; a string quartet from Vienna; and pianist brothers Lucas and Arthur Jussen.
Additional performers included the Spanish tango and flamenco dancers group Ispacion (this was my third time seeing them, their beauty and drama never gets old, plus they are also easy on the eyes in between performances); vintage English/German descent pop singer Ireen Sheer (not my style but some liked her); an electrical engineer turned magician Dr. Alexander Mabros (a bit long-winded, German only), a cabaret comedian (in German only) Robert Griess, ocean lounge pianist Wolfgang Kick, and a very talented on-board 9 man Austrian band called “Impulse" that played oldies, jazz and dance music in English and German. It was also great fun watching German grey-haired grandmas well into their 70’s doing the twist, a couple wearing their orthopedic shoes, along with the few usual regular pax dancers in elegant clothing going through taught ballroom dancing moves with few smiles.
An enrichment speaker (about architecture and art) named Stephan Boerries was also on board (he was knowledgable but a bit arrogant, e.g., constantly corrected the Valencia opera guide’s German grammar, and he made a few elitist politically snide remarks). Last but not least, a clergyman was on board to take care of any souls that might be feeling lost at sea, and was available for regular sessions at tea time and as needed.
There was a bilingual personal trainer on board, there were various exercise classes offered I did not attend, there was a good-sized uncrowded pool heated to 28 degrees C for laps, one jacuzzi near the pool that was unfortunately only warm but not hot, and there was a pool party with a dance floor and international pop thumping music, (where I spent most of my time watching the off-duty colorful Ispacion dancers improvise to the music — a free unofficial performance!).
I did not ask for it, but the NYT international version appeared in my cabin each day, (it got tossed) as did a bowl of fresh fruit (mostly eaten).
There was a fun parade of chefs (a surprising number of Filipinos were in charge of various food creations, under the direction of young main gourmet chef Tillman Fischer) farewell performance followed by distribution of little marzipan men.
On the last gala night, crew sang sea classics, including the captain, Olaf Hartmann, who has an excellent voice.
INTERNET One free hour per day was included and you could buy more data at reasonable prices. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t, i.e., a typical cruise experience. I thus maximized use of my cellular service and hot-spots.
SMOKING Most of the indoor areas on the ship were non-smoking and there was a designated smoking area indoors, Havana Club. Smoking is allowed on balconies and in outdoor areas in most places (only designated areas in the Lido). However, even though few pax smoked, as it was allowed at the indoor piano bar near the atrium, even a couple smoking Spanish dancers could fill that room with whiffs of smoke. Asthmatics or militant smokophobics would be unhappy there. On the gala evening when sailors’ songs were sung in the atrium by a few dozen pax, the smoke from a few lit cigarettes accumulating was too much even for me so I retreated after 15 minutes, and usually I do not care.
DISEMBARKATION: no problems, no lines, you could stay in cabin until 9, had to be off ship by 10, luggage retrieval in Bilbao was easy, and the concierge had indeed arranged a taxi for me as requested.
Suggestions for improvement (minor):
1. Earlier boarding would be a nice, the way other luxury lines allow boarding around noon with pax then eating lunch in the Lido type area while waiting for suites to be readied. Then one could come straight from hotel checkout with luggage to the ship.
2. It would be good to either have the Touristik/excursion office open in the afternoon, when many pax have down time, or have reception take messages to pass on to them, rather than just the limited morning and evening hours they currently have (which are often unclear or not posted). A Seabourn Square type arrangement would improve ease of communication.
3. Walking excursion tours had too many people to be ideal for me (typically mid 20’s) but were cheap and an easy lazy way to be safely and reliably taken to the sites.
4. Raise the jacuzzi temperature to above body temperature, so it would be a true "hot tub"
5. The atrium should be a no smoking zone.
OVERALL, this was an outstanding ship, crew, and cruise. It provided the best overall food, service, and comfort I have had on well over a dozen luxury cruises, and the close-up music and dance were fantastic. However, you would have to be a bit adventuresome to travel on this ship if you are not from a German-speaking country or with someone who can read and understand at least basic German. I am not German, (parents were born in Eastern Europe), but for various reasons I can speak quite a bit and understand even more if people speak high German instead of dialects, so that was helpful for eavesdropping in conversations or hearing off the cuff jokes crew and pax told and for listening to enrichment speakers and comedians. But I do not think it would be essential to speak any German at all to enjoy the food and service and music on this ship (see my previous MS Europa review from September 2016, wherein I commented about some British pax who spoke no German at all but who preferred cruising here for many years). Just a little planning and accommodation and perhaps an iPhone app and polite requests would do the trick (e.g., pre-reviewing MDR menus and port info on TV or with English-speaking crew when they have time).
But if you are someone who feels uncomfortable having crew translate daily menus for you even if the menus are short and it only takes a few minutes, (the “classics" on the menu can be pre-translated after boarding) this is not for you. Also, if you need to have large varying English-speaking social circles on board, old or new, and thus must have open seating in the MDR at dinner, the Europa is also not for you. If you crave attention from other pax, you would be unhappy here, as you will likely just be ignored and treated as an invisible foreigner, though politely, by fellow pax, some of whom will tolerate you but frankly would prefer you not be there as they are old enough to have memories of growing up after World War 2, when Germany was in rubbles from allied bombing. You would still be given full and friendly luxury attention by mostly young and professional crew. There were also occasional whiffs of smoke here and there could also make a few people very unhappy if they are sensitive.
An English-only couple who is neutral or favorable to smoking whiffs and that puts a priority on excellent food and seamless service, usually dines alone anyway, does not need to socialize with other pax to have a good time, and organizes its own tours, would do fine, especially if the pax work with their TA to secure an advance "table for two" assignment in the MDR.
Also, note all of this wonderful high end music, food and service comes at a higher per diem cost, all in, than other luxury lines, but despite the cost, bookings are hard to get.
I hope to post pictures soon after I have sorted them, either here or on the CC subforum of "special interest travel", "luxury cruising", as HL does not have its own subforum. Read Less