Hapag-Lloyd is not a generally well known cruise line for British passengers. It has only 4 ships ranging from small expedition ships (such as the Hanseatic) to its flagship MS Europa which, shortly before our departure, was awarded for the 11th time the accolade of "Best Cruise Ship in the World" by the Berlitz Cruising Guide (by a comfortable margin). The company caters mainly for the German market but we had previously cruised with Europa on an "international" cruise in 2009 (see my previous review) and had no hesitation in returning. How would our second cruise compare? Read on to find out.
Sadly the ship (built in 1999) seems to be slightly the worse for wear and showing its age! Prior to leaving I had been told by our cruise agency that the ship was in dry dock to have an "engine replaced". On an informative tour of the engine room the chief engineer explained that this was unusual. Apparently ships' engines usually last the life of the ship. In addition, the Captain explained that one of the two Azipods was malfunctioning and as a result our speed would have to be reduced. This meant that in several ports we had to leave earlier than the published times in order to reach the next port. This was a pity as more time ashore would have been handy. Nonetheless we visited all of the many ports on the itinerary and that despite (at times) far from perfect weather.
We boarded the ship in Monte Carlo and were promptly escorted on board by a very pleasant crew member. She helped with hand luggage and took us to the Europa Lounge on board where we were supposed to check in. This turned out not to be the case we ended up in reception for a while. To ease the pain glasses of complimentary champagne were in abundance and after longer than usual check-in formalities we were eventually escorted to our stateroom via the glass elevators (operated by smart piccolos).
All staterooms on board are termed "suites" and they are very well equipped with complimentary e-mail, minibar (stocked with free soft drinks and beer) and a very useful baby listening video camera/phone which meant that we could enjoy dinner or concerts whilst checking our sleeping baby on an i-phone. Very useful and the first I have ever seen this device in any hotel or cruise ship. The bathroom too was spacious with good sized separate shower. Our only comment would be that the suites are probably nearing the end of their useful life and would benefit from refurbishment (especially the soft furnishings). Our stewardess spoke good English, made us very welcome and did an absolutely fantastic job in keeping the place clean and tidy.
Dining in the Europa restaurant
We had our own designed table in the Europa restaurant and took most meals there. The quality of the food was even better than on our previous cruise. The menus were extensive, very imaginative and featured unusual dishes which we simply loved to try out. Examples include fresh pasta (with truffles) cooked in the dining room, wonderful caviar served with all the trimmings and excellent fresh fish. Very occasionally we felt that the fish was over slightly over cooked and we noticed that guests nearby left theirs too, so we were obviously not alone. The choice of starters, soups and meat dishes was also extremely good and I enjoyed sampling the many tasty soups and cheese savoury dishes. Desserts were mainly light and unmemorable. A gourmet breakfast served on sea days was a real treat with French champagne, more caviar and lots of tasty fish dishes.
Alternative dining - LIDO
The Lido cafe offered a self service breakfast which again was very good if a little busy. It cannot really cope with a full ship although we never waited more than 5 or 10 minutes for a table. In the evening we tried an Oriental themed buffet which was also very well done. The Bavarian lunch (with free beer and music) was also a great success with typical German sausages and all the trimmings.
Alternative dining - Venezia and Dieter Muller
Sadly we were not able to eat in Venezia, the Italian alternative dining spot. I tried to book a table early in the cruise but was told by a rather pompous Maitre d'Hotel that it was "fully booked". I subsequently found out that this was less than true and indeed on many lunch days after my inquiry there were few people eating there. We were put on a "waiting list" but regrettably are still waiting. I gained the impression that the head waiter did not wish us to eat there, possibly as we had children or possibly because we were British!
This left a bitter taste in our mouth and I have made the MD of Hapag-Lloyd aware of our comments. I should say however that this is the only staff member on Europa who was not pleasant towards us.
The new Dieter Muller restaurant was mainly open in the evenings and could be reserved by passengers once per voyage. However, the menu did not alter and it really did not contain anything to attract us. Hence we chose not to eat there although (unlike Venezia) we would have had not difficulty in gaining access. Other passengers were somewhat ambivalent about the food.
Our table waiter spoke excellent English and worked very hard throughout the cruise to ensure that we were well very looked after. The service on this trip however was not seamless. One lunch time when our usual waiter was at a different section, his understudy forgot my soup order. He eventually brought it (along with my main course as he said that the kitchen was closing ) and I had two courses in front of me at the same time!! Not good.
At breakfast one morning I ordered an omelette which was the best I have ever tasted. The next morning I ordered the same and it has still never turned up!
The wine service was also very poor and our glasses were frequently empty for a long time before someone (usually our table waiter) filled them up on being asked kindly to do so.
On deck the waiters were first rate and would bring coffee, waffles, sorbets, ice creams, canapes and other treats when sitting by the pool. They also used one's name and tried (successfully) to remember preferences. One would even bring me extra chocolates for my daughter which was a lovely touch.
This was first class and above. The theme of the cruise was classical music and we enjoyed some excellent artists reflecting the places we visited (eg Venice). My favourites were the violinist Giuliano Carmignola, the dazzling French Pianist Bertrand Chamayou and the alto Sara Mingardo (who in the literature was always referred to as a soprano for some reason!). Each performed only once which was a pity.
The resident 8 piece orchestra called the "Happy Band" was well named. A group of very talented musicians and singers who provided excellent music for dancing and listening. They alternated between the Europa Lounge and the Clipper Lounge and were our first port of call after dinner for a night cap.
The resident cocktail pianist was also very talented and had a huge repertoire which he hardly repeated throughout the 14 day cruise. He also played for afternoon tea in the Belvedere observation lounge which was often the highlight of our day! Small cakes, finger sandwiches, proper tea and delightfully served by smiling staff.
Our family did not use the childrens club but if operated from a couple of basic rooms at the back of the ship. It made up for that in well organised excursions including some on Zodiacs which looked great fun!
As for excursions we received no details of these before our cruise so did our own thing. These were mainly in German in any event and we had visited most places before so knew where we were going.
With the one exception above the crew were of a very high standard. The level of service was certainly 5 star and you were made to feel at home. Captain Akkermann runs a very tight ship and is a very friendly gentleman who also speaks excellent English. He bids farewell to all passengers as they leave the ship which is a nice touch. The company also made a very good job of organising a post cruise Lounge in Athens for us to use whilst waiting for our flight home. Disembarkation was well organised and our luggage reached the correct place, thanks to the concierge who was abrupt but efficient.
Apart from a charming Brazilian couple, we were the only four English speaking passengers on this non bilingual cruise. The remainder of the very full ship were German speaking from Austria and Switzerland as well as Germany. They fell into 3 main categories. First, there were those who were very polite and would try to engage with us. Second, there were those who preferred to ignore us and would not even return a "Guten Morgen". Lastly, there was a minority who simply appeared not to have grasped the post-War concept of European integration. At times they were arrogant, rude and gave us the impression that they would rather have the ship to themselves.
In concluding, did the Europa reach its 5 Star plus rating this time round? Not quite. There were momentary lapses in service and at this price level you should be able to eat in whichever restaurant you please at least once per cruise. Sadly that did not happen. Further, the atmosphere on board was not quite so pleasant as last time round but perhaps this was because the cruise this year was not labelled as being "bilingual or international" and some of the German passengers thought that they would have a monopoly. Our rather inexperienced international hostess did her very best but as to whether the ship is quite ready to accept non German guests on non international cruises, the jury is still out. Would we return? Almost certainly but not next year!