Hapag-Lloyd’s sumptuous new Europa 2 has a lot to live up to.
How do you follow what the Berlitz Complete Guide to Cruising & Cruise Ships consistently rates as the world’s finest ship, with a score of “five star plus”? This is the accolade given year after year to older sister Europa, of which Europa 2 is a more youthful, casual interpretation.
What’s kept these ships off the radar of most international cruisers to date is the fact that Hapag-Lloyd’s passengers are mainly German-speaking. Yes, some cruises on the original Europa are designated “international”, which means that excursions will be available for English-speaking guests, but the clientele is almost all German, Austrian or Swiss. The difference with Europa 2 is that it’s supposed to have a broader appeal and is being promoted in Australasia, North America and Britain.
On my Mediterranean cruise, my friend and I were the only English speakers, although some Belgians helped boost the international contingent. I speak German, so I didn’t really mind, and the crew were absolutely flawless in their ability to switch from English to German and back again. Many Germans speak excellent English, so you’re not exactly cut off from the world as a non-German speaker, but it is a consideration, particularly if you’re the kind of traveller who likes to strike up a conversation at the bar or over dinner.
For many, the sheer beauty of the ship will eclipse any worries about language. Europa 2 really is gorgeous, with chic, minimalist decor and bright, sunlit spaces. There’s more space per passenger than on any other ship, and it shows, from the wide, airy corridors to the abundant supply of cushioned rattan loungers by the pool and on the sun deck. The lounges and bars are full of elegant touches: big bunches of fresh flowers everywhere, beautiful finishes and elegant glassware, even around the pool.
The cabins are all designated “suites” and are spectacularly spacious. My spa suite, with lots of pale wood and a tasteful beige, plum and stone colour scheme, had a huge living area with squashy sofas and armchairs looking out through a wall of glass onto a deep, 10-square-metre balcony. There were air jets in the bath and a shower that doubled as a steam room (although I never figured out how to work this).
I’d worried that the food on board would be heavy and Germanic but it isn’t; there’s an impressive variety. Some of the dishes in the four specialty restaurants are pretty adventurous (calf’s head, for example) and there’s a huge “always available” menu in Weltmeere, the main dining room, including comfort foods like steak or Wiener schnitzel, but I ate well and healthily during my cruise. Dinner in Elements, the Asian specialty restaurant, was especially good, with beautifully presented, delicately spiced dishes. The other specialty dining includes sushi, Italian and French, while the casual Yacht Club is perfect for al fresco breakfast and lunch.
At night, everybody gravitates to Sansibar, regardless of what’s happening in the elegant theatre, the Jazzclub and piano bar. The original Sansibar is a German icon – the country’s most famous beach shack, located on the hip North Sea island of Sylt, and replicated on both Europa ships. On board, it’s the place for decadently late breakfasts, early evening drinks, after-dinner dancing, smoking, cocktails, views over the wake and general late-night revelry.
Europa 2 is aimed partly at families and includes several interconnecting family suites. There’s a small kids’ club and, on excursions, children are taken off for ice-cream while parents tour museums. But the children on my cruise were generally “seen and not heard”, apart from a few in the swimming pool. When they dive-bombed me, their parents made them apologise. In English. This ship will never be crawling with packs of restless teens but it might suit well-travelled families with younger, well-behaved children.
Europa 2 will sail in the Mediterranean in the European summer and Asia and the Arabian peninsula in winter. Some wonderful smaller ports are included; my cruise stopped at Formentera and Ibiza, for example, while Asian ports include Boracay in the Philippines and Thailand’s Phi Phi islands. But luxury comes at a price, with most voyages starting at about $700 per person per night.
Europa 2 has just been awarded the coveted five-star-plus score by the Berlitz guide – the 2014 edition. It’s interesting because the crew, while charming and efficient, didn’t quite have the psychic qualities I’ve encountered on Seabourn and SeaDream Yacht Club; that elusive ability to anticipate your every need and make you feel like a millionaire on a private yacht.
But it’s early days yet.