Das Boot

A couple of years ago, one of my favorite travel writers was on board Europa. Here’s Geoff Edwards’ take on Hapag-Lloyd’s flagship.

europa water

Das Boot

by Geoff Edwards

Is there a best cruise ship?

The Berlitz Complete Guide To Cruising & Cruise Ships thinks so. Berlitz rates the 408-passenger, all-suite Europa five stars plus. No other ship in the Berlitz guide reaches this level. Yet it was with mixed enthusiasm that we accepted an invitation to cruise Europa from Rome to Istanbul. Mixed, because this is a German ship marketed mainly to Germans.

We were assured, however, that this trip would be what Hapag-Lloyd, Europa’s owners, labeled a “bilingual” cruise — one of several featured each year. Bilingual meant we could look forward to: information and final documentation in English; printed daily program in English delivered to our door; English menus; English announcements and lectures; safety drill in English; bilingual entertainers; and a fully bilingual staff.

Shortly before departure, however, we were told the cruise was changed to “semi-bilingual.” Oops, with a lick of a swagger stick, the English lectures, English tour guides and bilingual entertainers vanished. Nevertheless, we were committed and flew to Rome.

We were not allowed to board until 4 p.m., but the ship hosted a lounge at a Civitavecchia (Rome’s port city) hotel where early arrivals could wait until being bussed to the nearby pier. We arrived around noon and, as it turned out, were the only passengers to show up. A long table offered all kinds of pastries, coffee, tea and juices. Rolf, the ship’s host, and Danielle, an Italian woman who was working the room for Europa, welcomed us. We chatted, ate, and as the afternoon wore on, two of us catnapped.

The bus arrived promptly at 3:45 p.m. and 15 minutes later, we stepped off our 60 passenger “limo” just a few feet from the ship. We were immediately met by a crew member who took our passports and led us to the top of the gangway where the ship’s hostess greeted us by name.

Two steps later, champagne was thrust into our hands, and about 10 steps later we were checked in. The entry area boasted enough filled glasses of champagne to float the boat, and lots of hors d’oeuvres.

Sprechen Sie English?

Our luggage arrived quickly and moments later, we were off to the lifeboat drill. We joined others at our assigned lifeboat. A crewmember pointed at it and spoke at length in German, interrupting once to tell us in English that she would explain later. At the end of one of her sentences, she led the group away. We followed to join the rest of the passengers in the theater. An officer on stage went over the safety drill in German. The only English he uttered was “Man Overboard.” This he said loudly four different times.

Then it was “Wiedersehen” and back to the cabin. Weary from the long flight, we skipped the main restaurant Europa and ate in the Lido. It is lovely, and has a yacht like feeling. Several Germans, who have sailed on Europa numerous times, told us they consider it “their yacht.”

The menu was in German with no English translation, but, being mostly buffet, we figured things out. Along with the food, I had a carafe of wine and Michael had a glass of ice water.

All the staff speaks serviceable English. A waiter explained, “We must speak English to communicate with our Filipino helpers. We have to take a test before we can be employed.” Sometimes the English pops up in a delightful way. I entered our cabin as the stewardess, Magdalena, was cleaning. “I just want to get my camera,” I said, “I’ll only be a second.” Locating and then extricating the camera from the closet took more than a few minutes.

“So, in America,” Magdalena admonished, “a second is longer than in Germany?”

The European Way

The interactive capabilities in the cabin are astounding. Everything, including the internet, is on a large flat screen. News, ship’s position, weather, daily program, personal email (each passenger has a private address), movies and music are all available with the press of a button.

Experimenting, I checked my account balance and was surprised to see that we somehow had run up a bill of over 50 Euros. The reception desk trotted out the tally, and apparently someone with a scratch for a signature had charged things to our Suite. This charge was removed, but 2 Euros for water remained. When I tried to explain that the water Michael had was tap water with ice, all I got was a nice smile and a “yes.” I was told that Europeans are used to paying for water. “But,” I said, “it comes out of the tap in my bathroom and is free there.” “Yes,” a German gentleman who overheard said in English, “That’s the European way.” The charge stayed.

Our first night in the Europa Restaurant was the formal “Captain’s Gala Dinner.” In the pre-cruise information, formal meant tuxedo, dinner jacket or smoking jacket; not “dark suit.” A word to the unaware; this is a very formal ship. The dress code “casual” on Europa means jacket, no tie, but most men wear a tie. For the women “casual” simply means elegant.

Dinner was something special. I had caviar (with Russian vodka), creamed watercress soup, small tender scallops perched on Risotto, fried Ox medallions; and for dessert a medley of goodies. Service in the Europa dining room is on the level of a top level alternative dining room with servers both placing and removing the plates in tandem.

Michael asked for a couple of rolls to take to our cabin. Tina, our head server actually wanted to carry them to our cabin for us. Tina also said she heard Michael liked ice water and brought us a large, full pitcher. Michael blanched, and asked the price of the water. Taken aback, she said, a bit defensively, “We don’t charge for water!” We never did get an understanding of the “water” thing, but wherever and whenever we ate on board, a pitcher was waiting at Michael’s place, and our account was not again watered down.

I was also impressed by the extensive and reasonably priced wine list. For those not price impaired, there were a few really good bottles priced at more than $1,000. When we had reservations for our dinners, an English menu was always waiting, but without reservations we were on our own. We dropped in for lunch in the Europa restaurant, and the two servers said they would translate the menu choices. They really tried. Apparently the test that gauges the level of English needed by the Filipino help does not include menu translation. We both think that while “Hello” and “How are you today?” may come easy, translating “white fish, fried or broiled with a curried ham sauce on top, white asparagus, and mashed potatoes” is a bit more challenging. My waiter described the mashed potatoes by saying “potato” and then pounding his fist.

Nevertheless, the food was the best we have had on any ship. As expected there were no English entertainers, but I did attend a performance by Kitty Hoff and her four-piece band. She had a tasty voice and is a semi-jazz singer, but as the songs were all in German, it was hard for me to stay attentive. It is said that she has revived German music, which was all but dead. Who knew? One night I walked past the Clipper lounge around 10 p.m., and a man on stage was singing, “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” The room was completely empty. This guy was definitely not reviving American music.

The captain of Europa made a point of sailing early from Malta to allow for a detour past the newly erupting Mt. Etna. At midnight, through a pair of high-powered German binoculars (available at no charge from the reception desk), I watched the red glow of lava oozing down the side of mountain. Amazing! Two months ago, I was on top of that mountain looking at tendrils of smoke, but no fire.

Announcements from the Captain were always repeated in English, but as we approached Venice, a travel guide was on the speaker system. No English, but we watched passengers rush from one side of the ship to the other as he announced the sights of interest. We rushed with them. I am not sure what we saw, but approaching Venice was impressive.

The day before departure, I checked my account balance for a final time. Oops, there were two 20 Euro charges and another charge for drinks in the piano bar. We had never been in the piano bar. Once again someone used our cabin number, but this time with no signature. The usual procedure on Europa is to make out a chit for what is ordered but not present it for signature. It just makes its way to accounting. I recommend checking account balances often. The two 20 Euro charges were for Turkish visas, and were listed on our account as “Gebuhren Visum.” No problem, but we had no idea that a visa was needed. Maybe one of the announcements in German slipped past us.

As the voyage progressed, we found that many of the German passengers spoke English and were happy to chat. The Hotel Manager said the one thing we should be sure and pass on to Americans was not to be wary of the Germans. We weren’t, and met some charming people.

Berlitz does not exaggerate. Europa is a big step up from any ship we’ve sailed. Even with the language problems, it was a dream cruise. Oh, and should Wascherei appear on your bill, it means “laundry.”

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