Day 1 – Europa 2, Setting Sail

Willkommen an Bord
The best cruise ship that you’ve never heard of: Hapag-Lloyd’s ms Europa 2. © 2014 Ralph Grizzle

Monday, May 12, 2014 — Our Lufthansa flight from Frankfurt touched down at Athens International Airport on schedule, and at around 6 p.m. videographer Chris Stanley and I were wheeling our luggage into the arrivals hall. We sought out our driver, who we found holding a placard with our names inscribed on it. A quick introduction, and we were on our way.

Chris and I were being driven to Hotel Grand Bretagne, where we’d get a night’s rest before boarding Hapag-Lloyd’s ms Europa 2 the next morning. We were guests of the Hamburg, Germany-based cruise line, joining eight other journalists as part of a press trip to familiarize us with what may just be the best ship that most North Americans, even avid cruisers, have never heard of.

World’s Best Small Ship?

Indeed, it is recognition — not product nor product delivery — that ms Europa 2 struggles with. The ship boasts many superlatives — 5 stars plus from the Berlitz Complete Guide To Cruising & Cruise Ships, highest space ratio of all cruise ships, industry’s youngest luxury ship, most dining venues for a ship of its size — and more that you’ll discover as you follow along our voyage this week.

In fact, the Berlitz guide names Europa 2 number one among top small ships, meaning those that carry up to 750 passengers. Europa 2’s predecessor, Europa, occupies the number two spot. But I’m sure that few among you know of either ship. Even experienced cruise sellers back in the United States returned puzzled looks when I told them I’d be sailing on Europa 2.

Chris and I (along with the other journalists on this press trip) are here to interpret the Europa 2 experience and convey it to our readers (and to our viewers) so that they can decide for themselves if Hapag-Lloyd’s luxury ship is something they’d like to experience.

To help you work through that equation yourself, let’s just say for argument’s sake that Europa 2 is the world’s best ship, as the Berlitz guide proclaims. Do you want to experience the best? If so, read on.

First, you should know that there are at least three detractors for some luxury cruisers — although a couple of these actually turn out to be positive factors for some cruisers who have I met over the years.

  1. On Europa 2, smoking is allowed on the verandas and in designated areas in the Jazz Club, Sansibar and on the terrace of the Yacht Club. I know cruisers — smokers obviously — who will be happy to hear this. Non-smokers may be put off. But as a non-smoker myself, the smoking policy on Europa 2 does not bother me. I simply choose not to sit in the smoking areas when I am in these public areas. Have I been exposed to smoke that I found offensive? Yes, when I sat in the wrong section on the Yacht Club terrace for lunch one day. A man at the table next to me was smoking a cigar and the smoke from the cigar was wafting right over my healthy salad. But offensive smoke is a rare occurrence, and to be fair, we were outside and I had seated myself in the wrong section. Europa 2’s smoking policy is something that I can live with.
  2. Europa 2 is not all-inclusive. Of course, this means that you will pay for the booze you consume. Non-drinkers and light imbibers have told me in the past that they are happy not supporting their fellow passengers’ consumption habits. Others, who enjoy all-inclusive cruises, may not appreciate that they’ll need to sign checks and step off the ship with a huge bar tab at the end of the cruise. Prices for alcoholic beverages on Europa 2, however, are reasonable — a mojito, for example, goes for €5.30 (about US$7) and a German beer will only set you back €3 (about US$4). You’ll still get plenty of free booze. There are events where drinks are offered free of charge (such as the Pool Party on the second night of the cruise). Plus, the beer in your mini-bar is complimentary and replenished throughout the cruise. In some suite categories, a selection of high-quality spirits is also included. I have five 375ml to 500ml bottles of spirits that I am free to consume in my stateroom. Still, the trend among North American cruise lines is toward all-inclusive — with Regent being the most inclusive. The new battlefield seems to be in offering free internet among the luxury cruise lines, with Regent and Crystal leading the pack.
  3. Europa 2 is pricey, around $800 per person per day. Is the experience worth it to you? That’s why we’re on board, to convey the experience as accurately as possible so that you may decide for yourself.
Europa 2, Regent Seven Seas
Europa 2’s competitors, like Regent Seven Seas pictured here off our starboard side in the Aegean Sea, are all-inclusive — and cost less on a per-day basis that Europa 2. Still, Europa 2 offers a luxury cruise experience that those who seek the best may want to consider. © 2014 Ralph Grizzle

Before Boarding: A Night At Hotel Grand Bretagne

Hotel Grand Bretagne
Main entrance of Hotel Grand Bretagne. © photo courtesy of Hotel Grand Bretagne

Thirty minutes after leaving the airport, our taxi pulled up in front of the Hotel Grand Bretagne, situated diagonally opposite the Parliament on Constitution Square in Athens. A doorman greeted us and offered to deliver our luggage to our rooms.

The front of the hotel was bustling with people and traffic, as if the Grand Bretagne were the place to be in this great city. We walked through a revolving door and into an expansive and ornate lobby, a gorgeous first impression of this Starwood Group Luxury Hotel Collection property.

Hotel Grand Bretagne Lobby
Lobby at Hotel Grand Bretagne. © photo courtesy of Hotel Grand Bretagne

The Grand Bretagne has quite a history. The hotel received its first visitor in 1874. Since those days, the Grand Bretagne has hosted kings and princes, heads of state, prime ministers and ministers, business tycoons, prominent names in literature and the arts, celebrities and many others who were regular patrons of the hotel.

Adding our names to the distinguished list of past guests, Chris and I checked in and took the elevator up to our respective rooms. Both were identical categories, Deluxe Suites.

Hotel Grand Bretagne Suite 531
Deluxe Suite 531 at what may be the best hotel in Athens, Greece: Hotel Grand Bretagne © 2014 Ralph Grizzle

The rooms were gorgeous, and spacious, measuring more than 500 square feet each and featuring a pair of chandeliers, original artwork and antique furnishings provided by Christie’s and Sotheby’s. Both suites featured foyers, small living rooms, bedrooms and marble bathrooms with double vanity counters, separate bathtubs and large showers.

Hotel Grand Bretagne Suite 531
Big marble bathroom in Deluxe Suite 531 at Hotel Grand Bretagne © 2014 Ralph Grizzle

Reading some of the hotel’s literature, I learned that in the 1800s, the Grand Bretagne’s first advertisement boasted: “Prices are the usual ones and very advantageous. All guests can remain assured their every wish will be met.”

Hotel Grand Bretagne, Alexander's Bar
Alexander’s Bar at Hotel Grand Bretagne. © photo courtesy of Hotel Grand Bretagne

Though renovated and expanded many times during its history, the Grand Bretagne began to show fatigue as it entered the current millennium. The property was closed, and in 2002 re-opened after a renovation that restored it to its former glory at a cost of €82 million (US$112 million).

Reconstructed from top to bottom, the Grand Bretagne now features 290 rooms and 31 suites, all of them refurbished and redecorated in keeping with the old Grande Bretagne’s traditional style. The property also has three restaurants, bars and lounges, two swimming pools, a spa, spacious halls and conference rooms.

The highlight during our stay was dinner (and breakfast) at the Roof Garden Restaurant. In the open-air rooftop setting, we dined that evening and the next morning against a backdrop featuring the Acropolis, the ancient citadel of Athens, perched on a hilltop.

The Parthenon, the most prominent structure at the Acropolis, was beautifully illuminated during the evening and sunlit during the morning. Dinner here could go down as one of the world’s most romantic experiences — but, of course, I was with Chris.

Hotel Grand Bretagne's Roof Garden Restaurant
Best seats in Athens at Hotel Grand Bretagne’s Roof Garden Restaurant & Bar © 2014 Ralph Grizzle
Hotel Grand Bretagne's Roof Garden Restaurant
The view from my breakfast table at Hotel Grand Bretagne © 2014 Ralph Grizzle

Our stay at Grand Bretagne was enjoyable and a harbinger of things to come. Moritz Krause, corporate communications manager for Hapag-Lloyd Cruises and our host for this voyage, told us on the transfer to the port for Athens: “Hapag-Lloyd has two luxury ships — Europa and the Europa 2. You’ve just experienced what the Europa is like. Now you’re going to experience Europa 2.”

He was alluding to the elegant and formal Grand Bretagne with its antiques and Old World decor, correlating it with the experience on the classic Europa. The Grand Bretagne and Europa are in the same league.

Europa 2, by contrast, is ultra-modern and casual. There’s no captain’s dinner, no tie required at any time, no stuffiness or pretense. The ship itself is spacious, light and airy, relaxed and with the high service standards found on the world’s best cruise lines.

Twenty minutes later, as we pulled up in front of the terminal, the sense of anticipation was palpable. We gathered our things and trundled off the bus, eager to step aboard and experience what Moritz was describing, a ship that has been hailed as the world’s best small luxury vessel.

Boarding ms Europa 2

MS EUROPA 2, Europa 2, crew
A warm welcome: The crew of Hapag-Lloyd’s ms Europa 2. Photo courtesy Hapag-Lloyd Cruises

But this was not my first time aboard Europa 2. Nor was it my second. This would mark my third time aboard. How so?

Hapag-Lloyd is eager to attract the attention of the U.S. market, and the company is reaching out to websites like mine to come aboard and report to our readers. My first trip was a one-nighter. It was like an amuse bouche that precedes dinner, except I had to leave before the main course. The main course came on the second trip, a five-day sailing from Malta.

On those press trips, I conveyed Europa 2’s story to the best of my abilities, and indeed, there was a lot of interest — and many questions — among and from Avid Cruiser readers. Some took the plunge and cruised Europa 2. I heard back from a few of them, and in general, they told me they were pleased with the experience.

Currently, U.S. travelers make up only about 5 percent of Europa 2’s passenger mix. The rest of the mix is comprised of different nationalities, though primarily German and German-speaking travelers.

Hapag-Lloyd has set its sights on attracting enough passengers from the U.S. market to make up 10 percent to 15 percent of its passenger mix. The question for many of you who may be reading this is, “Will I feel comfortable on a German ship that is not all-inclusive and at the higher end of the pricing spectrum?”

Of course, language and culture are issues for some travelers. With regard to language, you can scratch that one off the list as a concern. Though there are the occasional oversights, nearly all signage and documentation published on board are in both English and German. The “Programme of the Day,” for example, is delivered to staterooms and suites each evening, in either English or German, depending on your preference. All staff speaks English, and in fact, seems to enjoy doing so. Some speak better English than the folks I encounter back home in North Carolina.

Still, even with the familiar language, Europa 2 is unlike anything that most cruisers have experienced. The ship is stunning, closer to Seabourn’s Nordic aesthetic perhaps than it would be to any other luxury cruise ships. There is generous use of limestone and light woods. The vessel is quality through and through. Not one thing about Europa 2 looks as though it were compromised out of consideration of costs — and cost-cutting — which, unfortunately, you may find on some of today’s North American-managed cruise ships.

It was nearing 11 a.m. We were walked through the terminal by an escort from InterCruises, a Barcelona-based company that handles ground operations for many cruise lines. We cleared security, and within five minutes of entering the terminal, we were walking up the gangway.

At the top of the gangway, Cruise Director Christian Bertram extended a hand and greeted us warmly. We proceeded to the expansive reception area, where impeccably dressed German staff offered cool wet cloths so that we could refesh ourselves, glasses of champagne (or water) and canapés.

Boarding for the other guests, the paying passengers, was at 4 p.m., later than on most luxury cruise ships. Our press group came on early to tour a few of the 251 suites, including the Owner’s Suite and the Grand Penthouse Suite on deck 10, before those were occupied. I’ll tell you more about the suites in the coming days.

After touring the suites, we sat down for lunch in one of Europa 2’s seven restaurants, Serenissima, a specialty restaurant featuring Italian cuisine (at no extra charge.) I enjoyed an antipasti starter, followed by creamy chick pea soup and the main course, Chilean sea bass. I finished it off with a lemon sorbet.

Afterward, Chris and I went to work filming the suites and other parts of Europa 2 while our group traveled back into Athens for a tour of the Acropolis and the new museum there.

When we finished filming, I checked into my suite on deck 6. I would spend my week on board in a Spa Suite, 646, a category that emphasizes “wellness with an ocean view,” according Hapag-Lloyd literature. I’ll dig into the meaning of that phrase this week and report back to you on it.

ms Europa 2 Spa Suite
My Spa Suite 646 on ms Europa 2. © 2014 Ralph Grizzle

My Spa Suite measures more than 450 square feet, with separate living and sleeping areas (divided by attractive wood horizontal slatting), and a bathroom with a large window that allows for sea views from the whirlpool tub. The window can be shaded for privacy. There’s a rainforest shower that doubles as a sauna, dual vanity, and a separate bathroom with a toilet and sink.

My veranda is perhaps the most functional I’ve experienced on a ship. I stepped out through a sliding glass door into the rectangular space (perfect for tables and chairs and chaise lounges). Measuring more than 100 square feet, the veranda was perhaps 15 feet wide by 6.5-feet deep. This is a veranda for living, whereas the verandas on many ships I’ve cruised are for occasional sitting.

ms Europa 2 veranda
Dinner on the veranda as Europa 2 sails from Athens, Greece. © 2014 Ralph Grizzle

Testing that theory, I went out on my veranda to enjoy dinner as we sailed from Piraeus at 10 p.m. I sat there for a couple of hours enjoying a meal and a German beer. At some point I began to see a shimmer of light on the sea. A full moon, silhouetting the rolling hills across the sea, illuminated the rippling water that was washing past Europa 2’s hull.

Moonlight, Europa 2
From my veranda, moonlight on the sea. © 2014 Ralph Grizzle

I left the veranda shortly after midnight. “Gute Nacht/Good Night” read the healthy before-bed treat that the room attendant had left on my pillow. With ingredients of almonds, cranberry and sesame, the treat proved to be a tasty mix. As I thought back on my day and prepared for bed, I wondered if mixing German language and culture with American language and culture would work? Are my readers willing to pay the higher price to cruise on Europa 2? Is it something I could recommend or do I feel as though I would be doing them a disservice by doing so? I have a few days to find the answers to these questions.

Europa 2, Gute Nacht
German and English, a good mix? © 2014 Ralph Grizzle

Europa 2, Greece to Malta

DAYPORTARRIVEDEPART
May 13, 2014Athens (Piraeus), GreeceEmbark EUROPA 222:00
May 14Nauplia, Peloponnese, Greece07:0021:00
May 15Relaxation at Sea
May 16Kerkyra, Corfu, Greece08:0017:00
May 17Syracuse, Sicily, Italy13:0022:00