A balcony on the MS Europa.
By Dalma Heyn
When I tell you that the MS Europa is the only cruise ship on the high seas awarded not just five stars by the 2010 Berlitz Guide to Cruising and Cruise Ships, but five stars plus, I know what you're going to ask.
"What's the plus for?"
Well, I found out when my husband and I boarded the 480-passenger, 28,890-ton German cruise ship early last November for six days of a 12-day cruise embarking at Barcelona, moving down to Casablanca, and ending up in the Canary Islands. The "plus" begins with lovely particulars like a terrace with every suite (and every cabin IS a suite), inside which is a perfectly appointed bathroom with both bathtub and separate shower, a walk-in closet and a full, free, mini-bar filled nightly with beers, waters, juices, fruits, health bars and candies. It means fascinating, diverse itineraries and, once at a destination, the finest possible shore excursions. A spa that only the finest international hotel could boast. Flexibility in dining choices and hours. But beyond this slew of niceties that you can find out easily on the ship's website, the "plus" refers to a unique onboard lifestyle Berlitz designates as beyond "Luxury" (which is so five star), and dubs "Utterly Exclusive."
Now we're talking touches so subtle and enveloping they're not always discernible to the naked eye, particularly to a journalist, like me, who has been on only two other cruises. (One was in the Luxury category. The other, a student ship on which I traveled as an exchange student, Berlitz might classify as "Dickensian"). To get the plus, as the Europa has for over a decade, you have to show a consistency of old-world elegance that goes way beyond a very high thread count.
A suite on the MS Europa.
And yet, the Europa might well be compared to a couture gown. Just as the hours – no weeks, months – of painstaking hand-stitching lavished on a single frock results in delectable details no one but the seamstresses need point out but which both patron and designer expect, so does a Europa cruise — in this case, beginning in Barcelona and ending in Tenerife – require massive behind-the-scenes and on-deck prep work by a legion of the most highly trained professionals. (Our favorite crew member, the bartender in the cozy Havana Bar, revealed that a curriculum vitae like his own, that boasts three terms on the Europa, is a passport to a career aboard any ship in the world.)
On the dock in Madeira. Photo by Dalma Heyn.
This crew of 213 is bilingual, often multilingual, and as elite as cadets in the Imperial Riding Cavalry Regiment. Their discipline, comportment and discretion reveal a comfort with the kind of passenger who dines regularly at, say, Raffles; who goes across Europe to find a production of The Ring Cycle each season; who has inherited seats at Glyndebourne. They know this traveler likes to get onboard and say, as one contented Englishman told me he does, "Oh Good. For twelve days, everything will be perfect."
Nothing glitzy or overblown taints the uber-good taste of the Europa. Newbie cruisers expecting massive portions and groaning buffet tables had better brush up on their understanding of German haute cuisine. Don't get me wrong: The cuisine in each of its three restaurants is filled with local ingredients and regional dishes (think veal kidneys with a creamy polenta and Madeira-infused creme brulee at the Europa restaurant; a medly of duck delicacies, Asian-fusion style, the night we dined at the Oriental restaurant) is lavish and sublime no matter where it's served (which can be anywhere you like, from poolside to one of the restaurants and, take note, at pretty much any time you want, as well).
In addition to an extensive and well-balanced wine and beer list, thirty wines are available in carafe; and three champagnes–Veuve Clicquot, Taittinger Rose and Duval Leroy – are served by the glass. We dined magnificently and without care on Dibbern china, with 150-gram Robbe and Berking silverware, and wine served in Riedel glasses (even at the pool, plastic is verboten, as are paper napkins and coasters; no matter that each glass must be washed by hand), and didn't gain a pound.
Which brings me to the point: If you like a Cuban cigar with your cognac; if you like a choice of three different textures of sugar served with your tea, and an egg timer to assure precise steeping; if you want your clothes folded by your own butler and placed in your birds-eye maple wood cabinetry; if you prefer eiderdown to mere goose down in your duvets, and like your library (stocked nicely with English-language as well as German books) to be open round the clock; if you want a crew to unobtrusively cater to your every need; then book at once.
If you'd just as soon have a dish of potpourri in your cabin as a real orchid, and won't be happy without a Casino; if evening fun means a singer who sings in English; and bling means somethng more bling-y than what the onboard Wempe Jewelers boasts in its window; then this ambience might feel to you slightly too staid….or perhaps "stately" is the better word. The passenger who wants to go metaphorically overboard might feel here as though he's crashed a party of foreign dignitaries.
Hapag-Lloyd knows this, of course, and so is delicately dipping its toe into the turbulent waters of bilingual crusing. After all, having mastered the tastes of the German ocean-going cruise population which numbered 763,000 last year it can't just immediately zero in on the taste of 11-million boisterous US cruise passengers and then ask the two cultures to agree on the same cabaret act. Over time, our cruise director told us, the line hopes to expand the entertainment and other features on its designated bilingual cruises to embrace both cultures. So, while The Europa appears at first to be the last homogeneous place on the planet, I know it won't be for long.
Until then, the pleasure of such an ambiance, as exotic as it is to travelers used to a more Mediterranean or heterogeneous cruise experience, is that it IS so special; so idiosyncratic. For, isn't the last frontier in cruising a chance to meet people you wouldn't meet elsewhere? Not just more wealthy Americans, but a whole world with which you may be unfamiliar? I suspect the cruise line may come up against German, Austrian, Swiss and even English and American passengers who like things just they way they are. And why wouldn't they? The company represents and understands a way of life, a history. It will be fascinating to see how they incorporate our larger and more diverse culture, and still stay "utterly exclusive."
For more information, visit Hapag-Lloyd Cruises.
DALMA HEYN is the bestselling author of two books on marriage (The
Erotic Silence of the American Wife and Marriage Shock: The
Transformation of Women into Wives) and one on dating (Drama Kings: The
Men Who Drive Strong Women Crazy), now out in paperback. Her travel
articles and essays have appeared in various magazines, including
Travel & Leisure, Conde Nast Traveler and Diversion. She has
appeared both as author and social observer on Oprah!, The Today Show,
Larry King Live, The Charlie Rose Show, and Good Morning America.