The artist-in-residence was puzzled. "What are you English doing on a German ship?" he asked.
We were leaving Barcelona en route to Valencia, Mallorca, Corsica, and Monte Carlo. Our home for the weeklong voyage was the Hapag-Lloyd cruise ship Europa, rated by many as providing the best cruise experience in the world. We had read glowing reviews in guides such as Berlitz, which called it luxury cruising "taken to its highest expression."
Although Europa is based in Hamburg and 90 percent of its customers are from Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, Hapag-Lloyd plans several bilingual itineraries each year and encourages Americans to try a cruise that combines German culture with outstanding cuisine and creature comforts. All the staff is bilingual (at least) and all menus, announcements, and daily event programs are in German and English.
Europa is relatively small for a cruise ship but, at 650 feet, is big enough to easily handle 600 passengers. With only 400 aboard, that translates into large staterooms, most with balconies and all with tub and shower, along with spacious restaurants and public areas where lines and crowds are virtually nonexistent. A crew of 264 provides one of the best staff-passenger ratios at sea.
One cultural difference shows up in Europa's accommodation of smokers. Health concerns familiar to Americans have not yet made the same impression in Germany and second-hand smoke was evident in many areas, including the main dining room and more casual Lido cafe. To its credit, Hapag-Lloyd has banned smoking from the two small specialty restaurants and is planning to do so in all dining venues. But other public areas will still provide ashtrays.
Other than the smoke, first impressions upon embarking in Barcelona were favorable. The restaurants, bars, and lounges were twice the normal height of those found on most ships, making them seem more like grand rooms in a European mansion. Tasteful, subdued colors were in evidence throughout the ship. Particularly noteworthy were the magnificent floral arrangements. Flowers are flown in regularly from Holland and two full-time florists ensure that staterooms and all public areas are filled with blooms. All rooms have state-of-the-art televisions with movies, TV, and audio on demand. A mini-fridge is stocked with complimentary water, beer, and soda. The beds were covered, European style, with thick, fluffy duvets. Golfers have a teaching area and a free high-tech simulator near the well-equipped gym. The swimming pool is narrow but among the longest (60 feet) of any at sea.
This cruise had art as a theme, with several professors, critics, collectors, and well-known artists from Cologne, Berlin, and Vienna on board. Every evening a different artist was featured in the main gallery, and their suites were open during several days for discussions and browsing.
Most of the art lectures were in German, making it difficult for the English speakers to participate. Future bilingual cruises will include food and music as themes with more opportunities to cater to American and British guests.
A voyage on Europa is a cross-cultural education. Germans tend to dress up in the evenings with jackets and ties favored among the men. Two very formal occasions on each cruise encourage elegant gowns and fine jewelry for the women and tuxedos for the men. There are no Las Vegas-style shows; Germans prefer classical music and poetry readings. When Europa entered service in 1999 it had a casino, but it was so little used it was removed and the room became a high-end art gallery and venue for cocktail parties. On the final night, when big cruise lines would feature their most elaborate entertainment, this cruise had a charity auction of the ship's log and route map (after much polite bidding, it sold for an astonishing 16,000 euros - about $22,000) followed by a large crew choir singing German sea shanties.
Tim and Jackie Marshall, who live in Maine and Florida, were on their second Europa cruise. They appreciated the size, service, and cuisine on the ship. "We happen to enjoy the German efficiency and lifestyle," they said, "and find the pace on traditional cruise ships to be too hectic. Here, we can relax."
The subdued and low-key nature of the ship and its passengers was interrupted on just one memorable occasion. The final day's luncheon on the open Lido deck was turned into a traditional German beer garden with an oom-pa-pa band and lively songs, waiters in lederhosen slinging steins of complimentary draft beer and schnapps, and a menu of German sausage, roast suckling pig, veal shank, and sauerkraut. We could have been in Munich.
For the most part, the food and service were on a par with cuisine at the finest European restaurants. Lunch and dinner in the main dining room featured outstanding service and menu choices included delicacies like Iranian sevruga caviar, breast of pheasant, wild rabbit, Mediterranean lamb, and saddle of venison. Fish was fresh and often picked up from vendors in the ports. Also on board was chef Dieter Koschina, an Austrian who runs the only Michelin two-star restaurant in Portugal, on the Algarve. His intriguing fare was featured on the last evening. In addition, diners could enjoy the two specialty restaurants, one with Asian cuisine and the other Italian, at no extra cost.
Sebastian Ahrens, managing director of Hapag-Lloyd Cruises, was on the trip and talked about trying to attract more English speakers. "Germans can be very serious," he said, "and we think the overall cruise product can be enhanced by a better mix."
Michael von Graffenried, the artist-in-residence who first commented on the German-English mix, perhaps said it best. "On this cruise, you're not only in Barcelona or Corsica or Monte Carlo. You're in Germany!"
John and Sandra Nowlan, freelance writers based in Nova Scotia, can be reached at now firstname.lastname@example.org.