Posted on Wednesday, November 3, 2010 by Peter Knego
Embark Hapag-Lloyd’s legendary MV EUROPA with Peter Knego for a short, sometimes stormy passage between Piraeus and Trabzon. EUROPA has won Berlitz’ “Best Ship Of The Year” Award for the eleventh time in a row and is considered by many to be the finest passenger ship in the world. Come see what cruising is like in the lap of German luxury.
MV EUROPA Eastbound: Five Plus Stars For Five Nights
Sunday, October 24, 2010
To actually sail in Hapag-Lloyd Cruises’ MV EUROPA was a dream long in the making. The name, alone, is legendary for anyone who fancies ocean liners. From the Blue-Ribband-holding, Bauhaus Norddeutscher Lloyd schneldampfer of 1929 to the perfectly proportioned post war former KUNGSHOLM of 1953 and the modern, purpose-built flagship of 1981, the name EUROPA is a proud and prestigious symbol of German maritime tradition. The latest incarnation, a sleek, 28,890 gt, 408 passenger vessel, has just been awarded the highest possible “five plus stars” for the eleventh year in a row by Berlitz and has been bestowed with similar honors from most major cruise guides since her debut in 1999.
The EUROPA shared Piraeus port with the 90,000 gt mass market Royal Caribbean BRILLIANCE OF THE SEAS and the sleek, premium REGATTA of Oceania Cruises. Hapag’s distinguished royal blue and orange livery makes the ship instantly recognizable in a sea of navy blue and white cruise line colors. EUROPA also sports Hapag’s handsome Hanseatic League bow crest.
Although she is under 30,000 gross tons, the ship has lofty public rooms, including a multi-level entrance lobby and twin glass elevators that traverse decks 3 to 10.
At embarkation, a pianist plays and freshly poured champagne is presented to each arriving guest.
After a quick and seamless check in at the Europa Lounge show room on forward Deck 4, a line of stewardesses is on hand to escort guests to their suites.
Ours was spacious, 291 square foot verandah suite 612 on forward/port deck 6. With a walk-in closet, abundant dresser and console storage space, a flat screen television, separate sitting area with sofa and marble-surfaced bathroom with tub and separate shower, it would be more than an ample home for the next five nights.
Even the television was anticipating our arrival. During the next few days, we would enjoy its highly detailed satellite “ship position” and weather features.
A small bottle of chilled Piper-Heidseik, fresh flowers and…
a frosted glass tray of “perfect” strawberries and a white chocolate wafer greeted us.
Our balcony was commodious with a cushioned deck chair, two chairs and a small table. It did not get much use, due to somewhat inclement weather but would be a heavenly retreat in the right circumstances.
EUROPA’s amenities are among the most comprehensive I have seen on any ship, including shampoo, conditioner, lotion, bath gel, cotton swabs, cotton balls, shower caps, loofa sponges, band aids, wipes for glasses and more.
It was a challenge to document the parts of the ship that were not filled with passengers. Although EUROPA will be fully covered in a separate Decked! feature, my favorite space is probably the Clipper Bar on starboard Deck 4 with its soaring ceiling, picture windows, sailing ship models and large dance floor.
Although the EUROPA is a German ship and offers a luxury German cruise lifestyle, she is very welcoming to Americans and other nationalities. There is even an English section in her well-equipped Library and all of the staff and officers speak English (as do most passengers).
After settling in, I had some time to run back ashore to the Piraeus cruise terminal (where there is free and relatively fast wifi) and work on the prior Sea Trek as the brightly lit EUROPA loomed overhead. My traveling companion Mike had a fish wife moment on our balcony when he shouted down to me that it was time to go to dinner.
It would be impossible to write in much depth about life on the EUROPA without illustrating the truly gourmet dining experiences. There are four eating venues, from the “casual” (although nothing is really “casual” on this ship) Lido on aft Deck 8 to the elegantly-chandeliered Europa Restaurant on aft Deck 4 and two smaller a la carte venues, the brand new Dieter Muller and Venezia (Italian), on either side of its main entrance.
I am told I am one of the first journalists to get to experience recently-installed 26 seat Dieter Muller’s “farm to plate” experience, which replaced an Asian venue. Dieter Muller is one of only about ten German chefs to have achieved a three star Michelin rating and he considers the MV EUROPA his new culinary “home base”, spending 72 days per year on the ship.
Once I had informed maitre’d Kai Schmidt that I would like the vegetarian option, within moments, he appeared with a specially-printed vegetarian menu in English. Quite a feat with little or no notice but nothing on EUROPA seems impossible or even difficult with what must be the most well-trained, disciplined and helpful staff on the seven seas.
As Kai enthusiastically explained, there are no less than three butter options for the delicious, freshly-baked breads, including a pesto and creamy tomato/garlic spread.
As the venue has only been in operation for three weeks, I was the first “vegetarian” to sample its wares. Mine was tomato and red leaf lettuce in a homemade dressing that was as tasty as the oversized honeycomb platter was eye-catching.
Oceania’s neighboring REGATTA made a twinkling departure shortly after our dinner began at 8:00 PM.
The lemongrass and curry soup was served in a cup, to be drank “cappuccino” style. It was magnificently pungent and had my companion Mike almost wishing he had gone “veggie” with his meal.
There is no shortage of truffles on the EUROPA and I certainly had no problem with that. My next course was the truffle fettuccini appetizer.
The sorbet palette cleanser came with a fresh dousing of Piper champagne.
My entree was a poached egg atop a fragrant parmesan risotto. Absolutely delicious and beautifully presented, too.
Dessert was a lovely layered mousse. Although portions were not overwhelming, there was no confusing Dieter with “dieter” on the EUROPA.
Although Mr. Muller was not on board for this cruise, his associate, Vivien Kruligk, was the chef in charge of all things Dieter Muller. The amiable lady came round to each table to thank everyone for coming and to get feedback on their dining experience. She took special interest in my case as I was her first veggie guest and she wanted to make sure every course was to satisfaction.
But of course, the EUROPA dining experience would not be complete without a final course of Petits Fours. Kai explained the contents of each of three types of chocolate truffles but that delectable information has long since dissolved from both palette and memory.
Although the scheduled departure time was 10:00 PM, EUROPA’s lines were cast and she was well under way by 9:45.
There was a nice calm break in the weather, allowing us a chance to wander EUROPA’s beautiful upper deck areas as she glided out of Piraeus and along the coast of Athens. Despite her “pre-punctual” departure, she was in no particular hurry as she made a leisurely 6 or so knot speed in an easterly direction.
The large midships pool is cleverly situated in both the open air and under a magrodome which can be retracted to fully expose the pool, if so desired.
One last view from atop the ship’s “clothing optional” sunbathing area just forward of the funnel, the FKK Deck.
Monday, October 25, 2010
Perfect mattresses, soft high percale sheets, down pillows — almost all the elements for a perfect sleep were at hand. Alas, there was a familiar culprit — duvets — so temptingly soft and alluring but incinerating after just a few minutes. They inevitably create a night of tossing them off and then scrambling for them when it gets too cold, only to be tossed off in a relentless cycle. I asked our stewardess for two blankets, instead, and the request, like most on the EUROPA, was met with, “Of course! Right away…”
Hapag offers breakfast in the EUROPA’s Lido until a wonderfully accommodating 11:00 AM.
I began with a refreshing pot of green tea as our elegant ship glided through the still waters caressing the backsides of Mykonos and Delos. The sun was out and it was a perfect day to be on the Aegean Sea.
Although I am not a breakfast person, my prior cruise on WIND SPIRIT and now EUROPA were conspiring to change that. The choices were mind and belly boggling, from freshly baked breads…
…to cereals. One can never go wrong in Germany with muesli.
But wait, there’s cheese for the breads…
And cold cuts to go with the cheeses….
And crackers to pleasingly confound and confuse. Do I put the cheese on crackers or bread?
And the fruits, including papaya, cantaloupe, watermelon, two types of kiwi….
And eggs! Of course, one of the wonderful wait staff will take your order for an omelet but if you want a boiled egg, please specify how many minutes you prefer first…
Salmon, herring, fish and sauces of all colors and consistency.
Not to mention natural yogurts (nothing in a plastic container with a list of chemical ingredients here), home made jams and marmalades (six flavors), a choice of sugars for coffee or tea and various seeds, dried fruits and grains for toppings.
On the prior cruise, the ship hit extraordinarily rough seas coming in to Piraeus. A door by the pool area on port Deck 8 was shattered. But not for long. By day’s end, it had been replaced.
At midday, the sun was hitting the pool area just perfectly. I grabbed the cameras and snapped away, hoping I might have a chance to lie out in one of those sumptuous deck chairs before the cruise was over.
I returned to the cabin, thinking the light on the ship’s superstructure would be perfect for one of my signature fo’c’sle adventures but was beat to the punch by a phone call from the International Hostess, Susanne David. I had requested a visit to the fo’c’sle the prior day and she had just heard from the bridge that now would be a perfect time for me to go there, provided I was ready to do so. A few minutes later, I met Susanne and a deck officer who led us out there. The “face” was perfectly lit!
And then, through the bulwarks, with video and tautly-wrapped digital camera for a shot of the lovely bulbous bow cutting through the Aegean. The only thing missing was a school of dolphins…
Since we went a bit crazy with our late breakfast, it was hard to even consider having lunch but lunch time it was. In the Europa Restaurant, I asked for the vegetarian menu, which was immediately brought to me in English (considering there were only ten English-speaking people on the ship and I was the only one going even partially “veggie”, this was quite amazing). There are new menus printed with different artwork every day, so it is not as though these were just sitting around.
I ordered a delicious parmesan-drenched tagliatelle entree.
And, for the sake of non-veggies, Mike got a beautiful fried salmon, which was rather like fish and chips with a German twist.
Aside from the excellent cuisine, the dining experience on EUROPA is utter elegance afloat. Polished silver chargers topped with knitted doilies, Riedel stemware, china plates with the ship’s name always served in the 12:00 position, heavy silver plate cutlery, starched linen napkins. And each course is delivered simultaneously, timed with precision by the wait staff, who whip off the silver domes in unison to reveal the latest work of culinary art. Never intrusive or hovering, they watch from afar to make sure every detail is tended to and return tableside to anticipate any question, some coffee, you name it…
And coffee, it was. I marveled at all the shapes and sizes of EUROPA china, including special espresso cups and saucers.
The first full day on board EUROPA went like a pleasant dream — all too quickly! I never managed to lay out by the pool in one of those comfy deck chairs but got much of the ship photographed, managed to squeeze in a nice workout in the gym overlooking the pool, while running out every few minutes to capture a new shade of sunset over the magrodome.
We spent a delightful evening with our young, soft-spoken hostess, Suzanne, who kept asking if there was anything we needed. Her level of attentiveness to the English-speaking guests was nothing short of exemplary. When there was no English version of the vegetarian menu in the Venezia Restaurant, she insisted on translating the German one for me and then having it specially printed. It was delivered to our cabin the next morning with a special note.
There were no Broadway shows or Cirque-inspired feats on this gala evening. Instead, a pianist tinkled Gershwin, Dean Martin and Ella Fitzgerald songs in the atrium as beautifully-dressed passengers lined up to greet the EUROPA’s charismatic Captain Damashke and then enjoy a cocktail on him in the Europa Lounge as the orchestra played. Uber genteel and civilized…
Tuesday, October 26, 2010
When we awoke at 9:00 AM, EUROPA was already tied up in Marmaris, Turkey. From our balcony, I had a great view of the yacht harbor and the handsome THOMSON CELEBRATION (ex NOORDAM) in wet dock behind us.
The gloomy weather was perfect for blogging, so I set out for a cafe with a good wifi connection and some Turkish coffee. I found what I wanted in the friendly Netsel Marina, where I drained the computer battery for some four hours before wandering into the beautiful seaside town.
What a beautiful setting, with its green mountains, sheltered bay, pleasing architecture and stone fortresses. I hope to get a chance to return someday and really explore.
After I walked the entire loop around the harbor, there was an interesting bronze statue dedicated to seafarers across from the yacht harbor entrance.
The lighting on the THOMSON CELEBRATION was just about perfect but the line up of gullets on the edge of the quay made it very difficult to get a photo. As I leaned hither and thither, pointing my camera in all directions, the owner of one beautifully varnished gullet invited me on board to take the perfect view.
Of course, my mind was already made up about the people of Marmaris but they say the perfect litmus of cultural kindness is how animals are treated. I have never seen a sign directing people to a “cat feeding ground”. Amazing.
I anticipated getting back to EUROPA so I could actually get a good view of her in sunlight. But when I returned, a ferry was in the way. I went on board and got carried away with a room service order of insalata caprese and spaghetti al oglio, enjoyed on my balcony, then ran back ashore, much to the security guard’s chagrin, just a few moments before EUROPA cast her lines for my coveted view of her in the sun.
Another slightly early departure. EUROPA pivoted around, slid past the THOMSON CELEBRATION and sailed majestically into the narrow strait at the harbor entrance, past a small flotilla of sailboats. Before long, we were passing Rhodes and the sun was setting once more on a lovely day in the realm of a very special ship.
Even on casual/elegant night, it was a delight to look around the dining room at the chic, well-dressed clientele. The woman with square green polka dot glasses wearing a silk, highly tailored silver Chanel coat. Another slightly heavy set lady with a bone structure and smile that defied the ages. The tanned man across from us in the perfetcly-pressed, salmon-colored satin coat with a rainbow tie. The distinguished middle aged couple who must have been celebrities since it seemed whenever they entered a room, there was a hushed silence. I don’t recall such fascinating people-watching on a ship in a very, very long time. I think the ROTTERDAM (V) may have been the last vessel with such an eclectic and fascinating mix but, unlike the ROTTERDAM, none of these people seemed to mind us being in their world the slightest bit…
Wednesday, October 27, 2010
As the third morning progressed, EUROPA began to move a bit more fluidly. Ironically, I joked that my Antarctica cruise on the dashing MV DISCOVERY (ex ISLAND PRINCESS) might have actually “cured” me of my wobbly sea legs. An hour or so later, while peering over the starboard rail, the backlit DISCOVERY sailed past in a sea of gold.
The English speaking passengers were offered a bridge tour at 10:00 AM. I must say, this was one of the most comprehensive and informative bridge tours I have ever attended. The staff captain showed us every important instrument on the console and even brought out dry dock images of the azipods to explain their function in detail.
In his morning announcement, Captain Damashke advised the weather would be changing this afternoon and that there would be chances of rain showers and Force 8 winds.
On the windy starboard wing, the sun was engaged in a losing battle with the clouds and, as we approached the Dardanelles, the seas became more turbulent.
When we finished up in the bridge, Mike and I headed to aft Deck 8 for a round of shuffleboard on the EUROPA’s beautifully maintained teak decks.
I can’t recall my last attempt at the game but was not surprised that my competitive companion established an instant lead. On the EUROPA, shuffleboard is taken quite seriously and a few fellow passengers gathered to cheer us on.
I was a bit embarrassed to play in front of anyone but somehow managed to wrestle the game from Mike and came out the winner. Next player…
Venezia was booked up for the next few nights, so maitre’d Adriano, who hails from Calabria, suggested we come to lunch there. Mike had gotten into a very intense game of chess up in the Library and the seas were not conducive to my empty stomach, so I began solo with the antipasti of marinated veggies in balsamic vinegar.
My cravings for extra virgin olive oil were answered immediately with a long, steady pour into a gorgeous plate. Like the other two dining venues, Venezia sports its own special and very opulent china.
Venezia has somehow transformed tomato soup from ordinary course to sublime delicacy. Mine was delivered with an isthmus of parmesan just as the Gallipoli monument appeared in the full length windows. We were in the Dardanelles.
I asked for a main course of spaghetti with pomodoro sauce (not on the menu, by the way), which came with another healthy dousing of the good old reggiano parmesan.
And I soon learned that the meter tall pepper mill on display at the entrance to Venezia was no mere prop.
Defeated in chess as well as shuffleboard, Mike joined me just as my dessert arrived, a dollup of vanilla bean ice cream and the berries of perfection.
When I went up on deck to photograph Canakkale, I could not believe how cold it was — the temperature had dropped fifteen to twenty degrees in a mere two hours. The wind was wicked and the rain had begun to pour.
Although it was sheer gluttony to consider, I made sure to go to the afternoon tea in the Belvedere Lounge. Not only would it provide a forward facing view of the oncoming ships in the narrow Dardanelles, I could further “pad” my stomach in case of mal de mer.
Tea on the EUROPA is a delicate, delicious art. Of course, there are freshly made and beautifully presented cakes and tarts to choose from, served on dainty china plates.
But the actual art of tea is a practice taken quite seriously on the ship. One can choose from a couple dozen types of tea leaves, which are brought over with a timer so that one can remove the leaves precisely before it takes on “an unpleasant taste”. An accompanying bowl is where one should place the discarded leaves, although I must admit on my first visit to the Belvedere, I mistakenly used it to hold a cake or two.
I loved the little silver plate hourglass with the intense blue sand but did not agree with its tea timing. I like my tea, especially if it is green, to be rich.
I’m not a sugar person but it was hard to not be tempted by all of EUROPA’s sweet options.
Of course, as we entered the stormy Sea of Marmara, I was in the cabin, taking stock of my somewhat wobbly sea legs. When I looked up, there was the very Royal and Viking looking ALBATROS (2) nosing her way westbound, presumably having departed Istanbul in the morning. How nice to see my old childhood “friends”, the DISCOVERY (ex ISLAND PRINCESS) and the ALBATROS (ex ROYAL VIKING SEA) on the same day!
Our early evening workout was with a dramatic view through watery, reflection-streaked windows, followed by a wonderful swim. I lasted outside the Magrodome for about ten seconds before making a retreat under its shelter. The pool is filled with sea water that is heated to, as one would expect, the perfect temperature. Not a shock to get into and not too warm to be refreshing.
The Turkish “Ethno Dinner” in the Lido was not quite up to the same snuff as our other meals had been. The chefs seemed strangely out of their element with simple dishes like hummus and the selections were far and few between for anyone who does not eat red meat. Still, the lamb (I am told), the service and the festive ambiance were non-pareil.
Although we wanted to have a beer on the open terrace overlooking the stern, the weather was not accommodating. Instead, we sat in the smoky, atmospheric Sansibar, where I drank a deliciously cold Becks and nibbled on olives, chips and other savories. The man next to us laughed as he offered his bowl of chips and then engaged us in conversation. He introduced us to several friends who were very happy to hear we were enjoying the EUROPA. Although the man, whose name I somehow never got, had cruised often in other top rated ships like the SEABOURN SOJOURN and SEVEN SEAS MARINER, he was most fond of his “home at sea”, the EUROPA. “She may not be the newest and fanciest but she is still the best in many ways.”
Just as there has been on line, on board, there was talk of a “new” EUROPA. According to several sources, Hapag very much wants to build a larger ship with an additional deck and a capacity closer to 500 passengers. Suites would overall be larger, more in line with the current EUROPA’s Deck 10 accommodation and the new ship would employ slightly more advanced pod propulsion. Securing a loan for a Euro 250 million luxury ship is the challenge. If the project does come to fruition, the ideal yard under consideration is Meyer Werft if a slot becomes available.
Our next destination was the Europa Lounge to see the five Munich-based guest musicians, Gitanes Blondes, perform. A far cry from the Broadway revues and revolving stages with LED screens of my home waters, it was a genteel experience to sit in the spacious room and watch as a low-key but talented troupe of young artists played classical and folk music. And dare I add, the accordion was (seriously) wonderful! Another Becks, please…
We entered the Bosporus around 12:30 AM but the torrent and chill on deck were such that I decided to lie in the cabin with the curtains open and watch the dramatically-lit European shores of Istanbul pass by. I was in an alpha state as the Dolmabache and Cirigan Palaces and Rumeli Fortress gave way to the twinkling lights of the first Bosporus Bridge. Up in the Belvedere Lounge, a special snack was being prepared as the cruise director narrated the sights, which Mike said were hard to make out through the rain-drenched windows. I think the recess of the balcony worked to my sleepy benefit in this case….
Thursday, October 28, 2010
So, was it last night’s Becks or the ship’s tossing about in Force 8 seas that had me feeling queasy during our engine room tour? Whatever, it was a great privilege to join the other English-speaking guests for our behind the scenes look at EUROPA.
Spotless, as one would expect. EUROPA’s two pairs of MAN diesels can propel her pods at a stately 17 knot cruising speed and a maximum of 21 knots.
When we returned to the cabin to stow the cameras, the phone rang. “Mr. Knego, would you and Mr. Masino be available to have an impromptu lunch with Captain Damashke in Venezia?” The erudite and charismatic captain regaled us with his many adventures, including scuba dives and zodiac expeditions to the far reaches of the planet. A fantastic time was had by all, including a wonderful couple from the U.K.’s Shetland Islands: James, a retired architect, and Mary, a grief counselor. Not frequent cruisers, they had discovered the EUROPA quite by accident. James is a dialysis patient and was advised by his doctors that EUROPA had the best facility on the seven seas. Mary’s only complaint about the ship was that she was not used to having people (ie the staff) do so much for her.
After lunch, a bit wobbly from EUROPA’s Force 8 assault, I retreated to the cabin and a more seaworthy horizontal position. I couldn’t believe the spray was at times completely obliterating the view from our balcony.
I did manage to get down to the Clipper Bar for the 4:00 PM Schwarzes Kameel event. The celebrated Viennese Coffee Restaurant, Deli and Coffee Shop (translated as “Black Camel”) is considered one of Austria’s finest, having been established in 1618. Throughout this cruise, they would be holding culinary demonstrations and events — today’s was focused around their fine coffees, desserts and chocolates. The last thing my stomach needed was that powerful and delicious espresso with whipped cream, let alone the selection of gourmet chocolates it was fed.
The elegant hostess (think a stylish, poised Austrian Dianne Keaton) from Schwarzes Kameel circulated the room, offering guests additional chocolates and other treats like a layered mousse that “must be eaten vertically and not from the top down to savor the union of flavors”. Throughout the indulgence, we enjoyed the company of Mary and James from the U.K.
Alas, the pool was drained, so there would be no more sloshing about underneath the Magrodome on our final night aboard the EUROPA.
Friday, October 29, 2010
I was actually happy that our arrival in the eastern Anatolian port of Trabzon was delayed from 9:00 AM until early afternoon by the rough seas. We had a couple more hours to enjoy the fine ship and her magnificent staff and crew. As we approached Trabzon’s hilly, industrial skyline awash in the grim weather, my views were reinforced.
An interesting trio of aged ferries were tied up just ahead of where the EUROPA would berth. Unlit and silent, they looked like a backdrop in a “Bourne Identity” film.
One, the APOLLONIA II, was of particular interest and was clearly one of the pioneering Scandinavian ferries of the mid-1960s whose design would lead to NCL’s SUNWARD, and eventually the first generation cruise ships and the modern cruise era. I confirmed this with a quick check on Fakta Om Fartyg. She was Moltzar Line’s 2,498 TRAVEMUNDE of 1964 and now operates between Trabzon and Sochi.
After one final lunch in the Europa Restaurant, we left the elegant and highly refined world of the EUROPA and stepped off the gangway into Trabzon. From the fine china with swimming fish to a rainy, grim place that just smells like fish.
It was a gloomy afternoon on the other side of the world.
After being screened by the local customs and police, who demanded we open all of our bags as the theme from “Midnight Express” looped through my brain, we climbed into a taxi and sped off to the friendly, well-equipped Novotel Hotel. Our EUROPA adventure had come to an end.
Special thanks: Martin Cox, Captain Damashke, Susanne David, Cindy Tanenbaum
End of MV EUROPA Eastbound: Five Plus Stars For Five Nights