Europa 2, The Verdict: A Pretty Nice Ship

Billed as “the best cruise ship in the world”, the bar was set high.  I knew that going in.  Also known, a number of respected sources did tag Hapag-Lloyd Cruises Europa 2 as tops, above all other ships sailing.  Indeed, on a brief preview sailing completed recently, we found the German-owned and operated luxury cruise ship to be a stunning piece of hardware.  Add on a pleasant, helpful, courteous, and kind multi-lingual crew to operate the 500-passenger ship and all should be right with the world.  Thumbs up? Yes. ” The best cruise ship in the world?”  Not so much.

Europa 2 Interior - 013

Awkwardly Inclusive

At this point in the profile, I thought I would have thrown around descriptions that include ‘fabulous’, ‘beautiful’ and even ‘magnificent’ to get the ball of compliments rolling.  Indeed, if Europa 2 was the only ship of its kind going after the luxury market segment of the cruise industry, those descriptors might fit like a glove. But haughty Hapag-Lloyd is not alone in a rather small pool of vessels catering to luxury travelers willing to pay a premium price to sail the seven seas. Along with that willingness to pay comes an expectation of inclusion that Europa 2 hits right on the money in some areas, but not all.

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One would reasonably expect a luxury cruise line to avoid coming anywhere close to nickel and diming their guests.  Europa 2 embraces the concept in a number of odd ways.  A good German pilsner beer in the stateroom mini-bar; complimentary and that mini- bar is refilled twice daily.  Have one anywhere else on the ship, at any time; €1 each.  A silly pittance of a charge that would be a great value if it was on a big ship cruise line with ala carte pricing.  On a luxury cruise experience, chosen by the well-traveled clientele, it’s just odd.

Europa 2 Staterooms - 12

Stranger yet a premium price for bottled water: €4.60 for a .5 liter bottle of Evian.  But now we start to dabble in German vs. North American tastes/wants/desires/behavior which may help make sense of it all.  Free-flowing water at meals is just not a thing they do on Europa 2.  Initially the thought crosses one’s mind ‘Are Germans the most dehydrated people of the world?’ as servers reluctantly dole out tap water like it is liquid gold.  Trying to make sense of it all, I recall learning a few lessons about water while on a river cruise.  Water, it seems, was so contaminated in the olden days of Germany that drinking beer instead was a safer option, and many did.  Perhaps the careful measurement and charging of water rations harkens back to those days.

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Those same beer-drinking people of yesteryear are very much present at Europa 2’s aft night spot lounge until late at night.  Lots of them.  On a number of other luxury lines, roll up the carpet and turn out the lights: those venues are dead after 10PM. Even at €1 each, maybe that consumption adds up to a hefty profit?  Perhaps if the €1 charge were absent, the luxury cruise travelers would turn into raving maniacs? I doubt both scenarios.

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A Comfortable Passenger Mix, The Staff Not So Much

What we found was a ship full of very nice, affluent German-speaking passengers who appeared to be cut from the same cloth and from a similar economic background as passengers on other luxury lines we have sailed recently.  These are not binge drinkers out for a booze cruise.   I asked a few Hapag-Lloyd Cruises guests if the charge bothered them and almost universally got an ‘it is what it is’ sort of reply with an occasional roll of the eyes.  It’s just how they do it there.

HL Crew - 01

Interestingly, even the German cruise market has figured out their version of booze smuggling. Eager-to-please cabin attendants remove what their passengers don’t want among the selection of bottled beverages in the mini-bar and cram it with individual passenger favorites.  Twice a day.

So all is well on the Europa 2 for passengers who have figured out the system and used it to their advantage, something your average North American cruise traveler would take all of 7 seconds to calculate.  What appears to be an odd system of operation compared to other luxury lines continues in other areas as well.

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Going To Dinner? Bring A Book

Ample time between courses is always appreciated in the world of fine dining.  We want to savor every morsel and engage in lively conversation with our well-traveled table mates.  Until we fall asleep, become bored or just get ravenously hungry between soup and salad.

Service is slow and cumbersome.  Synchronized course delivery, complete with a proper announcement of each and every course (yes, there is still a cruise line that does it- they ‘foam’ a lot of things too) is so awkward one feels like grabbing the plate out of the otherwise efficient service staff.  I found that startling considering this was a German cruise line and Germans are so very efficient at so many things.

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Actually, I put the cart a bit before the horse here.  Back it up to the menu in Europa 2’s main dining room, a disorganized mess of otherwise nicely done culinary creations.  As the largest dining space on the vessel, this is the one that should be run with absolute precision, beginning with menu organization. It would be an insult to the people of Germany who I happen to love to say what we were presented with made sense, to them.  Not us. All jumbled together and with no discernable organization, it is difficult to tell/decide/plan how many courses one might desire to have or how they will be served.

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Close But No Cigar

Don’t get me wrong, this is one stunning piece of hardware.  Hapag-Lloyd Cruises hit the target of building a roomy ship with abundant open spaces, high ceilings and few bottlenecks dead on. The crew is genuinely friendly and eager to please.

Stateroom amenities are plentiful and nearly everything labeled in German is also done in English with few exceptions.  Little things that are not are easy enough to figure out for the most part. One of those exceptions, however, is the handy ship phone that can be carried around Europa 2 to make calls to other cabins or various departments.  Here, we have only a German edition, rendering the otherwise thoughtful device worthless to non-German cruise travelers.

Europa 2 Staterooms - 09

If this sounds a bit picky, it is.  I have struggled with this review for weeks as it goes a bit against the grain of what we do here; showcase elements of cruise travel in the most positive of ways based on what we see in real life situations.  At the end of the day, the issue I have with Hapag-LLoyd Cruises presentation of Europa 2 is in the expectation set.  To position the bar so very high by promoting the notion that this is ‘the most luxurious ship in the world’ invites a microscopic examination of the hardware.  I’ve barely scratched the surface here with a few examples of the nearly guaranteed disparity between that promise and reality.

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To be totally fair, the #1 cruise ship distinction promoted by Hapag-Lloyd is supported by ranking so in the 31th edition of the Berlitz Cruising & Cruise Ships 2016  guide, defending their position as one of two 5-stars-plus cruise ships worldwide. The other is sister ship Europa.

“Both are beautiful ships to sail aboard”, Douglas Ward, author of the Berlitz Cruise Guide is quoted as saying in a Hapag-Lloyd press release “with an outstanding amount of space per passenger, high-ceilinged passageways, a superb range of dining venues and types of cuisine, and attentive, friendly, yet unobtrusive personal service. Both ships have proven themselves to be unbeatable yet again.”

Got it.

Expert ranking aside, for all practical purposes that same ‘most luxurious’ bar rolls over to the hard-working crew members who come in direct contact with passengers every day, putting an extreme amount of pressure on them to please.  Surely, there’s nothing wrong with intense motivation to do a good job.  But when Hapag-Lloyd is targeting non-German cruise travelers and expecting German crew members to provide service one would reasonably expect to be of the ‘most luxurious’ level, there is bound to be some disparity, by design.

I suppose.

Step away from the ocean for a moment and compare the hotel operation of Hapag-Lloyd’s Europa 2 with a good Four Seasons,  Ritz-Carlton, Peninsula, Mandarin Oriental, St Regis or other top-rated luxury hotel chain.  Then the difference becomes quite clear.  Those top organizations simply do not miss a beat.  Ever.

Europa 2 plays a lovely melody most of the time but every once in awhile a sour note spoils an otherwise pleasant tune.


Chris Taking Photo
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