Europa - The Best Ship in the World? Possibly...
The Stella Maris Cruise, 25th October to 4th November 2009 Venice, Rovinj, Dubrovnik, Gallipoli (port substitute for Otranto), Palermo, La Goulette, Sete, Palma, Barcelona. We had just returned from this cruise (accompanied by my mother and our two children) when I wrote this review. At the time, there was no section for reviews of 'Europa' on the site, so this review was buried in the Forum section. The Europa is a German ship, and whilst they market some of the cruises each year as 'bi-lingual', there were actually just 5 English adults on board, plus our two children and one elderly German/American, and - of course - the amazing opera singers. If you want to see what the competition was like, put 'Stella Maris' into the search engine on YouTube, where you will see highlights of each round. The competition was - for all of us - the highlight of the trip. Without this, our evenings would have been very difficult, since virtually everything was done in German. It's funny, P&O cruisers, how soon you start to miss the warmth and friendliness of the wonderful waiters from Goa - the young all-German staff are efficient but very few of them can match the delightful third-generation staff from India. Even the cabin stewards are virtually all young Germans straight out of college, improving their hotel management skills before returning to land-based jobs. This means in practice that some of them clearly find the work beneath them, although - being English - you have to say all credit to them that they are prepared to do this in the first place. Imagine getting young English college leavers to clean the lavatories! The food was some of the best I've ever eaten - anywhere in the world. The sumptuous dinners, night after night, make the large cruise ships look like real amateurs. Some nights the dinners are themed, perhaps to coincide with the port just visited, other nights - like the Gala dinners - are just outstanding. There are many courses on offer, and you can - if you want - have all of them. This means that many nights you will be eating seven - or maybe more - perfect small courses, including proper caviar (served, naturally with blinis, sour cream and a straight vodka shot!) foie gras and incredible cuts of meat. Vegetarians will find some things to choose from, but I imagine they will have to order 'off piste' quite regularly, although this would not present a problem to the chefs. During the Stella Maris cruise, HL had imported Michelin starred chef Bernrd Ackermann, of the Suvretta House in St. Moritz, to cook on several occasions. His food was magnificent - but whisper it dare - no better than Europa's own chef! Breakfast and lunch were buffets in the Lido Cafe (this is a Europa buffet of course - so there's champagne for breakfast everyday; there's a full grill outside on deck for steaks/swordfish (golly - spot the head being carried through the tables!!)/suckling pig roasting on a spit; bacon and egg for those weird English people), but you could have table service in the main restaurant if you liked. In your 'suite' (now I take issue with this description, and have told HL so) there is a free minibar, replenished whenever you ask, with fruit juice, water, beer and sodas. However - and this is a niggling gripe - you will pay for water with your meals (except breakfast). At 4.60 euros a bottle of Evian, this is a shame, as HL are not mean: if you are in the right place at the right time, you will be plied with champagne (Duval-Leroy is the house brand); HL tours carry packs of Evian on board - and there will be water and soft drinks on ice by the tender points ashore; there are cocktails given out on deck; themed lunches and dinners will result in shots of exotic liqueurs or beers - but you cannot get a jug of water. Why not? The staff told us they cannot supply it...hmmm try telling that to some Americans! The 'suites' - excluding the penthouse deck - are staterooms in any other language. They are reasonably spacious, with nice bathrooms, but the decor is a bit old-fashioned and some of them are quite tired. Despite the fact that the ship had been in for a refurb just before this cruise, our carpet was a bit grubby and there were marks on the paint (not very five-star) - I guess it wasn't our cabins' turn for a makeover. The sofa bed is very narrow and the ends drop down (rather like a mini-Knole sofa) - it was almost big enough for our six year old but not for the 3rd adult which they advertise. Our eleven year old had a good quality camp bed which was stored in the cabin all day, again not very five star. There was the classic curtain between the areas. The bathroom has a tub and separate shower, but is not on a par with the real suite we had last year on Ventura. The balcony had one sun lounger and two upright chairs, all with padded cotton covers on - very comfy. Naturally, bathrobes and slippers (suitably sized) are provided, as are umbrellas if you disembark during rain. There are copious 'Europa' toiletries provided, but these were not very high quality - certainly not a patch on the lovely Temple Spa we had last year on P&O. They have unusual items though: individually wrapped plasters, spectacle wipes, glorious hand wipes etc etc, but the other items were not what you might have expected. Where were the Prada/Hermes/even Molton Brown goodies? If I were HL I would be looking to a German designer to provide these. Have they thought of asking Jil Sander/Hugo Boss/Mondi to design something a bit more luxurious? The spa and pool areas were mostly deserted. Do not make jokes about towels on the sun-loungers here - the decks are like the Marie Celeste after lunch. The mostly elderly German clientele seem to disappear to sleep off all that wonderful food. Our children had the pool to themselves, even when it was 23 degrees and sunny. It was so quiet that I felt I had to hush them. The pool is long and narrow, and salt water (is that five star?) but the neighbouring jacuzzi was always too cold - and not unsurprisingly empty. We mentioned this several times to the staff but nothing was done. Other facilities on board include an eye-wateringly expensive shop; a cinema / presentation room (English films only put on at inconvenient times); super (empty) gym and - stand back in horror, P&O child haters - two children's clubs. These are staffed only if there are a minimum of FOUR children on board, when they will run a full kids programme! The week before the Stella Maris cruise it had been the German half-term, and there had been 40 kids on board. We heard lots of grumbles about this from the elderly Germans - we could have been in Southampton we felt so at home! Our girls had a great time, despite having to play with little German boys. The kids club go the whole hog: bespoke (free) shore excursions, including roaring round the bay of Dubrovnik with the Captain on his high-powered RIB; movies; trip to the Bridge; crafts; fresh waffles in the afternoon and escorted dinner every night with their own menu regardless of where they eat. Superb! Now make sure you are reading this sitting down if you are an English parent who has booked a school holiday cruise - we even pay less than the Germans! At about £40 per day per child sharing this is outstanding value. This is mostly because whilst the day rate is actually about 60 euros, HL 'fix' the exchange rate for English bookings at 1.40 - not the almost '1for1' it really is, so we really do pay less. This makes the cost of a family cruise compare favourably with the higher grade cabins on a large ship. An update to this review: kid's prices for 2013 have changed. Under 12's go FREE on all cruises; over 12's at £35 per day! The English contingent on board this cruise were described as 'pioneers' by the lovely officers, and they went out of their way to make us feel special. We had an 'English-only' tour of the Bridge, and another of the Engine rooms - what a treat! Not even possible on the large ships - and not possible for the Germans as there were too many of them. The Captain and his leading officers are so friendly you feel you get to know them after a few days, and they always stop to talk to you individually - no need for that formal 'line and handshake' thing here. After we moaned a bit about not understanding lots of the stuff going on (Our fault? It's a German ship and we still expect them all to speak English? Discuss.) the Captain made many of his announcements in English first, followed by German. These bi-lingual cruises are still something of an experiment, so if you want to try the Europa, I would suggest you hurry up and do it...I have a feeling that - since the ship is almost always full - they may decide they don't really need us and stop doing them.
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