State of the Art: Cruising Southeast Asia on Europa 2

By Grace Smith

“Guten morgen,” says the young woman handing me a moistened towel as I step on board Europa 2, an ocean cruise ship that is widely regarded as the best of its kind in the world. I utter an awkward “thank you”, silently reprimanding myself for not downloading a German translation app before my trip.

My discomfort is quickly forgotten as I am handed a flute of chilled champagne and ushered into the ship’s grand atrium. Light floods through immense floor-to-ceiling windows and the room’s sleek, minimalist interiors feel more suited to a Scandinavian design hotel than a cruise ship. Contemporary artworks from the likes of Damien Hirst and Gerhard Richter hang on the walls, and curved sculptures stand on plinths.

While the curated interiors are striking, the clever architectural design is what makes Europa 2 truly outstanding. The soaring ceilings, open-plan layout and absence of thick pillars means that everywhere I turn I see the endless turquoise sea surrounding Koh Samui, the Thai island where we are currently docked.

I have joined Hapag-Lloyd’s grande dame for the final leg of her Hong Kong to Singapore sailing, and am looking forward to finding out why Douglas Ward (author of the 2017 Berlitz Cruise Guide) chose to bestow the ship a five-star-plus rating. Despite its stellar reputation, the German cruise ship, which sailed its maiden voyage in 2013, is still relatively unknown in Australia, with German-speakers making up 90 per cent of passengers.

As I step into the elevator that will take me to my room I realise the turquoise waves outside are following me – the elevator’s glass walls provide unobstructed ocean views, and I reach my deck without taking my eyes off the mesmerising blue sea.

I am staying in the most modest of the ship’s 251 cabins, although as I open the door to my 35-square-metre Veranda Suite I realise that Hapag-Lloyd’s idea of modest is vastly different to that of other luxury cruise lines. The room has its own balcony as well as a lounge, walk-in wardrobe and a bathroom not dissimilar to what you might find in a boutique hotel: there’s a spacious shower, generous-sized sink and vanity and even a bathtub.

On my first day, I decide to spend a few hours luxuriating in the room, starting by taking advantage of the complimentary 24-hour room service and my private balcony while blaring The Beatles from my entertainment system (one of the few English artists pre-programmed). I pop the cork on my welcome champagne and drop a bath bomb in the tub, enjoying a soak to wash off my flight.

I emerge feeling incredibly reinvigorated – I later learn that unlike most air conditioning systems, which use partially recycled air, the air on Europa 2 is drawn continuously from the outside, adding to the freshness of my cabin. It is a subtle feature that makes a big difference and gives me a new appreciation for the attention to detail the German company pays when it comes to clever design.

I now have my afternoon to plan, and consider the activities on offer across the ship. I can play a round on the golf simulator, take a guided tour of Europa 2’s 890 artworks, sample some of the world’s largest gin collection at sea, head to the gym for a workout with a view, or visit the spa for a beauty treatment or a sauna. Not wanting to overdo it on my first day, I decide to head to the pool.

As the elevator doors open onto the pool deck, I am instantly overwhelmed by the buttery-sweet smell of baking waffles. I follow my nose to the waffle stand and take my bounty back to one of the empty sun loungers dotted around the pool. Waiters descend on me almost instantly, offering fresh coconuts, fruit salad and assorted juices.

The attentive service on deck is reflective of the ship’s high ratio of staff to passengers. Europa 2 is almost at capacity on my trip, but a limit of 500 guests means that rather than the crowded feeling common to even some of the best cruise ships, this beautiful ship feels almost empty. There are dozens of free chairs around me, I never queue at the bar, and it is not uncommon to walk along an entire floor without seeing another passenger.

After whiling away a few hours in the pool filled with filtered ocean water, I decide to continue my German cultural immersion by dining in the ship’s signature restaurant, Weltmeere. After a failed attempt at deciphering the menu I am handed an English translation, which features international dishes along with some German favourites like wurst (sausages) and brisket. Weltmeere is one of the seven restaurants on board, along with Italian, French, Japanese and pan-Asian dining rooms and an obligatory buffet, all included in the fare.

During dinner at Weltmeere, my companion asks for tomato sauce with her fries and is rather bemused when the waiter returns with a freshly prepared bowl of hearty pomodoro pasta sauce. We are more than willing to forgive this amusing miscommunication from our friendly waiter, however the general service provided in the on-board dining venues is somewhat less attentive than what one might expect on a five-star-plus ship, with orders occasionally forgotten or only partially delivered. A tip for international travellers is to head straight to the self-serve buffet restaurant Yacht Club where the selection is extensive and the views are fantastic.

As I step into the elevator that will take me to my room I realise the turquoise waves outside are following me – the elevator’s glass walls provide unobstructed ocean views, and I reach my deck without taking my eyes off the mesmerising blue sea.

After dinner, I decide to skip the tap dancing performance in the theatre in favour of checking out the ship’s nightlife epicentre, Sansibar. I am pleasantly surprised to see plenty of groups sipping cocktails and a number of couples and young families tearing up the dance floor to a mix of ’80s classics, pop hits and the occasional German folk song. It is clear that the laidback luxury of the Europa 2 attracts a younger demographic than its more formal sister ship, Europa.

As I order my Mai Tai at the bar, I convert the cost to Australian dollars – drinks are, surprisingly, not included in Europa 2’s rates. Prices are very reasonable (significantly cheaper than at a standard Australian bar). But the additional expense does detract from the feeling of complete indulgence that draws people to luxury cruising. Hapag-Lloyd seems to understand that international guests expect an all-inclusive experience, so they offer all non-German guests a €200 beverage credit – more than enough for my eight days on board.

From my table at Sansibar’s outdoor seating area, I spot a small staircase on the side of the deck. I climb the stairs until I reach what may be the ship’s best-kept secret. The open-air top deck of the ship – the only area not serviced by an elevator – has a hot tub and plenty of bed-sized sun lounges, and when I visit it is completely deserted. I can’t resist a quick soak while staring up at the clear night sky, marvelling at the fact that I have the deck entirely to myself.

Sinking into my bed that night I think about the activities I have planned for the next day: a morning yoga session overlooking the ocean followed by jet-skiing around a private island and a champagne tasting in the evening.

While there’s so much to look forward to, I find myself most excited about the idea of spending a week sailing through the beautiful waters of Southeast Asia while immersing myself in the German microcosm that is the Europa 2.

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