On board the Europa 2, Hapag-Lloyd's elite new cruise ship, I got a taste of what it might be like to sail the Mediterranean on my own private yacht.
Entering the Sicilian port of Trapani on the first morning, I arrived at the ship's indoor-outdoor buffet as it opened for breakfast. With no other passengers in sight, I was greeted by a phalanx of servers and a cheery chorus of "Guten Morgens" and "Good mornings" (Hapag-Lloyd is a German line, but Europa 2's crew are bilingual). For the next several minutes, I sat alone on deck overlooking the sea and the city, basking both in the early morning sun and the full attentions of the eager-to-please crew, who proffered cappuccinos, freshly squeezed juices, cooked-to-order omelette – anything I wanted.
Later in the cruise, when I went for a swim, I had the lengthy pool to myself. On another occasion, I sampled the sauna – in total privacy. And on one evening, as I sat with a friend having drinks by the pool bar, a singer serenaded us under the stars. With only the two of us there, it amounted to our own exclusive concert.
The Europa 2, which entered service in May, 2013, offers the kind of personal service and space that larger cruise ships carrying thousands of passengers can never provide. Its "resort at sea" exclusivity even shuns the current trend among luxury ships to include alcohol in the price because its passengers, I was assured, want the highest quality wines and spirits and can afford to pay for them. This helps put the Europa 2 in the five star-plus category – rated the top ship in the world by the 2014 Berlitz Cruising and Cruise Ships, considered the definitive guide to the field.
Admittedly, my fantasy was only that: I shared the ship with nearly 300 other passengers, along with 370 crew. But even carrying its maximum of 516 passengers, Europa 2 can uphold a sense of privacy because it offers more space per passenger than any other cruise ship out there, or so says the Berlitz bible.
With 11 decks, eight restaurants, six bars, an extensive spa area, a well-equipped gym and plenty of deck chairs, you won't find many lines or crowds, the bane of most megaships. Yet it's still small enough to call at many off-the-beaten path ports, such as Cagliari in Sardinia, Calvi in Corsica, Hvar, Croatia, and Pylos, Greece.
When I did feel the need to escape even further, I retreated to my own private verandah: every stateroom has one as there are no inside cabins. The staterooms also all have indoor sitting areas, walk-in closets and separate bathroom showers and tubs. Pay extra and get rooms with ocean-view spa tubs; a few are even big enough (1,066 square feet) to swallow small houses.
But you're paying for more than space: The staterooms are stocked with the kinds of luxuries you might expect to find in a five-star hotel but often don't. All are equipped with espresso machines, tablets, WiFi, cordless phones, tableware nestled neatly inside little pull-out drawers, hidden mirrors that cleverly unfold, even four levels of adjustable lighting. Sometimes, however, the design elements were a bit too clever: It took me days to find and decipher everything.
Europa 2 – unlike its older sister ship, Europa – has dropped many of the traditional cruise-ship conventions. If you miss having a captain's dinner, a casino or formal nights (the only dress request is no shorts at dinner), this isn't the ship for you. But I liked the casual air, and the fact that I could mostly come and go as I pleased at the two biggest restaurants that offered open seating and flexible hours. At four smaller specialty restaurants – one French, one Italian and two Asian – reservations are recommended, especially at dinner.
Officers and crew pride themselves on spontaneity: One morning, while anchored off the Spanish island of Formentera, they lowered a number of zodiacs and treated passengers to salt-sprayed rides, zipping around the ship and through the harbour – a delight you would find only on a small ship that thoroughly indulges its passengers. On the top deck, the ship uses a retractable glass roof to shelter swimmers in bad weather and golfers can work on their swing at the on-board golf simulators, one of which offers video analysis.
Europa 2's innovations are intended to attract younger guests and more North Americans to the ship. But it's still very much a German vessel in that everything runs like clockwork and is sparkling clean. There's even a hint of the avant-garde art scene. Public areas display hundreds of contemporary artworks, including pieces by David Hockney, Gerhard Richter and Damien Hirst.
But as I sat out on deck, alone, while the ship sailed into a Sicilian port just after sunrise, I was focused only on which freshly squeezed juice to choose, and whether or not to have a second cappuccino. After all, I was now the captain of my own yacht … if only in fantasy.
IF YOU GO
After sailing through Asian waters until April, the Europa 2 returns to Europe in May. A seven-day cruise from Barcelona to Civitavecchia, Italy, starts at €4,490 ($6,834 Canadian) a person.
Europa 2 actively courts families, which is unusual for a luxury ship. On my trip, nearly 50 children, ranging from toddlers to teens, filled the supervised kids' clubs and joined in special shore excursions and pool parties.
For more information, go to hl-cruises.com.
The writer was a guest of Hapag-Lloyd Cruises.