Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

December 16, 2017

© Hapag-Lloyd Cruises

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The new wave

Set sail with the best high-end cruise line that you've never heard of

“Gutten abend, Herr Buhasz. Will you be having the Glenlivet again?” It was only my second time in the MS Europa’s Clipper Lounge and the young bartender remembered not only my name but also my pre-dinner tipple from two evenings earlier. Impressive.

In retrospect, however, I shouldn’t have been too surprised. It was my third day on a seven-day March cruise from Manila in the Philippines, to Nagasaki, Japan, and the level of service and personal attention I had experienced everywhere aboard this small, luxurious German cruise ship was consistently outstanding.

Operated by Hapag-Lloyd Cruises, a division of one of the world’s largest container-shipping lines, Europa is the flagship of a quartet of passenger vessels operated by the Hamburg-based company. At a time when many cruise lines are building ships large enough to carry the population of a small town, the Europa’s 280 crew members serve a maximum of 408 passengers.

Guests are accommodated in suites that start at 28 square metres, with separate living and sleeping areas, walk-in wardrobes and spacious bathrooms with both tub and shower. Most have a private veranda with teak furniture, and all boast a computer system that offers movies, music, satellite television stations as well as unlimited, free email access from personal shipboard addresses.

Not surprising then that the ship has received international accolades. In 2008, it was named ship of the year by Fielding’s Guide to Luxury Cruises and that guide routinely ranks it on a par with the vessels of other small-ship luxury lines such as Regent, Silversea and Crystal. For the ninth year in a row, it received a five-star-plus ranking by the Berlitz Cruise Guide 2010 and, for the third year, it is the only cruise ship to be awarded the prestigious six-star diamond award from the American Academy of Hospitality Sciences.

Arguably, the Europa is one of the most beautiful yachts that most North Americans have never heard of. This is mainly because, until a few years ago, the working language aboard was German, and still is on most cruises.

The king's English

Recently, however, Hapag-Lloyd decided that the pool of German-speaking passengers, who could afford a Europa experience, might not be enough to sustain it profitably in the future. The company began offering an annual series of “international” cruises, such as the one I was on, during which daily announcements, event programs, menus and a selection of shore excursions are also offered in English. Between September 2010 and November, 2011, for example, the ship is offering 12 bilingual cruises along various segments of its annual circuit of the globe.

While our group of English speakers was small, we were made to feel comfortable by a mostly bilingual crew of young Germans and Austrians as well as international hostess Claudia Hörnig, who took extra time to make sure our needs were met. Many of the German passengers, too, spoke English and were welcoming.

Entertainment by various musicians in the ships bars, atrium and main concert hall could be enjoyed in any language, but in other things the majority still prevailed. Except for a fascinating talk given in English by German architect Stefan Börris on the influence of Shintoism and Confucianism on Japanese garden design, various experts and authors gave lectures only in German. Also, there were only a few English-language books on the shelves of the ship’s large library.

On the plus side, a three-quarter size, abbreviated edition of The Globe and Mail, collected from a digital satellite-delivery system and printed on board, was delivered daily to my suite. Passengers could choose to receive one of more than 1000 newspapers from 49 countries.

Not your average buffet

Overall, most of the English-language passengers I spoke with wouldn’t hesitate in sailing again with the Europa, and for at least one it was already a return engagement.

“It gets better each time,” said Daniel Ginzburg, a young Los Angeles-based businessman, who was on his third Europa cruise. “I’ve had a wonderful experience every time.” Ginzburg said the highlights of his onboard experience were the three meals he enjoyed every day in the main Europa Restaurant, an elegant, light-filled space large enough to feed all passengers at one sitting. Aside from the exceptional quality of the food, he was impressed with the level of service.

Like Ginzburg, I thought the cuisine offered was superb. Unlike him, though, I sampled all four dining venues aboard.

The informal Lido Café, at the stern of the ship on the top deck, was my favourite place for breakfast and most lunches, especially on sunny days when I preferred one of its outdoor tables. The café’s lavish buffets included delicacies such as suckling pig, roast duck and guinea fowl and a permanent barbecue station served up grilled meats ranging from steaks to satays.

Venezia offered up the buona cucina of Italy with themed meals highlighting regions such as Calabria, Sicily and the Alps. In the Oriental Restaurant, I dined one evening on tuna with sweet cucumber, coconut soup with shrimps, curry marinated red snapper with soy and wasabi sauce and chocolate sorbet with marinated mango wedges.

The large Europa Restaurant’s dinner menu offered sophisticated main courses such as saddle of lamb with garlic-pimento jus or red snapper with crustacean-tomato mousse and sugar peas. Recommended wines available for purchase ranged from Austrian Chardonnays and German Rieslings to South African Cabernets. And if you woke up hungry at 3AM, 24-hour room service promised the delivery of “snacks” such as schnitzel with roast potatoes, steak with herb butter and a selection of salads and desserts.

Not surprisingly, I left the Europa some pounds heavier than when I boarded a week earlier — a situation I should have corrected with a more diligent use of the ship’s fitness room, outdoor pool, golf simulator or even the offered services of a personal trainer.

Asian shores

Aside from a chance to experience the ship itself, I was attracted to this segment of the Europa’s world cruise because it visited places I had never seen. In Taiwan, we stopped at Kaohsiung and I joined the English-language tour. The highlight was a visit to the remarkable collection of gaudy Confucian and Buddhist shrines lining the north and west shores of Lotus Lake.

The next day, the ship stopped at Keelung and our small group drove inland by minibus to Taipei, the Taiwanese capital. Here, we visited the enormous Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, which included a reproduction of the general’s office as well as a spooky wax reproduction of the general himself seated behind his desk. We then took a high-speed elevator to the top of Taipei 101 — at 101 storeys the second-tallest building in the world — for an amazing 360-degree view of the city.

Our first stop in Japan was at Ishigaki, the semi-tropical southernmost inhabited island in the archipelago. Here, we drove around the coast, stopping to admire the beautiful beaches at Kabira Bay where black-pearl oysters are farmed and tours in glass-bottomed boats are on offer.

After a day at sea, our next stop was Kagoshima at the southwestern tip of Kyushu Island. The main attraction here was our visit to the ash-dusted slopes of smoke-belching Sakurajima, one of the country’s most active volcanoes. We then toured the beautiful Seng-en gardens, which once surrounded the villa of the great Shimadzu family and the first cloth-making factories in Japan.

The last stop on my cruise was at Nagasaki. On August 9, 1949, this was the second — and hopefully the last — city in the world to be destroyed by an atomic weapon. When an American B-29 bomber dropped a bomb called Fat Man, releasing an explosive force equivalent to 21 kilotons of TNT, more than 70,000 people died instantly from the blast. Another 70,000 would perish in the months and years ahead from burns and radiation.

Few signs of destruction remain in this attractive small city, but the memorials to the event are somber and moving. A large peace park holds a collection of commemorative plaques and statues sent from various countries.

Elsewhere, a black obelisk marks the spot above which the bomb was detonated. The obelisk stands on a black-marble box that contains a book with the names of all those who died in the blast. Nearby, the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum exhibits photos and relics of the horror. I have visited the Bradbury Science Museum in Los Alamos, New Mexico, which celebrates the Manhattan Project and the creation of the atomic bomb. It was sobering to tour a museum dedicated to exhibiting that project’s awful results.

That evening, I took a gondola up the Nagasaki Ropeway to the highest point above the harbour and watched as the gaily lit Europa sailed away on the next leg of its journey to Korea, China and beyond. I wished I was aboard it instead of waiting to begin my own long journey back to Canada.

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.

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