Europe lines ply a Continental take on leisure cruises

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Take a photographic tour of the ships and ports that some of the European lines are offering this summer.

Many Americans will be cruising European waters this summer, mostly on ships owned and operated by familiar U.S.-based lines and their subsidiaries. And yet, there are plenty of European companies offering departures on a wide variety of ships that are relatively unsung on this side of the pond. Several provide a great value or a unique cultural twist for well-heeled travelers seeking a new and different seagoing experience.

Here is a look at four key lines, ranging from mass market to the unabashedly luxurious.

Cypriot cruising with Louis

louis-SAPPHIREIn 1987, Louis plc, Cyprus' largest tour and hotel operator, purchased its first ship, a former Finnish ferry, to begin budget, two-night service to Egypt and Israel. With low fares that included multilingual shore excursions and reasonably good food and entertainment, Louis quickly accrued a fleet of vintage, secondhand vessels to become the world's fifth-largest independently owned cruise line. The company is in a new growth phase, with the culling of many of its oldest ships and the acquisition of relatively new tonnage, including the 1,452-passenger, 25,076-ton Cristal (nee NCL Leeward), built in 1992, and the 1,800-passenger, 40,876-ton Norwegian Majesty (also built in 1992, the ship will transfer to Louis after its currently scheduled service for NCL later this year).

Louis' Greece-based division has taken over the classic Aegean market once dominated by now-defunct local mainstays Epirotiki and Sun Lines. In addition to the Cristal, which will sail seven-day cruises to the Greek islands, Egypt and Turkey from Piraeus this summer, the division operates the 1,194-passenger, 23,149-ton Aquamarine (ex-RCCL Nordic Prince, built in 1971) and the 918-passenger, 16,710-ton Aegean Pearl (the former NCL Southward, also built in 1971) on three- and four-night cruises to Mykonos, Santorini, Rhodes, Crete and Turkey. Louis also has two ships based in Genoa, Italy, running cruises of varying length to Africa, the Canary Islands and western Mediterranean: the 832-passenger, 14,151-ton, 1971-built Coral (ex-Triton) and the 540-passenger Orient Queen (ex-NCL Starward, built in 1968).

Outside of Cyprus, Louis caters to an international clientele, so there is ample variety in cuisine (highlighted with some especially tasty Greek selections) and entertainment (a scaled-down version of what might be found on U.S.-based ships, often inflected with Greek music and culture).

Although high-density, the vessels are clean and well run and, while lacking some of the state-of-the-art features of newer ships, are an affordable and convenient way to sample some of the historical and scenic ports of the Mediterranean. On the shorter, port-intensive cruises, the bells and whistles are not particularly missed. After a long, hot day exploring antiquity, there often is not much time or energy to do more onboard than eat, rest and catch a show.

Louis' Cyprus-based ships are geared more to the local market and offer a variety of cruises to less-familiar ports. I recently boarded the 562-passenger, 12,263-ton, 1968-built Sapphire (former Italia, Ocean Princess) for a five-day romp from Limassol to Kos, Mytilene, Tinos, Syros and Rhodes. What the sleek, little ship lacks in modern conveniences (no balcony cabins or specialty restaurants, one small pool, a tiny gym, no Internet) it makes up for in old-fashioned charm, providing an opportunity to visit some beautiful Aegean hamlets the larger ships pass by.

Food is plentiful but not fancy on the Sapphire, reflecting local tastes, with Greek salads and various fish and meat dishes offered buffet-style. Menus and daily programs are available in English, and the entertainment varies from Eastern European-style cabaret acts and musicians to Greek Night crew shows, often followed into the wee hours by a bouzouki player and/or a female singer. There tend to be a lot of children accompanying large families on holiday, especially on the Cyprus sailings.

This year, Sapphire will be joined by the 23,428-ton, 960-passenger Emerald (ex-Regent Rainbow, built in 1958) on cruises from Limassol to the Greek islands, Turkey, Egypt, Israel, Syria and Lebanon.

For more information, go to www.louiscruises.com.  

MSC: That's Italian!

msc-FANTASIACLIA member Mediterranean Shipping Co., the passenger division of the world's second-largest container-shipping company, is another line that has in recent years enjoyed phenomenal growth in the European cruise market. Risen like a phoenix from the ashes of Starlauro (originally Lauro Lines), which, when acquired in 1987, had just two older, relatively small ships, MSC is privately owned by Swiss-based Italian entrepreneur Gianluigi Aponte. The ships and operation are purely Italian, and the experience of sailing with MSC can be as chaotic as rush hour in Rome or as delightful as a sunny afternoon in Liguria.

The company operates nine vessels, with another two under construction and an option for two more. Aside from the 1982-built, 35,143-ton, 1,550-passenger Melody (ex-Atlantic), the fleet consists of three platforms of Chantiers/Aker/STX-built ships: the approximately 59,000-ton, 2,250-passenger Lirica class (MSC Opera, MSC Lirica, MSC Armonia, MSC Sinfonia); the 89,600-ton, 3,013-passenger Musica class (MSC Musica, MSC Orchestra, MSC Poesia and MSC Magnifica, now under construction); and the 133,500-ton, 3,959-passenger Fantasia class (MSC Fantasia and the under-construction MSC Splendida), the largest European-owned cruise ships in the world.

The Lirica class was essentially designed in the late 1990s and lacks a great assortment of balconies, but the ships are well laid-out and beautifully decorated with a quality finish and elegant color schemes. The Panamax Musica ships have a considerable number of veranda cabins, larger spas and shops, giant LED screens overlooking the midship pool, extra-tariff specialty restaurants and soaring atria.

On the post-Panamax Fantasia class, there is the Yacht Club, an exclusive, 99-cabin ship-within-a-ship with its own private sun deck, observation/concierge lounge and specially equipped suites. There are also alternate dining venues, which charge per item, rather than a general cover; a Vegas-style casino; a huge kids' complex with a race car simulator; a magrodome-enclosed solarium; three open-deck pools; an atrium featuring staircases inlaid with Swarovski crystals; the giant Aureus Spa; and two full decks of public rooms.

When sailing U.S. waters, MSC makes an effort to accommodate certain American dining preferences, such as ice water and coffee at meals and keeping the casual Lido restaurant open for dinner. Cuisine, especially the freshly baked breads and Italian specialties such as eggplant parmigiana, chicken cacciatore or simple pasta dishes such as spaghetti Bolognese, can be excellent. Seatings tend to begin late, usually with the first at 6:30 p.m. or later and the second from 9 p.m. on. Service can vary widely, depending on the ability and mood of the wait staff.

These multilingual ships (boat drills and activities are conducted in Italian, English, French, Spanish and German) often carry more European than British or U.S. guests, so the not-to-be-missed shows tend to avoid standard, lyric-based Broadway themes, combining some truly spectacular acrobatics; elements of Cirque du Soleil; opera, classical music and electronica; magic; and even a bit of commedia dell'arte.

MSC's ships spend summers on a wide variety of European itineraries; the Fantasia offers year-round departures to the Mediterranean and Atlantic isles. In the winter, most of the fleet heads to the Caribbean, South America and South Africa. Visit www.msccruisesusa.com.  

Fred Olsen: British on the Braemar

fredolsen-BRAEMARAlthough technically a European company, Norwegian-owned Fred Olsen Cruise Lines operates a fleet of small and midsize classic ships with a distinctly British flair. The cruise line, a division of a family-owned holding company with interests in aviation, luxury hotels, property, ferries and cargo ships that dates from 1848, is based at Ipswich in Suffolk, England. The ships range from the 11,000-ton, 412-passenger Black Prince (to be retired in October) to the recently stretched, 23,000-ton, 986-passenger Braemar (ex-Crown Dynasty); the 28,613-ton, 807-passenger Black Watch (ex-Royal Viking Star); the 28,388-ton, 839-passenger Boudicca (ex-Royal Viking Sky); and the newly stretched, 43,537-ton, 1,340-passenger Balmoral (ex-Crown Odyssey).

A five-night portion of a recent two-week sailing on the Braemar from Miami to the deep Caribbean -- calling in the Dominican Republic, Curacao, Isla Margarita, Grenada, Barbados, St. Lucia, Antigua and Key West -- was, in terms of quality, on par with a premium-market, U.S.-based cruise. The ship is intimate but provides plenty of sunning and deck space, with two pools, some wonderful terraced alcoves and a full, wrap-around promenade as well as a variety of lounges and three dining venues. Rock-climbing walls, neon and a huge casino (there is only one card and one roulette table) are not missed by Braemar's savvy, well-traveled clientele.

Public rooms on the ship, which was built in 1993, have been renovated and feature warm wood tones, subdued lighting, attractive color schemes and even some tartan-patterned soft fittings. The Olsen family's renowned private art collection adds a distinct decorative flair with some extraordinary and often provocative works as well as vintage photos and artifacts from past Fred Olsen ships.

Dining is a far cry from the heavy British cuisine of yore, and menus feature a wide variety of courses with vegetarian and "lighter bite" alternatives.

Two elegant restaurants -- the contemporary, 128-seat Grampian and the more traditional, 396-seat Thistle -- have self-service buffets in addition to full wait service for breakfast and lunch. This comes in handy for an extra helping of salad or sampling a cross-section of appetizers before ordering a main course.

Table settings feature elegant stemware: Fred Olsen's figurehead china; starched linens; and ergonomic, oversized cutlery. Especially popular were the bountiful lunchtime seafood and Indian buffets and the late-night Grand Gala Buffet. The Braemar also has the 144-guest Palms Cafe, which has open seating, as a casual dining alternative. Daily tea is served in the Palms and in the lounges between 3:30 p.m. and 4:30 p.m., with a spread of finger sandwiches, cookies and pastries.

Activities include frequent quizzes, enrichment lectures, carpet bowls (a traditional British pastime akin to boccie), deck quoits, carpet putting and arts and crafts classes in the daytime.

At night, there are revues, cabaret performances, pub-style sing-alongs, karaoke and disco dancing. On one evening, there was a Western Night theme, with passengers encouraged to dress cowboy-style, Tex/Mex cuisine served in the restaurants and a "Hoedown Showdown" main show, culminating in a deck barbecue.

The median age is about 60, and the British passengers, many of them Fred Olsen repeaters, tend to make congenial shipmates. While the cruise line does not intend to stray far from its proven base of support, it welcomes well-traveled Americans who are willing to sample a genteel slice of seagoing life.

The Braemar will spend the summer on European itineraries and then cross to the Caribbean for the fall and winter season.

For more information, go to www.fredolsencruises.com.  

Deluxe Deutschland

dielmann-DEUTSCHLANDThe German cruise market has a wide selection of ships, but two -- Hapag-Lloyd's all-suite, ultramodern Europa and Peter Deilmann's exquisite Deutschland -- enjoy a spirited rivalry for top honors. They offer similarly impeccable levels of service but are like night and day, or, more appropriately, today and yesterday, in terms of onboard ambience.

A recent seven-night Deutschland sailing from Venice to Civitavecchia, Italy, via Croatia, Montenegro and Greece was a nostalgic nod to cruising's past.

Externally, the 11-year-old, 22,400-ton, 513-passenger ship has a graceful, old-fashioned silhouette with a long bow, low superstructure, towering funnel and terraced afterdecks that culminate in a rounded stern. There are no balconies, and the plentiful, wide-open decks are mostly covered in freshly scrubbed teak and lined with cushioned, heavy wooden deck chairs.

Internally, the ship may very well be the most palatial afloat, sporting Edwardian decor inspired by German Atlantic superliners of the early 20th century. Ornate, polished brass balustrades, soaring frescos, massive chandeliers, moulded plaster bulkheads, hammered-tin ceilings, plush-velvet armchairs and mahogany veneers are far more "Grand Hotel" than "Love Boat" (although the ship is used as a prop for the latter's German TV equivalent, "Das Traumschiff").

The Deilmann family's artwork is plentiful, both inside and out, with numerous bronze sculptures on deck and in various lounges, passageways and vestibules. Vintage oil paintings can be found throughout the ship, and even the staterooms sport original works of art.

The Deutschland has several categories of accommodation, ranging from 382-square-foot owners' suites with separate sitting areas and concierge service to comfortable, 124-square-foot insides.

Service is formal, impeccable and unintrusive. There is no hard sell for drinks (which can be pricey, averaging $7.50 to $9), spa treatments or shore excursions, and there are no art auctions or extra-tariff eateries. The passenger mix includes 95% well-to-do German retirees; on my sailing, there were a mere seven Americans and two Brits, in addition to a sprinkling of other European nationals.

Programs and menus are printed in both German and English, and even the captain's departure announcements and daily logs are bilingual. I found the passengers friendly and conversant in English, and the staff, a combination of German and Eastern European, spoke English with varying degrees of fluency.

Entertainment ranged from classical string quintets, a big band and chiseled ballet dancers in the double-deck, 445-seat Kaisersaal to smoky cabaret standards in the exquisite, 60-seat Salon Lili Marleen. The Deutschland also has a 40-seat cinema, used for meetings, lectures and movie screenings.

Overall dress onboard the Deutschland is fancier than most ships, with men in tuxes or tails and gowned, bejeweled women. There are, on average, three formal nights per week.

There are two seatings in the 300-guest Berlin restaurant and open seating in the reservations-only, fixed-menu, no-tariff Four Seasons restaurant, where a jacket and tie are always required. The Four Seasons seats 104. There is also the self-service Lido Gourmet restaurant, with open seating for 150 guests.

Cuisine is traditional German, with veal, foie gras, venison, boar and heavy cream sauces among the more frequent offerings. In this particular respect, the Deutschland's old-fashioned charms may wear thin for cruelty-free, vegetarian or health-conscious diners.

The Deutschland generally spends summers in European waters and ventures to the far corners of the globe throughout the rest of the year.

Visit www.deilmann-cruises.com.

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