Aboard one of the world's most luxurious cruise ships, Kristie Kellahan is charmed by the German food but opts out of joining passengers working on their all-over tans.
There are close to 500 passengers and crew aboard German ship MS Europa when I board in Fiji's baking-hot capital, Suva, and it seems I am the only one who does not speak Deutsch. Ja, zis cruise around the south Pacific islands is going to be interesting.
MS Europa, built in 1999 by Hapag-Lloyd Cruises, is the highest-rated cruise ship in the world, according to the Berlitz Complete Guide to Cruising & Cruise Ships. Akin to the Oscars of the cruise industry, the Berlitz annual ratings are eagerly awaited from this leading independent authority. The Europa is the only ship to have received the coveted five-star-plus ranking - for 12 consecutive years - and is considered by many to be the world's finest mega-yacht.
With a maximum of 408 guests and 280 staff members, guests are ensured flawless personal service and attention to detail from the youthful, enthusiastic, good-looking, mostly German crew.
A multilingual butler is assigned to each room to help with any request. My Heidi Klum-lookalike butler is forever appearing at the exact moment I need help with accessing my emails (each guest is given their own on-board email address), with selecting complimentary in-room movies or with restocking the minibar with an endless supply of free snacks and drinks. She can organise lymphatic drainage massages and anniversary flowers as deftly as she can quote Goethe. She also has very nice hair.
As an "all-suites" cruise ship, the Europa's staterooms are spacious (the smallest is 27 square metres) and most have their own private balconies. I'm instantly smitten with my twin bed with its 2.2-metre mattress and layers of fluffy Euro-style duvets enveloped in finest linens. It is hands down the most comfortable cruise ship bed I've snored in. A few steps away, past my walk-in closet, is the enormous marble bathroom, a roomy delight with its separate extra-large bathtub and corner shower.
The luxury, space and service on such a ship comes at a price, a price that ensures passengers are from a certain social and economic milieu. Most of the guests I chat to have paid about €500 ($620) a day. Consider that many are repeat guests and several are on board for back-to-back sectors of six months or more, a world gallivant that would cost more than $100,000. At a charity auction night on board, a paper map of the ship's voyage fetches close to $20,000.
Germans of all social classes, it seems, love to eat. They pile up their plates at the early-morning breakfast buffet before a spot of gymnastics on the open deck. They enthusiastically chow down on afternoon waffles by the pool, served precisely at 3pm. Guests book every seat of the on-board restaurant of well-loved German chef Dieter Muller and keep nearby Italian eatery Venezia busy. And they order liberally, I'm told, from the complimentary 24-hour in-room dining menu. Wiener schnitzel and beer at 4am? No problem.
They also love to get naked, an activity not usually associated with the ranks of the wiener schnitzel eaters. Up on the discreetly positioned clothing-optional sun deck, Berliners and Bavarians work on their all-over tans while reading German newspapers. At least one Australian guest wonders if this is all a very strange dream.
Rainy weather puts a dampener on the nudism as we sail from Fiji to Noumea, but by the time we reach the stunning cornflower blue skies and aquamarine waters of Isle de Pins, the sun worshippers are out in force again.
Tomorrow, many of them will disembark in Noumea for a private charter flight to Sydney and onward, travelling back home to freezing Germany. They bake their bits until the last drop of heat has been wrung out of the sun, then retire to bed early, perhaps to order one last five-star-plus schnitzel.
The writer sailed courtesy of Hapag-Lloyd Cruises.
Cruising by the stars
MS Europa received 1853 out of a maximum of 2000 points (five-star-plus) in the most recent Berlitz cruise ship guide, awarded for flawless personal service, European hotel service crew, impeccable dining, attention to detail, ship and interior design, superior port-stay itineraries and general ambience. It was the only ship to receive a five-star-plus rating.
Cruise ships awarded a highly respected five stars by Berlitz include Crystal Serenity, Oceania Cruises' Marina and SeaDream I and II.
During the next 12 months, Crystal Serenity will sail in Europe, the Caribbean and South America. Twelve-night Mediterranean cruises cost from $4490 a person.
Oceania Cruises' Marina will visit Scandinavia, Europe, South America, Tahiti, New Zealand, Australia and the US. Ten-night Aegean cruises cost from $3424 a person.
SeaDream I and II will sail in Europe and the Caribbean. Five-night Caribbean cruises cost from $2199.
Virgin Australia flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Fiji, from $345 one way. virginaustralia.com.
MS Europa will sail to South Africa and around South America later this month. Prices start from €4096 ($5075) for a 14-day Cape Town-Buenos Aires cruise. It will sail to Tahiti and the south Pacific, Australia, New Zealand and Hong Kong in January and February.