Even for someone not especially attuned to classical music, it was a thrilling moment to hear the legendary Wurttemberg Chamber Orchestra strike up the national anthems of Britain, Germany and the USA as Peter Deilmann’s flagship MS Deutschland swung smartly clear of her pier and stood proudly out for an unfeasibly warm mid-September Hamburg departure.
This was the beginning of the ship’s 10th anniversary cruise, and the opportunity to go aboard for a few days was simply too good to resist. This small, beautifully decorated ship is the complete antithesis of modern vessels, deliberately eschewing a whole raft of commonly anticipated frills and features, and instead offers a surfeit of warm, opulent charm so beautifully executed I doubt anything comparable to her exists anywhere.
Deutschland is the brainchild of the late Peter Deilmann, who conceived of the idea of recreating some of the stunning splendour of such legendary German liners as Kaiser Wilhelm Der Grosse and Kronprinz Wilhelm in a setting that could still offer every modern comfort, overlaid with an abundance of legendary German service, style and spectacular cuisine. The result is an exquisite, low-slung jewel box of a ship that ranks among the smartest and proudest afloat.
There are no balcony cabins, save for two owner’s suites right forward on the upper deck. Instead, the accommodation consists of a range of smallish, charming cabins that come with real brass keys, fabulous paneling and artwork, and plush divan beds that are glorious to fall into at day’s end.
There is no casino, and lovers of nightclubs should definitely look elsewhere. Instead, there is the Emperor’s Ballroom located right forward; a riot of rich red lounge chairs and banquettes, gold leaf and enormous, elegant chandeliers, topped by a stunning frescoed ceiling. It is nothing less than a miniature opera house, unfeasibly afloat in mid-ocean.
This stunning chamber anticipates the rest of this retrospective piece of maritime real estate with considerable aplomb. The salon Lili Marleen looks as if it was lifted intact from the legendary White Star liner Olympic, with plush loom chairs and opulent, beautifully pointed marquetry and panelling, backed up by wonderful, wall-mounted brass filigrees. It is often used as a setting for live, mellow jazz combos. In that role, it has few, if any, equals afloat.
It goes on and on. Stupendous floor-to-ceiling canvases lead to galleries lined with beautifully realised woodwork and statuary, from delicate porcelain muses to gold-and-bronze figurines. Attention to detail is meticulous and, quite possibly, matchless.
At the stern, an authentic German pub comes complete with an outdoor piano player and thoughtfully mounted ceiling heaters that make sitting outside in any weather as practical as it is pleasant. With teak decking underfoot and groups of matching tables and chairs, it was the focal point for what was the late-night crowd.
Despite coming in at a svelte 22,000 tons, Deutschland features no less than four restaurants, all as beautifully appointed as the rest of the ship. Cuisine everywhere – it would be disgraceful to label it solely as food – was simply amazing, right up with the ultra-luxury ships in terms of quality and presentation. There were ostrich steaks, deer and wild boar on the menus, and desserts so rich, light and elegantly presented they stood out like exclamation marks.
All four venues feature sea views through walls of floor-to-ceiling windows; light, lavish d�cor and plush furnishings; and evocative maritime paintings. An expansive outdoor lido has a spread of gorgeous wrought iron tables and chairs sprinkled around a deck of almost blinding white teak, a lovely venue for afternoon tea or a light lunch.
There is a small outdoor pool in a central deck, and orderly rows of deck chairs lined smartly along immaculate, covered promenades. Even on the outdoor decks, chairs and deckchairs alike are adorned with royal blue cushions, each one adorned with the ship’s name picked out in simple white letters, elegant and right. And everywhere, the service was deft, prompt and unobtrusive, without ever being overpowering. The concept of simple good taste runs right through this ship like clear, refreshing spring water, marking Deutschland as a unique, elegant departure from the norm that simply dazzles in a world where mega-ships are increasingly in the ascendant. Requests were met efficiently and with a courtesy that was obviously genuine in every department.
The ship is unmistakably German, yet Americans, Canadians and British on board found no language problems, with menus and daily programmes alike thoughtfully translated for our needs.
Carrying around 500, this is still an environment where people make the effort to dress for dinner. And, really, they should to complement the beautiful surroundings.
All nationalities seemed to mix with effortless ease, and an air of ageless, real civility pervaded Deutschland like fine perfume for the duration of our voyage.
As part of her 10th anniversary celebration, she had embarked the celebrated Wurttemberg Chamber Orchestra for the whole voyage, plus a roster of different musicians, hugely proficient in disciplines from classical to jazz.
The result offered something for everyone. Orchestral performances in that magnificent ballroom were spellbinding affairs, with near peerless acoustics that nurtured a spectacular cacophony of sound that had even classical novices joining in with well-deserved standing ovations.
In short, Deutschland laid on a musical smorgasbord for her guests that never failed to deliver on a nightly basis. Carefully thought out, meticulously planned and spectacularly executed, the entire programme was an artistic and audio triumph. It was impossible to remain unmoved by it all.
Laden with good food, musicians and fine German wines and beers, we headed out of the historic Elbe and into the North Sea. The weather was unfeasibly benign for mid-September and would remain so for my few days on board. Many passengers even took the opportunity to take lunch or afternoon tea out on deck.
This allowed for amazing vistas on our passage through the North Sea canal on the approach to Amsterdam. Low, lush greenery enfolded the still, silent waters as we headed upstream, passed occasionally by some sturdy Dutch coasters and even the odd, time honoured combination of two men fishing from a small boat. Gradually, a series of spires splintered the skyline, and the city of Rembrandt and Van Gogh opened up in front of us. Gangways went down and we had a full 24 hours in town.
Leaves slowly falling from trees in the Vondelpark showed up as amazing patchwork quilts of gold and rust. Tourist boats beetled along canals lined by serried ranks of ancient brownstones where the play of light on water made for some beautiful photographs.
Bikes chained to bridges spanning these canals heightened the impression of walking through some incredible moving storybook. Bright yellow trams bustled along busy streets, threading through squares thronged with outdoor cafes and people rushing home from offices and factories. Back on board, I watched this fantastic living canvas fade from view as we stole downstream into the North Sea proper.
The experience of both ship and shore made me realise Deutschland offers her guests what amounts to two voyages in one. Firstly, the string of destinations that this adventurous little ship visits and, secondly, the ship herself, which is virtually a time capsule in her own right, taking you on a voyage back into an era where this kind of rich, chandeliered largesse was very much the norm for sea travel, and nowhere more so than on those legendary German four-stackers.
Passage up the 60-mile waterway leading to Antwerp was another compelling vista en route to an enchanting port city. I couldn’t help but reflect that Montgomery’s failure in 1944 to clear these same approaches allowed the Germans a breathing space that led first to the epic failure at Arnhem, and then allowed Hitler to mount the last great German offensive in the Ardennes that same December. Gliding up that silent, genteel waterway on a sublime Sunday morning just made those events seem even more poignant. Antwerp itself is a gothic wonderland, with horse-drawn double-decker buses clattering through squares flanked by a riot of amazing Flemish architecture; an ornate confection of multi-hued stone edifices surmounted by packs of ageless, glaring gargoyles. Anything less than Belgian waffles at a local caf�, awash in the gorgeous local chocolate, would simply have been so wrong.
Deutschland set sail that afternoon, serenaded by a Dixieland jazz band and watched by a large crowd, taking advantage of the fine weather. As that rollicking music faded slowly into the backdrop of dreamy spires and pleasant seaside parks, my time aboard this unique floating art work came to a gentle end. I already knew then I would return to her in a heartbeat.