Windstar's namesake ship -- Wind Star, a sleek, four-masted, motorized sailing yacht that's one of three in the casual-yet-upscale line's fleet -- was built in 1986. Yet, continuous upkeep and recent refurbishments have kept it fresh and youthful. In the cabins, creaky old bathrooms have been spruced up with granite countertops, high-piled towels and fancy shower sprayers; and new combination DVD/CD/iPod players have upped the ante in the tech toys department. Public rooms and restaurants have been updated, too.
Windstar was acquired in 2011 by Xanterra Parks and Resorts, and all three ships underwent an $18 million refurbishment in 2012.Wind Star's Restaurant was redesigned and renamed AmphorA, and a new menu was implemented. The Pool Bar was revamped to create additional alfresco seating for sunset dining at Candles Grill, with a new awning and deck furniture. The reception area was updated, and The Lounge got new hardwood flooring and a new AV system.
What hasn't changed, however, is the onboard experience. The cruise line has stuck to its core concept: a balance of small-ship features -- low passenger occupancy, high passenger-to-crew ratios, personalized service -- and more big-ship ones, particularly where pricing is involved. Excursions and alcoholic beverages levy additional charges, though water and soft drinks are included.
Wind Star is intimate and romantic, and it's a treat to cruise on a real sailing ship. But its small size means you also benefit from access to otherwise unreachable ports. Wind Spirit offers unique itineraries that include ports of call both on and off the mainstream grid, as well as plenty of active adventures ashore. On our cruise, we were the only ship in port for the majority of the destinations, allowing passengers to explore without being harangued by thousands of passengers from competing mega-ships.
A fellow passenger told us he hadn't cruised on a Windstar vessel in well over a decade, but was glad to see from his week on Wind Star that not much had changed. He wasn't the only repeat passenger, and many others had cruised much more recently, waving hello to staffers they recognized from past trips. There's a genuine connection between the people who work and sail on these ships.
There's something else that made this cruise memorable: our fellow passengers.
Maybe it's the open-seating dining at every meal, the casual and comfortable dress code or the fact that the ship carries only 146 at double occupancy, but there's something about being onboard this ship that makes you want to meet, mingle and have fun. Even groups of couples traveling together fostered camaraderie, rather than sticking with their cliques. Since returning home, we've exchanged e-mails, photos and travel stories with new friends we made onboard -- some of whom are already planning to take a Windstar cruise together again soon.
However, honeymooners, of which there were a few on the cruise, tended to choose tables for two and had fun just enjoying the ambience of the ship and each other. That's the beauty of Windstar -- if you want to mix and mingle, you have plenty of social opportunities, and if you want to be left on your own, you won't be pressured to socialize.
The ship's main dining room, previously called The Restaurant, was transformed in 2012 into AmphorA Restaurant. Still located on Deck 3, the space has been completely redesigned, as has the menu. The venue is accented with warm wood finishes and has luxurious and comfy booths, with many tables for two and four passengers.
Dinner is all open seating, and it's served there nightly between 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. Each night, the menu includes at least one meat entree (steak, lamb), fresh fish, poultry and a vegetarian option. In fact, vegetarian selections in all categories (appetizers, salads, etc.) are highlighted daily in a special area of the menu and are always plentiful -- not just piles of whatever side dishes were left over from creating the other entrees, but unique creations like Vegetable Wellington, layered roasted vegetables baked in puff pastry and served with shallot cream sauce, and a steamed bok choy wedge.
Dietary restrictions are also well addressed; we met a woman with severe gluten and additive allergies, who told us the head chef met with her, one-on-one, every day, to go over a special menu his team created just for her.
Overall, we were most impressed with the fish dishes. Many cruise lines serve only frozen fish, but Windstar brings local catch onboard whenever it can.
Servers were attentive but not overbearing -- the same pleasant trend we saw in the Pool Bar and elsewhere onboard. In AmphorA, plates were delivered and taken away with the kind of ease that allows you to continue conversation with your tablemates. Special requests, from simple to nit-picky, were never a problem. (For example, a new acquaintance wanted a Riedel wine glass, which are available primarily in the Lounge; the waiter fetched one.) Meals were never rushed. If we arrived at the dining area 10 minutes before closing, we got the same attentive service that we received shortly after opening. Waiters tend to remember your preferences and anticipate your requests by bringing you your favorite beverages and condiments before you order them.
Breakfast and lunch are served on Deck 4 in the Veranda, an airy dining space with some floor-to-ceiling windows looking out on the outer deck and the sea. During a recent refurbishment, the outdoor portion of the Veranda was expanded to create room for more alfresco dining. Breakfast is served from about 7:30 until 9:30 a.m. each morning, but the times can vary slightly, depending on tour departures, so check the daily program. A buffet bar includes pastries, tasty fresh smoothies (different flavors every day -- don't miss the honey and melon), fresh fruit, and cheeses and meats. There's an omelet station; warmed buffet trays containing sausage, bacon and hash browns; and a communal toaster next to piles of bagels, bread and English muffins. You can also order waiter-service breakfast items from a printed menu that includes eggs made to order, French toast, pancakes and eggs Benedict. Staff members are available to pour coffee and carry and clear plates.
If you prefer a lighter breakfast, a spread of pastries, juices, coffee and tea is available by the Pool Bar every morning from 6 until about 10:30 a.m. Snacks are also served every day in this same spot from 4 until 5 p.m. -- generally some finger sandwiches, fresh-cut fruit, coffee and sweets; don't miss the layer bars with dark chocolate chips and coconut. Appetizers are served most evenings in the lounge before dinner from approximately 6:15 to 7:15 p.m.
Passengers have two options for lunch, which is served only in this venue. One is to order a waiter-service entree off a set menu. (Items change daily, but there are also some always-available items, such as grilled salmon and hamburgers.) Most folks opted for option two, the buffet, which centered on a different cuisine (Italian, Mexican, etc.) each day. Some of the best meals we had onboard were lunches in the Veranda.
Another memorable experience was at Candles, the ship's alternative dining option; tables are set for alfresco dining outside the Veranda in the evenings between 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. The menu includes grilled meats (like filet mignon), rack of lamb and fish (fresh mahi mahi). There's no charge to eat there; reservations are available until 6 p.m. the same day. Candles is a wonderful way to watch the sunset as you dine.
There is always a special poolside BBQ one night of the cruise, during which all other dining facilities are closed down (except for room service). The BBQ was a highlight of the trip. Tables were set and dressed with colorful cloths and faux candles. A buffet of salad, bread, shrimp cocktail, cheese and pate prefaced rice and beans, grilled steak and chicken, roasted pork and lobster tails, plus regional dishes. The anchor of the dessert buffet was a bananas foster station with amply poured rum and Grand Marnier as a topping or "floater."
Finally, room service is available 24 hours a day. During lunch or dinner hours, you can order off the daily menu for the Veranda or the AmphorA Restaurant. Continental breakfast -- coffee, tea, juice, pastries -- is available between 6 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. You can call in your order or leave a hanging card on your doorknob the night before. Orders were delivered quickly, and the food was always hot and impressive.
Passengers board Wind Star on Deck 3, midship, near the reception desk, which doubles as the shore excursions form drop-off area. Reception only keeps certain hours, though you can dial housekeeping for any after-hours assistance. A spruced up lobby features a fountain with cascading glass crystals.
Walking aft, you'll find the Signature Shop, a small duty-free shop with just the necessities -- sunscreen, painkillers, batteries, toothpaste, etc. -- as well as a few gifts that include jewelry, perfume and clothing. Hours fluctuate, and the shop is not open when the ship is docked; check your daily program for opening and closing times.
The library, located next to the gift shop, has only a few shelves of books (the bulk of which is made up of travel guides) and about four times as many DVD's. Two computer stations are available for connecting to the Internet, though laptop users can access bow-to-stern Wi-Fi. Packages are available, but they're costly: 50 megabytes for $66 or 100 megabytes for $150. (Note that this is different from Internet offerings on most other ships, which usually charge per-minute fees or sell packages of minutes.) The connection is, as is standard at sea, slow. Consider waiting until you can hit an Internet cafe ashore.
All the way aft is the Lounge, which is the ship's primary gathering spot. Our first introduction to the Lounge was during the check-in process, which is quite civilized. You show up at the dock, hand over your luggage and walk up the gangway, which takes mere minutes. Then, you fill out the necessary paperwork in the Lounge, amid complimentary mimosas and passed canapes, rather than in a stuffy terminal.
One public space that's a bit of a surprise is the navigation bridge. Wind Star has an open bridge policy, which means you can stop by at pretty much any time to see what the captain and his crew are up to. Only six passengers are allowed in the wheelhouse at anytime, and alcoholic beverages are not permitted.
Smoking is not permitted inside of the ship, but Cigars under the Stars was offered one evening during the cruise at the pool bar. Smokers can find a designated smoking area on the starboard side of Deck 4.
Choosing a cabin is actually quite easy on Wind Spirit -- they're all exactly the same, with the exception of one Owner's Cabin. On Decks 1 and 2 are 73 regular cabins that measure 188 square feet, each with an ocean view via two side-by-side portholes; there are no balconies. The Owner's Cabin, on Deck 1, is just slightly larger at 220 square feet. The additional space accommodates an extra sitting area. There are no cabins for disabled travelers.
Though the cabins are on the small side by industry standards -- and are one of the few areas in which the 20-plus-year-old ship shows wear (scratches on the furniture, worn carpeting etc.) -- upgrades and creature comforts make them special.
The bathrooms, a major focus in recent refurbishments, are a perfect example of this compact-but-luxurious concept. Wooden flooring adds to the yachtlike feel onboard. Lots of shelves flank both sides of the mirror above the sink in each bathroom, and there's a full complement of bath goodies, including soap, shampoo, conditioner and bath gel from L'Occitane; shower caps; and a canister bursting with cotton balls and swabs. There is a pull-out mirror with a magnifier on one side that is great for putting on jewelry or makeup. In a separate circular alcove to one side is the toilet and, to the other side, a standup shower with both fabric and plastic curtains, which adds a touch of class and prevents flooding accidents. The shower features both an adjustable showerhead and a hand-held sprayer -- great for shaving -- with excellent, powerful water pressure.
In the cabins themselves, heavenly, sleep-inducing twin beds with plush Euro-top mattresses combine to make a queens. The beds are covered with Egyptian cotton linens and backed by leather headboards with reading lights in addition to regular lighting. The beds face a flat-screen television that's mounted flush to the wall. Though this means it can't be swiveled and viewed well from elsewhere in the cabin, it helps to maximize space. (It's a tight squeeze between the foot of the bed and the wall.) The TV receives several channels, including CNN International, BBC, FOX News, MSNBC, CNBC and Sky Sport News. There is also a channel that describes shore excursions. Three movie channels each show different titles daily in a loop.
In a cabinet between the bed and the desk is the mini-bar, the telephone, an alarm clock and a DVD/CD player that's also an iPod dock with Bose SoundDock speakers. (Remote controls for this are available at reception.) You can borrow movies and preloaded iPod Nanos from the library, free of charge. Fluffy robes and slippers await all passengers in side-by-side narrow closets. A tip for the ladies: One side features a wire, pull-out shoe rack -- handy, yes, but you'll want to call dibs on the other side so you have more vertical space for hanging sundresses. Note: The beds are high enough to store suitcases underneath.
Before cluttering up the generously sized desk with personal affects, know this: secret compartments abound. It's actually a clever way in this cozy space to make one piece of furniture multitask as a table and bureau. The countertop is divided into three sections. The leftmost section lifts up to reveal a lighted makeup mirror -- too bad we discovered this on the last night of the cruise! -- which is helpful because the lighting above the general area is poor. In the middle section, the countertop lifts up to reveal the safe, which locks with a key, and a panel pulls outward to create a tabletop for room service meals. Finally, the countertop of the rightmost section lifts to reveal a shallow cubby for storage. The desk also features shelves for extra storage behind hinged doors: two on the left, two on the right.
Two U.S. outlets are available; they're located to the right of the desk and the mini-bar, and they're easy to find and use. A 1,675-watt hair dryer is provided.
A bowl of fresh fruit is restocked daily, as is the mini-bar. The ship offers a laundry service, $109 for a week per cabin, and you'll get your laundry washed, ironed and returned to you each day.
A $12 service charge is automatically added to passenger accounts each day. A gratuity of 15 percent is automatically added to beverage tabs and spa service charges (though you have the option to specify a smaller or greater amount for the latter if you'd prefer). Some passengers choose to recognize outstanding staff members with extra tips at the end of the cruise.
Because these cruises draw an active crowd, the real entertainment happens ashore. On a Greek Isles and Turkey sailing, passengers can take a gullet cruise (aboard a wooden sailing boat) on a ride among the Bodrum peninsula's magnificent caves. Cruises often feature naturalists, who offer port talks. It's a good idea to attend these port talks to learn about the excursions offered and to select those that are best suited to your activity level and interests.
Onboard, the social hub of the ship is the Lounge on Deck 3. It has contemporary furnishings with comfy arm chairs and sofas, a projection screen for video presentations, a corner bar and a piano. The lounge has large open spaces with a center stage that doubles as a dance floor. Large picture windows enhance the experience and give passengers wide, sweeping views of the sea. The Lounge is used as a meeting place for shore tours and to host folkloric performances, lectures, and pre- and post-dinner cocktails and appetizers.
You won't find any Vegas-style shows, a la mainstream mega-ships, but that doesn't mean music and dancing are no-no's. A pianist plays nightly in the Lounge before and after dinner. Local entertainers might also come aboard in certain ports.
On the night of the poolside BBQ, the crew organized an outdoor deck party. The ship's pianist subbed in as disc jockey, and the crew performed a couple of well-rehearsed if not perfected line-dances ("Footloose," anyone?), with passengers joining in the fun. The party lasted to well past midnight. Crewmembers said they adjust the music and dances to the tastes of the cruise travelers onboard.
Here's a secret, though: the crew will organize a shindig for whoever's willing to stay up and boogie anytime -- not just after the BBQ. The following night, a group of us asked the bar staff to turn up the radio for an impromptu dance party revival, which ended up being very well attended. (Photo op: Above the Pool Bar on the starboard side is an adorable mini-disco ball that's quite possibly the smallest at sea. It's certainly the smallest we've ever seen!)
Finally, though there's not a huge focus on gambling, there is a small casino off the port side of the Lounge that is open when the ship is at sea. A few slot machines in denominations of 25 cents to one dollar are open from about 10 a.m. Two gaming tables -- a Caribbean stud poker table ($3 minimum) and a blackjack table ($2) -- are open in the evenings and during scheduled tournaments. We never saw more than one passenger in there at a time, except for tourney times.
|Fitness and Recreation|
You'll find a small saltwater pool and adjacent hot tub on Deck 4 in front of the Pool Bar; both are open from 7 a.m. until midnight. On deck, the sleek and streamlined teak woods are polished and inviting, with an ample supply of padded lounge chairs and umbrellas. If you'd like to walk around the deck, eight laps equal a mile. A piece of advice from experience: The best time to fit in that stroll is before 8 a.m. -- before the deck chairs are put out and the sunbathers show up. Early morning is also a great time for watching the crew raise the sails (weather permitting) and spotting dolphins around the ship.
There's a small gym onboard, outfitted with two treadmills, a stepper, an elliptical, a weight machine and some free weights and exercise bands. The fitness center is open from 6 a.m. until midnight. Pathway Pilates and yoga are offered on deck. Besides a fitness scale in the gym, there's also a medical scale in the hallway across the way, just outside the infirmary.
However, our favorite stay-fit feature onboard is the water sports platform, located aft on Deck 2, which is open at certain times when the ship is at anchor. (Check the daily program for hours, weather conditions permitting.) It became a ritual to come back from a busy, hot day and cool off with a few laps in the deep blue sea. Beyond swimming, other activities include kayaking, sailing, water-skiing, windsurfing and diving. Floating mats and tubes were also available on our trip, and you can check out complimentary snorkel equipment to use throughout the cruise, to be returned the day before debarkation.
Bicycles can be rented for excursions, too.
The Wind Spa, open 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., is located on Deck 3 off the Lounge on the starboard side. It received all new soft goods during the 2012 refurbishment and features a salon for hair and nails, as well as two treatment rooms for spa services. The WindSpa offers facials, massages, body sculpting, wraps, body composition analysis, personal training, men's haircuts and shaves, and even teeth whitening. Elemis products are sold in the spa, and we got a sales pitch for them following our treatments. If you don't want to be bothered, it's ok to tell them you're not interested in buying products prior to your treatment.
The average age on most voyages is about 50, though passengers (mostly couples) range in age from 30's to 70's. The youngest passenger on our cruise was 11, and many families were traveling with older teenagers and college-age children. Passengers are well-traveled, well-heeled and generally active, particularly on Caribbean and Costa Rican itineraries that offer adventurous shore tours like hiking and zip-lining. Interestingly, a good number of Windstar passengers are first-time cruisers -- about one-third. On our sailing, the remainder seemed to be an even split of both Windstar repeaters and cruise veterans who were new to the line.
The dress code is casual during the day. Most men wear shorts and collared shirts or T-shirts, with ladies in shorts, cropped jeans or capris and cotton tops or sundresses. At night, jeans, shorts, T-shirts, tank tops and tennis shoes are "forbidden" in the main dining room. (But, we did see a few neat jeans slip through.) The written code is "casual elegance": men generally don button-down shirts or collared shirts with pants, and women wear sundresses or capris with light sweaters or blouses. Bottom line: Leave tuxes and evening gowns at home. Otherwise, pretty much anything goes.
The ship offers no programs or spaces for kids. Though children are allowed onboard, Windstar specifically states in its literature that "children, especially infants and toddlers, are not encouraged" and that travel for children under 24 months of age is limited. Likewise, we do not recommend this ship for youngsters because the experience onboard is very adult-focused; there's nothing onboard to occupy children.
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