One would think that a "motor sailing yacht," complete with five masts and seven sails, and with a passenger capacity of only 312, would be a small and cozy little ship. But Windstar Cruises' Wind Surf is surprisingly expansive, feeling much bigger inside than one would expect.
Another plus: The 14,745-ton vessel's distinct profile is a familiar sight in the smaller ports around the Mediterranean and Caribbean, ports which larger ships cannot enter. This fact, and the unique onboard ambience, fueled largely by the presence of its sails, makes the ship an intriguing alternative to larger, more frenetic vessels. The itineraries are another draw, as they blend calls at the aforementioned smaller ports -- a Mediterranean cruise from Barcelona to Monte Carlo also stops at Italy's Corsica and Spain's Palamos, and a Caribbean trip from Barbados includes the French West Indies' Iles des Saintes as well as St. Martin.
Built in 1990 as Club Med I, Wind Surf served as a "motor sailing" alternative for the French resort company. It was uniquely crafted with 25,000 square ft. of computer-operated sails and a water-ballast stabilizing system that keeps the ship level while in motion. When Windstar acquired the ship in 1998, it lowered the passenger capacity by 78 to make room for amenities such as a large spa and an alternative eatery that were not available on the bare-bones Club Med I (these additions are absent on Windstar's smaller Wind Star and Wind Spirit).
Wind Surf is the flagship of the Windstar fleet, which includes the identical, and much smaller, 5,350-ton, 148-passenger Wind Star and Wind Spirit siblings. The biggest difference between this ship and the others is that Wind Surf's extra space allows for some familiar large-ship amenities (the aforementioned spa and alternative restaurant along with a roomy casino) while sacrificing little of the twins' reputation for personalized service. So you can chat with the captain and other officers, view the ship's operation from the bridge, and experience "we know your name" service while also participating in casino gambling, art auctions and spa indulgences.
So Wind Surf is a hybrid -- big ship in a small ship or, you could argue, a small ship in a big one. And that makes it hard to pigeon-hole. It's not quite a luxury experience (there are no balcony cabins, bathrooms don't have tubs, and room service is limited), and yet it's not mass market, either (you will rarely feel part of a crowd, onboard or off).
Windstar's positioning of the ship as a luxury yacht can be misleading. The white plastic loungers scattered around the decks seemed out of place for an upscale ship, and the fact that there was no shuttle service whatsoever (even for a fee) during our overnight in Monaco, where the buses stop running at 7 p.m. and cabs don't come to the dock after 5 p.m., seemed pretty downscale too.
And yet: the service personnel (waiters, room stewards, bar servers) were the best we've ever had, really remembering your name after the first time you're asked, and remembering your drink preference after your first order. And (important for us), you can get a complimentary espresso or cappuccino at any time, not just at dinner, which is definitely not found on mass-market lines.
We'll give kudos to Windstar for a regular commitment to refurbishing and upgrading its ships, and Wind Surf is no exception. It underwent a series of improvements several years ago and received another series of fresh additions in November 2006.
Breakfast and lunch are served in The Veranda, a top-deck restaurant surrounded by glass walls and open to a terrace for al fresco dining in good weather. Both meals are served semi-buffet style; you can order dishes from a menu at the grill just outside the restaurant's doors, or you can get your own items from the small but lavish buffet set up inside.
Special breakfast items ordered from the grill change daily and are always freshly made -- whether it's a chorizo and asparagus frittata or crepes with strawberries. Always available: eggs Florentine, eggs Benedict, poached or scrambled eggs, waffles and pancakes. Lunch is similarly served, with hot and cold items available buffet-style, a fresh pasta station, and burgers, chicken, hot dogs and other grilled items outside.
Windstar has also added a gourmet sandwich bar to the Yacht Club lounge for dining in or taking out (for picnics ashore). There are eight varieties from which to choose, themed to the places Windstar sails, such as Italian (salami, mortadella, provolone cheese and pesto) and Greek (feta cheese, tomatoes, lettuce, red onions and olives). Guests can also customize sandwiches, and options are available for vegetarians. The Yacht Club Sandwich Bar is open from 7 a.m. until 6:30 p.m. daily and also features full espresso bar, fruit juices, soft drinks, bottled water, domestic and imported beers, and wines by the glass for purchase.
The Restaurant, the ship's main dining venue, has open-seating from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. While the service is generally excellent, the menu options appealing (there's always an interesting fish or meat dish, including roast pork, steaks, prime rib, seared tuna, salmon and shrimp), and the cuisine well prepared, the presentation was surprisingly dull. The main entree seemed to be plunked onto a dish, a few vegetables added, and no thought given to aesthetics.
An alternative is Degrees. Whereas the main dining room is bisected with a divider, making each side feel small and cluttered, Degrees is a larger open space with doors that open onto the deck just above the bow. Fewer guests are served, so the experience feels more intimate and personal. Menu options there take on a theme each night: French, steakhouse, Italian, etc. Reservations are requisite; if you don't call at, or near, 8 a.m. on the day you want to dine there, you may not get a table.
In October 2008, Wind Surf doubled its evening dining options with the introduction of two new dinner venues, Le Marche and Candles. Le Marche is an al fresco seafood bar on the ship's Star Deck. Its specialty is fish and shellfish, served in multiple courses. Candles is the poolside grill dressed up for dinner with a menu of steaks and skewers with a choice of sauces. Each venue can take up to 30 diners a night, and as there is no additional charge, reservations are strongly encouraged. Dinner service in these two outdoor areas is also subject to weather conditions.
To add to the dining experience, there are several special events that take place each cruise. On one afternoon, there's an outdoor barbecue featuring lobster tails, flank steak and spare ribs that are melt-in-your-mouth fabulous. The buffet in the Lounge on the evening of the crew show is beyond wonderful, with local flavors and tons of variety. The Lounge itself becomes quite festive too, and is a great venue for visiting with the new friends you've made onboard during the week.
There's also a caviar afternoon spread out on the aft deck at the Compass Rose bar. It was so popular on our cruise that it was nearly impossible to get to the tables where it was being served, along with toast points, chopped egg whites, chopped egg yolks, chopped red onion and sour cream. Vodka was available to purchase by the glass. One morning caviar was served for breakfast in The Veranda (with the same accompaniments), but it was off to the side and not many people realized it was there. Tea is served daily in the Compass Rose (as is an early or late riser's Continental breakfast).
Except for the few pastries and beverages offered for breakfast, the lunch and dinner room service menu is extensive; you can order from the restaurant offerings for lunch and supper; though service was inconsistent (we tried at lunch one day and were told that the only things available were on the in-room menu).
There is no table in the room, so trays have to be placed on the bed or perched on the end of the desk. This absence makes in-room dining awkward.
We were honestly surprised at the size of The Lounge, Wind Surf's main indoor salon. It spans the ship from port to starboard and is furnished with comfy, casual furniture so you can really relax. Low pillow-strewn banquettes line the walls under the windows, tables are scattered about, and a stage is set up for the combo that plays most evenings and the crew show, which takes place one night during the cruise.
The centrally located Yacht Club replaces the previous library and provides comfortable seating for socializing, reading, doing puzzles and playing games. This is also where you'll find the aforementioned Yacht Club Sandwich Bar -- and gourmet coffee drinks and pastries. Eight computers with Internet access are available (these take the place of those formerly in the business center); personal laptops may also connect to wireless Internet. A large flatscreen television anchors a seating area for group gatherings to watch special events such as the Oscars or the Super Bowl. A library of books, CDs and DVDs are available for checkout at no charge.
Our favorite spot onboard is the Compass Rose bar at the back of the ship just above the swimming pool and hot tubs. It's another indoor-outdoor venue, surrounded with teak tables and woven wicker-like chairs with cushions. During the day it's an excellent hang-out spot; at night, when the weather is nice, sitting outside while listening to the entertainment is a highlight of the evening. The chairs and tables are pushed to the side for dancing when appropriate.
There's a pool bar below Compass Rose -- open during the day -- and a "cigar bar" just above.
Hint: If you want to do some quiet chatting on deck in the evenings, choose a table on the aft deck outside of the cigar bar. The pool deck area is lovely, but there's a large speaker on either side broadcasting the music from Compass Rose, and it's quite loud.
The upgrades that took place on Wind Surf early in 2006 focused mainly on staterooms. New beds and bedding were installed, bath amenities were upgraded, flat-screen TV's, DVD players and Bose iPod speaker docks were added (you can borrow loaded iPods from the front desk at no charge -- though you can't load your own, they've got some 1,000 musical selections on them).
Additional upgrades have focused on the bathrooms: granite counters, new shower and toilet enclosures, updated lighting.
There are two cabin types. Most are standard cabins at 188 square ft. -- on the small side of industry average. All are identical, with portholes, a queen bed that converts to twins, an entertainment area and small desk/vanity. There's no sitting area, but each room does come with two Shaker-style chairs with arms and cushions; one is at the desk and the second one is largely useless unless you need an easy place to toss your sweater when you come in for the evening. There are flat-screen televisions -- a great addition -- but they don't swivel, so you can only watch from the bed, not from the desk area.
The new beds, with their fluffy down comforters and array of pillows, are dreamworthy and luxe. What used to be flat, unappealing sleeping surfaces covered in striped or flowered nylon spreads, has given way to luscious pillow-topped mattresses with upscale sheets, white duvets, a gold and wine-colored bed throw, and navy and wine colored decorative pillows.
Suites are essentially two standard cabins turned into one bigger one; on one side there's a living area, with couch and small dining table. On the other is the bedroom. There are two bathrooms -- and these are the same as those found in standard accommodations.
Slightly angled, the space features a roomy rounded shower enclosure and a rounded toilet enclosure, with a sink and vanity between the two. Nicely-sized (and fitting within new airline guidelines for carrying them onboard!), the 2.5 ounce-sized L'Occitane en Provence soaps, shampoo and lotion are wonderful. The original wood floor and wooden trim at the vanity and around the mirrors will remain after the refit, we've been assured, which is a good thing since the wood adds to the yacht-like feel of the space.
Two new luxury suites on the Wind Surf's bridge deck are approximately 500 square feet each and include a living and dining area, separate bedroom with walk-in closet, and a marble bathroom with whirlpool tub and separate shower. Guests in the Bridge Suites will enjoy extra service amenities such as unpacking service, an invitation to dine with the Captain, laundry and pressing, evening appetizers, afternoon tea service upon request, complimentary bottled water in the suite, chilled champagne upon arrival and additional L'Occitane bath amenities.
Outlets in both 110v (one) and 220v (two) are located under the desk, hard to find unless you know they're there. The 110v didn't work in our cabin, but we had brought our converter kit and both of the 220's worked perfectly.
Each cabin also features a telephone and stocked mini-bar, and each is set up with Wi-Fi. The in-room Internet service works well, but during our cruise, a glitch caused us to be continually signed in, even after rebooting our laptop. Trying to get the excess charges resolved was challenging, to say the least, and here the service from the cafe manager -- who also was a dive instructor -- was the poorest I encountered on the ship.
Our suggestion: unless it's critical, leave the laptop and/or BlackBerry at home and use the ship's computers to peruse your e-mail.
There are no cabins configured for wheelchair-bound guests; although the staff and crew will happily assist guests with physical challenges. One important note on this subject: If you do have mobility difficulties and can't negotiate stairways, be careful not to book a mid-ship room on either Deck 1 or Deck 2. There are watertight doors on those floors that are closed when the ship gets underway or when it's entering a port, and guests in mid-ship cabins cannot get to either elevator bank until the watertight doors are reopened.
Windstar now automatically adds a hotel service charge of $11 per passenger to each guest's shipboard account on a daily basis. If service exceeds or fails to meet expectations, you may adjust this amount at the end of the cruise. In addition, a 15 percent service charge is automatically added to bar charges and dining room wine purchases. These charges are paid entirely to Windstar crewmembers -- both crewmembers who serve you directly, such as wait staff and cabin stewards, and others you may never meet, such as galley and laundry staff -- and represent an important part of their compensation. It isn't necessary to tip beyond the $11 per diem, of course, but almost everyone does.
|Fitness and Recreation|
The ship, which is marketed to active travelers of whatever age, has a large and well-equipped fitness spa facility. The gym features near-new equipment of all types, from treadmills to free weights, which were constantly in use during our cruise (though none of the treadmills have individual flat-screen televisions that are popular in more up-to-date facilities). Pilates and yoga classes are available at $11 per class.
The spa, operated by Steiner of London, is surprisingly spacious for a ship of this size, with several treatment rooms and even a float capsule. Teeth whitening was heavily promoted, but the Hydrotherapie Facial (at $99) was perfect after a day in the Mediterranean sun. The best prices are reserved for shore days. And because so much of our itinerary was port intensive, the spa was open late -- to 10 p.m. most nights -- which was a nice convenience for folks who didn't stay onboard during the day.
Wind Surf's best feature, though, is its sports platform, a marine playground right on the ship. Available only when the ship is at anchor (i.e., in tender ports), and depending on the weather, sea conditions and local regulations, guests can avail themselves of kayaks, windsurfers, Zodiacs, snorkeling equipment and even water-skis. A dive program, complete with guides and instructors, is available as well.
This ship offers no concessions to families with younger children (although we were surprised to find some toddler-centric DVD's in the library). In any event, children under two aren't allowed to cruise, and while older kids with an interest in ships, yachts, sailing and destinations might be intrigued, there's little else to engage children with short attention spans. That, in fact, is one of the attributes that makes a Wind Surf cruise special.
Passengers tend to be well-traveled and active in mind and spirit, with age ranges from 30 - 80. The ship tends to appeal to folks who like a traditional cruise ship style but want to try a more exotic experience.
During the day, dress onboard is decidedly casual, even "beachy." In the evenings, "country-club casual" prevails, with men wearing collared shirts (no ties) and women in pant suits or coordinates. There are no formal nights onboard. Dress in Degrees seemed to be more oriented toward cocktail-attire, but that is not a requirement of the ship -- the only caveat from that quarter being no bathing suits or tank tops allowed in the restaurants at supper time.
Imagine finding the daily roster of activities on your bed each night with barely a thing on it. That's one of the hallmarks of a cruise onboard Wind Surf -- the lack of organized entertainment such as one would find on a more traditional cruise ship. Instead, the roster tells you what dining is available and when, what time the combo starts playing in the Lounge, the opening hours for the casino, the televised movies for that day (most new if not the Oscar-buzz-worthy top films), and the hours for entertainment in the Compass Rose.
A secondary set of pages advertising spa specials and the Park West art auctions were also delivered each night; the display for the latter being fairly unobtrusively set up in corners of the Lounge and Main Deck corridors.
There is no "cruise director" on Wind Surf; instead, there are a pair of hosts, a relic from the Club Med days, where "gentils organisateurs" ("gracious hosts" in English) performed that function. Each evening one of the hosts gives a port information talk about the next day's stop. Everyone gathers in the Lounge at 7 p.m. to learn about the port, the shore excursions, the region and its history. Unfortunately, since shore excursions close at 10 a.m. the day before, if you're particularly intrigued by one of the host's descriptions, it's too late to book the tour.
On the other hand, you do at least get a fairly good overview of the region you're visiting, and ideas and options for the following day. It's fun and collegial to attend these talks and then head off to dinner afterwards.
On the night of the Lounge buffet extravaganza, certain members of the crew put on a show. It's smaller in scale than on larger ships, of course, but part of the fun is that by then, you've come to know the players quite well, and seeing them perform is much more rewarding.
Of course ship entertainment changes from one season to the next, but for our cruise, there was one great duo and one mediocre band. The couple that performed nightly in Compass Rose was young, hip, with-it and fabulous -- bar-none the best individual performers we have ever seen on a ship. We particularly loved the night they did a tribute to Shania Twain and Tina Turner; the woman singer could really belt out a tune. When she morphed into Tina, and started "Proud Mary," the crowd was on its feet singing along. Just fab!
The combo in The Lounge lacked both energy and a compelling playlist and commanded scant attention.
The adjacent casino has approximately 30 slots in denominations from 10 cents to $1, three blackjack tables, one poker table, and a roulette wheel. Blackjack was fairly popular on our cruise; most of the slot machines got little use.
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