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 Nano players have upped the ante in the tech toys department. Public rooms and restaurants have been updated, too.
During a 2012 refurbishment The Restaurant was redesigned, renamed AmphorA and a new menu was implemented. The Pool Bar also was redesigned to create additional al fresco seating for sunset dining at Candles Grill with a new awning and deck furniture. The Reception Area received a make-over, as did The Lounge with 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 guest-to-crew ratios, personalized service, unique itineraries that include ports of call both on and off the mainstream grid, and active adventures ashore -- and more big-ship ones, particularly where pricing is involved. (Drinks are a la carte, for example.) It's what we have termed "luxury lite."
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 with whom they'd sailed in the recent past. There's a genuine connection between the people who work and sail on these ships.
Indeed, beyond the treat of cruising on a real sailing ship -- engines silent, wind whipping the four, crisp white sails as you glide along the sun-kissed ocean -- and the fact that its sleek size offers access to otherwise unreachable ports, there's something else that made this cruise memorable: my 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 148 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, I've exchanged e-mails, photos and travel stories with new friends I made onboard -- some of whom are already planning to take a Windstar cruise together again soon.
The ship's main dining room, previously simply referred to as The Restaurant, was recently transfored into AmphorA Restaurant. Still located on Deck 3 the space has been completely redesigned, as has the menu.
An all-open-seating dinner is served there nightly between 7:30 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 zucchini ravioli. 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. Knowing this, I ordered a lot more fish than I normally would on a cruise, and I was glad I did because it was fresh -- and healthy. (It's rather nice to return home weighing the same as, or less than, when you left!)
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, and 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.)
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 al fresco 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 11 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.)
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 al fresco dining outside the Veranda in the evenings between 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. The menu is light -- kabobs, grilled meats (like filet mignon) and fish (fresh mahi mahi), salads -- which we especially appreciated after a super hot day in Nicaragua. There's no charge to eat there; reservations are available until 6 p.m. same day.
On our Costa Rica itinerary, there was a special poolside BBQ one night of the cruise, during which all other dining facilities were 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 salads, breads, shrimp cocktail, cheeses and pate prefaced rice and beans, grilled steak and chicken, roasted pork and lobster tails flown in from Maine. 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, juices, pastries -- is available between 6 and 11 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. The decor is understated and decidedly nautical, with lots of wood paneling and navy blue fabrics.
Walking aft, you'll find the Signature Shop, a small duty-free shop with just the necessities -- sunscreen, Advil, batteries, film, 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. There's also a library with, sadly, only a few shelves of books (the bulk of which is made up of travel guides) and about four times as many DVD's. There are also computer stations in there for connecting to the Internet, though laptop users can access bow-to-stern Wi-Fi. Packages are available from 45 cents per minute, but the connection is -- as is standard at sea -- slow. Consider waiting until you 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. The Lounge is also used as a meeting place for shore tours and to host folkloric performances, lectures, and pre- and post-dinner cocktails and appetizers.
One final "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 up at pretty much any time to see what the captain and his crew are up to. But, there are a few rules -- don't touch anything chief among them. Only six guests are allowed in the wheelhouse at anytime, and alcoholic beverages are not permitted.
Choosing a cabin is actually quite easy on Wind Star -- 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. Editor's note: Coming soon is a new cabin category of spa suites. These will feature organic bedding and a natural color scheme; spa credit and fitness classes will also be bundled into the fare for this category. Look for this option later in spring 2010.
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, 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 yacht-like 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. 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 add a touch of class and prevents flooding accidents. The shower features both an adjustable showerhead and a handheld 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 queen. 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, Cartoon Network, TNT, Turner Classic Movies, ESPN and Boomerang. Three movie channels each show different titles daily in a loop.
In a cabinet between the bed and the desk (more on that later) is the mini-bar, the telephone, an alarm clock and a DVD/CD player that's also an iPod Nano dock with Bose SoundDock speakers. (Remote controls for this are available at reception.) You can borrow movies and pre-loaded 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.
Outlets are available, but are hard to find; there's one to the right of the desk and another inside the cabinetry housing the DVD/CD/MP3 player. This is also where you'll find the compact hair dryer, but you're better off packing your own if you have space in your suitcase. The one provided is powerless.
A bowl of fresh fruit is restocked daily, as is the mini-bar.
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 guests choose to recognize outstanding staff members with extra tips at the end of the cruise.
|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. 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. For more personal training, there is a $225 package of three 45-minute Piloga (a combination of Pilates and yoga found only on Windstar) sessions. You can also meet with a personal trainer for $90, or get your body composition analyzed or schedule a nutritional consultation for $45 each. The fitness center is open from 6 a.m. until midnight. (Ate too many croissants? Besides a fitness scale in the gym, there's also a medical scale in the hallway across the weigh -- or, rather, way -- just outside the infirmary. We avoided it.)
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 Pacific Ocean. 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.
The Wind Spa, located off the Lounge on the starboard side, received all new soft goods during a 2012 refurbishment and features a salon for hair and nails and two treatment rooms for spa services. The best part of my massage -- which was nice, don't get me wrong -- was the fact that there was no slimy product pitch after the fact.
There are 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, save for cartoons on the in-cabin televisions.
The average age on most voyages is about 50, though passengers (mostly couples) range in age from 30's to 70's. The youngest passengers on our cruise were in their early 20's and were traveling with their parents. 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 polo shirts or T-shirts, with ladies in shorts, cropped jeans or capris with 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 polo 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.
Because these cruises draw an active crowd, the real entertainment happens ashore -- in Costa Rica, for example, there was zip-lining, rafting, hiking and so on. Our cruise featured a local naturalist, Carlos, who offered a detailed talk on the ports and excursions on the first full day of the cruise. If you have questions, it's a good idea to attend. We learned information about a tour we had pre-booked (specifically, that it involved four hours of horseback-riding, when we were expecting just one or two) that prompted us to make a swap, as we had a significant hike planned for the following day; we might not have realized that otherwise, as it wasn't clear in the write-up.
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. (That same performer doubles as an electronic keyboardist in the afternoons next to the pool.) He also hosted one "Name That Tune" competition in the Lounge, which ended up a standing-room-only event! Passengers separated into teams to compete for the grand prize -- a bottle of Champagne -- by listening to snippets of songs by Billy Joel, Elton John, the Beatles, Barry Manilow and more, and jotting down the names. The winners pegged an impressive 19 out of 20. (We were told that anything more than 16 is a "good score"; my team made third place with 17 correct.)
There was also one organized party, and this occurred after the poolside BBQ. The pianist-turned-keyboardist donned yet another hat, as deejay, and the crew partook in a couple of well-rehearsed if not perfected line-dances ("Footloose," anyone?). Afterward, passengers took to the deck for the usual crowd favorites like "Love Shack," "Celebrate" and "Hot, Hot, Hot."
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. There are nine slot machines in denominations of 25 cents to one dollar, open from about 10 a.m. There are also two gaming tables -- a Caribbean stud poker table ($3 minimum) and a blackjack table ($2) -- open in the evenings and during scheduled tournaments. We never saw more than one passenger in there at a time, except for tourney times.
|Expert reviews are provided by CruiseCritic.com, an award-winning cruise community. This objective information can help you choose just the right ship for your next cruise vacation.|