Wind Star Cruises
The Line in a Nutshell
Windstar walks a tightrope between luxury line and sailing-ship line, with an always-casual onboard vibe, beyond-the-norm itineraries, and first-class service and cuisine.
You say you want a cruise that visits interesting ports; has active options like watersports; has superfriendly yet efficient, on-the-nose service; provides excellent cuisine; has sailing trips with a romantic vibe; and still doesn't cost an arm and a leg? You pretty much only have one option: Windstar.
This is no barefoot, rigging-pulling, paper-plates-in-lap kind of cruise, but a refined yet down-to-earth, yachtlike experience for a sophisticated, well-traveled crowd of folks who wouldn't be comfortable on a big ship full of tourists. On board, stained teak, brass details, and lots of navy blue fabrics and carpeting lend a traditional nautical ambience, and though the ships' tall masts and white sails cut a traditional profile, they're also state of the art, controlled by a computer so that they can be furled or unfurled at the touch of a button. Despite the ships' relatively large size (Wind Surf is one of the world's largest sailing ships, if not the largest), they're able to travel at upward of 12 knots under sail power alone, though usually the sails are up more as a fuel-saving aid to the diesel engines.
People who expect high-caliber service and very high-quality cuisine, but dislike the formality of most of the luxe ships (as well as the mass mentality of the megaships) are thrilled with Windstar. Most passengers are couples in their late 30s to early 60s, with the average around 50. Overall, an amazing 60% to 70% of passengers are repeaters, back for their annual or semiannual dose of Windstar. There is also usually a handful of honeymoon couples aboard any given sailing -- a good choice on their part, as Windstar ranks high on our list of most romantic cruise lines. The line gets very few families with young kids -- rarely more than six or seven on any sailing, and usually only during school holiday periods. Children who do sail are usually in the 10-plus age range.
Overall, Windstar's sophisticated and well-traveled passengers are more down to earth than guests on the luxury lines, but not as nature- and learning-focused as guests on most of the other small-ship lines. Most want something different from the regular cruise experience, eschew the "bigger is better" philosophy of conventional cruising, and want their vacation to focus more on the ports than on onboard activities. These cruises are for those who are seeking a romantic escape and like to visit ports not often touched by regular cruise ships.
Windstar caters to corporate groups, too, with about 25% of its annual cruises booked as full charters or hosting affinity groups.
Thank goodness there's a company like Windstar in the frequently homogenous cruise industry. It's an individual. It's got personality. Its operations are friendly and almost old-fashioned, small-scale and full of employees who've been with the line for years. Reportedly, many repeat passengers check to make sure their favorite cabin steward, waiter, captain, or host/hostess will be aboard before they'll book a particular sailing.
The line got its start in 1984, founded by a consortium of two ship owners and Jean Claude Potier, a former U.S. head of the legendary French Line. From the start, it was all about the sails -- and specifically about a new cruise ship design by the Finnish shipbuilding company Wartsila. Dubbed the Windcruiser, the concept combined 19th-century sailing-ship technology with modern engineering to create a kind of vessel never seen before in the cruise ship world: huge by sailing-ship standards, with at least 21,489 square feet of computer-controlled staysails that furl and unfurl at the touch of a button and can work on their own or in concert with a diesel-electric engine. The concept worked then, and it works now: As you see a Windstar ship approaching port, with its long, graceful hull and masts the height of 20-story buildings, you'll forget all about the giant megaships moored nearby and think, "Now that's a ship."
Windstar's cuisine is tops in the small-ship category and is a high point of the cruise, served in two or three always-casual restaurants.
Traditional -- Dinner is served primarily in each ship's spacious, nautically appointed main restaurant, though the vibe here is less formal and regimented than aboard most larger ships. At dinner, the line's no-jackets-required policy for men means guests do the "casual elegance" thing -- pants or casual dresses for women, and trousers and nice collared shirts for men -- and its open-seating policy means you can show up when you want (within a 2-hr. window) and dine with whomever you want. Restaurants aboard all three ships are set up with an unusual number of tables for two, and there's rarely a wait -- proof that Windstar is serious about its romantic image.
Overall, Windstar's cuisine tends toward the straightforward, but with surprising twists and regional touches. Appetizers may include golden fried brie served with cranberry sauce and crispy parsley, or a sweet shrimp and crab salad. Among the main courses, there may be a grilled local fish served with a roast-corn salsa and sweet plantains, sautéed jumbo prawns served with garlic spinach and spaghetti, or an herb-and-peppercorn-coated prime rib of beef. Desserts such as an apple tart with raspberry coulis and chocolate crème brûlée are beyond tempting. A selection of exotic fine cheeses (many bought fresh in local markets) is served table side from a cheese cart, and petits fours are served with coffee after dinner. The restaurant's wine list features many boutique labels from California, Australia, New Zealand, Spain, France, and South Africa.
Vegetarian dishes and healthy choices are available for breakfast, lunch, and dinner; fat and calorie content is listed on the menu. The light choices may be Atlantic salmon with couscous and fresh vegetables, or a Thai country-style chicken with veggies and Asian rice. The vegetarian options may include a fresh garden stew or a savory polenta with Italian salsa.
Alternative -- Windstar's largest ship, Wind Surf, offers alternative dining at the casual, 128-seat Degrees, an intimate space with an understated fantasy-garden motif and a rotating menu reflecting the fresh and seasonal preparations of Mediterranean cooking. Reservations are required, but there's no additional fee. The Surf also has alfresco dining at a new seafood bar called Le Marché, also accommodating 30 guests a night. Aboard all three ships, Candles is an intimate poolside grill serving steaks and skewers for about 30 guests a night; reservations are required.
Casual -- Breakfast and lunch are available at the buffet-style Veranda Cafe, which provides a generous spread, as well as a specialty omelet station at breakfast and a grill choice at lunch. Waiters will bring the latter to your table, so there's no waiting. You can also opt for a simple continental breakfast at the stern-side Compass Rose Bar.
The once-a-week evening barbecues on the Pool Decks of the Star and Spirit are wonderful parties under the stars, with an ample and beautifully designed buffet, tables set with linens, and a band for more ambience. On Wind Surf, there's a gala buffet dinner once per cruise in the main lounge, which is transformed into a third dining room for the evening, with a culinary theme matching your cruise region. All three ships also have weekly barbecue lunches on deck.
Burgers, pizza, hot dogs, and the like are available from a grill in the afternoons.
Snacks & Extras -- Speedy room service delivers continental breakfast; a menu of about a dozen sandwiches, salads, seafood, and steaks from 11am to 10pm; and a dozen more snack items (from popcorn and chips and salsa to a cheese platter or beef consommé) 24 hours a day. During restaurant hours, you can have items from the restaurant's menu served course by course in your cabin, speedy and hot.
Windstar is a class operation, and its level of service is no exception. The staffmembers smile hello and often learn passengers' names within the first hours of sailing. Dining staff is efficient and first-rate as well, but not in that ultraprofessional, five-star-hotel, Seabourn-esque kind of way. That's not what Windstar is all about. As for tipping, Windstar automatically adds gratuities of $12 per person, per day to passengers' onboard accounts.
Because Windstar's itineraries emphasize days in port over days at sea (most cruises hit a port every day or spend just 1 day at sea per week), its ships have few organized activities, leaving days relaxed and unregimented -- the way guests prefer it. The handful of scheduled diversions usually include casino gaming lessons, walk-a-mile and stretch classes on deck, and an occasional vegetable-carving or food-decorating demonstration. A watersports platform can be lowered from the stern to allow kayaking, sailing, water-skiing, windsurfing, and ski tubing when the ship anchors offshore. Up top, the Pool Deck has a small pool and hot tub, deck chairs, and an open-air bar. Other open areas, especially on the larger Wind Surf, have quiet spots for reading.
In port, the company's shore excursions tend to be more creative than usual, and the onboard hosts or hostesses (aka cruise directors, who sometimes double as shore excursion managers and jacks-of-all-trades) are usually very knowledgeable about the ports and are able to point passengers toward good spots for swimming, places of cultural or historical interest, or a nice meal. Brief orientation talks are held before port visits.
The ships all maintain an open-bridge policy, so at most times you're free to walk right in and chat with the captain and officers on duty. There's an extensive collection of DVDs and CDs that passengers can borrow for use in their cabins. Guests may also check out fully loaded Apple iPod Nanos free of charge from the reception desk, using them either with headphones or in conjunction with the Bose SoundDock speakers in each cabin. There are also docking stations and headphones in Surf's Yacht Club Internet cafe lounge. All three ships provide Internet connectivity -- Wind Surf from eight computers in the Yacht Club, Star and Spirit via two computers in their libraries. All three vessels are also rigged for bow-to-stern Wi-Fi service, and wireless laptops are rentable at the front desk if you don't want to lug your own.
For the most part, passengers entertain themselves, though each ship does carry a number of musicians who provide tunes for evening dancing and background music. Most evenings, passengers either retire to their cabins, head for the modest casino with its table games and slots, or go up to the Compass Rose Bar (and also the indoor/outdoor Terrace Bar on the Surf) for a nightcap under the stars. Sometimes after 10 or 11pm, disco/pop music is played in the lounge if guests are in a dancing mood, and once per cruise, the ship's Indonesian and Filipino crewmembers put on a crew show featuring traditional and contemporary music and dance. It's always a crowd pleaser.
Because children sail infrequently with Windstar, no activities are planned for them. Kids who do sail are generally ages 10 and up, but there are rarely more than six or seven on any sailing, and those only during school breaks. The ships' DVD libraries stock some children's films. The minimum age for children to sail is 2 years.