What kind of I-SO-need-to-relax vacation do you take if you consider yourself a traveller, not a tourist?
You want a fair amount of time to nap and read your book, but can’t stomach another all-inclusive beach resort? You want to see something interesting, but don’t want to spend all your energy getting there? You want to be treated as an individual guest, and don’t want to stand in lines and fight crowds like on a big cruise? Your taste buds want quality, not quantity? You want interesting people to talk to, both fellow guests and staff?
When I need this kind of vacation, I turn to Windstar Cruises.
On Windstar, you feel like a guest. You don’t have to search for a lounge chair. You don’t get lost finding your cabin. You don’t feel herded on to over-priced boring tours. You don’t get cranky and sunburned waiting in a long line on the pier to re-board the ship at your designated hour. These are not typical cruise ships. Instead, you have a vacation where you can relax and recharge, but not get bored.
The most obvious difference between the big cruises and Windstar: first, the ships have sails, and second, they are small. The biggest ship, Wind Surf, has a maximum of 312 guests, with 191 staff. The twin Wind Star and Wind Spirit each max out at 148 guests, with 90 staff. Should you be on an ocean crossing, most likely the crew with outnumber the guests. By a lot. But the differences go far beyond size and sails.
One of my favourite things about Windstar is that it is casual. The thought of packing and wearing an evening dress in the tropics just makes me sweat. The only Windstar dress code is in the dining rooms and lounge in the evening, where they request no jeans, shorts or t-shirts. Most men wear khakis and a polo shirt, women a sundress, skirt or pants. Some men will wear a tie on occasion, and some women a cocktail dress, but regulars will (subtly) raise an eyebrow (they’ll have a sweater or fleece with them, to slip on after dinner when they stand in the wind in front of the bridge, looking at the sails against the stars).
A cruise ship? Won’t it be banquet food, or worse?
A relaxing vacation is great, but I don’t want to be stuck anywhere for a week without half-decent food. And Windstar’s is much more than half-decent. While there isn’t a long list of restaurants to choose from like on a big ship, neither do you have a designated time or table. You don’t have to sit with anyone else (unless of
course you want to). While you certainly can eat often and a lot, this is no bellies-to-the-trough smorgasbord. There are two dining rooms to choose from (4 on Wind Surf): half are al fresco dining on deck. Most dinners are in The Restaurant. The menu changes every night, with many choices. The food is interesting and well-prepared. The galley makes dishes to order — your food doesn’t sit under a heat lamp while the hoards are served. If you have food allergies, the galley is extremely accommodating to ensure you eat well and stay healthy.
Breakfast and lunch are both served in The Veranda, with both indoor and outdoor seating. You can order off the menu or visit the extensive buffet. You will find something you love, whether you like a breakfast that is sweet (like french toast covered in berries and tropical fruit with a glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice), or savoury (like smoked salmon on rye and a green tea). Everything is planned and made with care and attention.
In the Caribbean, there is usually a lunchtime barbeque on a gorgeous beach, and one dinner a deck-top barbeque (where, in February 2011 on Wind Spirit, I was really impressed with the quality of the food, and how well it was prepared — the lamb and lobster tails were particularly good). Now, this isn’t a private yacht, so you may have to line up for a minute or so at the barbeques!
All food is included in the price, including room service (don’t miss the WARM popcorn delivered to your door!). There is a separate room service menu, or you can order off the dining room menu (and even have your meals delivered in courses). Many passengers have a dinner in bed, while watching a movie. As is typical on most cruise ships, you do pay for drinks on Windstar (except water, coffee, tea and iced tea). (Update: Windstar now has non-alcoholic drinks included). Drink prices are what you would pay in a typical Canadian or US bar or restaurant, and the wine selections are good (including my beloved Veuve Clicquot. There are also various drinks packages you can buy if you feel like indulging, or don’t want to track receipts.
A sailboat? So, teeny cabins right?
State rooms on Windstar also please a discerning traveller. They are surprisingly large, particularly on Wind Surf (they are just a touch smaller on Wind Spirit and Wind Star). They are all outside cabins and well-designed with lots of storage space. There are two good-sized closets (although take my advice and don’t bother bringing much – dress is casual, and the laundry service is excellent).
Windstar has thought about comfort. There is good sound — each cabin comes with a Bose iPod dock (you can borrow an iPod if you don’t have your own). There is a flat screen TV and DVD player (and a vast library of movies to borrow). The bathroom has a superb Grohe showerhead and luxe L’Occitane en Provence amenities (and those of you with long hair will love what L’Occitane conditioner does to your salted and sunned locks). Beds are comfortable with crisp linens.
While there are several large-sized suites with extra luxuries, the state rooms are all the same. So, save $200 (perhaps to spend at the spa?) and get a room on the lowest deck! Not only is the ship more stable down here (although the ship’s sway is pretty minor everywhere), you can work off those extra desserts with the extra flight of stairs (or, on Wind Surf, just take the elevator).
But all cruises go to the same places, don’t they?
Another wonderful thing about Windstar is that the ships go to small ports that big ships can’t, and which aren’t overrun with tourists. So you can see a lot, without having to pack your suitcase and find a new hotel each night. I love tiny Jost Van Dyke (British Virgin Islands (BVIs)) with its sand main street; the incredible ice cream on Iles des Saints, off the main island of Guadeloupe; and the gorgeous harbour of Portofino, Italy. Windstar tends to leave ports late, so you can experience the popular spots after the other ships have left, and so you can enjoy the nightlife (important in places like Monaco or St. Barth’s).
Windstar ships can also adapt easily to things like crowds. On my first trip on Wind Surf, the captain changed the Sint Maarten/St Martin port from the Dutch side to the French side, because there were three monster ships on the Dutch side, and the port was crazy. Instead, we anchored on the French side and got to sip café au lait with the locals. This year, the Wind Spirit changed the order of ports in the British Virgin Islands so that guests were able to watch the Superbowl at the famous Bitter End Yacht Club on Virgin Gorda.
In port, the ship is often at anchor, not tied up to a pier, so you need to take a tender to shore (and when you get back there is a cool, scented cloth waiting for your hot forehead). I have never waited more than a few minutes to catch a tender, and never waited with more than a half-dozen couples. There is none of the standing in line or pre-determined times you may use the tender as on bigger ships. In St Kitts, a tourist from a big ship asked me if we had to pay extra to take the tender to shore — I was dumbfounded (the answer is no, of course!)
In port, there is a good variety of excursions you can book, and a good range of prices. You can sail in an America’s Cup boat in Sint Maarten, see the Leaning Tower of Pisa, hike the towns of the Cinque Terre, and snorkel and SCUBA almost everywhere. Each evening in the lounge, while guests munch on hors d’oeuvres, hosts run through the highlights of the next day’s ports and excursion options. Unlike on a big ship, their main interest is not selling you tours. They want you to actually enjoy your vacation, in the way that is best for you. I love how they tell you when it is worth getting a cab, and when it is just as easy to take the local bus (and how to find the best ice cream).
You’ll never get bored of Windstar’s many destinations. They are always expanding itineraries: the Holy Land, the Baltics, and the Ionian Sea, including Malta and Albania; and with their three new ships in 2012-14, Windstar is even returning to the South Pacific. They also travel throughout the Caribbean, the Mediterranean (Spain, Portugal, France, Monaco, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Croatia …), Costa Rica, and the Panama Canal. And you can actually experience and enjoy Windstar’s ports because of how well planned everything is (and there is still time for a nap on deck).
Despite this great selection of itineraries, my favourite cruise is the Atlantic crossing – THE most relaxing holiday you will ever have: two weeks at sea, where your biggest decision is which lounge chair to choose and whether to indulge in the morning delivery of soup, or, as it gets warmer, sorbet. I’m looking forward to trying the Pacific crossing, starting in 2014.
Ok, so it’ll be interesting off the ship – but what about onboard?
On Windstar you do not decide between salsa dancing on the Lido deck and volleyball in the aft pool, or between the synchronized swimming and skating shows. You do not hear kids screaming on the waterslide, or whining that they want, want, want. While there is lots to tempt you from your book, there are very few organized activities on Windstar to sample (and kids are rare, the three I have seen spent most of their time curled up with a book).
While at anchor, the stern opens up to become a floating dock. Off this you can swim or float; borrow a windsurf board, sailboat, or kayak; or go out in the zodiac to see caves, take a picture of the ship, or water ski. You can borrow a snorkel, mask and flippers for using off beaches and on excursions. You can take a dip in a small pool (two on Wind Surf) or relax in the hot tub (two on Wind Surf).
If you prefer to stay dry, there are a number of games, books and DVDs to borrow. I love walking laps around the deck while listening to a podcast or audiobook. A yoga class on the top deck at sunset — where all you can see is ocean — is one of the most serene experiences you can ever have. In the evenings there is music of some sort (two small bands on Wind Surf) and a handful of people dance. Then there’s the spa, the small casino, and the gym. And, unlike almost any other commercial ship at sea, big or small, you can visit the bridge and talk to the second officers and quartermasters on duty. They show you how the ship works, point out stars, and tell you whopping at-sea stories.
There are occasional galley tours or cooking demonstrations. On an Atlantic crossing there is likely a Wii or Trivial Pursuit tournament. But most Windstar guests just want to just enjoy being on board — sitting in a deck chair, gazing at the beautiful views, reading while sipping a cool drink, and, when it all becomes just too much, taking a siesta.
I don’t want to make small-talk with people who, you know, think Peoria is exotic
Windstar guests tend to be well-travelled, knowledgeable about the world, and interesting to talk to — travellers, not tourists. It depends on the cruise, but I would guess about 60% are American, with most of the rest European and Canadian. I’ve met South Africans, Mexicans, Brits, Australians, French, Germans, and the list goes on. And of course I always seek out the Canadians.
There is a good mix of ages. Perhaps the average age is about 50, with a few in their 20s (often on a family trip with mum and dad, or honeymooners), and a good number in their 30s and 40s. The second most prominent age group are retirees. I’ve met millionaires and people who take only one holiday every few years, and everyone in between. Same-sex couples will be just as comfortable as everyone else. There are always a number of solo travellers aboard, and I find they make exceptionally good conversation.
Staff are the same everywhere, right?
The staff are what really make a difference on Windstar. Most have made cruise ships their career, and most have chosen to stay with Windstar. Windstar has chosen them because of their sense of hospitality, their friendliness, and their skill at their jobs. Officers are chosen not only for their ship-board expertise, but for their ability to be ambassadors for the line.
Staff will notice your interests and help you pursue them — many crew members have given me tips for the best places to watch for sea life, and advice on what to eat in port and in their home countries. A dining room steward shared his private supply of sambal with me when I was craving a really good hot sauce. Staff members quickly learn your name, your drink, and other preferences, and they engage you in conversation. A question from you about their home, their family or their dreams earns you a genuine smile and an interesting story. I find that staff are always on the lookout for a way to be helpful and to flash you a smile.
Windstar crew, I’ve heard from many travellers, have reasonably good pay and living quarters. While they do work hard, have long hours, and are away from their families for many months, they eat often and well, have free time both on and off the ship (ask about the table tennis tournaments, and the best places onshore for free wifi and good well-priced food) and seem to enjoy their jobs. This makes it a lot easier for me to sit back and relax, or chat about travelling, and it makes them well-deserving of your gratuities.
Ok, a sailing cruise looks good. But why not some other boat?
Now, I may have convinced you to give up the big ships for the splendours of the sailing ship. But is Windstar your only choice? The answer is no, but Windstar is really the only one you should seriously consider. Star Clippers is the main alternative to Windstar, and I tested out their flagship, the Royal Clipper, to see which line provided the better traveller’s vacation.
The clipper ships are beautiful to look at (but don’t be fooled, their sails are computerized too). It is nice to see the sail maker with his sewing machine on deck mending sails. I liked the opportunity to climb to a crow’s nest on Star Clipper, and to hang out in the bow net with a book (however, the ropes were not comfortable, so you don’t want to do this for much more than a photo op). The steam bath is nice to use on an autumnal European evening. Pirate night and the crab race are touristy fun (although seemed more appropriate for the Caribbean than the Med).
Because the ships are, well, shippier, you’ll need to keep your eye out for ropes and other obstacles on deck. A shippier shape also means the cabins are smaller, and they are less well-designed than on WIndstar (and forward cabins are even smaller and have a tilted floor). The food was adequate on Royal Clipper, but not more than that. All meals are served in the multi-tier dining room on one of the lower decks (I find its brass decor is too let-me-impress-you 80s). Breakfast and lunch are buffet style, but without the same selection as Windstar. Dinner also has less selection and the food is more banquet-quality, and rarely hot. Wine lists are half decent though.
There are fewer North Americans, and more Europeans on board (probably because costs are in Euro, while Windstar uses the US $). While I certainly met some nice people, I found the clientele older and stuffier, and more interested in checking sites off their list and bragging about previous trips than in truly learning about a destination (or people other than themselves).
Some staff are friendly, most are just polite. Some seem to find passengers a necessary inconvenience, and I think would be much happier working aboard a cargo ship. There are exceptions. On the Venice-Rome sailing, we had a wonderful Italian marine biologist aboard — Mariano — who was extremely knowledgeable about what was in the sea and what was in port. His friendliness, good conversation and knowledge were in sharp contrast to the cruise director — Max — who had little time and much disdain for anyone not booking a shore excursion through him. Most Clipper staff did not have the helpful- and solution-orientation that Windstar staff have. While Star Clippers’ 37 night repositioning cruise from Athens to Phuket tempted me, I couldn’t stand the food, service and lack of friendliness onboard for that long.
Windstar all the way!
Windstar gives you exactly what you need for a relaxing, but not brain-dead, holiday. You’ll feel like a guest and, unless you like ice skating and waterslides while on your cruise, you’ll never go back to the big ships again.
Travellers – you’ll love Windstar.
I’d love to hear your thoughts about Windstar, other cruises, and other relaxing traveller vacations you would recommend.