Leaving port under sail brings some extra magic to a cruise, even a little romance. As Captain Mark Boylin maneuvered the five-masted Wind Surf out of Barcelona's harbor and into the Mediterranean Sea, the transformation was breathtaking. Amid the stiff winds and white-capped waters, the captain pressed a button that unfurled the ship's seven triangular-shaped sails and instantly Wind Surf took on the seas. OK, so the sails are computer-controlled, but it still feels like genuine sailing.
Windstar changes captains
While the Wind Surf is big for a sailing vessel, it is petite compared to today's mega-ships. At 535 feet long and carrying just 312 passengers, the vessel is the largest of three sailing yachts operated by Windstar Cruises. Its sister ships, Wind Spirit and Wind Star, are roughly half its size and carry just 148 passengers.
Wind Surf, built in 1990 for Club Med, was purchased by Windstar in 1998 so it could offer a bigger sail-assisted cruise experience with a few more frills. It's been a busy 12 months for Wind Surf and Windstar. At the end of 2006, the ship received a major makeover; then in April 2007, Windstar Cruises got a new owner when Carnival Corporation sold the cruise line to Ambassadors International, an innovative company which also owns steamboat operator Majestic America Line.
Unique sailing adventure
The relatively small size of Windstar's vessels gives them access to many ports that can't handle the big cruise ships. The result is a more yachting type of experience with stops at charming locations unlikely to be explored any other way. My mid-October itinerary had us sailing from Barcelona, Spain, to Civitavecchia, Italy (Rome's port), with stops in Palamos, Spain; Sete, France; Monte Carlo, Monaco; and Portofino and Livorno in Italy (the ports for Florence and Tuscany). Sailing schedules are set to provide passengers plenty of daylight to enjoy and explore the ports of call or to use the ship's "watersports platform," which is lowered from the ship's stern when the weather is calm. Unfortunately on my cruise, the weather was too cold and the waters too rough for guests to use the sports platform.
In fact, fall is a tricky time of year in the Mediterranean, as changing seasons can bring treacherous seas. During the first half of my cruise, the seas were angry. We left Barcelona sailing in 12-foot seas, which made for interesting viewing from the porthole of my Deck 1 stateroom — it was underwater a lot. Most passengers enjoyed the light rocking and rolling of real sailing, a few elderly passengers not so much. On the third day of the cruise, while docked in Monte Carlo, the weather turned hazardous. Captain Boylin said gale force level 9 winds (around 50 mph) would force us to stay an extra day in Monaco. Sadly, this meant that we would have to skip our call in Portofino, but safety always comes first.
Fortunately, we would be able to catch up with the rest of our itinerary. While the Wind Surf uses sails to take advantage of any prevailing breeze, it does rely on engine power to keep it on schedule. This meant we could get to Livorno on time.
Windstar strives to provide an intimate passenger experience on its ships, combining the tradition and romance of old-time sailing vessels with a degree of modern convenience. Offering 154 staterooms and suites, the Wind Surf has two restaurants, a lounge, a spa/salon, a small casino, a pool, a workout room, a library and an Internet area.
One of the biggest changes that came with last year's upgrades is the "Yacht Club," a common area that has replaced the library with a social area that has all the comforts of a coffeehouse: plush seating, a huge flat-screen television, an espresso bar and eight computers with Internet access. Another very welcome addition is the wireless Internet available throughout the ship.
Staterooms have been given a nice makeover with remodeled bathrooms along with Bose SoundDocks for your iPod; if you don't bring your iPod, you can borrow one from the library that is already loaded with music. My 170-square-foot ocean-view stateroom was organized efficiently with a desk, plenty of closet space, a stocked mini-bar, a refrigerator, robes and slippers, a queen-size bed and a well-designed bathroom with a sink, toilet and circular shower stocked with L'Occitane toiletries. There is also a flat-screen television with limited channel choices; fortunately there is also a DVD player and the ship has an extensive selection of DVDs available for borrowing.
There are 31 suites at 376 square feet that offer a large sitting area, as well as two new 500-square-foot suites on the Bridge Deck. These top-of-the-line suites offer a living and dining area, separate bedroom and a marble bathroom with a whirlpool tub.
Windstar's food is always exceptional, thanks to menus inspired by Windstar's celebrity chef Joachim Splichal. There are two evening dining options: the open-seating venue called "The Restaurant" and an alternative dining venue called "Degrees." Four nights a week, Degrees features a steakhouse menu; the other nights, it offers rotating menus from Northern Italy, France and Indonesia. There's no charge, but you'll need to make reservations.
Breakfast and lunch are served in the delightful glass-enclosed Veranda, which extends out onto the Star Deck to offer an alfresco alternative. There is also The Grill for à la minute cooked breakfasts, while at lunch there's a refreshing array of pasta, barbeque and salads on offer. There are also snacks available at the Pool Bar and an afternoon tea at Compass Rose. Oh, and let's not forget 24-hour room service that lets you order off the dining room menus.
Wind Surf's crew is wonderful and the laid-back atmosphere allows for interaction that is not possible on other ships. Guests are always welcome on the bridge, where you can chat up the officers and learn about sailing. Service is stellar; the waiters and cabin stewards are always smiling and are quick to please. I was always impressed that they remembered my name despite the little contact I had with them.
The crew even had a Friday night talent show. It was fun — probably the most fun the guests had when it came to the onboard entertainment. That's the one weakness of this cruise: the poverty of the entertainment and enrichment programs, which became painfully obvious during the bad weather and extra day in Monaco. There just wasn't a whole lot to do and no additional shore excursions were made available. This was a major complaint among the passengers I spoke with. I brought this up with the hotel director and it's something they are working on.
But you don't come aboard the Wind Surf for entertainment; you come aboard for the smaller-ship experience and the romance of sailing. The clientele aboard Windstar ships is generally upscale with a focus on informal but tasteful living. According to Windstar's statistics, the average passenger age is in the mid-50s. On my sailing, many passengers were in their 70s, but I also met several honeymooners in their 40s. Most were repeat customers, and several told me they were in double digits sailing on Windstar.
As I sipped a cappuccino in the Compass Rose lounge, I chatted with an amiable British couple who were on their second sailing of back-to-back cruises aboard the Wind Surf. They were enjoying the ship immensely and said it was the best cruise they'd ever taken. In fact, almost half the guests (mostly British) were doing two cruises in a row. As one guest told me, "The price was too good to refuse." In fact, they got the second cruise for half price — such a deal!
So, if you are ready for high-seas adventure, the romance of sailing, good food and relaxation, then Wind Surf is definitely ready for you. This is one cruise that will make for good times and fond memories.
About the changes
I have received a lot of e-mails from past Windstar passengers and some travel agents worried that there would be a big change in the cruise line under the new owners, Ambassadors International. I don't expect to see many changes. The company expects to continue to operate Windstar as it has always been. Ambassadors has retained most of the existing Windstar crew, and the crew members I spoke with aboard Wind Surf confirmed that the company has done a good job with the transition and little has changed.
One very big thing did happen during my cruise: David Giersdorf, president of Ambassadors' cruise group, resigned unexpectedly. While he was an integral part of the company, company officials say that it will be business as usual during the transition to new leadership. For now, I think Ambassadors is doing a good job with the Windstar product.
If you go:
From mid-November through the end of March, the Wind Surf sails several itineraries from Barbados around the Caribbean. From April until the beginning of November the vessel sails the Mediterranean and Aegean seas. Prices for seven-day Caribbean cruises start at $1,499 per person; pricing for seven-day Mediterranean cruises starts at $2,399 per person. Visit Windstar Cruises Web site for more details.
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