Until two years ago, when I boarded Seabourn’s game-changing Antarctica & Patagonia cruise, I had never set foot onboard a cruise ship. In fact, growing up in the landlocked parts of Texas, I had rarely even enjoyed the pleasures of water-sports or beaches. For me, cruising was a phenomenon only old people did – or young people who were crazy enough to locked onboard a vessel with 7,000 people. Nothing about cavorting in a tiny space, surrounded by 7,000 people indulging in unlimited quantities of alcohol, on a boat which could go down like the Titanic, inclined me to cruise. But I became a believer with Seabourn – and then quickly had my expectations dashed with a Uniworld river cruise whose food was sub-par at best – therefore, the dichotomy of expectations, when I agreed to board Windstar Cruise’s Wind Surfwas somewhere between ecstasy and agony: I hoped for the exquisite pleasures of Seabourn but had a sinking feeling the trip might be closer to Uniworld.
Windstar Cruise’s current President John Delaney was formerly of Seabourn and so I at least knew, with his leadership, the company would at least have the best customer service if not the best of everything else. Thankfully, whatever unease I felt being boarding the Wind Surf was eradicated day by day with my eight-day, seven-night cruise. I had the most brilliant cruise experience with an itinerary so unabashedly captivating it opened my mind to the beauties of “Classic Italy and the Dalmatian Coast.” Everything from the vibrant, regionally inspired cuisine onboard, to the destinations, the service and the people made the trip memorable. I couldn’t help but tell friends back home each day, “You have to experience this cruise for yourself!”
BECOMING A BELIEVER
Unlike the enormous cities on water some cruise lines represent, Windstar is a boutique cruise ship, more closely resembling a yacht than a vessel, carrying on average less than 300 guests. The Wind Surf represents one of six vessels operated by Windstar Cruises, three of whom are operated by power only (Star Pride, Star Breeze and Star Legend). My vessel, The Wind Surf, can actually run solely with its sails. Though the gentle swaying of the yacht in water lulled me to sleep most nights I do remember, at times during the day, the pure silence of being pushed across the ocean by nothing other than the earth. It inspired within me the barest glimpse of what the real adventurers, the expeditioners of lore like Christopher Columbus and Marco Polo, must have felt – though unlike those gentlemen I clearly knew where we were going to end up.
Windstar Cruises currently takes guests through the Mediterranean, Oceania & South Pacific, Scandinavia & Northern Europe, as well as Alaska. The average price of cruising ranges in the mid $2,000s. This includes all food and basic beverages onboard, though there is no free alcohol. Should guests want to imbibe without limit each day, you can buy a “Windstar Beverage Package” for $59 a day. I know, with me, Windstar lost money but from what I could tell of everyone else that is an absolute steal.
FOOD AND BEVERAGE PROGRAM
The drink program is quite strong (pun intended). Daily drink special such as “The Wind Surf” (Malibu Rum, Pina Colada Mix, and finished with a drizzle of strawberry syrup), “Croatian Sunset” (Sherry, Dash of Citron Vodka, Sprite and Grenadine) and the “Adriatic Cooler” (Absolute Vodka, Amareto, Lemon Juice and topped with soda) were always popular but for me the Pina Colada was my go-to … Well … pina colada and champagne! There was also a very large wine list and Louis XIII for cognac fans. I particularly enjoyed the North by Northwest red wines though, when we got near Croatia, I only tried to drink the local wines since they currently are not imported into the U.S. Young and strong.
Windstar also provides one exclusive private event for everyone included in the price at Gambino Wines in Sicily. Located higher than Taormina, the winding one-hour trip to this quaint winery on the foothills of Mount Etna was a nice break from all the walking around; however, I do wish we could have had more time to wander and drink. The wines, themselves, were nice but I particularly enjoyed the antipasti as well as the pasta main course. Both were so good I not only tried to buy the antipasti (not available) but asked for the pasta receipe. Apparently, Gambino Wines get asked for that pasta receIpe all the time since the owner already had it printed out to give to me.
The food program is helmed by the charmingly talented Chef Eddie Rodriguez. He and his staff of approximately 25 run the meal program at four dining rooms, as well as the in-room dining program and the always popular coffee bar Yacht Club. Veranda is the casual restaurant where breakfast and lunch buffets are served; AmphorA is the more formal restaurant with an exceptional Beef Wellington; Candles is the steak restaurant; and the truly popular Stella Bistro, the French themed restaurant with an excruciatingly delicious Escargot presented in a special designed tray to accommodate 8 pieces lathered in butter and cheese and then baked to heart-attack inducing perfection.
Perhaps the best food and beverage experience is the rooftop BBQ in the Bay of Kotor, Montenegro. Unlike a typical home BBQ, the entire fifth floor deck of the Wind Surf is converted into an outdoor pavilion eating area. Chef Rodriguez spent most of his day in Kotor at the farmer’s market emptying out the stalls with a literal moving trucks worth of prosciutto, cheese, lobster, other seafood, fruits and even suckling pig. I strongly believe it is worth it to cruise this voyage just for this experience.
AMENITIES, ENTERTAINMENT AND EXCURSIONS
The Wind Surf has a series of amenities onboard including DVD rentals, gym, games, exercise room and spa. The spa program was particularly popular for its long list of options including a specialized program for the men. I heard from several of the men onboard the heated shave, done in the more traditional 19th century mold of heated towels, classic rayzors and a bit of a facial massage was exceptional. The spa also offers a unique array of cosmetic procedures such as teeth whitening and an isothermal treatment to decrease inches from the body, promising up to 8 inches of lose in one session (I lost 5 ½ inches). Additionally, there is a water sports program – super fun! – if the water is accommodating. This includes kayaking, water skiing and a huge blow-up trampoline.
The cabins utilize L’Occitane products and are comfortable with several layouts to accommodate everyone from friends traveling together to honeymooners. My suite was quite too large, with two bathrooms, and I had no trouble fitting everything in everywhere though I definitely had trouble getting everything into my suitcase at the end of the trip with all the souvenirs I bought. Cabin stewards are friendly and exceptionally tidy. I honestly think if I would have dropped a safety pin, Toar would have found it and cleaned it up as he was that thorough!
As for excursions, at each port guests are given options of how to explore the destination. For “Classic Italy and the Dalmatian Coast,” we left Rome and I got to explore Amalfi (Pompeii), Sicily (Taormina), Montenegro (Kotor), three places in Croatia (Dubrovnik, Split and Kotor) before ending in Venice. Each day guests can wander by themselves but I highly recommend one of the guided excursions.
The excursion activities are described both in price as well as in the level of activity required, ranging from $29 to the higher end for white water rafting in Croatia but the mean price is well below $100. Guests can also have private tours and transfers while at port for approximately $600 per day. My favorite activities were also the ones involving strenuous activity such as the “Journey to Pompeii” $119) which allowed me to see for the first time the magnificence of the sprawling, superbly well-preserved historic city buried under the ashes of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 A.D. and the “Dubrovnik City Sights & Cable Car” ($89) which allowed me to climb and fully walk the walls of the Old City of Dubrovnik.
Every day when I would go out exploring and come back onto the Wind Surf I truly marveled at everything I had seen that day. Cruising onboard the Wind Surf with the particularly program of “Classic Italy and the Dalmatian Coast,” for me, was the ideal way to see so many things I had never seen in my extended travels. Plus there is always the added bonus of not having to schlepp my luggage from city to city and that, mercifully, is reason enough to cruise! And everyone gets to close the evening with the onboard entertainment and late night dancing, which I also recommend since the late night cruisers saw a full “blood moon,” as well as Mount Etna erupting while we were cruising out of Sicily’s Taormina.
When I got back, I really thought about what I could improve about the cruise and my sole complaint was I wish I had a different kind of bed which, for me, is a persistent complaint. I like super plush beds and the Wind Surf’s beds are European hard. But even in this Windstar Cruises is going to go through a program to update the beds, meaning they take every issue/criticism/complaint seriously and I think that says everything you need to know about why someone should chose Windstar Cruises for their cruise.