The "New" Windstar Cruises

| June 25, 2007

Despite new ownership, it's as good as the old -- and getting better.

Many people think of cruise ships as floating resorts -- where the prime objective is to lay in the sun and sip tropical drinks. But I think of a cruise ship as a supremely convenient travel conveyance - a great way to see the world in comfort.

When I cruise in faraway places, I prefer not to worry about finding taxis, train stations, hotels or even restaurants -- unless I want to. Windstar Cruises is perfect for travelers like me -small ships that visit places off limits to larger vessels. On our recent seven-day Mediterranean cruise, our ship was in port every day, sometimes until 11:30 p.m. This means I can sightsee to the limit of my daily endurance, then return to the ship for an excellent meal and the comfort of my stateroom for a good night's sleep. After a superb breakfast, I am ready to explore the new destination to which the ship transports me overnight. click for a larger picture

That is exactly what I got aboard Windstar's newly updated Wind Surf. Fresh from a multi-million dollar upgrade the company calls "Degrees of Difference," this ship is more than worthy of Windstar's reputation for casual elegance. With excellent food and even better service, it embodies the concepts of first-class travel and adventure-oriented cruising.

Windstar Cruises History Windstar was conceived in 1985 as a cruise line for people who didn't really like "cruising." Its three original ships were small (5,350 tons and 148 passengers). Their most distinctive characteristics were their masts and sails, and their interiors, with rich wood paneling with standard portholes - lending them the feel of a private yacht.

During its early years, Windstar was owned by Holland America. Its three little ships combined carried fewer passengers than any single Holland America ship. The Windstar crew people were culled from the same sources that Holland America still uses, but they considered a job on a Windstar ship as an upgrade from Holland America.

On the mainland, Windstar was the line many cruise industry insiders chose for their personal vacations. This was especially true when the line home-ported one ship in Tahiti year-round -- long before Renaissance or the Paul Gauguin moved in.

Two of Windstar's original ships are still in the fleet, but one, the Wind Song, was lost to a fire while sailing near Tahiti in 2003. The line replaced Wind Song with Wind Surf, an almost identical ship in every aspect -- except its size -- that had sailed for many years under the banner of Club Med.

click on pictures below for larger images:

The Ship - sails down   Main Table Setting   Lobster Entree

Wind Surf, with five masts (and two engines that admittedly provide most of the propulsion), is now Windstar all the way. The ship was built in the same shipyard as the first three Windstar ships and has many of the same design elements, especially in the staterooms. The only difference is the size; Wind Surf is about one-third longer, and has an additional deck for cabins and elevators. The ship holds 312 passengers in 14,375 tons (making it almost three times bigger than the other Windstar ships).

More Recent History Windstar's biggest recent change is in its ownership: The company was acquired by Ambassadors International in March 2007 for $100 million. This could be the most significant event in the company's history, but if our recent trip is any indication, this ownership change will be pretty transparent, even to passengers who love this cruise line.

Ambassadors International -- a large U.S. company specializing in events and meeting planning -- formed a cruise division in 2006; its first acquisition was the steamboats of the Delta Queen Company and American Steamship Company, which it now refers to collectively as Majestic American Lines.

At the helm of Ambassadors International's cruise division is David Giersdorf, a former executive vice president with Holland America Lines. He has been intimately familiar with every aspect of Windstar's operations since long before the new company acquired it. In fact, he helped design the "Degrees of Difference" enhancements program, and began its implementation when Windstar still belonged to Holland America.

So today the Degrees of Difference program is still under the tutelage of David Giersdorf, but for the benefit of Ambassadors International. It gives each ship an interior facelift with new fittings and fabrics; new hardware for the dining room and appliances for the kitchens; and new towels, furniture, bedding and great entertainment devices in the staterooms. Wind Surf was the first ship to complete this upgrade; the other two ships will receive it by mid-2008.

The Windstar Difference Like most small luxury lines, Windstar ships feature a small passenger capacity and a high passenger-to-crew ratio (better than 2:1). The service is exemplary and extremely personalized. Combining the 24-hour country-club casual dress code with open-seating dining lends an air of informality and relaxation onboard that is perfect for travel-oriented cruisers like me.

As for value, one can book a seven-night cruise in Europe or the Caribbean for well under $2,000 per person, and add an second week for about $1,000 per person. It is easy and logical to book back-to-back cruises since the itineraries generally do not repeat for at least a month.

You will pay separately for alcoholic beverages -- and even lemonade if you order it at the bar or take it from the mini-refrigerator in your stateroom. But you can get full room service in your cabin, including meals from the dining room menu during mealtimes, for no charge. Room service also includes pizza and hot popcorn for times when you want to sample a free DVD from the ship's huge library. There are no pay-per-view movies on board. Instead, you check out DVDs and play them on your cabin DVD player. The entertainment centers are easy to operate; we had no problem playing DVDs and watching them on either television set in our suite. Suites also come with a loaner iPod filled with pre-recorded music, and a docking station.

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Seafood Buffet   Dessert Extravaganza   Fresh Pork

Windstar doesn't focus much on the usual onboard cruise activities like formal nights, production shows or massive spas. Instead, it encourages people to spend time on deck. The library is full of travel guides, and for each destination a speaker provides an orientation talk that is NOT solely about shopping. Passengers receive maps to the attractions of each port, and a local expert comes aboard in every port to offer free advice. Free shuttles to the center of town are offered throughout the day.

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The Ship - in chocolate and marzipan   Crew Talent Show   Port Lecturer

Windstar passengers are welcome almost anywhere on board, even on the bridge. Conversations with fellow passengers come as naturally on this ship as on any I have sailed. All dining rooms are open seating, and every sail-away feels like a special event as the line offers free hors d' oeuvres on deck. This encourages everyone to congregate in the open air, seeking out friendly faces at tables with empty seats. While you introduce yourself to new people and watch the port fade into the distance, you enjoy a glass of wine and consider asking your newfound friends if they would like to join you for dinner.

The Windstar Cruiser Although many people who liked Holland America tried Windstar first, it wasn't long before Windstar found a following of its own among a younger, more adventurous clientele that now returns year after year and often books back-to-back cruises.

While personalized service is a normal aspect of small-ship cruising, Windstar amplifies it into a major asset. Don't be surprised if the entire crew knows your name by the second day. People who had sailed on our ship just once the previous year told us the crew still remembered them.

These small vessels take you off the beaten path, and Windstar travelers select their destination-oriented itineraries by the ports -- the more unusual the better. The ship's casual dress code means you see more people in Teva shoes and safari hats than in pantsuits and drop earrings.

The final reason why these ships are popular with the younger set (or young at heart) is the onboard sports deck. Built into the aft end of the ship, it is a large platform that drops down to just above water level. Inside the aft area are sea kayaks, small sailboats, a motorboat for water-skiing, and wetsuits and tanks for scuba diving. All of this is included in the cruise cost and available to every passenger.

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Looking out on Sports Deck   Loading a Sea Kayak   Scuba Gear

The sports platform can only come down when the ship is anchored rather than docked. Scuba dives are only scheduled in places that have spots worth diving. On those cruises, the staff divers give free scuba lessons in the ship's pool ahead of time. When the ship reaches the dive spot they will take you down on a 90-minute, PADI-certified resort dive as deep as 40 feet. No previous experience required.

Go to part 2 of this article

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