My wife and I spent a week on the Windstar Sprit cruising from Athens (7/14/2012) to Istanbul (7/21/2012). We had a very good time (A-), but the heat was terrible with the temperature over 100 degrees most days. There are not many online reviews of the Windstar line or this itinerary, so I hope this review helps. We are not "cruise people" and the only other ship we have been on is the Disney Dream with our children.
The Sprit is a motorized sailboat which carries about 140 passengers and 96 crew. It is much smaller than a large ship such as the Disney Dream. On average, the sails provide 20-30% of the propulsion.
The atmosphere is very casual with no formal dinners or theme nights. For dinner, they request men wear slacks and a collared shirt. You can visit the bridge anytime the boat is sailing. The crew members are almost always willing to talk to you and answer questions. The average passenger is about 50 years old and most are married couples ranging in age from 25 to 70. There were a few teenagers and a few friends traveling together.I did not meet any passengers who were traveling alone. During our trip it was 100+ degrees most days and you needed to be somewhat physically fit to tolerate the heat and climb the ruins. The few passengers over 72 y/o struggled at times on some of the tours.
It is easy to meet other passengers. At dinner you are asked if you want to sit with another couple. Tours typically have 5-20 people and you quickly get to know your tour mates. Almost all the passengers were very friendly and would stop and to say hello if they saw you while exploring a museum or local street. We had prolonged conversations with about half the other passengers by the time we left the boat.
This is an American boat serving English speaking passengers. All transactions are in US dollars, no language other than English is spoken, and the food served is typical for an American restaurant. More than half of the passengers came from the USA with a few Australians, English, and Canadians. Maybe 10-15% of passengers did not speak English as their first language. Despite sailing from Greece to Turkey, there was not a single passenger from either country.
A typical day begins with an early breakfast in port. Tours provided by the boat leave between 8:15 to 8:30 am. On any given day, about half the passengers go on the tours provided by the boat and the others explore the ports or set up outside tours on their own. Most tours return in time for lunch which is served from 12 to 2 pm. About half the passengers returned to the boat to eat lunch and the others ate at local restaurants. A few tours extend into the afternoon and included lunch. Most passengers explore the ports or visit local beaches during the afternoon. The boat leaves port between 4 and 11 pm so it can arrive at the next port around 7 am. Dinner is served between 7 and 9 pm. Many dinners extend past 10 pm and most passengers seemed to go to bed shortly after dinner. This is not a party boat. Although there is some entertainment, few passengers spend the evening dancing or stayed up late.
Room - (B+) almost every cabin is identical. The cabins on deck 1 (one up from the engine deck) are a bit less expensive than those on deck 2. I saw no reason to pay the extra money to be on deck 2. The rooms are about 10 by 20 feet with a queen size bed (or 2 small singles), a built in dresser, 2 closets, other storage and a small but very functional bathroom. A small refrigerator containing water and soft drinks (included) and beer and alcoholic beverages (not included) is provided. Although not luxurious, the rooms are very nice and we found ours to be very comfortable. The only thing missing was a couch (only a small chair was provided.
Food - (A-) breakfast is served in the veranda (on deck 4) and includes many cold items, fresh squeezed juices, fresh baked croissants and other items, and a hot food station. Eggs, pancakes, etc can be ordered from the staff. The breakfasts were very good with a few exceptions such as the dry bacon. Lunch was served buffet style in the veranda and the quality of the food was variable. Dinner was served in the dining room (on deck 3) and was usually very good to excellent. The dinner cuisine was modern American with 4 courses. One night there was an excellent buffet (with some local foods) and barbeque around the tiny pool (deck 4). Breads were good to excellent, deserts were at times a bit weak and the appetizers served before dinners were only fair. The meat was almost all frozen and imported from the USA except for some fresh fish the chef obtained at the ports. The beef was top choice (Angus) and excellent. Most of the produce was obtained in Athens and Istanbul. Overall, we enjoyed to food.
Service - (A) was almost always excellent and the crew tried so hard to please you. Our cabin steward always had our room clean when we returned from a meal or excursion. He was always concerned that we had what we needed in our refrigerator and room. The on-board tour guides were always helpful and informative. The only significant flaw in the service was the difficulty I encountered obtaining soft drinks (and refills) at dinner. The service staff were all men from Indonesia and the Philippines. The officers were mostly British except the captain who was American. The engine crew were all men from eastern Europe. There were only a few female crew members: a first officer, the spa staff, a few reception desk and boutique ladies, and Elsa the spunky Greek tour guide.
Tours - (A) 1 to 4 tours were offered at each port. We found Windstar phone support in the USA was not good and they did not know much about the tour packages. There is no need to book the tours in advance. They almost never sell out and on-board destination manager is very helpful in explaining what each tour involves. Most tours are $49 to $99 and cost about twice as much as what it would cost for you to set up the same tour on your own. For example, the Delos (a ferry ride from Mykonos) tour was $89 each. A couple we meet took the ferry to Delos ($20), paid the Delos park admission ($6) and found a good guide who spoke English ($12) for $38 each. The tour guides provided by the boat are usually excellent and you have to decide if it's worth the hassle and risk (knowing where to go, finding a good guide) of setting up a tour on your own.
Here is a list of the attractions we explored (A=highlight not to miss, B=very nice, C=average):
Athens (before cruise) - City A. Stayed at the AVA Hotel and Suites (15 rooms, Plaka, A-) which was 3 blocks from the Acropolis. This was the top rated Athens hotel on TripAdvisor with a great location, big room (not really a suite), and a very good breakfast (included). We enjoyed our stay, but the bathroom was too small for me to call this a 5 star hotel - 4.5 stars would be more accurate. 1.5 days gave us just the right amount of time to see the major sites in the Plaka area (B+): Acropolis and the Parthenon (A) - get there early to beat the crowds and heat, New Acropolis Museum (A), Ancient Agora (B), Hadrian's Library (C+), Roman Agora (C-), Temple of Zeus (C-). It was hot.
Mykonos - town (B). Ferry to the small island of Delos (A) which was a port city of 30,000 people 2000 years ago. Nice ruins and a small museum. It was hot.
Santorini - is a spectacular sight with steep cliffs rising from the sea. The boat ancores at the capital of Fira (B+). Skip the donkey ride at Fira and use the cable car. Island overview and Oia village tour ($99, B+) was nice and drops you off at Fira. A cab trip to Oia village (picturesque whitewashed houses) would have been cheaper and almost as good. It was hot.
Rhodes - Although the Colossus was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, there is not enough is left to justify a visit to the site. The walled medieval city of Rhodes (A-) is easily accessible from the dock including the 14th-century Palace of the Grand Masters (B). The Scenic Drive to Lindos Tour ($69) takes you to the summit of the Acropolis (A-). This is the perfect place to take a donkey ride up to the Acropolis, especially when it's hot (5 euro, ignore Elsa's bath mouthing of the Donkey rides). It was hot. Bodrum - a Turkish port town (C). We skipped the Windstar tours here since the sites are easily accessible and the tours do not take you around the city. For half the cost of a tour, we took a cab ride (30 euro) to the ancient theater (C), Myndos Gate (C-), and what's left of The Mausoleum of Mausolus (B) - one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Bodrum Castle closes for lunch, so we returned to the ship to eat. In the afternoon, we toured Bodrum Castle, which is primarily a Museum of Underwater Archeology (A-). We rented an audio guide that was reasonably good. It was hot.
Kusadasi - the town is nice if you like buying carpets, but otherwise not a very exciting a place to visit (C). The highlight of the trip was our tour of Ephesus and it's Ancient Houses ($79). Ancient Ephesus (A) was a town of 250,000 about 2,000 year ago which declined due to Malaria and was eventually buried under mud from earthquakes. About 1/7th of the town has been excavated and you feel like you are walking through history. The Terrace Houses (A+) were owned by the wealthy and are remarkably preserved with their fine decorative mosaics and frescoes give a fascinating insight into ancient lifestyles. Don't waste your time on the tour that goes to Ephesus and the "Virgin Mary's home" since it does not include the Terrace Houses. If you must see a home selected through the vision of a 19th century nun, get the all day Concierge Tour that includes everything. It is hard to believe, but only half of the passengers went to Ephesus. After the tour, the guide brings you to a carpet-making demonstration (nice) which then turns into a hard sell to buy carpets (the boat gets a kickback). It would take hours to bargain them down to a good price, you can't return the carpet, and you feel trapped since you ordered free a free drink and food. If you escape without buying a carpet, they try to sell you jewelry as you try to find your way out the maze of similar looking doors. Our guide saw us and helped us find the disguised exit.
Istanbul (after cruise) - City (A). Stayed at the Millennium Suites (7 rooms, Sultanahmet, B) which was 3 blocks from the Acropolis. This was the top rated Istanbul hotel on TripAdvisor with a great location, big room (not really a suite), and an OK breakfast (included). Although they try very hard, our bathroom was not very nice and was undergoing some repairs. TripAdvisor called this a 5 star hotel - 3.5 stars would be more accurate and I might look elsewhere. 2.5 days gave us just the right amount of time to see the major sites in the area, most of which are covered by the Museum Pass: Topkapi Palace (15th century palace, A) and Harem Tour (not on pass, A+), 15 minute tram ride to the Dolmabahce Palace (not on pass, 19th century palace, A-) - get there early for the limited number of entries with only guided tours provided, Hagia Sophia Museum/Church (B+), 25 minute tram ride to the Chora Church and its beautiful mosaics (B+), Blue Mosque (free, C), Mosaic Museum (C), Grand Bazaar (lots of junk, D). A little less hot.
My husband and I just completed this cruise (May 18 - 25th) and had a wonderful time. We arrived in Athens a day early and were able to wander around the Plaka and have dinner at a scenic taverna that evening, spend the night, go on a city tour of Athens (including the Acropolis/Parthenon) that morning and then board the Windspirit after lunch. We had been told that was all we needed to do in order to see the best of Athens and I believe it. Some people on our cruise had spent more time there but they had used it as a base to travel to neighboring sites.
Some advice about the ports (and the tours offered by the ship):
Mykonos: The tour to nearby Delos is worth it. Delos was revered by both the Greeks and the Romans as the birthplace of Apollo and served as a major trading port to several ancient civilizations. Wear sunscreen and a hat ---NO SHADE. The tour goes until lunchtime and you can either return to the ship for lunch or eat out. We had already decided to eat "local" whenever possible toget as much of the experience as possible (BTW the food on the ship is excellent). Afterwards, there is time to visit the shops or the beach; the ship doesn't sail until late.
Santorini: Because this route arrives here on Monday, the ruins at Akrotiri are closed. The only tour available takes you to the picturesque town of Ia (or Oia in some books). Visit the town on your own --- don't bother with the tour. This is one of the two big regrets of our cruise (the other was not staying longer in Istanbul). This tour took us to the highest point of the island, the Profitis Illas mountain, where you can see both sides of the island, which was not uninteresting but it was a big time-waster considering that the ship has to set sail at 4:30 pm in order to make Rhodes by the next morning (shortest port time on the cruise) by the time we arrived in Ia, we only had an hour and a half to see it. Another couple invited us to rent a taxi with them to go directly to Ia instead of the tour and we declined. Big mistake on our part; they had time to see the whole town and do some shopping as well.
Rhodes: We took the tour to the Acropolis at Lindos and enjoyed it. The tour guide was very knowledgeable about the history of the area and from what I heard later had good advice about places to eat and shop in the town after the tour. Once on our own, we paid the admission so we could walk on the top of the walls around the old fortress (again, no shade, need good sunscreen and a hat) and visited the "Palace of the Grand Master" at the fortress -- probably the worst of the sites we visited because the pamplet and the signs explained little about the displays and the docents (if you could call them that) just said "I don't know" about everything we asked. Perhaps they didn't speak English but if so, they were among the few people we met who didn't.
BTW: We shared Rhodes and Bodrum with the passengers on the sister ship Windstar (the Istanbul-to-Athens route). We didn't have many opportunities to interact with them, but it was neat to see the two ships side-by-side in the ports.
Bodrum: The most relaxing and longest tour of the cruise. We hesitated taking this tour because it takes up the whole time the ship is in port and is the most expensive but it was worth it. We were broken up into groups of only 10 and taken to the port-side Museum of Underwater Archeology. Very few of the artifacts there are reproductions and span several centuries and civilizations. Then, we were escorted on board a small sailboat (called a "gullet") and taken to a quiet cove where we were invited to change into bathing suits and swim (water was a little too cold for me though) and sunbathe while the crew fixed us a wonderful lunch of local dishes. We spent the rest of the day relaxing and sunning on the gullet. We needed that after 3 days of sight-seeing. When we got back to the ship, we were entertained by a troup of local dancers along with a belly dancer in the ship's lounge and then it was time for the pooldeck BBQ. Tons of fun and great food and dancing under the stars. We also got the see the Windstar put up her sails and head to Santorini; good picture taking opportunity since you can't really get a good picture of the Windspirit with sails up. Many of us agreed that this was the best day of our trip.
Kusadasi & Ephesus: Before starting the cruise we booked a tour from a local company called byzance. We can't say enough great things about them and the tours they provided. Guide was waiting for us at the port, ready to begin our day. I requested that we try to avoid the ship's buses, and they did everything possible to make sure this occurred! It was a pleasure to enjoy the same places that the ship offered at our own pace, staying as long or as short as We wanted for a fraction of the cost! The fact that we were "alone" made it much more personalized. On most of our tours, we had around 30 people and each and every one of them RAVED about the great time they had. It always seems there is usually someone who may have a concern or complaint, however this was not the case with byzance. Our guide was very knowledgeable and friendly. We will most definitely use them on future cruises and from comments made from our group, I can assure you they will also! Their web site is http://more.at/byzance
The Sea Day: We needed this time off at this point. We were just about "ruin-ed out" and needed a break. We took the tour of the galley that the Chef offered and had massages in the beauty salon. The dinner that night included beef tenderloin and lamb chops --- both were excellent and we celebrated over a bottle of champagne our last evening on board with two other couples we had become fast friends with.
Istanbul: You will regret it as we did if you do not spend a couple of days here. We used byzance here too. I could not be happier with the service we received from guide, I have never had a more positive experience with any company of any kind -- EVER! I don't know what more I could say. We had to leave very early the next morning after our arrival so we only had time to see the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia and walk through a small part of the Grand Bazaar. That means we missed Topkapi Palace entirely (it takes 4-5 hours to tour properly) and several other places we wanted to see. This is definitely on our list of places we wish to re-visit one day.
We later debated "what if we had taken the Istanbul-to-Athens cruise instead?". The other route no doubt saw more port time at Santorini (& would have been there when Akrotiri was open) but on the other hand, their Sea Day came early in the trip instead of at the end when we felt we really needed it to recover and appreciate Istanbul. The choice is yours.
I hope this helps anyone considering this cruise. It was the trip of a lifetime for us and we have wonderful memories of the people we met and places we visited.
We enjoyed our second Wind Star trip in five yrs. The second was just as good as the first...maybe better...same islands as before with LOTS of time on the islands. St. John, St Barts, St. Martin., Jost Van Dyke, Virgin Gorda and Tortola....lots of beach time and the islands were not busy..
The ship is still romantic and clean...food was very good to great...our waiter was a young man who really "babied" us...even saved us a table at the bar-b-que on deck one night when it was a bit crowded...We love the Wind Star experience..maybe the bigger Wind Surf next Time????