We flew from London to Istanbul the day before the cruise, very excited to be going on our fist small ship or in this case yacht. Arrival in Istanbul was an event in itself as it coincided with a major thunderstorm. As we later discovered we were luckier than some who were diverted to an alternative airport. The weather made for a long taxi ride to the Karakoy Port hotel which we had chosen because of it's proximity to the port. We were delighted by the accommodation and service provided at this hotel and would recommend it to anyone who wants to experience a local boutique hotel within walking distance of the cruise terminal.
We had a great dinner at Gile, a highly recommended restaurant about a 15 minute taxi ride from the port. Think modern Turkish cuisine with Michelin star worthy presentation and quality with wonderful service and you pretty much have it. The morning of the cruise we hopped on the local tram, a short walk from the hotel to the Tophane stop and took in the sights of Istanbul, a truly memorable city which I'm delighted to say we have an overnight visit to on our next cruise on Celebrity Reflection.
After checking out, a 10 minute stroll took us to the cruise terminal, which to be honest has seen better days, but I believe the whole area is work in progress and major refurbishment planned. We checked in our luggage very easily and had to wait approx 20 mins for boarding to commence. We got our first view of the ship from the terminal and it brought home the size of the yacht as compared to one of the Costa behemoth moored behind it. Boarding commenced around 10 minutes late and luckily we were standing in the correct part of the departure lounge and through passport control within another 10 mins or so..... I believe the people behind us must have had a longer wait as it appeared that although there were 2 officers present, only one was processing passengers.
And so to the yacht. Walking up the gangway, being greeted with a glass of fizz, we then had to check in and be given our suite keys. This process took place in the lounge and seemed reasonably well organised with 3 of the crew taking passports and the all important credit card details. Soon we were good to go and headed towards our suite. En route we met the Food and Beverage Officer who was promoting the sale of the drinks package on board. We had investigated this on the Windstar website prior to sailing and just needed to check out the wines by the glass which were included before signing up. We were led to believe the package included: wine up to $11.50 a glass, in suite minibar, and premium cocktails with the specific exception of super premium brands eg Louis XIII and XO, perfectly clear and reasonable to me. However after the first night I was told I couldn't have VSOP at the bar although I could have it from my in suite minibar and there were in fact many drinks which were excluded and indeed the house champagne included was prosecco! I made every effort to understand why I could have a cocktail on the drinks menu at $11.50 but couldn't have a Remy Martin VSOP priced at $10.50. No one onboard could explain or fix this and it left me feeling less than satisfied. Don't get me wrong, with a couple of glasses of wine at lunch and dinner and pre and post dinner cocktails, I can't say the package wasn't value for money. However at $125 per suite per day I think the discrepancy with what you can and can't have smacks as a penny pinching and less than transparent practice from Windstar (especially when you consider that all non alcoholic beverages are already included in the fare)
Anyway I digress, we did make it to our suite, 301 on deck six forward. I have to say it was one of the nicest cabins we have sailed in. Very roomy and with a great picture window and tasteful furnishings. It was spotless and kept so throughout the week by our cabin attendant. The bathroom reminded me of a smaller version of what you would find in a smart old London hotel, all white marble and mirrors with a nice supply of L'Occitane toiletries . For a week in the Black Sea, it was perfect, however for a hotter climate I would most definitely have missed a balcony to relax on. In my view the only upgrade needed to make the suites perfect would be new mattresses, these remain from Seabourn and though comfy are now a bit saggy in the middle.
So onto exploring the yacht and this is where it really becomes a tale of two yachts! The refurbishment is not as extensive as the Windstar marketing led us to believe. There are beautiful areas like the Yacht Club and Compass Rose, and even though the main dining room Amphora hasn't had a full makeover yet, it is a pleasant room. The show lounge is I believe pretty much as it was, not an issue for us as we didn't frequent it. You also need to become re-accustomed to seeing so much brass in one place around the central atrium, but it was the lack of improvement to the deck areas, the verandah restaurant and the pool that completely took the shine off the refurbished yacht pitch for us.
The deck is very worn, to be expected I suppose given the age of the yacht, but sun beds look tired, overused and in need of retirement. There were some nice spots for sunbathing, particularly the forward deck with jacuzzi which had about 12 sun beds laid out. The only downside of sitting there was that bar service was rare.
Regarding the pool, I think it was the worst I have ever seen. Refilled with seawater daily, it still looked murky, grimy and I only saw one person in it all week. There was one jacuzzi which wasn't heated so that was the only option for a cooling dip. There is another pool onboard of course, part of the much advertised sports platform which extends from the aft of the yacht. Needless to say we didn't see this deployed all cruise, so don't board expecting it and you might just be lucky. It's unfortunate that such a signature activity of this line isn't more carefully scheduled into itineraries so at least it can be experienced once in a cruise.
Awnings around the deck were decidely filthy, not I imagine from the want of cleaning, just way past their sail by date for a luxury cruise line. It added to the 'past it's best' feel around the deck space. There was considerable work underway by crew sanding down and re varnishing during the cruise, so I guess it's still work in progress. When I asked about the extent of refurbishment it became obvious that a cosmetic facelift was undertaken by Windstar on acquiring Star Pride from Seabourn, I was told the full refit isn't planned till 2016 ( I must have missed that in the brochure).
The most problematic area in our experience was the Verandah Restaurant for breakfast and lunch (which also transforms to Candles by night). It was never easy to fund a table. And tables inside were crowded around the buffet layout with passengers and staff milling around. This detracted from the experience and to be honest I have had easier times navigating this type of casual restaurant on solstice class ships. In fairness the space came into is own in the evening when there are limited reservations and waiter service.
Ok now I have got all of the 'so far' from the mark off my chest, what about the 'so near'?
Without exception the staff were exceptional. This is where the small ship experience really came to the fore. Believe it or not, when we cruise with Celebrity we always find crew who remember us or go that extra mile to get to know and welcome us. On Star Pride this was true of 100% of the crew, so a big thumbs up there and thanks to each and every one of them for all their hard work.
The food was generally excellent with the two senior chefs very visible around the yacht, clearly hands on and at the same time interacting with guests. The deck BBQ and party is great with a winning combo of delicious food and one of a kind entertainment by the crew. Both food and service in Amphora was excellent and dining outside on our last evening at Candles was great too.
We settled on Compass Rose as our 'go to' pre and post dinner venue. This was where we met and mingled with some of the great people we met on the cruise. This was also the venue where 'One Night Stand' a talented pianist and singer duet from the UK entertained most nights. All I can say is that Collette & Craig (that is their names) helped make our cruise and that of our onboard friends, so enjoyable!
The spa, while small has a great team, and 3 massages later, I left the ship much more relaxed than when I boarded, if you do go, I can recommend the bamboo massage, seaweed wrap and ginger and lime scrub.
I should have warned you this wouldn't be much of a port review, review! In short, the sailaway from Istanbul and transit through the Bospherus was awesome, second only in my experience to sailing in and out of Venice. The two Turkish ports on the itinerary were nothing to write home about and the same went for Constantia in Rumania. Odessa in the Ukraine and Nessebar in Bulgarian were definitely worth a visit.
So there you have it. I'm glad we tried it, but doubt we will return to Star Pride based in those areas of the ship that need a lot more work done for us to say it ticks all the boxes. Windstar, make your yacht shine like your crew and you might just tempt us.