We planned this trip with a couple from Iowa that we met last year on our Oceania cruise. We met up with them at Heathrow and continued on to Istanbul together. I am happy to report that everyone's connections went smoothly, our luggage made it safely, and we thought that Terminal 5 was definitely worthy of all the hype. The British Airways lounge there was by far the nicest airport lounge we have ever visited!
Please be aware that if your flight lands in Istanbul, you need to purchase your Turkish visa BEFORE going through the long Passport Control line. The visa window is to the left of Passport Control, and you probably wouldn't see it unless you knew where to look. Our visas were $20 USD.
ISTANBUL: We spent four nights before our cruise at Hotel Nena, in the Sultanahmet district. We loved this little boutique hotel. The room rate was reasonable, and included transfers from the airport and to the ship, an excellent breakfast, and a 50% off coupon for the hotel's rooftop restaurant. Free internet was available in the hotel lobby. Our "triple" room was huge and clean, and the service overall was great. On our first night, we had dinner at the rooftop restaurant and enjoyed a spectacular view of the full moon over the Blue Mosque.
We had a private guide, Kagan Kosagan, for two days, and would also highly recommend him. On our first day with Kagan, we visited the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace (don't miss the Harem section), Haghia Sophia, and the Basilica Cistern. At the end of the day, all four of us were hot and tired, and decided to pass on the Archaeology Museum. My husband and I ended up going to a Turkish bath instead. The one we visited was "Cagaloglu Haman." It was a short walk from the hotel and is mentioned in the book, "1000 Places to See Before You Die." It was definitely a unique experience! Then we had dinner at a nearby restaurant, "Kir Evi," which was recommended by the Nena. The food was pretty good and there was live entertainment. We also had a margarita at the fake El Torito around the corner from the hotel.
The next day, we visited the Grand Bazaar, Chora Church, the Taksim neighborhood, and Galata Tower. Suleyman Mosque was originally on our schedule but turned out to be closed for restoration. After our tour with Kagan, we headed back to the Grand Bazaar, where we had great fun chatting with the vendors and looking at the "Genuine Fake" watches. We had dinner that night at a restaurant, "Kalamar," also recommended by the Nena. It was in the Kumkapi fish market district, and they sent a van to pick us up and bring us back. The fried mussels were especially good.
Kagan was unavailable the next day, so we had planned a tour through the Nena instead, which turned out to be a mess. Had we known the tour involved a Gray Line bus, we would never have booked it. Our first stop was the Spice Bazaar, which was a fifteen minute walk from the hotel. It took us two buses and almost two hours to get there. And then, since we were running so late, we were only allowed to spend a few minutes there. The next thing was a cruise up the European side of the Bosphorus, and back down the Asian side, which was nice, but was more crowded than we were led to believe it would be. We left the tour at this point, and went to the nearby Dolmabache Palace on our own, instead of waiting for the bus. Then we rode the public tram back to the Spice Bazaar and had plenty of time to explore it at our leisure. The prices seemed better here than at the Grand Bazaar, but it wasn't quite as much fun. That evening, our friends stayed in, and had another nice dinner at the Nena's restaurant. My husband and I had dinner at a "famous" kebab restaurant, "Hamdi." (His lamb and veal kebabs were excellent; my chicken ones were just OK.) Then we went to the Whirling Dervish show at the Sirkeci train station, which used to be the destination of the Orient Express. The hotel was able to arrange the tickets for us at the last minute. We enjoyed the show very much.
The next morning, before checking out of the hotel, our friends visited the Archaeology Museum, and said it was great. We went back to the Grand Bazaar. We were completely fascinated by the place!
I think all of us thought that four nights in Istanbul was just about the right amount of time. We had ample time to see and do everything we wanted, and a few extra things as well, without feeling rushed. We loved Istanbul and especially the people, but by embarkation day, we were looking forward to getting on the ship.
THE SHIP: Upon boarding the Wind Spirit, my first impression was that this was going to be a LOT different from any of our previous cruises. The Captain greeted us and introduced us to some of the other officers. We were escorted to the lounge, where we were offered a mimosa, and were asked to fill out a couple of forms. We then went to our cabins, and our luggage was already there.
We had cabins on the first floor, which were less expensive than those on the second floor. The cabins are identical, with the exception of one larger Owner's Suite that we didn't see. I didn't see any advantage to being on the second floor, unless stairs might be an issue. There were no elevators on the ship.
Our cabin was organized efficiently and we had more than enough room for our belongings. There were two closets and ample drawer space. I am a bit claustrophobic, and wondered how I would do with just a porthole window, but it was fine. The bathroom was nicely appointed with L'Occitane toiletries and we especially liked the shower. There was never a problem with water pressure or temperature.
The service we received from our cabin steward, Agus, was exceptional. Our room was usually made up by the time we returned from breakfast, our ice bucket was full at all times, and the conditioner in the bathroom was replaced before I had to ask for a new bottle. The cabin service was much better than what we had experienced on our Oceania cruise and our last Regent cruise.
Actually, overall the service EVERYWHERE on the ship was probably the best we have ever had on any cruise. And the crew members just seemed happier to me than on our other cruises. Not that those crews seemed unhappy, but to me it seemed like there was a difference with this group. Every time we passed the crew area in the stairwell, I could hear laughing and joking from behind the door. And every time that door opened, the person who opened it had a smile on his face.
We peeked in the gym but didn't use it, rationalizing that we would get our exercise wandering the ports. It looked fine though. I didn't visit the spa either, but the services seemed reasonably priced. My friend reported that her pedicure was great. There were two computers in the library, and there were three internet packages available for purchase. We bought the middle one, which was 100 minutes for $55, which also seemed reasonably priced. Usually, at least one of the computers was available.
There was not much in the way of entertainment, which was not an issue with us. We figure we'll go to Vegas if we want to see a Vegas-type show. There was a piano player in the lounge, and a couple of times there were local folkloric dancers that came on board and performed on deck.
A big difference on this cruise was that we felt like we were actually on a boat, instead of a fancy floating hotel. Maybe that wouldn't appeal to some people, but we liked it a lot. There were 130 passengers on this cruise, and it always felt like there was plenty of room for us everywhere on the ship. We never had to wait for a table in the dining room, which was open seating, and there were always chairs available on deck. I looked for chair-hogging, having had issues with that on other cruises, and didn't see any.
We did notice one possible downside to being on such a small ship. There were two large groups on board, and I could see how that might negatively affect your cruising experience if you weren't part of the group. We experienced two minor incidents relating to this. One morning, we had been waiting about fifteen minutes for a tender. When it finally arrived, we were ordered to "step aside" for the large Tauck tour group that was on board. They boarded the tender, and there was no room for us and the other people who had been waiting in line. Fortunately, Windstar resolved this quickly. They called back another tender and we ended up having to wait only ten more minutes instead of half an hour.
The other incident involved a group of about twenty who were on some sort of reward trip. We met many of the people in this group, and they were really nice, but when they were all seated at the same huge table in the middle of the dining room, they were loud and obnoxious. One night it was so bad that we were unable to carry on a conversation at our own table. The wait staff appeared to be just as annoyed as the other passengers.DINING: I really wanted to give this cruise a 5 +, but unfortunately, the food fell a little short of our expectations. After we boarded, there was a welcome buffet consisting of little tea sandwiches and hot dogs. The hot dogs were OK. The sandwiches were inedible, as in, I had to actually spit mine out. Fortunately, it got a lot better after that.
Breakfasts and lunches were very good to excellent. There was always a nice buffet, and there were several additional items that you could order from the menu. Plus you could get eggs or omelets cooked to order at breakfast, and hamburgers (that were REALLY good) at lunch.
But the dinners, for us anyway, were just OK. The wines were good and reasonably priced, and again, the service was great. But the food at dinner just seemed bland to us, although we realize that we like our food spicier than most people do. The desserts were just OK as well. Nothing was bad, really. It just wasn't great.
There was ONE dinner, however, that was exceptional, and that was the deck "BBQ Dinner Under the Stars" toward the end of the cruise. The grilled lobster tails were the best I have ever had in my life. We went back for seconds, and they went ahead and gave us thirds.
PORTS: Our first day was at sea, and then we were scheduled to stop in Kusadasi, Rhodes, Didim, Santorini, and Mykonos before the cruise ended in Piraeus (Athens). Every evening in the lounge, the ship's hostess would give a brief talk about the next day's port. She provided useful information for independent travelers as well as for those going on the ship's tours. We appreciated that since we rarely book excursions through the cruise line.
KUSADASI: We had a private tour booked with "Ekol Travel." We enjoyed our day but unfortunately were disappointed with our guide. She was scheduled for knee surgery and had mobility issues. This was mostly a problem for us because we had specifically requested to see the Terrace Houses, and our guide informed us that she would not be able to accompany us there because of the stairs.
She also didn't seem to be that motivated and excited about the rest of the tour. She told us she had been a tour guide for thirty-something years, so maybe she was burned out. We stopped by the Temple of Artemis, the Basilica of St. John, and the House of the Virgin Mary before making our way to Ephesus, and the Terrace Houses, where we tried to eavesdrop on other guides. After the tour, our guide wanted us to stop by a carpet store, her friend's restaurant, and her own shop, but we declined. We wished we had known that we could have booked Kagan for this tour before we paid Ekol their money eleven months in advance.
We returned to Ephesus that night for the only ship's excursion that we booked, "Dining Among the Ruins," which I believe is only offered on the Istanbul to Athens sailings. We were served a delicious dinner in front of the Celsus Library, and enjoyed listening to a chamber ensemble. The wine was free-flowing, and as the sun set, they lit up the Library. It was absolutely gorgeous and we had an incredible evening. Don't miss this excursion if it is available on your cruise! RHODES: We had decided just to explore the old town on our own. Some passengers visited the ruins at Lindos, and others explored the nearby beach, which they reported was just OK. They have a "Valley of the Butterflies" nearby that we would have visited, except that it was too early in the year to see any butterflies.
Rhodes is one of your typical pretty, walled medieval villages with touristy shops and cafes. The shops were different and more upscale than the ones we had gotten used to in Istanbul and Kusadasi, and it was a nice change. We browsed for a while, and walked up the Street of the Knights to the Palace of the Grand Masters, which we didn't go into because some other passengers told us that most of it was closed, and not worth the price of admission. We stopped at a cafe for an overpriced beer in a strange boot glass, and then we headed back to the ship.
DIDIM: This was a new port for Windstar. Our itinerary originally called for a stop in Bodrum, but that was changed to Didim for some financial reason. We received some information from our travel agent which led us to believe there might be some private beach day here, but that turned out not to be the case.
We had a nice day though. We just walked along the beach through the town, and stopped for lunch at a cafe at the far end. We made friends with the guy who talked us into eating there, and he told us a bit about Didim. It seemed to be a relatively low-cost beach vacation spot for British tourists, and it reminded us a little of how Mexico is to us. Most of the restaurant menus advertised dishes like Yorkshire Pudding and English Breakfast, and the prices were listed in both Turkish lira and pounds.
There were umbrellas and chairs available for rent along the beach, and also at least one place where you could rent waverunners and kayaks. If you were looking for a beach day on this cruise, this would be the best place to do it. We talked to other passengers who found taxis at the pier to take them around, and to more ruins, and they enjoyed their day too.
We tendered back to the ship and went to the sports platform at the back, where we jumped into the surprisingly cold and choppy water. There were a couple of people kayaking, and a few others in the water, but the conditions weren't nearly good enough for water-skiing, which I was kind of hoping we would get to do. They were actually starting to close down the platform when we got there, but they were happy to accommodate us and we didn't feel like they were rushing us to leave.
SANTORINI: The main town on the island, Fira, is perched on a cliff high above where the ships anchor. We rode the tender to shore, and then were faced with three choices to get up to Fira. The first choice was to take the cable car, which is what our friends did. The second choice was to ride a donkey up the steep path. (The ship's hostess had suggested that if we wanted to ride one at all, it might be better to do it on the way back down in order to avoid smelling like the donkey all day.)
The third choice was to walk up the donkey path, which is what we decided to do. The main problem with this was trying to avoid the donkey droppings. We found that the farther along we went, though, the less we cared about it.
Our friends were waiting at the top, and we rewarded ourselves with a Mythos beer and some tomato fritters at a nice little taverna. Then we took a cab to the village of Oia, which is the town you see in all the postcards. It looks exactly like the pictures and has to be one of the most beautiful spots on the planet. We had a wonderful Greek salad at a restaurant called "Kastro" that had an incredible view. It just seemed like the colors there were so much more vivid than they are at home! The sky, the water, the flowers, even the tomatoes in our salads were all brighter and more beautiful.
We poked around the shops for a while and took the public bus back to Fira. There was a schedule posted that didn't seem to have anything to do with when the bus was actually supposed to get there. Back at Fira, we explored the town some more, then eventually made our way back down the donkey path to the tender and back to the ship.
MYKONOS: Unfortunately, we didn't get to stop here, due to high winds and safety concerns about tendering in. We had a pretty scary tender experience once, so we understood. The Captain announced that we would be heading straight to Piraeus and would arrive there at 6:00 in the evening instead of the next morning as originally planned. We had a few hours of rough water and I felt seasick for the only time on the trip.ATHENS: This was possibly the easiest disembarkation in the history of cruising. We didn't have to put our luggage out in the hallway the night before. Instead, we were told to leave our bags just inside the door, and our cabin steward would pick them up at 7:00 AM. And as independent travelers, we could just get off the ship whenever we wanted, instead of waiting for our luggage tag color to be called. We had a last leisurely breakfast before leaving the ship.
We had arranged for Spiros to pick us up, take us on a tour, and drop us off at our hotel. There was nothing in any of our correspondence with him that indicated that our guide would be anyone other than Spiros himself.
Well, it turned out that we had Mike instead. Mike was a nice enough guy, and an excellent driver, and even though he got the job done, it wasn't a great tour. Our first stop was the Acropolis, which was incredible, and if I ever go back to Athens, I am going to figure out how to get an actual TOUR of it, instead of having some guy in a taxi drop me off and point me in the right direction. Our other stops included the Temple of Zeus, the Olympic stadium, TWO Changings of the Guard (I really didn't even need to see the first one), Lycabettus Hill, the Roman Agora, and the Ancient Agora. At most of these places, we really didn't even know what we were seeing, and had to look everything up later. We did had a nice lunch in a supposedly non-touristy restaurant.
Mike dropped us off at our hotel, Hotel Plaka, at the end of our day. We were relieved that all of our bags were still with us. There wasn't nearly enough room in the trunk for our luggage, so Mike had just crammed everything in there, left it wide open and tied a couple of bungee cords around our belongings. We drove around like that all day long. You could spot our cab from a mile away.
We decided on Hotel Plaka mostly based on information from TripAdvisor and Frommer's. The Plaka location was great, the rooms were large and clean, and we had a nice view of the Acropolis from our window. The service wasn't that good though, and if I were to return to Athens (which would only be in conjunction with another cruise), I'd probably spend a little more money on a nicer hotel. Our friends were staying two nights, and we were staying for three.
Driver Mike had recommended a "secret, no-name" restaurant in the Plaka district for dinner. It turned out to have a name, "Psara's", and not only was it featured prominently in the hotel's tourist map, it was packed. Leaving the hotel, we ran into another couple from the ship who had eaten there and said it wasn't that good. We thought we would try it anyway, but after waiting for a long time, and then finally being seated at a dirty, crowded table on an incline on top of some smokers, we changed our minds. We opted for a nearby restaurant, "Sissifos," which turned out to be dreadful, and then they tried to add fake charges to our bill until we called them on it.
The next day, we visited the National Archaeology Museum, which was amazing, and nothing like I expected. We couldn't believe how old, and how BIG, the pieces on exhibit were. If I had one day in Athens, I would go to the Acropolis in the morning and this museum in the afternoon, and maybe not even do anything else. We walked around the Plaka for a while, but by now we were kind of tired of the touristy shopping experience.
That night, we had dinner at Daphne's. We had called the day before for a reservation. It was excellent and we wished we would have eaten there the previous night too!
Our friends went home the next day. We spent much of it resting, since we were awakened in the middle of the night by some young drunk kids who were partying in the hall and pounding on our door. They discharged the fire extinguisher and set off the alarm, and then they were kicked out of the hotel. We were hoping to sleep in, but the housekeeping staff loudly got to work at about 7:00 AM cleaning up their mess.
We had an early flight the day after that, and had the hotel call a cab to take us to the airport. Of course it was a few euros more than the price that was quoted to us. Frankly, we were weary of feeling like we had to constantly be on guard in Athens. We flew back to Terminal 5 at Heathrow, connected to Terminal 3 easily, and retraced our steps from there, stopping in Chicago on our way back to LAX.
Overall, we had a wonderful vacation, and we loved the cruise. We enjoyed all the ports, but Istanbul was my favorite, and I would recommend spending at least three nights there. On the other end, two nights in Athens would have been plenty. As far as the ship, we loved it, especially the service and the low-key, civilized atmosphere on board. We are looking forward to our next Windstar cruise.