WIND STAR August 22, 2009 7-Days Athens to Istanbul
Pictures Link: http://gallery.mac.com/ekroller#100460
Pre-Cruise We only booked about a month and half in advance. When I booked there was only one cabin available which was all the way aft. I grabbed it but then a couple weeks before sailing I was able to change the cabin to something more midship.
We booked air with Delta out of Atlanta. It was actually the least expensive option. Our flight to Athens was non-stop (B-767) and the return from Istanbul required a stop in JFK (also B-767). All the flights went without a hitch, which was a good thing. I was surprised on both International aircraft there was no in-seat video, yet on the JFK/ATL segment there was. Go figure.
If you opt for paper cruise tickets (still an option with Windstar), they will arrive in a nice navy blue canvas zippered pouch. The feeling is very nautical and quite fitting for Windstar.
Athens We pre-arranged private transportation from the airport to our hotel, followed by a full day city tour of Athens. I used the services of Nikos Loukas and I highly recommend him. He was fantastic and I could not have asked for a better guide or transportation around Athens. Our pick-up from the airport and the city tour was in a Mercedes Mini-bus, which was extremely comfortable. Nikos made sure we hit all the major sights in Athens and had free time in Plaka for lunch as well. If you would like to use the services of Nikos, he can be reached on the web at www.privategreecetours.com or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org
In Athens we stayed at the Hotel Grande Bretagne, which was wonderful. It's one of those grand European classic hotels and probably the best in Athens. The location is very central and service was impeccable. One evening we enjoyed dinner at the rooftop Garden restaurant. The food was delicious, service was excellent, and the nighttime view of the Acropolis was to die for.
On Saturday it was time to transfer to WIND STAR, which was docked in Piraeus. Once again we arranged the transfer through Nikos and his driver was right on time. It's only about 30 minutes from the hotel to Piraeus.
Embarkation We were dropped off at the main passenger terminal, where the CELEBRITY SUMMIT was docked. WIND STAR was actually around the corner. Windstar Cruises' representatives were visible the minute we were dropped off, and crossed us off a manifest while porters took care of the luggage. We went through the terminal and a quick security check, then outside for a short walk along the dockside to WIND STAR. You could have taken a shuttle bus if you wanted, but I enjoyed the walk much more. We presented our tickets at the gangway and up we went. Once onboard we were directed to the lounge where champagne was offered and check-in formalities took place. Passports are collected; a couple forms to fill out, cruise cards distributed, and then you are escorted to your cabin. Embarkation was about as seamless and stress free as you could hope for. Sailing on a ship that only carries 152 passengers certainly has its advantages.
Cabin We were assigned cabin 238, which was midship. Although no cabins on WIND STAR have balconies, I very much enjoyed the space. The entire cabin had a nautical feel, from the wood paneling and overhead bins, to the teak flooring in the bathroom. There are twin portholes, which accentuated the nautical ambiance. The bed was extremely comfortable with fine linens, extra cotton blankets, and an abundance of pillows. Amenities included a mini-bar, hair dryer, flat panel TV, DVD player, and an iPod docking station. DVD's and a loaded iPod can be checked out from the reception desk. I really loved the bathroom. I think I would go as far to say it's the best designed standard ship bathroom on any ship I have sailed. There is a large modern sink, tons of shelves, and two alcoves, one for the shower and one for the toilet. The shower had amazing pressure and the two Grohe shower heads where were fantastic. I liked these so much I just ordered a Grohe showerhead for my house! As mentioned before, the flooring was teak, which was a nice touch. Bath products were by L'Occitane. This cabin had absolutely no noise from above or below, no vibration from engines, and was very quiet. The only thing you could really hear were the waves outside the portholes, which I enjoyed. The air conditioning worked very well, and I was always able to get the cabin as cold or warm as I desired.
The Ship, Food & Service WIND STAR was built in the 80's, but based on my observations the ship was impeccably maintained and updated. The crew seemed to take great pride in "their" ship. There is not a whole lot to the ship as far as public areas. The dining room, a small library with internet, a main lounge and bar, the aft deck and pool, a small gym, a small casino, a small gift shop, a small spa/beauty salon, the main foyer, and the Veranda Restaurant. The ship is very comfortable and easy to get around but keep in mind there are no elevators. The style onboard is very casual and not stuffy. The crew gets to you know quickly and in no time will be calling you by name. It's almost like a small family. I thought the service was excellent and very friendly. It's not formal or stuffy, even in the main dining room. I also enjoyed the food. Almost everything I ordered was well prepared and presented. I especially enjoyed all the fish dishes, as the fish seemed fresh instead of frozen as on the mega-ships. Breakfast and lunch are served in The Veranda, and dinner is in the dining room or at Candles, which is the alternative outdoor dining area each evening that specializes in steak and seafood. We actually ate at Candles three times and very much enjoyed it. Advance reservations are required, but there is no additional charge. My favorite part of Candles was eating outside under the sails and stars, or while leaving port. One evening dinner is served outdoors by the pool. It's beautifully done and delicious. Grilled steak and lobster tails are in abundance, along with all the trimmings, appetizers, salads, and a beautiful display of deserts.
My fellow passengers were all very nice and interesting. There were only a few children onboard as there are no facilities for children. I think the average age was early 40's for the most part. Most everyone seemed well traveled and many had traveled Windstar before. I think the repeaters must enjoy the low-key atmosphere just like I did. There are no announcements, no bingo, no photographers, no inch-of-gold, no Vegas shows, no hunting for deck chairs, no assigned seating or set times in the dining room (ie: early/late), and best of all ... no lines! Evening entertainment consisted of a single piano player/singer in the lounge or on deck. The real entertainment was meeting new people, great conversation, a drink (or two) on the open deck, and of course the ports. Windstar did bring aboard some Greek dancers in Rhodes and belly dancers in Bodrum, which were a lot of fun. There was plenty of passenger participation!
Windstar has an open Bridge policy so long as the ship is at sea. It's seemed to odd to walk the open decks and the Bridge doors were always open. I very much enjoyed my chats with the Navigation Officers during my visits. I really liked going up there at night, sometimes before bed around midnight. It was cool to see how fast we were going, sometimes by sail alone. In fact upon departure from Athens we sailed all the way to Milos under sail only. Speaking of the sails, watching them unfurl as we departed Athens was quite an event. A Windstar tradition is to play Vangelis "Conquest of Paradise" as you depart each port and the sails unfurl. It can be quite moving.
I was somewhat concerned my partner might get seasick on such a small ship, but WIND STAR was quite stable and moved no more than the mega-ships. There are anti-heal tanks and stabilizers to ensure minimal roll and heal. I have to say they worked, at least on this cruise.
Milos Unfortunately our scheduled port of Mykonos was too windy, so the Greek island of Milos was substituted. I was disappointed but I've never been to Milos so at least it was something new. Like most Greek islands, I found Milos to be very charming and picturesque. We did not take a tour and just walked around the island.
Santorini For me Santorini was a highlight. Ever since seeing the movie Summer Lovers as a kid, I have wanted to go to Santorini. It did not disappoint. We took a tour that started with a special launch that took us to the far side of the island. From there we boarded a motorcoach to the highest point on the island. We were dropped off in Oia for a few hours to shop, take pictures, and grab a bite. Oia was about as picture perfect as it gets. From Oia it was off to Fira, which is the main town and where the ship actually anchors. Fira is also quite picturesque but larger and more commercial than Oia. Eventually we made our way back to the ship via the cable car from Fira down to the port area. You can also take a donkey ride if you prefer, or even walk. We were lucky as WIND STAR and one other very small ship were the only two ships in port, so crowds were not an issue.
Rhodes I have been to Rhodes before but it's been almost 20 years. It's very much how I remember it except perhaps more crowded. There were several ships in port, as well as the overnight tourists and ferry's dropping off even more tourists from Greece and Turkey. We did not take a tour but just walked on our own, traversing the small streets in the old city and touring the Castle in the center of town. We had lunch at one of the charming rooftop restaurants and purchased some Greek art to take back home. Back onboard we washed up, had dinner at Candles, and then went back into Rhodes for a walk around town at night.
Bodrum In Bodrum we enjoyed another tour organized by Windstar. There were only five of us plus the tour guide (who was excellent and met up with us again in Kusadasi), so it felt like a private tour. We started off by touring the ancient fortress then boarded a local Gullet, which is a beautiful wood boat crafted in Turkey. We sailed to a secluded swimming spot and took a dip in the beautiful waters right off the boat. Back onboard we enjoyed a traditional homemade Turkish lunch prepared by the two crewmembers onboard. It was great fun, delicious, and again seemed like we were on a very private tour. The Gullet moved to a different swimming spot and eventually we headed back to the main port of Bodrum. All and all a pretty amazing day that ended with our sister ship, WIND SPIRIT, circling us under full sail. It was quite spectacular.
Kusadasi Ephesus and the Virgin Mary's house are the two main attractions in Kusadasi. We took a tour that encompassed both. Our guide from Bodrum once again met us, and our small group first stopped at the Virgin Mary's house. This was a short stop before moving on to Ephesus, which was the highlight of the day. Ephesus is a must see, but it was VERY crowded with cruise ship passengers (from Kusadasi and Izmir) and VERY hot. Nonetheless I'm glad we went. The tour ended at a local carpet producer, where we were shown how silk carpets are made then given an elaborate show of the fine carpets they produce. It was very enjoyable but alas we were not willing to shell out $4-6K for a new carpet. If I were in the market for a new carpet, I would not hesitate to purchase one from this establishment. It was first class all the way. After the carpet shop we had time to walk around town, shop, etc. before returning to the ship.
At Sea Basically this day was spent lounging by the pool and enjoying the sights of the Bosporus Sea. The weather was perfect and it was nice to have a day to do nothing.
Istanbul and Disembarkation We pulled into Istanbul in the early morning hours. It's well worth getting up early to watch the arrival as the sun rises over the city. Just like embarkation, disembarkation was a breeze. Luggage that you would like off-loaded is kept inside your cabin, and picked up in the morning by your cabin steward. As we headed down the gangway, several of the ship's staff were waiting at the bottom to give us a hug goodbye. It was a nice touch and the hugs were sincere, as you actually get to know the crew and staff on such a small ship. We purchased a transfer to our hotel (The W) from Windstar and like all the tours we purchased, it was handled very well and with ease. Windstar will actually transfer you to any hotel in Istanbul for $15 per person. Our transfer coach made a couple hotel stops before reaching The W.
I fell in love with The W Hotel Istanbul. It's situated in a very old building that has been completely modernized. The W is located off the Bosporus in the "new" part of the city. I loved the location as well, as it's near a lot of excellent shopping. The room itself is very modern and high tech, with all the comforts of home and then some. We did the usual in Istanbul. Sightseeing, shopping, eating. It's an amazing city and I highly recommend spending time there if you can. The one thing about Istanbul and Turkey in general that I found a little unsettling is all the flags and pictures of their leader hanging from buildings. Not small flags, but huge flags that drape over entire buildings, and they were everywhere. Also, the Turkish flag is very red so you can't miss it. My partner and I both thought it reminded us of all those pictures we have seen in the history books of Nazi Germany, where Nazi flags were draped over buildings everywhere. We could not help but make the comparison.
All good things must come to an end, and so it was time to head home. We took a taxi to the airport, which was not expensive and about a 35-40 minute drive. Istanbul airport is modern and easy to get around. Our flight left on time and 11 hours later we landed in NY. JFK airport actually felt more foreign then Istanbul airport, and the Delta terminal is pretty poor and in major need of an overhaul. Not a great first impression for those seeing America for the first time.
Summary I really loved my Windstar experience. I honestly thought nothing could top Silversea but in many ways I preferred Windstar. I enjoyed the casual atmosphere onboard, and it was so small with only 138 passengers that it honestly felt like a private yacht. Two things I missed were a private balcony and more evening entertainment. When I say evening entertainment I don't mean a Las Vegas show, but more musical variety besides the single piano player/singer that performed every night. Frankly he wasn't that entertaining.
I look forward to sailing on Windstar again. I would like to try the larger WIND SURF as I know I will enjoy the additional amenities of the ship, but I worry the small, yacht-like atmosphere might be compromised. I will just have to find out!