By Melissa Paloti, Cruise Critic contributor, updated by Phyllis Steinberg, Cruise Critic contributor
Windstar's namesake ship -- Wind Star, a sleek, four-masted, motorized sailing yacht that's one of three in the casual-yet-upscale line's fleet -- was built in 1986. Yet, continuous upkeep and recent refurbishments have kept it fresh and youthful. In the cabins, creaky old bathrooms have been spruced up with granite countertops, high-piled towels and fancy shower sprayers; and new combination DVD/CD/iPod players have upped the ante in the tech toys department. Public rooms and restaurants have been updated, too.
Windstar was acquired in 2011 by Xanterra Parks and Resorts, and all three ships underwent an $18 million refurbishment in 2012.Wind Star's Restaurant was redesigned and renamed AmphorA, and a new menu was implemented. The Pool Bar was revamped to create additional alfresco seating for sunset dining at Candles Grill, with a new awning and deck furniture. The reception area was updated, and The Lounge got new hardwood flooring and a new AV system.
What hasn't changed, however, is the onboard experience. The cruise line has stuck to its core concept: a balance of small-ship features -- low passenger occupancy, high passenger-to-crew ratios, personalized service -- and more big-ship ones, particularly where pricing is involved. Excursions and alcoholic beverages levy additional charges, though water and soft drinks are included.
Wind Star is intimate and romantic, and it's a treat to cruise on a real sailing ship. But its small size means you also benefit from access to otherwise unreachable ports. Wind Spirit offers unique itineraries that include ports of call both on and off the mainstream grid, as well as plenty of active adventures ashore. On our cruise, we were the only ship in port for the majority of the destinations, allowing passengers to explore without being harangued by thousands of passengers from competing mega-ships.
A fellow passenger told us he hadn't cruised on a Windstar vessel in well over a decade, but was glad to see from his week on Wind Star that not much had changed. He wasn't the only repeat passenger, and many others had cruised much more recently, waving hello to staffers they recognized from past trips. There's a genuine connection between the people who work and sail on these ships.
There's something else that made this cruise memorable: our fellow passengers.
Maybe it's the open-seating dining at every meal, the casual and comfortable dress code or the fact that the ship carries only 146 at double occupancy, but there's something about being onboard this ship that makes you want to meet, mingle and have fun. Even groups of couples traveling together fostered camaraderie, rather than sticking with their cliques. Since returning home, we've exchanged e-mails, photos and travel stories with new friends we made onboard -- some of whom are already planning to take a Windstar cruise together again soon.
However, honeymooners, of which there were a few on the cruise, tended to choose tables for two and had fun just enjoying the ambience of the ship and each other. That's the beauty of Windstar -- if you want to mix and mingle, you have plenty of social opportunities, and if you want to be left on your own, you won't be pressured to socialize.
Wind Star Fellow Passengers
The average age on most voyages is about 50, though passengers (mostly couples) range in age from 30's to 70's. The youngest passenger on our cruise was 11, and many families were traveling with older teenagers and college-age children. Passengers are well-traveled, well-heeled and generally active, particularly on Caribbean and Costa Rican itineraries that offer adventurous shore tours like hiking and zip-lining. Interestingly, a good number of Windstar passengers are first-time cruisers -- about one-third. On our sailing, the remainder seemed to be an even split of both Windstar repeaters and cruise veterans who were new to the line.
Wind Star Dress Code
The dress code is casual during the day. Most men wear shorts and collared shirts or T-shirts, with ladies in shorts, cropped jeans or capris and cotton tops or sundresses. At night, jeans, shorts, T-shirts, tank tops and tennis shoes are "forbidden" in the main dining room. (But, we did see a few neat jeans slip through.) The written code is "casual elegance": men generally don button-down shirts or collared shirts with pants, and women wear sundresses or capris with light sweaters or blouses. Bottom line: Leave tuxes and evening gowns at home. Otherwise, pretty much anything goes.
Wind Star Gratuity
A $12 service charge is automatically added to passenger accounts each day. A gratuity of 15 percent is automatically added to beverage tabs and spa service charges (though you have the option to specify a smaller or greater amount for the latter if you'd prefer). Some passengers choose to recognize outstanding staff members with extra tips at the end of the cruise.
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This was our fifth Windstar cruise and definitely not our last. The Islands of the Western Mediterranean is only offered once each year, but for those of us who have cruised the Riviera coast from Barcelona to Rome in the past it is a ...continue