One would think that a "motor sailing yacht," complete with five masts and seven sails, and with a passenger capacity of only 312, would be a small and cozy little ship. But Windstar Cruises' Wind Surf is surprisingly expansive, feeling much bigger inside than one would expect.
Another plus: The 14,745-ton vessel's distinct profile is a familiar sight in the smaller ports around the Mediterranean and Caribbean, ports which larger ships cannot enter. This fact, and the unique onboard ambience fueled largely by the presence of its sails, makes the ship an intriguing alternative to larger, more frenetic vessels. The itineraries are another draw, as they blend calls at major ports with those more off the beaten track -- a Mediterranean cruise from Barcelona to Monte Carlo also stops at Italy's Corsica and Spain's Palamos, and a Caribbean trip from Barbados includes the French West Indies' Iles des Saintes as well as St. Martin.
Built in 1990 as Club Med I, Wind Surf served as a "motor sailing" alternative for the French resort company. It was crafted with 25,000 square feet of computer-operated sails and a water-ballast stabilizing system that keeps the ship level while in motion. When Windstar acquired the ship in 1998, it lowered the passenger capacity by 78 to make room for amenities such as a large spa and an alternative eatery.
Wind Surf is the flagship of the Windstar fleet, which includes the much smaller 5,350-ton, 148-passenger Wind Star and Wind Spirit, along with Windstar's newest acquisition, the 212-passenger Star Pride -- its first non-sailing vessel. The biggest difference between Wind Surf and the other sailing ships is that its extra space allows for some familiar large-ship amenities while sacrificing little of the twins' reputation for personalized service. So you can chat with the captain and other officers, view the ship's operation from the bridge, and experience "we know your name" service while also participating in casino gambling and spa indulgences.
As a hybrid -- a big ship with a small ship vibe -- Wind Surf is hard to pigeonhole. It's not quite a luxury experience; aside from two suites, no cabins have balconies, bathrooms don't have tubs and room service is limited. Yet it's not mass market, either (you will rarely feel part of a crowd, onboard or off).
Wind Surf recently underwent a major refurbishment of cabins and public spaces and the ship's got a distinctly more upscale look to it. Staterooms feature bright colors, premium bedding and sleek furnishings. Its original library has been vastly expanded into The Yacht Club, a coffee bar/Internet cafe/delicatessen and is the ship's indoor hub. Its two sleek new restaurants, AmphorA and the French-inspired Stella Bistro, wouldn't feel out of place at a European hotel.
Wind Surf, along with the other pair of ships, is also offering slightly more value, including fancy coffees, bottled water and sodas in cruise fares. Liquor packages are available for those who want an even more inclusive experience.
On the other hand, service on our cruise -- which took place just after the ship returned from its revamp -- was somewhat inconsistent. Four days into the cruise, we still hadn't set eyes on our cabin steward, there was no phone number to contact him, and requests for stateroom fixes, relayed to the front desk, were neither efficiently responded to nor effectively solved. Every time we used room service, the order was wrong. And bar service could be very good -- or very bad (one night, a passengers' request to order a drink was met with a "Sorry, we're busy setting up for dinner now"). It felt like crewmembers were not empowered to say yes -- and that's an issue on a ship with luxury aspirations.
Passengers tend to be well traveled and active in mind and spirit, with age ranges from 30 to 80. The ship tends to appeal to folks who like a traditional cruise ship, but want to try a more exotic experience. It also appeals to honeymooners.
During the day, dress onboard is decidedly casual. In the evenings, "country-club casual" prevails, with men wearing collared shirts (no ties) and women in pant suits or coordinates. There are no formal nights onboard. No bathing suits or tank tops are allowed in the restaurants at dinner.
Windstar automatically adds a hotel service charge of $12 per passenger to each guest's shipboard account on a daily basis. If service exceeds or fails to meet expectations, you may adjust this amount at the end of the cruise. In addition, a 15 percent service charge is automatically added to bar charges and dining room wine purchases. It isn't necessary to tip beyond the $12 per diem, of course, but almost everyone does.