I’m lying on a deck lounge chair, watching the bluest ocean sparkle like diamonds. When the sun strikes the water just so, it ignites this liquid-y dance, as if topaz and aquamarines hop, stretch and skip the ocean’s surface, as far as the eye can see. I’m mesmerized by this view, and also, by the French cosmopolitan in my hand. Consider my life very good sailing Windstar’s Star Breeze from San Diego to Puerto Vallarta.
I haven’t been on this 312-passenger ship in several years, before Windstar spent megabucks to upgrade it; the vessel was halved for a new 80-foot midsection and to add shipboard upgrades after a major 2021 refurbishment. The new look vibes far more contemporary, and even, posh.
I love our Star Balcony Suite best; in the redo, the layout was swapped so the queen bed is set adjacent to the step-out balcony instead of the living area. Mind you, step out is all you can do. But, fling those doors open, and fresh sea air does zoomies around the suite, and wonders for my head.
I’m sailing fried from long days of desk work and the fresh ocean air exhilarates. It feels like some kind soul strapped an oxygen mask on my tired face. Inhale, exhale. Go deeper each time. Was I even breathing before, back in Los Angeles, tapping my keyboard on deadlines?
When lying in bed with those doors open, I feel so connected to the sea, as if my bed is its own boat and I’m sailing separately from other passengers. How dreamy. Of course, dreaming comes easy in this silky sheeted bed.
That bed feels particularly welcoming when I return from dinner and find my steward has worked her magic, so that the suite is softly lit and the nearly sheer white curtains separating our bed from the living area are drawn. My heart skips a beat – yes, this feels sexy, and I even have W-branded chocolates waiting on my plush pillows.
The suites may well be the fanciest aspect of a Star Breeze cruise. Windstar is not a luxury line; consider it a notch below. Its more reasonable pricing, combined with its small size, makes this distinctive line so appealing.
Chatting up other passengers, I find a mix of loyal Windstar guests and those upgrading from less costly lines. I also meet some who are giving Windstar a try post-mourning Crystal Cruises’ demise. (My cruise took place months before A&K bought the two Crystal ocean ships).
What do my cruisemates like onboard? My informal survey reveals that they really enjoy the private yacht-like vibe. They also like its casualness; dressing up here means no shorts at dinner. That is, unless it’s deck barbecue night, and shorts-wearing is de rigueur.
Speaking of dining, I couldn’t wait to try Star Breeze’s two newest restaurants. The 38-seat modern Spanish Cuadro 44, created with noted chef Anthony Sasso, feels both intimate and edgy for a cruise ship. You can hop a stool at the dining counter facing the open galley, and nibble tapas while chefs entertain by slicing and dicing away.
Dining here is complimentary and allowed once per voyage so everyone has a chance to experience Cuadro 44. As it should be; the restaurant’s ingredients shine in ways no other onboard eatery can match.
Tapas strike every high note. I’m wowed by the tenderness of charred octopus, intricately arranged with a light Yukon gold potato salad. Same for the Spanish frittata wedge; the thinnest layers of potatoes are bound with eggs and garnished with potato chip gremolata. How inspired. The chips add crunch to an otherwise traditional parsley, garlic and lemon mix.
I can’t stop thinking about the paella croquetas, a modern take on an iconic Spanish dish, fashioned into nori (dried seaweed) and panko-crusted arborio rice balls, with chorizo pumping up the aioli. Same for jamon Iberico, 24-month aged pork leg raised on acorns in southern Spain. The generous plate of thinly sliced ham comes with pan con tomate, the most delicious bread, rubbed with garlic and fresh tomato until it’s stained red and possessing a garlicky aroma. I could make a meal of the pan con tomate alone.
Entrees, like lamb chops with mint salsa verde, excite me less. Perhaps the tapas are so flavorful and creative, or maybe I am full after devouring them. Yet I polish off the churros, wonderfully fried pastries shaped like long fingers, and dip them into salted hot chocolate sauce. The only big miss at Cuadro 44 is the lack of its own wine list showcasing Spanish bottles.
Star Grill by Stephen Raichlin, a barbecue master and noted cookbook author, is also complimentary and open for lunch and dinner. No need for reservations in this most casual open-air eatery. This kitchen showcases dishes cooked with a grill, smoker and rotisserie. Lunch and dinner star what these ovens produce, like mouthwatering brisket from the smoker, a too-chewy grilled skirt steak and juicy rotisserie chicken with well-seasoned skin.
Veranda, the breakfast and lunch buffet venue, turns into romantic Candles for outdoor dining only come nightfall. During the ship’s redo, Candles received a new deck, canopy, glass railing and bigger menu. The venue feels more spacious and the sea views are stupendous.
Candles proves my favorite restaurant. Dining alfresco as the sun sets, with a dramatic show of ever-changing colors blazing across the sky, feels as fabulous as it sounds. Plus, the food is good. Servers first present a plate of specialty salts; Hawaiian black, smoked applewood and Himalayan pink. It’s fun to taste the salts and then add a pinch here and there to dishes like tomato, ricotta and watermelon salad, and New York strip loin with roasted black garlic puree.
I didn’t try the 40-ounce bone-in ribeye tomahawk and 30-ounce bone-in porterhouse, the newest Black Angus beef specialties. I look enviously at neighboring tables who did, and see the passengers’ satisfied faces and bare-bone plates. I find all the sides agreeable, from perfectly cooked asparagus to salt-cooked baked potato and panko-crusted onion rings.
Some shore excursions were canceled by tour operators just days before we set sail. When it’s time to debark for a tequila tasting, I see a big line of eager passengers, who come back content. In popular ports like Cabo San Lucas, where big ships also visit, the scene is mostly tourist traps.
I joined an outing to Todos Santos (near Cabo), an artsy town with an old mission, that ran hours over schedule with unexpected shopping stops for the local tour guide to tout his friends’ blankets, jewelry and candy. We were a grumpy bunch by the end of the day. Luckily, the shore excursion desk was most accommodating, crediting our accounts for this outing. In all fairness to Windstar, the ship had been sailing Tahiti and this was the first of only two Mexican voyages before heading to Alaska for the summer season.
My favorite stop is Loreto, Mexico, where most cruise ships do not visit – thank you, Windstar for including this port. I had a blast exploring the quiet friendly town by foot – it feels like real Mexico, not at all touristy. I score a delicious lunch at Orlando’s, specializing in seafood. I’d go back in a heartbeat for the big fat local shrimp, grilled and served with an addictive garlic salsa that exploded with flavor.
The vastly improved World Spa features a new steam and sauna. With more treatment rooms, I easily booked a massage and discovered my therapist had hands of steel. I wish I could put him in my suitcase. He’s that good, maybe one of the best I’ve met.
The larger gym means lots of Technogym equipment like a rowing machine, elliptical, bikes and treadmills with terrific views. Free weights, benches – this gym is remarkably well-equipped for such a tiny ship.
Dining venues need more servers. The deck and pool area need more attendants. No one removes used towels on lounge chairs until the end of day. It’s difficult to find clean ones come afternoon. Beverage service can be hit-or-miss; some days servers circulate, other days, I hardly see one.
The new pool is still small, too tiny to swim in. Most passengers use it to dunk and refresh.
If only every breakfast and lunch item in Veranda restaurant tasted as good as the morning’s almond croissants. I swear, those flaky buttery bites taste like someone rolled them in Paris. But if everything tasted that good, Windstar would probably be in the luxury cruise category and charge luxury ship prices.
It’s a tradeoff that works well for passengers, who seem utterly content throughout the sail. When entertainment manager Grace Caudle – a musical theatre and opera talent extraordinaire – sings Con Te Partirò, Time to Say Goodbye in her stunning soprano voice for the last sail-away, I bet I’m not the only one dabbing my eyes.
Updated June 27, 2022