We did a 14-day cruise from Aruba to Costa Rica aboard Windstar Cruises’ Star Pride starting November 28, 2015. This was our first voyage aboard Star Pride. Our previous three Windstar cruises were all on the Wind Surf, which we love. Star Pride feels a bit smaller than the Surf. The Veranda, which serves breakfast and lunch and has indoor and outdoor seating, is located at the rear of the Pride, as opposed to mid-ship on the Surf, and doubles as Candles Restaurant at night. Since it was often windy, guests could choose to eat inside or brave the elements outside. We sat outside most days and for our three Candles dinners, finding a sheltered area each time.
Staterooms aboard the Pride are all suites, much larger than staterooms on the Surf. However, there was no room to walk between the foot of the bed and the vanity / desk when someone was sitting there. This was the only issue I had with the room. The bathroom is quite spacious for a cruise ship. It has a bathtub with a shower, and a double sink. The walk-in closet has hanging rods along one side and along the rear wall, a small dresser, and a safe. We loved the location of our stateroom, 437, located at the end of the hall on Deck 4. It was the closest room to the embarkation door, and right next to the mid-ship elevators and spiral staircase. One floor down was the AmphorA for dinner, one floor up to Reception and the Lounge. It was also adjacent to the Deck 4 public bathrooms, which came in quite handy many mornings!
Unlike the Surf, the Pride has no photo studio. We were several days into the cruise before the staff photographer started posting photos on a TV monitor in the Yacht Club. She later posted all of the photos on a ship’s computer in the Yacht Club, which was set up for viewing and ordering pictures.
We experienced our first “wet landings” on this cruise. In Panama and Costa Rica, the Pride anchored off-shore. The security checkpoint was relocated to an outside location behind the Lounge. From there you walk down a couple flights of steps to the water sports platform area and onto a platform on one side of the ship where you get into a Zodiac, don a life vest, and off you go to shore. The Zodiac runs up onto the beach and once stabilized by the crew, you remove your life vest, jump into the surf and walk on up the beach to shore. The water was never deep or rough, but you should plan to get your feet (and shoes) wet. Getting into and out of the Zodiac was very easy and it’s really fun, but better than sweating it out inside one of the normal tenders.
We selected the laundry package for this cruise, a service we have not used on previous cruises. It seemed expensive at $218 for both of us, but we used it extensively and in the end we rang up what would have cost more than $500 at their per-piece rates. Windstar also offers laundry service “a la carte” if you want that option instead of the entire laundry package. There is no self-serve laundry facility on the boat. We typically loaded our dirty clothes into a laundry bag before leaving for dinner, and set it on the floor inside our room ready to be hung on our door for pick-up before going to bed. And typically, we returned from dinner to find our bed turned down and the dirty clothes gone, already picked up by our cabin steward. Cool! No hanging our dirty clothes outside our door for the whole world to enjoy! Clothes were returned next day without fail, cleaned, ironed and folded, usually before 4pm.
We purchased a couple of large bottles of wine in Aruba to take aboard. If you take your own wine into one of the restaurants, there is a one-time corkage fee of $15 for each bottle. They will offer to store your wine under your cabin number for your use in any restaurant, if you wish, a nice touch so that you don’t have to lug it back and forth for every meal.
We chose this cruise for a couple of reasons. First, the length of the cruise was appealing. Windstar rarely does cruises as long as 14 days except for ocean crossings with few stops. This cruise had only 2 sea days. Also, every stop on this itinerary was completely new for us. And, we got a really good deal once we added up our cruise and airfare costs!
We have never been disappointed by the service provided by Windstar crews and I think this cruise was better than usual. At dinner, it seemed like many of the officers on board were on hand to help seat people, in addition to the normal dining room staff. In fact, many staff seemed to multi task more than usual. Philippe, (or Phil), the water sports director, seemed to be everywhere helping with everything, and was always extremely pleasant. He was so visible that, for several days, I thought he was the cruise director! We were also pleased to see a few crew members from our previous cruises on the Surf. Since the ship was only about 3/4 capacity we were able to find times to talk more extensively to some of the crew about their work, their other experiences, and their families. That was my most unexpected and appreciated surprise about this cruise.
Before I describe our ports, here are some facts about our trip. We flew to Aruba and home from Costa Rica nonstop each way on Southwest. Rented a car in Aruba from Econo. Stayed in Aruba at the Sunset Beach Studios. In Aruba, we ate out for dinners only, at Wacky Wahoos, Barneys (twice), and Bingos, and we enjoyed them all. Star Pride carries 212 passengers, our cruise had 153.
Ports – plan to be hot everywhere you go on this itinerary. A steady wind makes the heat less noticeable, and you’ll find that on all of the ABC islands. In Colombia and Central America, the wind is less reliable and you have to hope for a cloudy day or shade from some other source to help beat the heat.
We flew to Aruba 4 days before our sail date. I was not terribly interested in seeing Aruba, but did not want to blow it off altogether, either. Turns out, I was so relaxed by the end of our 4 days that I was in no hurry to leave, even with a cruise awaiting us.
There is a large variety of lodging available in Aruba. We tend to stay away from crowds and ended up at Sunset Beach Studios, located about 3/4 mile north of the Palm Beach high-rise hotels. Mind you, this is not the swank, luxury lodging that you'll find at the big name Palm Beach high-rise hotels, but it’s very comfortable. We stayed in one of two large garden studios (LG1). Our room was spacious, with a full range of kitchen amenities, a large walk-in closet, nice size bathroom with walk in shower (no tub), a comfy bed and a/c. The bed was listed as queen size, but it felt more like a king. A small safe is located in the closet. We had a variety of tables and chairs on the covered porch, with an indirect view of the beach and ocean across the street. There is a small, refreshing pool and hot tub. The grounds are nicely landscaped. The office is open until 5pm, but you can get help from the on site caretaker or just call the owners, who live locally. Located 3/4 mile north of the Ritz Carlton (the last hotel on Palm Beach) it's an easy ½-mile walk to good snorkeling sites along Malmock Beach, and 1 mile from Boca Catalina. There are a lot of similar places to stay in Aruba, and making a choice was tough. I would return to Sunset Beach Studios in a heartbeat, although I’m curious about some of the places we did not select.
Snorkeling in Aruba was good, but not great. Everyone goes to the best spots and while there is a lot of cool fish to see, the color of the coral is pretty washed out. We snorkeled right from the beach and had a great time.
We rented a small car from Econo Aruba Car Rentals at the airport, and returned it to their satellite location at LaQuinta Hotel (Eagle Beach). We just left all of our luggage in the car and the Econo guy at LaQuinta drove us in our rental to the cruise port at no charge.
Embarkation was scheduled to start at 1pm and we arrived at Star Pride shortly thereafter only to encounter our first wait in line ever for a Windstar Cruise. The wait to check in and drop our luggage inside the cruise terminal was only a couple of minutes, but there was a long line waiting to board the ship, maybe a 15-minute wait. When we departed the ship again about 30 minutes later the line was gone. We apparently arrived at the ship just after a large group from the airport … simply unfortunate timing on our part. The registration and check-in process was typical Windstar, fast and easy once we were inside the Lounge.
Although the Pride arrived at 7am and departed at 10pm, we did not see much of this lovely island. Instead, we wanted to spend as much time as we could snorkeling. We booked a snorkeling trip ahead of time with Woodwind and it was the best decision we ever made. Our trip included 23 passengers. The captain (and owner) divided us into three groups: novice, somewhat experienced, and leave-me-alone-I-know-what-I’m-doing (my terminology, not hers). This particular trip took us to Klein Bonaire, a small island just off shore. Along the way, she talked a lot about the marine biology of the area, and the rules and regulations for use inside this national park. The crew helped us with equipment; Woodwind has a huge assortment of snorkeling gear ranging from snorkels and masks to UV shirts, snorkeling caps, and fins. Many people brought their own gear, but many were not very familiar with how to use it properly. Some had been using it very improperly for years, and got a good lesson on how they should be using it. My wife brought her new Tribord full-face snorkel mask, only to have the captain tell her that it was the wrong size. But, Woodwind also carried a few Tribord masks and set up my wife with one fitting her with the correct size. (At the end of the trip, the captain offered to swap masks with us, and we gladly accepted!)
We stopped at three different locations around Klein Bonaire. At each, a crewmember dove in and swam around to check conditions. Passengers then went into the water in their preassiged groups, with each group assigned a crewmember who was their “tour guide”. Each group stayed loosely together, slowly floating with the current for about 45 minutes back towards the boat, which had repositioned itself at a pickup spot. Once passengers were picked up, the boat headed for the next drop location. Between stops, we were offered drinks and snacks. After the final stop, we were given a very generous lunch and more drinks. Our trip carried two underwater photographers who went into the water with us at each stop. At the end of the trip they had amassed a collection of more than 200 photos. During lunch, they carried iPads around for passengers to view the photos. The entire collection was offered for sale for like $40 on a flash drive. There was no sales pitch, no pressure to buy. Our Woodwind snorkel trip was one of our best cruise excursions ever!
Star Pride sailed upriver past the quaint historical part of Willemstad that you see in all of the cruise pictures of Curacao, and around a bend into a small industrial harbor surrounded mostly by refineries and tankers. There, she turned around and started back towards the tourist area, but we never made it that far. We docked along one side of the river, within sight of the industrial port to our rear. Hmmm … not quite the picturesque setting I had imagined. There was a dock on the river just inside the swinging bridge, adjacent to the tourist area, but that spot was later taken by a much larger cruise ship. (A third cruise ship was also in port, but located a short ways off at the mega-pier.) Our walk to the tourist area was about 10 minutes, maybe a bit more than ¼ mile, and really, other than the nasty refinery near our dock, we probably had the better location. It was very quiet, no one around except for those having business with our ship. The other cruise ship was docked at the entrance to the cruise port area, where it was crowded and noisy with vendors, taxi drivers, and tour guides. Yes, we had to walk through this melee to exit or enter the security area, but the walk to and from the ship to that point was pleasant and quiet.
We explored Curacao on our own. We had a car reservation with Avis at their Howard Johnson Hotel location, a short walk from our ship. Unfortunately, the map I used showed the hotel on one side of the river, when it was on the other. Avis had a desk set up in the lobby of the hotel. Cars were parked right outside in a narrow, dead-end parking area, and we had to exit by backing out quite a ways before finding room to turn around. Glad I did not rent a large car or SUV!
Windstar conducted a private event for dinner, “An Antillean Evening”, at an historic tavern. Shuttle buses were provided but many of us walked since it was nearby in the historic area. This was a wonderful event. A variety of drinks was offered upon arrival and dinner was served at buffet-like serving stations located around the perimeter of a courtyard. There was adequate seating, but many tables looked “held”. We were unsure where to go, when one of the crew offered to help us find seats. He took our plates and seconds later we were at the table we hoped to sit at all along. White and red wine was offered with dinner, and our table just kept a large bottle of the white in an ice bucket set up for us. I had been unsure what to expect from this event, and now feel unable to describe it adequately. It was a great experience and I’d say that Windstar did a superb job organizing this.
Day 3, at sea. We relaxed. After snorkeling and touring for nearly a week, I needed a sea day. Star Pride is a comfortable ship and we found that the Yacht Club, located forward and with great views, was a peaceful retreat for reading or whatever.
Santa Marta, Colombia:
We were the only cruise ship in port. While the port area is entirely industrial, it was interesting to watch the loading of a container ship docked adjacent to Pride. Shuttle buses and vans were available to transport passengers between the ship and the port entrance, conveniently located across from a waterfront park and beaches at one end of the downtown area … so getting into town was quick and easy. There was a lot of activity in the port area and I’m pretty sure that walking to and from the ship was not an option, but there was never a wait for a shuttle.
I found little information about this port, so we decided to try Windstar’s Quebrada Ecological Experience and Waterfall excursion. I have mixed feelings about this tour. The guided tour and waterfall were underwhelming. The tour guide seemed to be providing a lot of interesting information about Santa Marta and the surrounding area, but the air conditioning system on the bus was so loud, and the tour guide had so many problems with his microphone, that we could hear only bits and pieces of what he said during our 1-hour drive to the site. The waterfall was actually a series of cascades, ending in a pool along the trail. Very nice, but nothing spectacular or even unique. Some people jumped into the pool, others climbed up the cascades, most just hung out in the shade.
On the other hand, the cultural experience was interesting. The tour buses dropped us off at a site (the trailhead) full of merchant stalls selling souvenirs and food. The bathrooms here included two rooms with one toilet each, one for men, one for women. An attendant at the women’s bathroom gave out maybe three squares of toilet paper per person. I guess that’s better than none. There was a rather long line outside each bathroom. After our bathroom break our guide led us down a short path, across a shallow stream and along a wide, level trail to the waterfall. The walk to the waterfall was no more than ½ mile, although there were several stream crossings. Fording the stream was very easy … it was shallow with a gentle current. The trail was mostly shaded. Merchants with stalls were scattered along the trail, selling mostly food and herbs. There were a few people at the falls when we arrived, and a few kids in the pool. Not long after, the place was packed. It was like a trainload of people had arrived, most of them locals. Clearly, this is a popular place to spend a hot day! We spent most of our one-hour here in the refreshing pool.
A note about the merchants: we never felt any pressure to buy anything. Few of the merchants spoke English. We hung near our tour guide along the trail, and he stopped at several of the stalls to greet the merchant, to ask questions about what they sold, then translated the merchant’s reply for us. The tour guide was actually a very pleasant and knowledgeable guy.
Back on board the boat, we decided to walk into Santa Marta. A quick ride on the shuttle brought us to the port entrance, where, much to our delight, we found free WiFi, a nice shade tree, and several other passengers and a few crew from the ship! We walked through the waterfront park for maybe ¼ mile, then back through some side streets in town. It was late afternoon and hot, so this quick taste of Santa Marta was about all we had time and energy for. It’s a major city with lots of automobile and pedestrian traffic, not very appealing to us.
Unlike Santa Marta, the port at Cartagena is set up for tourists. Cruise ships dock at one end of the industrial port area, and you can walk or take a shuttle the short distance to the cruise ship terminal which is a rather large souvenir shop with an outdoor aviary and monkeys. Very modern and clean. If you like wildlife or shopping, you can easily spend an hour or more here. There were two other large cruise ships and two South Korean military ships in port with us.
We caught a taxi outside the cruise terminal for a ride to the old town area. The drive is probably only several miles but traffic was dense, so it took a long time to get there. Old town is full of beautiful architecture and we enjoyed walking around on our own, but were frequently approached by people trying to sell stuff. Only a few tried to hard sell … after hearing “no” a few times, most hurried off to find someone else. I think the huge volume of tourists from the other cruise and military ships kept them busy.
Day 6, at sea: I would not care for a cruise that is all sea days, but a nice break every few days suits me fine.
We spent nearly all day anchored near Colon, Panama with dozens of other ships, waiting for our turn to transit the canal. We started through late afternoon, and it was dark by the time we emerged from the first set of locks into Gutan Lake. There’s not much to see in the dark, so we went to bed.
Days 8 and 9, Panama City
Windstar lists this as Balboa / Fuerte Amador and I’m still not sure of the distinction, or why they don’t just say Panama City. When I checked the area on Google maps before the cruise, it looked like Balboa was an industrial port near the Bridge of the Americas, and Fuerte Amador was more of a marina at the end of a causeway connecting several islands to the mainland. Fact is, we anchored offshore from the marina (Fuerte Amador).
My wife enjoyed Windstar’s Monkey Watch tour. When she returned, we went ashore and wandered around the marina area. We needed to restock our wine for the remainder of the cruise but found the duty free store very expensive and with nothing we wanted. Further exploration revealed a wine store nearby with a decent selection and reasonable prices. The marina area has WiFi, but you have to look for the clusters of people with tablets and phones to figure out where to find the WiFi signal.
Isla de Coiba, Panama
This small island is several miles from mainland Panama, and is one of their national parks. Windstar provided an “island experience and lunch beach bbq” here and it turned out to be one of the highlights of our trip. Pride anchored in a sheltered cove with a nice beach. This is a “developed” site, where the park has several rental cottages and a small visitor center with exhibits. The Pride crew set up enough lounge chairs on the beach for everyone, most with a half-tent-like shelter around the top to provide shade, although shade was plentiful without the shelters. The BBQ was set up and lunch provided at a large covered patio with lots of picnic tables. We were brought ashore in Zodiacs to a wet landing on the beach. All of the water toys from the sports platform were available and were used extensively. We snorkeled for about an hour along one side of the cove. Snorkeling was enjoyable but not great. The water was calm with little silt, and a nice variety of colorful fish. We were advised ahead of time of the resident crocodile, but that he lived in a cove away from ours, was monitored by rangers and posed no hazard. We later learned that no one had seen him for several days and did not know where he was!
Golfo Dulce, Costa Rica
Also called Puerto Jimenez on some publications. Turns out we sailed into Golfito in the wee hours to clear customs into Costa Rica, then crossed the bay to “Port Jim” and anchored offshore around 8am. This was another wet landing via Zodiac onto a shady beach adjacent to a small hotel / bar / restaurant. We stepped ashore late morning for the short walk into town. When we encountered the early risers returning to the ship, many warned us to not waste our time, there’s nothing to see. But really, that’s exactly what we look for in a Windstar cruise. Port Jim is small, the main street is only about 5 blocks long, but it was bustling with activity. We stopped in one of the outdoor restaurants for drinks, free WiFi, and people watching … a very relaxing way to spend an hour or more. We looped back towards the ship along some side streets, to the airport, and on to our starting point. Before boarding the Zodiac we heard loud squawks and discovered a large number of scarlet macaws in the trees nearby.
Drake Bay, Costa Rica
This was the most isolated of our ports. Pride anchored offshore in a fairly rough Pacific Ocean, and tendered passengers via Zodiac to a dock located in a sheltered cove. They operated the Zodiacs slowly and the ride was not bad. The dock was located at an Eco-Lodge that included a restaurant with free WiFi. A narrow trail led to “town” a short walk away, but as the trail became increasingly muddy, we chose to turn around.
In the morning, we did Windstar’s Terraba-Sierpe Wetlands and Mangrove tour. There was some confusion about the cost and length of this trip. The original cost of $259/pp was incorrect; it was actually $199/pp. The length of the trip was 7 hours.
The tour boat was small, 15 passenger capacity, with a crew of three and no bathroom. It picked us up right from Star Pride, which is rather unusual, then motored north along the coast for about 15 minutes to the mouth of the Sierpe River. Here, the captain cut his engines as the crew advised us that passage from the ocean into the river would be very rough, and that storage of cameras and other valuables in watertight bags would be advisable. Everything was passed up to the crew who packed and stored it in a small storage area in the front of the boat. As promised, the ride into the river was exhilarating but once there, the boat once again stopped and all personal items were returned. The remainder of the trip was a scenic cruise upriver, with stops along the way to view wildlife. The captain did a great job of positioning the boat so that passengers along both sides had opportunities for great views. As far as I know, no one felt rushed, and any time someone asked for another stop, or a better position, he was extremely accommodating.
About two hours into the trip we arrived at the small village of Sierpe where we stopped for a short bathroom break. WARNING: this is the first bathroom opportunity on this trip. Your only other option is to hang it over the edge of the boat while your fellow passengers wait with their backs turned to you. Not that this happened to me or anything …. Anyway, we continued upriver another 30-45 minutes. Along the way the crew cut up fresh pineapple and watermelon and passed it around. Tasty! At some point we returned to Sierpe for a wonderful full lunch at a local restaurant (included in the cost of the trip) and a chance to wander around a bit, then headed back to the Pride. We did not see as much wildlife as I had expected, or quite the variety, but it was still an outstanding excursion. Also, I have a tendency towards sea sickness in even mildly rough conditions, but had no issues at any time during this trip.
Quepos, Costa Rica
Our planned outing to Manuel Antonio National Park was thwarted by fatigue. This cruise just wore us out to the point we could do no more. Instead, we caught the Zodiac to shore and walked the short distance into town. Quepos is cute. Small, but significantly larger than Port Jim. They have a waterfront walkway adjacent to the main road and benches are decorated in colored tiles depicting local wildlife and fish. After hitting the tourist shops, we headed to the third floor restaurant of the Best Western hotel for a couple of smoothies and free WiFi. We enjoyed a table with a cooling breeze, overlooking the main street and the harbor across the way. We were there maybe 90 minutes, and I could have stayed all day.
Day 14, Debarkation, Puerto Caldera
Another industrial port, but pretty quiet the morning we docked and we were the only cruise ship in port. Breakfast was available at 6:30am and people started getting off the boat around 7:30am. They wanted everyone ashore by 9am, I believe. We had arranged our own transportation to the airport, and were able to leave any time after the gangway opened. I was happy to look out our cabin window about 7am and see a large van with the name of our transportation company, and a guy nearby holding a small sign with our name. Debarking was pretty easy: we picked up our passports at reception, then down the gangway to find our bags already brought ashore.
We arranged for a scenic ride to the airport with Odyssey Tours and Transportation. We were picked up in a huge, like-new van. The driver took us towards the airport following back roads much of the way, with a stop at a nice store with beautiful garden and great views. A very relaxing trip. We arrived at the San Jose airport about 3-1/2 hours before our flight … plenty of time, I assumed. What I did not know was that we could not check in with our airline until we had paid a departure tax at a counter at the other end of the airport. So we paid the tax, then waited to check our bags with Southwest. It seemed like a long wait, but it was only about 15 minutes. From there it was on to the security screening. OMG! The line was endless! We still had about 2-1/2 hours until our flight, but it looked like we would be in the security line for much longer than that. The reality was, we were through security in a little over an hour, with time to stop for lunch before our flight. Read Less