Our cruise departed from Tokyo in October, 2018, from the Harumi Port. If you're a fanatic about avoiding cab rides, we took the subway from our independent Shinjuku-area Hilton's Tochomae Station (E28, Oeda line), a 30 minute ride to Kachidoki Station (E17.) Crossing the street (depending on which exit you use), you have to determine (say, with Google Maps) the correct direction for the 03 or 05-1 bus to the nearby end of its line, Harumizen. This is, literally, the Cruise Terminal, so don't get off at any of the nearby hotels just before the end of the line. It looks like a transportation terminal! Another guest told us there was a convenient city bus from the Tokyo rail station, which is much closer to Harumi Port than Shinjuku. There were all-afternoon lunch hours upon boarding, so you did get a round three-meals for every day of the cruise.
Shimizu, Japan, our first stop was a short run. This is not much of a town, although they did give our small ship a warm welcome, with a ceremonial fireboat, and a sweet send-off, with local musicians and a small display of daytime fireworks! The reason to come here is to, maybe, view Mt. Fuji in the distance. Although they told us that the last two Windstar visits revealed no trace of the mountain, we were luckier! Happening to have a starboard cabin, when we threw back the curtains during the 7 AM pilotage, we found Mt. Fuji magnificently in front of our window. In addition, our ship-tour to a mountain shrine (Kunozan Toshogu), accessed by a five-minute cable car ("ropeway") ride just happened to coincide with a seasonal costumed procession and devotional ceremony by local civic groups and supporting businessmen in suits. No one had to tell us to step back respectfully and stand quietly. But the locals warmly gestured for us to join them in paying their respects. You may know that this is called by some travel-book readers a "Rick Steves moment." Many steps had to be climbed, despite the cable-car ride. It is theoretically possible to do this outing independently, with a local bus. I don't know the details. Our ship excursion included a second stop at a 2-story tower for viewing Mt. Fuji. It was starting to cloud over by then, and was invisible when we got back to the ship.
Osaka, Japan The second cruise stop was not far away, an overnight stay. Our Tempozan port was just three blocks, in a straight line, from elevated rail station C11, (Chuo line). This gives you prompt, full access to the city. (There is a very nearby free city ferry to the next peninsula, but it looks like the other ferry stop could be a mile from Universal Studios and Harry Potter.) But I will suggest that (especially since the overnight stay eliminates any danger of missing the ship's departure) that you skip Osaka and go on your own to Kyoto. If you have been to Kyoto, you could go to Nara for the day instead. Both trips are quite inexpensive. Osaka, Kyoto, and Nara use the same RFID public transit card. Even the differently-named RFID card popular in Tokyo works in these three cities too. You can even use the card to pay for single JR tickets. However, I never found any way to put money onto the card other than (obviously, Japanese) CASH. And I didn't have time to get my 500 Yen deposit back by turning in the card.
I cannot overstate how wonderful are Kyoto and (the lesser of the two ... ) Nara. We slept three nights in Kyoto and two nights in Tokyo before the cruise. It is true that many of the finest Kyoto (many, UNESCO WHS) sights are not near subway stations. This means either learning about busses and waiting for them, or lots and lots of walking. We also stopped at Inari, just outside Kyoto, to walk the four kilometers (!, and "uphill both ways") of vermilion Tori (gates) that inspired Cristo's "The Gates" of Central Park, NYC. We're garden fans, so we enjoyed Osaka's 95% indoors plant conservatory Sakuya Konohana Kan, left over from a 1990 Osaka exposition. It's a 15-minute walk through the park/exposition grounds, now filled with elementary school fresh-air outings, from Subway station N26 (Tsurumi-Ryokuchi).
Tamano, Japan/Uno Port is the gateway to Kurashiki, known (a slight exaggeration) as "the Bruges of Japan." It is a pretty canal town (one hour away), with ancient warehouses converted to restaurants, ryokans, and decent art and craft shops. (Credit cards often accepted.) Our ship tour had a superb (if very ethnic and fishy, not to the taste of every cruiser ... ) lunch in the pretty Turugata restaurant. Shoes off, we had a gracious private tatami room, but with western chairs to sit on. We had lovely, restful views of their Zen gardens, through glass windows. This town is also the home of the multi-building Ohara Museum of Art. His "Annunciation" by El Greco is enjoyable even for those who don't care for El Greco. But much of the collection is of competent Japanese artists painting in European styles. Better to concentrate on the Ohara's archaeology, applied arts, and printmaking pavilions. Most ship tours here also (ours did) go to Korakuen Garden, one of the three finest gardens in Japan. (It is wonderful, but is only 1/20 the size of Longwood Gardens or Huntington Gardens.) Buy the ship excursion, although it might be possible to do just one or the other independently by rail.
Hiroshima, Japan offers either the chance to take a substantial bus ride to Miyajima island, to see the famous red Tori in the water, and the UNESCO WHS Itsukushima Shrine, or to explore the city of Hiroshima and visit the sobering museum and associated outdoor memorials. The Atomic Bomb Dome building is a UNESCO WHS, that is viewed only from behind a railing. Importantly for cruise travelers, the outdoor portions never close. We were there before any buildings opened. The port provided an hourly shuttle to the Peace Memorial Museum. It looked like there is a subway stop within a half-mile of the port, but it's a desolate (not "scary") industrial area with no charm. There's a tram terminus stop about a mile from the port. We also visited the excellent small but exquisitely landscaped Shukkei-en Garden, which is adjacent to an art museum we didn't have time for. We managed to use our Kyoto transit cards by presenting them to the tram driver upon entry, rather than touching them to the unattended contact panels, where they didn't work.
Busan, Korea, was a revelation. It makes current high-rise redevelopment in New York City look like amateur hour! The city is splayed out over miles and miles to provide as much sea view as possible, and the average height for hundreds of buildings seems like fifty stories. (Opinion, not actual statistic.) This sprawl, even with a vast Metro subway, makes seeing very much on your own a challenge. There is not much "old Busan" to see, but our first-day tour (Sea Breeze of Busan) included the busy but charming seaside Beomusa Temple, as well as some forgettable modern architectural landmarks, and a large and pretty urban beach. There is surprisingly little pedestrian traffic in downtown Busan. I'd say that Korea is ripe for a commercial "real estate bubble."
On the second Busan port day, we chose the ship tour "Journey Back In Time." This is 90 minutes each way, (with heavy 12-lane highway traffic both ways) to the multiple-UNESCO WHS ancient sites of Geyongju. This covers many square miles, and some mountain sites are accessible only on foot. But we saw several highlights, the Tumulus Park, with 20 Shilla Dynasty tombs, one open with replicas of the (moved to a museum) artifacts found there; That National Museum, with five modern buildings of exhibits, plus outdoor material; and the first-rate Bulguksa Temple Complex. Lunch was in a clean, fast, attractive modern highway Korean BBQ restaurant. It was worth the $189 p/p. We barely got back in time for the Deck Barbecue at 7 PM.
One Windstar option in Busan was a very expensive train trip and overnight stay in better-known Seoul, Korea, including a visit to the DMZ near the border between the two Koreas. You could also take a very long same-day trip to Seoul. Because we were on the "next" cruise as well, and a stop in Incheon, Korea was substituted for a scheduled port, we could take a much shorter excursion to Seoul from Incheon. Those on the double cruise (maybe 14 people) were allowed to cancel previously-ordered "long" excursions to Seoul from Busan. Please read about Seoul in my post about the second cruise segment if that's important to you.
Karatsu, Japan This tiny modern town is a perfect example of everything good about Windstar. Everything (almost, maybe not the castle) is within walking distance of the port's short shuttle bus to the center of town. I can't imagine a big ship coming here. The major sights are: A local style of modest art pottery, with modern kilns and showrooms, and a few ancient kilns; Twelve 19th century wooden floats hand-rope pulled through town every year in a November featival (that has an element of neighborhood competition); An adjacent mostly-modern multi-temple complex; A deceased coal baron's splendid estate and mansion; And a large and imposing (but concrete replica) castle. If you've been to concrete Osaka castle, you can skip this one in favor of the estate. Their middle & high school brass concert band saw us off, with 3 jazzy school singers and dancers. It was just charming. There is also a nearby contemporary art island accessible by ferry.
Tianjin, China (for Beijing). It takes two sea days to get to Tianjin, China, the port for Beijing. There may be a high-speed train from Beijing to Tianjin city, but it seemed that the Windstar embarkation transfers were by three-hour bus from Beijing.
Those of us taking the back-to-back cruises that bookend in Tianjin, did NOT have the option to visit Beijing. (We had previously been, on a Viking Yangtze River trip.) Tianjin city was still an hour by bus from the ship. It seemed wise to get off, but with nothing to do within many miles (and new passengers boarding from 1 PM to 5PM), we paid for Windstar's Tianjin tour. Much of our visit was free time on the "Ancient culture street scenic area pedestrian", which was neither ancient nor cultural! We did manage to find a more remote local flea market area where used books, stamps, old bank notes, army insignia, and the like were browsed by a mainly male audience. Many of the escalators (on the "Ancient street!") were broken, but the frequent public restrooms were perfectly satisfactory. Most of the merchandise was regional snacks and sweets prepared under questionable conditions, plus a vast array of (opinion!) fake jade, porcelain, and mineral specimens. This was better than sitting in our cabins while the ship was cleaned, but not a memorable outing. There was a misunderstanding about lunch being included, although I could see there was no time for it, or need to include it. (That's because the ship had lunch from 1-5 for new passenger arrivals. Everyone on the tour got a $50 credit back to their account, although I would not have filed a complaint.)
Because the Windstar Star Legend is only 440' long, (212 passenger capacity) it is sometimes able to use a better port location than larger ships. This was our first time (of 8 cruises) on Windstar when the Voyage Leader's "Port Talks" specifically and very usefully addressed the needs of INDEPENDENT travelers in each port. OTOH, the long distances between some of the cities on our dual (i.e. two ten-night back-to-back cruises) cruise created a lot of at-sea-days, and a lot of immigration formalities. I can't blame Windstar, because we knew the itinerary before we paid for it. The ship averaged 12 knots on the long runs, so they weren't taking it easy. One of our ports had to be changed after Embarcation (Incheon, Korea replacing Quingdao, China) because of Chinese decisions about a shipping concept I had never heard of, "cabotage." We bought this pair of cruises on a substantial, Windstar-promoted discount.
Some possibly useful Windstar ANY CRUISE tidbits:
1. If your cruise has an overnight in a port, there could be either a special dinner (i.e. the elaborate Deck Barbecue), or you might have the option, rather than eating in the indoor restaurant, to make a limited reservation for "Dinner Under The Stars." In a special port with a skyline like Shanghai, or an 8 PM laser light show like Hong Kong, that might even be your choice, over a local shore Michelin place. The electric votive lights don't illuminate the outdoor food very well, so you might bring a folding book light to dinner!
2. The alternate normal dinner-dining option is mostly outdoors but under well-lit cover, in the breakfast restaurant (The Veranda), weather permitting. It's called "Candles", and has a grill or steakhouse focus. It's much smaller than the Deck 3 indoor, open-seating, "European" Amphora dinner restaurant, and requires a reservation. Some guests really liked the difference, but we didn't find it very special at all. The Amphora maitre d' asks couples if they want to share a table or have a private 2-top.
3. Exceptionally, Amphora was opened for two lunches on sea days that were expected to be very cold or rainy. Normally, the fresh-air, railing deuces in the outdoor part of Veranda are the most popular breakfast and lunch seats.
4. P.O.S.H.: Our phone bank sales rep suggested that we select a starboard side cabin because our cruise sailed primarily southwards. But because our sea travels were typically 50 miles offshore, we saw nothing until approaching a port. Perhaps a trip south from Amalfi to Sorrento is a different matter! Furthermore, the fact that our "Balcony Room" window (with floor to ceiling glass french doors) faced the pier :-( in the STUNNING-skyline tie-ups of Shanghai and Hong Kong, does not prove to me that you should choose a port side cabin for our destinations. In fact, we did have a (starboard) dead-on view of Mt. Fuji upon arising during the approach to Tamano/Uno Port, Japan. But the heavy harbor traffic we always saw does not make me confident that the harbor pilot would not jump on an opportunity to rotate the ship in preparation for departure. OTOH, both those lovely ports were a straight shot to tie-up forwards on the direction-of-travel side of the channel (i.e. starboard parallel parking.)
5. Look around for reviews of the cabin air conditioning if you're going on a Tropical cruise. We had two nights, in southern Japan and in Hong Kong when we felt our cabin (despite the thermostat on the wall ...) was too warm.
6. We hate days at sea, but a few 500-mile runs required them.(We only had sea days that we signed up for in the original itinerary.) One couple made the brilliant decision to fly to Beijing (at their own expense, of course) from Karatsu, Japan, in order to avoid the TWO upcoming sea days and to sleep three nights in Beijing. Note that because we were staying for the second cruise segment, we had no option to even set eyes on Beijing (3 land hours away) during the 8-5 Disembarkation/Embarkation day in Tianjin. I'm mystified by reviews saying there is nothing to do on sea days. I agree that there isn't a lot, and you can't make people participate, but I'd say there was some stereotypical boat activity every two hours. We enjoyed the galley tour and the okonomiyake demonstration, and also got in some quality gym time.
7. We had two nights with noticeably rough water, one due to a rainstorm, and another due more to the open sea on a two-day run. There was difficulty sleeping due to the bouncing, but there was not the smashing, yawing motion that makes me quickly feel ill. We both take Meclizine prophylactically. It was not the roughest passage we've ever had. But some other guests reported illness, and one guest fell at night (in the Compass Rose bar … ) and had to be hospitalized, I think.) No ports were changed.
8. EVERY port stop on these two cruises was tied up to a concrete pier. (We've had some annoyingly long tenders on some other Windstar trips.) Sometimes we saw a larger, more conventional cruise ship in another part of the same terminal. Several ports (not, "Windstar") provided an hourly or half-hourly shuttle bus to a midtown point. They only promised to carry ONE busfull. These cruises had a LOT of immigration sessions. They were often expedited, but still could call for extra-early rising, or a brief delay for independent visitors so the ship tours could get off. Several of our immigration processes left us with rubber-stamped color copies of our passports, with the actual passports held by the ship.
9. We learned that Star Legend will be drydocked soon for a month to replace the elderly diesel engines and, perhaps, alter the cabins.
I'm filing two reviews, but am not repeating all this preliminary data in the post for the second cruise. Note that the marketing titles of the cruises are likely to change, as they refine and vary the itineraries in the future. Read Less