We chose this cruise for the itinerary as a Panama Canal transit was a bucket list item; the itinerary was excellent, food was great, and service generally good! Our difficulties were with booking the cruise, paying for it, and then getting the final bill correct. While service was generally good we found it spotty, with a very odd experience of past cruisers (Yacht Club members) being invited to a reception and no staff showing up.
Booking the cruise: We booked this cruise only a few months ago, and WindStar made it clear that we needed to pay THAT DAY or we would lose the booking; we were fine to pay that day. But wait -- WindStar couldn't process AMEX transactions as they had some system outage, which went on for about a week. And we were determined to pay with AMEX. Finally they processed the payment and we felt like we had an upcoming cruise. We had also referred 9 people to a Christmas 2016 WindStar cruise. WindStar's internal process for documenting referral bonuses is rudimentary, and it took our agent more than one call to find the referral. The booking process could have been a lot better.
Before embarkation: We arrived into Costa Rica the day before our cruise and had booked a driver to take us to a lodge near(er) to our departure port. Costaricadriver.net was easy to work with and provided an excellent driver. He met us at the airport and we headed to our hotel, Hotel Lapa Villas. The drive was about 90 minutes, and we knew the next day's drive to the port would be about 30 minutes. We wanted to stay somewhere local, but nearer to the port. On the way to the hotel the driver stopped at a local restaurant for lunch, Soda el Guicamo. It was delicious! The hotel itself had large but basic rooms and was located in a National Park. The sounds outside were incredible -- what I might have expected as sounds of the jungle. We did take a short hike from the hotel, where we spotted macaws, toucans, and one pizote (related to raccoon). The hotel's food and bar gave us local flavor. This was not the Four Seasons, and if you're looking for that experience, look elsewhere. One the day of the cruise, the same driver picked us up and off we headed to Jose's Crocodile Tour. Wow -- what a tour. We'd found this tour and had booked it after we'd confirmed the cruise. The tour boat captain and guide were both incredible; we spotted all sorts of birds and many crocodiles, including some 18 feet long. Our last planned stop was the port, and the driver had a surprise for us -- if we wanted to see some Capuchin monkeys. Of course we wanted to see monkeys; for a nominal fee, we were surrounded by some 15 monkeys. Yes, they climbed on our heads and shoulders. What fun. We then headed to our ship, where we quickly boarded. There were no lines.
The Cruise: This was our 6th WindStar cruise -- 3 on sailing ships and 3 on the motor yachts.
Ship/Cabin: Yes, the ship is older but is in generally good condition. The bathrooms in particular seem to need an update, with stained marble tiles on the floors and walls. Everything worked as advertised, and the cabins are very spacious.
Dining: This was the best food we've ever had on WindStar. The menus varied and were all interesting. We dined in the main dining room on 4 of the nights, in Candles (the back area) on 2 nights, with 1 night of deck barbecue. All were exceptionally good.
Service: Service was mixed. Some staff did an exceptional job. They anticipated needs, remembered our preferences, and seemed genuinely happy to see us. Some staff just did their jobs. Our cabin steward, who I only saw once in the week, for about 1 minute, was mostly missing. Yes our cabin was kept clean, but the steward just did his job. Example -- sometimes we had ince, sometimes not. This is the first time I've ever cruised and not given the room steward a nice big tip! The Officers seemed mostly missing or only talking to each other. We did see a fair amount of the Hotel Director, and on occasion we spied the Bar Manager (maybe picking up used glassware). The Yacht Club reception (past cruisers of WindStar) was a fiasco, with Yacht Club members getting printed invitations to an event and nobody from the ship showing up. I finally went down to reception to confirm we were at the right place/time, and the receptionist sprang into action. After about 5 minutes of frantic work, the Hotel Director dashed up to the top of the ship for the reception. We followed, and, well, he tried to make things right. About 30 minutes into the scheduled reception, some appetizers arrived, as did one server passing out wine. Two other officers showed up even later, looked around, spoke to each other, then left. We did get invited to a 10am champagne reception an a subsequent day, where I understand the captain attended. We chose not to go to this "make up" event given the experience we'd had.
Excursions: We booked one cruise excursion, otherwise we organized our own. In Puerto Caldera, we booked the cruise's excursion to Manuel Antonio National Park. There were 39 guests booked. The park itself is beautiful but busy. The excursion was advertised as leaving early to beat the crowds. Unfortunately it took over an hour to get the 39 passengers off of the ship and onto a bus. Our time advantage had disappeared, and in the end our 3.5 hour excursion took about 5.5 hours. I would visit the park again, but do it privately. In Bahia Drake, we went to the small town and found a 4X4 operator who took us on a 3 hour scenic adventure. The highlight was a short walk through the jungle to a waterfall. It was all fun. In Golf Dulce we booked a private tour to the same chocolate plantation that the cruise visits; that tour was most interesting and the chocolate excellent. In Isla Parida we simply lounged on the beach; we spoke to folks who went on the hike (they really enjoyed it); the snorkel trip was apparently canceled when the boat broke down.
Panama Canal Crossing: The actual crossing was fantastic. We were scheduled to start at around 5:30am and to finish at around 3:45pm. Times are not known until the day before the crossing. It seemed like more than half of the ship was outside on the front of the ship for the crossing. The ship provided a commentator who explained the process. We thoroughly enjoyed the event, and witnessed the first three locks from the very front of the ship (Deck 5) and the second three (last three) locks from outside the Yacht Club (Deck 8). We only used the old canal locks as the new ones are restricted to the largest ships.
Tenders: All ports used Zodiac Tenders, with wet landings at two of the ports. While I quite like zodiac tenders, it can be a slow process given the boat capacity and the difficulty for some getting onto and off of the zodiacs. The cruise line did make it clear in their documentation, though I got the feeling that some passengers were surprised by the effort required.
Final Billing: The preliminary bills were correct and WindStar even reminded us that we had some remaining shipboard credit. When we saw our final bill on the last day, it was not correct. Reception sorted the bill and simply stated that sometimes they have a glitch; Reception's calculation of our final bill matched our expectation and that total was about $200 less than what the final bill showed. Reception did correct the bill.
Disembarkation: We had no issues on disembarkation, and we had arranged private transfers with Amber Moon Panama Taxi Service. The driver stated that WindStar calls on the container port, not the normal cruise port. There were no lines of taxis looking for customers. We love to try local beers and had booked a tour of Casa Bruja. It was a great tour and the beer was good too! Transit in Panama City was either on foot or via Uber. We also visited the old quarter, which was interesting though quiet in the daytime. I understand it's quite festive at night, with lots of restaurants and clubs sprinkled through the quarter.