BACKGROUND: We have sailed on the Wind Surf many times, including 3 cruises when it was owned by Club Med, so every new cruise is now like a family reunion of sorts for us. Since our last cruise on the Surf, there have been many changes ... Read More
BACKGROUND: We have sailed on the Wind Surf many times, including 3 cruises when it was owned by Club Med, so every new cruise is now like a family reunion of sorts for us. Since our last cruise on the Surf, there have been many changes -- new owners (Xanterra), new ships in the fleet, newly refurbished interior decor, and a new itinerary (first time for us in Scandinavia). This May we were delighted to sail on the maiden voyage of the Star Pride, and so I was looking forward to a point-by-point comparison between the two ships.
We arrived in Stockholm two days before the cruise, and stayed at the Scandic Hotel in the center of town, conveniently located just a block or so from the train station, with many nearby restaurants, and within an easy walk of the Palace, City Hall, Old Town, and other attractions. Our room was very comfortable, wi-fi service was excellent, and the hotel cafe/bar was lively and attractive, with good food. The breakfast buffet was as good as I have experienced anywhere in Europe, but it did get crowded after 8 AM. There were many other Windstar passengers staying at the hotel, as evidenced by Windstar caps, jackets, and other apparel.
The ship was conveniently docked in town, so it was a very short bus ride from the hotel to the dock, and we were able to board immediately. Check-in was both smooth and quick, and by the time we got to our cabin, our luggage was already there, as was our cabin steward Christian.
We were in Cabin 136, which is midship on the lowest deck, arguably the most comfortable location for minimal motion at sea, Although we had great weather for most of the cruise, there was some rocking & rolling on occasion, especially at night. We slept like babies! As always, the cabin was spacious (188 sq ft) and comfortable. Unlike on the Star Pride, the beds were high enough to enable luggage storage underneath. They were also VERY comfortable. As always, the bathroom toiletries were by the upscale French brand L'Occitane, I have fallen in love with the Verbena scent, and so was greatly surprised to find that only the bath soap had that fragrance, while the hand soap, shampoo, and bath oil were the "Milk" variety, with a definite Baby powder aroma. Maybe Windstar got a better deal on it, who knows?
We were greeted at the dock by Captain Peter Harris of Britain, with whom we had sailed before. He is charming, affable, very gregarious, and extremely witty. We were pleased to receive an invitation to dine with him one night, and had the opportunity to also meet his beautiful wife and lovely daughter. What a handsome family! But we especially noted and appreciated his on-board visibility, and his effortless ability to chat up the passengers. The Hotel Manager Ratko, and Bar Manager Andrew were fairly new to Windstar, very competent, but lacked that easy manner with the guests.
I was very interested to see the new Windstar decor, and to compare the WInd Surf implementation to that of the Star Pride. When cruising, I often get up very early to explore the ship, along with my camera and tripod. Windstar has used some of my photos in their publlcations and blogs, and I recognize a few on my pics in the Cruise Critic photos. Overall, I found the new Wind Surf decor to be very subdued, with a blue/brown/tan color scheme. Sleek and soothing, yes. Dazzling, no. The most noticeable change was replacing much of the carpeting with dark, high gloss oak flooring. However, it seemed to me to be a composite product of some sort, as the surface was a tad lumpy. This was especially noticeable in the transition to the Lounge, which already had real wood flooring, which was (to coin a phrase) "flat as a board."
The new carpeting has a plush, almost shag-like pile to it. This worked great in the public rooms like the Yacht Club, but not so well on the stairs, where it tended to mash down on the edges, and thus looked worn even though it is still very new.
As has been noted in almost every review I have read about Windstar cruises, planned activities are not their forte'. First, they do not really have a Cruise Director on board, and the daily activity sheet is almost identical from day to day. They do offer "Port Talks" in the late afternoon to discuss the next day's port of call, and the excursions that are available. In general, I very seldom sign up for excursions, as I find them to be overpriced, and often somewhat boring. My wife did sign up for a tour in Oslo, which she enjoyed. In my opinion, Windstar would do well to consider adopting the Viking river cruise model, and offer a complimentary walking tour at each port of call. Instead, most of their tour offerings involve climbing on a bus (or even a train) to go somewhere else. I much prefer to wander around town and take pictures.
However, there ARE two planned activities that occur on almost every cruise: the deck BBQ and the crew show. The deck BBQ is OK, but I find it to be overrated, crowded (especially when the weather does not allow al fresco dining), and with just average food. The main attraction is grilled lobster or lamb chops (mine were almost raw). Big deal. The other traditional activity is the crew show, which can be pretty good if there is some talent on board, but once you've a bunch of waiters line dancing, the appeal dwindles with repeated iterations. Most of the passengers AND the crew seem to like it though, and that's what counts.
Another activity that Windstar doesn't really promote at all is the popular "Name That Tune" contest that occurs twice a week in the Compass Rose after dinner. The "Rain" duo always does this, and before them, Callen & Joyce would also do it. It's VERY popular, and never fails to fill the room, with passengers forming large teams for competition. Great fun!
What brings passengers back to Windstar again and again is the intimacy and ambiance of small ship cruising, combined with the highly personalized service provided the wait staff. They are just terrific. They greet everyone by name, quickly learn where you like to sit, and what you like to eat and drink. It's very easy to start thinking of them as personal friends instead of ships' crew. For many such as myself, the favorite dining experience is at breakfast and lunch in the Veranda, where it is not so crowded, the pace is relaxed and informal, and there is more interaction with the wait staff. On our cruise, the senior guy at lunch was "Boon", but the favorite waiter was "One", Of course, everyone had their personal favorites, which is why the result is such a pleasant experience.
I only had one service complaint, which was that food service in AmphorA could be quite slow, especially when a majority of the passengers decided they wanted to be seated immediately after the dining room opened. DInner should not have to take over two hours! This was not nearly such a problem in the Candles or Stella Bistro venues.
The other service complaint that comes up time and again is with the internet. It is so crummy that Windstar should just forget about it, at least while away from port.
Head Chef Klaus created some great food for us throughout the cruise. No complaints whatsoever. Perhaps the one area where I would look for improvement would be to offer more European style whole grain breads. The breads offered at the Scandic hotel were better than what was served on board.
The wine service on board. was VERY good. I did not opt for the premium beverage package, as it costs over $100/day per cabin, and I just can't drink that much and walk straight. Also, I stick to beer and wine, and seldom if ever order a mixed drink or cocktail The wines offered on board were of very good quality, at very reasonable prices (good selection at $7-9/glass or $26-35/bottle). Again, in my opinion WIndstar should consider the Viking Cruise model, which is to include beer, wine & soft drinks with meals, with premium beverages available from the bar.
Let's start with the good. "Rain" (Craig & Nicola WIlloughby) are simply outstanding, miles better than any other entertainers I have heard on any cruise ship, regardless of size. Craig is a brilliant guitarist, and Nicola has a beautiful voice. They are very versatile and entertaining, and bring a lot of energy and passion into their delivery. They usually pack the Compass Rose, with the crowds increasing every night. The main problem is that the Compass Rose room is just too small.
The "Cool Breeze" band appearing in the main Lounge was mediocre at best, very much like the "Top Society" combo that appeared on the Star Pride. Vocalists were OK, but the musicians were just average at best, no energy or passion in their delivery, tired arrangements, lackluster repertoire, etc. Some nights there were only a few folks in the Lounge at 10 PM! Meanwhile, the Compass Rose was jammed. Main asset for both bands is that all the band members are Filipino, which means they can share quarters with the crew. My advice would be to dump the bands, put "Rain" (or a similar duo like "One Night Stand") in the main lounge, put a DJ or piano player in the Compass Rose. I am betting that bar sales would pick up significantly, while costs would go down. Passengers would be better served.
Hard part is getting off the ship by 8:30 AM or so. However, it all went smoothly EXCEPT for the monster big line of folks waiting for a taxi. Luckily, we were one of the first passengers off, and we still had to wait almost 30 minutes. Lots of passengers were really unhappy, I'm sure. When meeting people, first impressions are very important. With a cruise, the last impression is often what sticks in your mind.
While we were on our previous cruise on the Star Pride in May, we booked another cruise on the Wind Surf to Spain for September 2015, took advantage if the on-board booking discount. Much to my surprise, Windstar apparently no longer offers a discount for an on-board booking, nor was their any on-board sales effort at all. What I did notice was cruise information displayed on the on-board computers --- but for the 2013 season! Oooooops!
We are dedicated Windstar aficianados, and I am sure we will be back for many more cruises in future. I just wish Windstar would get their act together to address some of these vexing issues that would be SO easy to fix. I wish better things for them.
Gary (The Hitman)