My wife and I spent a week on the Windstar Sprit cruising from Athens (7/14/2012) to Istanbul (7/21/2012). We had a very good time (A-), but the heat was terrible with the temperature over 100 degrees most days. There are not many online reviews of the Windstar line or this itinerary, so I hope this review helps. We are not "cruise people" and the only other ship we have been on is the Disney Dream with our children.
The Sprit is a motorized sailboat which carries about 140 passengers and 96 crew. It is much smaller than a large ship such as the Disney Dream. On average, the sails provide 20-30% of the propulsion.
The atmosphere is very casual with no formal dinners or theme nights. For dinner, they request men wear slacks and a collared shirt. You can visit the bridge anytime the boat is sailing. The crew members are almost always willing to talk to you and answer questions. The average passenger is about 50 years old and most are married couples ranging in age from 25 to 70. There were a few teenagers and a few friends traveling together. I did not meet any passengers who were traveling alone. During our trip it was 100+ degrees most days and you needed to be somewhat physically fit to tolerate the heat and climb the ruins. The few passengers over 72 y/o struggled at times on some of the tours.
It is easy to meet other passengers. At dinner you are asked if you want to sit with another couple. Tours typically have 5-20 people and you quickly get to know your tour mates. Almost all the passengers were very friendly and would stop and to say hello if they saw you while exploring a museum or local street. We had prolonged conversations with about half the other passengers by the time we left the boat.
This is an American boat serving English speaking passengers. All transactions are in US dollars, no language other than English is spoken, and the food served is typical for an American restaurant. More than half of the passengers came from the USA with a few Australians, English, and Canadians. Maybe 10-15% of passengers did not speak English as their first language. Despite sailing from Greece to Turkey, there was not a single passenger from either country.
A typical day begins with an early breakfast in port. Tours provided by the boat leave between 8:15 to 8:30 am. On any given day, about half the passengers go on the tours provided by the boat and the others explore the ports or set up outside tours on their own. Most tours return in time for lunch which is served from 12 to 2 pm. About half the passengers returned to the boat to eat lunch and the others ate at local restaurants. A few tours extend into the afternoon and included lunch. Most passengers explore the ports or visit local beaches during the afternoon. The boat leaves port between 4 and 11 pm so it can arrive at the next port around 7 am. Dinner is served between 7 and 9 pm. Many dinners extend past 10 pm and most passengers seemed to go to bed shortly after dinner. This is not a party boat. Although there is some entertainment, few passengers spend the evening dancing or stayed up late.
Room - (B+) almost every cabin is identical. The cabins on deck 1 (one up from the engine deck) are a bit less expensive than those on deck 2. I saw no reason to pay the extra money to be on deck 2. The rooms are about 10 by 20 feet with a queen size bed (or 2 small singles), a built in dresser, 2 closets, other storage and a small but very functional bathroom. A small refrigerator containing water and soft drinks (included) and beer and alcoholic beverages (not included) is provided. Although not luxurious, the rooms are very nice and we found ours to be very comfortable. The only thing missing was a couch (only a small chair was provided.
Food - (A-) breakfast is served in the veranda (on deck 4) and includes many cold items, fresh squeezed juices, fresh baked croissants and other items, and a hot food station. Eggs, pancakes, etc can be ordered from the staff. The breakfasts were very good with a few exceptions such as the dry bacon. Lunch was served buffet style in the veranda and the quality of the food was variable. Dinner was served in the dining room (on deck 3) and was usually very good to excellent. The dinner cuisine was modern American with 4 courses. One night there was an excellent buffet (with some local foods) and barbeque around the tiny pool (deck 4). Breads were good to excellent, deserts were at times a bit weak and the appetizers served before dinners were only fair. The meat was almost all frozen and imported from the USA except for some fresh fish the chef obtained at the ports. The beef was top choice (Angus) and excellent. Most of the produce was obtained in Athens and Istanbul. Overall, we enjoyed to food.
Service - (A) was almost always excellent and the crew tried so hard to please you. Our cabin steward always had our room clean when we returned from a meal or excursion. He was always concerned that we had what we needed in our refrigerator and room. The on-board tour guides were always helpful and informative. The only significant flaw in the service was the difficulty I encountered obtaining soft drinks (and refills) at dinner. The service staff were all men from Indonesia and the Philippines. The officers were mostly British except the captain who was American. The engine crew were all men from eastern Europe. There were only a few female crew members: a first officer, the spa staff, a few reception desk and boutique ladies, and Elsa the spunky Greek tour guide.
Tours - (A) 1 to 4 tours were offered at each port. We found Windstar phone support in the USA was not good and they did not know much about the tour packages. There is no need to book the tours in advance. They almost never sell out and on-board destination manager is very helpful in explaining what each tour involves. Most tours are $49 to $99 and cost about twice as much as what it would cost for you to set up the same tour on your own. For example, the Delos (a ferry ride from Mykonos) tour was $89 each. A couple we meet took the ferry to Delos ($20), paid the Delos park admission ($6) and found a good guide who spoke English ($12) for $38 each. The tour guides provided by the boat are usually excellent and you have to decide if it's worth the hassle and risk (knowing where to go, finding a good guide) of setting up a tour on your own.
Here is a list of the attractions we explored (A=highlight not to miss, B=very nice, C=average):
Athens (before cruise) - City A. Stayed at the AVA Hotel and Suites (15 rooms, Plaka, A-) which was 3 blocks from the Acropolis. This was the top rated Athens hotel on TripAdvisor with a great location, big room (not really a suite), and a very good breakfast (included). We enjoyed our stay, but the bathroom was too small for me to call this a 5 star hotel - 4.5 stars would be more accurate. 1.5 days gave us just the right amount of time to see the major sites in the Plaka area (B+): Acropolis and the Parthenon (A) - get there early to beat the crowds and heat, New Acropolis Museum (A), Ancient Agora (B), Hadrian's Library (C+), Roman Agora (C-), Temple of Zeus (C-). It was hot.
Mykonos - town (B). Ferry to the small island of Delos (A) which was a port city of 30,000 people 2000 years ago. Nice ruins and a small museum. It was hot.
Santorini - is a spectacular sight with steep cliffs rising from the sea. The boat ancores at the capital of Fira (B+). Skip the donkey ride at Fira and use the cable car. Island overview and Oia village tour ($99, B+) was nice and drops you off at Fira. A cab trip to Oia village (picturesque whitewashed houses) would have been cheaper and almost as good. It was hot.
Rhodes - Although the Colossus was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, there is not enough is left to justify a visit to the site. The walled medieval city of Rhodes (A-) is easily accessible from the dock including the 14th-century Palace of the Grand Masters (B). The Scenic Drive to Lindos Tour ($69) takes you to the summit of the Acropolis (A-). This is the perfect place to take a donkey ride up to the Acropolis, especially when it's hot (5 euro, ignore Elsa's bath mouthing of the Donkey rides). It was hot. Bodrum - a Turkish port town (C). We skipped the Windstar tours here since the sites are easily accessible and the tours do not take you around the city. For half the cost of a tour, we took a cab ride (30 euro) to the ancient theater (C), Myndos Gate (C-), and what's left of The Mausoleum of Mausolus (B) - one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Bodrum Castle closes for lunch, so we returned to the ship to eat. In the afternoon, we toured Bodrum Castle, which is primarily a Museum of Underwater Archeology (A-). We rented an audio guide that was reasonably good. It was hot.
Kusadasi - the town is nice if you like buying carpets, but otherwise not a very exciting a place to visit (C). The highlight of the trip was our tour of Ephesus and it's Ancient Houses ($79). Ancient Ephesus (A) was a town of 250,000 about 2,000 year ago which declined due to Malaria and was eventually buried under mud from earthquakes. About 1/7th of the town has been excavated and you feel like you are walking through history. The Terrace Houses (A+) were owned by the wealthy and are remarkably preserved with their fine decorative mosaics and frescoes give a fascinating insight into ancient lifestyles. Don't waste your time on the tour that goes to Ephesus and the "Virgin Mary's home" since it does not include the Terrace Houses. If you must see a home selected through the vision of a 19th century nun, get the all day Concierge Tour that includes everything. It is hard to believe, but only half of the passengers went to Ephesus. After the tour, the guide brings you to a carpet-making demonstration (nice) which then turns into a hard sell to buy carpets (the boat gets a kickback). It would take hours to bargain them down to a good price, you can't return the carpet, and you feel trapped since you ordered free a free drink and food. If you escape without buying a carpet, they try to sell you jewelry as you try to find your way out the maze of similar looking doors. Our guide saw us and helped us find the disguised exit.
Istanbul (after cruise) - City (A). Stayed at the Millennium Suites (7 rooms, Sultanahmet, B) which was 3 blocks from the Acropolis. This was the top rated Istanbul hotel on TripAdvisor with a great location, big room (not really a suite), and an OK breakfast (included). Although they try very hard, our bathroom was not very nice and was undergoing some repairs. TripAdvisor called this a 5 star hotel - 3.5 stars would be more accurate and I might look elsewhere. 2.5 days gave us just the right amount of time to see the major sites in the area, most of which are covered by the Museum Pass: Topkapi Palace (15th century palace, A) and Harem Tour (not on pass, A+), 15 minute tram ride to the Dolmabahce Palace (not on pass, 19th century palace, A-) - get there early for the limited number of entries with only guided tours provided, Hagia Sophia Museum/Church (B+), 25 minute tram ride to the Chora Church and its beautiful mosaics (B+), Blue Mosque (free, C), Mosaic Museum (C), Grand Bazaar (lots of junk, D). A little less hot.