Windstar Cruises

Company Overview: Windstar Cruises is a niche, upscale cruise line recently acquired by Anschutz Company of Denver Colorado. The company owns many entertainment business (including backing the final tour of Michael Jackson, which never happened). Windstar was put into the Xanterra Parks and Resorts division of the parent company. Most of the management of Windstar has remained the same througout the years, however. Previously it belonged to Ambassador's International, which went bankrupt in 2011.

Windstar is a favorite of many people who know cruising well, and has a loyal following of repeat cruisers, and is one of the cruise lines that people who work in the cruise industry choose to take for their own vacations. The three ships, two sisters and a larger cousin, with their majestic sails rising up over four tall masts, make for an inspiring impression, especially for people seeing the ship from a distance. Just look at all the people on a Carnival or Royal Caribbean ship staring over the rails at you as you sail out of the harbor in full dress!

These are beautiful ships, with the grace and beauty of their sails carried throughout the nautically themed decor. With relatively few public rooms except for the main restaurant, the action is usually on deck where live music plays and lunch is often an outdoor barbecue hosted by the chef rather than an indoor buffet. Though the cabins are a little tight and dark inside, due to thorough wood paneling graced with but two standard-sized portholes, everything about the cabin has a delightful nautical feel, from the shelves with ledges to keep items from rolling off, to the the latches on the drawers to keep them from sliding open.

Windstar can more or less be credited with inventing the concept of casual cruising, opting not to have any dress code other than "no jeans or t-shirts in the dining room" as far back as their inception. This was one of the first "hooks" for the line that made it popular with people who wouldn't be caught dead on a regular cruise ship. However, the truth is the sails are pulled in for probably 90% of the time for every cruise, and the motors make the speed needed to get you to the next port in time. The itineraries are exotic and full, with a port almost every day. The ships are small enough to call at the smallest islands in the Caribbean or the Aegean. The company is known for sailing to places to which other visitors have to arrange for private transportation, and mainstream cruise ships are simply not allowed.

The two older, and beloved 148-passenger sister ships are the Wind Spirit and the Wind Star (another sister was unfortunately taken out of service after a fire in the control room). In 1998, The line acquired a 312-passenger motorized sail vessel from Club Med and renamed it Wind Surf. Built in the same French shipyard as the rest of its fleet, it has identical cabins and similar features. Windstar has since expanded the spa facility, and added 31 suites measuring 376 square feet. While under the management of Holland America, part of the Carnival Corp. for many years and with the same wonderful combination of Filipino and Indonesian crew, this small company staunchly maintained a distinct identity. This same mix of crew and management was maintained by Ambassadors International who acquired the line in 2006, and by Xanterra who took control in 2011.

Happily, now under the tutelage of Anschutz (Xanterra), by all appearances the cruise line will remain virtually the same as before. There were no major changes made to the land-based, or the ship-based personnel. You still have almost the same exact crew people as these ships had before the take-over, and a definitive agreement has been made with the schools and agents in Indonesia snd the Phillipines to keep supplying the line with the same crewmembers for the future.

At the end of 2012 the Wind Star completed an extensive enhancement and renovation program that made significant improvements in the onboard atmosphere and mostly in the in-cabin finishings such as bedding, linens, flat-screen televisions, iPod players and DVD platers in every room. Wireless Internet access is also available in some public rooms, and it is possible to get good connectivity from some of the cabins if they are close enough to the Internet center. The ship even received new sails.

The Windstar Experience: For many years, this was as good as cruising gets. Windstar innovated in ideas like not worrying about formal attire, single open seating, terrific cuisine and personalized service. That is still the Windstar experience, it just is not as unique to Windstar as it used to be.

If the sight of anything with sails make you tremble, take comfort in the fact that Windstar's fleet aren't true sailboats, but small cruise ships with motorized sails used to increase speed only when the wind is right, or when it is time to impress the locals with a dazzling display of canvass. These small ships are ideal for honeymooners and those who love water sports, especially on the new Belize itinerary. Do note, though, that some of the older regulars believe Wind Surf to be too big for the fleet. And there are no verandas on any of the ships, though the nautical feel of the extensive wood paneling and portholes makes up for that fact.

The emphasis is on water sports from the onboard sports deck, a drop-down large platform in the stern of the ships that gives direct access to the water. The itineraries focus on visiting tiny, relatively untouristed isles for which conventional cruise ships are too big. In some ports, there's more than enough time to rent a car and explore at leisure. From the water platform one can take out sea kayaks, small (one or two person) sailboats, water-ski or ride a banana-boat type of floating device. Even SCUBA diving and snorkeling is offered from the deck.

Best of all - there is no additional charge for any of it as long as the platform is down (which is usually only when the ship is anchored out in a bay rather than docked). The onboard PADI-certified scuba instructors will give free onboard "resort-dive" lessons to passengers at no cost on itineraries that include SCUBA diving stops. Such stops are more common in the Caribbean (on coral reefs) than in the Mediterranean where the only good reason for diving is when a sunken wreck is spotted. People who are already PADI certifed divers must bring their proof of certification. Then they can access the abundance of SCUBA gear on board. Definitely, these ships are a diver's dream.

Indoors: creature comforts are wonderful - fairly spacious cabins with enormous storage space, all with TV/VCR and CD player (there's a free rental library for videos and discs). The staff and officers, who freely intermingle with passengers (who outnumber them by a ratio of only 3 to 2), are gracious and charming.

Note: these ships are NOT well accommodated for the physically challenged at all. Only Wind Surf has any elevators at all (and one was out of service on our cruise). In addition, many of the doorways have high thresholds like authentic sailboats, and so wheelchairs are almost completely out of the question.

Fellow Passengers: These aren't ships for children, although occasionally a teen will sneak aboard. What you will find are a great many affluent baby boomers and as well as affluent retired folks. Windstar would prefer that no one use the word "yuppie," so we haven't. You will find well-moneyed baby boomers who like to keep a low profile by dressing in Teva shoes and safari hats - whatever you call those people.

Shore Excursions: In the Caribbean and Central America, shore excursions are active, a bit on the expensive side, but so well executed as to make you forget having spent a few extra bucks. In the Mediterranean they may be subject to cancellation due to a lack of interest, and the selection of options is surprisingly small. Fortunately, the company is tops in offering "do-it-yourself" information pre-port, with a local tourist office representative onboard to assist you with questions at every stop. If it is required, they will usally offer a free shuttle to the nearest point of interest if it beyond walking distance.

Taking The Kids: Windstar is not for children; there are no supervisors or special activities. That said, water-sport-loving teens will have major fun in the Caribbean or Central America.

Theme Cruises & Special Sailings: Wind Surf calls at the French Riviera each year for the Cannes Film Festival and Monte Carlo Formula 1 Grand Prix, commonly calling first at Portovenere (port for Cinque Terre. We used to report Florence as a port for this stop, but no excursions to there were offered on a recent stop there).

Loyalty Program: Cruising with Windstar automatically enrolls you in this complimentary club. Benefits include special discounts and invitations to onboard events such as special receptions with the Captain.

Tipping: A hotel service charge of $11 per passenger per day is automatically added to your shipboard account. You are free to adjust this amount at the end of the cruise. A 15% bar service charge is added to all bar orders and dining room room wine purchases.

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