By Veronica Stoddart
Janet and Tim Elliott, retirees from Wilmington, N.C., were drawn to their first Windstar cruise, in the South Pacific, by the small size of Windstar’s yachts. “The smaller number of people appealed to me,” says Janet. “The size is perfect.”
What they didn’t expect, however, was that five years later on a cruise of the French and Italian Rivieras, Janet would be greeted by name by a waiter who actually remembered her from that South Pacific cruise!
Such is the extraordinarily personalized service and attention that are the hallmarks of Windstar Cruises. “I’m so impressed with the staff,” says Janet over lunch in St. Tropez, France, during a recent sailing of the 212-passenger Star Breeze.
The Personal Touch
Indeed, many of the passengers on this Mediterranean sailing of the Star Breeze agree. With one of the highest crew-to-passenger ratios at sea, Windstar yachts provide the kind of meticulous service few competitors do.
Sue and Richard Luothi, retirees from Gainesville, Texas, who have been on a whopping 46 cruises with many lines, agree. “They make it a point to ask one’s names. They knew our names on the second day,” says Sue during a stop in Monte Carlo. “That’s special.”
“One of the cool things about a smaller cruise is that the staff knows everyone,” says Jason Johnson, 35, a commercial real estate broker from Indianapolis, who’s on his first cruise, with his wife, Lindsay, 33.
“The minute you step aboard they know your name,” says Manana Reccoppa, 43, from Fort Lee, N.J., while lounging in the small pool. She’s on her second Windstar cruise with her husband, Joseph, 55. “They greet me by name all the time.”
“They even remember your drink,” says pharmacist Nancy Hahn, who’s on board with her attorney husband, Blair. He adds: “Mel at the bar says, ‘Blair,’ and hands me my drink. They make you feel like you’re taken care of and protected.” The 50-something couple is from Charleston, S.C.
“The service is superb. And we understand what hard work it is,” says Galen Barnes. “We lived in Indonesia, so we can banter with the staff [many of whom are Indonesian].” She and her husband, Nyle, retirees from Boise, Idaho, are on their fourth Windstar cruise.
“But it’s the food and the small ships that keep us coming back,” says Nyle. “It’s nice that the small ships can get into ports that the others can’t.”
Small and Intimate
Indeed, size matters. With its fleet of six sailing and motor yachts, none with more than 300 passengers, Windstar offers an intimate cruise experience with vessels that can access small ports and hidden harbors unavailable to the larger ships. In addition to the sexy Riviera and Polynesia, destinations range from hidden Caribbean coves and stunning Norwegian fjords to Costa Rican hideaways and unspoiled islands of Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines, among other itineraries.
“The nice thing about Windstar is it’s small enough where you can meet new people,” says Tim Elliott. “But if there are some you don’t want to be with, you can stay away, too.”
Jason Johnson echoes that sentiment. “It’s like being on a private yacht with some other people,” he says during dinner at Candles, Windstar’s signature outdoor restaurant. “You can be as social or as private as you want.” His wife, Lindsay, who does PR for a real estate developer in Indianapolis, points to a practical issue: “I wasn’t interested in cruising on a large ship because I didn’t want to spend a long time tendering ashore.”
“The ports enticed me the most. A lot of bigger ships can’t go to some of those ports,” adds Jason, who would like to cruise again on a small ship. “I’m impressed by the fact that we stayed at harbor in Cannes for the barbecue dinner with a view of the city and the twinkling lights.”
“It’s like being on your own super-yacht,” says Dennis Parrington, 37, an IT executive from New Jersey, who’s on his first Windstar cruise with his girlfriend from Hong Kong. “For one day we had the biggest yacht in Monaco. You have to share it with a few hundred other people, but that’s OK.”
Like on a private yacht, a Windstar cruise has the flexibility to spontaneously accommodate special events on shore, such as a dazzling fireworks competition in Cannes. “I was impressed when the Captain delayed our departure time in Cannes so we could stay to experience the fireworks,” says David Le Noble, 54, a stock trader from Broomfield, Colo., who’s cruising with wife, Rebecca, 53, a retired nurse.
“The people on the cruise have been a lot of fun,” he adds. “It’s really nice making connections. A man we met from Perth, Australia, invited us to stay with him if we ever go there.” The Le Nobles are experienced cruisers, but this is their first Windstar cruise.
“There haven’t been other ships at port, which has been special,” notes Rebecca. “There aren’t a lot of other cruises overwhelming the port.” Plus, “boarding is easy. You don’t have to wait for hours. And I like that you stay longer in port, too.”
Windstar cruises allow more time in port including late-night visits so you can sample the local cuisine and lively nightlife.
During an evening visit to the glittering Monte Carlo Casino, for example, Sue Luothi, who sailed previously with Windstar in the South Pacific, shared that she “loves the small villages. On large ships you won’t get that experience.”
Dennis Parrington also highlighted the itinerary as a big draw. “It’s a great itinerary with really interesting ports. That’s worth the price of admission.”
Exclusive Excursions and Private Events
To get the most out of the itineraries, Windstar offers an array of fun excursions that immerse guests in the local culture and way of life, as well as one exclusive private event on select sailings. These complimentary Destination Discovery Events are designed to give guests a signature experience that’s both in-depth and authentically local.
“Excursions are small and very well organized,” says Manana Reccoppa. “You never feel crowded. It’s like your own private boat on the tender.”
And Janet Elliott notes that “the tour guides are really good.”
Nancy Hahn concurs. “Every excursion has been great,” she says. “The private event was a true event that compares to those you pay for,” referring to an afternoon sampling of pesto, olive oil and Italian specialties at a historic villa on the Italian Riviera, accompanied by live guitar music.
Guests rave about these Destination Discovery Events, which can feature a private recital of Edvard Grieg’s music in Bergen, Norway, or a local feast with traditional fire dancers on Bora Bora, or the moonlit dinner and concert at Ephesus, near Kusadasi.
“The special event makes the experience more authentic. You can’t get this on your own,” says Galen Barnes.
Rebecca Le Noble finds “the private event was really special and not something you get on other cruises.”
Food, Glorious Food
Often the private on-shore events feature food. But what’s served on board makes for stiff competition. In addition to the classics, cruise chefs typically prepare regional dishes made with local, sustainable ingredients that reflect the itinerary — Italian or French on this Mediterranean cruise, for example. Avid foodies can often join chefs as they shop for fresh ingredients at local markets, too.
“The food is excellent and we’re used to eating well,” says Manana Reccoppa. “Food is consistently good in all the dining rooms.”
Even “the quality of the room service has been good with freshly made food,” observes Rebecca LeNoble. “It wasn’t sitting around.” Her husband, David, adds: “There’s a good selection of room service items. And they include specialty coffees, which not a lot of other cruise lines do.”
Guests gush about Windstar’s unique features — namely, the Watersports Platform and the Open Bridge Policy. On Windstar yachts you can swim, snorkel, sail, water ski, windsurf, paddle board and kayak from a platform that opens right onto the sea from the vessel’s aft. Plus, you can watch the Captain and crew navigate the open seas or dock in a small port by visiting the Bridge anytime you want. Windstar’s Open Bridge Policy is a rarity in the cruise industry.
“Another cool thing is the Watersports Platform,” says Dennis Parrington. “It was fun to swim off a yacht.”
“Their watersports activities are very unique,” says Rebecca LeNoble. “One of the staffers even gave me paddle board lessons… And being able to go on the Bridge and hang out was so cool.” Husband David adds. “It was pretty amazing to go out in a kayak [right from the yacht].”
All in all, Manana Reccoppa may well speak for many others when she sums up the Windstar experience: “It feels like family,” she says. “It’s the best. We’ll never cruise with any other line.”
IF YOU GO
Europe 2018 cruises will have something for everyone, from shorter week-long sailings to epic multi-week voyages. As we have just recently announced eight new itineraries in Northern Europe and 12 new Mediterranean itineraries, bringing Windstar’s total unique itineraries in Europe for 2018 to an impressive 40.
The sailings, running April through October, include a bevy of unique “small ship-only” experiences, like cruising the impossibly narrow Trollfjord in the Lofoten Islands; docking in downtown London near the Tower of London, where guests can marvel at Tower Bridge as they sail underneath the iconic structure; or tucking into exclusive San Remo on the Riviera of Flowers, known as Italy’s own Monte Carlo.
About the Author
Award-winning travel editor and writer Veronica Stoddart is the former editor-in-chief of the Travel Media Group at USA TODAY and is currently a content marketing consultant. She has written for nearly two-dozen publications and websites, visited 100 countries and counting and loves travel as a force for good in the world. Ms. Stoddart sailed on a Windstar cruise in Europe in 2016 for this story. Follow her on Twitter: @wanderlust13.