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On any horizon, Wind Surf cuts a fetching profile. With bright white sheets enveloping more than a half-acre of surface across five masts, a trim hull that slices gamely through the sea, and a bow that looks sharp enough to parry with an iceberg, this elegant motor-sail yacht slinks into the smaller ports of the Caribbean and Europe that bigger cruise ships can only dream about. It’s not a cruise for everyone, and our journey wasn’t perfect, but—spoiler alert—we fell in love with Wind Surf.
Originally launched in 1984, Windstar Cruises has been owned by various entities, including at one time Holland America Line/Carnival Corp. In 2011, Windstar’s three-ship fleet was acquired by Xanterra Parks and Resorts, a company that manages several storied National Park Service properties. Privately held by Denver-based billionaire Philip Anschutz, Xanterra may have been an ideal match for Windstar. The company set about refurbishing the fleet—$18 million for the three vessels—and in 2013 Xanterra announced it was expanding Windstar by acquiring the three 208-passenger luxury power yachts of Seabourn Cruises, to be phased into the fleet in 2014-15. Suddenly, Windstar Cruises has become a major player in the boutique ship category.
Built in 1990, Wind Surf is the largest and youngest member of the Windstar fleet of tall ships, offering a unique cruising experience for just 312 passengers. In fact, with its twin, Club Med 2 (owned by the Club Méditerranée all-inclusive resort chain), Wind Surf is the largest sailing cruiser at sea. The ship offers Caribbean voyages out of St. Maarten in the winter and spends the balance of the year in the Mediterranean and northern Europe.
For cruisers who depend on a varied, comprehensive selection of shore excursions, Wind Surf may not be a good fit (on our itinerary there were just two or three options per port). But for us, a big part of Windstar’s appeal was snuggling into offbeat locales. How many other cruise ships park for three hours at the base of an active volcano, serving a delicious al fresco barbecue for dinner on the top deck while smoldering lava tumbles into the sea a few hundred yards away? Most of the islands Wind Surf calls on—the British Virgin Islands’ Jost Van Dyke, Guadeloupe’s Iles des Saintes, the Scilly Isles, Capri, Lipari—are well off the navigational charts for mainstream cruise lines. The quaint ports and anchorages mirror the intimacy and (dare we say) verisimilitude of the ship itself.
In contrast with classic schooners, Wind Surf’s Dacron sails are electronically controlled by the bridge. Before our cruise we were curious as to whether those sails would get much of a workout. In truth, we suspect most of the nautical miles we covered—maybe the vast majority—were under engine power. But for every sailaway from port or anchor the sails did unfurl, and on one night the engines were all but silent till midnight or later as we eased quietly through the Mediterranean. The amateur sailing devotee in us enjoyed being able to go up to the open bridge and chat with the officers on duty. The captain told us that “we use the sails as much as we can,” but the reality is that a strict itinerary, unpredictable winds, and the necessity of powering the ship’s normal functions require that the engines operate most of the time. But when Wind Surf steers out of port under full sail and Vangelis’ theme from “1492: Conquest of Paradise” comes booming over the speaker system, we couldn’t help but feel our spine tingle with fantasies of seafaring adventure stirred to life.
Obviously, a cruise aboard Wind Surf is not exactly comparable to one on today’s modern cruise ships that carry 10 times as many guests. There are a number of things you won’t find: no showroom productions, no Bingo sessions, no children’s facilities, and onboard activities are limited. Though there are elevators, the ship is not very wheelchair-accessible. There’s not even a cruise director—how would we manage?
But there were more similarities than we initially expected. There’s a pool, a gym, a spa and a casino. We had multiple dining options, a DVD library, and bikes were available for rent—perfect for exploring smaller ports. Uniquely, there’s even a marina that unfolds from the stern with kayaks, a Zodiac and windsurf equipment. (On our cruise the marina emerged at one tender port but not at two others, perhaps restricted by local regulations.)
None of Wind Surf’s cabins have balconies, though all have an ocean view. Our quarters were comfortable, with a fresh and contemporary veneer following a December 2012 renovation of the ship. Similarly, the restaurants got a facelift and we found dining to be solid, both better and more diversified than we expected. Entertainment, though limited, was fine for the size of the ship—we particularly enjoyed the vocal/guitar duo with a serious affinity for Mark Knopfler that kept us entertained at the convivial Compass Rose bar.
Alas, there were some areas of our cruise that should have been better. Repairs were conducted on one top deck area during lunch, meaning loud sawing sounds and dust were inescapable for anyone dining at the Veranda (the only restaurant available for lunch). We were disappointed that non-smoking areas were not always enforced. The port side of the pool deck was a designated smoking area, but when several smokers congregated the starboard side was also usually flooded with cigarette smells.
Although service overall was very good, and we appreciate a staff that can recall names and preferences, sometimes it was a bit too informal. This would be a deal-breaker for anyone expecting white-glove coddling. Inappropriate presumptuousness was particularly a problem for one crewmember.
Now almost a quarter-century old, Wind Surf is getting up in her years. Fortunately, most areas of the ship did not appear in bad shape, though the teak decks up top definitely show their age.
Overall, our cruise aboard Wind Surf was a delight, stirring romantic seafaring notions and delivering us to choice, small ports. True yachties may scoff at Wind Surf’s sea cred—the sails aren’t hoisted by hand, and itineraries are port intensive (sea days are rare, except for trans-Atlantic crossings). But we loved the abundant teak decks, were pleasantly surprised by the dining, and we appreciated the easy-going ambience and attitude of fellow guests. Although it’s not suited for most families with young kids, we’re hard-pressed to think of a better cruise option for a honeymooning couple.
Windstar Cruises is overpromising a bit when they position their line as “the leader in small ship luxury cruising.” Both Seabourn Cruises and Silversea Cruises—for starters—offer a more refined (albeit much more expensive) product. The standard cabins aboard Wind Surf were fine relative to oceanview cabins on mainstream cruise lines, but the accommodations didn’t compare to the entry-level cabins on true luxury ships. It will be interesting to watch how Seabourn’s three smaller ships fare as they are integrated into the Windstar fleet in 2014-15.
But marketing quibbles aside, our Wind Surf journey offered a refreshing change of pace from typical cruises. While some of the service issues we encountered should be addressed, we wouldn’t want stiff, formal ministrations in place of the personalized attention we received from a crew that has been with this line for many years.
We look forward to our next Windstar experience with pleasure, perhaps aboard one of the fleet’s smaller, four-masted ships, Wind Spirit and Wind Star.
Lead photo credit: Danita Delimont/Alamy
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