We’ve never been big cruise ship fans. The thought of being captive for a week or two on a giant floating hotel has never held any appeal for us. Our recent experience with Windstar Cruises has convinced us that not all cruise ships must be huge and impersonal.
We were invited aboard the company’s flagship yacht, the Wind Surf, for a 15-day, 1,800-mile voyage through the western Mediterranean from Nice to Lisbon, including a mid-cruise stop in Barcelona. It was a lovely, intimate experience. From the minute we boarded in France until we disembarked in Portugal, we felt entirely taken care of and pampered.
We slept aboard the ship and made daily stops in large cities and fishing ports, historic towns and exotic islands. Our only complaint, if it indeed was a complaint, was that there just wasn’t enough time to see and do it all.
The Wind Surf is not one of those gargantuan 6,000-passenger cruise ships. Although it has six full decks, this sailing yacht carries no more than 310 travelers and 201 crew, a ratio of 3:2 that encouraged friendships among guests and extensive interaction with the staff.
Ride of the Valkyries
Our grand adventure began in the port of Nice. As the Wind Surf weighed anchor, its seven triangular sails unfurled to the music of Richard Wagner’s “The Ride of the Valkyries.” Weather permitting, “the Valkyries” returned with each port departure.
It’s no surprise that the Mediterranean is sometimes called the Azure Sea. Its water is a rich, light-blue color like nothing we have seen elsewhere. We watched from the rail as the waves parted for the vessel and we toasted with champagne during a welcome party hosted by the ship’s sommelier.
Dinner, of course, was a nightly ritual, and we had three restaurants from which to choose. There was Stella Bistro, an excellent steakhouse, and Candles, perfect for outdoor sunset dining. But our go-to was AmphorA, a dining room named for the Greco-Roman containers unearthed in ancient marine ruins. Linen tablecloths and golden glass chargers gave the restaurant a look of elegance, but the only dress code was no shorts, T-shirts or flip-flops.
The AmphorA menu changed nightly, but always included gourmet meat, seafood and vegetarian entrees sourced that day from local markets. And the dinner included recipes from chefs who had previously accompanied Windstar cruises.
Through a partnership with the James Beard Foundation, we were fortunate to have Beard award-winning chefs and sommeliers on each leg (French and Spanish) of our cruise. They offered culinary demonstrations and wine tastings, led us on local market tours, and hosted special dinners. We were certainly in our element.
Most of the restaurant and lounge staff were from Indonesia or the Philippines. They were exceedingly well trained and friendly. Having spent time in those countries, John won them over: He knew their hometowns and some of the language. That can’t be common among travelers. Our dinners were filled with laughter, conversation and a genuinely warm reception.
The ship’s activity director was Gonzalo, a Uruguayan with a delightfully ebullient attitude that suited his position. He was never at a loss for words (or excitement!) when it came to describing upcoming destinations. Each evening, he presented slide shows on what we should see and do in the next port.
Land itineraries were thoughtfully considered and prepared, with as many as six excursion options at each stop. Gonzalo helped us choose the best of them — driving to hilltop Saint-Paul de Vence from Antîbes, France, and lovely Mojácar from Almería, Spain; visiting Cézanne’s Aix-en-Provence atelier from Marseille, and touring Les Calanques National Park near the beach town of Cassis. His recommendation to seek out a small café for gambas (prawns) in Palamós, Spain, led us to one of the most divine dining experiences we’ve ever had.
Gonzalo also made it possible for Barb to relive a drive through Andalucía that she had made decades earlier.
He found a private van with a terrific driver and tour guide, which we shared with two new friends from the ship. In a circuit of about 150 miles from our berth in Málaga, we saw many sights Barb remembered, including 7,000-year-old burial caves in Antequerra and a remarkable, 600-foot-high, cross-canyon bridge in the heart of Ronda.
Once a week, the ship hosts a deck-top barbecue, and the food is amazing. Enormous paella pans are heaped with shellfish and rice. There’s grilled lobster tail and suckling pig. The day of our van tour was also the day of the barbecue, and as we were delayed in traffic on our return, we began to worry about missing out on the feast.
But Gonzalo, prepared for any circumstance, had given us an emergency number to call if we were running late. And even though the barbecue had ended by the time of our return, the crew took care of us beyond our wildest expectations. They had saved paella, pork belly and piles of lobster tails, though we did miss out on the carved watermelon and delightful “fruit monkey” decorations.
We felt spoiled throughout the cruise. We had a stateroom with fine-count Egyptian cotton linens. We had an on-board spa, a casino, a state-of-the-art fitness center and a swimming pool. Two hot tubs soothed muscles sore from days of walking up hills carrying a backpack of camera gear. We even had wireless internet, as this was a working trip (but we learned not to expect too much while we were at sea). The laundry program allowed us to put dirty clothes outside our room each morning and have them pressed and back in the room by the end of the day. We would never have looked spiffy otherwise.
Thanks to the captain’s alcohol program, we enjoyed an open bar for non-premium brands. That assured us wine for dinner and cocktails in the lounges: A Filipino show band in the Main Lounge kept couples tapping their feet to ‘70s and ‘80s classics. In the intimate Compass Rose lounge, lively guitar-and-vocals duos kept things lively with tunes and trivia contests.
Given the level of luxury, the cost to travel with Windstar is relatively inexpensive. With seasonal sales and other discounts, you can find a week on the Mediterranean for less than $2,000 per person, including all meals. That’s less costly than a week at a typical big-city hotel.
We are now converts to cruising. Windstar offers cruises all over the world — and if every trip is like this one, we’re in.