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Welcome to the online blog for traveler/writer/photographer Steven Barber. Come in. Relax. Take off your shoes and socks -- or any other article of clothing, this is the internet. Have a look around. I hope to intrigue, amuse, entertain, and maybe provoke you just a little. I love to find adventure. All I need is a change of clothes, my Nikon, an open mind and a strong cup of coffee.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Discovering Windstar

As of this posting, I have just returned from an extended and extensive vacation in Europe. During that voyage -- three weeks, four countries and some 14 destinations -- I had the chance to observe quite a range of travel-related activities and performances of both specific companies, as well as less-defined groups such as cities and towns, and even individuals. This is the first of several columns  reviewing what I found.

A few columns ago I discussed my position that in the word of hospitality and travel services, it's the small things, the seemingly insignificant things, which can make the greatest difference in the experience of a guest. When one discovers a company or service which echoes that idea, I feel it's essential to pass the information along.

The MSY Wind Surf anchored off Rovinj, Croatia
Until now, my wife and I could be described, at best, as "casual" cruisers. Three previous experiences…two aboard Carnival ships, and a single Royal Caribbean...had left us with happy but unenthusiastic reviews. We had a good time, but figured if we wanted a big hotel with shows and a casino we could find better examples in Las Vegas. Windstar has, frankly, utterly changed our minds.

In fact, Windstar has completely changed my assessment of cruising as a whole, and converted me to their way of thinking. Cruising done right, or as the company's advertising line points out, they are "180 Degrees from Ordinary".

The ship's lounge area

As I write this piece, it's sunrise in the Adriatic Sea, a portion of the Mediterranean which divides the eastern coast of the Italian Peninsula and the west coast of Croatia. Just after sunrise.

I'm aboard the MSY Wind Surf, the flagship of the small Windstar fleet of sailing ships which cruise exotic ports throughout the world. Today we're slowly making our way down the Dalmatian Coast, headed for the island and town of Korcula. No one seems to know, precisely, how it is pronounced...core-chew'-la, or kor'-coo-la, or, well, you get the picture...but it promises to be a hot, humid and utterly beautiful day.

It's early, and the vast majority of passengers are still sleeping ir just now rising to start assembling their day. Ahead of the rush, the ship's staff are putting cups and plate on the breakfast tables, assembling and arranging silverware, and generally making things hospitable for the 250 or so passengers who will come seeking their breakfast in about an hour. But at the moment it's just me, the crew, and one or two other passengers who have arisen early to sit in the dawn light to enjoy the view.

Wind Surf off Italy
It's our second morning aboard the Surf, and already the ship and her staff have endeared themselves to us in a way no other cruise ship has been able. The crew are not only friendly, but genuinely seem to be enjoying themselves. A smile, a laugh, a friendly good morning delivered without being intrusive. 

The Concierge Desk

There is a personal touch here that is lacking on the larger ships  -- no disrespect to the crews of the vast Holland America, Cunard or Royal Caribbean vessels which plow these same seas (though usually visitng only the larger ports). You cannot get to know 2500 passengers in a week, the passenger count on the smallest of those leviathans of the sea, while it's a manageable feat if your guest count is 250. The Wind Surf accommodates a little over 300 guests by comparison with the giants, while her smaller sisters -- the Wind Star and the Wind Spirit -- are just over half that. Some people prefer the anonymity and grandeur of the bigger ships, but we quickly discovered that it adds so much more to the sense of relaxation to look up at a voice and see that it's Steven or Adam or Riz or One asking the question, and they, in turn, know your name.

In the morning as she prepares for her day

An example of this attentiveness occurred yesterday morning, while the ship was just rising from its sleep. I was on the Star Deck, the uppermost of the ship's six passenger levels. The Veranda, the ship's general seating semi-buffet restaurant, officially opens for service at 8am -- or roughly an hour from the time I woke, showered and went to the upper decks in search of a quiet moment away from our cabin so as not to disturb my wife's sleep. As expected, I found only a couple of other passengers watching the sunrise while the early-morning crew set about their tasks of readying the ship for the day. Despite the early hour, and despite the various tasks of preparing for the meal, Kada, a thin, slightly shy gentleman with a broad smile, took the time to come out to the deck to ask the three interloping guests (including myself) if we would like a cup of coffee, bringing it quickly and cheerily wishing us a good morning. I cannot imagine this would happen on a ship the size of the Voyager of the Seas.

Then there's the overall expansiveness of the ship. A regular objection of traveling on the smaller cruise ships -- smaller being relative given the Surf's 600+ feet -- is the fear that you will feel cramped and put-out. Even though we were perhaps 20% below the full load of the Wind Surf - she can handle 320 passengers - my sense is that the common spaces of the ship would still feel open and airy if she were at capacity. It's possible to walk through some of the larger rooms in the ship encountering only a few people. Crowds do not exist on board the Wind Surf. We may gather together for a show or presentation, but at no time is there a feeling of herding, a sensation you can sometimes get in the formalized mealtimes of the larger vessels. We ate when we wanted, in the restaurants we preferred (two require reservations, but this was easily accomplished). And at no time was the wait more than a minute or two for a seat. I find the insistence upon calling the Wind Surf a "yacht" to be more marketing than reality, but there's no question the guests are treated as individuals and such accommodation certainly warrants a degree of conceit.

The Wind Surf with Mount Vesuvio on the background

I will write more thoughts on the Surf in a later column, but for now I'll leave off with a note I wrote yesterday (Note: two weeks ago as of the actual posting date) as I sat sipping at the cup of coffee Kada had so thoughtfully brought to my little table:

"The Dalmatian Coast continues to drift by in the distance. The sun is just a little bit higher than it was when I started. A cool breeze blows back from the bow of the Wind Surf a a cup of coffee beckons my attention. I'll detail more about the creature comforts of this beautiful ship, but for now it's time for me to enjoy them."

1 comment:

  1. wow...great blog...it is like being there..without the sea sick pills...you and cris must have had a super time...seeing the world like this...is the only way to go...and you did it all (FLY,RAIL and SAIL.)...can't wait to have dinner...and here it all...first hand.