Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Windstar Cruises' Star Breeze Inaugural Cruise - Part III - The Windstar Experience 2.0

Having been on Windstar Cruises' Wind Surf in the Caribbean and the Star Pride in the Black Sea I was really excited to see, as its guest, Windstar Cruises 2.0 on the Star Breeze's five night Inaugural Cruise from Nice, France to Civitavecchia (Rome), Italy.

My trip, however, did not start in Nice, France, but at my son's dorm room at the University of Colorado, Boulder.  On Sunday, May 3, 2015, I flew from New Jersey to Colorado to assist in what I thought was the simple packing up of a freshman's computer equipment, clothes, etc. at the end of his first year at college. (Let's just say it took longer than expected...a lot longer!)  Then on Monday morning I flew from Denver to Washington, D.C. on what seemed like one of the oldest planes still flying (thank you United Airlines!) connecting on a United flight to Brussels, Belgium and then a Brussels Airlines' flight to Nice, France....where I found out my luggage was delayed after being advised I had to pay for a cup of coffee or a glass of water on the flight.  (Now that is nickel and diming!)

Windstar provided me a private transfer (who patiently waited) and then it was off to the AC Marriott a newly renovated hotel not too far from the pedestrian area and with a nice view of the Cote d'Azure. Being it was still fairly early my room was not ready so, as I usually do, I went for a walk.  Having been in Nice before it was more of a stroll on a partly sunny day.


Nice, France Central Pedestrian area
As I strolled I saw a restaurant that looked a bit too good for lunch, but thought it might be perfect for dinner so I carried on; eventually settling on a smaller place where I enjoyed the typical moules & frites (mussels and French fries) with a carafe of the house rose and some crusty bread.

One of my favorite meals:  Moules & Frites
Back to the hotel to check-in and then off to the airport to collect my bag and my girlfriend.  (I thought about having her pick up my bag and meet me at the hotel, but then I thought a bit more. Having my girlfriend act a delivery service probably would not be a good idea!) Fortunately both showed up.

We headed back to the AC Marriott and then met up with some friends who were also on our cruise for dinner at a restaurant they wanted to go to.  Fortunately it was the same one I had spotted...and one which Windstar had recommended to us in our pre-cruise information package:  Le Boccaccio. It was a fantastic show, with bigger than life presentation, delicious food and charming waiters.  (By the way, TripAdvisor ranks it No. 237 in Nice.  Really?  Another reason to avoid relying on TripAdvisor.)

Le Boccaaccio's Paella for two...after four people have been served!

Profiteroles and Creme Brulee for one...seriously.
They were delicious...and there is proof that the old saying,
"I can't believe I ate the whole thing" still is relevant!
Wednesday, May 6th, brought the full Windstar 2.0 Experience.  We met in the lobby with some other invited guests to explore Nice's markets as we went Shopping with the Chef with Windstar Cruises' Executive Chef Michael Sabourin.  This type of event is now provided in some fashion on a number of the luxury cruise lines (such as Seabourn), so Windstar's including not only the experience, but the local ingredients in its menus is a plus.  (And with the Star Breeze sailing with only 210 guests, having enough for everyone is easy.)

Shopping With Windstar's Executive Chef Michael Sabourin












Of course my eyes wandered and I purchased a bit of truffled brie.  It was...well, let's just say it didn't make it back to the ship!

We then transferred to the Star Breeze to inspect the ship and enjoy the Inaugural Celebration.  I have detailed this in Part II.

After a beautiful sailaway and a wonderful dinner with Windstar's CEO Hans Birkholtz and Gene Sloan from USA Today and others, it was a short voyage to Monaco where we overnighted and spent the entire next day.  This obvious intent of this was to highlight a second aspect of the new Windstar Cruises:  Longer and Overnight stays.

Since it was a long day my evening consisted of walking the quay with our friends - which was kind of cool because Monte Carlo was being transformed into a huge Formula One track for the annual event


before heading back to the ship for a well-needed sleep.  But the next day was busy.

After a long walk around Monaco visiting such beautiful places as the Hermitage Hotel and the Hotel de Paris,

Typical tourists taking picture of The Hermitage Hotel
it was time for lunch in one of my favorite venues:  The Bar Americain (where I returned that evening for a very civilized whisky and cigar)


An old superyacht captain friend of mine was, fortunately, available, so he picked me and my girlfriend up and took us to his house in Eze, France which is a breathtakingly beautiful place.  While strolling the beautiful pathways we reminisced of our time when I was managing a 192 foot yacht I hired him to captain and caught up on what has been happening in our lives since.


It was then back to the ship for a local French dance experience right before our early evening sailaway; highlighting yet a third aspect of Windstar's new approach:  Bringing local talent onboard the Star Breeze.


Windstar's chefs did another fantastic job with that evening's hosted dinner


The morning found us in Portofino, Italy where we were treated to a short walking tour to Brown's Castle where we had a truly wonderful, funny and tasty, Wine Tasting with cheeses, focaccia, olive paste and more; again highlighting Windstar's focus on quality local experiences



with a fantastic view of Portofino


Of course with a late departure I had time to find a little place to sit with a friend and enjoy a bottle of the local Vermentino wine and a plate of delicious trophie pasta with pesto while the girls shopped.

While the Star Breeze was not leaving our anchorage until 10:00 PM, so one could stay onshore even longer, we opted to return to the ship for another of Windstar's signature events:  The Deck Barbecue including paella, roast pig, lobster tails, crab legs and more.  (Personally, I would go with "less is more" with a focus on more creativity than the "more is more" approach, but it still was a very nice evening.)

Star Breeze's Deck Barbecue
Cheeses and Paella are just a smattering of what is
offered on a Windstar Deck Barbecue
Our last day was a first for me:  Portoferraio, on the island of Elba, Italy. What a pleasant surprise! We walked up to the top of the imposing fortress, down through the town, out to the ancient rampart and into what was pretty much a town square.

Portoferraio, Elba, Italy
A very cool Enoteca hidden in the Fortress.
I shall return!

And then the, out of nowhere, BAM!  The true highlight of our Windstar cruise on the Star Breeze. As the four of us investigated, then negotiated, a place to have lunch struggling between fish and pizza it appeared:  Il Pescatore Pizzeria (The Fisherman Pizzeria) which was not on the water or even on the square, but a bit behind most everything.

We are the only people there as we start our al fresco lunch.  We look inside and someone says, "Hey, she is cooking on a hot plate!"  But we stay and are we glad we did. You see Mama may have had a hot plate, but she had more and incredible talent.  A Papa was jovial...and in charge of the pizza.  (Of course absolutely no English was spoken!)





























Awesome Mussels...Oh, but the broth!!!!
Definitely one of the Top 5 Pizzas of my life
Start your meal with a local wine
And end it with limoncello & grappa



























































































Unfortunately, as we finished our meal we realized it was time to head back to the ship (stopping for gelato on the way...as you do!) to start packing for our early morning disembarkation in Civitavecchia.

But Windstar had one last "So There!" in store for me:  A Sailaway Dinner in Candles, its al fresco alternative dining venue (which is a transformed Veranda).  I had a lovely dinner with the Star Breeze's Godmother, Wendy Perrin (for two decades Conde Nast Traveler's Director of Consumer News and Digital Community and now on her own), her husband and other couple. Wendy and I had time prior to this to chat...her being fascinated with how "wired" I was with my digital hot spot, portable battery pack, etc.  It was a lovely evening. (Order the veal chop!)

Star Breeze's Candle Restaurant - Great for intimate al fresco dining 
and to truly end the cruise in style:  A truly beautiful view as we headed out to sea.

Portoferraio, Elba, Italy at sunset
In summary, Windstar Cruises is really working hard to establish its brand as a small ship cruise line which provides diverse cruise and travel experiences based upon its ships and itineraries while having enough commonality in the onboard experience to still be considered a cohesive and identifiable product.

Windstar's renovations to the Star Breeze are excellent and, yes, there are tweaks still be be made. And the crew, while some of the most enthusiastic at sea, need a bit of buffing up and training.  However, based upon what I have seen sailing on the Wind Surf and then the Star Pride (while still being Windstar 1.0) and now the Star Breeze with Windstar 2.0, I am trilled to see the triplets have a new life and the travelers that want a small ship experience (as opposed to cruisers who want all the bells and whistles onboard) have a premium option and owners that are so friendly and enthusiastic that you know it will only get better from here!

If you are interested in booking a luxury cruise, please give me a call at (877) 2GO-LUXURY in the US, in the UK: 020 8133 3450, in Australia: (07) 3102 4685 and Everywhere Else: +1 732 578 8585 or email me at eric@goldringtravel.com.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Hotwire.com Engages in Systemic Consumer Fraud...and Worse

WARNING:  Your Hotwire.com "reservation" is not - according to Hotwire.com - a reservation at all. It is nothing more than a gamble that you might get a car...or you might not...and it might actually be 19+ miles from airport location you booked it at.


There is one thing that really gets me going is dishonesty...and Hotwire.com certainly engages in that.

If there is one thing that well and truly gets me furious is the blatant engaging in Consumer Fraud as a part of systemic practice...and Hotwire.com clearly engages in that too.

I have one client that has, in a matter of days, encountered two outrageous experiences with Hotwire.com that are only outdone by the abusive and dishonest handling of the issues by is Customer Service people.

Example 1:  You reserve a car through Hotwire.com for pickup at the airport.  It winds up being a rental with Alamo.  You arrive at the airport, go to the Alamo counter and it is empty.  You call the posted number and are told there are no cars. You need a car and the only ones available are from competitors for triple the price since you are a walk-up (desperate) customer. 

So you rent the car and then go back to Hotwire.com to complain and seek the difference back since you had a contract for a car at a certain price and now it costs you more.  Right?   Not so fast!

Hotwire, after three Customer Service representatives are involved, essentially says, "We don't make any money on the rental and you could have cancelled it.  The fact that you contracted with us for the car doesn't matter.  We have no obligation to you.  But we will give you 20 Hot Dollars to use towards another rental"  Huh?  

What about that car now costing me triple what I contracted to pay? Hotwire.com could care less.

Example 2:  You go to Hotwire.com to rent a car for pickup at the Denver International Airport.  As you type it in, and knowing there is only one airport in Denver (and you are arriving into Denver International Aiport), you see a dropdown that says:
*Denver, CO (DEN) Denver Airport
*Denver, CO (DIA) DENVER Airport
  Denver, CO (city)
(The asterisks * represent an airplane depicted on the Hotwire.com site.)

You select "*Denver, CO (DIA) Denver Airport" and book your car.  It is with Avis, so upon arrival you hop on the Avis shuttle bus only to find out upon arrival that the Avis airport location is not where Hotwire.com arranged the rental.  It is at an Avis location over 19 miles and 30 minutes away. (But if you want to rent the same car at the airport location it will, once again, cost you triple what you had your reservation for.)

So you contact Hotwire.com and your call is sent to Manila, Philippines so you can attempt to speak with an agent that has hardly mastered English, no less United States geography, so she cannot comprehend what the heck you are talking about and then spends over an hour...that's right over an hour...supposedly trying to get a supervisor while insisting she can help you.  You ask for her name (which she refuses to give you) and beg, plead, demand, scream for a supervisor and finally somehow you get one located in Oregon, but she lies to you and claims you put in a zip code went you made your reservation.  (Raise your hand if you have even a clue what the zip code is for Denver International Airport.)

You get nowhere and figure out it is cheaper to pay for the $50 taxi to get to your car than it is to rent one at the airport location, so you bite the bullet.

But you don't give up!  Three Customer Service people later (now now spending over 2 hours on insisting you not be ripped off) you are still be accused by yet a third person of being an idiot that does not know how to rent a car at the airport.

But as you now say, "I'm going to sue the bastards!" you go back to the website and find something very interesting:  If you book a round-trip car rental you are given the Avis airport location, but if you book a one way you are not given the airport location (but in grey letters on the side of the page it shows the location is supposedly 9.8 miles away...which is actually the one that is over 19 miles away- because you left the plane at the airport and distance "as the crow flies" is irrelevant!)

Plain and Simple, Hotwire.com engages in:  
Classic Bait & Switch.  
Classic Consumer Fraud.  
Classic Fraud.

Hotwire.com clearly has a system that is designed to do at least three unconscionable things:  
  • (1) Hotwire.com preys on people relying upon Hotwire.com to arrange rentals where they had requested; 
  • (2) Hotwire.com systematically lies to customers; and,
  • (3) Hotwire.com intentionally makes the process of obtaining even a chance at resolution so difficult that it is not economically viable for the average consumer to pursue legitimate claims.
If the price sounds too good to be true it probably is.
If there is a lot of money spent on marketing you need to be extraordinarily careful.

I'll let you know how all this works out.  What I do know at this point is Hotwire is going to be a a lot of Hot Water!  

Windstar Cruises' Star Breeze Inaugural Cruise - Part II - The Transformation of A Cruise Line

I just returned from the Inaugural Cruise of the Windstar Star Breeze, which was quite enjoyable not only from the cruise product standpoint, but Windstar's highlighting its new philosophies including smaller ports and longer stays.  While I normally focus on the service, cuisine and ports as I experience them, in this particular instance they are actually secondary to the larger story.  

Windstar Cruises' Star Breeze in Portoferrario, Elba, Italy
This Inaugural was, to my mind, more about the significant transformation coming to Windstar Cruises and less about the transformation of the Star Breeze (formerly the Seabourn Spirit) and all of the changes made to her.  There was a lot of thought as to what improvements to make to her and each one, at least to my mind, are excellent ideas that appear have been executed quite well.  

Raising the Flag on a New Windstar Cruises!
First, some background!  Windstar Cruises' past has had a few identity and ownership crisis.  But that is no longer the case, with it now being owned by Xanterra Parks & Resorts, which also owns a number of entities ranging from the beautiful and luxurious Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs, Colorado to national park lodges to train, bicycle and walking tour companies and more.  Clearly, as things progress I (and others) can see a synergy between these different travel-related companies. Things like a European biking tour combined with a Windstar cruise or a Broadmoor golfing-focused Windstar cruise come to mind.

The owners of the Xanterra, billionaires Mr. and Mrs. Phillip Anschutz, were onboard, very friendly and had an agenda to let it be known there was more to the Inaugural than the christening of the Star Breeze:  Windstar Cruises wants it to be known that it is not stopping at the acquisition of the Seabourn triplets, but creating a 12 ship or more small ship cruise line in only a few years and making sure it gets the word out; not only about its new ships, but it’s future.

The Inauguration of the Star Breeze was beautiful.
And with that is the beginning of Windstar Cruises beginning its transformation from a somewhat funky and fun boutique line where sails and being "180 Degrees From Ordinary" were its hallmarks to a small ship, near luxury, full fledged, cruise line.  And also, quite interestingly, while the Windstar Pride, Breeze and Legend were sold using the technique, "Its about the software; not the hardware", Windstar is making a huge investment in the hardware as it looks to the future.  

Remember the pool on the Seabourn Triplets?   It is gone!
In its place is a beautiful terrace area which expands the seating in the Veranda
and provides al fresco dining even during inclement weather.
Why?  The answer is actually three-fold at least.  
  1. It is very difficult to make a profit with three small ships for a variety of reasons, so expansion works much to Windstar's financial advantage;
  2. It is very difficult to attract new guests if you are only offering older ships without many features; and,
  3. It is very difficult to attract new guests if you are not offering diverse itineraries that can comfortably delivered.

Windstar has replaced the two small hot tubs and the pool
on the Star Breeze with a larger hot tub and a cross-current pool
where you can
swim against the current
A yacht pool.  Look familiar?
Because it takes years to build new cruise ships (even smaller ones) and there is limited shipyard capacity, expanding Windstar via new ships is probably an effort in futility.  But knowing small ship cruise lines are generally financially precarious...or at least not hugely profitable, Windstar's flexing its owner’s financial muscle can make acquisition of those lines (or some of their ships) possible. Windstar is not the first to do this.  Other recent examples are Lindblad Expeditions' acquisition of Orion Expeditions and Paul Gauguin Cruises' acquisition of the Tere Moana.

But in most instances, as I noted above, there is more need make these newly acquired ships attractive to the consumer, so there must also be sufficient funding to refit these older small ships (Refit yards have much more capacity at present.)  If the plan works, there clearly will be a consolidation in the true small ship cruise market…not of ships, but of ownership and brands.   (I am not going to get into possible acquisitions, but there are a number…and each one presently has a different style and different challenges.)

Windstar's Star Breeze has removed the old staircase which
really opens up the Veranda...as does the addition of
an automatic sliding door and a power-assisted entry door
For me, this is where it gets really interesting:  With a diversity of ships Windstar will have the ability to no only offer a number of itineraries attractive to different guests, but a number of styles. Knowing that being a little bit of everything can result in confusion rather than a market identity Windstar Cruises is taking a bit of what might seem to be a backwards approach, but one which I think just might be genius:  Look at itineraries and then put the right ships in its livery in those locations.  But carry just enough of a consistent theme such as its 1492 sail-away, deck barbecue, Private Events, Yacht Club, Compass Rose Lounge and Star Bar, as examples, to tie this diverse fleet together.

For example, a cruise in French Polynesia, the Caribbean or the Greek Isles would seem to be perfect for one of its sailing "yachts" while a cruise around the French Riviera or Italy or Asia would seem more appropriate for one of its power "yachts".  The former focusing on barefoot breezes and the latter on French wines and cheeses...so to speak.


The Star Breeze suites have been refreshed
and have larger televisions
The Star Breeze marble bathrooms remain
as they were, function well and are attractive.


Windstar has put some attention into the details like removing the
Bose docking stations (so 2000) and adding Bose bluetooth speakers



But with the exotic itineraries and many suites comes a price point that attracts different guests than a seven day Caribbean cruise.  And that is where the upgrading of the Windstar yachts is essential because a level of functionality and finish will be demanded as the price point rises.  While seven day cruises may work for many itineraries, I believe the triplets will thrive with 10-12 day cruises that are also presented as longer voyages.  These ships, as opposed to the Windstar sailing yachts, are truly designed for longer yacht-like voyages and those options should be easy for its potential guests to find.  In my opinion, Athens to Istanbul and then Istanbul to Athens does not do these ships, especially as upgraded, justice nor will they attract the more sophisticated traveler.

And this is where what I call "The Waltz" comes in.  Windstar took possession of the Pride far earlier than it wanted to, so pretty much all of the Star Breeze upgrades shown here are not yet on the Star Pride.  But they will be on the Star Legend which will be making her debut in just a few weeks...benefiting from the lessons learned during the refit of the Star Breeze.  And then it will be the Star Pride's turn to receive all the upgrades later this year.

The Star Breeze's Card Room now has a Big Screen Viewing Area
The Star Breeze's Card Room also retains its card room function
As with most Inaugurals, this one was not without a few misses; but I expected there to be some.  For no matter how well you plan a refit there are always surprises, delays and OMG's.  Windstar and the Star Breeze crew truly worked tirelessly and many of the misses were corrected in the few days I was aboard.  That is a true testament to the staff and crew.

Speaking of crew (the "software") even being exhausted and trying to learn a new ship (and some being new hires as well) Windstar really has a fantastically friendly and enthusiastic crew.  It makes a difference!  Yes, there is a need for more training, but I believe that will come and in a few months - after all three of the triplets have been in service for a while - there will be more consistency.  As such, I would not hesitate to book a cruise on any of the triplets understanding that right now it is a premium product working its way into the near luxury market.

The cuisine was quite good (save the late night room service), with it ranging from "That was good" to "Those were the best lamb chops (veal chops) every!"  My poached and sunny side up eggs were perfectly prepared as well.  I would like to see more in the way of hamburgers and hot dogs (yes, those are very important when you want some comfort food!)  With only five nights onboard and some meals eaten on shore, I really could not sample all I wanted to, but I did not hear a complaint from anyone.

So for me the Inaugural was pretty exciting, but what Windstar has in mind for its future is even more so.  Will 2015 see yet more ships added to its fleet?  Will longer itineraries (or better presented existing itineraries) and cross-marketing with other Xanterra companies be rolled out?  Lots of questions, but not as much as there is enthusiasm at Windstar Cruises!

To me this is like reading a really good book.  Alas, Windstar Cruises has to finish this page in its history, before it can turn to the next chapter. I can't wait.

In Part III I will talk more about my travel experience during the Inaugural cruise of the Star Breeze.

If you are interested in booking a Windstar or other premium or luxury cruise, please give me a call at (877) 2GO-LUXURY in the US, in the UK:   020 8133 3450, in Australia:  (07) 3102 4685 and Everywhere Else: +1 732 578 8585 or email me at eric@goldringtravel.com.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Windstar Cruises' Star Breeze Inaugural Cruise - Part I

On Monday I will arrive in Nice, France for the Inaugural Celebration of the Windstar Breeze celebrating the Seabourn Spirit's rebirth and transition to an upscale more relaxed yacht.

Windstar Cruises' Star Breeze and her beautiful lines...
right before her highlight color was changed to Windstar Blue
What I am most excited about is that, unlike when it took delivery of the Seabourn Pride (now Star Pride) Windstar did not have all the time it really needed to design and have constructed all of the updates it wanted.  And, of course, one learns from experience and Windstar has learned from having the Star Pride in its fleet now for about a year.

Having previously sailed on the Wind Surf and the Star Pride I have a pretty good idea what the product is.  What I am excited to see is what improvements and modifications have been made on the Star Breeze.

You should know that I love the triplets when they were with Seabourn and remain enthusiastic as Windstar has made a real commitment to their revitalization, positioning them in the premium (rather than true luxury) market and keeping these fine yachts cruising throughout the world.

The Star Pride's Yacht Club.
Have there been any modifications on the Star Breeze?
Yes. Yes.  I know.  There are no sails on these yachts, so how can it possibly be Windstar?  It has to be a different, right?  To my mind:  Not really.  Windstar has quite effectively transferred just about all of its trademark amenities and activities from its sailing yachts to these power yachts.  From the music to the actually improved Deck Barbecue to some of the friendliest staff at sea there is a tradeoff:  Sails versus All Suites.   Knowing the sails are many times just for show and also knowing the sleek lines of the power yacht Star Breeze and her sisters, both play off of what is "sexy" but in different ways.

Windstar Cruises is providing a rather extensive series of events for this cruise.  But the ports highlight the benefit of cruising on a yacht the size of the Star Breeze.  On this short cruise we will be visiting small charming ports that will be anything but overwhelmed by either the number of guests or a massive ship blocking the view.  (This is where the fantastic lines of the Star Breeze really enhances a yachtie's experience!)

On Wednesday, May 6th, before being transferred to the Star Breeze, a group of us will enjoy Shopping with Windstar's Executive Chef, Michael Sabourin in a local market in Nice.  The purpose:  To show how Windstar Cruises' is committed to utilizing local products whenever possible.  When you are sailing with only 208 guests the opportunities are boundless; especially in this region of the Mediterranean.

After that will be a Pier-side Celebration, the Christening of the Star Breeze, a Gala Dinner and then a short sail over to Monte Carlo for an overnight stay...where I plan to disembark and head to some of my favorite night time haunts.  (Hey, it can't all be work, right?)

On Thursday, possibly a trip to Eze or St. Paul de Vence or Villefranche-sur-Mer.. I'll figure it out. There will be some evening festivities starting onboard ending up at Cafe de Paris before heading back to the yacht.

Friday  brings us to Portofino, Italy where I will - not surprisingly - partake in a Windstar hosted wine tasting and walking tour...and then, I am certain, a delicious lunch. Hopefully the Star Breeze's marina will be lowered so I can possibly do some kayaking around this beautiful area.

Saturday brings us to Portoferraio on the island of Elba, Italy.  It may be a bit cool to head to the beach, so I just might take advantage of the bicycles Windstar provides onboard and then wander this beautiful port town.

And then this short cruise is over as we arrive in Civitavecchia on Sunday.

If you are interested in booking a Windstar cruise, with sails or sleek lines, give me a call at (877) 2GO-LUXURY or email me at eric@goldringtravel.com