Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Celebrity Silhouette vs. Royal Princess - Which Is A Better Value For The Upscale Cruise Guest? Part III: Treating You Right From The Start

The ambiance on the Celebrity Silhouette is significantly different from the Royal Princess.  To me it is a simple matter of “Class versus Mass” and, as I ask some of the passengers on this cruise that have been on both lines, and there are many, not surprisingly the vast majority say that Celebrity is far superior.  (Obviously, if they felt Princess was they would now be on the Royal Princess, right?)  It is their reasons for concluding it that is of interest.  

But now for my thoughts.  I will  get to other passengers thoughts later in this cruise.

We arrived at the port very early as our flight was at 6:00 AM; so early that everyone still had not disembarked the ship.  So we had to wait in line…very near the front of the line.  But when the doors opened Celebrity had everything running smooth as silk.  We were through security, processed, and SeaPass in hand in less than 15 minutes.  We then were directed to a seating area and shortly thereafter was onboard the ship. 

After being greeted with a glass of “champagne” I asked were we could sign up for the Ultimate Dining Package and was directed to the Grand Cuvee (main) Restaurant.  Very efficiently we were signed up, had our reservations (at our chosen times…without compromise) for each of the next seven nights.  Having combined this with our Pre-Paid Gratuities and Premium Beverage Package, a fairly seamless experience without any “nickel and diming” was – again – to be had.

We were then off to the spa, where a massage on the first afternoon at sea was arranged with no issue (other than this is the first cruise with Canyon Ranch being the spa operator, so the question of my 14 year old daughter having a massage without a parent present in the room was raised – more on that later!).

As I seem to have hit the jackpot of CDC (Center for Disease Control) inspections, the Celebrity Silhouette was having one, so our embarkation lunch at Bistro on Five was a bit delayed.  While we had our dining package so it was included, Celebrity waived the $5.00 per person cover charge for all of the other diners.  Our lunch included a very nice cream of tomato soup (not too creamy) and an excellent Salad Nicoise.  The waiter brought over an excellent (and totally unneeded) banana, Nutella and pistachio crepe for dessert. There were some quite unique wines offered by the glass.  I enjoyed a Gruner Vetliner from Austria.  (By the way, I will be talking about the wine selections later.)

 After enjoying our lunch, my daughter and I arrived at our stateroom (8279) which was very conveniently located near (but not at) the midship elevator and separated by nicely designed walls to eliminate any chance of noise.  It is a standard Celebrity Solstice-class stateroom, but with a very large balcony angled so that we have a great view both to port and aft.  As it started to rain heavily, we decided to just chill out on our balcony while we waited for our luggage to arrive.  Because the balcony was so deep we were easily able to sit out, recline the back of our chairs and wonder if this is going to be Spring Break Part Deux (as last year it rained virtually every day). 

My Standard Veranda Stateroom on the Celebrity Silhouette
(the sofa and desk areas are not shown)

My Celebrity Silhouette balcony has to be at least five times the size
of the balcony on a standard veranda stateroom on the Royal Princess.

The view from my balcony looking astern.  

The standard Celebrity Silhouette bathroom
Celebrity sent my daughter some chocolate covered strawberries
A nice touch!
While out there pondering how I could have made it a week on the Royal Princess with a tiny balcony that would have to sit sideways on…no less that Princess was treating me, as their guest, to a view of a lifeboat…I stood up, looked to forward and saw the Royal Princess.  How did I know?  It was the giant bright red television screen overlooking the pool that was easily visible from about a half mile away.  I had forgotten that “feature” that I am sure would be a turn-off to most, if not all, upscale cruise guests.  (Movies Under the Stars is a nice feature, but television and blaring lights and sounds of all sort all day; not so much.)

The Royal Princess.  And, yes, the giant television is that bright.
This photo is not retouched...I promise.
After a few telephone calls, we venture out and wander the ship.  I am not going to repeat all of the various spaces, which you can discover searching my articles on the Celebrity Solstice, Celebrity Equinox and Celebrity Silhouette, but suffice it to say Celebrity has created some of the most elegant and subtilely creative spaces at sea which not only attract your eye, but breaks up the larger number of people into smaller, more manageable, groups.  (I note the Royal Princess holds about 25% more people than the 2,800 passenger Celebrity Silhouette.)

Speaking of my fellow passengers, this is definitely a more “bargain hunter’s cruise.  It is the last Caribbean cruise as the next cruise is a transatlantic crossing on the way to the European season.  You can tell the staff – while working hard and always being pleasant – are ready to get to Europe and the passengers are definitely more on the budget plan.  (The specialty restaurants are fairly quiet, the shops and casino are quiet, etc.)

We have an early 7:00 PM reservation in Murano, the French and most formal specialty restaurant.  While we are first asked our stateroom number rather than our name, that quickly changes as the staff recognizes me from prior cruises.  What was very nice was watching the waiter figure out how best to interact with my fairly shy daughter. (Can you imagine one of my offspring being shy?) They eventually have her so much at ease that she actually started ordering for herself!  The food was excellent:  Goat cheese soufflé, diver scallops with truffles in a puff pastry, Dover sole (prepared tableside) , Lobster Murano (prepared tableside), an excellent cheese course (eight different French cheeses), Grand Marnier and chocolate souffles…and a petit fours.

Our dinner was delicious.  The ambiance was beautiful.  The restaurant is quiet (save when the door is opened and you hear the singer in the lounge outside – that does bother me!).  (I did notice a decline in people on this cruise – as opposed to last year’s March cruise – dressing for dinner.  Hawaiian shirts in Murano is just inappropriate and while Celebrity should restrict it, “technically” it is a buttoned shirt with a collar, so it is more of a failing of being on a more mass market cruise than the cruise line.)

We decided to make it an early evening (having gotten up at 3:15 AM for our flight), so we headed back to the stateroom for a drink on the balcony (Glenfiddich for me, Vitamin Water for my daughter) looking at the sky and hoping for sun the next day and then a good night’s sleep.

The next morning I went to Michael’s Club to check out the Captain’s Club Elite continental breakfast.  It was just that; nothing more…and very quiet.  So I headed up to the buffet for a light breakfast.  What impressed me was one particular staff member (I wish I caught his name).  I was juggling my Microsoft Surface, my dish and a coffee cup as I went to pour my coffee.  He stopped what he was doing, ask me if he could pour my coffee, took my cup, asked me if I wanted milk, and then took my plate and escorted me outside to a great spot overlooking the ship’s wake. 

Little things like that do make a difference…especially on a larger cruise ship.

Princess, you were right.  I won't ever use my balcony.
I mean this looks like such a waste of time, doesn't it?

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Celebrity Silhouette vs. Royal Princess - Which Is A Better Value For The Upscale Cruise Guest? Part II: The Standard Veranda Staterooms

Tomorrow I board the Celebrity Silhouette for a seven day Caribbean cruise.  I was, however, supposed to be sailing on the Royal Princess on her  April 13, 2014 seven day Caribbean cruise. For reasons I previously wrote about I am confident I made the right decision.  (For those who don't want to read that article now it focused on customer service and making me feel like a valued partner).

Obviously, by my nature, I had already started to compare what was to be my Princess cruise experience with my Celebrity cruise experiences and that, equally as obviously, starts with the stateroom; especially since Princess invited to sail on the Royal Princess and "graciously" gave me a veranda stateroom with a view of nothing but a lifeboat!

So what are the differences between a standard veranda stateroom on the new Royal Princess (and her sister the Regal Princess) versus the Celebrity Silhouette (and her sisterships, the Celebrity Solstice, Eclipse, Equinox and Reflection)?

Princess has clearly designed its ships, including its new Royal and Regal Princess ships to get you out of your stateroom and into all the public areas...where you can (and will) spend, spend, spend.  Along those lines, the plea I heard when I advised Princess I would not accept being given - as their guest - a view of a lifeboat for seven days, was that I wouldn't be spending any time in my stateroom because there is so much to do.

Let me tell you what I tell everyone that says that to me:  You aren't spending time in your stateroom because you have a bad stateroom.  Meanwhile, since you are in those public areas you buy that extra drink or two, you go to bingo, you buy something in the shops, you go to the art auction.  You pretty much do anything NOT to be in your stateroom...and some cruise lines train you that is what your vacation is supposed to be about.

But there are many, like me, that actually enjoy the sea.  We enjoy sitting on our balcony reading a book, doing some work, enjoying  a glass of wine, or - get this - doing nothing.  As you will see below,  Princess clearly is not looking for that kind of guest.

Meanwhile, Celebrity Cruises has just announced it's new advertising campaign:  "It's About More Than A Moment - It's About Everything."  And that, to be sure, includes your stateroom.  (To be fair, it also means Celebrity has plenty of things for you to do and spend your money on when you aren't in it.)

Though Princess doesn't want it to be about "everything"...at least not the Staterooms - Let's start there!

You are paying for a Veranda Stateroom, which implies that you will actual receive a usable balcony. Well, while the standard balcony (veranda) on the Celebrity Silhouette is a generous size with quality furniture, the Royal Princes balcony is hardly usable...especially if you want to gaze directly out to sea, a have your breakfast or do anything other than look at your partner, as the balcony is so narrow the chairs have to be placed sideways:

Celebrity Silhouette Balcony
Royal Princess Balcony
In the stateroom itself, on the Celebrity Silhouette you have a comfortable sofa and a desk chair while on the Royal Princess you are limited to an occasional chair and a desk chair.  If you upgrade to a Princess deluxe balcony you do get a love seat, but still not a sofa.

Celebrity Silhouette Veranda Stateroom

Royal Princess Veranda Stateroom
A curious design element is that the Royal Princess has the television mounted to the wall opposite the bed and it is fixed in that position. With that configuration you cannot see the television if you are at the desk (your back is to it) or sitting on the chair. On the Celebrity Silhouette the television is swivel mounted and is located opposite the sofa, so it is easily viewed anywhere in your stateroom simply by swiveling it.

And then there is the bathroom.  On the Royal Princess the bathrooms are, well, fairly utilitarian white bathrooms with molded sinks and standard shower curtains.  The Celebrity Silhouette has a far more stylish bathroom with a vessel sink and a "glass" enclosed shower.  One pet peeve of mine:  Princess has pump bottles of shampoo/conditioner (and no separate conditioner) and bath gel mounted to the shower wall rather than there being personal amenities...and separate conditioner (as Celebrity supplies).  Also, though I am "folliclely challenged", I note that on Princess the hair dryer is built into the vanity, and that is not what most women want.

Royal Princess Standard Veranda Bathroom 
Celebrity Silhouette Standard Veranda Bathroom
As is pretty clear, if you are someone who wants to spend time in your stateroom enjoying your private space, whether lounging on your balcony, reading a book or watching a movie on your sofa or feeling a bit pampered in your bathroom, the Celebrity Silhouette (and the entire Solstice-class fleet) is a far better value.

I will continue my comparisons as I cruise on the Silhouette.  There are plenty of comparisons to make!

Of course, if you are interested in booking a Celebrity or Princess cruise, please email me at eric@goldringtravel.com or call me at (877) 2GO-LUXURY. 

Monday, April 7, 2014

Princess Cruises Doesn't Treat You Like Royalty; Celebrity Cruises Does! Which is a Better Value for the Upscale Cruise Guest? Part I

There is an old saying:

"Don't Bite The Hand That Feeds You" 

Goldring Travel's motto is:

"Be Treated By Your Travel Agent As You Will Be Onboard"

My very poor experience with Princess Cruises proves both are very valuable.

And it is why Goldring Travel strives to make sure your experience is an excellent one from the moment you contact me to the moment you arrive back home.

Celebrity Silhouette
Let me explain:

Many of the cruise lines offer me complimentary cruises not only because they want me to sell their product, but because I write this very well read blog and, with some cruise lines, I offer my insight as to how various things work or could be improved.  (As I am referencing sayings, I must add, "There is no such thing as a free lunch."  I seriously do work when on a cruise.) 

I am always looking at "What is Luxury?" as an individual experience; not what is marketed by any particular company, cruise line or resort.  Including tours that I will never take and/or charging me exorbitant prices doesn't make a cruise or meal better or luxurious...for me; though there are people who honestly believe it does (and, for them, it is perfectly OK...but they are in the minority.)  What matter is "your luxury" - however you define it!

Royal Princess
So when Princess Cruises approached me about the luxury experience I could have on their newest ship, the Royal Princess, I was a bit skeptical, but said I would see if I could fit it into my schedule. For better or worse, the only time that fit was Spring Break so I figured I would take a father-daughter trip on April 13, 2014...even though cruising the Caribbean is one of my least favorite things (and I have already done it once this year!)

Now, remembering I didn't ask for a "free" cruise and I had to pay my way to Florida to get on the ship at Spring Break pricing (costing me an outrageous over $1,700 for two economy tickets!) I figured Princess Cruises would provide me with a nice Veranda Stateroom or, if I was lucky, a Mini-Suite, but nothing fancy.  And, making sure I had done all of my homework, I took all the Princess online training courses required to refresh my travel agent status as a Princess Commodore (Princess's highest level of travel agent training).

And then my confirmation comes in:  It is for a guarantee in the lowest possible veranda:  Category BZ - Obstructed View.  I inquire about this and am told that as the sailing gets closer in Princess would see what they could do to improve this.  Two weeks before the sailing I get my stateroom assignment - only after I ask:  Category BW - Obstructed Veranda (Stateroom E311).  Huh?

So I take a look and my veranda would have a glorious view of a lifeboat.  Not a view over the lifeboat or some structure, but "of" the lifeboat. (Is this what Princess would do for my clients or am I just "blessed"?)

I take a look at the available inventory on the ship and find that there are plenty of verandas (dozens!) still available with just two weeks to go.  I also notice that the retail price for the highest veranda stateroom is hundreds of dollars less than the Category BW I am in, so my idea of paying for upgrade (so as not to be "difficult") was not even an option. (And, of course, I wonder:  Why the slap in the face?)

So I emailed  my Business Development Manager that offered me the stateroom in the first instance. No response.  So I called her and was advised she was too busy to address it until that evening and that she hadn't even read my email from the day before.  So I wait:  Nothing.  So I email - though not wanting to - the Regional Sale Director.  He does get back to me and advises that this simple move would require clearance from Upper Management.  Really?  But, OK, I wait.  Nothing.  (Have you ever had frustrating experience waiting for your travel agent to get back to you?)

And the longer I wait the more frustrated I become.  I then say to myself:  If I board the ship and stare at a lifeboat for a week after having invested $1,700 plus a week of my time, what kind of "luxury" experience could I possibly have?

And then I think, If Princess finally moves me (not that I would feel like I was now being "treated royally") what would I be thinking about Customer Service?  

Princesses tag line is "Come Back New" and as each day of silence continues, the insulting feeling increases as does my frustration to the point when I then said to myself:  Get Me The Heck Off This Princess Cruise!  My time, my money and my business is far to valuable to be wasted stuck on a ship I now have absolutely no desire to be on with cruise line that I really have no ability to feel that my clients will be taken care of as they should be.

So look to see what options I had since I had $1,700 in airfare invested.  I see there are cruises available at a travel agent rate on the Royal Caribbean Allure of the Seas and the Celebrity Silhouette that sail out of Ft. Lauderdale on the same day on seven day cruises.  Perfect!  I am almost immediately confirmed on both in the highest (not lowest) available balcony cabins on both ships.  (I am not allowed to say what I paid, but both were very good deals...and which, as I will write in future articles, will probably be made up in the reduced cost of the cruise once onboard.)

I ask my 14 year old daughter which she preferred.  We sat and reviewed all the options on the Allure of the Seas.  We talked about the fact I hadn't been on that ship and we had sailed on the Celebrity Silhouette just the year before.  But when it came down to it, a teenage girl who has been on many cruises opted for the Celebrity cruise...because it was classier and had the ambiance she preferred; with the thought of sailing with 5,000+ passengers and too many gimmicks being just too unappealing. (Parents take note:  Teenagers are more sophisticated in their tastes than you might give them credit for!)

So I am now booked on the April 13, 2014 sailing of the Celebrity Silhouette in a Category 1A Veranda Stateroom (8279) with a near perfect location..and with a larger than normal angled balcony that gives me a view both to port and aft.

Celebrity Silhouette Veranda Stateroom
And then I contact my Celebrity Cruises District Sale Manager to let him know and he got back to me immediately even though on a travel agent rate there is little he could possibly offer me.

So as I now prepare for the Modern Luxury of my Celebrity Silhouette cruise, I refer you to my articles from my 2013 Celebrity Silhouette cruise:  Part I; Part II and Part III.  

Please follow me as I take this cruise.  Although I won't have been on the Royal Princess, I will be making some comparisons between what you can enjoy  on a Celebrity cruise versus a Princess cruise.
But more importantly I want you to think about your Pre-Cruise Experience.

  • Princess Cruises - clearly not intentionally - made me feel like I was not valued, that my concerns were a pain and too difficult, and that I was asking for too much.
  • Celebrity Cruises  made me feel like I was truly valued, that my concerns were their concerns and that I didn't ask for anything special.
Now I ask you:  How does your travel agent make you feel?  
  • Do you feel valued?  
  • Do you feel your concerns are your travel agent's concerns?
  • Do you feel like you asked for something special?
Goldring Travel's motto and business plan is simple:  "Be Treated By Your Travel Agent As You Will Be Onboard!"  Right now, without question, I would much rather want to be onboard a Celebrity ship rather than a Princess ship because of how I am being treated.

And if you want to feel that way when dealing with a travel agent, consider using Goldring Travel for your travel needs.  I care that much.  

Give me a call at (877) 2GO-LUXURY or email me at eric@goldringtravel.com.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Luxury Cruising - Don't Let The Cruise Lines Define YOUR Luxury (Millennials, Are Your Listening?)

Last week was Cruise Shipping Miami, the largest cruise industry convention in the world...and known as "Where the Cruise Industry Does Business".

For me it is a gold mine of information, perspectives...and questions.  The biggest question annually for me involves the world of luxury cruise travel.  Whether it is "What is it?"  "What are the perspectives of the various cruise lines?" or "What is new?" it always gets me thinking.

This year the Upscale Cruising Panel was excellent...not only for what was said, but for who said what.  And, to be sure, it focused me on what many of the luxury cruise lines are missing...or will be missing in just a few years:  The Millennial Generation (those who were born during 1981-200).

The panel consisted of Rick Meadows, Edie Rodriguez (nee Bornstein) - Crystal Cruises's new president, Bob Lepisto, SeaDream Yacht Club's President, Larry Pimental, Azamara Club's president and Diane Moore, of PG Cruises (Paul Gauguin).  Each person was assigned some aspect of "luxury" to present on.The standout moment for me came from a presentation by Rick Meadows, President of Seabourn Cruise Line.  (Honestly, I was shocked because Rick is not what I would call an extrovert, so public speaking is not his favorite thing.)

Before getting to what I found truly fascinating, I do want to mention that Bob Lepisto was his usual smiling, low-key, very SeaDream self talking about segregating luxury cruises into three categories:  All-Inclusive; Highly Inclusive and Inclusive and that for many there is absolutely nothing "luxury" about bundling everything together as it reduces choices and all but eliminates the luxury concept of private tours.  It is exactly what discuss with my clients when they are considering a Regent Seven Seas cruise versus a Seabourn or Crystal cruise:  Is having most everything bundled together where you pay a premium price and a get lesser individualized experience the luxury you are looking for?

Larry Pimental shocked me.  After listening to him for years about what a luxury cruise experience was, I heard a distinct re-positioning of his brand.  Larry claimed that it is the ports, not the ship, that are the focus of Azamara Club and its experience.  To me that is merely delivering someone to a place where they may, independent of the cruise, have a luxury experience.  While I am all for experiential travel (and that is, to be sure, one of my "luxuries") if I do not have a sufficiently luxurious home-base (hotel or cruise ship) the unevenness of the experience can lead to a serious degradation of the overall experience.

Edie Rodriguez was...well...Edie. High energy.  High volume.  And, to my mind, really not too much about what creates a luxury experience, but more about what luxury supposedly is in more analytical terms. (Do you really want to hear about the "multifaceted spectrum" of functional, individual, social and financial value?  Didn't think so.)  What struck me, however, was her actual focus on ostentatiousness. (Edie made sure we knew she loves her $10,000+ Hermes Birkin bag...almost as much as her sleep.)  

Edie reminded me of a less elegant and less refined version of a presentation by Pam Conover, then president of Seabourn, a few years ago who focused on the luxury guest wanted ownership, but more so on experiences and less on material things. Let's just say "Money Don't Buy Class!" and while Pam Conover elegance drew everyone in, I was totally turned off by Edie's "I'm better than you because I can afford it" philosophy.  And it made me wonder: Crystal Cruises is a class operation with elegant, understated ships, a focus on enrichment and individualized experiences for those who more likely than not like to fly below the radar.  What the heck is Edie doing as the new head of Crystal Cruises?

But I digress...

Rick Meadows was, for me, that star speaker on topic of luxury cruising:  Service.  In short, it is not about delivering an item (like a drink), but a series of small, but wonderful, experiences that create a continuum of exceeding your expectations.  It is also about the staff member viewing their position as a "profession" rather than merely a "job".

Seabourn "Hires Attitude and Teaches Skills"
Seabourn "Hires Attitude and Teaches Skills".  That is why Seabourn invests so much in its staff in the way of training before they ever arrive on one of its ships and then afterwards (initially through its Seabourn Academy).

So what is  the attitudinal  profile of the person who can consistently deliver luxury service?  They are people that embrace the following factors:

  • Selflessness - having a concern for the Seabourn guest first and foremost
  • Above and Beyond - having a desire to exceed expectations; not merely meet them
  • Care - having that trait which cannot be taught
  • Honored - having a feeling that not only their job, but the task at hand, is of special merit
  • Appreciation - having the belief that serving a Seabourn guest is a privilege and that without those guests they would not have their job.
And what are the skills that are taught to create that ideal Seabourn staff member?  It is to be:

  • Highly Intuitive
  • Deep Into Listening
  • Anticipatory
  • Detail Orientated
  • Engaging
  • Caring
  • Consistent
I put it this way:  Do you want a waiter that says, 
  • "Good Afternoon, Mr. Goldring!  How was your day in Istanbul?  Did you do anything exciting?  Please have a seat.  Would you like your vodka and soda with a lime?" or,
  • "Hello.  Would you like a drink?"
There is nothing wrong with the latter, but that staff member is merely a delivery service while the former is creating a series of small, but wonderful, experiences...especially because it matters to the staff member!  And when an exceptional experience occurs it has a name:  A Seabourn Moment.  The name is not a marketing ploy, but a training tool.  It takes an esoteric thing and makes it real and identifiable not only for the staff member, but for the Seabourn guest.

Now, think back to your cruise on Regent Seven Seas and ask yourself if you needed to dine with a specific waiter in order to obtain that sort of service (or anything like it) or on Silversea if you need to visit a particular waiter in a particular lounge.  Maybe said less eloquently, I have always believed that great food served by a lousy waiter is terrible, but marginal food served by an outstanding waiter is still a wonderful experience.

And for those of you who love it when a Seabourn staff member remembers your name now you know it is not merely an exercise.  They really want to remember your name because to them you really are that important!  (By the way, Edie Rodriguez has met me at least four times and she has never remembered me, no less my name, while literally ever other cruise line head knows me and greets me.  I remember Edie bragging and, to be sure, her love of her Birkin bag!  Recognition does matter.)

As a final observation, last year at Cruise Shipping Miami after hearing the head of Vships (a company that manages crew for a number of cruise lines) claim that Filipino crew were great and Chinese were better - not for having any of those qualities - but because they never leave their job (low turnover), I wrote an article, "Aspiration in Luxury Cruising - Is Losing Staff a Good Thing?" on this very point.  This year that same person from VShips was in the audience and attempted to pose the same assertion.  I don't need to ponder too long why.  Meanwhile Viking Recruitment, the company that Seabourn and some others work with to recruit crew into the yacht and cruise industry saw me on the convention floor, said hello, and invited me back to their booth to show me the extensive training facilities they are building in England.  (Who knows, maybe I will be a guest lecturer!)  

So whether you want an "all inclusive", "highly inclusive" or "inclusive" experience or you want to see a particular port; they do not - in my opinion - define luxury.  They define a manner of delivering a product or thing.  Elevating the price or including tours or things that are of lower quality or will never be used do not make the experience richer...just of an ultimate lower overall quality.

What truly defines luxury is high quality service, amenities and cuisine provided to you by people that actually care about you.

What do you think?  Post your thoughts on The Gold Standard Luxury Travel Forum, send me an email at eric@goldringtravel.com or, better:  Give me a call at (877) 2GO-LUXURY to figure out which cruise line and itinerary best fits your desires.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Windstar's Wind Surf - What Does It Tell Us About the Transformation of the Seabourn Pride into the Star Pride? Leave Your Tuxedo and Bring Your Flip-Flops!

Being one of the world’s top selling agents of Seabourn cruises, it was Windstar Cruises’s truly executive decision to invite Goldring Travel aboard its flagship, Wind Surf, to better understand its product as it prepares for the arrival of the Seabourn Pride (and next year the Seabourn Spirit and Seabourn Legend) into its fleet.  So, while the Caribbean is not my favorite destination, I agreed to spend a week on the Wind Surf on a roundtrip St. Maarten cruise on January 25, 2014.

Yeah, Yeah.  I know:
"Eric Goldring, of Goldring Travel, has a tough job"
Windstar made the right call:  I truly enjoyed my experience, learned a lot not only about the present cruise experience, but what is to come.  But I also have questions about how Windstar - which is presently making a number of significant improvements - can translate its current product into an "all suite" experience.  It is now more fascinating than ever!

At the outset: Let me make this absolutely clear for those who want to sail on the Seabourn Pride after she is transformed into the Star Pride:  Forget Your Tuxedo!  Bring Your Flip-Flops!  So if you are looking to have a Seabourn Pride experience on the Windstar men should leave your tuxedo, blazer and ties behind and women should focus on sundresses; not gowns or cocktail dresses.  That does not mean you cannot have an upscale experience on Windstar.  In fact, if you want it you can pretty much assure yourself of one…if you want it.

As a preface, Windstar, which has been around for about 25 years, includes the 312-passenger Wind Surf and 148-passenger Wind Star and Wind Spirit.  It's theme has always been, and remains into the future, one of casual elegance...but for me I would put the emphasis on "casual" with its present owner making a big push to integrate "understated elegance".

Windstar's Wind Surf may not have the prettiest profile,
but her interior is quite tasteful, modern and upscale

When you really look at the Wind Surf...really look at her...she is quite a pretty ship
from a number of angles
As much as Windstar is evolving, it also  seems to be a cruise line that has staying power (and, as you will read, for a reason) while its ownership, to date, doesn't.  Back when I became a travel agent, Windstar was owned by Carnival Corp and then paired up with Holland America (with which Seabourn, ironically, is now paired).  However, there was virtually no synergy with HAL, so Windstar was cut free from Carnival fleet and was sold to Ambassador International’s Majestic America Line.  When Ambassador filed for bankruptcy Windstar was sold to her current owner, Xanterra Parks and Resorts, the nation's largest operator of park-based hotels, restaurants and stores.

And, with that, Windstar has begun its new life with lots of cash to renovate its ships and expand its fleet.  With that Hans Birkholtz, Windstar's President and CEO has aggressively undertaken a two prong revitalization of the brand.  First, Windstar's present ships are being extensively renovated and second, Windstar has purchased the Seabourn Pride, Spirit and Legend; which will be joining the fleet (Pride in April 2014 and the Spirit and Legend in April/May 2015).

Now let me explain how Windstar can provide an upscale experience...if you want it to.

Windstar’s local representative met me at the St. Maarten airport and quickly whisked me into my private transfer (a/k/a taxi) for a quick and friendly ride to the ship.  We were dropped off by a tent, quickly greeted and placed on a shuttle to the ship.  Upon arrival we boarded the ship and were escorted to the main lounge where I was greeted with smile after smile and a mimosa.  Moments later I was checked in and escorted to my suite.  So far a very pleasant small ship and personal experience sans limousine transfer.

The suite was similar in concept to the Double Suite on the Seabourn triplets heading over to Windstar.  It is essentially two staterooms with a large curtained opening between the two; one of which has been converted into a very comfortable living room with a bar (stocked with miniatures) and a refrigerator (stocked with soft drinks and beers).  The bonus is you have two full bathrooms and two desks (one for work and one as a vanity).  The double closet space is a plus…as there was plenty of room for a Caribbean cruise, but for a Mediterranean cruise hanging space might be tight if you only had one closet.  There is plenty of shelf and drawer storage, however.

Windstar's Wind Surf Suites have a very comfortable living area.
I use a Goldring Travel backpack; not just my clients!
The décor balances some tastes of a sailing yacht with a luxury suite on “standard” cruise lines (as Windstar professes to be “180 Degrees From Ordinary” you should know that I would say it is more like 90 degrees…so don’t be scared off if you are a conformist!)

A very comfortable and large sofa is accompanied by a nice chair, table with lamp and coffee table.  Curiosities are the nicely labeled light switches and telephone being mounted on a cabinet (similar to a sailing yacht), but once you figure them out they are actually far more convenient that the typical cruise stateroom switches were you spend too much time walking around figuring what turns what one.  

The bed is extremely comfortable, but lacks a cushion to cover the gap between the twin beds when pushed together.  The linens are of very high quality.  In short, the suite is as comfortable as it looks.

There was a curious note that all of the carpets were brand new and that what might look like a stain was not.  I can attest to the new carpets, but wonder who was complaining about the carpet enough for that note to be given. I liked the carpets.

My room steward did a pretty good job taking care of the suite; providing good service, but nothing extra.  There were  a few small misses that when pointed out were quickly corrected - like missing washcloths one day - but nothing that would cause me to be troubled.)

The bathrooms are bright, nicely lit and appointed with a nice sized granite countertop plenty of storage and L’Occitaine amenities.  To one side is a circular curtained shower with overhead and wand showerheads.  To the other side is the toilet.  (If you are on the larger side, you may find the shower or toilet areas to be a bit restrictive.  At 5’10” at 195 pounds it was quite comfortable.)

Note:  There are no balconies or picture windows on the Wind Surf.  In the suite you have four rather highly located portholes.  While you can see out when standing, when lounging in your suite or lying in bed you have no view, but more than sufficient light.

Unless you are standing and peering out.

Wind Surt's portholes provide plenty of light, but not much of a view.

The suite does not compare to the standard suite on the Pride (with a large, marble, bathroom with a bathtub, large picture window or French Balcony and better finishes), but having just disembarked the Queen Mary 2 in a Princess Grill suite I can say I much prefer the Wind Surf’s suite.  That’s right, Wind Surf’s suites are that nice.

After checking the suite out it was time to grab a bite to eat.  There are three/four dining venues on the Windsurf (which were being tweaked a bit just after I departed, so some of my observations are omitted as they probably are now irrelevant):  AmphorA (the main restaurant), the Bistro, the Veranda and Candles.

I headed up to Veranda, which has an inside and outside dining area.  This is pretty much the breakfast/lunch venue.  I never ate inside as I could not find a reason to do so when a breeze and sunshine under cover was so nice.  Breakfast consists of the standard fare with some slight variation. You may also order fried, poached, etc. eggs, pancakes and more from the waiter.  At lunch there is a hot buffet that varies day to day along with a number of salad items, cold dishes and one hot chef’s ala minute item (such as a pasta dish).  In addition, hamburger and more are available to order from the wait staff. Note:  The Veranda area on the Seabourn Pride/Star Pride is where, not coincidentally, the Veranda will be located.

Candles was my favorite venue; available only for dinner and by reservation. It is an alfresco affair setup by the pool overlooking the stern of the ship.  As its name implies, there are candles (led for safety sake) on the tables.  It served some of the best food on the ship.  I especially liked the veal chop and excellent beet salad. If you are looking to upscale your experience, I highly recommend Candles as your venue of choice.  It is by reservations only, but at least on my cruise a table was always available...as long as I showed some flexibility. Note:  The Sky Bar area on the Seabourn Pride/Star Pride is where Candles will be located.

The Bistro is the second alternative dining venue located near the Veranda.  It is supposed to be a more upscale venue, but at least while I dined there it was fairly ordinary and quiet loud (but that was courtesy of a couple of tables that the décor could not absorb their boisterous voices).  I have been told that Windstar was replacing the menu the day I disembarked…for exactly the reason I said.  While I would have liked to sample the new menu, the good news is that Windstar’s new ownership is serious about improving the cruise experience; resulting in a number of “we are in the process of improving or changing X”.

AmphorA is the main dining room.  It has a very nice, warm décor (not so different from the Bistro, to be honest) and a varied menu.  There are wine stewards that serve you your wine whether by the glass or the bottle; though I would not call them sommeliers.  I dined there twice; once with Captain Peter Harris – a charming seasoned captain with a dry sense of humor and a low key personality that fits perfectly with the Windstar experience.  As such, dining with the captain was a more jovial and warm experience (as I wore my best short sleeved tropical styled shirt).

Wind Surf's AmphorA Restaurant
Windstar also has a weekly Deck Barbecue, which was quite good with a wide variety of items ranging from the usual items to grilled lobster.  For a moderately priced cruise, I was surprised and impressed. But to be honest, there is no comparison to Seabourn's Deck Barbecue, but Windstar is not a luxury cruise product. It is just an example of adjusting expectations, but still having an upscale experience.

I should also mention The Yacht Club, which is sort of a Starbuck-esque coffee bar where you can also select from pre-made (but fresh) fruit cups, yogurts, etc. at breakfast and sandwiches and wraps from the late morning.  The latter are provided so you can take them off the ship when you tour or hit the beach; even providing soft lunch boxes if desired.  (Windstar also provides bottled water as you disembark the ship for tours; another nice touch.)

The Yacht Club -
Where you can pick up a cup of coffee, a yogurt or a sandwich
There are also bars in the Main Lounge (where the guest entertainment and ship’s four piece band plays), 

the Compass Rose Lounge (where a duet – which honestly was horrible – plays in the evening), with its al fresco option and the Pool Bar, which is closed in the evenings as this is where Candles is located.  The latter two have a very nice nautical décor.  Another nice touch is a small Cigar Lounge (though the cigar prices were absurdly high).

Windstar's Wind Surf Pool and Pool Bar

The Poor Bar -
Windstar upscales your experience by using actual glasses,
proper garnish, cocktail napkins, intuitive service
and - always - a smile!
The Wind Surf has a Marina that when anchored is opened with a variety of water toys that are available should you so desire.  I was surprised by how little it was used on this cruise, but it was used and available.

I also note, and I never have before, the Gift Shop actually has items you may want.  While it is dominated with Windstar shirts and hats, there is a wide variety of other clothing, jewelry, gifts and sundries at very reasonable prices.

So with the Wind Surf and Windstar's interior improvements throughout the ship, it is now time to talk about service and cuisine.  There is no question that the charm of Windstar in some ways makes up for the inconsistency of the service and cuisine.   The staff (Filipino in the bars and Indonesian in the restaurants) are beyond friendly and only want to do the best for you.  But smiles and enthusiasm only go so far.

I put the problems into three categories...and I make these comments noting that the expectations of most guests paying $3,000 for a stateroom are going to be different from those paying $8,000 for a suite.  However, since the Pride it will be on "all suite" experience my comments are focused on the standards expected on an "all suite" ship rather than the present mix.  But at the same time, expectations should not be raised to the level of a luxury cruise line like Seabourn. One must remember that the Pride is hardware; not a cruise experience.

So with said, and noting my comments are focused more on Windstar providing service on an "all suite" cruise ship rather than the present fleet, I offer the following:

Insufficient coordination/training of staff and resources.  At each meal at the Veranda I was asked by on average three waiters if I wanted a drink.  That problem is two-fold:  There is not enough coordination as to which waiter is responsible for which table (apparently there are no assignments other than port and starboard) and there is a long lag time between ordering and receiving your drink if it comes from the bar (which is nowhere near the Veranda).  So if you are sitting for five minutes without a drink, someone is going to ask you...again.  A simple solution which Seabourn does on the Pride, Spirit and Legend:  A cooler is positioned in the Veranda area.

A second example:  When I ordered a hamburger and French fries and, invariably, the hamburger was excellent and the french fries were  cold.  Similarly my eggs were fine (though my poached eggs were inconsistent), but the hash browns were cold.  The reason was simple:  There was no deep fryer near the Veranda so they had to juggle how to have enough potatoes on hand, keep them warm,  but not overcook them.  The solution:  Put a deep fryer in the Veranda grill area.

What it seemed like to me is a culture of, "Well, this is the way we have always done it."  And while that may get high marks for consistency (which is very important), it stands in the way of overall cruise product improvement.

Language/Culture Issues. The majority of the staff on the ship is Indonesian (food service) and Filipino (bar service).  There are good reasons for the two being segregated...and it is not because they do not get along, but because culturally they think differently.  Filipinos generally work as a group with a "mother" who guides them and Indonesians tend to work off of lists and systems.  You can see how the two are so different.  But culturally they are both generally more subservient than assertive.

Let me give you some examples:  When I ordered French fries I would be asked, “Would you like ketchup?" Yes, please.  Would you like mayonnaise?"  No, thank you. "Would you like salt?", "Would you like pepper?"  The waiter knew exactly what was to go with french fries and then proceeded to  go right down the list ...rather than to assertively present all  four items.  While it can be seen as a "cute miss”, after a while it can be a bit frustrating.   A biggie?  No…especially because the staff is so just plain nice and wanting to please.

I also noticed that the staff generally had in common a lesser mastery of the English language - so communicating with the guests was a bit of challenge, but always pleasant and friendly.  It was quite obvious that the staff would therefore key on words they knew.  For example, if I asked if there were any oatmeal raisin cookies, I would be told “Yes.  We have peanut butter and chocolate chip cookies.” (It does remind me of the time my wife asked a European Seabourn waiter for a Yoo-Hoo - an American chocolate drink. He gave a puzzled look and then raised his hands and said, "Yoo Hoo!" Honestly, sometimes thing just get lost in translation!)

While language can be an issue, even on a luxury cruise line, on an "all suite" ship Windstar will have to get better than it is at present.

Food Quality Was Inconsistent. As you know I always order a hamburger, a hot dog and poached eggs on my cruises.  The reason is that you can tell a lot by whether the simple things are done correctly.  Windstar's hamburgers were excellent!  They were beautiful presented, juicy, nicely flavored and had all the expected garnish on a nice roll.  The hot dog was quite good too.  But the poached eggs ran the gamut from perfect to hard-boiled to almost raw.

Even in AmphorA and The Bistro, one dish would be excellent and another would be OK, at best...usually with the more difficult dish being the better prepared one.

A Beautiful Beef Wellington

Compare the Beef Wellington and the ????
- Served at the same time!
A Beautiful Presentation
Not so much of a presentation
My question is, "Why?"  And it is so frustrating because some of the dished I ate (especially the veal an salads at Candles) were excellent...not just good.  How is the Beef Wellington tasty and well presented and the other entree a mess?

I have always said that great food with marginal service will almost always lose out in guest satisfaction to marginal food with great service.  However, on my cruise  I found the smiles could not overcome the service misses and, therefore, the cuisine misses were fairly evident.

We need to keep this all in perspective - Windstar is working hard to improve things and it may well be that the new Standard Operating Procedures, the new Menus and the other improvements which are clearly being implemented are designed to address a number of these issues.  And, to be sure, Windstar is a fun and relaxing cruise experience.

And, let's face it, free flowing rum punches from a smiling bar staff with the sails up and a beautiful sunset while standing in your flip-flops on teak decks or sitting in a hot tub overlooking the stern on a ship that is anything but crowded while chatting to your friendly captain isn't exactly an experience that truly focuses on the ultimate in polished service or cuisine.

So who would I, at least at this point, recommend the Windstar Star Pride to?  People who like Oceania, Amazara Club, or even Celebrity cruises but who are looking for an upscale small ship experience with even less formality while enjoying a beautiful suite with friendly service in a laid back atmosphere.

Interested in more information or to book your Windstar cruise?  Give me a call at (877) 2GO-LUXURY or email me at eric@goldringtravel.com.

Have comments or questions you would like to discuss with fellow cruisers?  Why not join us on The Gold Standard Luxury Travel Forum!