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!