For those of us who have always wanted a yacht for port-hopping in the Mediterranean, upscale small-ship cruise line Windstar Cruises has answered the call. In addition to Windstar's existing three ships—the Wind Spirit, Wind Star, and Wind Surf, all fresh from an $18 million refurbishment—the line is forging forward with the launch of a trio of 212-passenger, all-suite "Star Class" ships. These vessels, freshly plucked from the plush Seabourn fleet, will double the size of Windstar's fleet by 2015 and expand its itinerary offerings, with new far-reaching destinations in Tahiti, Southeast Asia, Arabia, and Iceland. With its fast-expanding fleet of intimately sized yachts (carrying no more than 310 passengers apiece) and competitively priced sailings (from $2,699/person for eight nights) to the Mediterranean and beyond, Windstar has crafted a unique, high-end experience.
The first of the line's newly acquired "power yachts," Star Pride (formerly the Seabourn Pride), was unveiled earlier this month in Barcelona, making its inaugural voyage through Spain, France, and Italy. (Sister ships Star Breeze and Star Legend will join the ranks in May 2015). While Windstar's signature masts and sails are notably missing on the new vessels, the brand's other star qualities are still shining through. Here's a recap of what to expect onboard.
FOOD AND DRINK
Star Pride's dining venues reflect Windstar's "casual elegance" mantra, translating to open seating (eat with whom you want, when you want) and informal dress (no jackets or ties required). AmphorA, the main formal dining room, serves contemporary international cuisine and is tucked deep in the ship on deck three. Its low ceilings and lack of natural light are counterbalanced with mirrored panels of Murano glass and soft lighting installations.
Breakfast and lunch buffet venue Veranda features indoor and outdoor seating at the yacht's aft; come nightfall, it transforms into the reservations-only Candles Grill, offering al fresco seating. Once per sailing, a barbecue on the pool deck pulls out all the culinary stops, dishing out seafood paella, suckling pig, lobster, and more.
The coffee bar and lounge Yacht Club offers light snacks in between meals, while the onboard watering holes consist of Compass Rose, The Lounge (hosting live entertainment nightly), and poolside Star Bar.
There are no dining supplements, and all non-alcoholic beverages—including specialty coffees and minibar drinks—are included in the rates. Apart from the captain's welcome reception, alcoholic beverages are priced à la carte (though bundled beverage packages are available).
ACTIVITIES AND ENTERTAINMENT
Life onboard Star Pride is laid-back. Windstar prides itself on its port calls being the star attraction, and there isn't much to stir things up otherwise, apart from perhaps a trip to a local market with the ship's chef or an onboard performance by local musicians. Pleasantly absent are big-ship trappings—there's no overly chipper cruise director and no busy programming schedule.
One standout offering, however, is Windstar's signature watersports marina, set at the ship's aft, where complimentary watersports activities include paddleboarding, water-skiing, kayaking, and more. Another unique feature is Windstar's open bridge policy, which allows passengers to wander onto the bridge and chat with ship officers while the ship is at sea.
R&R-minded guests will find a small spa with steam room, sauna, tiny pool, and trio of whirlpools; a fitness center, library, computer center, shop, and casino round out the onboard offerings.
THE CABINS AND PUBLIC SPACES
The 26-year-old Star Pride was turned over from Seabourn and refit as a Windstar ship at breakneck speed (less than three weeks). Most public areas and staterooms were revamped with new furnishings, carpeting, upholstery, window treatments, and lighting to better reflect the brand's contemporary design scheme. Still, the ship does show some signs of its age, like wear-and-tear on the teak decks and older cabinetry in cabins. It's somewhat of a work in progress, with plans to entirely overhaul the ship in the works for next year.
Airy suites are more spacious than the rest of Windstar's fleet (starting at a generous 277 square feet, compared to 188 square feet), and all come with walk-in closets, sitting areas, bathrooms equipped with full-size tubs and L'Occitane bath amenities, and ocean views (some offer French balconies). Extras include Bose sound systems, DVD players (with a complimentary onboard DVD library), and fresh fruit and flowers.
THE CRUISE ITINERARY
Star Pride will sail the Mediterranean and Black Sea through early October (operating 7- to 9-night itineraries between Istanbul, Barcelona, Rome, Athens, and Venice), before making way for Arabia and Asia (new regions for Windstar, with calls scheduled in the U.A.E., India, Malaysia, Vietnam, and more), and eventually circling back to the Mediterranean again next spring.
Port-intensive itineraries typically focus on off-the-beaten-path calls, wedged between larger cities for embarkation and disembarkation. For instance, the inaugural sailing visited lesser-known towns in Southern France like the fishing port of Sète and idyllic, sun-kissed Sanary-sur-Mer; popped into moneyed yacht haven Monte Carlo; stopped off for a day each in the picture-perfect resort of Portofino and history-rich Portoferraio in Elba, Italy; and capped off either end of the sailing in Barcelona and Rome.
Star Pride cruises start at $2,999/person; visit windstarcruises.com.
Modern-day explorer, perpetual seeker, and diligent travel scribe Elissa Richard is a contributor to numerous American travel publications, including Fodor's, Condé Nast Traveler, Travel + Leisure, Yahoo, and more. Based in Brooklyn, NY, she has traveled to and reported on some 55 countries and 20 cruise lines around the globe, and has resided in Argentina, France, England, Denmark, and the Netherlands. Follow her @TravelSpiritNYC.