September 2015 - Star Breeze to Europe - Mediterranean
We have been on seven (7) Windstar cruises total with six (6) in the last nine (9) years. Until now, we were Windstar loyalists and had started taking Windstar cruises every year. We had such a great time on the Tahiti Windstar cruise last year that we booked two back-to-back cruises this year: one was from Istanbul to Athens and the other was from Athens to Venice.
First the good news. The itinerary and ports on both cruises were fantastic. There was not a single port we did not enjoy. There was only one sea day in the 16 nights we were onboard so the cruise was definitely action-packed. We saw 15 ports in 16 days.
The staterooms were huge and very comfortable. There was a full bathtub and a walk in closet as well as a separate living room. With the balcony stateroom, you can see the ocean from the bed. The balcony has floor to ceiling windows that open up. It's not a real balcony you can sit on but you can stick your head out as well as open the windows and feel the sea breeze. On the sailing ships, the rooms are about 2/3 the size and just have a port hole. So the rooms on the Sea Breeze were certainly an upgrade to the Windstar experience.
When we heard Windstar was purchasing the three ex-Seabourn ships, we were very excited and assumed the ships, after Windstar's renovations, would be a step above the sailing ships in quality. We were wrong. While we really enjoyed the balcony stateroom with floor-to-ceiling windows and the cabins were huge by cruise ship standards, the Star Breeze itself was a disappointing. Windstar is not maintaining the ship to luxury standards. There were dirty windows in the public rooms and staterooms as well as rust on the ship. Some of the carpets were worn out. The water platform was worn out and it had a couple inches of stale water in it. The spa is very small. It's hard to believe this was recently a Seabourn ship. Now I understand why they sold their three smaller cruise ships. They certainly are in need of more repair than Windstar has invested.
Overall, we had excellent service. However, service was slow at times, especially at breakfast time on the Veranda. While our stateroom attendant tried his best, he seemed to be overburdened so our room was not cleaned as promptly as I was accustomed to. However, we still gave him an excellent rating because he did do everything we asked for and we know he is paid poorly and a bad mark will hurt him. When we had problems, the managers tried to sound concerned but they didn't take action on problems in a timely manner.
The special event at Ephesus was the highlight of the first cruise. It was spectacular to see the Celsus Library lit up at night. Overall, the food was good but not fantastic. The onboard barbecue has always been the highlight of the cruise. I wasn't as impressed with the quality of the barbecue on either cruise this time.
The Yacht Club public room was the nicest room on the ship. It had spectacular views and they seemed to clean the windows in that room. However, the sandwiches in the Yacht Club tasted stale. You had to go out to the bat to order drinks. In addition, on other Windstar cruises they offer a 4 pm tea time with snacks. They didn't offer it on this cruise.
Windstar no longer offers high quality, unique chocolates for turn down. Each night, we got chocolate mints, which we did not eat. I used to look forward to the nightly chocolates.
The pool deck was disappointing because the view is blocked by the life boats. The jacuzzi on the pool deck was not maintained at a hot enough temperature. The jacuzzi in the front of the ship was hot but there are no umbrellas out there to shield you from the sun so we didn't use it.
Surprisingly, the ships were not full. In the past, all the cruises we've been on with Windstar have been sold out. They have lowered the prices considerably at the last minute to try to fill the ships, which might explain the downgrade in quality. The ship seemed to be 70-80% full. First cruise had about 150 guests out of 212 and the second had about 170 guests out of 212. This was good for us in that Windstar was able to upgrade our cabin at no charge but we overpaid for the cruises because we booked early and prices went down after the 60 days window had closed.
I noticed there were many first time Windstar cruisers. I think we were probably the most experienced Windstar cruisers on both itineraries. In the past, Windstar cruises tended to have many Windstar repeaters. I suspect the repeaters were loyal because they like the sailing ships. I am not sure traditional cruise ships will be as successful for Windstar. The sailing ships felt luxurious because the quality is well above what one would expect for a sailing ship. However, the standard for traditional cruise ships are much higher and Windstar will need to invest a lot more in its new ships to compete with other luxury cruise lines. By the way, the only sailing ship Windstar owns that I like is the 300 passenger Wind Surf. The two smaller ships don't have enough guest space by the pool and they also are in need to more maintenance.
I do not recommend taking Windstar shore excursions. Many excursions were cancelled either due to weather or low bookings. The shore excursions manager had a defensive attitude when I made suggestions. The shore excursions are double or triple the price of what you can find by booking on Viator. We had fantastic tours through Viator for very reasonable prices.
Also, be careful at the Windstar-approved stores on shore excursions especially the Turkish rug and jewelry stores. Windstar will leave you there at the end of their shore excursion and they get a commission on whatever you buy. Don't accept the first or even fourth offer. Be willing to walk away and they will truly offer you their best price then. For example, one guest said the rug store lowered a $9000+ rug to $4000 when they weren't interested. They didn't end up purchasing it anyway but it just shows the Turkish rug stores are willing to slash prices by 50% or more.
I think Xanterra is lowering Windstar's quality and they don't know how to run luxury cruise ships. Xanterra's expertise is in national parks and land-based vacations. They do not seem to have experience in high end properties. It's a shame because Windstar was so fantastic in the past. I heard Xanterra plans to purchase and renovate 4 more ships. I think they are growing too fast and need to get it right with what they have right now. In fact, I hope someone else buys Windstar and restores it to its former glory.
In the future, we will consider "real" luxury cruise lines because Windstar is now overpriced for what they offer (although they are offering amazingly low priced deals at the last minute - I just saw a last minute promo for a Windstar cruise on Star Breeze for as low as $899 - what does that say about Windstar?). While the other luxury cruise lines may seem more expensive, they include more items in the price than Windstar does and they offer a true luxury experience on well-maintained ships.