WindstarWindstar "Caribbean Hideways" Cruise, March 2000

This is my review and daily log of our March 25, 2000 "Caribbean Hideways" 14-day cruise on Windstar's Wind Song, from Belize to Barbados. The ship was repositioning from its winter runs off Costa Rica on its way to Lisbon. Nancy and I have cruised five times before and you may have seen my December 1998 review in which I expressed dissatisfaction with Princess' declining quality. I said we'd experiment with new lines and here we are. The bottom line is that Windstar is more expensive, but its food, service, and ambiance are well worth it. We had a great time.

As you read further, treat my sometimes critical tone as a way of providing advice to future cruisers, not serious complaints. We will definitely book another Windstar cruise. And note that my daily log contains a lot of general information about the cruise. I wrote this on my Palm Pilot during the cruise, so excuse the terseness.

We selected this cruise because it was a relative bargain in terms of the daily rate and because it visited ten ports we hadn't experienced previously. We booked originally at the "ASAP" 40%-off the brochure fare, but my trusty travel agent, Beth at Redwood Travel (, kept a watchful eye and rebooked at about 50% off when the price dropped closer to departure.

The Wind Song powered sailing ship is intimately small, carrying 148 passengers, although I was told our cruise had 138. 78 were repeaters and a good amount of the early conversations consisted of laments about the Big Ships (which I'll call BS from here on) and sympathy for the miserable wretches who sail them. "You'll never go back" was an oft-heard expression. It is somewhat like a big private yacht in tone, without the constant public address chatter and merchandising. No big shows after dinner (the lounge had a very nice keyboardist/singer duo named Night and Day), no bingo, no ship photographers, no gentleman hosts dancing with single ladies, no art auctions, no "horse races," no Mariachi bands and streamers leaving ports. (They do have music as the sails unfurl: Vangelis' new age theme from the movie "1492." In every port. Oddly, this movie wasn't in the ship's video library. Nor was Poseidon Adventure or Titanic.)

The passengers seemed to average about low 60s. We're both 50 and were probably in the youngest quartile, but there weren't a lot of really elderly either. (This is not a ship for the frail or disabled--no elevators, and wheelchairs would find obstacles at most doors.) I had been expecting a younger crowd, but I suspect that they congregate on the 7-day itineraries. There was one child on board, but there are absolutely no child-oriented facilities or activities. Mostly Americans, probably 15% Canadian and Europeans, no Asians, almost all couples. Few smokers, but cigars on deck at night were popular. I'd say we met over half the passengers and socialized with about a guarter of them. The officers were mostly British, the crew from Indonesia and the Philippines.

The cabin was quite nice, said to be 188 square feet. The queen bed was formed from two twins. The bathroom had a nice strong shower, but other aspects were pretty similar to a BS, including the underpowered hair dryer and low ceiling. Very tasteful room decor, more reminiscent of a yacht than a Holiday Inn (i.e., BS). Lots of polished dark wood trim. Minibar and snacks for sale at slightly less than typical hotel equivalent prices. Two small portholes. 19-inch TV with recent movies, a text news channel (which was pretty bad, often older than a day, with heavy coverage of the UK--for the officers?), and CNN International. The ship library, which has only a handful of books, has about 500 videocassettes of movies from about one year and older; also a large collection of CDs for the tiny room stereo. Probably the best thing about the room was its quiet; we could hear the waves, but never heard our neighbors. I would recommend a starboard cabin because the port side portholes are right at dock level and our portholes in cabin 226 were often obscured by a tender they half-lowered when at anchor.

Dining was delightful, and I am normally quite a critic. It clearly was the highlight of the cruise for us. There was one seating at dinner and you could arrive anytime from 7:30 to 9:30 and sit alone, with friends, or ask to meet new people. We were a bit apprehensive about this policy because we're somewhat shy and ungregarious, but it worked great and we met a lot of nice people. There were tables for 2, 4, 6, 8, and 12. The officers seemed placed at random.

The food was excellent: all fresh, prepared from scratch--no pre-packaged meals. Marco Bijl the chef was originally from Holland and worked to the standards and menus of Joachim Splichal, whose food we've enjoyed at Patina in LA and Pinot Blanc in the Napa Valley. I've included my menu choices in the daily log following; there were usually five alternative main courses and a full "light" menu. I often skipped dessert, but they looked great.

The winelist was larger (106 bottles) than most restaurants' and prices were not outrageous. Most were mass-availability wines, as you might expect, so very few hidden treasures appeared, but there were a number of decent choices in the $20-40 range. None were too young, as you often find in restaurants. The by-the-glass selections were pretty weak.

Breakfast and lunch were in the Veranda, offering in- or outdoor seating, with both a buffet and menu choices. The quality and selections (which did not repeat over 14 days) were excellent. Memorable highlights of lunch were the great salads and the daily bread pudding. The coffee was very good. 4:00 - 5:00 daily was tea time with sandwiches, cookies, and fruit at the pool bar, 6:30 - 7:30 was the cocktail hour, with different hors d'oeuvre each evening served by Marco himself. Unlike a BS, there was no late-night buffet (or champagne waterfalls), but there was 24-hour room service, including the full dining room menu during meal times. (We never exercised this option.)

The dress code for dinner was "casual elegance," with casual the operative word: no jeans, shorts, tee shirts, or sneakers, but otherwise it was like a Silicon Valley restaurant. No formal nights or ties. I wore short-sleeved collared shirts and khakis every night. Nancy was apprehensive when I showed her (on the plane!) a cruise review about little black dresses and lots of jewelry, but only a few women did that. The dining room was really cold the first night, but either I adjusted or they fixed it, so my stash of long sleeves stayed in the closet. The other meals are completely casual.

Service was understated and excellent. Waiters and bar guys learned our names within a few days and greeted us on deck. This was impressive given that we didn't have fixed seatings and the same waiters every night. Joe the wine waiter called me Sir Hal for some reason. We rarely saw our cabin steward, but he worked effectively in the background.

The deck areas were small, but had adequate seating and reclining space for everyone. One of my only gripes about this cruise is that there was insufficient shaded space on deck--room for maybe a dozen lounge chairs. Otherwise, it was sit at a covered table in the noisy bar or fry yourself to Melanomaville. There was a good deal of jockeying to get the shady spots as they moved around. When the sails were up, more shade was available. Some awnings or umbrellas would be nice. There was a tiny pool, suitable for four standing up, and a hot tub for three or four. Inside were a small gym with a sauna and some sort of beauty salon.

A nice yacht-like feature was open access to the bridge, and we visited frequently to check the charts and radar screens. The officers were always friendly.

Here's the daily log.

Friday 24 March — SFO to Miami, arriving late.

Doubletree Hotel, Miami (clean and cheap). We chose this route to use United Airlines freebie tickets most of the way, then short American Airlines flights in the Caribbean. (Belize is a lot farther east than you'd think, so Miami wasn't a stretch. The alternative was Continental through Houston.)

Saturday 25 March — Miami to Belize City.

Check-in procedures on the ship took about 5 minutes. We beat most of the others from our flight to the ship because we took a taxi instead of the Windstar tour bus, also saving a bit of expense. The cruise line gave us the wrong pier location, so we had a little adventure finding the ship. Regrettably, Belize City is unattractive and very poor. We were happy that we didn't overnight there, as many did. Dinner (for me) was carpacchio, garlic soup, and duck breast sliced on mashed sweet potatoes. Van Duzer 97 Pinot Noir.

Sunday 26 March — Guanaja Island, Honduras.

We arrived late due to headwinds. Not much to do here. Tenders to a small resort and there were previously unannounced snorkel trips available there. But we decided to vege out on deck and await later opportunities. Returning visitors reported trouble with sand fleas, called no-see-ums. Unlike most of our previous cruises, the ship facilities mostly stayed in operation in port, except for the giftshop and casino. Even meal service was unaffected. There was a champagne reception before dinner. Dinner: Sevruga caviar, sweet potato soup, chili-encrusted pork loin with fruit salsa. Geyser Peak 97 Shiraz. Others had surf and turf, which looked good.

Monday 27 March — Swan Island.

Well, that was the schedule, but the ship skipped SI and stayed at sea. Supposedly too many mosquitos on shore, too many sharks off. So a very quiet day reading. Under sail-only for the first time; actually not a big deal because the engines are pretty quiet when you aren't at the stern. There aren't many BS-like group activities, only a few exercise sessions, a perero-wrapping lesson, and a galley tour. Dinner: Risotto cake a la Puttanesca, black bean soup, prime rib.
Eberle 97 Cabernet.

Tuesday 28 March — Grand Cayman Island.

Tour to Stingray City, a 10 minute drive and 30 minute boat ride away. It was billed as a snorkel tour, but the water was 3 feet deep and crystal clear, so few people used masks. The stingrays were great--about 60 of them swirling around, eating calamari from our hands with a mighty sucking action. They would rub up against your leg, feeling like a wet mushroom. They ranged in size from about 18 inches wide to 5 feet. They took some getting used to, but this was a fascinating experience! Friends went to a hotel on Seven Mile Beach and were underwhelmed. It was all pretty crowded because four BS loads were in port. Oh, those poor people... Dinner: brandade with tomato sauce, gazpacho, salmon encrusted with bacon. Arciero 97 Chardonnay.

Wednesday 29 March — Little Cayman Island.

Another schedule change brought us to Cayman Brac instead, for no reason we could determine. An indication of how laid back this cruise line is was how all the shore arrangements were completed only in the (literal) last hour. They were able to rent the whole taxi fleet of the island (four vans) to shuttle. Despite the potential of a small ship anchoring anywhere, the local authorities allowed us only to anchor on the other side of the island from our desired location. So we shuttled to a resort and relaxed on the beach. We were warned about sea urchins, so didn't try to snorkel. (That turned out to be an error on our part.) But it was a very pleasant stay and the locals were very friendly. Lunch was a very excellent BBQ on deck. We had expected the aft watersports deck to open this afternoon, but a notice said that currents were too strong. We left port under sail power, reported the captain, smuggly. (We heard the next day that the ship couldn't refuel in Belize, so we were getting very low.) Dinner: polenta soup, Chinese chicken salad, veal chop. Nederburg 96 Pinotage (Pinot Noir, Cinsault blend).

Thursday 30 March — Montego Bay, Jamaica.

We took a tour to raft on the Martha Brae river. The rafts were 14 30-foot bamboo poles lashed together, supporting a platform and cushions for two passengers. With the single standing pilot and his long pole, it was reminiscent of a Venitian gondola. 2.5 miles on the very shallow river took an hour. Very restful and rather interesting. Lots of vendors selling from the banks, but they weren't aggressive. On the way back our busload rebelled at the prospect of a shopping stop in an obvious tourist mall, so we were taken right back to the ship, a pleasant first for me in years of shore excursions. The Montego Bay area did not seem as abjectly poverty stricken as I had anticipated and the people were all pretty friendly. In the afternoon, others took a "pirate ship" snorkeling and shopping tour, with a stop at Margaritaville, which struck me as a poor name for a Jamaican attraction. Rum-and-Cokeville? Dinner: scallops on mashed potatoes (better than it sounds), romaine leaves wrapped in prosciutto, jerked chicken breast with baked sweet potatoes. Rosemount 98 Shiraz.

Friday 31 March — At Sea.

The ship rolled strongly most of the night, but we slept through it OK. An Origami box demo, a sextant lesson on the bridge (this name caused no end of titillation), and a cooking demo. Dinner: grilled shrimp, salad of asparagus and shitake, pistachio-encrusted local Mahi-Mahi. Kendall-Jackson 96 Reserve Sauvignon Blanc.

Saturday 1 April — Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic.

We arrived after lunch (the fish tacos were particulary good) for a brief stay. Last night the doctor set up an April Fool's joke by resetting his hallway scale so that it read 15 pounds heavy! (We have been avoiding that scale, so weren't affected.) We took a tour to Sosua Beach, which had moderately good snorkeling on a very crowded beach, which included bikini-clad American college girls on Spring Break (woo-hoo!). On the way was the Amber Museum, which was actually rather interesting. Nancy bought a bracelet for $9. I was amused that the museum has brazenly ripped off the logo of Jurassic Park. Rum and Coke on the bus, avoiding the ice cubes. This part of the D.R. looked prosperous and clean. I heard a few saying they'd like to return. There was an after-dinner activity called Liar's Club, but we watched a movie and fell asleep. (Because of the heat, the rocking ship, and lots of food, we're getting a lot of sleep on this trip.) Dinner: escargots with potatoes, chilled pear and mint soup (wow!), Osso Buco with polenta, creme brulee. Ferrari-Carano 96 Merlot.

Sunday 2 April — At Sea.

Activities today were repeats of Origami, sextant, the lifeboat muster, and the cooking demo. Some took intro scuba lessons. Delicious Indonesian buffet lunch. Another champagne reception. Dinner: California sushi, tomato and avocado tartare on toasts, lime-grilled Mahi-mahi on mashed potatoes with carrots. Robert Mondavi 95 Carneros Chardonnay.

Monday 3 April — Virgin Gorda (British Virgin Islands).

What I imagined Windstar to be like was anchoring in some private cove, like a yacht, and having swimming and watersports right from the stern. Today was the first day in this cruise like that, now that we've reached the Lesser Antilles, where the seven-day cruises normally visit. One of the vagaries of a repositioning cruise, I guess. We anchored in a beautiful setting off the Bitter End Yacht Club, amidst many sailboats and yachts. The harbor seemed as busy as Hong Kong's, with water taxis and jetskis oblivious to each other at high speed. Lots of folks took a tour to the Baths, a boulder formation at the other end of the island. Some said it was great, others were bored. We tendered over to the BEYC, but found no snorkeling. So, another tender to Prickly Pear Island. A pleasant beach, but again no snorkeling, particularly since powerboats were zooming around. (The Baths did have good snorkeling, friends reported, so we had chosen poorly.) The big deal on PPI, however, was when the Seabourne Legend tenders arrived and their crew wanted us to leave because they had reserved the island for a BBQ. Our officers immediately faced them down and fur flew. We could use the public beach, but none of the facilities. We watched the Seabourne passengers emerge from their tenders, which looked like little Lake Tahoe yachts (ours are like covered lifeboats, slow and hot), met by photographers and rum punch. The funniest thing about this is that Windstar and Seabourne are owned by the same company! Anyway, back to the ship for lunch and to check out the sports deck. They offered two tiny sailboats, two tiny kayaks, a Zodiac-towed banana boat, and a wind surfboard, but discouraged swimming because of the currents. Then, back to BEYC for the beach and to try their famous conch fritters, which shouldn't be. (I offered one to Marco, who was in the same bar, but he said "No thanks, I don't like to eat much," which we found ironic.) On the way out of the harbor, one of our flamboyant passengers mooned the Legend, and we in turn were mooned by various small boats we passed. Out of the harbor we resumed sail power after a long hiatus. Dinner: crispy fried shrimp, chilled tropical fruit soup with Grand Marnier, Champagne risotto with lobster. Hess Collection 96 Chardonnay.

Tueday 4 April — Anguilla + St Martin.

The tour today was historical spots around the island, but we skipped that and taxied to Shoal Bay for snorkeling. A beautiful beach, very pleasant, but we found visibility murky due to the surf. Others had better luck, which, of course, you find out after you leave, not in time to use the information. ("Oh, the snorkeling was fabulous!") We had a rum punch at Uncle Ernie's Car Rental and Bar. Lunch on the ship was a variety of curry dishes. At 1 pm, the ship sailed 1.5 hours to Marigot Harbor in Saint Martin. Already in port were our identical sister ship, the Wind Spirit, and the dreaded Seabourne Legend. We spent a while exploring the shopping scene and then returned for a big deck BBQ with a steel drum band. This side of the island was pretty interesting because it is so French. Very picturesque, and if it weren't for Marco's fabulous food on board, we would have considered eating in town; the ship is staying here until 2 am. (We heard later that it rained after 11 pm, the first rain since we boarded.) Dinner: BBQ buffet on deck with salads, jumbo shrimp, king crab legs, roast suckling pig, fish, chicken, lobster, and beaucoup desserts. Buena Vista 97 Carneros Pinot Noir.

Wednesday 5 April — St Barthelemy.

We were scheduled for a catamaran snorkeling tour, but canceled when. friends suggested we rent a car with them. It was a 4WD Suzuki with an open top for $50 and we had a great time. St Barths is arid and mountainous and the roads are steep, winding, and very narrow. But the views were great. We snorkeled at a deserted beach called Petit Cul-de-Sac and I saw a few fish (and a topless lady with sunburn in two tender loçations). Lunch in St Jean at the Hideaway restaurant, whose slogan was "Corked Wine, Warm Beer, Lousy Food," but the fish was good. Shopping in Gustavia was similar to St Martin. Two highlights today: watching planes make the perilous approach to the airport, skimming about 20 feet above cars crossing a narrow pass, then plunging very steeply to a short runway. And, leaving port we did a close (about 100 yards), rapid sailby next to the Wind Spirit. They got the better view because they were anchored and we were under full sail. We also swung closely around the Festival Mistral, a massive BS, and the Sea Cloud, a beautiful four-masted schooner. The sports deck was closed today due to swells. Good thing we weren't counting on these activities to have fun. It's been closed 11 of 12 days so far. Dinner: caviar, onion soup tomato and mozarella salad, pork medallions on rosti potatoes with apple salsa, key lime pie and coconut sherbet. Calera 95 Pinot Noir.

Thursday 6 April — Isles des Saintes, Guadaloupe.

Terre-de-Haut is an island much greener than we've seen recently. We walked around the town of Bourg des Saintes. Unlike the previous two French ports, which were little tourist cities, Bourg was like a small village in France, with a few touristy places around the dock. Not much to see and no shore excursions were available. We thought about walking to the town's obligatory fort, but it was too hot and that hill looked like Mt Everest from its base. The village was crawling with day trippers who rode a fleet of ferries from Guadaloupe. No cars were allowed in the village, but noisy motor scooters were everywhere. We were discouraged from visiting the beach due to transportation problems, but friends went and had a good time despite the warnings. We found the town bakery and bought a great fresh baguette, which I took to lunch. (As good as the ship baker was, I wish he could make true Parisian style baguettes like that.) The sports deck was open in the very calm harbor, so I took a swim. It didn't last long because there were jellyfish about and I got a few minor stings, which hurt very little, but made me uneasy. The water was 81 degrees and it felt great, so I regretted the interruption. Swimming so close to the stern was pretty cool. There was a brief shower at lunch, but the afternoon sun was unsufferably hot. Dinner: gravlax, chilled strawberry and Grand Marnier soup, beef tenderloin. Hogue Cellars 95 Merlot.

Friday 7 April — Pigeon Island, St Lucia.

The island is actually a point, connected via causeway, next to a pretty bay. There was a big beach BBQ planned that was popular enough to cause all of the shore excursions to fall below minimum attendance and get cancelled. So we saw virtually nothing of St Lucia. We relaxed on the beach and swam; no snorkeling. sports deck was open, but all the toys were brought in near shore. I organized a group to go banana boating and I wound up in the Zodiac as the spotter, so got wet only by swimming to and from. The BBQ was excellent and we had another steel drum band. (I was surprised to hear later that the Veranda was also open for a full lunch on board.) At tea on deck, we had Crepes Suzette. Then everyone scurried away to pack and fill out forms for disembarcation and prepare tipping envelopes. Tipping is "not required," and the staff said very little about it. We left one for our cabin steward and another for the bar and dining steward pool because no individual stood out; all were fine. In the captain's farewell speech he revealed that Wind Song would be sailing New Zealand, and maybe Fiji or Indonesia, in 2001. He also stated that the sails had been up 81% of the cruise, 8% sail-only power. Dinner: escargots, New England clam chowder, fish with saffron risotto and sun-dried tomatoes, Baked Alaska and Cherries Jubilee. (These are the quintessential BS desserts and I can't say our guys did a good job on them. Certainly not the corny Princess spectacle of the Parade of the Flaming Baked Alaskas.) Chalk Hill 95 Chardonnay.

Saturday 8 April — Barbados — Disembark.

Procedures to leave the ship were conceptually the same as a big ship—colored luggage tags, staggered times, etc.—but the small scale made it almost effortless. Due, I think, to 8 am flights, the whole ship was busy by 5 am, about 3 hours early for us.

The Wind Song leaves tonight for Lisbon, but all the passengers will be construction workers. They are going to remodel the Veranda and do various refitting chores across the Atlantic. I don't envy them and hope they don't forget any of their supplies, like our local contractors always do.

We stayed in Barbados an extra day due to UA freebie ticket availability. We stayed at the Sandy Beach Hotel, Christ Church, chosen for price and their willingness to reserve for one night. (Four night minimums are common.) It's a plain, functional beach hotel, which I would not recommend. It's in a decrepit neighborhood, noisy, and a bit smelly. The beach itself, however, is large and beautiful, with talcum powder sand and crystal clear water, so we had a nice day. But after two weeks of luxury on Wind Song, this was a real step down. Dinner at a beachfront restaurant: flying fish melt with hot pepper jelly, blackened dolphin (fish) with cou-cou, coconut cream pie. Traveler's warning: the mustardy hot sauce of Barbados is *really* hot; I suspect it includes Habanero or Scotch Bonnet peppers. I bought a bottle at the airport for $2.30.

Sunday 9 April — Back to SFO, via MIA and ORD.

A very long day, about 11 hours in the air. I gained ten pounds, so now the dieting resumes in preparation for the next cruise!