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Goldring Travel Experiences the “New” Windstar and its Star Legend Through the Orient – Part VIII – Reflections (It’s All About the Software; Not the Hardware!)

My fourteen days traveling through China with Windstar Cruises on the Star Legend was – simply put – far beyond my expectations.  The concept that struck me as still being applicable to these former Seabourn ships…with their quirks and issues…is simple:

It is about the Software (the people); not the Hardware

The staff and crew, from deck to galley to bar to waitstaff to stewards, were literally always smiling and always looking to exceed one’s expectations.  Having sailed on the Wind Surf, then the Star Pride (shortly after Windstar took possession of the ship), then the Star Breeze (for her Inaugural cruise) to now the Star Legend, I have seen marked improvements in the quality of service and polish.  That is not to say that you will receive polished white-gloved service because you will not…but that is not what Windstar is about.  Windstar is about truly friendly and efficient service; not “the luxury show”.

One of my most critical Seabourn and Silversea guests sailed for 26 days (including 11 with me) and did something I have never experienced in my decade-plus of tending to his travel:  He wrote a Thank You note to Windstar Cruise’s President, John Delaney.  It states in part:

[We] have just returned home after our 26 day cruise – Singapore to Beijing – and despite some slight ‘inclement’ weather, enjoyed our initial cruise with Windstar.

As Eric Goldring (our Agent) will probably attest we express criticism where warranted but overlook slight inconveniences, however for the Star Legend cruise we are unable to make any major or minor complaint.

Suffice to say, we thoroughly enjoyed our nostalgic return to the Legend.  We found all the staff from Captain Symonds down, friendly, welcoming and efficient. (too many to name specifically.)

The menus in the main dining room were sufficiently varied and of high quality, We found that the fixed menu in Candles limited our dinners but the staff were attentive, cheerful and friendly.

So with that prelude, let me provide some more specific Reflections, though I encourage you to read my prior articles about this journey:

Windstar has hired quite a number of former Seabourn executives, including Windstar’s President, heads of Hotel Operations and Corporate Executive Chef, among others.  There are managers and galley staff that have had experience working on Seabourn ships.  It shows! 
Windstar is not, nor does it want to be, a true luxury cruise line…at least not yet (but read on!).  Windstar wants to provide an upscale friendly experience which includes an excellent culinary experience, well made cocktails and a “Can Do. Will Do.” message (always with a smile) for its guests.
Culinary Experience
I was pleasantly surprised by both the high quality and diversity of my culinary experience on the Star Legend.  I have always said that if you have a wonderfully prepared meal served by a snooty well-polished waiter, you will have a marginal meal.  But even a marginal meal served by an engaging waiter will result in a wonderful evening.  Windstar, however, provided both a great meal and great waitstaff!
Service was professional, friendly and proficient and, comfortably informal without being too casual.  Absolutely not a single complaint.  Of course, when the cuisine comes out so well prepared time after time..and on time (great job in the galley!), it makes their job easier. Below is a smattering of dishes served over the course of my cruise.  I think it is impressive…forgetting about how reasonable the cruise fare was.
Perfectly poached eggs are always sign of a disciplined galley
Nicely caramelized scallops beautifully presented
Lamb chops cooked perfectly
Pasta cooked al dente and served hot with fresh sauce
Not only was the lobster moist and not overcooked,
but the asparagus was prepped and served with a snap
Desserts kept pace with the wonderful culinary performance!

Windstar held a great Deck Barbecue as we sailed out of Shanghai, China
including locally procured roast duck (shown in the foreground and below)

Windstar also has an excellent deck barbecue…and made sure to have Roast Duck purchased locally to add that extra bit of flavor that is truly appreciated.

Some of the culinary experiences intended to bring the Chinese “noodle culture” to the guests, were planned to be on deck had to relocate to Amphora, the main restaurant, due to weather…but they were held rather than cancelled.  Good stuff!

The People
I honestly was incredibly impressed with the Windstar people onboard the ship.  I had very little interaction with my room stewards, but the two men did a great job and between the two of them seemed to complete servicing my suite in 15 minutes…and left it spotless.  But where they really shined was when my balcony doors let in a lot of water when we hit a serious storm and my carpets were soaked. (Again, those longtime faulty doors are being replaced as part of Windstar’s $250,000,000 refit and lengthening of these ships.).  Between sucking up water, putting down extra bathmats, putting blowers in the room at times when I would not be disturbed, etc., I never saw anything but smiles and a “I’ve got this!” attitude. 
The waitstaff was, as noted above, part of the top notch culinary experience in Amphora, but also in The Veranda where casual breakfasts and lunches are served.  Always attentive with waters and coffees filled, prompt requests for your order (if not choosing from the buffet), orders delivered timely and correctly.  
Kristi Joy is, well, a joy!

The bar staff was also excellent.  While there was definitely a charmer in the very talented Kristi Joy, there was a surprising consistency across the staff for well-made cocktails that were not too strong or too weak or sloppily made.  I have to say that I found the bartenders to be superior to quite a few I have encountered of late on Seabourn. Another Bravo!

The Front Desk addressed every question or concern I had (such as I lost hot water or there was an incorrect charge on my account) almost instantly.  And they even replenished the omnipresent bowl of Filipino candy…seeking out some of my favorites (Chubby being the best) and keeping them for me.

The Post-Cruise Land Tour

I have to be honest (and you know I always am), this post-cruise was a fairly big disappointment.  Not the tour and most certainly not the excellent guide, but how Windstar failed to manage it properly.

Let me get the bad out of the way.  There is absolutely no way there should be 37 or 38 people on a tour with one guide.  When the itinerary is with overnights, air travel, bus travel, walking and a hectic schedule it becomes an effort in “herding cats” and not much more.  Windstar should have either limited the number of guests taking this post-cruise tour to 15 (maybe 20) or broken the group into two distinct tours.  Heck, even provide two tour guides. Something!

Making matters worse, there was no control over who could take this tour. This may sound cold-hearted, but I paid (and I did pay) for an experience other than waiting for a 91 year old blind woman and her daughter, some folks that simply could not keep up with even a relaxed pace and stopping at virtually (literally?) every bathroom we passed. I did not expect a group tour to either dive as deep as I normally would, skip every shopping opportunity, or move as quickly as I do, but I do expect that more than 10% of my time (seriously) would be spent seeing and delving into the sites. Just as I do not expect that of my fellow travelers, they should not expect me to comply with their limitations. Middle ground: Accept it. Embrace it. Or don’t do it.

In short, the land tour should compliment the cruise experience; not undercut it.

Big Breathe! Now the good:

Our guide was truly excellent, very informative, personable and on top of everything.  It was such a shame he was more a “cat herder” than the fantastic guide I know he is.  The hotels were both top notch and the included meals (such as a truly luxurious dinner in Beijing that included Peking Duck, of course) ranged from excellent to serviceable, but never “tour food”.  The buses were in good condition and the drivers were very good.  Both airline flights were on reputable airlines with on-time service.

Even with the bumps, we did see the Temple of Heaven, Tianaman Square, Forbidden City, The Great Wall of China and the Terracotta Warriors.  For most of our group enough time was spent at each venue, though I would have preferred to have spent more time, with a more in depth narrative, and thus experienced more.  All-in-all, though, I am glad I did it and got to “tick off” the “must sees”.

The Ship (The “New” Ship!)
a/k/a
$250 Million Star Plus Initiative

I have noted throughout my articles that I would not review the Star Legend herself because Windstar is just now undertaking a $250, 000,000 “Star Plus Initiative” refitting, extending, re-powering and renovation of the Star Pride, Star Breeze and Star Legend.  In fact, the steel cutting for the first module to be inserted midship just started!

It will be a massive refit bringing these late 1980’s ships, no matter how wonderfully laid out, into the 2020’s.  It starts with the ships being more than just repainted. They will be brought back to bare metal, any issues addressed and then freshly painted.

While that is being done, the ships will be cut in half, the old engines being removed and replaced with new, state of the art, environmentally friendlier engines, and a new midsection installed.  That midsection will also allow for 50 additional suites (and crew berths to assure Windstar maintains its 1.5:1 guest to hotel staff ration) to be added to be supported by three important dining upgrades:

  • The Veranda Restaurant will have expanded oceanview seating and an upgraded overall experience.
  • There will be an intimate alternative dining experience
  • There will be a casual barbecue venue

A new, larger pool will be installed along with a larger hot tub.  As will an upgraded and enlarged Spa and Fitness Center and a new midship elevator (that will hold more than three people!).

Even the tender experience will be improved with two new 90 passenger tenders and midship boarding areas.

As for the existing suites two needed upgrades are on the way:  The leaking balcony doors (which I experienced on this cruise) are being replaced and all new bathrooms are being installed (gone will be the awkward shower heads) in all suites.  And the midship Owner’s Suites will be brand new and able to be configured into up to three bedroom/two balcony suites.

Overall Impression:
A Friendly, Intimate, High Quality Experience 

One of the great experiences is when a product under-promises and over-performs. That is what Windstar Cruises on the small power yachts does.  It provided a comfortable, friendly, high quality, intimate experience that so many travelers are looking for.  Whether 212 or with the renovations 312 guests, the Star Legend, Pride and Breeze provide suite accommodations and the lack of crowds that the premium market has seemingly all but forgotten.

One thing that struck me: With all the great things Windstar is doing, many of the passengers (I can’t really call them “guests”) did not appreciate the high quality of what they received. It was, at times, frustrating and I felt bad for the crew, as some guests were abusive and seemingly wanted to complain about things that actually weren’t appropriate to complain about. It was the first time I felt the cruise product was of significantly higher quality than a notable portion of the guests.  (I guess that is, in a way, a backhanded compliment to Windstar.)

I must add that Windstar has some very interesting itineraries since its ships can go places others cannot.  But while this cruise was considered a re-positioning cruise I thought the itinerary (cruise and land) was both unusual and outstanding:  Hong Kong, Taiwan, Okinawa, Shanghai, Qingdao, Tianjin, Beijing, Xian.

My cruise was not perfect, but it was far more than perfectly acceptable. It was a truly wonderful, personal and personable, experience.  I guess the best way I can put it is:

I boarded the ship hoping the Windstar experience would not disappoint
and 
I disembarked enthusiastic and wanting to stay for another cruise.  

If you have any questions or wish to discuss booking your own Windstar Cruise, give me a call, drop me an email or send me a Facebook message!

US: (877) 2GO-LUXURY (877-246-5898)
UK: 020 8133 3450
AUS: (07) 3102 4685
Everywhere Else: +1 530 562 9232

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