As always, I look forward to my time aboard the Windstar (formerly Seabourn) triplets; especially now that the three have been truly refit and stretched – which I have discussed often. (You can get a detailed rundown of the extensive work done in this article and by following the links in it: Windstar Star Breeze Inaugural: Part Deux – V. Reflections – Goldring Travel)
This time I am joining the Windstar Star Pride in Athens, Greece. She is the final of the triplets to have her work completed and brought back into service. My focus is going to be on two things: (1) Can Windstar deliver the high quality causal luxury I have had enjoyed across the fleet and will pretty full guest loads; and, (2) What has Windstar tweaked or otherwise improved since I was last onboard.
It is exciting for that but also because the Seabourn Pride was my first Seabourn cruise over twenty years ago! The Star Pride was also my first Windstar cruise on the power yachts and, to be honest, she was in pretty – OK, very – rough shape as Seabourn had really let her get into significant disrepair.
But getting here was, frankly, ugly. But – getting to the bottom line – worth it. So it is, in a way, a tale of how not to let getting to your vacation ruin your vacation. Let me explain.
Because I live in a rural area, I really have no way of not having two connections; starting out in the regional airport in Reno, Nevada. For this journey I was flying from Reno to San Francisco to Amsterdam to Athens on United Airlines and then Aegean Airlines (for the last leg). I was up early even though I had an unusual for me early afternoon flight from Reno. I checked with United, and the flight said it was on time. But being a frequent traveler, I knew to check the status of the aircraft’s flight into Reno. First it was delayed 15 minutes…and then it showed delayed for over two hours! Meanwhile United still – erroneously – said my flight to San Francisco was on time!
When I called United, they advised me that my only alternatives were to change all of my flights, give up my Premium Economy seats for middle economy (not even Economy Plus) seats and arrive after midnight rather than the 4:20 PM I had anticipated. Not gunna happen! So I suggested I drop the Reno to San Francisco flight and drive the 3.5 hours and start there. I had plenty of time to make that drive and relax before the flight, so off I went. (Now, I am dreading that I also need to pay extra parking and drive back to Tahoe at night after my long flights home, but it was better than the alternative!)
I got to the airport, had my tickets corrected, re-checked in, and then settled into the United Club to get some work done…and a couple of pre-flights whiskies. And United has upped its game in Premium Economy with better service and, believe it or not, pretty good food. Note: I always order a special meal; usually Hindu because it will have actual spices, lots of veggies, and definitely won’t be covered in cream or cheese. So far so good.
What I didn’t know when I booked my tickets is that Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam is having serious labor issues. Between staff shortages (like seemingly everywhere in the world) and snap strikes, chaos definitely is reigning supreme there. And it raised its ugly head. First, we landed on time but then sat on the runway for over 30 minutes waiting for a gate…due to staffing shortages. Then the door into the airport at the top of the jetway was locked for another five minutes, so my comfortable connection was now not so. Fortunately, being in the front of the plane I was off quickly and when I got to Passport Control they let me skip the line. I made my flight. But before I boarded I asked Aegean Airlines to check and see if it had my luggage. I was told, “It is in the system so you should be fine.”
Well, I wasn’t “fine”, or were about 60 other passengers on my flight that didn’t get their luggage. Frustratingly, quite a few people on my SFO-AMS flight did get their luggage. It appears that, for whatever reason, someone just didn’t care to get all of the luggage on the Aegean aircraft. It was then over an hour to put in my lost luggage claim.
While I was in line I saw so many people getting seriously upset and, some abusive. But one woman stood out. She was hysterically crying, going on about how she was just starting her trip of a lifetime and now everything was ruined. I wasn’t going to tell her to just go buy some new clothes to cover the next few days…but I did tell myself that!
Finally out of the airport, my longtime tour operator’s driver was still there waiting for me. On the drive to the King George Hotel in downtown Athens I spoke to him about the tour he was going to give some of my clients that next day. (Always doing business!) And finally it was time to relax.
I normally stay at the St. George Lycabettus Hotel in a quiet part of Athens, but this time – due to a deal I get with the American Express Platinum Card ($200 off one prepaid hotel stay a year, included breakfast and 85€ Food and Beverage Credit), it was less expensive to stay at the King George, a true luxury property. And, I figured, I haven’t ever stayed downtown near The Plaka, so why not? And while I was at it, why not dine at one of those “you have to dine there” places noted in the tourist guides. Yes, I went to the dark side…I did what tourists are “supposed” to do.
The hotel was fine. It has some grandeur, but nothing that impressed me. I did have a balcony overlooking the city which in a photograph looks quite pleasant. But the noise. Oh the noise! Even with thick glass balcony doors, the noise was omnipresent…even at night. Anyway, after a shower it was already time to head to dinner.
I chose Daphne’s Restaurant in The Plaka. It professes to be where celebrities and politicians dine but it keeps with traditional Greek cuisine. I had a wonderful meal which started with a great bottle of wine from Santorini (where I will be having a five-winery tasting tour during the Goldring Travel 2022 Culinary & Cultural Cruise on the Star Legend on October 2, 2022): Sigalas Vareli. I then told the waiter “Slowly. Slowly.” When in Greece, dine like you are in Greece!
I started with some great bread and marinated olives. Then a bit of feta cheese. Then some tzatziki. After about an hour or so passed it was time to eat!
I had truly the best octopus carpaccio I have ever eaten. Amazing!
I then had Stifado, a traditional Greek rabbit stew. It is made with wine, pearl onions, tomatoes and aromatic spices. It is very hard to cook rabbit as it is so lean it has a tendency to become dry and tough. Mine was a bit dry, but very tender. The sauce was delicious and the pearl onions were so sweet you might have thought they were grapes!
Of course, I finished with Baklava and a Greek coffee.
As I went to pay my bill, the waiter advised me that the client that was going on a tour the next day had taken up my recommendation that he skip the super fancy restaurant he was planning on going to and do something more Greek and dined at Daphne’s too. As a Thank You he paid my bill. So very much appreciated! (One thing is clear, my clients know I care, so it is a wonderful and very much appreciated experience when they reciprocate.)
But I still had my 85€ Food and Beverage Credit at the King George Hotel. So, it was up to the al fresco bar with a view of the Acropolis. A quick look at the whisky list and there it was: 18-year-old Glenfiddich! I’ll have two, please!
The next morning, I was up early for breakfast and went very traditional Greek: Greek cheese, cucumber, tomatoes and a Greek bagel. (It is actually called a Koulouri and is a delicious sesame seed covered thick bread.)
After breakfast, the central location of the hotel actually was to my advantage. Within a five minutes’ walk there was a Zara and an H&M. Within an hour I had purchased four shirts, three t-shirts, two pairs of shorts, a bathing suit, underwear and socks for under 250€. These costs will be covered by the airlines, American Express Platinum and/or Travel Guard insurance.
Now, imagine if I spent my evening trying to get answers about my lost luggage or, worse, just shutting down emotionally because of the stress I put on myself because of it. I would have missed two wonderful experiences and the start of my Greek experience. I appreciate that makeup (especially due to TSA restrictions) and other personal items can create more issues than just some clothes and there can be a feeling of a loss of some of the expected romance of the situation, but losing out on what you really came for: Travel, would be a far greater loss.
As I still had time before my transfer to the Windstar Star Pride I decided to try and sit out on my balcony despite all the traffic noise. It was loud, but worth it. Why? Because I happened to look over at the Palace and the Changing of the Guard was underway. It is a bit of a tourist “must do”, but watching it from my hotel balcony was worth the five minutes!
I do have to mention that Windstar has been fantastic about doing the legwork for my luggage. They immediately contacted the port agent, gave him all the details and have been in regular contact. So when the luggage makes its way to Athens arrangements will be coordinated to have it catch up with the ship. In the meantime, Windstar has said that they will arrange for my laundry to be turned around in a couple of hours and they offered to open the shop up for me to pick up sundries and some Windstar logowear.
And with that, I arrived at the port with my backpack and paper bag with my new clothes.
The boarding process this time was far more streamlined than when I was on the Star Breeze in French Polynesia only a few months ago. Gone are the hours of waiting for PCR test results. Instead, you simply queue up in seats in an open air area for an antigen test. I was onboard in less than 30 minutes. And there was a much more relaxed feel about the whole process.
And while the staff and crew continue to wear masks, masks are not required onboard the Star Pride. Yes, there are a few guests that are wearing masks, but not many. (There were a surprisingly large number of passengers on the United flight to Amsterdam that were wearing masks, but once I was in the airport the percentage dropped to about 5%.) BTW, in Greece the hotel staff all wear masks and a fair portion of the general public do to.)
Since unpacking was quick and I already know the ship, it was time for a light lunch and saying hello to all the Windstar staff and executives…including a more couple of ex-Seabourn folks. Note: The buffet items are back to be self-serve as well. Things are returning to normal!
I have one of the French Balcony suites in the original section of the ship, so my bed is near the entry door rather than by the balcony doors. As I have said, each configuration has its benefits. I was, layout of my suite aside, greeted by a magnificent floral arrangement.
Windstar is really upping its game. Little things add up, that is for sure. (Arranging for a beautiful sunset was pretty good too! LOL)
Next up: Let the cruise begin!
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