As we were waiting to board, a man in a spiffing white uniform bounded up to us. He turned out to be the Captain. “I’m sorry for the queue” he said. There were just eight of us checking in at the time. And no, he wasn’t taking the mickey.
“Welcome to the Wind Surf,” he said. “I hope you have a wonderful cruise.”
We felt as if we were being ushered on to a private yacht and that feeling remained throughout our week-long voyage.
As a veteran of more than 30 cruises I thought I’d seen it all: water slides, ice-rinks, rock climbing walls, cobblestone streets… but I had never been on a cruise ship that had sails.
And it looked so tiny, berthed next to a pair of leviathans in Rome’s port, Civitavecchia.
Which is not entirely surprising, because the trend in cruising is for ever larger ships. Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of The Seas, for example, weighs in at 220,000 tons with a capacity for 5,400 passengers. By contrast, the Wind Surf is under 15,000 tons and carries a maximum of 312.
But it doesn’t lack for space or amenities. It’s just that things are done on a smaller, more intimate scale.
There’s a library, a gym and a small shop. There are a couple of swimming-pools but they’re more for cooling off in than for swimming. And for someone like me, who likes dice and cards, there’s even a small-but-perfectly-formed casino. Phew!
The key thing is it works: how many blackjack tables/exercise bikes/hot tubs do you need? Just so long as they’re available when you really want them. There’s also enough deck space and sun loungers — though that didn’t stop people from putting down books and towels to reserve them.
I guess that’s just vestigial big-cruise ship behaviour. In all other aspects, people act differently — and better — on a Windstar ship. It’s too luxuriously intimate to do otherwise.
And there’s plenty — of absolutely everything — for everyone: there’s no need for sharp elbows, which is fortunate, as you wouldn’t want to antagonise someone you’re not going to be able to avoid for a week.
Our fellow passengers were predominantly North American, British and German (in that order) but all seemed to be pretty homogenously middle-class and middle-aged. I think I spotted just two people with tattoos and they had the look of ex-servicemen.
Quite a lot different from my last Mediterranean cruise on which those of us without tattoos were very much in the minority.
Our suite (as we must refer to our cabin on all luxe cruises) was a perfectly reasonable size — with a particularly decent bathroom furnished with lots of wood rendering it more nautical than the plastic ones you sometimes find on the bigger ships.
If those ships are self-styled “cities at sea”, then the Wind Surf — the biggest of Windstar’s three ships — is self-consciously a luxury yacht at large. This attitude carries over into the dining on board. The dress code and the seating are distinctly informal. But the service is not; it’s as efficient and attentive as any six-star ship (the Wind Surf is officially five-star but, in truth, transcends any categorisation).
You’re even allowed on to the bridge while the ship is at sea to see how it all works. Try doing that on a Carnival ship (or, rather, don’t...).
As for the food... well, take it from me, it ranks with the very best — and I have experienced the QE2’s Queen’s Grill as well as many of the signature restaurants at sea. They don’t do kosher but there’s plenty of fish and a highly imaginative vegetarian menu.
The one thing the ship doesn’t really do is “activities”. There’s no bingo, no lectures and few classes, apart from yoga and pilates.
But this doesn’t matter because almost every day is spent in a new port and this is where the ship really comes into its own. Bored with Marseilles, Lisbon and Le Havre (or “Le Havre for Paris” as it’s invariably billed — which is rather like “Southampton for London”, which I’ve also seen)? Then allow me to introduce you to the Wind Surf which took us to Elba and to smaller ports in Corsica, Sardinia and Menorca.
Such places are so much nicer than the huge ports where you have to negotiate miles of warehouses and cargo depots before you reach anything interesting. And when there’s just one small ship — instead of three gigantic cruise ships full of people — you’re seeing a place as it really is and not after it’s been overrun by tourists.
Portoferraio, Elba, was a case in point. We went through the unspoiled old town, flanked by ancient fortress walls, and scaled the steep steps to the top where we came across the villa where Napoleon spent some months in exile. It was a pretty spot, surprisingly modest, though he had shipped in a chandelier or two from Fontainebleau.
Next stop was Porto Vecchio, Corsica — another link to old Bony — a delightful, small but busy town with a gorgeous marina. Again, the bigger ships don’t stop here. Lovely shops, easy to walk around and no need for ghastly shuttles.
As the sun went down, the restaurants were set up for a choice of dining out on deck under the stars and the sails — unfurled as soon as we were clear of the harbour — or inside in the main restaurant. We ate steaks under the stars as we sailed down the Straits of Bonifacio with Corsica starboard and northern Sardinia portside.
In Alghero, we were surprised that we had to moor a 15-minute boat ride away from the harbour. This was, apparently, the closest the ship could get. However, while we were anchored out at sea, the ship was able to open its ‘marina’ where you could borrow kayaks or tiny sailing dinghies.
Not being so brave, I just swam in the sea, under the constant supervision of the ship’s lifeguards, up to the giant floating trampoline, a sort of spontaneous grown-ups’ aquatic playground.
By this stage of the cruise, we had got to know many of the other passengers and the staff had come to know us and our individual requirements.
So we would turn up at the lunch buffet to be invited by a French-Canadian couple to join them; the waiter serving us would remember that I like Diet Coke (or The Jewish Guinness as it’s also known) just as he knew to bring me peppermint tea with my breakfast.
Our only complaint was that the internet connection was painfully slow (even by cruise ship standards) and the coffee was pretty dreadful (ditto).
But those were the only drawbacks.
Many of our fellow-guests were repeat customers and all the first-timers we spoke to said that they would be coming back.We will too. It’ll be like catching up with old friends.