ONBOARD THE STAR PRIDE — Every Windstar Cruises enthusiast looks forward to the moment when the wind rises and the ship's billowing sails are unfurled. It is a tradition for the line to accompany the hoisting of the sails with Vangelis' theme music from "1492: Conquest of Paradise" broadcast over the ship's public address system.
On the Star Pride, the former Seabourn Pride and the first in Windstar's fleet without sails, the music accompanied a hoisting of Windstar's corporate flag on the Star Pride's mast. Some guests said they got goose bumps during the flag raising, but others said it just wasn't as stirring as seeing the sails unfold.
Which reaction prevails in the weeks and months ahead will be one sign of how Windstar's venture into nonsail ships is being accepted among fans of small-ship cruising.
"We're known for our sails," said Windstar President Hans Birkholz.
But operating a trio of sail-assisted ships was not the formula for financial success. Windstar almost went under before it was rescued in 2011 by billionaire Philip Anschutz and his Xanterra Parks & Resorts.
To thrive, Windstar had to expand. And the vehicle for its expansion turned out to be the three smaller ships owned by Seabourn, which Windstar agreed to acquire last year.
The Star Pride is the first of the three to go into service. Birkholz says they are a good fit because, more than sails, the Windstar customer values an intimate, yachtlike atmosphere.
"When you talk to guests and you find out what they really love about Windstar Cruises, it's that private yacht experience," Birkholz said. "And you can get it on a small sailing yacht or on a small power yacht. That is the commonality, and that is what they're responding to."
A yachtlike ship
Compared with other cruise ships, there's no doubt that the Star Pride is yachtlike. It carries 212 passengers and is small enough to slip into harbors such as Portofino, Italy, and Monte Carlo.
It also has an open bridge policy. Passengers can wander onto the bridge and converse with the ship's officers, except during port entry and exit or through other difficult maneuvers.
Yachts don't have cruise directors, so neither does Windstar. The Star Pride's captain, Alan McCary, assumes some of those functions.
Physically, the Star Pride is a work in progress. The line only had the ship for 18 days before entering it into service.
Some of the public spaces have been renovated to conform to Windstar's more casual cruise style, but others only got partial makeovers.
Windstar plans to do the rest of the work in a year and a half, after soliciting feedback from customers who sail on the Star Pride.
Crews spent a lot of time on some items of deferred maintenance, including chipping and painting railings and other metal surfaces. Despite several scrubbings, the teak deck appears weathered and will need a proper restoration to look as good as new.
Inside, designer Alan McVitty said he tried to simplify to signal a more casual atmosphere. The most noticeable renovations are to the Compass Rose Lounge, which has been given Windstar's trademark plantation shutters, and to the former Constellation Lounge, which, reborn as Windstar's Yacht Club, has a more contemporary and nautical feel.
A third area that received attention is the Star Bar (formerly the Sky Bar), which overlooks the ship's two hot tubs. The cabins look handsome in new blue, bronze and cream color schemes.
The Star Pride will be cruising in the Mediterranean, Aegean, Black and Red seas this summer and fall before repositioning to Southeast Asia in December. A major advantage to having three more ships in the Windstar fleet is the multiplication of itineraries, including new cruises to Asia, Arabia, Iceland and Tahiti as the two other Seabourn ships join the fleet in April and May next year.
Even within its small-ship segment, Windstar will be competing with brands such as SeaDream Yacht Club, Paul Gauguin Cruises, expedition ships such as those run by Compagnie du Ponant and an exploding number of river cruise ships with intimate atmospheres.
But the backing by Anschutz has given Windstar a new lease on life.
"There is no debt on our balance sheet, and that's something very few cruise lines can say," Birkholz said.
If customers don't miss the sails, the Star Pride and her sister ships could well be the ticket to business success for Windstar as it seeks a profitable foothold in the yacht cruise market.
Follow Tom Stieghorst on Twitter @tstravelweekly.