ONBOARD THE WIND SURF -- Is it a cruise? Or is it a yacht vacation?
I heard a group of passengers debating the answer to those questions as the Wind Surf dropped anchor off Jost Van Dyke in the British Virgin Islands on Jan. 8, the second day of a weeklong Eastern Caribbean sailing.
With cocktails in hand on a warm, starry night, these jovial guests eventually agreed that they had booked a yacht vacation.
"You take cruises on big ships," one passenger declared. "Look around. This is a luxurious yacht."
That is music to the ears of Windstar Cruises' management, which goes to great lengths to market its ships as yachts.
In addition to the 312-passenger Wind Surf, the two smaller luxury yachts, the Wind Star and the Wind Spirit, each accommodate 148 passengers. Those vessels, along with the flagship Wind Surf, are undergoing significant refurbishments this year. (View a slideshow of the updated cabins on the Wind Surf here.)
The voyage on the Wind Surf was my first onboard look at Windstar since the line was acquired out of bankruptcy in a surprise move by a subsidiary of Xanterra Parks and Resorts, a company that operates hotels and restaurants in several national parks.
The Wind Surf recently completed the first phase of its face-lift, when a December drydock included redesigns of cabins, suites and hallways.
Every detail screams "yacht," such as the earth tones that are brightened here and there with splashes of nautical navy; dark wood furniture; leather headboards and chairs; and teak flooring and granite countertops in the restyled bathrooms.
The hallways feature light and dark woods, linen wallpaper and plush brown and navy carpeting. Next November, a second drydock will upgrade the dining venues, the outdoor decks and all of the lounge areas.
The two smaller ships will enter drydock in spring for bow-to-stern enhancements before they deploy to Europe. The total investment for upgrades to the three vessels is $18 million.
"We have been amazed by the response from our guests since the Wind Surf came out of its December drydock," Vincent Chabrier, the Wind Surf's hotel manager, said in an interview at the start of sailing, which departed from St. Maarten. "They tell us the cabins are more cozy and relaxing, and that's exactly what we wanted to do, while providing an authentic yachting ambience.
"We have a 50% repeat passenger rate, so many of our guests are able to make the comparisons to the old staterooms," added Chabrier, a Frenchman who joined Windstar a year ago. He previously worked for Cruise West and Renaissance Cruises.
Passengers with whom I spoke were clearly impressed with the Wind Surf product, the service and the food. I chatted with first-time Windstar guests and many repeat customers, several of whom have been on all three Windstar ships more than once. The line's following is a loyal one, for sure.
Under new ownership
It wasn't so long ago that Windstar Cruises weathered an internal storm.
On April 1, the line's former owner, Ambassadors International, filed for Chapter 11 protection in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the District of Delaware. It had agreed to sell Windstar and other assets to its biggest creditor, Whippoorwill Associates, a private equity firm in New York.
But a few weeks later, a firm called TAC Cruise entered the picture with a surprise $39 million cash bid. TAC is an affiliate of Greenwood Village, Colo.-based Xanterra, which created TAC specifically for the Windstar acquisition. Its bid was accepted by the court in May.
Watching from the sidelines, travel retailers at first looked askance at Xanterra, which was making its first foray into the cruise business.
Several agents commented at the time that they would hesitate to book the line until they were confident about the financial backbone of Xanterra and its ability to maintain or improve the level of service and amenities to which their Windstar clients had become accustomed.
Some indicated they would have felt more comfortable about the sale if the line had been bought by an established name.
But a few others said the Windstar product had changed, and not for the better, after Holland America Line sold it to Ambassadors in 2007 for $100 million. Perhaps the acquisition by Xanterra would restore Windstar to its former glory, they suggested.
Agents will have to decide for themselves, perhaps after a fam trip or based on feedback from trusted sources, but my reaction to post-Xanterra Windstar was positive. I sailed twice on the Wind Surf in the early and late 1990s, when it was still under Holland America's capable management. Last week I was unable to find anything onboard the ship that even hinted at a dilution of the high standards that were in place back then.
According to Chabrier, Xanterra hasn't interfered in the operation of the ships but "does offer feedback from time to time and makes some suggestions."
From my perspective, the day-to-day managers of the Wind Surf are doing just what they should be doing, and the line's president and CEO, Hans Birkholz, was right when he told me at the time of the sale, "Agents shouldn't feel any reluctance about booking Windstar. It's still a great product, and it's going to get even better."
Windstar's "pampering without pretense" theme is more than a marketing mantra; it's precisely what the management and staff deliver, sometimes in small ways that probably go unnoticed by most passengers.
For example, the Wind Surf typically tenders passengers to shore, an operation that runs like a well-oiled machine. No long, hot waits at an island dock for the tender to fill with passengers; it goes even if just a handful of guests are ready to leave.
Personal service is another traditional hallmark of this line, and I saw an example of it when a reception-desk staffer spent 20 minutes helping an elderly lady orchestrate an Internet connection on the iPad her grandkids had given her for Christmas.
Gift bottles of wine or champagne sent to the staterooms of repeat guests or VIPs are welcomed at the ship's lounges, and no corkage fee applies.
These are a few examples of the service that has given Windstar its reputation for being a class act.
The Wind Surf is a five-masted, motorsailing yacht. The sail technology is controlled from the bridge, and while the wind does help to propel the vessel, the sails mostly drive home the exciting and romantic impression of yachting. Crowds gather to watch the sails unfold.
The ship is known for its low-key, casual atmosphere, a kind of understated elegance, with no requirements for formal evening attire.
There are four venue choices for dinner. The main dining room is the Restaurant, offering standard continental cuisine. The pool deck becomes a romantic, al fresco venue called Candles each evening, specializing in grilled steaks and chicken, and the outdoor Le Marche offers seafood. The fourth venue, Degrees, has a menu similar to the Restaurant, but it's a little more adventurous.
All are open seating, but Candles and Le Marche require reservations. There are no additional charges for dining in the alternative venues.
During the day, outdoor decks were quiet; there were no children onboard. The lion's share of passengers were couples, mostly in their 40s, 50s and 60s.
According to Chabrier, 90% of passengers on the Wind Surf are American. The remainder typically are a mix of British and other Europeans, plus a smattering of Australians and South Americans.
In addition to Jost Van Dyke, my cruise called at Virgin Gorda, St. Kitts, St. Barts, Tortola and Guadeloupe.
When water current and wind conditions permit, the ship's watersports platform is lowered and passengers can kayak, sail and swim off of the platform. There's no charge for those activities, and lifeguards are on duty.
For cruise news and updates, follow Donna Tunney on Twitter @dttravelweekly.