With two additional ships in the Mediterranean Sea after major drydock renovations this spring, the course is clear for expanding Windstar Cruises.
At a time when many lines are building bigger cruise ships, Windstar intends to be the leader of the world’s small ship fleets.
Windstar now owns and operates six small vessels, ranging in passenger capacity from 148 to 310. Three are predominantly sailing ships, though they use engines as well. Three are motor yachts, with more luxurious accommodations.
If you love the sounds of wind on canvas, choose the sailing yachts. If you prefer a walk-in closet and a big bathroom with marble, go for the motor yachts.
While Windstar’s ships are among the older cruise fleets at sea, they all have been significantly refurbished and updated to look contemporary and to feel casually comfortable.
The line’s mission is to appeal to adults seeking outdoorsy, worldly, intimate experiences. Their small vessels offer a cozy atmosphere, a high level of personal service, and strong itineraries that are destination oriented.
As Windstar has grown from three to six ships in little more than a year, the line has added itineraries in Tahiti, in Northern Europe and Iceland, and in the Caribbean, including Puerto Rico, Montserrat, the Grenadines, and the ABC islands.
May 2015 was a big month for Windstar, which introduced both the 212-passenger Star Breeze and Star Legend in Europe, where both will spend the summer season. Star Breeze will cruise in the fall to the Caribbean, Panama and Costa Rica. Star Legend will move to Puerto Rico.
Passengers who cruise on Star Breeze and Star Legend will note changes in style and substance from their earlier days as ships owned and operated by Seabourn. Like the Star Pride, added to the fleet last year, Breeze and Legend are airier, warmer, and more casually comfortable than under their previous owner.
Workmen ripped out walls and re-designed the ship’s restaurant (now, AmphorA), main lounge (now, the Compass Rose), forward observation lounge (the Yacht Club), and an outdoor gathering spot, the Star Bar.
Unlike the Star Pride, the Star Breeze and Star Legend show off Phase Two of the Windstar transformation for the motor yachts.
Gone is the little used swimming pool. In its place, the popular indoor/outdoor Veranda restaurant now has a courtyard, covered by canvas.
The top deck bar area is more roomy, as eight feet of deck space has been added by enlarging either side of the opening to the sun deck below, where Windstar placed a new counter-current pool and a whirlpool. In 2016, Star Pride will get a similar renovation.
“We have learned a lot about what our guests like and don’t like,” said Windstar CEO Hans Birkholz. Windstar’s parent company is Xanterra Parks & Resorts.
Wendy Perrin, who works for TripAdvisor and operates a website wendyperrin.com, is godmother of Star Breeze. Gloria Bohan, president and CEO of Omega World Travel and Cruise.com, is godmother of Star Legend.
Searching for a small ship vacation
Windstar is expanding into a portion of the cruise business that is popular, but seems to be contracting.
Most cruise lines have given up on operating small ships, especially in the premium category that promises a high level of comfort and meal service. Small ships are unprofitable, say many cruise executives. So, while today’s small ships age, few new ones are under construction.
Most new cruise ships either are huge vessels with 2,500 passengers or more, or they are mid-sized, with at least 600 passengers, to justify construction costs.
Oceania’s top executive, for instance, has stated that 1,250 passengers was the smallest ship the company could build to be profitable. The new Viking Star carries 930 passengers. Among top luxury lines, Crystal, Silver Seas and Regent all operate mid-sized ships, and Seabourn’s ship under construction carries more than 600.
Among small ships, once you separate out the expedition vessels that are more about adventure than pampering and cushy comforts -- such as Lindblad, Quark, Hurtigruten, Uncruise and the sailing windjammers -- the small ship cruise line list is short. It includes Windstar with six ships, Star Clippers with three (a fourth has been announced for construction), the two yachts of SeaDream, and the five ships of Ponant, a French line that recently has built smaller vessels.
In this small ship cruising niche market -- popular yet probably under-served -- Windstar aims to sail away from the pack, and is thinking seriously about further expansion. Stay tuned.
David Molyneaux writes regularly about cruising news, tips and trends at TravelMavenBlog.com. His cruise trends column is published regularly in U.S. newspapers and on other Internet sites, including AllThingsCruise. He is editor of TheTravelMavens.com