As I joined the back of the line at the on-deck barbecue half way through my cruise waiting for my serving of lobster to be cooked, it struck me that this was a first. It was the only time that I had needed to queue for anything! And even then there were only four other guests in front of me. It proved to be the only time across the nine days I experienced lining up for anything. It was a very different experience, and sensation, to my travels on larger cruise ships. On those navigating crowds and waiting my turn started at check-in and only ended after finally shuffling off at disembarkation.
Small Ship Revelations
This was one of the many revelations about small ship cruising that I came to appreciate, and relish, during my time on board Windstar Cruises Star Breeze. I was invited by Mundy Cruising, a leading UK-based luxury cruise agent, to travel on Windstar’s “Venetian Passageways” trip from Venice to Athens. I leaped at the chance as it meant seeing a part of the world I had never seen. It took in the Italian-facing Mediterranean coasts of Croatia, Montenegro, Sardinia and Greece. As I had expected, I came away with fond memories (and images) of the beauty of this part of the world – but more unexpectedly by being converted to small ship cruising.
Windstar purchased the Star Breeze, and two other similar yacht-style ships from Seabourn – taking their fleet to six in total. The ship was built in 1989, and follows a more traditional maritime design than contemporary cruise ships. It dates from a time when cabins were more spacious, and there was less focus on ensuring multitudes of entertainment venues, bars and alternative dining venues to drive on board revenue.
After modernisation and updating, it started sailing under its new owners in 2015 with the basic layout retained. Money spent went mostly on the look and quality of the decor and finish. Holding a maximum of 212 guests and served by 150 crew members, the service and attention was (not surprisingly) personal and yet informal.
It defined a different take on what I had thought of as luxury in cruising. The smaller size changed the dynamic of my cruising vacation. Every staff member knew me and called me by my first name. They were able to spend timing chatting. The lack of crowds meant the ship felt calm and less frenetic. There were always quiet spots and corners to relax in. Although the ship was not crammed with entertainment venues and activities, or multitudes of bars, there was some choice – and very good food with large menus. The ports became the focus, not the ship as a destination in its own right. It was a stylish, comfortable, moving hotel with friendly and warm service.
My fellow guests were mostly American, 50+ and well-travelled. I realised the draw of Windstar was the focus on the places we called on and not having to engage in the ceremony that many cruise lines follow. On board dress codes were informal, with no formal nights or themed parties. The only request seemed to be no jeans or shorts at dinner.
Being small meant we were not restricted to the large container ports that bigger cruise ships have to dock in. This allowed us to explore a greater variety destinations and we called at a different place every day. Sometimes docking in the harbours of towns and tendering in, and in others docking in the heart of the place itself.
The scene was set as I boarded the Star Breeze in Venice. It was docked along the canal, within easy walking distance of the key sights, while the bigger ships were huddled in the main port some distance away.
We boarded on a Friday but stayed in Venice overnight. This meant not just getting a glimpse of this city of canals on the way to the ship, but that I had a full day to explore on Saturday. I chose to self-explore rather than one of the excursions, as it meant I could stroll around the city and get lost – avoiding the crowded areas. The city has around 60,000 residents and that same number of visitors every day! This makes it hectic and cramped at the classic sights. Escaping into the side canals revealed a different and more charming city. As we were docked along one of the main canals it allowed an early start before the throngs coming off the large cruise ships started to fill up the space in the city. I took the canal water bus up and down the main canals as well as walking, as they provided a great (and inexpensive) overview of the city versus the costly gondola option.
Our first stop was the ancient city of Hvar in Croatia. It was a wet and overcast day and we were moored in the harbour. I decided to have a lazy morning on the ship before venturing to explore in the afternoon. I especially liked the striking St Stephen’s Cathedral a short walk from there the tender dropped me off. It was full of gorgeous paintings, some dating back to the 13th Century.
On Monday we arrived and docked outside Dubrovnik, also in Croatia. It is a city that I have wanted to visit for a long time based on the pictures I had seen of it. While larger cruise ships dock some distance away, we were a short tender trip into the old city harbour. A number of the buildings in the city were used in the “Game of Thrones” TV series for King’s Landing, which also made the city feel familiar.
Dubrovnik did not disappoint. I went on one of the Windstar excursions which took us on a guided walk through the old city, walking on top of a major stretch of the old city walls and then on a ride up the cable car for a scenic view over the beautiful city.
As I strolled around the town, and admired the stunning ancient architecture, it was staggering to take in that in the early 1990s it was severely damaged in the war that erupted after Croatia declared independence as Yugoslavia unravelled. Over 1,000 shells fell on the city and over three-quarters of the old city was damaged by those or the resulting fires. It has been masterfully restored and is magnificent. It was one of the big highlights of the cruise.
Our next port of call was an hour and half sailing time in land. We passed through striking landscape, that was reminiscent of the Norwegian Fjords. However, the rugged soaring cliffs were not created by glaciers, despite looking remarkably like the ones in Norway. At the end of the journey was the city of Kotor in Montenegro. It developed as an important trading and refuelling city and has a small walled city with winding lanes and interesting and appealing stone buildings. From the ship, docked just about 100 metres from the entrance into the city, we had gorgeous views of the town, hills surrounding it and out into the waterway that weaved between them. Many guests went on the walk and climb up to the observation point on the mountains above. Kotor was a revelation and welcome surprise as I had not expected it to be quite so breathtaking when I saw it on the itinerary. Many of my fellow passengers had it as their top highlight of the entire cruise. I would never have seen it if I had not been on this cruise as it had never come to my attention before.
Sarande Albania was our next stop. Most guests went off on an excursion to the Butrint National Park to see the ruins and work being done to create a protected area for the flora and fauna against the rapid, and almost uncontrolled, development threatening it after the fall of Communism. I decided to spend time closer to the ship and have a quiet day, and went to explore the popular seaside resort that the city has become, with its lush warm waters and beaches. It was a short 10 minute stroll from the ship to these.
Our arrival in Katakolon Greece reminded me again of the charms of our small and intimate Windstar ship. It is a busy and large port that can, and does, host many large cruise ships. Our small 200 guest ship was docked next to the 2,000 passenger Norwegian Cruise Line Jade – which stood looming over us. Also in port was a Royal Caribbean ship. The place is always hectic as it is the closest to the site of Olympia, and so a popular destination. Excursions and busses ran to the site, which was busy.
At lunch time all Windstar guests could attend a free excursion with lunch at a local Greek farm. Every one of their cruises has one of these local destination immersion events. This enabled guests to find out about growing olive trees and production of products like olive oil, taste local food and try Greek dancing.
Itea for Delphi Greece
The next day, Friday, saw us in Itea – the closest port for visiting the mystical Delphi. We were the only ship in port and the heart of the city was just at the end of the small quay. All around the area were local fishermen selling freshly caught fish from their small boats. Delphi is an expansive area of ruins of various buildings and temples where people would travel to hear the prophesies of the oracle. There is a key museum of artefacts from the area here too. Our stay here was a short as we arrived at 7am and left at 1pm as we had to head to the Corinth Canal.
Corinth Canal Transit
Only smaller cruise ships can make the transit through the narrow, and shallow, Corinth Canal. Windstar Star Breeze is one of them. It connects the Gulf of Corinth with the Saronic Gulf in the Aegean Sea. It saves having to sail around the land mass of the Isthmus of Corinth to get to places like Athens. It is 6.4 kilometres long and just 21.4 metres (70 ft) wide. We were able to pass with just a few feet on either side. It was exciting to journey though it. Another key highlight of the entire cruise was being able to experience this. I loved every minute of the passage through the soaring land mass on either side.
Our last day was spent in Nafplio Greece. I went on a Windstar excursion that took us to the magnificent 12,000 seater Epidaurus amphitheatre. This acoustically perfect complex was at the site of an ancient healing centre that Greeks would travel days or weeks to receive treatment. Little is left of that part of the complex, but the amphitheatre remains intact and is still used for concerts in the summer. From there we journeyed to the Palamidi fortress that is high above the city. After touring it and enjoying the stunning views, I chose to walk down along the pathway with hundreds of steps back down to the ship.
From there we set sail to Athens where I disembarked. This was such a simple and easy procedure. Unlike large ships we did not have to put our bags out the night before but simply about half an hour before our transfer was booked. There was no lining up and hassle to get off the ship. I had a transfer arranged that whisked me off and later that day boarded my flight back to London.
When I was invited to go on the Windstar Star Breeze “Venetian Passageways” cruise I was thrilled by the chance to finally see the sights along the coast between Venice and Athens. I though that was going to be the most memorable part of the trip. I did not know a great deal about Windstar before cruising with them, but came away with a great appreciation of their small ship approach and way of travel. I found the relaxed and personal style of cruising that they offer, along with the generous sized cabins and outstanding food extremely appealing. It is a line I would love to cruise with again.
Unsure if Windstar is right for you? Then read my article of things you need to know about Windstar to help decide.
Watch my video tour of the Windstar Star Breeze:
Note: I travelled as a guest of Mundy Cruising and Windstar Cruises on the 9-night Venetian Passageways cruise
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