After a nearly 9-year hiatus from one of our favorite tour operators, Windstar Cruises, Michael and I were anxious to return. Only this time around, it would be more than the “180-degrees from ordinary” that the company promises because were now accompanied by our two boys (the clear cause of said hiatus).
Suited up in our bulky, orange life jackets, we were listening for further instruction during the requisite muster drill when a fellow passenger noticed them.
“I don’t see any other kids on board,” the 70-something gentleman said with scrutiny. “What are they going to do?”
You mean with the sun, sand and tropical waters? I think they’ll be just fine, thankyouverymuch.
We had specifically chosen this itinerary—Flavors of the Caribbean, a seven-day, pre-holiday journey that began and ended in Philipsburg, St. Maarten—because we knew the kids would love the water-sports platform.
Available in temperate-water itineraries and open when the ship is anchored, the platform offers an array of water activities including wind surfing, kayaking and water skiing.
But the boys’ favorite activities were trying to run atop the water rafts (mostly toppling into the water) and jumping on the water trampoline—with a slide.
“Mom! Watch this!” The boys would yell before various dismounts that, of course, made me cringe. “Down the slide, face first!”
So while I’d bristled at the man’s question about my boys, I understood it. Between the cost of cruising on a small ship and lack of kid-specific amenities, Windstar isn’t the first choice for young families.
(The company’s site discourages traveling with infants and toddlers, and further states that travel for children under 8 is limited. We had to acquire special permission to include our boys, particularly 5-year-old Colin, before booking our trip.)
But the initial reason we’d become Windstar enthusiasts hadn’t changed because we’d had children. From the minute we boarded our first cruise in November 1999, a honeymoon jaunt from Rome to Barcelona, we fell in love with Windstar’s artful mingling of a private-yacht atmosphere with exotic itineraries.
In other words, the small ships mean gaining access to more unique ports of call than larger counterparts. It also means fewer throngs of tourists to compete with in places like Sorrento, Italy; Tunis, Tunisia; and Raiatea, French Polynesia.
True, the fleet’s onboard amenities are also reduced to a smaller scale. There are a couple of nice restaurants; a small pool and hot-tub area; a casino; a library with books and DVDs; exercise and spa quarters; and even a gift shop. There’s also plenty of entertainment each night, including live music and bar-side trivia.
Basically, the ships are small but well appointed. The true distinction of Windstar, however, is the high crew-to-guest ratio, allowing incomparable service that makes the ships themselves as unique as their destinations.
And we were hooked. Over the next five years, we picked three more cruises: a 2001 Barbados-Barbados trip; a 2004 excursion in French Polynesia; and a 2005 Rome-Malta adventure, shortly after which I became pregnant with Brody.
Now nearly a decade later, we couldn’t help wonder: Could Windstar deliver the quality experiences we’d remembered? After all, the company had undergone dramatic changes in recent years to rival ours as new parents.
In 2011, Xanterra Parks and Resorts acquired Windstar after its former parent company, Ambassadors International, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. In 2012, the new parent company completed an $18 million renovation of all three sailing yachts: Wind Surf, the five-masted flagship that holds 310 passengers; and both Wind Spirit and Wind Star, the two smaller, four-masted ships that accommodate 148 passengers.
And in 2014, Windstar doubled its fleet with a recent acquisition of three all-suite, 208-passenger ships from fellow luxury-cruise line, Seabourn. After a stem-to-stern renovation, these new additions will debut through 2015, extending Windstar’s reach to Asia and South America.
But despite the company’s overhaul, any doubt that Windstar could still live up to our expectations faded as soon as our family boarded the Wind Surf last December.
“Oh! Kids!” We heard employees say over and over, gushing at our two fedora-clad tourists. “We rarely get to see kids!”
You’d have thought we were traveling with two pop sensations from the latest boy band.
“What would Brody and Colin like to eat?” “Did you know the boys can order popcorn in their room at night?” “Would your highnesses like anything else?”
Seriously, I was elated at the staff’s warm welcome, from the bridge crew that tolerated the boys easing their fingers toward one of the tempting switches (there’s an open-bridge policy), to the spa ladies who fussed over Colin with a beachside foot massage.
As well, the executive chef made a point to visit our table to accommodate their palettes during our stay, delivering mac & cheese, pizza and chicken fingers. And the captain’s girlfriend, onboard for the holidays, sent the boys Santa hats complete with light-up reindeer and Santas.
And on barbecue night—a festive, buffet-style dinner that’s customary on Windstar—one of our favorite servers, Sunu (SOO-noo), and his colleagues noticed that my boys had grabbed a “lemon pig” from the buffet area. Fashioned from whole lemons and adorned with clove eyes and a curly, lemon-zest tail, we soon had a full herd of them as servers heaped them onto our table.
Even fellow passengers seemed to gravitate toward our kids. Since many were grandparents, they were eager to talk to the boys and compliment us on their behavior.
“Your boys are so well behaved!” we heard regularly enough that Michael and I actually started to believe them. (Our kids? The ones we just had to separate from fighting in the hallways? Yeah, they’re delightful! )
I mention this, fellow parents, not because I’m trying to one-up you. In fact, my kids aren’t any different than any other trying, demanding, whiny, stubborn, vexing progeny.
If you ask me, each boy possesses roughly one hundred times more than average of those qualities. (I later proofread this story as Colin poured a heaping spoon of sugar straight from the jar into his mouth, spilling 80 percent onto my tile floor. Sigh.)
Instead it’s a reminder that if you start traveling with them when they’re little, at some point kids can at least pretend to behave in public. And that may even include locales away from home.
It’s not so much that it validated our parenting skills: “Wow! We must be AH-mazing at this child-rearing thing!” It was more: “Oh, those painful early years of in-flight temper tantrums and puking bouts have finally paid off!”
And now, without question, we can add two more travelers to the Windstar fan base. Of course, as young boys, they were more mesmerized by the ship’s size and amenities than any of the ports: St. Maarten, Dominica, St. Lucia, Les Saintes and Nevis.
But there were also plenty of highlights off the boat. For starters, a snorkeling trip along Dominica’s Champagne Reef, where tiny, champagne-like bubbles dotted the fish-filled waters below us.
Or an afternoon barbecue on Pigeon Island, St. Lucia, where we tubed behind the speedboat, jumped on the trampoline and enjoyed beach massages.
Oh, and let’s not forget Les Saintes, where we snorkeled from the shore and the boys were unceremoniously introduced to topless beaches.
“Mom, I can see that lady’s boobs!” They gasped.
Good parenting tip: Kids are great for pointing out the obvious.
“Uh huh. I can too,” I said, trying to sound dismissive in hopes of discouraging their curious glances.
In all honesty, I couldn’t help feeling uncomfortable. It’s not a big deal to me, yet it’s simply not part of our American culture to go anywhere topless.
And there are so many opportunities for us as parents to teach our kids to think for themselves—without muddying their ideas with our biases. That includes silencing any of my own puritanical tendencies. And pretending I wasn’t annoyed.
Seriously, lady! Can you just lie down and sunbathe?
One of many Europeans we spotted on the French-speaking island, the 50-something woman walked languidly up and down the beach as casually as if she were searching the aisle of a grocery store. Except just without clothes.
“In America we generally don’t do that,” I said to the boys as I readied our snorkel gear. “But topless beaches are common in Europe. Just let her be.”
Nothing to see here, folks! Move along!
So to Windstar, I say: Bravo! Great job in preserving the experiences that make your cruises so exceptional.
I also say: Hurry up and consider some family-focused itineraries.
Because when you do, Brody and Colin will be your first customers in line.