When the sails first went up, I knew this would be a different type of cruise experience.
Windstar Cruises' Wind Surf is a luxury sailing yacht, and its crisp, white sails were unfurled as we set off from Lisbon for our weeklong voyage to Morocco and the Canary Islands.
The ship is one of six in the Windstar fleet, and Wind Star is the largest. But compared with the many large cruise ships that I have been on, this is downright cozy. The ship carries and maximum of 310 passengers, and we are nearly full, with 297 onboard for our trip to these exotic spots -- new destinations for me.
After pulling away from Lisbon on a sunny afternoon, I wander more to learn about my home for the next seven days. Wind Surf has a lot of outdoors space, and I roam the teak decks to scope out all the best vantage points to see the sails, sunsets and rolling waves.
A small pool and bar sits at the back of the ship, and I spent plenty of time outside taking a quick dip, soaking in one of the two hot tubs or just plopping down on the cushioned sun loungers to read my Sports Illustrated magazines.
Wind Surf features a main lounge where the ship's house band plays nightly and people enjoy dancing and cocktails. You can also sip drinks at The Terrace (a cigar bar) and the Compass Rose indoor-outdoor bar areas.
The Yacht Club is the most popular interior space, with a cafe serving sandwiches, cookies, coffees and teas. There are couches, chairs, tables, games and books in this area, and passengers gathered here daily for hours to relax and read during sea days. The ship also offers a large selection of DVD TV shows and movies to sign out to watch on the DVD player in your cabin.
My cabin was not flashy. It had enough space, a couple portholes to peek through to see the views and a comfy bed. Room service is included, and I enjoyed a dinner in the room one night when I didn't have time to go down for a full-length dinner in the main dining room, Amphora.
Breakfasts are available at the Yacht Club (a small selection), or dive into the full buffet treatment at the Veranda, which also serves buffet lunch -- and features a selection of items on a lunch menu, such as burgers, which I found incredibly juicy and tasty.
Veranda transforms into a steakhouse for dinner. It's called Candles, and passengers need to make a reservation to eat there (outside under the stars or at inside seating if you prefer) or at the other specialty restaurant Stella's Bistro, which serves French cuisine.
Overall, the food and service were highlights of my trip. The crew quickly learns passenger names, and I was always greeted with a friendly "Hello, John!" each time I wandered up for my next meal.
The ship features a sports marina from which you can go kayaking, standup paddleboarding, swimming and snorkeling. They also set up a flotation island and offer waterskiing and windsurfing activities from the back of the ship. However, the marina is only in use when the ship anchors in a destination. We pulled up pierside at each of our stops so didn't get the chance to play back there on my cruise. Look for itineraries in the Mediterranean and the Caribbean for your best chance of having a cruise that will put the Windstar sports marinas to good use.
I did get in a good workout each day in the fitness center on Wind Surf. The facility is at the top of the ship and offers views through the floor-to-ceiling glass in all directions. The gym has all the equipment you would need: treadmills, ellipticals, bikes, free weights, mats and balls. Fitness staff also offer a variety of classes included in your cruise fare, such as Pilates, yoga, abs and stretching classes.
I also enjoyed a massage treatment (and my first facial) -- at the spa facility. The vibe on the ship is relaxed, with plenty of down time for passengers to just enjoy the simple beauty of a traditional sailing voyage. There is a small casino, but I rarely saw more than a couple people in there. After dinner, the ship quieted down, with just a few souls staying up late. Most people retreated to their cabins to watch a movie and get to sleep before rising early to be fully rested for the port stops.
After leaving Portugal, we had a sea day, and the next day we arrived in Casablanca, Morocco.
I chose the tour that took a group of us to the Imperial City of Rabat, which is the capital city and home of the king's palace. From there, we visited the Mausoleum of Mohammed V and Hassan Tower. The ornate mausoleum is impressive, and the masterpiece of modern Alaouite architecture is the resting place of one of Morocco's most revered monarchs and his son Hassan II, the former ruler who was father to the nation's current King Mohammed VI.
To cap our day of touring in the historic region, we walked the scenic Kasbah Oudaya Medina in Rabat's Old District and took time to enjoy a rest stop with refreshing mint tea, the national drink of Morocco.
Many others went for a very long day (13 hours on a shuttle) to explore Marrakech. Another tour option is a "Casablanca Highlights" day.
Another relaxing day at sea followed, and I enjoyed a dip in the pool. With the smaller size of the ship, you will feel the movement of the sailing more intensely. I didn't find it troublesome, fortunately, but I heard several reports from my fellow passengers of some cruisers who were having a rough time.
Our next stop was Agadir, an arid seaside city that is surrounded by the Sahara Desert. It sits on the ocean and is a popular surf town, with sandy and quiet beaches.
Tour options: 4x4 rides in Paradise Valley to experience the diverse landscape below the Atlas Mountains, and a market and medina tour at the ancient village of Taroudant.
Agadir was the site for Windstar's "Destination Discovery Event," a special excursion event offered once per cruise as part of your fare. For us, this meant a lunch of traditional Moroccan fare served at a beautiful seaside venue just a short walk down to the beach and ocean in the fishing village of Taghazout. Oriental carpets were spread out under the sun, and we settled in at tables set up under sprawling tents. The food was spectacular, with tagine chicken cooked in clay pots the main course, which came after we tried not to fill up on bread, olives and vegetables and couscous. Yes, there was a dessert of pastilla (crispy sweet layered pastry) with milk, and the event included a delightful performance by two belly dancers.
Back onboard, we sailed for the Canary Islands. We would visit three of the seven islands in archipelago, starting with Lanzarote. Each of the Canary Islands has distinct characteristics, and Lanzarote is noted for its stark landscape that resembles moonscape because of the volcanic activity that shaped the island.
We rode camels for a short jaunt in Timanfaya National Park and marveled at the lava flows that fill the valleys throughout the park, which covers 20 square miles. We were shown a demonstration of the heat vents and the creative ways that wine can be cultivated in such a dry climate.
The next day, we arrived at Las Palmas. The ship docked in a marina at the edge of the city, and I wandered off to discover so many things to do in Las Palmas. A shopping mall is located just steps from the pier, and a large open plaza sits across the marina, where you can find public transportation and signage for points of interest around the town. Las Palmas is a more touristy and well-developed island, with narrow streets lined with shops and restaurants, as well as pretty park and garden areas. Other highlights around the island include museums, basilicas and the Crater de Bandama, an inactive volcano crater that is now inhabited and used for farming (a walk around the rim offers amazing views).
I chose to walk through the town to reach the beaches. I took the main street through Las Palmas, and about 10 minutes after I had left the ship, I emerged to find Playa de Las Canteras, a sweeping public beach and wide promenade area. Families and couples were spreading out towels on the sand, and joggers and walkers were enjoying the fresh air on the boardwalk. I headed straight to the beach, plopped down and had a great day of relaxing in the sun and swimming in the waters (it was December, and I was swimming!).
Our final stop on the voyage was in La Gomera, which is a brilliant destination because of its stunning national park areas. Garajonay National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the gorgeous forest features well-marked hiking paths as well as winding roads that climb into the cloud mists that sweep over the peaks of the mountains. La Gomera is a popular training site for cyclists. The park is filled with rare laurel tree forests that date to the Tertiary period. La Gomera also offers quaint seaside towns and lovely beaches. This is a spot to which I have already targeted for a return trip.
I can see why they love it so much. Windstar Cruises features getaways that are equal parts thrilling and relaxing. The smaller ships in its fleet can visit more exotic locations and offer fantastic food and service that is sure to please even the most discerning traveler.
I would go again just to enjoy the romantic feel of watching the sails unfurl as we sail into another marvelous sunset -- with me leaning on the varnished rails and sipping my cold beer.
Thanks for reading,