Windstar Cruises - Back on Top

| June 20, 2011

I interview Hans Birkholz, CEO of Windstar Cruises, about the future of the line under new ownership.

A number of cruise lines use the word "yacht" in their names, suggesting a distinct style of cruising with a physical interaction with the natural elements of the sea; currents, surface conditions and the wind, and a décor such as portholes with hatch covers designed to keep out seawater and wooden cabinetry with ledges and latched covers to keep things in place. click for a larger picture

By my definition, while there are many other cruise lines using the word "yacht" in their trademarked names, one particular cruise line is closer to the true yachting experience than these self-described "yachts," and that is Windstar Cruises.

History of Windstar Cruises

The concept of "up-market" elite luxury cruising was largely invented in the late 1970s by cruise lines like Royal Viking Line, but was based upon the ocean liner style of cruising with very formal dress codes and higher passenger loads close to 700 people. Windstar Cruises, when established in 1984, presented an early approach to yacht-style luxury cruising. It was the first line to eliminate formal dress codes with a simple "stylish casual" suggestion for the entire cruise, but that didn't mean a casual approach to service. The crew knew the names of every passenger by the end of the first night onboard. Windstar still uses true nautical styling throughout the ships, especially in the staterooms. An open bridge policy means any guest can come to the bridge to visit with the navigational officer on duty at any time, as if the guest is the owner of the yacht.

The yacht-style coup de grace of Windstar, of course, are the immense masts for the beautiful billowing sails - the tallest ever built on any ships in the world.

click on pictures below for larger images:

The Ship - sails down   Main Table Setting   Lobster Entree

Time Marches on for the Windstar Fleet

Windstar's first ship was the 150-passenger Wind Star, followed by two sister ships, the Wind Song and the Wind Spirit two years later. With barely a chance to get its keels wet Windstar was acquired by Seattle-based Holland America Line in 1987. In 1989 Holland America (and Windstar) was acquired by Carnival Corp. Both lines thrived during this time while cruising was growing in popularity. In 1998 the line expanded the fleet by acquiring the larger Wind Surf from Club Med.

The only criticism of Windstar back then was that it rarely raised the sails - generally only for a few hours each cruise.

The winds of cruise fortune changed in the new millennium. Carnival acquired another small and elite company - Seabourn - and chose to focus on it alone. Windstar was sold to Ambassador's International, a group of private investors, in March 2007 for an even $100 million.

Ambassador International arguably tried to expand too quickly, also buying several riverboats from Delta Queen. The economic recession hit hard and by 2011 Ambassadors was forced into a form of Chapter 11 reorganization known as the "363 stalking horse" process. This allowed the company to make contact with potential suitors and give them time for due diligence before they made an offer to the bankruptcy court.

Windstar could not reveal what was happening at the time - but what was commonly referred to as a "surprise bid" from the entertainment and media conglomerate Denver-based Anschutz Entertainment Group, owned by Forbes 500 billionaire Philip Anschutz, was actually a well coordinated sale of assets fully managed by the bankruptcy court. Today Windstar is a part of the Xanterra Parks and Resorts subsidiary of Anschutz Holdings.

In a way, it is circular for Windstar to end up with a company like Xanterra. Holland America had merged with Gray Line, a motor coach tour company that specialized in showing the great American West to travelers many years before it acquired Windstar. Xanterra created the infamous "Harvey House" back in 1876 for the purpose of feeding travelers on the railroad systems between Chicago and the west coast.

The acquisition of Windstar by Xanterra is like emerging from life support with a clean bill of health. According to the CEO of Windstar Cruises, Hans Birkholz, the management of Windstar is still completely intact, although it will now answer to Xanterra instead of Ambassador's International. The takeover is still only a few weeks old, but Hans has already suggested a few tidbits for a brighter future.

"Right now it is still matter of getting them up to speed," said Birkholz, "however they say they fully support the management of Windstar and look forward to working with us. They also mentioned new itineraries ahead, and even the possibility of more capacity." I see this as a good omen for Windstar. The line started as popular favorite before so many other small "yacht lines came onboard. I now wonder if arguably the most original "yachting" cruise line can reclaim its reputation.

"If you want to talk about yachts," said Hans, "I am a true yachtsman, and so are all of the captains of our Windstar ships. In fact, one of the areas where Windstar is changing direction is in optimizing its itineraries to take advantage of the natural trade winds in both the Caribbean and Europe," Hans' said, his level of excitement obvious.

Like other small cruise lines Windstar specializes in more obscure and quieter destinations. "Our goal is to give our guests the true yacht experience in terms of our destinations as well as our time at sea. We now use our sails along with our engines about 40 to 50% of the time we are underway - sometimes as much as 80%," said Hans. "Not only does this make the cruise much more exciting, but it makes more distant ports available to us, and it saves on fuel costs." Hans says that with a good 15 to 20 knot wind coming "broadside" to the ships (from the side for maximum effect on the sails) the ships can attain a speed of 16 knots. The sails are made from Dacron and need to be replaced on each ship every few years.

"We now visit small, unknown ports like the Tobago Keys in the Caribbean, Sandhamm Island in the Swedish archipelago and Gozo, on the island of Malta, in the Mediterranean. These are not typical ports for cruise ships, but they are popular with yachts in private docks, where people shop for food locally and prepare it in their own galleys."

The new ports are a part of nine new itineraries Windstar has planned for 2012. "In the sunnier ports we provide all of the snorkeling and sports gear upon the sports platform built into each of our ships." For guests traveling to Europe, Windstar offers optional pre and post-cruise hotel stays.

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Looking out on Sports Deck   Loading a Sea Kayak   Scuba Gear

I asked Hans if anything has changed regarding the crew. The line long ago adopted the Holland America policy of hiring Indonesian and Filipino crewmembers almost exclusively, along with European officers. "No, that has not changed," said Hans. "We have the same mix of crewmembers on board. What are new are the dining options on our ships - such as Candles, an al fresco steak and seafood restaurant on the smaller ships and Le Marche on the Wind Surf."

"Another very popular place is the Snack Bar on Wind Surf for very easy sandwiches and drinks. Although it sounds simple it has become the spot for sailaway parties every night - under our full sails, of course."

"Another new attraction is the expanded deck parties. We've always featured an outside barbeque every cruise with delicious things like smoked lobster, lamb chops and freshly grilled vegetables, but now we have made the barbeque a bigger event - adding our most popular show of the entire cruise, the crew show. Every cruise it comes up as one of the highest rated experiences."

The Windstar demographic is not much different from other small casual ships; couples aged 40 to 60, mostly professional. There are no facilities for kids although they are welcome onboard with parental supervision. The loyalty factor is about 40%, according to Hans. "We have some people who sail with us a few times a year, and some who only come every few years - either way is fine."

Itinerary Planning for 2012

Windstar does not sail out of U.S. ports. In the past, with the finances of Ambassador in question this may have given some travel agents concern as there is no required bond to secure unfulfilled cruises on ships that do not sail out of the United States. But the deep pockets of Anschutz should ameliorate the financial concerns of most agents and customers.

And there are other reasons for sailing out of deep Caribbean ports. "Our ships are among the 'greenest' at sea, because we only burn diesel fuel, no bunker fuel," Hans told me. "This makes us uniquely qualified under many of the new environmental restrictions coming into play in U.S. territorial waters in the next few years. However, we still prefer not to steam for two days just to reach our first destination. We would rather start out in the deep Caribbean and offer our guests as many ports per cruise as we can." An example is the new seven-day "Flavors of the Caribbean" itinerary which starts in St Martin, has one day at sea and then visits Martinique, St. Lucia, Dominica, Antigua and St. Barthelemy.

The new "Classic Mediterranean" cruise starts in Civitavecchia followed by the small islands of Ischia and Lipari belonging to Italy, and Giardini Naxos, Sicily. A day at sea is followed by Gythion, Monemvasia and finally Athens, Greece. These are certainly not the usual Mediterranean itineraries in the Aegean Sea.

The New Windstar Cruises Although it does not seem as if much is changing at Windstar yet, the best news is the simple security of knowing Windstar is on firm footing. The line has a wonderful concept and beautiful ships. The addition of more time "under sail" along with the unique itineraries means Windstar is now perfectly positioned to offer what it does best - a true yacht-like experience in casual elegance at a reasonable price.

See our first review of Windstar's Windsurf

click on pictures below for larger images:

The Ship - in chocolate and marzipan   Crew Talent Show   Port Lecturer

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