Review by Fiona Duncan, published 27th November 2006.
There are cruise ships with too many people on them, and there are cruise ships with too much rigmarole: pre-ordained seating at dinner; endless organised activities; formal nights where dripping jewels are de rigueur; dire after-dinner shows and cabarets. Not for me, and not, most importantly on this occasion, for my mum.
What we wanted was something small scale, low-key, but civilised, elegant but informal, and that's exactly what we got on Windsurf, largest of the three-ship Windstar fleet, all powered by computerised sails as well as diesel engines and a world away from the new breed of mega-ship now dominating the cruising scene. The two smaller ones take a maximum of 148 passengers, with 308 on Windsurf. The romance of sail with none of the side effects.
It was my idea to take my mother on a cruise, a form of holiday she had never before contemplated, and would probably never contemplate again, if the first day or two were anything to go by. The flight was delayed, the queue for boarding long and hot, our fellow passengers unfamiliar, the condescending, Gallic guest-relations manager... well, condescending and Gallic, the layout of the vessel confusing. We kept getting lost. We bickered as we unpacked. I snapped unfairly, and Mother, as I had testily taken to calling her, responded with pursed lips and cold shrugs. We wrinkled our noses at the hideous paintings in the art gallery and the cheesy portraits of fellow passengers in the photo gallery, the cost of drinks and internet, and the unspoken thought of being stuck with each other and all the other passengers for a whole week. "Still," Mother said (ludicrously youthful for her age, but nevertheless a seasoned octogenarian), "look on the bright side. If I get too irritating, there are plenty of ways you can do away with me."
I must say, there were a few. She might have slipped through the large gap in the curved, outward sloping railings at the stern. Or tripped on the open tread metal stairs that led from one deck to another. If she hadn't been so sprightly, she might have had to remain in our lower deck, mid-ships cabin, as watertight doors prevented us from getting to the lifts, and when they were closed we could only ascend to the main deck by climbing four sets of stairs, 56 in all. Though clean and well ordered, the ship was far from its first flush of youth. Happily, it was headed for a refit after our cruise: now, I gather, it has new staircases, new carpets, a new café/lounge, granite surfaces in the bathrooms, new showers, better signage and two new luxury suites.
We set sail, in brilliant sunshine. We slept like logs in our smart cabin, with its wood fittings, large mirrors, intelligent storage and superb beds, not to mention plasma-screen TV, DVD and iPod dock. The food in the two restaurants was good and varied, with an excellent "sail light" menu for those who didn't want to overstuff.
Ignoring the unimaginative shore excursions, we treated ourselves to cocktails in the Hotel Splendido above Portofino, Italy, and to a flutter in the Casino at Monte Carlo. We tucked into soupe de poissons in a favourite backstreet restaurant in St Tropez and explored the fascinating Panier district of Marseille, happily untouched -- as yet - by tourism.
When on board, we basked on the three glamorous, tiered sundecks, with their outdoor bars, swimming pools and hot tubs, sunloungers and pretty parasols. We marvelled at the way that they never seemed crowded - calm and quiet by day, pleasantly buzzy in the evening - and gave thanks for the perfect weather; this is not a ship for rain.
The only cabaret we had to endure was the endearing "crew show" in which various Indonesian and Filipino waiters and cabin stewards sang and danced and whipped up a storm of appreciation for the charm and friendliness with which they had looked after us. Mother, who was well on her way to being "mum" again, stopped scowling and began befriending, her favourite pastime. "Come on," she ordered one afternoon, as I lay in the sun. "Those nice people I was chatting to, Jimmy and Marie, have asked me to witness the renewal of their marriage vows at sunset, and I want to buy them a present."
Forty per cent of Windstar passengers are returnees, but not many venture on to the bridge, though it's open to all. "People love these ships for their sails," a young English officer told us when we wandered in after dinner one night, "but they don't want the motion of a sailing ship, and so our job is to keep her as steady and upright as possible." And with what success, thanks to stabilisers, water tanks and banks of computers: even in a stiff breeze it was often impossible to detect if we were moving or not. "And what is your role?" I asked this child in my most kindly, condescending tone. "I'm the Captain, madam," he said. It was Mum's turn to cringe into the shadows. We deserve each other.
Windstar (020 7940 4488; www.windstarcruises.com) offers a seven-night Mediterranean fly/cruise on Windsurf starting from £1,869 per person sharing an outside stateroom, including scheduled flights and transfers.