Boutique ships with small passenger manifests and a James Beard partnership—one luxury cruise line turns the tide on what to expect the next time you set sail in Europe.
While docked in Málaga, on the shores of the Costa del Sol, guests have a chance to explore Pablo Picasso’s hometown or visit the village of Mijas, where some of the world’s best wines are made.
We’re not what you’d call typical cruise people. We don’t enjoy being with hoards of others, elbowing our way to get to the preferred seat on a crowded bus tour during a few hurried hours in port, simply to check a city off our destination bucket list—never to return again. From the moment we step on board our Windstar Cruises ship, a boutique cruise line, we’re in like-minded company. Many of our fellow guests have not only been to our destination before (oftentimes on several occasions), but they also speak the language. This trip isn’t typical. It’s tailored for the luxury traveler.
On the eight-day Spanish Serenade voyage, which sails from Lisbon to Barcelona on the all-suite Star Pride, we begin to understand that the Windstar experience is about an authentic travel approach with a focus on smaller harbors and ancient ports, such as Cádiz, Málaga and Palma de Mallorca.
Ample deck space and a small number of passengers allow for uninterrupted views of picturesque Lisbon.
We begin our trip in Lisbon, noshing on freshly grilled sardines at tasca bars and enjoying the world-famous pastéis de nata, Portuguese custard tarts, before setting sail. I start to worry we won’t have a chance to continue our epicurean tour of the local fare once on board, with fears of American-inspired buffets and pizza bars haunting my predeparture dreams. Fortunately, thanks to the ship’s small size and commitment to fantastic cuisine, Windstar is able to pull off amazing culinary feats, like source locally, prepare food a la minute and take small groups of guests to local markets to gather ingredients. That means digging into piles of Spanish olives, gorgeous red slices of chorizo and mounds of delicious sardines—thoughtfully sourced in port, then prepared by Windstar chefs. There’s no pizza bar in sight.
Lucky for us, Windstar also happens to be the official cruise line of the James Beard Foundation, a title that embodies its commitment to elevated epicurean experiences around the world. While our cruise is not themed (there are a series of guest chef/sommelier cruises throughout the year), we do enjoy a nightly sampling of dishes from James Beard chefs. And, unsurprisingly, the attentive staff is always ready with a local restaurant recommendation, particularly for our late night in Almería, where many of our fellow passengers depart the ship for an evening out. Because isn’t that what travel is all about? Getting off the ship.
From top: The 277-square-foot Star-Class balcony suite features Egyptian cotton linens, a full-size tub and shower, and a gracious seating area. Added bonus: Windstar ships do not have interior cabins, so all rooms have water views; Windstar chefs source fish at local markets, such as this grilled Portuguese mackerel (or carapau), and serve on board for lunch or as a first-course dinner option.
Like in Cádiz, where we revel in the chance to taste directly from the source in the “sherry triangle” and learn about world-renowned Jerez wine. We wander through the caves and discover the secrets of the Tio Pepe winery and why its bottles remain some of the finest in the world. Small shore excursion groups, private tours and even more tailored Concierge Collection shore excursion options mean Windstar guests never travel in a herd.
In Málaga, a handful of passengers trot off for horseback riding in the Mijas mountains, raving about the delicious tapas they’re served midride, accompanied by a regional sweet wine so bespoke it doesn’t have a label. We visit the most comprehensive collection of Picasso’s work at Museo Picasso Málaga (museopicassomalaga.org) in celebration of the 100th year of his life and work. Near Almería, we take a breathtaking tour and drive though the Andalusian countryside to see UNESCO sites like the Alhambra palace. Witnessing its stunning Moorish architecture and stone-cast latticework is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Each area of the palace and its verdant gardens offers a glimpse of timeless beauty and remarkable workmanship.
In Barcelona, we see the strong Catalan influence and the remarkable architecture of Antoni Gaudí’s Basílica de la Sagrada Família with its eight decorative spires towering hundreds of feet into the heavenly sky. Ohla Barcelona has the best pool and bar scene in the city, but Hotel Arts Barcelona, where we stay, is magnificent in its modernity. The Liquid Journey by the property’s head mixologist Diego Baud is its own cocktail-tasting pilgrimage that’s not to be missed when ashore.
Beyond the engaging excursion options, the personalized service we experience while aboard the Star Pride is beyond expectation. With a staff-to-guest ratio of 1-to-1 ½, we’re well looked after in our suite—complete with a balcony, a separate living area, a walk-in closet and a large marble bathroom. While on board, we learn of Windstar’s three completely revamped ships, which will include Star Pride and debut on itineraries in 2020. The project will bring some welcome amenities, including larger and more impressive suites, an infinity pool, a true fitness center and spa, and new dining spaces and concepts. The three ships are being cut in half to allow the installation of a new section, but the total capacity of the expanded ships will remain intimate, with only 312 guests each.
All that’s left to decide is where to next? Balcony suites from $3,299 per person
Photography by: windstar cruises