“When I was fifteen years old, I went to sea,” says Antony Gilbert (like a character in a Charles Dickens novel). We meet the handsome third navigation officer in the bridge of the Wind Star where he is on duty this second night of a cruise from Istanbul to Athens. The sky is clear and filled with stars.
“I try to explain what it’s like to be on the bridge on a night like this. But I can’t,” he tells us. “Sometimes when there’s a bright moon, there will be a rainbow in the sky. Sometimes dolphins will pass by.” He turns from the window into the darkness of the room and smiles in our direction. “You’ll see things at sea you’ll never ever see on land.”
If Anthony is bewitched, it’s understandable. We, too, have been under a spell that began the previous afternoon when, after the preliminaries of signing in, being shown to our stateroom, unpacking a bit, and joining the rest of the passengers for safety and lifejacket drills, we went up on deck to see the ship’s great white sails unfurl while, to the stirring strains of the Vangelis score from “1492,” the Wind Star set sail. The combination of sails against a blue sky, the sea sparkling in the sunlight and a triumphant chorale – it was enough to set the heart throbbing.
This is our first cruise. Although consumed by wanderlust and having accumulated and redeemed six figures-worth of frequent-flyer miles over the decades, we had until now resisted the allure of being at sea beyond an overnight ferry ride or day-long sailing excursion. The huge cruise ships we’d see in many a harbor seemed too overwhelming.
And then we received a postcard from a friend picturing a long, sleek sailboat, four tall sails aloft, pure white against a background of sky and sea. “Greetings from Mykonos and from Wind Star, our hotel in the Aegean,” she wrote. The Greek island we knew; the hotel in the Aegean was something new. “Think of it as a big sailing yacht,” she told us when she returned.
And that was the start of some reconsideration which ended with us standing on the upper deck of a 400-foot-long cruiser on a glorious June afternoon, holding on to the rails, faces to the wind, as it sailed down the Bosphorus between European and Asian Turkey and into the Sea of Marmara.
When we awoke the next morning, we were moving through the Dardenelles, passing before long, within view of Gallipoli, when Captain Chris Norman, over the ship’s speaker system, pointed out the battlefields, military cemetery and simple monument in the classic Greek style and relayed the heart-breaking story of the nearly nine-month-long World War I campaign that cost so many lives and resulted in such major political consequences. History, we would come to see, would be a major sub-text of our one-week journey.
But for the moment, we were caught up in the excitement of the present, in exploring the glamorous, four-masted sailboat with six computer-operated sails — each of which unfurls to a height of 204 feet — and four open teakwood decks. Already we had discovered little corners of deck space where one could retreat, lounge on a chaise and look out to the sea and the ever-changing landscape on a distant shore.
Totally renovated and refurbished in time for the 2012 season, the Wind Star has 73 attractive staterooms with ocean views, queen-sized beds, flat-screen TVs, and DVD players in a configuration so intelligently and efficiently designed that there is ample space for storage and comfort as well as such touches of luxury as an array of oversized L’Occitane toiletries.
Soon after our arrival, we were escorted to our stateroom by Tom, a friendly young man from the Philippines who told us he would be our steward throughout the cruise, always on call whenever something was needed. He proved true to his word.
Meeting Tom, and then other service personnel, in both housekeeping and dining reminded us of a conversation we had with the general manager of a property in Paris some time ago where he encountered what he called “Courtesy Culture.”
“There was a softness, a gentleness and pleasantness to the people on staff,” he told us. “All of them were so polite and courteous. I never forgot them.”
The hotel manager would undoubtedly be delighted to meet the crew aboard the Wind Star. Many are from Southeast Asia; all embody the “Courtesy Culture” he described.
Yen, who is from Indonesia, was to become our consistent server and friend. We met Yen at Veranda, the informal indoor/outdoor dining venue for breakfast and lunch housed in a great window-wrapped salon and surrounding deck area. We would come out on deck in the freshness of a morning, look out to a new view -– the Wind Star did much of its traveling by night — and there would be Yen, at the ready to set a seaside table with flatware wrapped in cloth napkins and a pot of excellent Indonesian coffee.
The options for breakfasts were virtually limitless: Greek yogurts, cereals, smoothies – a different flavor every day — muesli with raisins, nuts and currants, smoked salmon and capers, cheeses, miniature bagels, croissants, breads and muffins of endless variety, many-flavored home-made marmalades, jams, and peanut butters – all arranged on a huge multi-level buffet. At the same time, white-hatted chefs stood behind cooking stations preparing eggs any way you wanted them, biscuits with gravy, pancakes and French toast, tortillas with scrambled eggs and assorted omelets.
Yen got to know our preferences in short order: every day one of us would help herself to the smoked salmon and a smoothie, the other relied on Yen to bring him eggs and blueberry pancakes or French toast – a splendid way to start the day.
Lunches followed the same routine, only now the buffet tables would be laden with tureens of gazpacho and papaya bisque, an amazing salad bar particularly suited to a make-your-own Greek salad with a variety of olives, lentils, and cubes of Feta cheese. An assortment of wraps, hamburgers, turkey and chicken burgers, hot dogs, and sausages were part of the offerings, along with a fabulous pasta station where spaghetti carbonara, Pasta Genovese, et al, and a range of crepes were created before your eyes. And for one of us, there was the delight of an irresistible bread pudding –- the centerpiece of an otherwise lavish dessert display.
Dinner on Wind Star is a more formal affair held in a large, elegant space that reminded us of ocean-liners we’d seen in movies. The multi-course menu changes every night, but one could always count on an antipasto, an appetizer of shrimp cocktail, scallop ceviche or the like, soup (an excellent lobster bisque one night), salad, such entrées as lamb kabobs, Basque chicken, grilled sea bass, pan-fried Dover sole and steak, along with many choices of vegetables, and desserts like strawberry compote, crème brulé and apple strudel.
We would walk into the dining room, and Gusman Wysyama would be there at the entrance, overlooking the scene and extending a warm welcome. The dining room manager, a study in Asian serenity, is from Bali. He was working at a local hotel seventeen years ago when his brother, home for a holiday from his job with the Holland America line, asked him, “How would you like to go to sea?”
“I would, very much,” said Gusman, who confesses to a life-long romance with the ocean, whereupon his brother told him, “Come, I will help you.”
“I worked myself up from serving in the crew dining room to my present position,” he told us. “From the start, I have loved this company. They take care of everything: medical checkups, flights to home and back again. At first, I did the 10 months on, 2 months off. But as an officer, now I do 6 months on, 2 ½ months off.”
The difference in schedule makes for a marked improvement in the dining room manager’s life, as well as that of his wife, who is a doctor, and their ten-year-old son. “I could bring my wife and son on board, but I prefer for them to have a normal life.”
Gusman and Yen are friends. “Yen is very popular,” Gusman said. “I’m his boss, but he’s also my friend. On a small ship like Wind Star, all of us are like family.”
Spend a week on Wind Star, and everyone begins to feel like family. Passengers and crew — we all got to know one another. The easiest place to connect was in the lounge where we gathered for information sessions and then hung around to listen to Roy John Johnstono, Jr. – known to one and all simply as Buddy — on the piano. While, understandably, the Georgia native was partial to “Georgia on My Mind,” Buddy could play any song you asked him to, most of the time. And in the rare case that the request was for an unfamiliar tune, all you had to do was hum a few bars (like the Noel Coward ballad “I’ll See You Again”) and Buddy would get it and in a few minutes have a full, lush arrangement that was then added to a repertoire with as many choices as the breakfast buffet.