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A Star to Steer the Wind Star By

“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 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.

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.

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 American 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.”


Buddy at the piano

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.

It was in the lounge that Travis LeMarche, the young destination manager from Edmonton, Canada who became smitten with wanderlust after a high school trip to some of the same ports the Wind Star would stop at during this voyage, prepared us for the following day’s shore excursion. In his casual, easy-going manner, Travis would project visuals on a huge flat TV screen while describing the history and highlights of each stopover, the various touring and activity options available, and the best places to shop and eat.

At night, the ship would stream through the darkness, often aided by sails unfurled, arriving by morning at a new port.  Each of the five ports was bathed in the particularly beautiful Aegean light and shared a past where the Greek and Roman worlds of antiquity and the Byzantine and Ottoman civilizations that followed were still visible and felt.

One could simply get off  the ship when it was docked at port, or board the regularly run tender when it was at anchor further out for a swift ride to shore. Hours could be whiled away in aimless or self-directed exploration, taking in the universally spectacular scenery, frequenting the shops, lazing on the beach, or watching the crowds pass by from a table in a sidewalk café. On the other hand, one could choose from a range of  activities that included tank diving and other sports activities, cruising through little coves on wooden sailing boats, luxuriating on the private beach  of a five-star hotel, hiking to the summit of the Santorini  volcano, or  touring one of the many ruins, restorations, and archeological treasures in the heart of the ancient world accompanied by an expert guide.  


View of volcanic island Santorini

As long-time would-be classicists, our favored choice consistently fell into this last category.  And so we signed up for a tour of Ephesus, the city on the road from Kusadasi, famed for its magnificent ruins, excavations, and restorations including the single remaining pillar of the Temple of Artemis and the remains of the Roman Library of Celsis. The remains of the Mausoleum of Mausolus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, and the underwater archeological museum were two of the highlights of our private tour of Bodrum aided by the input of a taxi driver who showed us an ancient amphitheater sitting off a main road, virtually unnoticed and unannounced.

On the island of Rhodes, we were deeply moved by a visit to the oldest synagogue in the world.  And on the Cycladic island Delos (reached by boat from Mykonos), we traipsed across what had been sacred space to the ancient Greeks, the reputed birthplace of Apollo and Artemis, and the site of sanctuaries and shops where people came to worship the gods and buy them gifts.

Exploring the ruins, excavations and restorations of this UNESCO World Cultural Heritage island where, according to our scholarly guide Kriton Piperas, Socrates and Plato would undoubtedly have strolled, we got a sense of the overall history and place of Delos from around the seventh century B.C., through the period of Roman domination when it became a seaport, and on to the eighth century A.D. when war left the island ruined, and completely abandoned until the 17th century when some Greek archeologists came upon its buried treasures.


Ephesus – ruins of the ancient library are in the distance

The oldest synagogue in the world on the island of Rhodes

Once again, it was a quick turnaround from past to present when we caught the last tender out of Mykonos, boarding the Wind Star in time to get ready for the big event: Barbeque Night.

Multiple grills had been set up on the upper level of the aft deck where chefs were preparing a feast of barbequed meats, grilled vegetables and succulent lobster tails. People gravitated to deck-side tables to sit with friends they had met over the past few days.  At our table, Tom and Margaret Bullock were telling us how they came to be aboard. “My boss had been on eleven Wind Star cruises,” Tom said. “I had worked for him for fifteen years, stuck with him through thick and thin. Now he came over to me, handed me a brochure and said ‘I want to send you on a Wind Star cruise. Pick one out.’”


 Ruins in Delos

Tom and Margaret were from the wine country near San Luis Obispo, California. Vic and Janet, professors at Yale, were from New Haven, Sandy and Don and their son James came from Austin, Texas. They were but a few of the interesting people in the multi-generational crowd from across the United States we spent time with and got to know.

Lingering over coffee as the sun set and night was beginning to fall, we were surprised when suddenly there was music in the air. It was Buddy at the grand piano which had been moved out of the lounge onto the deck. Soon dancers,  all wearing identical yellow shirts, emerged in time to the beat.  In a minute, we recognized them. They were the cooks, the stewards, the servers -- a chorus line of the wonderful people who had made this week possible, demonstrating that beyond the talents we had observed all week, they could sing and dance like members of a Broadway cast.

Soon, after an energetic and spirited rendition of  “YMCA,” they were joined by others from the Wind Star family, the deck and navigation officers, the engineers, Jason Parker – the hotel manager from Vancouver who grew up planning to be an orthodontist like his grandfather until he realized what he really wanted to do was cook and went on to become a chef at Wind Star, moving up before long to being into in charge of everything on board. 

The group was into a complicated line dance now. We spotted Travis and his wife, the stunning guest service manager Krysti LeMarche  (the couple had met and fallen in love seven years ago on a cruise out of Rome), the attractive WindSpa trio who make passengers feel good and look good as well, Dr. Jake, from the Philippines, who treated a nasty cut one of had, and Windstar’s new product manager Melissa Witsoe out of Seattle, who came aboard to experience the excursions and come up with new ideas (organizing a dinner on the site of the library in Ephesus is one of them).


SCENES FROM BARBEQUE NIGHT

Left to right: Travis LeMarche, Melissa Witsoe and guide Ozgur Pocabiyik

Hotel Manager Jason Parker

 Barbeque Night: Krystie Le Marche is bottom left

Our favorite: Yen
How difficult it was after such an evening, after such a week to disembark at the port in Piraeus the next morning. But there was no time to linger or look back as our departure flight from Athens was scheduled to leave at 10:30.  It was 7:30 already; we had yet to be driven to the airport, go through customs and security and be ready to board in less than two hours.

Once again the Wind Star was on top of everything.  Breakfast was served at 6:30 that morning. Our luggage had been collected the night before. And no sooner was the ship cleared at the dock, when we were brought  to a limo, driven through the streets of Athens, and escorted by the driver to the point of check-in at the airport.


New Friends: Tom and Margaret Bullock

It was, without exaggeration, royal treatment. We easily made our flight. But really, when we thought about it, there was no need to worry. Travis had reassured us everything would work, and as we saw again and again, Travis is as good as his word.

And so ended a perfect week. For long, we had avoided so much as the idea of taking a cruise. Now we cannot wait to go on another – of the Wind Star variety that is, small, intimate, informal, with serious attention to detail and an environment where everything worked.

That last night, the dancing continued seemingly into the wee hours with passengers joining in, ending – at last – when the score of “1492,” the music played when the Wind Star first set sail a week ago came over the speakers followed by the cast singing a poignant refrain that ended:

“We are sailing,

We are sailing home again ‘cross the sea

We are sailing stormy waters to be near you, to be free.”

But now, back home in New Hampshire, it is part of a poem by John Masefield that speaks most clearly to us:

“I must down to the seas again

To the lonely sea and the sky,

And all I ask is a tall ship

And a star to steer her by . . .”

Contact Windstar: http://www.windstarcruises.com

Photographs by Harvey Frommer

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About the Authors:  Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.

They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. More about these authors.

You can contact the Frommers at: 

Email: myrna.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Email: harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Web: http://www.dartmouth.edu/~frommer/travel.htm.

This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.

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