Shining a spotlight on the leaders in the luxury travel industry, Pursuitist presents an exclusive interview with Chris Prelog, Windstar Cruises President, brought to you by Ramsey Qubein.
Small-ship cruising has never been hotter as travelers look for experiences that give them the freedom to explore new places by ship, but with fewer passengers. Three of Windstar Cruises’ yachts, as they are called, are fresh from a $250 million renovation project that physically expanded the size of the ship, added more cabins and created new celebrity chef specialty restaurants.
Windstar’s parent company, Xanterra, is well known for operating many of the top lodges within the U.S. national park system. This high-end, small-ship cruise brand is another feather in Xanterra’s cap and is poised for growth as pent-up travel demand finally takes to the seas.
We spoke with Chris Prelog, president of Windstar Cruises, about the three-ship expansion project, what it’s like to sail again after nearly a year’s hiatus and what is in store for its six-strong fleet of luxury yachts and sailboats.
You got your start working on a ship. What did you do?
I worked aboard the Seabourn Legend as a server. On a small ship, staff take on many roles so I did everything from polish silverware to deliver food. Interestingly, the Seabourn Legend is now part of the Windstar fleet as the Star Legend so, in a way, I have come full circle.
What is it like to re-launch operations during a pandemic?
We are so excited to be back at sea. We have the Wind Star sailing the Greek islands at the moment as well as Star Breeze in the Caribbean.
We are navigating regulations that change very quickly. Things are going to remain in flux for awhile as governments adjust their rules, vaccination requirements and testing protocols week by week. Our largest ship can carry 342 passengers, but at the moment, we are operating at reduced capacity to follow social distancing guidelines. As more people around the world are vaccinated, we believe booking a cruise will become much easier. Demand, especially for 2022, is exceptional.
On board our six ships, extensive sanitation and cleaning protocols make it extremely safe. All of our crew have been vaccinated, and our passengers must receive a negative Covid-19 test at the pier before boarding as well as show their vaccination cards. Other protocols include constant cleaning of high-touch surfaces, electrostatic spraying of passenger luggage and converting buffets to staff-served stations.
The crew undergoes weekly testing, and they remain on the ship meaning they are not exposed to anyone that has not been vaccinated and tested. Passengers and crew must wear masks in public areas except for when eating and drinking. These are all in line with the regulations of many of the ports of call we visit, but these policies are reviewed regularly. While it is not the same as before the pandemic, our passengers are excited to be back to cruising and are used to these requirements from home. They don’t seem to mind following many of the same protocols, for now, at sea, and our open-air decks are the perfect place to relax and feel safe.
Star Breeze is fresh from major renovations that expanded the ship. Tell us about that.
Star Breeze is one of three yachts to undergo this transformation, which involved cutting the ship in half while in dry dock. We then inserted a pre-made section in the center with 50 beautiful suites before sealing the hull again. It’s an engineering marvel, and the yacht is beautifully transformed with new restaurants, a larger spa and fitness center, relaxation pool and redecorated interiors. For the company, this represents a nearly 27% increase in capacity for our three “Star Plus-category” ships.
Known as the Star Plus initiative, our ships did not just sit idle. We took the time off from sailing to invest in the interiors and maintenance of the fleet, both the Star Plus and Wind Class categories. All of the cabins sport new high-quality bedding and mattresses; this same investment was made for crew cabins, as well. There are new TV systems, artwork in hallways, completely remodeled bathrooms with double vanities, new furnishings and décor, and even four new (more eco-friendly) engines.
What is your favorite part about the newly designed ships?
I really like the way the spa has been redesigned as well as the pool deck, which sports new teak wood and handrails plus a plunge pool with glass wall and waterfall feature. There are two whirlpools including one on the pool deck and another at the very front of the ship.
The Star Breeze has two new specialty restaurants. Is there an upcharge to dine there?
Our specialty restaurants are included in the price of the cruise, and we wanted our guests to have more options of when and where to dine. Cuadro 44, a Spanish tapas restaurant under Michelin-starred chef and James Beard Foundation member Anthony Sasso serves everything from “jamon iberico” sliced fresh to authentic Galician octopus. There are several vegetarian specialties, too.
Star Grill is another new open-air grill restaurant. We do all of our own smoked meats and prepare them on a rotisserie using recipes and bespoke spice rubs from Steven Raichlen. He hosts three different cooking shows in three different countries, and our guests simply love the tasty menu he curated for our three Star Plus ships. We follow all of his guidelines often beginning the process for some of the slow-cooked meats the night before.
Both celebrity chefs came on board the ship to train the staff on how to prepare and present all the menu items. Windstar has a partnership with the James Beard Foundation, which includes hosting several sailing itineraries based on food-themed itineraries.
What are some of the Windstar signature amenities?
We have a beach barbecue on every sailing, which is extremely popular. All of our ships operate under an open-deck policy meaning that guests can watch the crew in action and ask questions. Included in all sailings are non-alcoholic drinks, complimentary 24-hour room service and the use of non-motorized watersport equipment that guests can use from a platform at the back of the yacht.
Sail away is a dramatic experience that includes playing a newly created theatrical song recorded by the Seattle Symphony as the ship leaves each port.
Our sailings target customers that are looking for customizable, high-end experiences that allow local immersion and onboard entertainment. Many of them are also frequent river cruisers and appreciate the ability to visit smaller ports with late night or overnight stays that give them time to explore a destination. We welcome families with children over the age of eight, but we usually tend to see them only during the summer months.
What is in the future for Windstar?
We are taking our yachts back to Alaska, and for the first time ever, we will have two vessels in Tahiti this year. We are seeing a lot of pent-up demand, especially among “new to the brand” guests. Coming in 2022 is another first for Windstar when we send a yacht to Australia and New Zealand. Since these ships will have new engines, they are able to sail faster. They will visit both marquis, popular ports as well as smaller destinations that large ships are not able to visit.
Photo courtesy: Windstar Cruises
Ramsey Qubein is a freelance travel journalist covering hotels, cruises, airlines, and loyalty programs from around the globe.