Gentedimontagna founder Pavia Rosati reports from the inaugural cruise from Nice to Rome of Star Breeze, the latest ship in the Windstar fleet.
MONACO – I run a travel website, and I know next to nothing about cruises. This is like owning an art gallery and ignoring sculpture. Or being a chef who disregards dessert. Or a fashion designer who never does trousers. I may have my strong preferences for land-based pursuits, but it's pretty ridiculous that I've discounted an entire segment of the travel industry — one beloved by kabillions of travelers — based on preconceived notions that may or may not be true.
So when Windstar Cruises invited me and a friend on the inaugural journey of its Star Breeze ship, a four-day trip from Nice to Rome, I said yes and recruited Elisa, my favorite cousin in Verona who I see too rarely, to join me. For good measure, I added a few days in the South of France at the beginning of the trip and a few in Rome at the end to guarantee the journey would be worth the trans-Atlantic haul.
I needn't have bothered. I could have made the trip just for the cruise and I still would have had an incredible time. Star Breeze was a trip to remember for many unexpected reasons.
Before I talk about the trip, a little background: Star Breeze is the third all-suite power yacht in the Windstar fleet; the other three ships are sailing yachts. The Star Breeze was a Seabourne ship that Windstar had recently acquired and spent a few months renovating from top to bottom. In fact, that the crew was continually polishing and perfecting the yacht throughout our journey only confirmed what little I know about boats: Those things require endless maintenance. ("Ship-shape" takes on a whole new meaning when you're afloat.)
Sails, which are Windstar's claim to fame, are central to the company's identity. Whenever they leave port before 10 p.m., every Windstar yacht hosts their Sail Away ceremony. Guests gather on deck and a sail is unfurled as the soaring Vangelis tune "1492: Conquest of Paradise" plays over the loudspeakers. It's a ritual intended to cap off the day that was and launch them onto the next port of call.
Yes, it's corny. It's also sweet.
Another Windstar pillar is size: Their boats are small. Imagine a floating mega mall with theme parks and 6,000 passengers. Now reduce that image by a factor of 20 and you're getting close to the Windstar scale. Small boats mean fewer passengers (never more than 300, and only 212 on Star Breeze) and the ability to dock in smaller ports that could never accommodate the behemoths. One such "small" port, by the way, was Monaco. When you're docked shoreside, you can get on and off the boat at will. When you're on a bigger cruise ships anchored at sea, you rely on tenders to ferry you to shore. Not a disaster, but it does limit spontaneity and late-night carousing options, if those things matter to you as much as they do to me. Speaking of carousing, on to the cruise.
Day One: Nice, France
Maybe they knew I was coming, but the cruise began on land. (Way to ease me in, pals.) Windstar arranges on-shore excursions for its guests — it's part of their effort to deliver authentic, local experiences — and I chose Shop with the Chef, a tour of the Nice market with Michael Sabourin, Windstar's Montreal-born executive chef. Michael led the group (we were about 50) through the fruit and vegetable market in Old Town, introducing us to the Niçoise lady who supplied the strawberries we'd be eating on board and ordering a few kilos of white asparagus from the Provençal vendor at the next stand. We tasted briny olives, took countless photos of the displays of radishes and asparagus and peonies and roses (Instagram-bait for us; a regular Wednesday on the job for the fruit sellers), and made a general nuisance of ourselves filling the passageways — or so the vendors who we weren't buying from made very clear in English and in French.
Elisa and I peeled away to make our way to the Musée Marc Chagall across town before the scheduled afternoon embarkation. The last time I had been in this part of the world, I was 20, backpacking around Europe with a Eurrail pass. One my one day in Nice, I left my pals on the beach and walked an hour uphill to the museum, which I have remembered since as one of the best museums I'd ever visited, so I had high hopes for my return. My reunion with the museum was even better than I could have expected, Chagall's Old Testament canvases a sensory overload of color, wonder, and technique, totally unabashed in their beauty, morality, politics, and joy. This was a very excellent use of two hours.
We made our way to the port, found the ship, and were greeted with a long red carpet leading to the gangway, a lovely entrée that I thought was just for the inauguration but which I would later see was laid out at every port. Welcome back, it seemed to say, you're special and we missed you.
At check-in, we handed over our passports and were issued key cards with our names and room number, key cards we would need to show every time we went on and off the boat. (It's how the ship tracks who is and isn't on board.) When we walked into our suite, Elisa said, in very polite Italian, "hot damn!" and immediately took a photo to send to her three teenagers, who all texted back their considerable envy. Suite 214 — all creamy yellows and dark blues — was striking. The bedroom at the entrance consisted of two beds (made one in rooms for couples) covered in crisp white sheets lined in blue and lots of pillows, with a mirrored desk/vanity opposite. In the living room by the balcony were a sofa bed, two stuffed armchairs, a coffee table with a welcome bottle of Champagne, and a flat-screen TV with DVD player. The walk-in closet was big enough to accommodate two girls' worth of dresses and shoes; the bathroom was a sea of white and grey marble and mirrors.
From our balcony we could see that the christening ceremony pierside was swinging into high gear — violinists in white dresses, a saucy guy and girl in sailor suits walking on stilts, guests dressed for the gala, and rivers of Veuve Cliquot. The ceremony itself began with a priest's blessing in adorable broken English and a welcome from Windstar CEO Hans Birkholz. Windstar godmother, travel journalist, and Gentedimontagna pal Wendy Perrin gave a sweet keynote speech about how honored she was to be the godmother of a ship, given that she had honeymooned on a Windstar. She smashed a Champagne bottle on the bow as the crew of 100+, many of whom were from Indonesia and new to the company, gathered to watch the ceremony, wave to us on the dock, and release blue and white balloons into the sky. Way to get the party started.
Back on ship, everyone went to the top deck for Sail Away and even more Champagne. We were bound for Monaco, a short distance we could easily have covered via backstroke. Elisa and I had missed the orientation (and, er, the mandatory safety demonstration) while we were at the museum, so we went exploring. We ended up in the Compass lounge, where we found two musicians playing to an empty room. We started talking to them — they're Argentine and this was their first time sailing with Windstar — and were soon singing Brazilian and Italian songs with them. Karaoke at sea! I love it!
We made our way to our assigned tables in the AmphorA dining room and were seated with other journalists, many of whom had just flown in from the United States and were tired. By 9 p.m., dinner was long finished and Elisa and I were itchy to do something. Because we had already docked in Monaco, we went ashore.
We found a port lined with bars and restaurants and temporary bleachers, tents, and racecars in anticipation of the month-long races that culminate in the Grand Prix through the streets of Monte Carlo. This being a port, many of the locales were sketchy, but we found one that looked more than promising: Joseph. It was elegant, decadent, and overpriced — the very definition of Monte Carlo itself. At the entrance was a long table occupied by 20 rambunctious gentlemen in suits. Elisa and I walked past quickly to avoid unwanted with elegant, decadent, and overpriced Monegasques.
"Did you see who was at that table?" she asked when we sat down. "Prince Albert."
And so it was. (He's not aging as well as a Prince should age. Elisa recognized him because she kinda sorta knows him, but wasn't in the mood to chat tonight.) He danced the night away near his table with his pals and a zaftig woman wearing painted-on jeans and a skimpy grey tank top. Another woman, just as much of a spectacle, wore a leopard-print mini dress and danced as her three little Chihuahuas on leashes tried to avoid her stilettos. Oh, you wacky Frenchies. Elisa and I danced the night away at our own table until 3 a.m.
Let's review the tally of my first day on the cruise: one charming market, one epic museum, one Champagne smashing, and one nightclubbing Prince.
Day Two: Monte Carlo and Monaco
We would be leaving Monaco at 11 p.m. today, which meant we had a free day to explore the Riviera. The ship has an activities desk staffed by Travis, the director who advises guests on the day's potential activities, which included in-town visits to Old Town, the Oceanographic Museum, the changing of the guard at the palace, and out-of-town excursions to the nearby Rivera towns Eze, Villefranche-sur-Mer, and Larvotto beach.
Every night we found mini-guides in our room detailing the day's schedule on board (Pilates and yoga classes in the gym, entertainment highlights, cocktail of the day, special treatments at the spa), the weather, a town map, and recommendations for activities ashore.
My agenda was already fixed and involved another trip down memory lane: I wanted to revisit Cap D'Ail, the small town directly west of Monaco notable for three things: a seaside path that winds its way along the coastline, gorgeous villas on the cliffs, and, most improbably, a youth hostel where I had stayed on that same Eurrail trip of my youth. As with the Chagall Museum, I wanted to see if my memory lived up to its hype. Had I really stayed in a former villa in a multi-million euro neighborhood for a mere $10 a night?
The train ride from Monte Carlo took four minutes, and our walk along the coast took about an hour, first east, then back. It was an overcast day, but not even clouds could detract from the setting. Coves, cliffs, pink mansions, bougainvillea — this stretch of the world is the stuff dreams are made of.
I found Thalassa, my youth hostel, only to discover that it was closed during the afternoon. No! But I came all this way! (Though I seemed to recall that was the case way back when, too.) Undeterred, I walked around the grounds and found everything exactly as I remembered it, communal and a little grimy. Oh, look, there's the grill where we cooked burgers while blasting the Steve Miller Band into the sunset. I opened a not-very-well-locked door in the basement (I was on a mission!) and snuck upstairs into one of the rooms, where I discovered that though youth hosteling may involve more electronic devices than it did in my day, some thing remained blessedly the same: messy bunk beds, unmade beds, and even messier backpacks overflowing with dirty T-shirts and boxes of cookies. Ah, to be young, broke, and on the go.
Back in Monte Carlo, we walked around town and stopped for pizza and a bottle of rose at Tip Top, a restaurant that's a Gentedimontagna Favorite in Monaco that was also recommended by the ladies at Czarina, a gorgeous housewares shop in Les Pavillons Monte-Carlo where I wanted to buy just about everything, especially a folding ladder lined in dark blue leather.
We made our way back to the ship for a French dinner and were seated at Wendy Perrin's table along with her charming husband, Tim Baker; Lindsay Pearlman, the equally charming co-president of Ensemble Travel Group; and his wife, Leah. Wendy, who knows all too well that I suffer from cruise skepticism, wanted to know what I thought about the trip so far.
"Well," I told her, "One day we're in Nice, the next we're in Monaco, and tomorrow we get to Portofino. And I get to do all this traveling while unpacking only once and not having to manage the schlepping or the packing. Which makes this kinda like a floating boutique hotel. Which is kinda brilliant."
Now, this may seem obvious to everyone else on board, but was not obvious to me until I had tried it.
"Still," I continued, "I'm glad I'm not on a big ship with 2,000 other people."
"Have you ever been on one of those?" Leah asked.
"No," I said. "I'd be too afraid to."
"You're just wrong," she said, very sweetly. "And until you've done it, you shouldn't knock it. They can be amazing, with service unlike you could ever imagine. And you never, ever feel like you are one of thousands."
Hmm, I thought to myself, I may have to put a pin in that one. But at the moment, I couldn't counter her argument with anything other than my own prejudice. Point to you, Leah.
We got off the boat for final course, which was served at a private event in town — music, desserts, and entertainers on the rooftop at the legendary Café de Paris, followed by a visit to the even more legendary Grand Casino Monte Carlo, where the contrast between the old and frescoed ceilings and the whirring digital slot machines couldn't be more jarring. I'm not a gambler, but this place makes for great people watching.
We were back on board for a sharp 11 p.m. departure. I remembered that the movie Iron Man had a terrific race car scene filmed in Monte Carlo on the streets we had just walked. Wouldn't you know? The ship's library had all three Iron Man movies. Elisa and I borrowed them all and ordered two servings of popcorn from room service. We had heard the popcorn was good, but it was, in fact, amazing. We fell asleep watching movies and woke up the next day in Italy.
Day Three: Portofino, Italy
At daybreak, the view outside our balcony was of the Ligurian coastline and Portofino, one of Italy's most picturesque and charming ports. We were docked at sea because this harbor is too small for anything but the smallest boats, so we got to experience the tender crossing into town. Tenders: choppy little things! Spend too much time in those, and you'll need your seasick pills. It was a short jaunt to shore, where the excursion for the day was an olive oil tasting and lunch of the local pasta, trofie with pesto, at Belmond Hotel Splendido.
The hotel is one of Gentedimontagna's World's Most Romantic Hotels, so I was only too happy to choose this excursion over the visit to the Brown Castle, nice though that would have been. Elisa and I got into a conversation with the PR representative of the hotel over hors d'oeuvres, and she took us on a tour of the hotel to see the recently renovated modern suites (and a bedspread I want to recreate at home) and a few classic rooms. The hotel is a former monastery with rooms overlooking the sea and the port below. And, yes, it's incredibly romantic. (Hats off to those old monks who knew their way around real estate.)
Lunch was Italy at its best: a big round table, baskets of bread, bowls of pasta, bottles of wine, lots of animated conversation. After lunch, Elisa and I set off for a walk with Sally Spaulding, a Gentedimontagna contributor who now does PR for Windstar. (It was she who invited me on the trip.) The three-hour hike winds behind Hotel Splendido and leads past remote homes (how the hell do these people get here?), olive groves, and gardens, through hilly forests and cliffside plummets (it's all very Grimm's fairy tales). We ended up in San Fruttuoso, a tiny village, if you can even call it that, with one 10th-century abbey and two beachside restaurants. We made it onto the last ferry of the day back to Portofino with 90 seconds to spare.
Back in Portofino, Sally went back to the ship for the big barbecue, but Elisa and I stayed in town for an incredible pasta dinner at Ö Magazìn in port: tagliatelle with tiny calamari called totani, trofie with pesto, and a fantastic local white wine. I kept getting up from the table to photograph the sky and the clouds as the sun set over Castello Brown across the harbor. It was, needless to say, another stereotypically perfect Italian scene.
We caught the last tender back to the ship (are you sensing a theme?) and met up with our fellow passengers on deck. More wine. More movies. More room service popcorn. What can I say? These were easy habits to fall into.
Day Four: Portoferrario, Elba
"Don't expect much today," Elisa warned me. "Elba is only okay." My cousin, who has been everywhere in Italy, had toured the island on a boat with friends a few years prior and knew her way around.
Still, I was sure she'd be wrong. We were on the island of Napoleon's exile! Not far from rugged Corsica and beautiful Sardegna! How bad could it be?
We had a leisurely breakfast on the ship, the same meal we had every day — scrambled eggs with tomatoes from the omelet station for me, yogurt-fruit smoothies for Elisa (a different flavor every day), and sliced pineapple for both. It was a day at leisure for many — Lindsay and Leah were going to walk around Portoferraio town to see the ramparts and the Napoleonic residences, Wendy had emails to respond to (no one takes her readers more seriously), and a few others (New Yorkers who had just survived a brutal winter) were going to find a beach.
Elisa and I rented a car for $55 and set out on a loop around the western and southern parts of the island. We stopped at beaches for a walk in the sand and in towns that looked cute. We met a Milanese craftsman who moved to Elba and set up shop in a former bakery (oven still intact) where he sells his handmade medieval and Renaissance leather shoes, masks, and other accouterments.
Why? Because this is his passion, that's why, and he is totally undeterred by the fact that the modern world doesn't have much demand for archery sheaths and sword holders. What a wonderful kook.
Elba itself was beautiful — rugged and pretty and sparsely populated. It is undoubtedly something else by boat, because I could tell from the road above the coves were even more stunning. This is the place to come when you want to have the most laid-back beach vacation possible, when you want your days to be about beaches, pizza, wine, and novels.
We had to be back on board by 4 p.m. for an early departure, so we raced back to Portoferrario, only to discover that departure would be delayed a few hours because the ship was waiting for an important delivery. This was very mysterious to me, and I wanted to know which VIP guest had been stranded or which spy mission was being accomplished.
Seriously: What gets delivered on Elba??? Sadly, I couldn't get any salacious answers to my stupid and probing questions, so I used the extra time to hit to the surprisingly well-equipped gym, have a steam at the spa, and try in vain to connect to the internet.
I sat next to chef Sabourin at the final dinner, which, unlike the other two prix fixe menus I had eaten, was more reflective of the a la carte menu typically served aboard. I ordered tuna tartare with avocado, gazpacho, grilled lamb chops with smashed potatoes, and Grand Marnier soufflé. No holding back: I ate every course, and it was all delicious.
By now, everyone on the ship was feeling really friendly — the people who we had been seeing around for three days suddenly felt like pals (it didn't hurt that we were all being treated like VIPs). Our table had a spirited conversation about the proper way to saber a bottle of Champagne. Later that night, we made our way to Compass for final drinks in the lounge, where business cards and hugs were exchanged.
I had heard that the bridge was open to visitors at all hours, so the last thing I did on board was find the control room to get a dose of serious maritime stuff. The captain and mate on duty were only too happy to oblige, explaining what all the dots on the map meant and what the lights in the distance were. (More stupid questions from me about why everything seemed upside down.) I was, of course, hoping to spot an iceberg, because how crazy would that be in the middle of the Mediterranean? But no such luck for this sailor.
The following morning, we docked in Civitavecchia in Rome, and were escorted by bus to Termini train station in Rome. In the end, what I thought would be four days getting potentially stir crazy on a boat turned out to be four days exploring the coastline of France and Italy with my wonderful cousin, interrupted by almost too-brief stretches at sea. My novel was unread, my feet were tired from all the walking we had done, and I found myself dreaming of one day taking ten days to cross the vast Atlantic.
Maybe I'll do it. Maybe when the Star Breeze crosses from its Mediterranean summer to its Caribbean winter. I'm open.
Ready to go sail away? Find and book your Windstar cruise here.