I was introduced to small ship cruising when Windstar Cruises made history in Seattle. Their ship, Star Legend, became the largest-known cruise ship ever to transit the Chittenden Locks in Ballard and the century-old Lake Washington Ship Canal through Ballard and Fremont, to sail on to Lake Union. As the sleek white ship went through the locks, three television stations, a multitude of excited journalists on board, helicopter news cameras and thousands of people watching from shore were there for the historic event.
Small Ship Cruising with Windstar Cruises
I was pleased to be invited aboard for this momentous occasion, but as a travel writer, I also wanted to get a sense of what small ship cruising felt like. Star Legend was calling on Seattle as a special detour from its summer series of inaugural Alaska cruises.
Because they are a small ship cruise line, they offer unique experiences such as their newly-announced Signature Expeditions, which take guests on zodiac and kayaking adventures along Alaska’s rugged natural coastline right from the ship. That immediately appealed to me. I’ve shied away from cruising for years because I like to be in touch with what I’m seeing and am not a fan of crowds.
Small ship cruising means that the guests will be going to places along the way that cannot accommodate the usual cruise ship. In Alaska that means narrow inlets, getting close up and personal with glaciers and wildlife, and visiting small Native villages. Amazing sights with no need to leave the comfort of your luxurious vessel, I surmised.
We boarded at Seattle’s Pier 66 Cruise Terminal after going through security. As we were welcomed aboard by crewmembers, I noticed a fairly large counter-current pool bubbling away on that deck. We headed up to the next deck. The deck, on both sides, was lined with lounge chairs, each set up with a carefully rolled blue towel. I took a few moments to relax on one of the chairs and enjoyed the view of Seattle and the ferries making their way across Puget Sound. Mt. Rainier loomed over the horizon. I imagined what it would be like for the passengers headed north to Vancouver, B.C., and then on through the Inside Passage to Alaska.
Boutique Accommodations and Dining
As the music played and guests enjoyed sips of champagne from the small deck bar, I slipped away to join others in touring the ship. The first thing I noticed was that the passageways seemed wide. The center of the ship boasted an elegant brass and marine blue main staircase. There was also a convenient elevator.
At that point, I was curious about the staterooms. Star Legend carries 212 guests and 153 crewmembers. The cabins were roomy and beautifully decorated. Usually on a cruise ship passengers without a balcony suite are reluctant to spend time in their crowded quarters. But I noticed that on the Star Legend, even the smallest suites were 277 square feet and had an ocean view. The queen bed in these suites could be converted into two twin beds. And, since I am a tub-bath lover, I took special notice that the suite included a full-size tub and shower.
The sizes of the cabins only grew from there. The Classic Suites invite guests to relax in 400 to 530 spacious square feet. The living area offers views from the forward-facing window and French doors open onto a private veranda. And, for a total splurge, their Owners’ Suites measure 575 square feet and have a private dining area.
I also noticed that with 212 passengers, and spacious dining and lounging areas, you wouldn’t feel crowded.
In fact, I thought, it would be easy to make friends during the cruise and get to know crewmembers. And, as one who frequently writes about food, it didn’t go unnoticed that Windstar features an innovative culinary program as the Official Cruise Line of the James Beard Foundation.
Going through the Locks
The Star Legend is 440 feet in length with a beam (widest point) of 63 feet. They figured that the ship would have about 7.5 feet to spare on each side as it entered the Ballard Locks. That’s tight.
As we prepared to leave the dock, I headed for the bridge. Star Legend has an open bridge policy and, if you are respectful of the work being done, you are welcome to stay there and watch. The Puget Sound Pilot came on board and soon we were off, navigating not far from the shore of Elliot Bay and headed around West Point, where Seattle’s popular Discovery Park and Zoo are located.
The excitement mounted as we turned in toward the Ballard Bridge, a drawbridge. We were very close to shore on both sides and I noticed people gathering to wave and gawk at the huge ship in their rather small channel. Kayakers came closer than I thought safe, but then this was a once in a lifetime event for them.
At that point, the ship's bridge was closed as things were getting serious. This was an area known for small boat traffic, not cruise ship traffic. And this had never been done before! Several of us, including a local TV camera crew, stayed outside on that deck as we entered locks at Ballard.
The Ballard Bridge opened and we passed through. Ahead were the locks, looking very narrow. Crowds of people gathered along the parkway and on rooftops. The ship slowed.
As the Star Legend moved cautiously into the lock, we could see the difference in water level between where we were and Lake Union. The gate closed behind us and the rising water slowly brought the ship higher. We were so close to the people on shore we could carry on conversations. The crowd cheered and waved at their favorite TV news personalities on board. A helicopter circled, photographing the event.
When the water levels were equal, the gate opened and we sailed into the ship channel leading to Lake Union. It was exciting, momentous and a total relief that all had gone well.
Although we had nothing to do with the accomplishment, we made our way to the bar for a celebratory toast.
We passed close to Gas Works Park and toured Lake Union before setting the anchor. It was at that point that additional media were brought on board (plus a new Puget Sound Pilot) to visit the ship and go out on the new zodiacs that were being launched. Zodiac rides introduced us to the new fleet of six rugged inflatable boats that are a key part of Windstar's new Signature Expeditions program in Alaska.
We boarded the zodiacs from the Watersports Platform deep in the stern of the ship. I noticed that they had kayaks and small tenders that could be launched directly out the back of the ship.
It was a warm day and zipping around on the Zodiacs afforded us yet another camera angle of the beautiful white ship.
Unfortunately, after that, it was time for us to leave via the tender to the shore. As we left, I thought of all that the passengers were going to be seeing as they made their way back through the locks and north to Vancouver B.C. enjoying a spectacular sunset.
Planning your Windstar Cruises Adventure
The Windstar Cruises boutique cruise line carries 148 to 310 passengers on small ships that take travelers on cruises that are 180 degrees from ordinary as they put it. The ships call on 300 off-the-beaten-path and popular ports in 80 countries. Windstar Signature Expeditions will let you cruise to Alaska in a way few ever experience it. For some additional ideas on traveling in Alaska, see these articles from Wander writers.
Note: As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with the media day cruise and a meal for the purpose of review. While it has not influenced this review, the writer believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest.