When I first saw her my heart skipped a beat. She had sleek, clean lines, was a bright white against the Mediterranean Sea, and had five 225-foot-tall masts reaching toward the sky. The Wind Surf, one of the three boats that comprise WindStar Cruises, was the perfect ship. Proving that bigger is not always better, she looked like a hot sports car next to the other massive square ships in the Roman port. Even before stepping foot on the boat, I could see why Windstar was honored by Conde Nast Traveler as the best small ship cruise line.

Being a very independent traveler, I never thought I would enjoy the confines or the schedule of a cruise ship. But all that changed when I discovered Windstar. Because the ship is only 535-feet long (and this is the largest of their three ships) we were able to navigate into exclusive ports of call that are typically accessible only by yacht. Many of the destinations didn’t even have a pier so a small boat would take us to shore. I enjoyed that we were able to cruise into these smaller, sometimes more obscure, ports. They were places that had I been planning the trip on my own I might have missed as they were too small or out of the way.

Rather than feeling confined, each new day was like Christmas morning; I jumped out of bed, ran to the portals, and pulled back the drapes, anxious to get the first glimpse of the new locale we were arriving at. I also noticed that people on land were always staring back at the sight of this elegant ship gliding into their bay.

While there was a time limit in each port, the day was ours to do as we pleased. Some guests strolled though the Italian or Greek seaside towns, others went on professionally lead tours, and still others just enjoyed the views from poolside. The more sports minded on board enjoyed their choice of kayaking, ski-tubing, and snorkeling, which were available off the back of the boat.

Unlike the bigger ships, small ship cruising really gives you the experience of being at sea. This is an intimate cruise that connects you to the sea, and the ports of call. Two of the four restaurants are on the back decks, holding only six to eight tables, allowing you to watch the shore pass by as you eat. The other restaurants and bars also all have fantastic ocean views, and you are never more than a few steps away from a view of the water anywhere on the boat.

On-board, the feeling is casual elegance. The beautiful teak wood decks, the towering white sails, the comfortable lounging areas, and the exquisite food all give that experience of being on board a good friend’s yacht. There are no dress-up nights or crazy parties, just great places to hang out and enjoy the sea and the beautiful locations passing by. This boat has two pools, a gym, two hot tubs and four restaurants. The entertainment on the ship is low key as well with an intimate show room and bar. On our cruise a great duo performed in the lounge, and a world class pianist who has performed in Carnegie Hall was a rare treat.

There are three room types to choose from. The basic staterooms on the lowest and second lowest decks run between $1,800 to $3,600, depending on the location and time of year you are traveling. The suites can run between $2,600 and $5,000 and if you can afford it, they are worth the extra dime. Suites are twice the size of the staterooms, have two bathrooms, a small sitting area, two large closets, come with iPod docking stations and DVD players, and offer great views.

Choose a destination soon, as the ships are filled early. Windstar sails in Europe, the Caribbean, the Panama Canal, and Costa Rica. The tours around the Mediterranean such as Rome to Athens or Nice to Barcelona offer great ports of call. Small ship cruising is something you won’t want to miss. Check out all their 2010 sailings at www.windstarcruises.com.

Dan Dawson is a travel journalist and dedicated world traveler who has written articles for many publications on adventures abroad. He is also the marketing manager for the Big Blue Bus.

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