Most avid travelers dread the idea of a cruise for a good reason. But a small luxury cruise like Windstar is entirely different. Windstar understands the issues with large cruise ships and rectifies the experience by doing the opposite. The ships are small and intimate; the excursions, activities, and even the cuisine served on board are all organized around the local culture; the rooms are spacious; the crew is always excited to get to know you, and the amenities on board are just what you need and nothing more.
My mother and I are certainly avid travelers and have been exploring all over the world since I was little. Our first Windstar trip was in January of 2016 to French Polynesia, and it was a truly incredible experience sailing the South Pacific. This time we decided to take one of the relatively larger ships in the Windstar fleet, Star Breeze, which holds a little over 200 guests and still maintains a nearly 1:1 guest to crew ratio. The itinerary of the Spain and Portugal luxury cruise started in Lisbon and wound up in Barcelona, stopping in 6 ports along the way. We did not take excursions every day, but even in those days we wandered around on our own were superb, and we had a great trip learning more about Spain and Portugal.
The port of departure, Lisbon, felt like a European version of San Francisco; complete with steep hills and a Golden Gate Bridge of its own that was gifted to the city by the U.S.
We arrived a day early to explore Lisbon on our own and even took a tuk-tuk tour which was a fun way to see all of the most interesting sites. As a photographer, I found Lisbon so picturesque and interesting, with many varied architectural styles from one area of the city to the next. My favorite gem was the Monastero di São Vicente de Fora, where in addition to having one of the largest collections of azulejos (blue tiles) in the world on display in the monastery, you can climb the bell tower for an impressive view over the entire city.
The next stop was the southern coast of Portugal, the region of Algarve, where we stopped in Portimão. We chose to take a wine tour, and we drove out to the countryside where we tasted some of the wines and bought a few bottles, after, we still had time to explore Portimão when we returned. We had also been in Algarve the week before and did a boat tour along the coast, which I would highly recommend to see the beautiful caves and secluded beaches so characteristic of the area.
The following day we arrived in Seville, by far my favorite place on the trip. There is so much to see, and I would have loved to spend another week, but the top sites are the Alcazar and the Plaza de España. The first is a Moorish fortress thousands of years old and boasting the most gorgeous design you can imagine and the second was built more recently for the 1929 Ibero-American Exposition World’s Fair and features 48 tiled alcoves lining the walls of the structure, each representing a different province of Spain. Both are beautiful and elaborate buildings and definitely worth prioritizing. These are only two of the many incredible places in the city, and I wouldn’t blame you for wanting to return.
We did not reach our next port until the afternoon, but despite a foggy overcast day, I was fascinated with Gibraltar. I did not know that it is actually a British territory and one of the most densely populated places in the world. It sits at the narrow entrance to the Mediterranean and thus whoever controls Gibraltar has power over every ship that comes in and out of the sea. The place itself has no agriculture, no industry, but rather the inhabitants must import everything they need. The rock is interlaced with a complex tunnel system constructed by the British, making it actually a huge impenetrable fortress. On top of the rock live families of Barbary macaque monkeys, one of the more popular attractions to see – but don’t get too close because they have no problem taking your belongings or worse!
Málaga was the next port, where we chose to do another wine tasting excursion to the charming town of Mijas. Though the day was again foggy, we enjoyed walking around the small town and perusing the shops for local wares, including handmade Spanish pottery, where I purchased a beautiful set of dinnerware. The wine tasting was held after some free time, and we tried several of the local varieties.
Our next day, we arrived in port in Almería, immediately hopping onto a bus to the infamous Alhambra in Granada. It is a palace and fortress complex built in the 13th century by the Moorish Emirate of Granada. When the Christians conquered Granada, the palace became the court of Ferdinand and Isabella, this is where Christopher Columbus was given the endorsement for his 1492 voyage. The complex is huge and we could not see all of it in this one visit, but it is a beautiful mix of architectural styles and history.
The final stop was in luxurious Palma de Mallorca, known for attracting wealthy visitors from around the world. We spent the laid back day shopping in the center of town at the trendy boutiques, taking a taxi to a beach for lunch, then heading back to Palma for the Windstar Destination Discovery Event, a fascinating performance of Mallorcan folk dances complemented by an array of tapas and vermouth.
The cruise ended in Barcelona, and we stayed an extra day. Though there was way too much to pack into a few days, we did walk around much of the Gothic quarter and even made it up to Park Güell, designed by the Catalan architect Gaudi, for a great view over the city.
I felt that we got an ideal overview of the best that the Costa del Sol has to offer and I only wish we could have spent several more weeks in the area. Alas, there is never enough time when you are on vacation, but I headed home satisfied with an incredible journey full of rich historical insights, stunningly picturesque vistas, unique handmade souvenirs, new friends, and happy memories of a wonderful cruise.
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