When Home Is Not a Castle But a Cruise Ship

Can the rich and famous finally find happiness at sea? A future ship of million-dollar condos may hold the answer.

The problem with a two-week cruise is that by the time you start relaxing to the rhythms of the voyage, it's time to pack up and find the airport.

But what if you never had to go home? What if the ship were your home?

Cruise industry maverick Knut Kloster Jr. wants to sell you a condo aboard his planned supership The World, which will travel endlessly in search of sun and amusements. Your home will overlook the Sydney Opera House, the Montserrat Volcano, and the Bridge of Sighs in Venice And all your neighbors will be as rich as you.

"You'll have your books, a kitchen full of the foods that you like, plenty of room to entertain, and all the latest communications technology to keep you in touch with your company," promises Mr. Kloster, scion of a renowned Norwegian shipping family.

Some prospective residents are retirees, but the average age of those who have signed up so far is only 50, according to Kloster. They are working people of the modem generation. But they are not of the work-a-day world.

The cost of a designer condominium with several bedrooms, hot tub, and veranda is between $1.2 million and $4.3 million. Use of the helipad is free, but annual condo fees run from $60,000 to $180,000. Properties range in size from 1,100 to 3,200 square feet.

Madonna and Tom Cruise need not apply, as celebrities and their paparazzi are not welcome at the gangway. Kloster is looking for discreet, run-of-the-mill millionaires: board chairmen, CEOs, investment bankers, heirs and heiresses and their families. For many, The World will be a second (or third or fourth) home. Sure, parties are allowed, but don't forget that your next-door neighbor may have to get up early the next day for a video conference with her New York sales staff.

"Fifteen years ago this idea would not have worked," says Mr. Kloster. "What makes it possible is the mobile telephone."

It also helps that the rich have gotten richer, particularly in the United States, where Kloster expects to recruit half The World's population. "There are now 6 million millionaires around the world," he notes. "I only have to reach 250 of them."

That is the number of condominiums for sale. When the owners are away, they may rent out their units or lend them to friends, colleagues, or clients. The World will also have 180 guest quarters for rent, bringing the total number of passengers at one time to between 400 and 700.

A cruise ship of similar size carries three or four times that number.

In one of the larger units, for part of the year, you'll find Greek Cypriot shipping and airline tycoon Polys Haji-Ioannou. "I will probably spend three or four hours a day on the phone talking to ship brokers, shipyards, and to various other business associates," he says from his London headquarters. "The rest of the time, I'll be swimming or playing tennis."

The World is expected to weigh 85,000 tons and extend nearly 1,000 feet from stem to stern, making it larger than the Queen Elizabeth 2. Any larger and it could not squeeze through the Panama Canal. The top three decks will be given over to a half-dozen restaurants, concert halls, a casino, shopping areas, swimming pools, an outdoor tennis court, golf range, and other attractions of a small, affluent city. The crew and hospitality staff will number about 500. One of them, of course, will be a full-time stock broker.

For now The World is pure fantasy, though the company behind it, ResidenSea Ltd., has opened offices in New York, Miami, Monaco, and London in addition to its Oslo headquarters. Kloster says he must have $100 million in firm purchase commitments before ordering the ship built. He hopes to do that before the year is out.

So far, he says, more than 60 people have made nonbinding reservations and "a substantial number," including Mr. Haji-Ioannou, have put down 10 percent of the purchase price.

Construction of the Bahamian-registered ship is estimated to cost at least $400 million and to take about 30 months to build. Thus Kloster and his fellow Norwegian investors have a tall order to fill if The World is to sail into Sydney harbor, as advertised, for the 2000 Summer Olympic Games.

The doubters include a number of shipping industry analysts who wonder if Kloster - former chief executive of Royal Viking Line, Norwegian Cruise Line, and Royal Cruise Line - has overestimated the desire of millionaires to disappear onto an endless cruise. Oslo ship broker Gustav Brun Lie warns, "People are always skeptical of something new."

Kloster replies that he is not selling cruises but property in the price class of a New York Central Park apartment. Those aboard will not feel aimless or confined, he insists, because the ship will be in port 250 days a year, with extended stays in each place instead of the one-day stopovers typical of cruise ships.

"When the ship is in Venice for a week, you will simply be a resident of Venice," he says, calling shipboard condominiums an economical alternative to owning several vacation homes or a private yacht.

He even predicts that The World will spawn a new floating real estate industry catering to people of various income levels and tastes.

"Most people I describe the project to have the same reaction: 'Why hasn't anyone thought of this before?' " he says. "My answer is that there is a time for everything."

If The World joins the real world, residents in the first three years will attend the Melbourne Olympics, the Cannes Film Festival in France, Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, the Monaco Grand Prix, and the America's Cup in Auckland, New Zealand. After that, residents will help set the itinerary.

Pets, by the way, are not allowed. So if you're a million or two short when Kloster calls to deliver his well-honed sales pitch, you can use Fifi as your excuse to say no. Then hang up before he mentions the Roman spa.

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