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Cruise ships are likened to floating cities all the time. So it's hardly a great leap to embrace the industry's latest twist, the floating cruise ship condominium. The first one -- and only one so far -- is The World, which debuted five years ago (www.residensea.com). It's geared to a high-end crowd who can afford to spend millions buying real estate at sea and who gets into the idea of traveling the world in a very luxurious cocoon. For some owners, it's not just the thrill of globetrotting that hooks them, but also the exclusivity of the ship.

"The World is nothing like any of the cruise ships at sea. There are no organized activities, no announcements, and most importantly, the average number of residents and guests on board is only 150," says one apartment owner who appreciates the privacy of the ship.

Owning property on The World is a completely different experience than booking a cabin for a week aboard a typical cruise ship. It's the difference between renting a beach house for the summer and buying the cottage and moving in. Owners become a part of the community of residents and crew. Unless, that is, if you're a renter. Some World owners sublet their apartments, so a handful of well-heeled guests are part of the mix at any given time. (There's a six-night minimum and prices range from $1,300 to $4,800 per night per couple, including meals, select wines and spirits, port charges and tips.)

The Golf Club Set Goes to Sea

The bar was set high when The World debuted in 2002, a brand-new 43,524-ton ship built in Norway. After some initial hiccups with the pace of sales, all 165 apartments were sold and the operation appears to running smoothly under the guidance of managing agent ResidenSea, Ltd. The studio to three-bedroom apartments that range in size from 337 to 3,242 square feet, most with private verandas, traded for a healthy $825,000 to $7.3 million a piece, not including annual maintenance charges. A sizable investment considering owners paid top dollar for units that will have a much shorter life span than most land-based homes. Management expects the ship to operate for 70 years, though typical cruise vessels hit the scrap yard a few decades earlier.

"It is possible to keep a cruise ship going for 70 years if the owners can justify the effort and escalating costs to maintain it," says Atle Ellefsen, a naval architect and principal consultant at Det Norske Veritas (DNV), the Norwegian classification society. "A new passenger ship typically has a contractual design life of 30 years. In the course of time, new regulations, and wear and tear take its toll and things start to happen. Major refits are required."

To many owners, though, investing for the future isn't the point. They bought into a lifestyle when they purchased a condo on The World. In 2008, the ship will visit 28 countries, including Namibia, Oman, Egypt, India, Italy, Greece and the Ukraine. Continuously navigating the globe, residents' port preferences are factored in when each year's itineraries are created. The average stay in port is two and half days, so there's enough time to explore thoroughly.

Similar to most standard cruise ships, The World has a gym, spa, hair salon, library, business center, casino, multiple bars and lounges, and an onboard medical staff. You'll find two pools, a golf simulator, driving range, putting greens, full-sized tennis court, and a retractable marina for swimming and water sports. There are movies to watch, classical music performances, and occasionally dance, language and cooking classes. Babysitting is even available, and during the summer months, so are children's activities.

Unlike a typical cruise ship, on The World all but the studios have kitchenettes or full kitchens, so residents and guests have the option of cooking for themselves in their apartments. A gourmet grocery store on board sells produce, meats and staples such as milk, cooking oil and bread. If that's too much work, one of the ship's chefs can be hired to prepare a meal at $150 an hour. Otherwise, there are four restaurants to choose from, including Asian, Mediterranean, and a steak/seafood venue. Meals, and select wine and spirits, are included in the yearly maintenance fee.

The Idea Catches on ... at Least in Theory

It's not surprising the success of The World has spawned copycats, though at press time none of the other resident ships had actually hit the water yet.

Targeted for a summer 2010 debut, blueprints call for Residential Cruise Line's (www.residentialcruiseline.com) brand new 76,000-ton Magellan to offer 212 private suites, though construction of the ship has not yet started. Units will be offered as either full ownership or fractional (aka "joint") ownership, the later sold in monthly or two-week increments. Prices for a full-ownership two-bedroom apartment range from $3.2 to $5 million. Being marketed as an ultra luxurious ship on par with The World, one thing that sets them apart is the Magellan's larger size. Plans include six restaurants, two Bell Jet helicopters and an onboard heliport, an observatory with a full-time astronomer, indoor golf simulators, swimming and water sports marina with jet skis and fishing boats, and a kennel complete with resident veterinarian. Residential Cruise Line expects the ship's lifespan to be a ridiculously ambitious 100 years.

Along similar lines, the Four Seasons Ocean Residences (www.fourseasons.com/private_residences/oceanresidences) is another new residential ship on the drawing board. To be managed and operated by the Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, the high-end ship is slated to also debut in 2010, with construction to commence in mid 2008. Plans call for the 42,500-ton ship to have 112 one- to four-bedroom suites, the vast majority for whole ownership with 18 units reserved for guests.

The Orphalese (www.theorphalese.com), the offspring of Orphalese Holdings, is a third residential ocean liner in the works. This one is planned to be a whopping 90,000 gross registered tons and have 200 permanent two-to four-bedroom apartment residences starting at $10 million bucks and ranging in size from 1,000 to 4,000 square feet. The ship will also have 265 suites for transient cruise passengers. The sail date is set for 2010, though construction of The Orphalese has not yet begun. The ship's sales agent is Prudential Douglas Elliman, a New York City real estate firm.

Surf the web and other names pop up with a somewhat different cruise ship condo paradigm -- refurbishing older ships and selling cabins and suites like timeshares. One is Voyage Partners (www.voyagepartners.com), whose game plan is to turn 1970s-built ships into globetrotting condos with units jointly owned. Unlike The World's ultra-wealthy clientele, this outfit is targeting a more mid-market crowd and the intention is to market one ship to gays and lesbians. So far, it's all still in the idea phase; no ships have been purchased.

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