For most cruise lines, the business model is pretty consistent: keep developing more and better cabin amenities, dining venues, kids programming, and entertainment options, and sail weeklong cruises that call at three or four ports and spend the rest of the time at sea. A new company, called easyCruise (www.easycruise.com), has a different strategy.
Provide a basic ship with basic amenities and a la carte dining, and focus on destinations during an ultra-flexible port-a-day itinerary.
Starting May 6 and running through October 15, the 170-passenger easyCruiseOne will sail a repeating 7-night itinerary round-trip out of Nice each Friday, visiting seven ports along the French and Italian Rivieras: Nice, Cannes, and St. Tropez (France); Genoa, Portofino, and Imperia/San Remo (Italy); and Monaco.
The kicker: Passengers can join the ship anywhere along the route and pay a per-day rate starting at just $113 per day for a twin cabin. (That's per day, not per person -- a fantastically low rate.) When you board and how long you stay is entirely up to you, as long as you book at least two nights. You could, for instance, choose to embark the ship in Cannes on Saturday and finish your cruise on Wednesday in Portofino.
The man behind easyCruise is the one-name, serial entrepreneur Stelios, aka Stelios Haji-Ioannou, a 38-year-old go-getter from a wealthy Greek shipping family who over the past ten years has churned out more than a dozen businesses from his U.K.-based easyGroup. There's car-rental agency easyCar.com; pizza delivery service easyPizza.com; easy4men.com, a new line of men's toiletries sold in Boots pharmacies across the U.K.; and most significantly the no- frills airline easyJet, one of Europe's largest low-cost airlines.
The easyCruise concept follows a pattern similar to the rest of the easies: Make it basic, make it affordable, give it a hip edge, and they will come. Oh, and paint it orange, the company's signature color. The easyCruiseOne, the fledgling line's first ship, formerly sailed as the semi-upmarket Renaissance II for now-defunct Renaissance Cruises. As part of its easy- fication, the ship's hull, cabins, and public areas are now a sea of orange, its passenger load has been increased from 114 to 170, and its original cabin windows have all been sealed over -- an amazing decision considering the cruise industry's general trend away from inside cabin. However, it's all part of the plan: Stelios expects passengers to use his ship like a hotel and spend most of their time ashore exploring the haunts of the rich, famous, and hip along the Rivieras.
"This is about making the destination the destination, not the ship," he says. "I don't expect a lot of my customers to be spending much time in their cabins."
Good thing, since the average cabin size is a tiny 100 square feet -- less than half the size of the original cabins from the ship's Renaissance days (four of which have been maintained as 258-square-foot suites). All cabins have simple platform beds and a private bathroom with shower, but not much else. Once you check in you won't even see a steward showing up to clean or change bedding unless you pay an additional $20 housekeeping charge. As for meals, they're available from three casual areas onboard (a tapas bar, a sports bar with burgers, and an Italian- style cafe) but are not included in the fare: you eats, you pays.
There are many other departures from a traditional cruise as we know it. The easyCruiseOne is adults-only, with a minimum age of 18. There is no casino, swimming pool, or spa, though you will find a hot tub, a small work-out room, and a gift shop. An onboard concierge assists passengers with information on restaurants, shops, bars, and clubs in port, and the line is considering also selling vouchers to get passengers in the door. Unlike most ships, which depart ports in early evening, easyCruiseOne will stay at dock until at least 4am, giving passengers plenty of time to explore the nightlife. And if you miss the boat? "You just hire a taxi and take it to the next place," says Stelios, noting that his entire itinerary, end to end, is less than 200 miles. Typically, the ship arrives in its next port around lunchtime.
As a further departure from the cruise norm, bookings can only be made through the company's website -- a hallmark of Stelios's easy brands -- rather than through travel agents.
If the easyCruise idea flies, Stelios has plans for adding more ships to the itinerary and expanding into other regions where the port-a-day concept could work, such as the Greek Isles, Spain's Balearic Islands, and the Italian coast around Capri and Naples.
"A floating hotel where the scenery changes every day is not a typical cruise," he noted at a recent meeting with journalists. True. And Stelios is not a typical entrepreneur.
If You Like the Idea, but Crave More Luxury . . .
Since mid 2002, luxe operator Silversea Cruises (tel. 800/722-9955; www.silversea.com) has been offering its own brand of flexible itineraries called Personalized Voyages, in which guests can create their own cruise itinerary by choosing when they start and end their cruise, no matter if they're combining parts of two or more cruise itineraries. Go to the line's website to plan your custom trip. There's a 5-night minimum, and the cruise fare is priced according to the number of cruise days. Silversea's four elegant small ships have suite-only accommodations and bundle all wines, spirits, and gratuities in the cruise rates.
From time to time, other luxury lines have offered flexible itineraries like this, but only on a case-by-case basis, usually during low season or during lean travel periods.
On its Europe itineraries, MSC Cruises (tel. 800/666-9333; www.msccruises.com) offers passengers the option of starting their cruise on any day. For instance, a published 7-night itinerary might sail round-trip from Genoa on Saturday, but you could choose instead to start your 7-night cruise in Civitavecchia on Sunday, during the ship's first port call. Unlike the Silversea per-diem pricing scheme, however, all cruises are sold on a 7-night basis, and if you opt for a shorter cruise than the published itinerary, you'll still have to pay the full 7-night fare. The comfortable ships in the MSC fleet each carry between 550 and 1,750 passengers.
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