Back in the mid-’90s, Knut U. Kloster Jr., ex-president of Norwegian Cruise Lines, had one crazy idea: He would build the world’s most luxurious ship, not with cabins or staterooms but with individually owned apartments so people could “travel the globe without leaving home.” He would call it The World. And why not? Its mission, after all, would be to sail, 365 days a year (minus those at port), throughout the world, from Hamburg to Ho Chi Minh City to the Hudson piers. On March 29, 2002, The World, built in a shipyard in Rissa, Norway, set out on its maiden voyage.
In March 2003, Departures sent reporter Reggie Nadelson to experience it: “Before I left New York for a few days on the ship, a friend actually offered to carry my bags, even iron my underwear, if she could only come with me just to get a glimpse, a peek at life aboard this brand-new World.” What Nadelson found was the “restoration of true luxury, of real old-fashioned glamour, the kind that once existed on the fabulous liners.”
Alas, nothing is forever, and the whole $264 million investment nearly ended up in dry dock until The World’s residents managed, in an eleventh-hour deal, to avoid bankruptcy and actually buy the ship from its original owners. They have maintained ResidenSea as the management company, and the ship sold the last of its original apartments in June 2006. “And it’s worked beautifully ever since,” says Scott Steinfort, who bought his two-bedroom in 2008 and is now the cochair of the itinerary committee.
Recently, Departures decided it was time for a second look. As one resident put it, “God forbid someone should confuse us with a cruise ship.” Or as a time-share or condo, which would imply that owners can rent their properties to whomever they want for however long they want. ResidenSea still allows prospective buyers onboard through a special program called “Guest Stay,” though that’s by invitation only and, even then, strictly controlled. Ten years ago, Departures reported that all you got was a 50-year leasehold; under the present-day package, every residence remains the owner’s property for the life span of the ship (or until he decides to resell).
When we visited The World, sailing on the Bass Strait between Adelaide and Melbourne, just a handful of the 165 apartments were on the market, the range running from $700,000 for a studio to $10 million for a 4,000-square-foot penthouse. Annual fees are roughly 10 percent to 15 percent of the apartment’s sale price. During the three days we spent on the ship, less than half of the residents were onboard. But even in the high season, i.e., Christmas and New Year’s, there’s always a feeling of luxe and calm. “We are, to be honest, financially secure enough that we can come and go at will,” said one San Franciscan who entertained us over cocktails in his two-bedroom suite before dinner. “There’s never some mad scramble around the pool for a chair or towels or an attendant. It’s like life at home.”
And that’s the intention. “Really?” asks one skeptic back home. “It doesn’t seem like a floating retirement resort?” Not at all. There were a few lovely bejeweled dowagers with serious stones, but otherwise it was a decidedly active and engaged community. The average age is 64, but 35 percent are under 50. Some stay aboard all year, but most are still employed and spend an average of three to four months annually on the ship. Half are from North America, 36 percent from Europe and the rest from Asia, Australia, South America and South Africa. This is a well-heeled lot who have the luxury of time. Some are big-dollar guys who left us with the impression that they had worked like maniacs, then, 40 years later, suddenly looked up from their spreadsheets and thought, I have all the money in the world, but what about a life? For them, The World is a built-in way to see the sights as well as build a social life—or not. Some couples seem perfectly happy to live and travel à deux. Others entertain constantly and travel with their World-ly companions. Then there are many second-, third- and fourth-home owners who pick and choose their stays onboard the ship. One elegant older couple divides their time between The World and residences in Santa Barbara, California, and Cannes, depending on the season. They might, for example, sail to Cape Town, pick up an elaborate camel safari in Australia, helicopter over Greenland’s glaciers and fjords or go diving in St. Barths. One recent trip included tracking more than a hundred polar bears on Wrangel Island in the Russian Arctic. Another re-created Shackleton’s legendary hike to Stromness on South Georgia in the South Atlantic Ocean.
Or life at sea can be all one needs, with mornings spent at the spa and the gym and afternoons catching up on periodicals or reading one of the Study’s 4,000 books, updated constantly to include New York Times best sellers. There are classes in cooking, mixology, languages, dance and navigation; there’s the World Boutique and the World Showroom for shopping. Fine art is on exhibit at the Gallery, and the Card Room is for bridge, poker and chess. There’s also a chapel, a medical center and an art studio. In other words, there’s more on this one ship than in many landlocked communities.
And then there are eating and drinking, two things we found ourselves doing a lot of. The World is committed to bringing its destinations into its bars and kitchens. In its own words, “Members of the team don the hat of explorer and search local markets for fresh and indigenous ingredients, whether it’s king crab in Alaska, tuna and mango in French Polynesia, Peruvian trout or Caribbean spiny lobster.” Like the 12,000 bottles of wine in the cellar, the spirits in the bar are all about local flavor, and the team has sourced small batches of vodka from France and New Zealand, exclusive whiskies from Scotland, pisco from Peru; among the 40 types of sake, we fell in love with a pink sparkling one. Marinela Ivanova, sommelier and beverage manager, personally scouts many of the labels, in addition to ordering vintages at the request of residents. Regional winemakers bring their best bottles aboard when giving tastings, and an additional 2,500 bottles sit in the ship’s wine vaults, which residents may use to store their own collections. During The World’s journeys through Canada’s Northwest Passage and Antarctica, passengers enjoyed the same fresh fruit and vegetables they do when they pull into any urban port. There are four restaurants that we would say specialize in haute cuisine: East (for pan-Asian), Marina’s (for seafood), Tides (for Northern Italian) and Portraits, with its destination-inspired menus and an 1,800-bottle cellar that includes rare and hyper-local bottles like Sassicaia from Tuscany and Château Haut-Brion, as well as New World labels like Shafer and Peter Michael from California.
Recently, we went back to look at our diary entry for life aboard The World on our last day at sea: Woke up to a sunny morning only to be enveloped in gray mist. Perfect—caught up with the Financial Times, The Economist and Monocle. Watched the first half of Chinatown (from among the ship’s amazing collection) for the hundredth time. A quick workout at the gym, skipped the facial and massage for an early lunch at Tides: mesclun salad with feta cheese, peaches and roasted tomatoes, then a Thai coconut-chicken soup. Too bad it all went so fast…just imagine if we owned our own apartment AND never had to disembark except if we chose to.
Residences on The World range from $700,000 for a studio to $10 million for the penthouse suite. Though all of the ship’s 165 apartments sold out in 2006, a select few are back on the market. A ship in perpetual motion, it anchored in 31 countries last year, following a route decided two years in advance by the residents, captains and itinerary director. Europe is on the docket for 2013, with the ship set to coast through Norway’s fjords this month and Russia’s White Sea in June. Later this year, the gangway lowers on Corfu, Montenegro, Sicily and Venice. Go to aboardtheworld.com for more details, or call Jennifer Bell at 954-538-8446 to arrange a visit—though you’ll want to plan ahead, as The World never sits still.