On Top of The World

She took six years and $264 million to build and redefines the modern cruise ship. Reggie Nadelson reports from the upper deck.

No one knows exactly what to call it. The World has been dubbed a floating resort, a Fifth Avenue condo turned on its side and circumnavigating the globe, Manhattan without the garbage trucks. There's no vocabulary yet, no grammar, for this 43,000-ton, 644-foot ship where you own your own apartment. It's strictly a limited-edition one-of-a-kind with only 108 condos, running from $2.25 to $7.5 million, 75 percent of which have already been sold. You can't claim it as your primary residence; you can't hold title to property at sea, either. All you get is an exclusive 50-year leasehold. Maintenance starts at $90,000. No pets are allowed.

The World, launched last March, is sold not as a financial investment but as a lifestyle, and the mythology surrounding it has taken root via both canny promotion and word of mouth. 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.

If you buy into The World, the myth goes, you are daring, adventurous, rich enough to gamble; you have the time, imagination, and intellectual curiosity for that which is both recherché and exotic. Residents are urged to experience "The World" in both senses: Land packages include the Costa Rican rainforest, the terra-cotta warriors of Xian, the Chilean Lake District; and the ship's small scale means it can sail up the Thames to Greenwich or into Ho Chi Minh City, park in front of the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg or the Piazza San Marco. This is the ultimate safe adventure with a return ticket, as Graham Greene once described travel to the exotic. And there is the sense that here, in a modern idiom, we finally have the restoration of true luxury, of real old-fashioned glamour, the kind that once existed on the fabulous liners.

Somewhere between the Titanic and the Love Boat the great ships—transatlantic liners like the Queen Elizabeth and Queen Mary, the France and the United States—lost their panache, their drama, their style. The upstairs, downstairs world of the Titanic, bejeweled nobs in first class, dancing peasants in steerage, that opened the 20th century turned to dreary sit-com before it ended. In Brideshead Revisited Jeremy Irons wore tweeds on deck, the aristocratic lovers changed for dinner, no one was seasick, and they certainly never had the Norwalk virus. In An Affair to Remember Deborah Kerr wore chiffon and fur to drink pink Champagne with Cary Grant in the first-class bar. Today's Caribbean cruisers are decked out in T-shirts and shorts.

You mean I need to get a yachting cap like Tony Curtis in Some Like It Hot?" inquired my friend, Peter, whom I've come to think of as The Skeptic. This was before we flew to Antigua in October to board The World for a three-day cruise. But then he is British and was convinced the ship would at best be pretentious—gold bathroom faucets, waiters with hands behind their backs—at worst, a bore.

At the dock in St. Johns a red carpet led to the gangplank and crew members in white uniforms—spiffy as chorus boys from Noël Coward's Sail Away—whisked off our luggage.

The ship's lobby had acres of polished wood, inlaid floor, sweeping ceilings, a bar with a grand piano. Through the windows, the Caribbean glittered like silver in the hot afternoon light. Off the lobby was the ship's little main street, where you could buy large yellow diamonds and jeweled teddy bears at Graff or stock up on caviar and Rice Krispies at Fredy's Deli.

Bernhard Stacher, the front office manager, a bespectacled Viennese, led the way to our apartment. It was off a corridor lined with lithographs and smelling that sweet, crisp scent of a place that's brand-new. In an accent that implied opera and marzipan, Bernhard opened a door and said,"I think that you will enjoy your home."

The two-bedroom, two-bath apartment had Nina Campbell's signature chintz and checks in pale maize and aqua, a dining table and six chairs, plenty of cushions and sofas to put your feet up in front of the plasma TV, a king-size bed with Frette linens, and ample closet space. The baths had dark wood, pale marble, Jacuzzis, good lighting, piles of white towels, and a drawer for a Champagne bucket and glasses.

The kitchen was pale wood, stainless steel, and glass, and like all the others was fully equipped and built inside an invisible steel box. If you so much as burn your toast the doors snap shut and a fire officer appears. The Wedgwood plates, Schott Zwiesel crystal, Christofle flatware, cappuccino machine, knives—all are included in the price of the condo.

On the veranda running the length of the apartment, we stretched out on a pair of chaises. There are no fixed schedules on The World, no de rigueur cocktail parties, no sittings for dinner. So much quiet, so much space, so much time all your own, made me feel sublimely solitary. Though the ship's average passenger occupancy is 320 (with a capacity of 650), there were only 84 people on board. During the three days, we wandered the upper decks, drank in the bars, ate in the deserted restaurants, swam in the pools, lounged in the public spaces of the 12-deck ship, and saw almost no one, except a woman in the library looking at navigation charts who asked what day it was. On a nearby table a jigsaw puzzle of Big Ben had been left unfinished. It was as if the cast of Gosford Park had just gone up to change for dinner.

"This has the flavor of wandering through a deserted nirvana, like the spaceman at the end of 2001, finding himself in God's bedroom," said The Skeptic. "It stirs the big questions: Where is everybody? Will I wake up soon?"

"On board I feel as if the world has slowed down," says Richard Altomare, president and CEO of Universal Express, who with wife Barbara (both avid golfers and bridge players) owns a World condo. "There's no hustle and bustle or excess, as with regular cruises," adds the 55-year-old New Yorker.

The ship was the brainchild of Knut Kloster Jr., whose father more or less invented the modern cruise industry in l966 with the Norwegian Caribbean Line. Kloster Jr. (who's been chairman and CEO of Norwegian Cruise Line, Royal Cruise Line, and Royal Viking) and Ola S. Harsheim (former master of Royal Viking Sun and now a captain of The World) both realized people had begun treating the Sun as a second home, asking for the same cabin every year, staying for months, even bringing their own pictures and bedspreads.

Thus in l997 the idea of The World was conceived and its parent company, ResidenSea, Ltd., was formed in Norway. The ship itself soon ran into financing problems, and in l999, still an artist's conception, was scaled back by half. Even so, it was already attracting buyers.

"I thought it would be like having your own $400 million yacht," said a semiretired CEO I'll call Jack Williamson (like many World residents he asked for anonymity). I met Williamson sunning himself on the top deck of the ship. The first American buyer, he'd read about it in l997 in the Financial Times and sent in the required $5,000 deposit to reserve an apartment. He'd attended World parties that were held in London and Copenhagen, gone to the launch of the hull in Oslo, and traveled to Austria to look at mock-ups of the interiors at the List Furniture Factory outside Vienna.

Unlike many other buyers, Williamson, a diffident, cheerful man in his sixties, even considers it a good investment. "Let's say you borrow two million at seven percent," he said. "The interest is $140,000, the maintenance is $100,000. You can live on board full time. It's a great deal," added Williamson, who'd already been aboard for six months. "I think I'll grab a swim before we go ashore."

In the beginning the plan was for owners to use their own designers, but the shipyard at Rissa, Norway, found it impossible to cater to so many people. So four interior designers were hired: Nina Campbell used her trademark prints and chintz; Juan Pablo Molyneux opted for lush silk curtains, stone floors, fluted columns, Chinese lacquer, and chandeliers; Mario Di Pilla of the Milanese firm TMT designed "classic contemporary" condos in the sort of Italian modern—all marble, glass, and brass—that reminded me of the sets for a l960s Antonioni film.

Petter Yran and Bjorn Storbraaten, Norwegian architects who designed the ship's public spaces (and are famous for ships like Sea Goddess I and II and Silver Cloud), created stunning apartments with Scandinavian furniture and a maritime look, white walls, dark cherrywood furniture, built-ins, pale fabrics.

The owners brought along their own furniture, books, and pictures; one even brought a baby grand. Jack Williamson has his mountain bike in his condo so he can explore the various ports in his own time.

There are also 88 studio residences on The World available for rental. Designed by Hirsch Bedner (a firm that's worked on hotels for both the Hyatt Regency and Mandarin Oriental chains), the suites generally go for up to $2,710 per night, depending on size and destination. (The unsold and unoccupied residences can also be rented.)

There was a pecking order on The World. Early on I realized this was no different from a summer resort town with, in descending order, owners, renters, day-trippers (mostly officials from the various ports), townies (in this case the ship's crew). One evening a party was held in the apartment next to ours; clearly only residents had been invited.

"Some owners don't like the guest suites," says Richard Altomare. "They're for people who want to get their money's worth because they're aboard for only a few days. For us the condos are our homes."

Residents have monthly meetings and are consulted about the ship's itinerary. "I've been on eighteen condo and co-op boards," Altomare says. "This is not quite like anything else. For one thing, we have to worry about salt erosion."

That first night—after dinner, a stroll, and a nightcap—I went to bed early. At midnight, I suddenly sat up.

"What's that?" I said.

"It's the ship," The Skeptic said. "We've sailed." He then went back to sleep, completely unaware we were about to hit an iceberg. Though the ship's stabilizers and a calm sea meant The World barely seemed to move, I was haunted by every movie from Lifeboat to the Perfect Storm and sat up in the living room watching the curtains to see if they shifted more than a fraction. By morning we'd docked at St. Kitts. The sun was shining, and after breakfast on the veranda we left the ship for a quick tour of the island. In Nevis, next day, we visited Alexander Hamilton's home and ate fish and chips on the porch of a ramshackle waterfront restaurant. The ship sails at night as often as possible so there's plenty of time in port.

The World visits 140 ports in 40 countries on its circumnavigation of the globe. Many of the owners say this is an essential part of its appeal—the possibility of seeing Japan or Cape Town or Shanghai without leaving home. Abercrombie & Kent, the über-luxe tour operator, has two staff members on board to organize land tours and attendance at such special events as the Cannes Film Festival, British Open, America's Cup, and Monaco Grand Prix.

"We're the only company that can provide a global cocoon," says Alistair Ballantine, chief operating officer of Abercrombie & Kent Group of Companies. "We have people in every port and can provide anything. The World is unique, the first ship where you can be completely independent," he adds. "Get off anywhere, and we'll arrange everything—or just provide transportation to dinner or a golf game."

The World has arrangements with the best golf courses, from the Algarve to Abu Dhabi to Baja California. Seventy percent of World residents say they're avid golfers or want to learn, and the ship provides the opportunity to do so.

The last day on board I hit a golf ball. My first. Up at the golf club, using the simulator where you can test yourself on one of 53 great courses. Pro David Traynor watched patiently while I held the club like a fork.

The ship has three outdoor putting greens (one with real grass), and the "fish-friendly" golf balls dissolve after 96 hours in the water. The tees, made of corn, are also biodegradable. But then, with its diesel engines and state-of-the-art waste disposal, The World is the greenest boat anywhere.

After golf, The Skeptic had a hot-stone massage in the gleaming Clinique La Prairie Spa, while I had a caviar facial. Luxury on board is in the details: The pools are always 82 degrees; the art gallery has a very good Francis Bacon; the retractable marina means you can swim or kayak or water-ski off the back of the boat. The cigar bar has the best Cohibas, the video library includes The Third Man and Lord of the Rings, satellite connection makes it possible to view recent releases in your condo. Luxury is also, of course, in the service.

The multinational crew of 320 has only one mantra, only one reply to any request: "No problem." From the half-Swedish, half-American sports director, J.J. Ulrich, to the South African cellar master, George Keanly, to the Austrian executive chef, Hans Pirker—all were cheerful, cosmopolitan, enthusiastic, multilingual, experienced.

Tall, blond, slim, Norwegian, Captain Dag H. Saevik (who alternates with Captain Harsheim) wore whites pressed sharp enough to kill. He was also seen boogying at the Halloween party with some of the residents.

"We've all become pretty friendly by now," said a handsome, sweet-tempered woman sipping Champagne in the lobby bar one evening. She'd joined The World in the aftermath of 9/11, when she found New York too threatening and too sad. (Security on the ship is not discussed, but clearly this is the ultimate gated community. The World carries no weapons, no heat-seeking missiles, but its staff includes four specially trained Gurkhas.)

"The residents are 40 percent American, 40 percent European; the remaining 20 percent come from the rest of The World, including Australia, South Africa, and the Middle East. The pictures in the ship's brochures are most often of couples: She is blond and trim; he is silver-haired, tan, and sixtyish. But on board the average age seemed a bit higher. Most were quiet, casually but well dressed, and as eager and happy as kids at summer camp. There were couples, a few family groups, and at least one elderly woman with a walker. Some were short-timers, like the three single women from upstate New York who complained about souvenir prices on Nevis.

Suddenly, it was our last day. We'd not even eaten at East, the Asian restaurant that has a sushi bar and Thai and Indonesian dishes. We'd had salads and grilled steaks and fish at the Marina; we'd had breakfast outside at Tides with its snappy nautical design and Mediterranean menus that included ossobuco and bouillabaisse and individual pizzas.

The World carries 4,500 items of food on board, and supplies—wine from Bordeaux, fresh figs from Italy, caviar from Russia—are delivered regularly in port.

The French fusion restaurant Portraits, which aspires to a Michelin star, was a pretty room, but I could have done without the nonstop background music of The World's hundred best-loved classics. Our waitress, from Transylvania she said, hoped to make our meal "a lovely dining experience."

However, the food tried too hard, the portions were too small, there were too many ingredients: There was "roasted homemade foie gras roulade, Muscat wine aspic, herb salad, crispy apple skin, and toasted countryside bread." Not to mention: "soft langoustine galantine, shellfish perfume, fine ratatouille, asparagus tips, and caviar." The grilled lobster had mango hollandaise; the apple pancakes were flambéed with "Calvados." What were the quotation marks for, I wondered?

For our final dinner I tried the ship's Call-a-Chef program. You can order dinner for two or a dozen in your condo. I asked for an Asian menu, and that evening two chefs and two waiters appeared, laid the table, and disappeared into our kitchen. There emerged course after course: cucumber scallop samosa, rainbow trout with orange-scented Teriyaki sauce, chili ginger prawns, roasted sesame chicken with spicy prune sauce. We were served by starlight. This was Private Lives sans Noël Coward and Gertrude Lawrence—just myself and The Skeptic.

Liam O'Sullivan, an Irishman who grew up in England, poured Provençal rosé for us. I asked what he'd done before becoming a waiter on The World. "I was the Queen Mother's butler," he said. Not bad, I thought.

Later at Quantum, the nightclub, a perfect retro-fifties room, we were alone. There was no one else around. The ship sailed at midnight, but I barely noticed as the Trio du Monde, a jazz group, played "Desifinado" and "Stella By Starlight" just for us.

The next day the ship anchored off St. Martin and a tender took us ashore. On land, I turned to look back. Framed between a couple of palms, the little ship floated on the horizon between the green-blue Caribbean and the burnt blue tropical sky. The Skeptic, too, glanced at The World.

"It's something from another time, another galaxy, and it's utterly irresistible," he said, skepticism gone, in thrall to the ship's pleasures. "It allows you the luxury of time—to think about the bigger picture and to relax in paradise while doing so."

For purchase or rental information: 800-970-6601, 305-779-3399; www.residensea.com. Rentals require a three-night minimum. Studio residences range from $1,150 to $2,710 per night, apartments from $1,800 (two bedrooms) to $5,460 (six bedrooms). Reserve six to eight months before sailing, earlier for more popular destinations. Itineraries are available at least a year in advance.

Reggie Nadelson wrote about Verdura in the September 2002 issue.