Source: CNN

Under a blazing blue sky in the legendary Harland & Wolff shipyard in Northern Ireland, where the Titanic was once built, the modestly sized Villa Vie Odyssey sits in dry dock, dwarfed by the huge 12-deck Caribbean party boat that looms beside it.

But when it sets sail on May 30, after intense refurbishment and cosmetic work, this 31-year-old ship will be one of the hottest new innovations in the cruise industry. It will be one of only two residential cruise ships in operation – and its world tour will have successfully launched where others have very dramatically failed.

Around 300 passengers – or “residents” – will be on board to start the voyage from Belfast which will visit 425 ports in 147 countries across all seven continents, circumnavigating the globe every three-and-a-half years.

For this is to be a cruise without end, where passengers can choose between pay-as-you-go and ownership options, spending as little as 35 days or the whole of their natural life on board, with the ship itself being replaced around every 15 years.

1,301 days of summer

The relatively small size of the 924-capacity vessel means it’s capable of docking in the heart of destinations, with port stays ranging from a leisurely two to seven days, rather than the typical “hit and run” cruise ship approach. These long-term cruise residents do, after all, have all the time in the world.

The global itinerary, broken down into 16 “segments” over 1,301 days, has been carefully designed so that it catches the spring-summer seasons in both the northern and summer hemisphere. Residents, if they so choose, may never feel the winter chill again.

There’s no commitment to stay on board for the full three and a half years, or to get off when that’s over. Residents can pick and choose between segments as they like. South America is the most popular part and the transatlantic section the least, Villa Vie Residences CEO Mikael Petterson told the dry dock press tour Sunday.

Learning from the past

Takeup has been high. Of the 295 cabins available at launch, 270 have been sold, with some residents choosing to join later in the voyage. Petterson expects all cabins to be fully booked by the end of the Northern European segment, which ends in August, and more will be opened up during segment two, which is Greenland to Miami.

“We have a significant amount of people that want to come and see the ship themselves before committing, for obvious reasons,” says Petterson. It’s been a long journey to this upcoming launch and this is not the first venture of its kind.

In November 2023, Life at Sea Cruises canceled its three-year voyage shortly before departure, having not secured a ship, leaving passengers stranded and pursuing refunds of tens of thousands of dollars.

Villa Vie was started by Petterson and other former members of the Life at Sea executive team who quit when the original team split in May 2022. He says they’ve been able to learn from the mistakes of those who’ve gone before.

Conservative option

The ship now known as Villa Vie Odyssey was constructed in 1993 and – as the 495-cabin MS Braemar – was purchased from Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines last year for $13 million. A further $12 million has been spent on the refurb and getting it fully recertified and up to standard.

“At $25 million all in, it’s less than half of what anyone else has been trying,” says Pettersen. “The ship is much cheaper, the financing is in place, the equity’s in place, the sales are more than twice what Life at Sea had, so we’re just in a completely different position.”

The reason the team chose this conservatively sized and priced vessel is “because we wanted to make sure we could pull it through,” he says. “The challenge has all been with the technical and getting her from asleep to awake. We’re largely there. We’re moving onto the hotel and that’s the easy bit,” he laughs.

The boat is wearing its age well and it’s not all been an uphill struggle. In 2009, it was enlarged during a refurb, and was renovated again in 2019, with many of the public areas getting a stylish new face.

“A lot of these spaces were only in service for four months since they were last revitalized, so we haven’t had to do anything to them,” explains Pettersen. There are plans to keep updating spaces after launch, too – like a lived-in home rather than an off-the-peg hotel.

Under $33,000 a year

As the Odyssey, the ship will have eight decks, a wraparound promenade and an enlarged pool – combining the Braemar’s two, so that passengers can swim laps. And when that feels too energetic, there are two Jacuzzis to lounge in.

There will be three restaurants, five bars and lounges, a spa, a fitness center, a library and a medical center. Then there’s the spacious business center with sea views, internet from Starlink and Viasat 3, and an “interactive culinary center” for those missing the kitchen, as well as for cooking classes.

There will also be a golf program with a simulator on board and outings to greens around the world.

It’s also surprisingly affordable, as round-the-world cruise experiences go. Over on megayacht The World – the other residential cruise ship – prices start at $2 million a year. But on Villa Vie Odyssey, an annual rental works out at less than $32,485, while a three-year stint will set you back $97,455.

An inside cabin is $89 per person per day, outside cabins start at $119 per person per day, and balconies at $199. All food and soft drinks are included, plus alcohol at dinner, as well as Wi-Fi and medical visits (but not procedures or medicines). There’ll also be 24/7 room service, weekly housekeeping and bi-weekly laundry service at no extra cost.

Endless Horizons

Meanwhile, buying entails paying outright for a cabin – starting at $99,000 for an internal one, $149,000 for an outdoor and $249,000 for a balcony. Owners must then pay monthly fees starting at $1,750 per person, $2,500 per person, or $4,000 per person respectively – or $21,000, $30,000 or $48,000 per year.

Owners can then rent it out to other people themselves (for no charge) or through Villa Vie for a fee.

Those buying a cabin will be guaranteed it for 15 years, which is the estimated life of the ship. And then there’s the newly introduced Endless Horizons program, where residents make a one-time payment of ​​$299,000 for lifetime access to a cabin, transferring ships when the cruise does.

Prices are based on double occupancy. Solo travelers get discounts of 30% for an internal cabin, 20% for an outside one and 10% for a balcony.

There are also a lot more solo travelers than one might expect on a typical vacation cruise – 50% of this first takeup are single. In the under-40s range, there are a lot more single male travelers than female, but post-retirement age, there are more women. The average age of traveler is 58 and 80% are from the United States, with Canadians being the next biggest group.

Floating community

A few of them are on board during the dry dock tour, such as John and Melody Hennessee, flamboyantly coordinated in hats and vests. They’ve made headlines around the world for selling their worldly goods to live on cruise ships for the rest of their lives, and they were there Sunday to plan out their triple-cabin with the team.

As these are people’s homes, there are generous customization options afforded to residents, with requests accommodated where possible. There are a small number of large suites available to the ritziest of passengers – the biggest has a price tag of $900,000.

New Zealand couple Mark and Katrina Howard, in hard hats to get their first look at their home for the next three and a half years, have no problem with the downsizing requiring to fit their belongings into a two-person cabin. “We’ve done motor-homing,” says Katrina.

As for cruise ships, “we met on one in 1994, out of Auckland,” she says, and now “we’ll be celebrating our 10th wedding anniversary on board” Villa Vie Odyssey.

It’s just one of the many celebrations, landmark moments and life-changing events that are set to take place among this floating community of strangers who are about to become close and near-permanent neighbors. Whatever waves or storms lie ahead, the summer-led itinerary ensures the sun will largely be shining.

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