June 24, 2017 10:00 am JST

Superrich call luxury residential cruise ship 'home'

Prices for exclusive floating condominiums can top $15 million

WAKA MATSUMOTO, Nikkei senior staff writer

Twelve Bali beds give residents the chance to sleep under the stars on deck.

TOKYO-- The World came to Tokyo, and what a world it was. Dropping anchor at the Harumi Passenger Ship Terminal on April 6, the MS The World was met by an assembly of luxury cars, from which emerged their well-heeled owners awaiting friends onboard the exclusive vessel. 

Difficult to distinguish from any other cruise ship, The World is somewhat modestly described on its website as "the largest private residential ship on the planet." In fact, a floating luxury condominium complex is a more apt description, since the ship's passengers are actually residents who own their staterooms.

And that is another misnomer, as "stateroom" does not do justice to the plush, private residences, with even the smallest and cheapest 30-sq.-meter studio going for a cool $1.53 million.

A community of like-minded superrich calls this floating palace their home and cruise the world together, sharing adventures on the high seas and in out-of-the-way paradises that most can only dream of visiting. The life they live is far beyond reach of the landlocked masses, but a group of journalists had an opportunity to step aboard and catch a glimpse of their lifestyle on this, the first return of The World to Japan in two years.

Local delicacies, superlative wines

Cruise ships are not uncommon at Harumi, and the Bahamas-registered The World appears no different than any other of its kind. But a glance at its passengers leaves no doubt that one is breathing rarefied air once aboard. 

Residential director Lisa Spiller was our guide for the tour, which was preceded by a tight security check. Stepping into the spacious front lobby adorned with a grand piano was like stepping into a seven-star hotel. 

The ship has all the amenities of other luxury cruise vessels, such as beauty salon, gym, spa, boutique and theater. On deck is a large pool. The people chatting away in the posh restaurants and bars are mainly Westerners. Nothing really different from any other floating playground for the ideal rich. It is only when you delve deeper into it that you get the full picture of what the ship is all about.

The gourmet supermarket brimming with a wide variety of fresh foods and delicacies -- including fish from Tokyo's famed Tsukiji fish market -- was one example of the ship's exclusivity. We chanced upon a family pushing a shopping cart full of expensive groceries, perhaps for a party they were throwing in their onboard home.

The ship also has cafes and restaurants, offering everything from ethnic food to fine gourmet dining. The wine cellar was amazing, stocked with 16,000 bottles of pricey wines in more than 1,100 varieties from 19 countries, including bottles of Chateau Ducru Beaucaillou and Opus One.

When not gorging on the top-shelf food and wine, residents amuse themselves in different ways. It is the only ship in the world with a regulation-size tennis court, and the onboard golf simulator lets you "play" 80 of the world's elite golf courses. With the help of the ship's full-time golf pro, residents can work on their game until reaching port, after which they can hit the real links. 

For the more intellectually active, residents often invite explorers, authors, local culture specialists, diplomats, and historians for lectures and other events.

Highlighting off-ship activities are the adventures at each way port. These have included up-close tours of glaciers in the Arctic Circle, explorations off the coast of Madagascar, visits to the volcanoes of Vanuatu, and other far-off-the-beaten-path excursions. The World has visited 114 countries since it came into service in 2002.

Really deep pockets only

There are an estimated 400 cruise ships plying the world's oceans. Many are giant 200,000-ton vessels that cater mainly to ordinary people. There is a smaller contingent of around 20 superluxury liners in the 10,000-ton to 50,000-ton range that boast large staff and high-end service. The World sits atop the latter.

The 43,500-ton ship has a staff of 270 and 165 rooms, which are currently owned by 142 families. At any one time, about 150-200 people call The World their home, meaning that staff far outnumber residents, who demand -- and receive -- royal treatment.

Of course, this all comes at a price. A really steep price. Residences range in size from 30-300 sq. meters, but most are either 100 or 130 sq. meters priced at about $3.6 million and $4.5 million, respectively. The biggest and most expensive of these floating homes costs a staggering $16.2 million.

Similar to other luxury condominiums, there is also an annual maintenance fee. Unlike other luxury condominiums, however, the fees are wildly expensive. For example, one $4.5 million home is assessed an additional $450,000 a year. This helps cover fuel costs and includes a $30,000 deposit for use in the restaurants and supermarket. Since unused portions of the maintenance fee cannot be rolled over to the next year, any remaining amount is usually spent on expensive wines.

"Residents must have a net worth of at least $10 million, and becoming an owner involves a strict vetting process and requires recommendations from two existing owners," explained Setsuko Nakagawa, president of ICM International Cruise Marketing, the ship's sole Japan agent.

Half of the owners on The World hail from the U.S., 36% are from Europe, and most of the rest are from Australia and New Zealand. The only Asian members of this floating community are three families from Japan.

Six and out

Residential director Spiller let us view some of the homes. The first we entered was a spacious, three-bedroom 200-sq.-meter unit. The floors were wood and stone, and an impressive collection of oriental knickknacks complemented the coordinated wallpaper, curtains and furniture. The bath was lavishly decked out in marble as was the kitchen, which was equipped with modern appliances. There was also a state-of-the-art audiovisual system.

The owners -- a married couple -- said they love to travel and have homes in various parts of the world. A map in the master bedroom was dotted with pins marking the roughly 100 places the boat has gone. The closets were filled with causal wear, formal wear, shoes, dresses, accessories, some practical outdoor clothes and a collection of over 10 ornately decorated walking sticks.

Next, we visited a residence with a completely different vibe. This one had an airy, modern design in white and featured a huge window that looked out to sea. "The resident purchased two residences and knocked down the wall to create a single room. The vista of the sunset is, in a word, amazing," Spiller said. Unfortunately, photography was not allowed.

More often than not, residences undergo expensive renovations after being purchased. "The effort [the residents] put in impacts the sales price later," explained Nakagawa.

About 10 owners have been living on The World since its maiden voyage in 2002, but most of the homes are back on the market after an average of six years. "People tend to purchase the homes when they reach around 65 and are winding down their busy lives but are still active, get their fill of traveling, and then decide once they have aged beyond 70, to take it easy and pass the days at home on land," explained Spiller.

Some residents spend the whole year living onboard, but the average stay is four months a year. The World has a lease program that allows prospective residents to give the boat a test cruise using these open homes.

Close shipmates

Residents on The World form a close-knit community, with many shared adventures, like the time one invited his neighbors to a helicopter tour of Antwerp.

"The owners share similar sets of values, interests and tastes, and there is a strong sense of camaraderie. That is a huge draw for many of the people who end up purchasing homes on The World," Spiller noted. "One difference with the younger generation is that our buyers have a sense that they are joining a community."

Planning for each year's voyage begins three years in advance. The organization that operates The World prepares seven different routes, and members of the board of owners select three, which are then voted on by all the residents.

The World also has a residents' association, which has a say in the overall operations of the vessel. Many of the owners are keenly interested in where the ship can go and what kinds of experiences are possible.

Spiller related a story that underscored the sense of community that pervades The World. One resident lost her husband and was living away from the boat for a while. When she returned, the other residents comforted the bereaved woman, much as their landlocked counterparts would comfort a grieving neighbor.

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