Ownership of apartments on the Somnio, a super yacht scheduled to launch in 2024, is by invitation only. Apartment prices start at 20 million Euro.

Ownership of apartments on the Somnio, a super yacht scheduled to launch in 2024, is by invitation only. Apartment prices start at 20 million Euro. Courtesy of Winch Design Rendering

In the 2019 novel “Billionaire’s Paradise: Ecstasy at Sea,” author Peter Antonucci takes the deepest of dives into life on a luxurious ship that circumnavigates the world, over and over, with no two global routes identical.

The main character “strongarms a community of wealthy and naughty friends and jet setters to buy a super yacht, enjoying elite experiences most can only imagine in their wildest dreams.” That’s from a promo for the book about life aboard a fabricated ship called Paradise.

The fictional work is the first in a life-at-sea trilogy, and the writer is a New York attorney who retired at age 52. The author spent six years aboard The World, a real and exclusive residential mega yacht of 12 decks and about 150 families who privately own 165 units, that range from 330 to 3,242 square feet.

The World sails to 90-plus ports on six continents in 2024, averaging almost twice as much time in port as at sea. Residents, by vote, help set the itinerary.

Per-condo price: $2 million to $15 million, plus an annual ownership fee for a seemingly idyllic lifestyle of Michelin-level dining, cocktail lounging, fitness/spa menus and guest lecturers who include Nobel laureates.

“Like Four Seasons on steroids” is how Antonucci described it to Business Insider. Although fiction, his books tease and hint at what a long-term, at-sea community might be like.

Peter Antonucci, a former co-owner and director of The World, is bundled up while exploring the Lemaire Channel of Antarctica.

Peter Antonucci, a former co-owner and director of The World (at anchor in the background) is bundled up while exploring the Lemaire Channel of Antarctica. Photo courtesy of Peter Antonucci

The upcoming competition includes Somnio Super Yachts, vying for the title of “world’s largest yacht by length and volume.” It will have a mere 39 residential units, each with up to four bedrooms. Ownership is by invitation, and prices start at 20 million Euros. The Norwegian shipyard project reportedly launches in 2024.

As the cruise-residence concept evolves, it remains challenging for other companies to mimic, even in modest ways. One typical targeted market – retirees – may not have the luxury to leisurely wait out one launch delay after another.

Count retirees John and Melody Hennessee among those who are hedging their bets by making down payments on two units, each on a different ship.

“Prices will double once people start to hear about this lifestyle,” Melody told Realtor.com. She is a former real estate agent.

Owners of the 39 apartments on the Somnio will work with designers to figure out room themes/layouts and select materials, furniture, lighting, artwork. The ship is scheduled to launch in mid-2024.

Pied a Mer? Owners of the 39 apartments on the Somnio will work with designers to figure out room themes/layouts and select materials, furniture, lighting, and artwork. The ship is scheduled to launch in mid-2024. Courtesy of Winch Design Rendering

Fantasy afloat

The World set sail in 2002, the first floating residence of its kind, but several other companies are developing and touting the temptation to – as World materials state – “travel the world without ever leaving home.”

Some developers make no apologies about catering to the uber-wealthy and require a sponsor as well as money before the deal is sealed. Others propose less exclusive, more affordable versions of shipboard condos.

Villa Vie Residences in May 2024 launched its first 3.5-year cruise on the refurbished, 485-villa Odyssey, leaving Belfast for 425 destinations in 147 countries. In the mix of 300 residents: unit owners and renters.

Inside Villa Vie’s Odyssey is a culinary center, for cooking classes and demos.

Inside Villa Vie’s Odyssey is a culinary center, for cooking classes and demos. Courtesy Villa Vie Rendering

“With our emphasis on community, connection and customized experiences, retirees can enjoy a vibrant lifestyle tailored to their preferences,” the Florida-based company says online. Onboard are a hospital, pharmacy and dentist. Health consultations are free.

Each Villa Vie unit, 140 to 300 square feet, costs $99,000 to $249,000 to purchase (plus a $1,750 to $6,999 per person monthly maintenance fee).

Renters decide when and where to board: Their cost depends on cruise segment, type of quarters and length of sail. Ninety-five days in and near Japan, for example, starts at $11,837.

Both categories of residence are billed as all-inclusive experiences. Think free entertainment, wellness and enrichment programs. Free housekeeping and laundry service. Free beer and wine with meals. Free Internet access. Three dining venues. Swimming pools. A golf simulator.

This all represents life as usual for other condo-at-sea projects too.

Changing Storylines

MV Narrative, from Florida-based Storylines, is scheduled to sail in 2027, ten years after the company’s founding. The 530 residences, 237 to 1,970 square feet, cost $1 million to $8 million (plus annual ownership fees of $65,000 to $200,000).

Under construction for Storylines, based in Florida, is a 530-unit residential cruise ship. The RU3 Indulge unit includes a glass-enclosed bedroom, dedicated workspace and wet bar. It’s 538 square feet and starts at $2.7 million.

Under construction for Storylines, based in Florida, is a 530-unit residential cruise ship. The RU3 Indulge unit includes a glass-enclosed bedroom, dedicated workspace and wet bar. It’s 538 square feet and starts at $2.7 million. Courtesy of Storylines

Another option is fractional shares of 50 or 25 percent, which means two or four co-owners per unit.

The original plan was to convert an older passenger ship into a residential vessel, but “changing regulations made it clear that port access for older ships may become an issue and there were limitations for long-term living in vacation cabins,” explains Alister Punton, Storylines CEO.

Project revisions were made in 2019, but then Covid-19 compromised the shipbuilding industry for 18 months. “It was further postponed due to some financial hardships that the shipyard was facing as a result of the Russia/Ukraine war,” Punton says. “We are back on track now and excited to be getting the construction underway.”

He believes a global, at-sea lifestyle “most often appeals to people who are entering their ‘empty nest’ phase and are planning for an early retirement,” but also investing are families, expats, yachtsmen and entrepreneurs who can work remotely.

Amanda Williams is a 40-year-old real estate agent and eco/wellness retreat owner who has invested. “I plan to travel around the world for a few years with Storylines to grow my business and also see more of the world,” says the North Carolina native.

She plans to occupy her unit at least one-half of each year, and then let real estate partners use it, or add it to Storylines’ monthly rental program. “This opportunity is not just for retired people,” Williams believes. “This is for young business owners, remote workers, people who can benefit from becoming ‘worldly.’

“We will build our very own ‘expat’ community onboard, and many relationships will come of it.”

In addition to typical cruise amenities, expect a dog kennel and grooming facilities, medical and science labs, helicopter landing pad, world education program for youth, microbrewery and solar-powered hydroponic garden.

Amanda Williams, shown here in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, is a real estate agent who travels. She has invested in a Storylines cruise ship residence that is scheduled to set sail in 2027.

Amanda Williams, shown here in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, is a real estate agent who travels. She has invested in a Storylines cruise ship residence that is scheduled to set sail in 2027. Photo by Saravafa.com

Headwind headaches

Sputters and stalls, some of titanic proportions, have complicated the offerings of other cruise condo developers. The pandemic, world politics, financing, remodeling timetables and investor skittishness have impeded progress.

The sailing of Villa Vie’s Odyssey was postponed two weeks because the eight-deck ship’s revamping required more time. The vessel is a former Fred Olsen Cruise Lines ship, The Braemar, which accommodated 924 passengers.

But a two-week delay is an inconsequential sneeze in this complicated and reticent industry. Among the other emerging cruise-residence projects:

The 12-deck Njord from Ocean Residences is 117 high-end units of 1,500 to 9,000 square feet and under construction at a German shipyard that has a track record for building luxury liners. Prices start at $8 million, says Architectural Digest. “World’s largest private residence yacht” is the goal; some units have private elevators. The ship is to be completed in 2026 and sail in 2027, one year later than Boat International reported.

Blue World Voyages wants to sell 38 one- and two-bedroom residences, starting at $2.47 million for a “25-year right of use plan” on a cruise ship that used to accommodate 1,500 passengers. Refurbishment would cut that total to 500 passengers, and the onboard lifestyle would emphasize sports, fitness and wellness. The ship was to launch in the Middle East in 2023, but apparently didn’t.

Life at Sea Cruises, a part of Miray Cruises, scrapped plans for a three-year cruise in November 2023, the month sailing was to begin from Istanbul. There was no ship for passengers to board, which left some homeless because of the late notice. The company is being sued to retrieve payments on these $90,000 to $975,000 condo units.

Victoria Cruises Line wants to introduce “the world’s first affordable residential ship,” with renters sailing at least six months on the 675-unit Victoria Majestic, scheduled to visit 205 countries in 29 months. Cheapest daily rate: $79 per person; units are 226 to 1,270 square feet. The launch from Florida (on a former Holland America ship) has been pushed back multiple times and now is scheduled for July 2024.

A blog post from the cruise line acknowledged myriad complications. “You have to have all the regulations in place, you have to have them approved in every country where the ship is planning to dock,” the blog notes. “You have to book the mooring dates, in which case you have to give a bank guarantee, which also costs money.”

A ship will be chartered, not purchased, reportedly requiring 80 percent condo occupancy to proceed. Bookings come and go as launch dates change and have declined to 53 percent as of February 2024.

So, customers get frustrated, and health circumstances for some of the chosen market – retirees – change for the worse as more time slips away.

Once at sea, Antonucci says life can get complicated in myriad ways. “Local regulations can be frustrating,” he says. “Visa applications, port requirements and all sorts of country-specific issues can present unforeseen challenges on a daily basis.

“As a director of The World, I dealt with these regularly. Sometimes these complications forced us to change course, even as we were actually sailing into a previously contracted port.”

Leaving landlubber life

Life on The World, a floating yacht with 165 luxury accommodations, is a mix of home, country club and exclusive hotel. Owner-residents are from 20 countries.

Life on The World, a floating yacht with 165 luxury accommodations, is a mix of home, country club and exclusive hotel. Owner-residents are from 20 countries. The World began sailing in 2002 and to date has visited over 1,000 ports of call in more than 120 countries. Photo by The World

Why consider a full-time life at sea? It’s one way to see the world, one port at a time, without the stress of planning, timetables, packing/unpacking, cooking or cleaning. Views, ports and cultures are ever-changing.

That’s true of any cruise, but for the longer haul, what begins with a group of strangers becomes a floating neighborhood. Picture a deepening sense of community instead of anonymous vacationers, but don’t confuse it with a floating hotel or timeshare.

A floating hotel “stays stationary, which is a much different experience than the global lifestyle” of a cruise-ship residence, Punton says, and a floating hotel “has a highly transient guest list whereas a Storylines ship is an exclusive residential community.”

Similarly, timeshare contracts generally cover one or more weeks per year, for a unit shared by many others. A shipboard condo is more like buying a vacation home and deciding how often – or seldom – to rent it out.

And don’t underestimate the difference a good crew makes.

“My greatest joy being on The World was regularly interfacing with the planet’s most attentive, kind and caring crew,” Antonucci says. “Without exception, they anticipated residents’ needs and did everything possible to make our floating home a floating paradise.”

Retirees John and Melody Hennessee shown in Bora Bora

Retirees John and Melody Hennessee, shown in Bora Bora, are hedging their bets by making down payments on two cruise ship units, each on a different vessel. Photo courtesy of Realtor.com

His advice to prospective residence cruise investors:

“Do your diligence. Several of the ships that are being advertised don’t make economic sense. Audit the financials if you can. Look behind the pretty, glossy photos and website and make sure what you’re buying will actually be built – and will be able to sustain itself financially. If not, your entire investment could be sunk. And watch out for some of these 15- or 20-year-old ships that are being retooled for residential purposes. An old ship is just that … an old ship.”

How long the sense of wanderlust stays intact will depend on the investor’s hopes, expectations and experiences.

“Once you’ve circumnavigated the globe a few times, you’ve seen it,” Antonucci told CNN Travel in 2024, to explain why he sold his investment on The World five years earlier. “I had seen what I wanted to see. I was ready to do something new.”

 

Mary Bergin writes about aquatic life and the cruise industry from her base in Madison, WI. Also, see her reporting on airline seating and new designs for recreational vehicles.