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No-frills cruises for Riviera glitz on shoestring

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Party the night away in the clubs of mythical Saint Tropez, hop on board a cruise ship in the early hours and wake up next day in Monte Carlo, home to millionaires and princes.

No, it's not a dream and it won't cost a fortune.

Budget cruises around the French Riviera are the latest brainwave of Stelios Haji-Ioannou, the serial entrepreneur who took the travel world by storm with the no-frills, low-cost airline easyJet, followed by web-based easyCar rentals.

This time, the British-based tycoon, who likes to be known by his first name, Stelios, aims to turn the booming but staid cruise market on its head. His latest venture, easyCruise, offers travellers "luxury-for-less" short-break cruises around some of the some of the Riviera's most exclusive, elegant resorts, with prices from 37.5 euros (45 dollars) per person per night. "It's the playgrounds of the rich and famous at great value," Stelios told AFP, explaining that easyCruise aims to attract a new, younger clientele and to encourage passengers to enjoy the atmosphere ashore rather than aboard.

Unlike conventional cruises, the easyCruise will stay docked each afternoon and night before setting sail at 4 am to arrive by midday the following day in the next of seven ports of call along the Mediterranean coastline. "No cruise line has targeted younger people and the only way to get them involved in cruising is to let them spend time ashore," he emphasised.

Targeted at people in their 20s, 30s and 40s, the average age of the 170 passengers on board the company's first ship, easyCruiseOne, which started its maiden voyage in Nice last Friday afternoon, is 35. This is a radical departure from the over-50s who make up most cruise ship passengers and shows "there is a legitimate target audience," Stelios argued.

The cruise ship market has exploded over the last 10 years as ever-bigger and glitzier floating palaces have taken to the seas to meet the growing demand for pampered holidays from the world's increasingly ageing population. Capable of carrying up to 3,000 paying passengers, these huge, modern vessels are hugely profitable for their parents companies, which include Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines, Star Cruises PLC and Carnival Corporation.

At just 88 metres (195-feet) long, the orange-and-white easyCruiseOne is a minnow compared with the average cruise liner. But this lets it dock in most ports, rather than anchoring offshore and ferrying passengers ashore by launch.

Passengers can jump on board when they wish, and stay for as little as two nights or up to two weeks along the boat's seven-day itinerary, which covers Nice, Cannes, Saint Tropez, Monaco, Genoa, Portofino and Imperia. There are budget-priced bars with disco, cafes and cabins aboard the ship. But there are none of the casinos, fancy restaurants, lavish furnishings or pampering found aboard today's huge, luxury cruise liners. The ship's four suites, four two double-bunk rooms and 75 standard double cabins are extremely simply furnished with hanging space rather than wardrobes -- stripped bare of television, telephones, deep-pile carpets or room service.

All cabins do feature both air conditioning and sleek, glass-walled en suite bathrooms, however, and the minimalist touch did not seem to have put off any of the first passengers. "It's better than we expected," said Janet Armstrong, explaining that as "easyJet is synonymous with economy, you expect budget standards. I'd definitely come back."

"Its extremely good value," enthused another passenger, Charles Hancock. "We're doing things you'd never ordinarily do -- Nice yesterday, Cannes today and Saint Tropez tomorrow -- that's something you can never do on your own without a massive amount of planning." Over 10.5 million people took cruises last year making cruising one of the fastest-growing holiday sectors.

With the cost of traditional cruises expected to climb back this year to the levels seen before the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the industry will be closely watching the ground-breaking easyCruise venture. "Cruise lines as a whole are very profitable, making 20 percent (profit) margins," Stelios told AFP.

He said summer bookings for the new venture had been encouraging so far, and expected easyCruise to break even in three to five years.

"We can create a new market," he argued. "It's not about taking people away from QE2" -- the Queen Elizabeth II, flagship of the Cunard Line operator. "Their passengers are older people who are probably going to stay with that service option. Our objective is to get younger people to consider cruising as a holiday option."

Source: CANNES, France (AFP)

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This concept sounds very interesting for a particular market, but I guess I'm too old and too spoiled by the pampering on the regular cruise lines to enjoy the no-frills life-style.

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