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It sounded like a travel lover’s dream: a three year cruise, looping the globe in search of an eternal summer, for what appeared to be a relatively affordable price.
When Life at Sea Cruises announced its 36-month voyage in March, with cabins starting at $29,999 per person per year for an all inclusive lifestyle, many people rushed to book.
But that dream appeared to morph into a nightmare in May, when the wheels came off, with part of the team quitting the company in what appeared to be a disagreement about the ship itself, and passengers pulling out of the enterprise.
Now, however, the project appears to be back on, with a bigger ship confirmed for those three years of exploration. The launch date is still set for November 1, 2023.
Life at Sea Cruises is now owned and operated entirely by Miray Cruises, a company with a 30-year history of operating in the Aegean. Miray was the cruise partner involved from the start.
It was Miray’s ship, the MV Gemini, that had been earmarked as the vessel to be used for the cruise back in March – something that became central to the breakdown in relationships between Miray and members of the former Life at Sea executive team.
Around 22 members of the team including the MD, chief technology officer and director of sales and marketing “stepped away” from the project, Mikael Petterson, the former MD, told CNN at the time. The sales and marketing director, Irina Strembitsky, went further, alleging that the ship was deemed “unseaworthy” by an engineer, who also expressed doubt that it would be able to complete a three year journey – an allegation now at the heart of a defamation case brought by Miray.
All 22 leavers, say Petterson, are now working on a rival project: Villa Vie Residences – which, according to the website, will be a “world cruise… circumnavigating the globe every three and a half years.”
Villa Vie is holding webinars for potential clients but has not yet identified a ship, or shared potential pricing. Petterson told CNN his team hope to take bookings from August.
Bigger ship, fewer guests
Meanwhile, Miray says it is launching its first Life at Sea cruise in its new ship as planned in November.
MV Lara will be larger than the Gemini, Kendra Holmes, CEO of Miray Cruises, told CNN.
The ship – built in 2003 and currently operating for another cruise line – has 627 cabins with capacity for 1,266 passengers, but Holmes said that they plan to sell a maximum of 532 cabins, or around 85%, to keep things feeling spacious onboard. Each cabin will have around 20 square feet more room than on Gemini, and while the cheapest digs on Gemini were on deck two, on Lara they will start at three, with some entry level rooms on deck four.
Holmes says the company always planned to acquire another ship so that they could continue their Aegean itineraries. Instead of buying a replacement for Gemini, they decided to splash out on a bigger vessel for the three year stint. The team first saw the new ship in March, when they were marketing the round-the-world cruises on the Gemini. Holmes says they continued to market the Gemini until they were sure that the Lara sale would go through in time to make the Life at Sea sailing.
“We looked at a lot of different vessels and we liked her layout,” she said. “She has lots of nice public spaces, an open pool deck, a running track – we liked the way everything was laid out on her.
“My big focus is on public spaces – you don’t want to be cooped up in a cabin for three years.[The Lara has] great covered outdoor spaces, open spaces, and a deck on top to watch the stars.
“You can get out close to the bow of the ship, and can see the ocean coming at you. She just met those criteria – and the restaurants are nice, the bars are big, there’s a lot of space… she just ticked all those boxes.”
Holmes won’t identify the current name of the ship which will become MV Lara, or who Miray has bought it from – but according to the details she can give (it’s currently in UK waters, and has recently completed a voyage around northern Europe), the odds are that it’s the AIDAaura, one of three ships of AIDA Cruises, a German-centric subsidiary of Carnival. Supermodel Heidi Klum is currently godmother to the ship, which has four restaurants, two lounges, five bars and clubs, and two pools, according to AIDA Cruises.
The company will “say goodbye” to the ship in September after 20 years and more than 800 voyages, according to AIDA’s website.
Cancellations and caveats
The upheaval has caused some passengers to back out entirely.
One of them, Sharon Lane, had previously spoken to CNN about her excitement – but has now reluctantly canceled her trip.
“When traveling alone, especially as a senior female, safety is the primary concern. With the unsettling changes surrounding the three year cruise, I decided the risk was too great for me,” she says.
“I am very disappointed, as I had my heart set on cruising the world for the next three years. I wish everyone who decides to go a happy and safe voyage.”
Holmes says that the company is “approaching 40%” capacity with current bookings – which puts it at over 200 rooms sold. The Gemini had around 50% prebookings when the ship was withdrawn – of a total of 400 cabins. New bookings have evened out the cancellations, she says.
“We’re selling pretty steadily – not too quickly, which is good,” she says. “We don’t want to force people into doing something they’re not 100% OK with. For me that’s more important than trying to get the quantity.”
The original offer required a $5,000 deposit to lock the rate in. “A lot did back out once they realized they couldn’t afford it, or weren’t comfortable being on the ship, or had family obligations. We had a few people trying to sell their houses and weren’t successful. A lot thought, ‘Yeah, I can totally do that,’ and then realized ‘I can’t afford to take three years off,’” she says.
Not everyone is taking three years off, however. The company will remove the onboard casino and replace it with coworking spaces and meeting rooms.
It is also planning to make the cruise relatively sustainable for what is generally held to be an unsustainable industry. Miray aims to make the ship free of single-use plastic, launder sheets and towels on a weekly basis, and switch to LED lighting where possible – “a huge fuel consumption saver,” claims Holmes.
Of the guests who have signed up so far, there’s a 60-40 couples-single split, and an age range from 30-something to 80-something. So far, most are American.
Meredith Shay, from Florida, is one of those still going.
“I have no trepidation at all, I’m over the moon excited to just drop out and then drop into a new life,” she says.
Shay put down her deposit for a balcony cabin on March 2, and sees the company split as a “hiccup.”
“It came and went in two days, and it all worked out,” she says.
“The people who left are creating their own ship, and we’re all happy for them, but we’re a group that has stuck with this from the get go. And this Miray team is accommodating to everyone – If there are concerns, they fix it, if there are ideas they put them into place. It’s a real team effort because we’re pioneers.”
Another guest, Ingrid Warwick, is so undeterred that she has even requested an upgrade to a balcony cabin.
“When the initial sales crew left we had concerns – theories can run rampant [on social media]. But we were impressed with how the Miray executive team handled the situation. Of course there’ll be ups and downs, and not everything will be exactly 100%, but they are putting the effort in,” she says.
“The people who canceled certainly had understandable concerns – you plan to put your life on hold for three years and travel onboard with a foreign cruise line. That’s going to give you pause, and I understand their decision.”
However, those going ahead have “really developed a bond,” she adds.