On July 2, Royal Caribbean’s Freedom of the Seas was scheduled to leave Miami, one of the first departures from an American port since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s pandemic-related No-Sail Order was imposed on the cruise industry 16 months ago.
Freedom of the Seas’ cruise to the Bahamas marks the return of commercial vacation travel on the high seas.
But as the industry returns to normal, it finds itself in growing competition with other forms of higher-end travel, much of it feeding off pent-up demand for recreation that is crowd-free, customized and a perceived step up in luxury.
In late May, the 191-foot superyacht Skyfall docked at Wrightsville Beach Marina. While not nearly as large as one of Royal Caribbean’s vessels, it represents a more exclusive model in waterborne travel for those who can afford it.
The yacht, with its James Bond-inspired name, is owned by Roy Carroll, president and CEO of The Carroll Companies, the real estate firm developing The Avenue, a more than $200 million mixed-use project planned for Military Cutoff Road.
“There’s more and more people from North Carolina who own these boats,” said Sam Clary, the marina’s dockmaster. “There’s probably 10 or 12 with local ties over 100 feet that frequently come to visit.”
When Skyfall is not being used by Carroll it is available for charter by other families, groups of friends and businesses. Carroll, who owns the Caymans-flagged vessel and uses a charter broker to book sailings, requires background checks on all his guests.
The superyacht remains shipshape thanks to an international crew of 14 who serve up to 12 guests per sailing. It features a master suite and cabins, a grand salon that includes a dining area, temperature-controlled cabinets for 1,000 wine bottles, Wi- Fi, an office for remote work, an entertainment system, an elevator, a second salon, a large open area on the bridge deck and a sun deck with two hot tubs. Other amenities include a powerboat, jet skis, seabobs and diving equipment.
Skyfall plies the Mediterranean in summer and the Caribbean in winter for about $500,000 and $350,000 per week, respectively, inclusive of fuel, food and gratuities.
Unlike river cruising, which is growing in popularity, Carroll says chartering a superyacht enables guests to change their travel plans on a whim.
“You and the captain set your itinerary. You’re not on schedule,” he said. “You get to decide what you want to do, where you want to go and exactly what you want to eat.”
Prior to boarding, a preference list is submitted to guests asking questions like “What time do you want your coffee?” or “How do you like your salmon cooked?” Carroll added.
“It is expensive vacationing, but it is the ultimate luxury in vacations,” the Greensboro-based real estate developer said.
In June, Skyfall was headed to Croatia, Albania and Montenegro, a departure from the superyacht’s usual schedule.
“Typically, the West Med is the hot place to be … but those areas have not opened up all the way,” Carroll said.
Ocean and River Cruises
In contrast to Skyfall, “A lot of cruise lines aren’t ready to sail yet,” observed Jeff Roberts, owner of Wilmingtontravelandcruise.com, based in Leland.
With the CDC greenlighting Royal Caribbean’s July 2 cruise, the industry giant recommended that passengers get vaccinated. “Those who are unvaccinated or unable to verify vaccination will be required to undergo testing and follow other protocols,” a June 4 statement said.
“I think there’s going to be a slight reluctance ‘til the cruises get going for, I’d say a month, ‘til people see feedback,” Roberts said.
Such hesitation may prompt couples or groups stepping away from the megaships – but who also find superyachts overly expensive – to embrace river cruising. But they may still be denied entry at certain ports as authorities continue to monitor local health conditions.
Most people who take river cruises experience a number of mass-market cruises and “then they’re ready for something different,” Roberts said. While the entertainment may not be as memorable and the menu somewhat limited, river cruises carry far fewer passengers than big-box vessels and provide a front-row seat on the scenery, he said.
As river cruises and, to some extent, superyacht charters make inroads in the cruise lines business, the Royal Caribbean and Princess lines of the world are pushing back.
Royal Princess, for one, added private cabanas and secluded dining options pre-pandemic. “They’re creating niches for the more luxury-minded traveler,” Roberts explained.
But in the end, escaping a yearlong lockdown may still come down to cost.
According to River Cruise Advisor, in October 2018 a 7-day ocean cruise cost as little as $900 per person while a 7-day river cruise rang up at $2,500, but with companies offering inclusive pricing, add-ons or specials in both market segments that determined a vacation’s final price.
“That still stands as a fair assessment” of pricing during the ongoing pandemic, said Ralph Grizzle, Asheville-based River Cruise Advisor’s founder.