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EasyCruise: a no-frills ship for vacationers on a budget

THE BALTIMORE SUN

ABOARD EASYCRUISE ONE / / The last few lights of Fort-de-France harbor and rural Martinique winked in the distance while, on deck, a foursome of Texas Hold-'em broke out on the port side, a gray-haired Indian man lectured on the starboard side about imperialism, three rows of line-dancing women from four countries attempted the "Tush Push," and a lanky California man made a gymnastic attempt to be the ninth person in a hot tub built for five.

Who needs belly-flop contests and climbing walls when you have entertainment like this?

Even more entertaining: The knowledge that this weeklong Eastern Caribbean cruise for two cost less than my iPod.

The 170-passenger easyCruise One is a no-frills floating hotel, the improbable cross between a yacht and a college dorm (and maybe a navel orange) that stops at six islands a week in and around Barbados and the Grenadines during winter. It's a prawn in the cruise line food chain, but it made whale-sized waves last year by offering bafflingly low fares to attract younger, party-prone passengers who want to travel and see more, and eat and spend less, in the increasingly homogenized world of cruise ships.

The voyage requires a certain, um, flexibility about comfort, style and service: The rooms are tiny and spare, food and clean towels cost extra, there's no Vegas-style revue, and much of the ship is the color of a life vest. But the payoff is a flexible approach to sea travel that enables passengers to hop on or off at any island, stay in ports well into the evening and pay less per night than for a one-star motel in Fresno.

I was onboard recently to find out whether the service that was immensely popular in the Mediterranean last summer holds up in cruising's busiest market, where getting there is typically twice the price of an easyCruise ticket.

EasyCruise One is the single-ship armada of easyCruise.com, the latest venture of self-proclaimed "serial entrepreneur" Stelios Haji-Ioannou (who for obvious reasons prefers just Stelios). His other 14 no-frills businesses include easyJet, easyHotels, easyCarRental, easyMusic, easyPizza and easyMoney. Yes, really.

Stelios launched the cruise line in May in the Mediterranean, serving cheap travel to young partiers aching to make the scene in the clubbing capitals of the French and Italian Riviera. The cost: about $50 per night for a two-person cabin, meals not included.

Stelios announced a few months later that the ship, built in 1991 for Renaissance Cruises but reconfigured in 2004 to carry 70 percent more passengers, would spend winters in the Caribbean, with weekly stops at St. Vincent, Martinique, Bequia, Grenada and St. Lucia, and two days on Barbados. The ship pulls into port about 10 a.m. and leaves at 10 p.m. or later, long after the megaships have moved on.

In April the ship will move back to the Mediterranean, but company officials have said easyCruise might be in the market for a second ship, possibly for similar island-hopping in Greece.

Among passenger ships, EasyCruise One is as small as the Queen Mary 2 is big. At 4,077 tons and 290 feet long, it's just big enough for passengers and 54 crew. It has no pool, no ballroom, no spa treatments and no captain's cocktail party. (The QM2 is 37 times the size and cost 40 times as much to build.)

What else is missing on easyCruise? Fighting over lounge chairs, ubiquitous art auctions, long lines, convoluted red tape over tender tickets and obnoxious announcements every 10 minutes about Super Mega Bingo, tender tickets and the next art auction.

It would take a serious effort to get lost on this ship. When boarding most ships, you spend the afternoon finding your cabin, checking out the pool, counting the hot tubs, admiring the elegant promenade and towering atrium, locating the elevators and strategizing where to hunt and gather the first of your 87 meals. On easyCruise One, the same routine took 11 minutes, in part because there's no promenade, no atrium, only five floors with cabins, one elevator, no pool and one hot tub for 170 passengers -- which might explain why maintenance guys changed the water every morning.

The ship is conducive to meeting fellow passengers because, with few diversions and just one cafe, one restaurant and the lone hot tub, you tend to run into the same folks pretty often. Most popular is the outdoor lounge on the back of Deck 5, known alternately as the Hot Tub Deck or That Deck With the Bar. During certain times of the day it should be called the Watch the Amazing Caribbean Sunset Deck.

Meal options onboard include Caffe Ritazza, a simple, chic coffee house that serves the usual dosages for coffee addicts, as well as pastries, panini sandwiches and fresh-squeezed orange juice; and the Sports Bar, a full-service restaurant festooned with televisions, all playing the same extreme sports video. The Sports Bar's menu is average and a little pricey and includes standard meat and seafood entrees, as well as American pub grub that somehow got lost in translation. (Note to easyCruise execs: The "taco sauce" on nachos should not be marinara.)

Among the other reasons to not spend much time in the standard double cabins: There is no furniture or closet for stowing luggage or clothes -- just a platform for two twin mattresses and a high shelf -- and the walls are so thin, I learned the maiden name and favorite color of my neighbor's mother without even trying.

The shower is larger than on most standard cruise ships' cabins, and the glass-and-chrome fixtures are particularly attractive, but there's no curtain to keep the water from covering the rest of the bathroom. Also, the bathroom's frosted-glass walls make it an efficient echo chamber, which alone should rule this cruise out for anyone squeamish about the, ahem, sounds of human hygiene and waste disposal.

Because of the flexibility of where trips begin and end, the mix was constantly changing, like a high school with wide-eyed freshmen (those who arrived Monday, for instance) having a different shared experience from the savvy seniors (who boarded way back on Wednesday). In our case, most folks already on board had experienced a lot of rain, binge drinking and subsequent nudity during a late-night limbo contest. Timing is everything.

Clearly, port stops are the reason for easyCruise.

As someone accustomed to typical cruises, I found freedom in strolling off the ship at 10 a.m. with 12 to 14 hours for exploration, unburdened by thoughts of making the early dinner seating.

Nightlife onboard easyCruise One doesn't begin before 10 p.m. and, not surprisingly, revolves around That Deck With the Bar.

Deck games are one of the few areas in which easyCruise is trying to use the megaship model, although there were some missteps (water-balloon bowling?) and participation is a tough sell when your passengers are independent travel types, Frommer-fawning seniors and college-age Europeans sporting Abercrombie & Fitch.

This night was line dancing.

I was faced with tough choices: listen to Missouri Guy's Chivas-fueled rant du jour, go down to the Sports Bar and try another appetizer featuring the mysterious "taco sauce" or join in the dance.

Or, maybe, sit back and be entertained. It wasn't free, but it was easy.

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