Stop The World I want to play golf

The World

All aboard The World

“Welcome to our World,” greets the beaming waiter, handing us chilled towels and flutes of Champagne. My husband William and I are celebrating our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary and we’re doing it, literally, in world-class style.

The World is the first and only private community at sea. The staff and the residents would prefer that you not call your vacation aboard this floating global village a cruise. Which is fine with me because frankly the thought of sailing with hundreds of other folks I may not like, lining up for midnight chocolate buffets, squeezing into a miniscule cabin and being herded off to various ports of call is abhorrent to me.

The World, however, is a much different kettle of fish. The brainchild of Knut U. Kloster, Jr., who envisioned a floating ocean community and turned his dream into reality in March 2002, this 644-foot, twelve-deck vessel—the largest private yacht on the planet—is home to residents of eighteen different nationalities, their guests, renters and about 250 crew. There are 165 privately owned residences ranging from studios to one- two- and three-bedroom apartments. Occasionally a unit becomes available for resale, with prices ranging from $825,000 to $7.3 million US. Residents may opt to put their unit into a rental pool when they’re at one of their other homes around the globe. My husband and I are renters.

We are escorted to apartment 925. Our 131-square-metre floating abode for the next six days is a centre hall plan with a kitchen larger than mine at home, a dining room that seats eight, a living room with two sofas and two plasma TVs, two bedrooms, two bathrooms (the master with a Jacuzzi) and a fifteen-metre teak deck with another Jacuzzi. We have a grand view of Barcelona’s harbour. English Country is how Nina Campbell, the London-based interior designer describes the décor. The owner of number 925 must have a sense of humour. One tissue box reads, “Lord, if you won’t make me skinny, please make my friends fat.” Another says, “I do not suffer from stress but I am a carrier.”

The average number of passengers onboard is 150, so there are absolutely no crowds anywhere, ever. While enjoying our eggs Benedict on the deck of Tides restaurant in the mornings we never see more than ten other diners. The staff knows our names and our preferences. “Will you be having your usual latté?” asks our waiter, David, as he places the Frette linen napkin on my lap.

Tides, serving Mediterranean cuisine, is one of four restaurants onboard. One night we enjoy a gourmet dinner with Californian wine pairings in Portraits, the ship’s haute cuisine restaurant. Our most memorable dining experience has to be the “Call-A-Chef” service. The executive chef gives me some menu options in the morning and when we return to our apartment at dusk, he and a sous chef are whipping up a goat’s cheese and artichoke salad, noodles with prawns, asparagus tips, black truffles, rack of lamb and a passion fruit mousse. The candlelit table is strewn with rose petals. In between courses, our waiter regales us with stories from The World’s various exotic ports of call.

Should you want to actually use the cappuccino maker or pots in your kitchen, you can buy groceries at Fredy’s Deli, where they stock everything from tins of foie gras to ink jets for your computer. However, I didn’t get the impression that a whole lot of cooking went on amongst the residents who are required to spend a yearly minimum of $33,000 US on food and beverages. I did, however, detect the smell of burnt toast in the ninth floor corridor one morning.

Another unique aspect about The World is that she follows a different itinerary every year. The residents are given three routes to vote on. When the ship was launched in 2002 the idea was that she would be in all the right places at all the right times, for example Rio for Carnaval, Valencia for the America’s Cup, Scotland for the British Open.

When we read that The World would be spending a couple nights in Marbella we decided to arrive there a few days early in order to play some of the stellar courses on the Costa del Sol. Occupying the southern part of the Iberian peninsula, Andalusia brings to life one’s stereotypical images of Spain—flamenco, bullfighting, gazpacho, gypsy music, brilliant sunshine—thus imbuing a golf getaway with zesty Spanish gusto.

From Malaga to Gibraltar, all along the coast and up into the Malaga mountains, the region boasts more than fifty golf courses, including Valderamma, where Robert Trent Jones’  devious layout among the cork trees has severely tested golf’s greatest players, and the San Roque Club, former venue for the PGA European Tour Qualifying School.

We enjoyed some less famous, more forgiving but no less scenic tracks. La Cala, the largest golf resort in Spain, boasts three eighteen-hole courses, an executive par-three and the only David Leadbetter Academy in Spain with a TaylorMade Performance Lab.

“Comparing this system to other swing analysis systems is like comparing the space shuttle to a hot-air balloon,” says Quintin van der Berg, director of the Leadbetter Academy.

The America, Europa and Asia courses play through the foothills of the Mijas Mountains, requiring that you calculate the angles and slopes and plan each shot from tee to green. It’s a giddy test of golf.

After our round, a fellow in the pro shop recommended nearby Puerto Banús for dinner and drinks. Move over Saint Tropez! This is the gathering place for celebrities, the jet set and wannabes. Sleek yachts line a harbour crammed with vintage automobiles, trendy bars and eateries and shops displaying outrageous rhinestone sandals, designer bikinis and bling. We arrived back at our hotel at La Cala to find a troupe of flamenco dancers strutting their stuff in the lobby.

The following morning at La Quinta, designed by Antonio Garcia Garrido and former two-time World Cup champ Manuel Peñero, we enjoyed a gentler terrain and fabulous sea views on the last four holes. On a clear day you can see all the way to Africa. The neighbouring five-star Westin La Quinta will wow you from its impressive marble lobby and handsome guestrooms to the fabulous breakfast buffet (complete with sparkling Cava) overlooking the pool.

We actually caught our first glimpse of The World a few days before we boarded her, as we approached the ocean-side tenth green at Guadalmina’s South Course, the second oldest course in Marbella and a real gem. Originally when we planned our trip, we had assumed we would be boarding the ship in Marbella, but port regulations necessitated getting on in Barcelona—hardly a hardship.

Capital of Catalonia, Barcelona has to be one of Europe’s most dynamic cities with its steamy seaport, the medieval romance of its Gothic Quarter and the phantasmagorical creations of Antoni Gaudi. We rambled down its main thoroughfare, the Rambla, where buskers have taken street performance to imaginative new heights. We stopped at La Boqueria, one of the oldest food markets in Europe, where you can shop for a picnic or try to secure a table at Pinotxo where the Jayen family serves inventive fish dishes spiked with garlic and tapas galore.

Even if architecture isn’t your passion, you must see Gaudi’s unfinished masterpiece, the Sagrada Familia. A tram killed the beloved Catalan architect before he could complete this bizarre “bible in stone” that resembles a melted sand castle. More whimsical and with not a straight line in sight is his Park Güell—an Art Nouveau extravaganza.

With an average of two and a half days in each port, it’s the task of Geoff DeVito, the ship’s Enrichment Manager, to bring each destination alive to his passengers.

“Most of the residents are self-made, successful professionals with a passion for travel.  They want to get off the beaten path,” he says. In Barcelona, DeVito discovered the bar where Hemingway used to drink Absinthe; in South Georgia he hired a guide to trace part of Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton’s route. Think backpacker mentality on a Champagne budget.

“The World is an amazing social experiment,” says DeVito. “You’ve got a disparate group of successful people from all over the planet who make up a floating country. We are determined to make it work. The residents have financial and ideological reasons—it’s a pride thing and there’s nothing like it anywhere else. The rental program keeps the ship vibrant. When new folks come aboard, the residents are proud to welcome them.”

The Enrichment Department’s mandate is to find out as much as possible about each new destination and share it with passengers. As soon as The World enters a new port, DeVito and his crew hit the streets with their video cameras to produce a daily television show. In Trinidad they went in search of the island’s best callaloo (West Indian soup); in Bermuda they tracked down the history of the island’s eponymous shorts. DeVito also regularly brings entertainers and lecturers on board. But don’t hold your breath for bingo night.

From bustling Barcelona we sail to St. Tropez. The Film Festival is just around the corner in Cannes but we opt instead to play golf with Pier Falcomer, the ship’s Sports and Golf Manager, who hails from Swaziland. Oh yes, there’s a World Country Club on the top deck complete with a simulator loaded with fifty-two of the world’s best courses. In fact, William and I “play” Pebble Beach en route from Barcelona to St. Tropez where Falcomer arranges transportation to the posh and private Royal Mougins Golf Club, designed by Robert von Hagge in the Provence hills. Falcomer entertains us with stories about Swaziland’s royal family and gives William a few tips about how to finesse his draw. Back on board that night, we dine on thick veal chops and apple pie while being entertained by a female trio who belted out Edith Piaf tunes.

Diversions aboard The World include a retractable hull creating a marina at the ship’s stern for water sports, a Thai Banyon Tree Spa, House of Graf Jewelers, extensive library and Internet stations, fitness centre, beauty salon, cigar club, theatre, casino, two pools and a full-size tennis court. But we manage to pry ourselves off the ship to spend some quality time people-gawking in St. Tropez, where even the poodles wear Prada.

We bid farewell to the French Riviera and spend our last morning sailing into postcard-perfect Portofino on the Italian Riviera, purportedly the most photographed village in the world. The facades of what were once fishermen’s dwellings, painted in mustard, ochre, pink and rust, are reflected in the tiny perfect harbour filled with bobbing pleasure craft and surrounded by chic boutiques and cafés. Pier has arranged for a driver to deposit us at our hotel in Santa Margherita Ligure, just a par-five away, and then take us on to play Rapallo, a 1930s vintage golf course nearby, where the likes of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Rex Harrison and Rita Hayworth have taken a few swings. Nestled in the Ligurian Mountains, the tight par-seventy winds around a couple of rivers and past mature trees. On the signature seventh hole, an ancient chapel presides over the green.

Tonight DeVito has hired three Italian tenors to entertain the citizens of The World, but my spouse and I content ourselves with some simple pesto pasta at a local trattoria. We spend the night at the Grand Hotel Miramare, an old-world classic that must have been a favourite with those upper class Brits back in the days of the “Grand Tour.”

The following morning we schlepp our bags onto a train bound for Monte Carlo. We have decided to end our anniversary trip with a grand finale in Monaco where the sixty-fifth Grand Prix is in high gear. Film director George Lucas has just checked into his usual corner suite at the Fairmont Monte Carlo and Prince Albert is expected momentarily to kick off a silent auction and cocktail party to honour the late, great racecar driver Ayrton Senna, who finished first here six times. When it comes to location, location, location, the Fairmont has been dealt a Royal Flush. The hotel entrance is situated at the Grand Prix’s famous hairpin turn and it’s next door neighbour is the world’s most famous casino. Taittinger Champagne flows on the seventh floor terrace as well-heeled guests nibble on foie gras, filet of lamb, jumbo shrimp and bowls of cherries. A Stan Getz jazz tune provides mellow background music.

Tomorrow The World will be making her way toward the Eternal City of Rome, then the Amalfi Coast and beyond. Having disembarked, we will now begin our journey home. Never has it been so hard to leave The World behind.

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