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Tangerine dreams

A no-frills cruise ship has begun plying the Mediterranean, offering travelers the Riviera for a radical discount. Bruno Maddox gets on board.
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A no-frills cruise ship has begun plying the Mediterranean, offering travelers the Riviera for a radical discount. Bruno Maddox gets on board.

Another deep blue evening on the Côte d'Azur. The ocean is black, with phosphorescent streaks. The façades of Nice's long promenade are greenish-white, like skeletons a-dance in limelight. My shoes, though brown, are not made of leather and therefore they, and I, have been turned away from every casino in town. Wearying suddenly, I hail a cab and have it drive me back to the ship.

The ship is orange. It rises hugely from the water like a lava-covered mountain in hell. In fact, the ship is so orange that when we pull up beside it, the cabdriver gets out of the car with me, lights a cigarette from a pack in his shirt pocket, and stands there squinting up at the thing.

"Mon dieu," he says, actually.

When I heard I'd be taking a sea cruise for "independently minded" people along the French Riviera, I was momentarily overwhelmed. Having an independent mind is a lonely business, in my experience—always zigging just as the world decides to zag. I swallowed a sob of relief at the thought of a weekend in deck chairs with my fellow freethinkers, smoking our briar-stem pipes and discussing phonetical-spelling reform while the Côte d'Azur scrolled respectfully past in the background. We could play a little deck quoits, talk a little atheism...In excitement, I logged on to the cruise line's Web site to book a ticket. But as my screen erupted in a familiar shade of bright orange, I felt my heart sink and my expectations plummet.

You see, there is, in England, a raft of low-cost, no-frills service companies known collectively as the EasyGroup. If you're a certain type of young Englishman, it's conceivable you might rise in the morning and spend a little time with the bright-orange bottles of your Easy4Men male-grooming products, saunter out to a bright orange EasyInternetCafé to check your e-mail, learn about a party somewhere—probably the kind of party where everyone gets shirtless and blows whistles in a field for 40 hours—and dash across Europe to get there by means of a rented, bright orange EasyCar and/or a seat on one of EasyJet's 100 bright orange airliners. You won't find many frills as you blaze your garish trail, and something may very well go wrong, but if you end up having to hitchhike the last hundred miles or so because the plane ran out of fuel or couldn't afford to land at a major airport, so what? The ticket hardly cost you anything, and anyway, that's the kind of challenge you relish. You're independently minded.

The EasyGroup's founder and guiding visionary is a man known nationally in Britain by his first name: Stelios, a heavyset Cypriot and a fixture on the Forbes list of eligible billionaires. His latest venture is EasyCruise, a bright orange, no-frills cruise line with, to start, only one vessel: EasyCruiseOne. Launched in early May from Nice, the ship chugs up and down the Côte d'Azur and the Italian Riviera, stopping at a different ultraexclusive resort every morning, where passengers are free to join the cruise or leave it as they please. Monaco, San Remo, St.-Tropez: the itinerary reads like a...well, like a list of the last places on earth that would probably want a bright orange ship full of independently minded budget travelers dropping anchor in their harbors.

As I probed the EasyCruise Web site, I have to say I became increasingly skeptical. No-frills airlines are one thing, but take away the frills from a cruise ship and what precisely is one left with? Without deck quoits and staterooms and waiters with silver trays and the on-again, off-again prospect of being invited to dine at the captain's table, surely all you have is an extremely slow means of conveyance. And in this case, one frighteningly short on windows. EasyCruiseOne apparently sleeps 170 paying souls, the vast majority of them in tiny, bright orange cabins without portholes.

But it rather works, in reality, the windowlessness. My first evening aboard EasyCruiseOne I retired to my orange cabin and lay there for a while on my thinnish mattress appreciating how much had been done with how little. I'd always wanted to sleep in one of those Japanese coffin-hotels with the TV an inch from my face—part of a larger fantasy about being a businessman (part of a larger fantasy about being productive and wealthy)—and the EasyCruise cabins have a similar spaceship-cockpit aesthetic. There is no complimentary food-service on EasyCruiseOne; that would be a frill. But every passenger, upon boarding, is issued a bright orange identity card to which food and drinks can be charged in one of three manned watering holes. Indeed, I was sitting at the sports-themed main bar with a plate of no-frills nachos when, suddenly, Stelios Haji-Ioannou himself appeared, barreling sweatily through a hatchway, and started buying everyone drinks.

The party moved upstairs, to the open-air cocktail bar, and presently I found myself in the raised Jacuzzi, from which vantage point the beauty of the EasyCruise project became suddenly apparent. Here I was, anchored off the Côte d'Azur, sitting in a Jacuzzi with a drink. All around the darkened marina, I could see people having similar experiences in the hot tubs of yachts that couldn't have left much change from $5 million. And I was paying $90 a night for the minimum two-night stay. This venture simply couldn't fail, I remarked to the independently minded young German woman next to me, assuming Stelios had done the math correctly.

"He looks a little nervous," she said, and she was right. Through the increasingly drunk and shirtless revelers, the great man wandered with an air of restless preoccupation, sipping quickly at a Heineken and staring off into the darkness like a heavyset, Cypriot Jay Gatsby...a heavyset, Cypriot Jay Gatsby who possibly hadn't done the math correctly.

"In my career so far I have started sixteen businesses," Stelios tells me. "All of them, every single one, are still in business. I have never shut down a business. I cannot allow that to happen. It would be too damaging to the Easy brand."

This strikes me as a little defensive, especially since I hadn't mentioned the brand. Stelios repeatedly steers the conversation away from the fiscal viability of the EasyCruise project in particular and toward its symbolic value as an embodiment of his business philosophy. "What I like about myself is that I have the ability to take a business risk on a crazy idea that a bigger company cannot," he tells me in one breath.

The cheerful, nasal voice of Neil the cruise director interrupts us from a loudspeaker to announce our arrival in Cannes. Only here is the thing: we aren't actually in Cannes. Because of the film festival, we're about a mile offshore, and passengers will apparently have to be ferried back and forth by means of a small tender that seats 36 and makes the round-trip only once every two hours.

Which is fine for those perky people who approach tourism as an actual activity. Theoretically, one could, perhaps should, go ashore and spend two, four, or six hours doggedly working through a sightseer's checklist, and then head back to take a nap. But for those of us with a more whimsical, directionless frame of mind, it's an awkward system. Ideally, on vacation, you want to begin the day lying in bed with coffee and a serving of carbohydrates, waiting for energy like a sailor waits for wind, and should that energy suddenly desert you during the day—which invariably it does—you need to be able to return to bed fairly quickly. Instead, my fellow EasyCruisers and I spend the day wandering around an overcast Cannes with the leaden tread of schoolkids.

Up on the cocktail deck that evening, the Jacuzzi still bubbles as vigorously as ever, the drinks—while no longer free—are still reasonably priced, but the mood has completely changed. People are tired and irritable. Too late to go ashore—even if one could—too early to sleep, there's nothing to do but drink, look enviously out at the yachts of richer people, and bicker. The young woman from Germany informs me she has a boyfriend in Cologne. I bitterly remark on what an effeminate job that is for a man before stalking off to bed and lulling myself gently to sleep with a fistful of trazodone.

But then St.-Tropez happens. I stagger out on deck into a buzz saw of natural beauty. The sky has cleared, the air has freshened, and the Mediterranean is a universe of glitter. Days don't come any nicer. The young German is waiting for me with a conciliatory cappuccino. As we sit there in silence watching the roofs of St.-Tropez float closer, Stelios himself reappears, grinning, from below-decks, and I find myself wondering where exactly we would be, as a species, as a civilization, were it not for men with crazy ideas taking to the sea in ships. My cappuccino is of the highest quality, and suddenly I couldn't be happier if I were wearing an itchy brown suit and talking to Bertrand Russell about founding a new society on the banks of the Susquehanna. I raise my coffee cup to Stelios and toast him for his courage, and his truly independent mind.

EASYCRUISE, 44-1895/651-191;; cruises from $60 per night.

BRUNO MADDOX is a frequent contributor to T+L.