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Cruising the French Riviers for Less

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; www.easycruise.com; cruises from $60 per night.

BRUNO MADDOX is a frequent contributor to T+L.

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