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New kid on the Med

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Next to the sleek sailboats and fat-cat yachts on the Côte d'Azur, easyCruiseOne looks like a big, orange rubber ducky in search of a tub.

Beautiful it is not, but easyCruiseOne has other virtues, starting with its gold-plated French and Italian Riviera itinerary, which I sampled on its second sailing after its launch this month. The cruise ship, started by the same "serial entrepreneur" who created EasyJet airline, calls at a different port on the fabled Mediterranean coast every day of the week. On Fridays, it calls at Nice, Saturdays at Cannes, Sundays at St.-Tropez; followed by Monte Carlo in the principality of Monaco on Mondays. After that, the ugly orange boat crosses to Italy to visit Genoa (Tuesdays), Portofino (Wednesdays) and Imperia (Thursdays). Then the schedule is repeated.

Easy's idiosyncratic approach to cruising is another attraction. Instead of being locked into one- and two-week itineraries, as they are on most cruises, passengers can join the ship or leave it at any stop they like, as long as they stay on board for at least two nights.

Also, unlike most cruise ships, which dock early in the morning, easyCruiseOne pulls up around noon and stays in port until the next morning so shore visitors can see the sights, go to the beach, and eat, drink and make merry until the sidewalks are rolled up.

And perhaps most important, Easy's fares are not inclusive. That may not sound like an incentive to cruise devotees who are used to paying one price for everything. On Easy, shipboard activities, meals, even daily room cleaning aren't part of the package, just accommodations and transportation. The upside: Prices are low compared with most cruises, partly because of Easy's reliance on Internet booking instead of travel agents. Twin-bedded cabins start at $50 a night, although rates vary throughout the cruising season. During the Cannes Film Festival this month, when the French Riviera was booked tight and hotel rooms cost a small fortune, I stayed on the ship for four nights for about $425 (and there was no single supplement, an added boon for the solo traveler).

Transportation to and from the ship is not included, so I booked an EasyJet flight from Paris, where I live, to Nice for about $125 one way. After arriving at the airport, I followed instructions from the cruise line on getting to the ship by public bus. The cost: about $5.

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Bare-bones roomsPainted emergency-life-jacket orange, emblazoned with the company's Web address, easyCruiseOne wasn't hard to spot in Nice's pretty port, east of the old town. The ship was built in 1990 and began life as the Renaissance II, but it got a top-to-bottom refurbishment last year, transforming the once luxury-class vessel into a ship for the masses. It has a reception area, convenience store and sun deck with a hot tub but no pool. There's a cafe on Deck 3 and a sports bar on Deck 4, where passengers pay for meals as they go, using credit cards issued at check-in.

Eighty-two cabins and four suites are scattered over four decks, accommodating 170 passengers.

As on the outside, everything inside is enervating orange, which is why I packed eyeshades (and earplugs for good measure). My third-deck cabin was the cookie-cutter clone of every other twin-bedded chamber on board: Aside from two mattresses on a platform that were covered with soft white comforters, there was no furniture. It also lacked windows, pictures and lamps. There were no cupboards or closets, only a few hooks and hangers, so my clothing and gear tended to accumulate in piles on the cold metal floor.

Greek entrepreneur and Easy founder Stelios Haji-Ioannou calls it "minimalist chic." I call it early college dorm à l'orange.

Either way, bare-bones doubles like mine — about 100 square feet — are not for the claustrophobic. The suites at $280 a night are roomier (about 220 square feet) and have terraces. Part of the space is taken up by the bathroom, a glass-enclosed rectangle containing a shower, sink and commode. The loos are surprisingly functional, even though the floor stays wet because the shower doesn't have a door. You can get fresh towels for $6 a day or a complete cabin cleaning for $17.

While the ship was being refitted in Singapore, Stelios (as he likes to be called) slept in one of the twin-bedded rooms and, at a March news conference in London, proclaimed it palatable. He was on board during the first few nights of my mid-May stay, holding court on the sun deck. But the baby-faced, 38-year-old tycoon lives in Monaco, where he undoubtedly has access to more upscale accommodations.

You've got to hand it to him, though. Scion of a Greek shipping family, educated at the London School of Economics, Stelios has made a career of launching feisty start-up companies — EasyWatch, EasyMobile, EasyInternetcafé, EasyPizza. Like EasyJet, these companies undercut the competition, driving consumer prices down. Bored on a Caribbean cruise a few years ago, he created EasyCruise to attract young budget travelers, with whom he plans to fill a gap in the traditionally oldster-oriented cruise market.

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Not your average passenger

At first, the ship was full of reporters and photographers, interviewing and taking pictures of one another. Gradually, though, the media left and Easy's true beneficiaries started boarding.

It did my populist heart good to see American college students in T-shirts and flip-flops, a middle-aged English couple uncorking a bottle of wine purchased at a grocery store on shore, and two young English women right out of "Bridget Jones's Diary," dressed to the nines for a night at Monaco's Monte Carlo Casino.

The average Easy cruiser is 35, preliminary reports from the cruise line say, which is 15 years younger than the average American cruise-ship passenger.

About half the passengers who booked in the spring were from Britain, where Easy has been heavily advertised, 13% were from the U.S., and the rest were from 30 other countries, including Germany, Italy, Australia and Canada.

Like other new arrivals, I settled into my cabin, explored the ship and then went ashore for a walk in Nice, the lovely capital of the Côte d'Azur, discovered in the early 1800s by wan English sun-seekers. Queen Victoria and her playboy son, Prince Bertie (later King Edward VII), were frequent visitors, and British residents paid for the construction of the town's lovely waterfront park, known as the Promenade des Anglais.

I climbed to the top of the Colline du Château promontory for the view, window-shopped in the old town, sat at a sidewalk cafe drinking a $10 gin and tonic. Later, I had a four-course prix fixe Italian dinner at La Zucca Magica near the port, which cost about $50 with a half carafe of the house red wine and bottled water.

Prices are high on the Riviera, which is why many Easy cruisers eat in the ship's sports bar, where the food is reasonably tasty and inexpensive. A glass of wine costs about $4, a cheeseburger platter $8, a full English breakfast about $9.50. Late at night, a DJ spins loud pop tunes. Once, I saw a woman boogie across the dance floor, but if any more partying than that took place while I was on board, I wasn't aware of it.

As it turns out, the Bridget Joneses were in the cabin next to mine. It was a good thing I had my earplugs because the ship is poorly soundproofed and they seemed to have a lot to talk about when they returned from shore excursions, generally around 4 a.m.

I was on the sun deck early the next morning to see the ship leave Nice, headed for Cannes. Cigarette butts and empty wine glasses around the hot tub suggested that someone had been up late. But at 7 a.m., I was alone as a pilot boat came alongside to guide the ship out of the port, into the beautiful Baie des Anges. The sun was shining, and the wind was in my hair. It was then that I remembered the real excitement of cruising — the vibration and hum of the engine, the sight of the port turning toy-sized as we retreated from shore.

Wobbly and bleary-eyed, passengers started showing up in the cafe for cappuccinos and croissants around 10 a.m. Some moved from there to the sun deck for a soak in the hot tub. But with no entertainment or planned activities, there was nothing much to do beyond attending the obligatory lifeboat drill.

Around noon, we were greeted in Cannes by a black sailboat bearing the Hugo Boss logo, doing figure eights around easyCruiseOne, and yachts almost as big as the cruise ship presumably inhabited by celebs. At the reception desk I found a map of Cannes but no information about the film festival. Fortunately, I knew about the tourist bureau at the Palais des Festivals near the dock, which I visited after taking a tender to shore.

If you don't have an official Cannes Film Festival badge admitting you to screenings, you may as well be scrounging in ashtrays for half-smoked cigarettes. But at the tourist bureau, I discovered that people without festival accreditation could buy tickets for a director's showcase film series in a theater just off the waterfront Boulevard de la Croisette, which is how I managed to see the new Matt Dillon movie "Factotum" that afternoon.

The famous Croisette was a gallery of gigantic motion-picture posters, jammed with limos and sports cars, gawkers and film people rushing from flick to flick, mobile phones plastered to their faces, saying things like, "Oh, bummer. I have to leave 'Star Wars' early to make the Paris Hilton party." The doorman at the Louis Vuitton store looked like Richard Gere, and I'm pretty sure I spotted Danny Glover on the terrace at the landmark Carlton Hotel, which was so crowded that I couldn't find a table.

It was a scene I'm glad to have experienced, though for me, once was enough. Back on the ship, I had a late dinner in the sports bar — the filling fajita platter for about $10 — and got to know my waiter, a nice young man from Goa, India.

The ship's 54 crew members were an international mix, including an English captain and Filipino housekeepers. They all spoke variously accented English and were enthusiastic, like the staff of a semiprofessional summer theater. At my cabin door one night, a staff member came up behind me and said, "Boo." I shrieked, then laughed. "Scared you, didn't I?" he said, making his way down the hall.

I didn't mind the crew's lack of starch and polish, but I was more annoyed by such glitches as the out-of-order elevator and skittishly flushing toilets. When the ship couldn't dock in port, tenders to shore were crowded and infrequent. There were no telephones or computers. Not to mention the total lack of furnishing and décor, especially apparent on the sun deck, which had just two tables and about 10 hardwood chaise longues, sans cushions.

The day before I left, I was pleased to see a staff member hanging photos in the hall, but there was just a handful of selections so I kept seeing the same vintage print of Côte d'Azur sunbathers every time I turned a corner.

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Hits and missesSome of these problems will probably be remedied as the cruising season continues. A more pressing concern is the need for better information about portside activities, events and logistics. A few shore excursions — walking tours, visits to wineries, a helicopter ride — were offered, but during my stay the trips were canceled because there weren't enough takers. Budget travelers tend to be resourceful, but passengers I talked to coming back from shore seemed to have missed interesting sights, suggesting that they didn't know how to make the best use of their time in port.

Before disembarking in the sun-struck fishing village of St.-Tropez, they would have benefited from knowing some of the things I discovered on my own, such as the operating hours of the marvelous Annunciation Museum, full of French Post-Impressionist paintings, and where to rent a bike for a ride to the beach through the pretty Provençal countryside.

On my own in Monaco, I learned where to see the late Prince Rainier III's incredible collection of vintage cars and that on weekdays after 6 p.m. entrance is free at the glorious Belle Époque casino.

Such a small effort would make easyCruiseOne seem less like a ferry, which is how seasoned cruise lovers are likely to see it. I expect people who have no cruising experience or expectations will be more receptive. So too will those who have tried cruise vacations before and come away unenthralled by Vegas-style entertainment, round-the-clock gorging and canned shore excursions.

Call it what you like — ferry or cruise ship — easyCruiseOne gives hoi polloi a chance to see the ritzy Côte d'Azur, with minimum expense and maximum flexibility. I'd welcome more big orange boats calling along Spain's Costa Brava, hopping among the Greek islands, steaming through the Panama Canal — a whole gaggle of them, in fact, opening up otherwise tough territories for budget travelers.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Easy access to the Riviera

GETTING THERE:

Nice airport provides access to easyCruiseOne in St.-Tropez, Nice and Cannes in France, and Monaco. From LAX, connecting service (change of planes) is available on Aer Lingus, Air France, British, KLM, Lufthansa and Swiss. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $917. To Genoa, connecting service is offered on Air Canada, Air France, KLM and Lufthansa. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $1,060.

Be sure to check low-cost European airlines as well if you're staying elsewhere. For a list, see http://www.johnnyjet.com/popup/europebudgetairlines.html .

ITINERARY: EasyCruiseOne visits St.-Tropez, France, on Sundays; Monaco on Mondays; Genoa, Italy, on Tuesdays; Portofino, Italy, on Wednesdays; Imperia, Italy, on Thursdays; Nice, France, on Fridays; and Cannes, France, on Saturdays.

RATES AND BOOKING:

Prices fluctuate during the cruising season, based on demand, generally ranging from $50 (two-bed cabin) to about $280 (two-bed suite) per night, per cabin, including accommodations and transportation only. Though some travel agents handle reservations for easyCruiseOne, passengers are encouraged to make reservations on the Internet, http://www.easycruise.com ; for inquiries, 011-44-1895-651-191.

TO LEARN MORE:

French Government Tourist Office, (410) 286-8310 (for brochures) or (310) 271-6665, http://www.franceguide.com/us .

Italian Government Tourist Office, (310) 820-1898, http://www.italiantourism.com .

— Susan Spano

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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