At Sea Over a Floating Condo

First came the concept of condominiums, which wasn't all that difficult to grasp. You lived in a big building--at one time it would have been called an apartment building--but you didn't rent your apartment. You owned it.

Then came the concept of time-sharing, which was a little trickier. You bought your condominium unit--say, in Florida--and you stayed there during your vacations. When you weren't there, you rented it out to other people. If the deal was put together right, you could arrange to have the same groups of people staying in your vacation home during the same weeks of every year. Through time-sharing, your vacation condominium could pay for itself.

After that came the concept of weird condominium ideas. No longer were condos limited to apartments. In several large cities, it was proposed that parking spaces be sold on a condo basis. The idea was that parking lots were becoming so overcrowded that the wise motorist would be willing to buy a condo parking slot--just as he might buy a condo home--and thus be assured of a place to stow the car every working day.

Now comes a new idea. As we shall see later in the column, this is anything but a done deal, and there are all kinds of questions about it. Nevertheless, it is a combination of the condominium concept and the time-share concept that is enough to make you shake your head in wonderment.

A company identifying itself as Swiss America Line has issued a proposal offering "A new investment concept. . . . purchase a sea-going condominium, your private stateroom on the luxurious cruise ship Victoire I. . . . Unique opportunity for individual or corporate investment in the booming Caribbean cruise industry and one of the world's great cruise ships."

According to the proposal, people who purchase the condo staterooms will be allowed "free use of your stateroom two weeks a year, and you will receive the revenues of its use the remaining 50 weeks."

The proposal says that, if you purchase one of these floating condos--also called "sea estates"--you will enjoy "the finest appointments: designer staterooms and suites, 4-star dining, fine wines, grand salons, friendly crew . . . and the pleasures of a Caribbean cruise; sun decks, island excursions, swimming pool, exciting activities. . . . Visit different ports of call every year as the Victoire I rotates her schedule throughout the Caribbean Islands and the world."

It's an intriguing idea, although not one for the skittish; if you're the kind of person who owns a vacation condo and is always wondering, in the back of your mind, just what kind of time-share people are staying in your home this particular week, think of the anxiety that owning a sea-going time-share condo stateroom would bring on.

Not only would you not know who was staying in your stateroom . . . but you wouldn't even know where the darned thing was. At least with a vacation condo apartment, you can be pretty sure that it's sitting on the piece of land where you last saw it. With this thing, your condominium could be in Bermuda or it could be off the coast of Nassau.

Heck, they could sail it anywhere, and they wouldn't even have to tell you.

Before you get too excited about this, we should back up. Earlier in the column, we mentioned that this seemed to be anything but a done deal. Please read on.

We attempted to contact the Swiss America Line at its Miami headquarters to find out more, including details about the ship itself, the oft-referred-to Victoire I. A man gave some sketchy information, and asked that we call back the next day. When we did, a second man giving the same name as the first man--he admitted they were different people, but did not say why they used the same name--gave us a bit more information. We were advised to contact the company's San Francisco office.

In the weeks since, the company seems to have floated out to sea. In Miami, receptionists refer us to San Francisco. The San Francisco number has been disconnected. Often in Miami someone will pick up the phone and hang it up without saying hello; sometimes the phone will ring for a while and just stop. After dozens of calls, we are left to conclude that the floating condominium time-share company does not wish to be reached.

Which is too bad. We just wanted to know if the deck chairs were going condo, too.

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