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The Croatian ship bringing the superyacht lifestyle closer within reach

<i>Goolets</i><br/>Who wouldn't like a taste of this lifestyle?
Who wouldn't like a taste of this lifestyle?

Terry Ward, CNN

As yacht designers continue to push the envelope on the over-the-top superyachts that are being snatched up by the uber-rich, several ships in the Adriatic are taking a different tack by bumping up the luxury offerings on older ships at a lower price point.

And these charters aren’t the only way to sail closer to the one-percenter lifestyle for less.

The Croatia-based superyacht Freedom began its life as a cabin cruiser, plying Croatia’s postcard islands with 18 onboard cabins, accommodating up to 40 guests, that could be rented out individually for roughly $1,500 per person per week. With individual cabins for rent and meals often served onboard, cabin cruisers have long operated in Croatian waters as a popular alternative to cruise ships.

But after undergoing a $1.6 million refurbishment in early 2022 in the Croatian shipyard Radež, the 48-meter (158-foot) Freedom re-emerged on the docks of Split this summer as something much closer to a modern “superyacht” with just 11 cabins for a single group of up to 22 guests.

Space from former cabins was converted into an onboard massage suite, cinema and wellness area with a sauna and steam room.

And the four-deck ship also has a fitness room, a sun deck with a hot tub, a small plunge pool and bar. A fleet of water toys was brought onboard for guests, too, including an inflatable slide, electrical foil surfboard, inflatable kayaks, SUP, Seabob and water scooter. And 11 crew members serve guests.

Introductory charter rates for Freedom’s first superyacht season started at 80,000 euros (roughly $82,000) per week (without food and alcohol included, which adds about 30% to the overall price). Do the math and if you can gather 21 of your closest friends, you can sample the superyacht island-hopping lifestyle for less than what a week on some luxury cruise ships might cost you.

And Freedom isn’t the only cabin cruiser in the Adriatic being remade.

Three more yachts offered by the same charter company are being completely refurbished for fully private charters by the 2023 season, says Mitja Mirtič, who runs the Slovenian-based charter agency Goolets, which books Freedom and other yachts in Croatia, Turkey and Greece among other locations.

Cruising the Adriatic coast is just one way to get a taste of the superyacht lifestyle without completely blowing your stockpiled vacation budget. Yachting experts have offered CNN Travel other ideas for travelers looking for something splashy but not stratospheric in terms of price.

But first, Freedom’s latest venture.

Yachting has been going full-throttle during the pandemic

Freedom’s change from cabin cruiser to luxury charter took off immediately, says Mirtič, thanks in part to pandemic appetites.

As other travel businesses screeched to a halt, the yachting business kept going at full throttle in Croatia and elsewhere, Mirtič says. And owners of cabin cruisers in Croatia came to Goolets asking to be booked with private groups to accommodate people looking to social distance and travel with others in their bubbles.

And while Mirtič says he believes the trend of cabin cruisers leveling up to bring a more luxe experience to Croatia’s waters would have happened eventually, the pandemic helped speed things up.

“The ship owners were making more money (with private charters during the pandemic) than in cruising, the tips were bigger from a client who books the entire ship, the cruises were more high-end,” Mirtič says. “It was just more interesting to everybody.”

The price for Freedom charters is set to increase to 100,000 euros (about $102,000) and up for the 2023 season, which runs from late-April to late-September.

When it comes to what defines a superyacht, there’s no rule that’s universally accepted by everyone in the industry, says Oscar Siches, a marina consultant and former superyacht captain based in Mallorca, Spain.

But the International Council of Marine Industry Associations defines superyachts as over 30 meters (roughly 98 feet) long, he says. Which means Freedom qualifies by size — if not perhaps other standards, according to Siches.

What the refurbished cabin cruisers are — and what they’re not

Siches called Freedom a “work horse” designed to make money.

And while there’s a market for a ship like Freedom, says Siches, it makes sense the ship doesn’t charge what a “modern 50-meter yacht” charges because it doesn’t meet the “top-quality design” that the hyper-rich are looking for in a superyacht charter.

Mirtič does not disagree.

“If you build a 50-meter superyacht, the price is around $50 million, so Freedom is not a superyacht like from the books,” Mirtič says about the ship, which cost just over $4 million to build in 2019.

“But it has all the characteristics of a superyacht, plus you can take more people,” he says, referring to the onboard amenities and space.

Because Freedom was originally built as a cabin cruiser and not a superyacht and offers charters only in Croatian waters, the ship doesn’t have to adhere to the 12-passenger / six-cabin restrictions for superyachts that are the norm in the greater industry.

Now, Mirtič says, Goolets fields queries on a weekly basis from captains who want to “copy and paste” what has been done with Freedom (all 15 yachts in the Goolets portfolio are privately owned and operated).

“We had this situation where the owners were saying 50,000 euros a week for a private charter for their ship seemed too high, while we were getting calls from Monaco about clients that wanted to book a ship like this but were afraid the price was too low,” he says. “It was really funny.”

The market for these yachts will never be the hyper-rich, says Mirtič.

“It’s business people and new money people who have a lot of money but don’t want to spend $500,000 a week for a charter just to show off,” he says.

Goolets will also be offering the 49-meter (160-foot) Ohana and Cristal and 48-meter (157-foot) Bella in 2023. They won’t have all the onboard superyacht amenities of Freedom, but weekly charter rates for the 2023 season start as low as 55,000 euros (about $56,000) per week for Cristal, with room for up to 38 guests in 19 cabins.

A charter in a niche of its own

Jared Watney of Ocean Air Media has been in the superyacht industry for 13 years, and he says Goolets has created a niche of its own with Freedom.

“When you are chartering a yacht around the 100,000 euros per week mark, you’re either going to get an older boat that might be close to 30 or 40 meters long, but nowhere near Freedom’s 48 meters,” he said. “And on a smaller boat, there’s a huge possibility it will only accommodate up to 10 guests.”

A smaller boat in that price range is also unlikely to have a cinema, massage room and all the water toys superyacht charter guests want, he says.

“(Freedom) is high capacity for people, low price rate per person and high-volume to accommodate onboard facilities,” Watney says, and can offer more than customers could hope to find in vessels chartering for the same price elsewhere right now.

Which brings us to other ways travelers can find good value on a getaway that’s designed to be exclusive.

Saving money on superyacht charters is a thing

If you’re looking for other ways to save money on a superyacht charter, there are options, says Siches.

For starters, the farther away you charter from the South of France — where a starting superyacht charter price for the week is around the $250,000 per week mark before food and alcohol — the less expensive yacht charters tend to get, Siches says.

“Turkey is a lot less expensive. It doesn’t have as many superyacht berths, but it has a lot cleaner water than the South of France,” he says. “The Emerald Coast is a fantastic place to cruise.”

The further south you go in Italy also tends to be cheaper for chartering a superyacht, Siches says, pointing to Sicily and southern Sardinia.

Heather Hatcher of the International Yacht Company, a yacht brokerage firm with one of the largest fleets in the world, says charter guests who book during the shoulder months of May and June as well as September and October in the Mediterranean can expect to save 10% off the high season weekly base charter rates.

“Owners are also more willing to negotiate those times of year because it’s traditionally a slower period,” she says.

Greece and Croatia also have far lower VAT (value-added tax) on yacht charters compared with France, Italy and Spain, she says.

More savings strategies

And there are other “tricks” to consider, too, Hatcher says.

“If you start a charter in Turkey and leave and go into Greece on a foreign boat that’s not a Turkish yacht and without a Turkish flag, you can leave a country and touch a foreign port and avoid the VAT,” she says.

Similarly, Hatcher said chartering a yacht in Albania to cruise the Ionian islands of Greece and back into Albania is a way to avoid paying the additional cost of Greece’s VAT, since Albania isn’t in the European Union.

“Additionally, if you start a charter in Greece and leave Greek waters to say Albania or Turkey, the entire Greek VAT is waived,” she says.

Outside of Europe, Hatcher points to charters in New England as another way to pinch pennies on an undoubtedly pricey pastime. But pay attention to your departure port.

“Only charters starting out of Rhode Island and Maine are zero taxes,” she says. “If you start in New York or Massachusetts, you have to pay state sales tax on the charter fee.”

You can charter in Newport to cruise around places such as Nantucket, Block Island, Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park.

And if you wonder whether there are really people looking to charter a superyacht who simultaneously worry about saving money, Mirtič says he’s banking on it.

“There’s a huge segment of people who have money and want to be a part of yachting, but want to be smart about it,” he said.

“Not everyone wants to spend $500,000 a week on a holiday.”

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Top image: The Croatian ship Freedom (Goolets)

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