It was a vessel fit for a Bond villain, ordered by the son of a dictator. Hannibal Gaddafi, the son of former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, planned his own liner with a tank full of sharks, gold-framed mirrors and a host of large statues, it has emerged.
The ship, which would have been capable of catering for 3,500 guests, would also have been home to two sand tiger sharks, two white sharks and two blacktip reef sharks, along with four biologists to look after them. But the ambitious order was never fulfilled due to the overthrow of the deceased dictator's regime last year.
Hannibal, the 36-year-old fourth son of Colonel Gaddafi who controlled the country's maritime industry and seaports, asked for the vessel because he grew frustrated at not being able to get his hands on a liner to entertain guests at a day's notice.
"I personally don't know why, but he wanted a shark tank," said Pierfrancesco Vago, chief executive of MSC Cruises, which sought to buy the vessel from the French arm of the Korean shipbuilder, STX Corporation, after the Gaddafi order was cancelled in June last year. He said that Mr Gaddafi had been in touch with his company regularly about renting cruise ships, but rarely gave sufficient notice.
"They had great difficulty understanding that cruise ship holidays are sold a year in advance, so there's no way you could ever find availability of a cruise vessel at the notice he gave," Mr Vago told the Financial Times.
The Phoenicia would have been decked out with marble columns and, besides the 1,200-tonne tank full of seawater, would have needed a separate food store for the sharks.
But, instead of being used to host international dignitaries visiting a despot, from March next year it will take holidaymakers on cruises around Greek islands after MSC Cruises decided to spend £460m converting it.
Behind the deal there was nine months of "very tough negotiations", involving talks over the fate of the huge fish tank, the price and a "cleaning up" of the ship's interior. "There were some public spaces with some very particular and peculiar architectural taste – lots of gilt," Mr Vago said.
Mr Gaddafi now lives in exile in Algeria. The grandiose design of the liner is perhaps in keeping with the lifestyle of a man who was once involved in a police car chase in central Paris after allegedly driving down the Avénue des Champs Elysées at 90mph.
In one 2009 episode, at Claridge's hotel in London, police arrested Mr Gaddafi's bodyguards when they tried to deny entry to their boss's hotel room from which screams had been heard. Aline Skaf, Mr Gaddafi's wife, was found bleeding badly with facial injuries. She said she fell.
In July the previous year, the couple were arrested by Swiss police over allegations of assaulting one of their maids. They denied the accusations.