Almost every cruise line, from luxury to mid-range to mass-market, works to attract gay and lesbian travelers, who are known for being avid cruisers. Passengers will find gay and lesbian travelers on just about any cruise, but some companies offer specialized sailings catering specifically to gay cruisers.
All-gay charter companies like Atlantis Events and RSVP (focused on gay men) and Olivia (exclusively for lesbians) charter entire cruise ships or riverboats and customize the whole trip. The charters work closely with the cruise line to develop itineraries, and they always bring aboard their own group of entertainers, musical guests, D.J.'s and more to transform the ship into a floating world of frolicking and fun on the high seas. During the past 25 years, both Atlantis and RSVP have been chartering large and small cruise ships from major cruise lines, such as Holland America, Royal Caribbean, Princess, Celebrity and Azamara. Olivia joined the party 20 years ago by focusing exclusively on women-only cruises and by chartering similarly mid-range and high-end ships. All of these gay charter companies also regularly charter European riverboats for more intimate, culturally rich experiences for their passengers.
The "Big Three"
Atlantis continues to be the dominant player in the gay cruising industry by chartering the biggest and most glamorous ships afloat -- such as Royal Caribbean's 5,400-passenger Allure of the Seas, which was used for the largest gay cruise in February 2012.
RSVP was sold to Atlantis Events in 2007. As a result of these transitions, the number of cruises RSVP offers has fluctuated from year to year. Olivia will celebrate its 40th anniversary as a company (with 20-plus years in gay travel, specifically), with two 40th Anniversary cruises in 2013 -- back-to-back, identical Caribbean sailings.
The Best of the Rest
New players in the market offer smaller, more intimate full-ship gay charters. Source Events, a gay travel company based in Miami, offers two all-gay charters of Windstar ships in 2013: Wind Star for a Panama/Costa Rica cruise in February 2013 and Wind Surf for a Lisbon-to-Barcelona cruise in September 2013. r Family Vacations offers one full-charter "group cruise" in 2013 -- a French Riverboat Cruise aboard an Avalon riverboat. However, r Family is organizing a gay-affinity group onboard a regular sailing of brand-new Norwegian Breakaway in July 2013, with a Broadway theme.
Houston-based travel agency Concierge Travel has made a name for itself by expanding the market through high-quality, lively gay-affinity groups aboard regularly scheduled cruises (i.e., partial, not full-ship, charters). For example, in February 2013, the company is organizing a large group of gay passengers (and their friends and family) to sail Celebrity Silhouette from Fort Lauderdale, hitting several gay-favorite ports like San Juan, Puerto Rico; Phillipsburg, St. Maarten; and Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas. Concierge has lined up unique entertainers, such as the music and comedy duo "Amy and Freddy." (Note: Partial charters are not listed below, but you can find more details on each company's Web site.)
Where You'll Cruise
Gay and lesbian charter companies conduct extensive research before committing to a foreign destination. There have been well-publicized incidents of all-gay charters facing opposition and scattered protests at ports in such countries as Grand Cayman, Jamaica and Turkey, so the gay charter companies generally steer clear of controversy and head to the "greatest hits" port stops in the Mexican Riviera and the Caribbean. Gay travelers should be aware that, at some ports, they might be faced with different levels of social tolerance.
Cruise companies are offering many diverse choices for all-gay cruising -- in various sizes and itineraries. Travelers can choose trips to the most popular itineraries in Europe, the Caribbean and Alaska or take a relaxing European river cruise, among a wide range of options.
Below is a roundup of gay and lesbian cruise departures through September 2013. This information, with specific dates, offers a snapshot of some of the adventures, but it's not meant to serve as a comprehensive calendar. Refer to each company's Web site for any updates or additions. Be aware that some gay and lesbian cruises sell out very quickly.
Trip: Independence Caribbean Cruise; roundtrip Fort Lauderdale
Details: Atlantis' winter Caribbean full-ship charters of a Freedom-class or Oasis-class Royal Caribbean ship have become mainstays on the gay cruising calendar. For this trip, Atlantis charters Independence of the Seas for an eight-night Caribbean cruise that carries on the tradition. The massive 3,700-passenger ship comes complete with some popular Royal Caribbean amenities, such as an ice-skating rink and rock-climbing wall, and is enhanced by onboard attractions like the FlowRider surf park, full-size boxing ring and the Vegas-style Royal Promenade. Besides three full days at sea to let passengers experience every nook of this easy-to-navigate cruise ship, those onboard will enjoy port calls on Royal Caribbean's private "island" of Labadee in Haiti; San Juan, Puerto Rico; Basseterre, St. Kitts; and Philipsburg, St. Maarten. The cruise typically sells out, so you're encouraged to book early.
Details: Atlantis offers this nature- and party-lover's exploration of some of the best of New Zealand, along with in-depth visits to the two largest cities in Australia. New Zealand and Australia have become hot cruising choices for savvy travelers, and this sailing promises a summer gold rush of unforgettable sights and exotic Southern Hemisphere experiences. Passengers onboard this 11-night cruise will board Oosterdam in Auckland, New Zealand, which is filled with Polynesian culture and rates as one of the most scenic capital cities in the world. Passengers will sail past White Island and have three more port stops in New Zealand: Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin, all of which offer a range of adventure activities and cultural attractions. After two full sea days to relax and enjoy the onboard entertainment, the 2,100-passenger ship will arrive for an overnight stay in Melbourne, Australia, an elegant city known for world-class shopping, dining, arts and festivals. After a final sea day, the cruise ends with an overnight in one of the gay capitals of the world, Sydney, just in time to join more than 300,000 revelers at the famed Sydney Mardi Gras Parade, a celebration of LGBT pride. Travelers will disembark and can choose from the endless attractions and beach culture.
Details: Historically rich Asia has become one of the hottest cruising regions. This luxurious and immersive 11-night cruise links two of the most dynamic cities in the region, Singapore and Hong Kong. This exotic cruise is a rare opportunity for Atlantis passengers to enjoy the highlights of Asia -- all while enjoying the charter's special brand of entertainment and activities. After departing Singapore, a melting pot of Asian and Western cultures, Millennium cruises through the Gulf of Thailand to the scenic Thai island of Ko Samui, followed by an overnight in Bangkok, a top gay city in Asia. The trip then takes travelers to four of the unrivaled jewels of Vietnam: Ho Chi Minh City, Nha Trang, Hue-Danang and Hanoi, all of which offer fabulous food, culture, history and shopping. The cruise docks in the cosmopolitan and frenetic shopper's paradise city of Hong Kong. Spacious Millennium underwent a complete transformation in May 2012 to update it with some of the most popular features of Celebrity's hip and popular Solstice-class ships. The ship features contemporary decor, a Celebrity iLounge, Martini Bar, expanded staterooms, a huge new art collection and many other improvements. Millennium also now includes upgraded AquaClass staterooms and the Qsine specialty restaurant.
Trip: Southern Caribbean Cruise; roundtrip Fort Lauderdale
Details: This seven-night cruise features a unique blend of ports in the Southern Caribbean. The adventure starts in one of the most popular getaway cities for gays and lesbians, Fort Lauderdale, and includes stops in Willemstad, Curacao; Oranjested, Aruba; and Holland America's private island of Half Moon Cay, Bahamas. Three full sea days allow time for plenty of fun in the sun and relaxation, along with a very full schedule of onboard entertainment, parties, seminars and social events in the laid-back RSVP style. The port calls in Dutch-flavored Curacao and Aruba will give visitors the opportunity to choose from excursions like rainforest zip-lining, cultural tours and beautiful beaches. The Curacao port stop coincides with the Curacao Carnival, full of parade floats, bands and revelry. This cruise takes place on Holland America's first Signature-class ship, spacious Eurodam. With its innovative Food & Wine Magazine Culinary Arts Center, expanded Greenhouse Spa and Salon with thermal suites and hydro-pool, and special features like spa staterooms and private cabanas, Eurodam provides a relaxing and pampering home away from home for up to 2,100 passengers.
Trip: Blue Danube Discovery Riverboat Cruise; Budapest to Prague
Details: These culture-rich European river cruises will introduce gay passengers to the romance and history of grand cities and quaint towns in the heart of central Europe and along the fabled Danube River. European river cruising offers a slower, more relaxed pace. RSVP passengers will watch the beautiful scenery glide by while enjoying local food, wine and villages that make this part of the Old World so special. Highlights of the cruise include touring cathedrals and monuments of the cosmopolitan city of Budapest, discovering the musical heritage of Vienna, exploring other small but lively river towns in Austria and enjoying an excursion in Durstein in the German winemaking region of Wachau. The final cruise stop is historic Nuremberg; passengers then join the two-day post-cruise tour of Prague, with its popular Prague Castle and charming Old Town. Avalon Waterways has become one of the leaders in the European river cruise industry, with its premium ships, attentive service and comfortable cabins. Beautiful 128-passenger Visionary features such luxury amenities as premium bedding, free Wi-Fi and suites 30 percent larger than the river cruise industry standard. Every evening, RSVP packs in a schedule of entertainment and activities.
Note: There is a second Danube cruise (Jul. 29 - Aug. 9, from Prague to Budapest), which starts with a two-night pre-cruise tour in Prague, before passengers embark Avalon Visionary on July 31 in Nuremberg. This itinerary is the exact reverse of the first cruise (Budapest to Prague); passengers on the first cruise disembark in Nuremberg on July 31.
Trip: 40th Anniversary Caribbean Cruise I and II; roundtrip Fort Lauderdale
Dates: January 27 - February 3 and February 3 - 10 (back-to-back identical itineraries)
Details: These two all-female trips feature the same port stops during back-to-back weeks. The 2,100 passengers on Nieuw Amsterdam (launched in 2010) will enjoy fine gourmet cuisine in the elegant Manhattan dining room, as well as creative presentations in three acclaimed specialty restaurants. The ship also features a state-of-the-art fitness center and Greenhouse Spa, as well as a full range of exciting onboard activities and entertainment. These two identical seven-night cruises include a full day's worth of sun and fun on Holland America's private beach paradise, Half Moon Cay. The dynamic and diverse ports of Willemstad, Curacao, and Oranjestad, Aruba, offer classic Caribbean scenery and a mix of Dutch, African and Caribbean cultures. Each trip includes three full sea days on which passengers can enjoy all of Olivia's signature entertainment and full slate of onboard parties, events and seminars. On both of these special Caribbean sailings, comedians Kate Clinton, Karen Williams and others are scheduled to perform as part of the celebration of 40 years of Olivia as a leading entertainment and travel company for women.
Note: The first cruise (Jan. 27 - Feb. 3) is sold out, and there is limited availability on the second cruise (Feb. 3 - 10).
Trip: New England and Canada Cruise; Montreal to Boston
Details: Olivia returns to the Northeast United States and Canada for a start-of-summer seven-night adventure that stops at some of the most scenic and history-rich ports in the region. Departing the multicultural city of Montreal, passengers on the 1,250-passenger ship will enjoy French culture and "joie de vivre" with a stop in Quebec City, which offers an Old Town that's designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Cruising through the picturesque Gulf of St. Lawrence offers a chance to view unspoiled nature, along with migratory birds, whales, porpoises and seals. The cruise makes two more port stops -- Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island (the smallest Canadian province, with beautiful Victorian architecture), and Bar Harbor, Maine, adjacent to Acadia National Park and full of turn-of-the-century mansions -- before heading to Provincetown, Mass., one of the most popular gay getaways in the world. The sailing ends in one of America's great historic and food-rich cities, Boston. Maasdam offers a fine example of Holland America's emphasis on gourmet cuisine and numerous dining choices, including the Pinnacle Grill and the Culinary Arts Center, and also includes an acclaimed onboard art collection.
Details: Sea Lion is a small cruise ship with only 31 cabins, which offer intimate accommodations for this adventurous and highly educational seven-night sailing expedition. Passengers will view the natural and animal wonders of the majestic fjords and lesser-explored inlets of Alaska. A sturdy fleet of Zodiac rafts launched from the ship will transport Olivia's visitors as they check out some of the less-accessible islands, glaciers and fjords that the big cruise ships never reach. The adventure also includes some must-see sights like the Mendenhall Glacier, Tracy Arm and Glacier Bay. Awe-inspiring wildlife, such as orca and humpback whales, seals and bald eagles, will be on display in almost every direction. With expert guides and onboard naturalists on this expedition ship, the trip could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to discover one of nature's unspoiled gems.
Trip: Ireland and Scotland British Isles Cruise; Dublin to Edinburgh
Details: This seven-night British Isles cruise gives passengers ample time to enjoy all of the amenities, dining options and relaxed, yachtlike vibe aboard Wind Surf, a 312-passenger "casually elegant" ship. Wind Surf features refurbished staterooms and public spaces, teak decks, gourmet dining, specialty restaurants and an attentive crew and staff. Olivia's passengers will enjoy some of the most historic ports in Ireland, Northern Island and Scotland, including Dublin, Belfast and Edinburgh. This unique itinerary appeals to fans of British and Irish history, museums, pubs, rugged coastlines like those found on the Orkney Islands and, of course, golf. The lone sea day is scheduled to allow visitors time to take full advantage of Olivia's entertainment offerings, including comedians. The ship offers plentiful onboard amenities, including the spacious Wind Surf Spa. The adventure ends in historic Edinburgh, home to the world-famous Edinburgh Castle and the crown jewels of Scotland.
Trip: Provence-to-Burgundy Riverboat Cruise; Arles to Paris
Details: This popular seven-night French Riverboat cruise introduces travelers to the romance and history of grand cities and quaint towns along France's Rhone and Saone rivers. Passengers aboard 138-passenger Avalon Scenery will get to absorb the food, wine and villages that make this part of the Old World so special. Highlights of this cruise include touring cathedrals and strolling through narrow, cobbled streets in the fortified city of Avignon; discovering the medieval architecture of Tournon; exploring the lively gastronomic scene of Lyon; and enjoying insider tours of the famous wineries and cellars of the Burgundy region. The cruise ends in Chalon-sur-Saone, and travelers continue by bus to Paris. Avalon Waterways is a leader in the European river cruise industry because of its premium ships, attentive service and comfortable cabins. Every evening, Olivia packs in a full schedule of varied entertainment and activities.
r family Vacations
Trip: All-LGBT Riverboat Cruise; Paris to Arles
Ship: Avalon Scenery
Dates: August 4 - 13
Details: Formerly known for gay and lesbian family cruises and vacations, r Family offers an adults-only, gay and lesbian seven-night European river cruise with this full-ship charter. After a two-day tour taking in the best of Paris, passengers will board Avalon Scenery in Chalon-sur-Saone. Travelers will enjoy the old traditions and pastoral scenery along the Saone and Rhone Rivers. Highlights include visits to the winemaking regions of Burgundy and Beaujolais, the city of Lyon, as well as the most scenic regions of Provence, including the fortified city of Avignon. The final stops are the Camargue region and Arles. Passengers will be offered the option to join a two-day post-cruise tour to Barcelona. Fine French wines will accompany the gourmet meals aboard the 138-passenger ship. Entertainment will include r Family's own group activities and musical performers.
Trip: Full Moon Costa Rica and Panama Canal Cruise; Puerto Caldera to Colon
Details: This seven-night all-gay charter on 148-passenger Wind Star offers nature-lovers an exploration of some of the highlights of Costa Rica and Panama. Visitors will climb aboard the four-masted yacht and enjoy more than 10,000 square feet of open deck space for a true sailing experience. The trip also features five-star cuisine, an outdoor water sports platform, and an outdoor pool and hot tub. After departing from Puerto Caldera, the ship stops in Manuel Antonio National Park and Golfito, Costa Rica, which is bursting with wildlife and unique flora. After a full day on the tropical Isla de Coiba, Panama, the ship enters Panama's Pacific Coast and transits through the Panama Canal. The final stop on this vacation adventure is the San Blas Islands, Panama, home to the Kuna Indians. The cruise ends in Colon. Every evening, Source Events will feature special entertainers and a range of low-key musical entertainment.
Trip: Full Moon Spain and Portugal Cruise; Lisbon to Barcelona
Ship: Windstar's Wind Surf
Dates: September 15 - 23
Details: This history-filled eight-night adventure starts in the diverse capital city of Lisbon. After a stop in the resort town of Portimao, Portugal, the 312-passenger Wind Surf yacht enters the Mediterranean and makes a port call in Cadiz, which gives visitors the opportunity to choose an all-day excursion to the fabled Andalusian city of Seville or check out Cadiz's markets or plentiful seaside cafes. Then, it's on to Pablo Picasso's birthplace of Malaga, with beautiful beaches and an optional excursion to the Moorish masterpiece, the Alhambra. This sun-soaked cruise also features an overnight stop on the world-class party island of Ibiza -- where the pulsating discos are hopping all night -- and a visit to the island of Palma de Mallorca. The final stop is the architecturally stunning city of Barcelona, which is full of wondrous buildings, cutting-edge cuisine, fantastic nightlife, friendly people and beautiful beaches. Wind Surf offers a true sailing experience, with billowing sails and expansive teak decks. Amenities include an expanded fitness center and spa.