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.
Details: Known as one of Europe's most romantic cities, Venice will be the starting point for this 10-night Mediterranean cruise, departing August 24 aboard Celebrity Silhouette. Passengers will be able to immerse themselves in a variety of cultures, as well as some of the gay community's most renowned acts -- musical comedian Matt Yee and unique drag performers, to name a couple. Included on the itinerary are the Greek islands, as well as two UNESCO World Heritage sites -- Dubrovnik, Croatia and Kotor, Montenegro (a first-time visit for the company). In addition to the onboard entertainment, passengers will also enjoy a wide selection of bars and lounges and dance parties with top DJ's from around the world. The cruise will also offer onboard programs and assistance for non-English-speaking passengers. Fares currently start at $2,149 for an interior cabin.
Details: Amsterdam and Barcelona's thriving gay communities make them ideal sailing points for the 10-night cruise aboard Celebrity Constellation. Passengers can explore the best of Europe, starting with the eclectic city of Amsterdam, followed by France, Portugal and various ports throughout Spain. Highlights of the itinerary include a full day and night in Lisbon and a visit to the island of Ibiza, popular for its vibrant clubs and underground nightlife scene. Onboard, cabaret acts, piano bar entertainers and performers such as Miss Richfield 1981 will represent new signature acts for the year. Fares currently start at $1,699 for an inside cabin.
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 wine-making 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: 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, yacht-like 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, 2013
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 Spain and Portugal Cruise; Lisbon to Barcelona
Ship: Windstar's Wind Surf
Dates: September 15 - 23, 2013
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.
--by Stan Wu, Cruise Critic Contributor; Erica Silverstein, Features Editor; and Gina Kramer, Associate Editor