A few decades ago, gay men sought out voyages on traditional-style ships, knowing there would be a discreet number of similarly inclined fellow cruisers. Stories of the North Cape Bar aboard Vistafjord (a former Cunard ship) being crammed solely with well-attired gentlemen on its springtime positioning cruise from Florida to Europe are not apocryphal.
In the more liberal 21st century, gay men and women are traveling more openly -- and more are choosing to cruise. To cater to this demand, the cruise industry has become gay-friendly, no doubt realizing the value of the "gay dollar" (and "pink pound"). Several companies offer chartered "gay only" cruises, while a few dedicated specialists are recognized for hosting gay groups on regular sailings with the added bonus of various onboard activities for their LGBT clients.
Gay and lesbian travelers looking for an upmarket experience that offers fine cuisine, comfortable accommodation, friendly service and lavish evening entertainment need look no farther than cruise ships. Cruises also offer a welcoming environment with itineraries that visit a host of ports suited to both culture vultures and hedonists. Cruise-ship staff members tend to be gay-friendly and are usually happy to arrange events tailored to gays and lesbians onboard. Indeed, Friends of Dorothy parties are a fixture on many ship's daily programs.
If you're new to cruising and trying to decide which cruise line to choose or whether to opt for a chartered or traditional sailing, here's what you need to know to plan a fabulous vacation at sea.
A handful of specialists organize chartered cruises for gays and lesbians. Atlantis Events and RSVP Cruises are the leaders in exclusive, all-gay cruises for men; Olivia is the largest promoter of lesbian travel in the world and has several exclusive cruises each year. Sole charters allow every facet of the experience to be customized -- the itinerary, shore excursions and entertainment. The organizers bring on top talent in the gay and lesbian community, along with entertainers you might never see anywhere else including singers, musicians, and cabaret and drag acts.
On fully-chartered cruises, gay and lesbian travelers are able to show each other affection without a whiff of homophobia, while solo travelers can relish the company of fellow cruisers and the friendly vibe. Contrary to what you might have heard, on gay charters guys and gals are friendly and want to meet new people. Not everyone has a six-pack, and cruisers come from a variety of ethnic backgrounds. While fun is a key theme, the cruises are not debauched love-fests at sea.
Because each company offers only a handful of sailings each year, the cruises can sell out fast. Prices are almost always more expensive than non-chartered cruises as the premium covers the cost of headline entertainment and enhanced themed parties.
Atlantis Events is the largest company in the world dedicated to creating unique holidays for the gay and lesbian community. Begun in 1991, this company hosts over 20,000 guests annually -- many of whom opt for cruises in the Caribbean and Mediterranean. Roughly half the passengers on Atlantis cruises are single, with a large concentration of men from their early 30s to their early 50s; 5 percent to 10 percent of passengers are lesbians or occasionally straight female friends. It would be fair to say these cruises are far from sedate; they are renowned for attracting a party-loving crowd.
Atlantis Events thinks big, too, chartering large ships from cruise lines such as Royal Caribbean, Celebrity Cruises and Holland America Line. The company has sold out charters on Royal Caribbean's Allure of the Seas; the largest cruise ship in the world, it conveys over 5,400 passengers. Occasionally, Atlantis charters smaller, more luxurious vessels, such as those of Azamara Club Cruises, for more ambitious itineraries. Regardless of ship size, Atlantis's guests are happy to pay the premium to enjoy the added extras that are a signature of Atlantis Events. They can expect an enhanced line-up of top gay and lesbian talent, including comedians, singers, cabaret stars and performance artists, as well as a host of the world's top DJs who ensure parties last well into the night.
RSVP Vacations, established in 1985, is the originator of the gay and lesbian cruise concept and has maintained its core principal: to appeal to a broad spectrum of the gay community whether aged 25 or 85, from London or Los Angeles, single or coupled. Over 50,000 people have traveled with RSVP Vacations since its first cruise. While the majority of cruisers are from North America, the company is growing its international base with each sailing, particularly with passengers from Britain, France, Holland, Belgium and Australia.
RSVP Vacations offers a cruise holiday for like-minded people -- almost exclusively men -- that are an alternative to a gay resort-style holiday. Passengers have a great time without resorting to an Ibiza-style rave culture. No one can dispute RSVP Vacations' commitment to providing outrageous entertainment with top-billing cabaret stars and themed discos with hot-beat club mixes from top DJs from the U.S. and U.K. Shipboard pool decks provide the perfect setting for theme parties, which are staged about three times per 10-night cruise. For more sedate passengers, slightly more restrained entertainment is always on offer.
Travelpride is another company that features dedicated charter cruises for the gay and lesbian community. This specialist usually chooses small, intimate and luxurious ships for its vacation packages, such as those of Regent Seven Seas Cruises and Windstar Cruises, and focuses on providing cruises with interesting itineraries.
Brand g Vacations is a tour operator that offers LGBT cruises to more unusual parts of the globe. The company also takes a philanthropic approach to cruise destinations and strives to give back to the communities it visits. Itineraries might include a voyage around Cuba or a luxury river cruise on the Amazon; in 2015, it is offerring the first gay cruise to sail in Burma (Myanmar).
Olivia Travel, founded as a women's record label in 1973, has evolved into the definitive leader in lesbian travel, offering one-of-a-kind cruise experiences for women. The company charters entire ships for exclusive sailings that range from intimate voyages in the Galapagos Islands and the French Riviera to Caribbean cruises on ships holding 2,000 women.
Olivia brings outstanding entertainers onboard such as Melissa Etheridge, Indigo Girls, kd lang, Heart, Margaret Cho, Whoopi Goldberg, Leisha Hailey and Lily Tomlin. The company also has its Sisters at Sea program, which is designed for lesbians of color and their friends, providing special programming and activities onboard. Olivia offers a solos/singles program so women traveling solo can meet up for meals, excursions and special parties and activities designed just for them.
Read our story on gay and lesbian charter cruises for an extensive list of forthcoming full-ship chartered sailings.
Gay Groups on Straight Cruises
For gay travelers wanting to sample a cruise for the first time, the option of a gay group on a regular commercial sailing is a good place to start. Also known as affinity cruises, gay group cruises are an increasingly popular option for those who believe a sole charter would be too overwhelming. Instead of taking over a whole ship, gay groups have ranged from a few couples to 350 passengers, aboard ships that might hold up to 3,000 people.
Gay groups on regular cruises make it easy to find new friends and compatible dining companions who enjoy the camaraderie of group travel on a variety of cruise experiences. The shipboard action is rarely differentiated much from the standard onboard happenings, but the dedicated gay hosts ensures their gay and lesbian clients, who are usually slightly older, enjoy special group amenities such as welcome private cocktail parties, group dining and shore excursions.
By their very nature, gay and lesbian groups on straight sailings offer a much broader range of cruise experiences than all-gay cruises. Generally they are arranged on upmarket ships and river cruises, offering more unusual itineraries than those on all-gay charters. Homophobia doesn't tend to be a problem on these sailings.
Unsure whether to choose an all-ship charter or a group cruise? Choose a group cruise if shipboard amenities and exotic ports hold the greatest interest. If gay-specific entertainment and social opportunities are most intriguing, consider an all-gay cruise or at least ensure you are sailing with a big group.
Source Events has been offering the LGBT community a raft of unusual as well as mainstream cruises since 2001, offering both full charters and group cruises on the larger ships. The creativity and variety of the company's dedicated sailings is evident in cruises such as all-nude, all-gay Caribbean cruises; Mekong river cruises; departures on masted clipper ships; and annual Pride Cruises, departing out of Miami during Pride Week, usually on a big Norwegian ship.
Aquafest Cruises offer a variety of gay group cruises including Yangtze and Danube river cruises, as well as ocean cruises to the British Isles, Alaska, and Australia and New Zealand. They also offer an annual Halloween Cruise charter to the Caribbean, with private events exclusively for Aquafest cruisers.
Pied Piper Travel has been creating dedicated departures for gay and lesbian group cruises for more than 20 years, with trips on ocean and river cruises. Another operator is Cruising with Pride, which caters to singles and couples. Look for themed sailings, such as the "Official Classic Gay Film Festival at Sea," along with Halloween celebrations.
Gay-Friendly Cruise Lines
If you just want to book passage on a regular (not chartered) sailing, many cruise companies are decidedly gay-friendly. (Read about our favorite cruise lines for gay and lesbian travelers.) Celebrity Cruises and Holland America Line are among the companies that earn top marks for openness and host many gay charters; both lines offer an environment that is not only luxurious, but also is welcoming to gays and lesbians who appreciate the finer things in life. Norwegian's Pride of America, which sails through the romantic (and gay-friendly) Hawaiian Islands year-round, is another popular choice.
Discerning gay cruisers tend to be fans of the two ships in the SeaDream Yacht Club fleet. With a capacity of just 112 passengers per ship, SeaDream I and SeaDream II are boutique ships that ply the Aegean, Adriatic and Mediterranean seas in summer months, as well as offbeat Caribbean ports in winter. With their shallow draft, they put into islands barely charted and navigate into idyllic harbors. Life onboard is elegantly casual and gay-friendly; fellow travelers exude a patina of sophistication and discerning taste. The crew's professionalism is a yardstick of excellence, and the cuisine is unparalleled.
Another luxury cruise line that is perennially popular with gay and lesbian guests is Silversea Cruises. This company's fleet of upscale and expedition ships are spectacular without being overblown; nearly all suites have private teak verandas; wines and spirits are complimentary in guest suites, bars and restaurants; and gratuities are included. Passengers can dine with whom they want, when they want, before enjoying quality evening entertainment. Itineraries span the globe.
Gay and lesbian singletons who are worried that they won't meet up with like-minded passengers should consign such fears to the deep -- and instead seek out the Friends of Dorothy parties that are standard on most cruise lines. These gay-friendly get-togethers are not hosted and usually take place in an intimate bar or lounge an hour or so before the second dining seating. On Cunard's incomparable Queen Mary 2 -- a traditional magnet for gay men seeking to experience the nostalgia of a transatlantic crossing -- these parties take place in the delightful Commodore Club and are held daily.
Friends of Dorothy parties are discreet -- or at least as discreet as they can be with a bunch of gay men and women sitting around drinking. There's no signage, so shy guests don't have to out themselves to the whole ship if they don't wish to. Cruisers usually can find out when Friends of Dorothy parties will take place by checking their cruise dailies.
Single gay cruisers should also visit Cruise Critic's gay and lesbian cruisers board, where they can post a Roll Call announcement to find out who else might be on their cruise. It's a great way to meet new gay and lesbian friends online before climbing the gangway and greeting each other in person.
Gay and lesbian passengers can expect to enjoy a warm welcome at almost every port on the cruising roster; however, a few destinations are not so friendly. Jamaica can be downright homophobic, and Malaysia and Russia are far from gay-friendly. Likewise, many Middle Eastern countries, such as the United Arab Emirates, outlaw any overt signs of affection whether gay or straight.
Some specific itineraries with a high gay and lesbian following include glamorous Mediterranean summer cruises that hit gay hotspots like Mykonos or Ibiza, as well as cultural capitals like Rome, Venice and Barcelona. It may seem stereotypical, but pulsating nightlife, gourmet dining and fine culture hold a lot of appeal for many gay and lesbian cruisers. The Caribbean is perennially popular, especially the gay-friendly Dutch Antilles (Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao) and French-speaking outposts such as Saint Martin, St. Barts and Martinique.
Short cruises to the Bahamas or Mexican Riviera on large mass-market ships are popular with gay and lesbian travelers, as are longer voyages to the splendors of New England in the fall, especially on the more upscale Regent and Crystal ships. Gay and lesbian fans of unspoiled nature and dramatic scenery are in love with Alaska, as well as small-ship cruises with eco-tourist itineraries.
Latin countries such as Brazil and Argentina have had a long appeal for many gay cruisers who go on South American voyages to take in hedonistic samba carnivals, relaxed beach culture and cosmopolitan cities like Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires. Asia has become a hotspot for experienced cruisers, and some exclusively gay charter and gay group cruises travel to Hong Kong, Vietnam, Thailand and other countries in Asia for culture-rich voyages of discovery.
--By Gary Buchanan, Cruise Critic contributor