For the ever-growing number of gays and lesbians who have taken or are planning to take a cruise, a voyage on the high seas equals freedom. Freedom, that is, from the drudgery of everyday routines. Where else can you order room service every day, lounge aimlessly by the pool, energetically participate in trivia contests and silly games, bid on art or challenge your wine-tasting skills?
But, a cruise is something else, too -- an opportunity for folks to be who they are and just relax among increasingly tolerant and nonjudgmental fellow passengers. While gays and lesbians are welcome aboard any cruise ship today, they face a bewildering number of options (and questions) when choosing where to point their cruising compasses. In fact, they're the only segment of the population that really does need to make the choice between two distinct and different cruising options, geared toward their needs: either joining regular, mainstream ships, operated by lines such as Celebrity Cruises, Regent Seven Seas Cruises or the Yachts of Seabourn, or becoming part of the fabulous party life aboard all-gay charters from companies like Atlantis, RSVP and Olivia.
Before we plunge headfirst into the plethora of "pink" cruising choices, here are some tips to help you plan your next shipboard adventure, no matter what your gay or lesbian lifestyle is:
Most cruise lines covet the influential gay cruising dollar, and some are known for being particularly gay-friendly (see Top 10 Lines for Gay and Lesbian Travelers). If you're a newbie cruiser who wants to get a comprehensive taste of the good life onboard a typical ship, you probably won't go wrong by choosing from the cruise lines included on this list. However, the diversity of the gay and lesbian community itself means that they enjoy taking just about every type of cruise in every season to every port, depending on their interests. They cruise in all price ranges and don't want to be limited to certain popular itineraries like the Caribbean or Europe. There's no stereotypical "gay itinerary."
Many cruise lines hold regular "Friends of Dorothy" (FOD) meetings that provide fun, social events and networking opportunities for their gay and lesbian guests. But, these meetings are held at the cruise director's discretion and can range from raucous to sparsely attended. Also keep in mind that many ships that don't hold these meetings can be just as gay-friendly as those that do.
Outward signs of homophobia are rare onboard ships today, as your fellow passengers will be in the same partying, relaxed mood as you. In fact, many gay passengers report making fast friends with their heterosexual counterparts, especially bonding in the showroom and casino! Of course, you can never control who you are cruising with (unless you are on an all-gay charter), and gay cruisers who do encounter any offensive remarks or unfair treatment should report these incidents to the cruise director. The staffs of most ships have usually received some gay sensitivity training, and therefore, won't blink an eye when two men ask for their twin beds to be put together! I will say, however, that holding hands or kissing in public might be looked upon warily, just as in most places in America today.
Balancing the expectations and interests of the majority (straight passengers) and the minority (gay passengers) can be a challenge for the cruise lines at times. The lines that are most successful at attracting -- and re-attracting -- gay and lesbian passengers know that a small portion of their heterosexual guests may feel uncomfortable with outward displays of gay affection and that some of their more low-key gay guests may want to remain in the closet during the voyage. Focusing on offering the best overall cruising experience for everyone is the right formula, since gays and lesbians on a mainstream cruise want quality, and they want to be treated like everyone else.
A somewhat important factor for gays and lesbians to consider when choosing a ship is the roster of ports on their particular itinerary. Some, such as Grand Cayman, Jamaica, Bermuda and Turkey, have been reported to be less-than-gay-friendly, with a small but documented number of homophobic incidents onshore (such as all-gay charters being made to feel unwelcome by protests or even being refused the right to dock as in the case of an Atlantis cruise to Grand Cayman). Obviously, the passengers on all-gay charters "scream out" their homosexuality more than the male-male or female-female couples who just blend into the fabric of mainstream ships. But, in any port, it's important to respect the local customs.
The all-gay charter companies (Atlantis and RSVP for gay men and Olivia for lesbians) offer a completely accepting environment, with intense bonding, nightly dance parties, gay-geared entertainment (campy comedians like Kathy Griffin or Broadway divas like Patti LuPone) and overwhelmingly gay-friendly ports. But this fabulous environment generally costs 20 percent more than the same itinerary on a regular cruise, a "gay surcharge" many loyal fans of these cruises are more than willing to pay.
Between an all-gay charter and just signing up for whatever cruise tickles your fancy is the option of joining a gay group cruise (also known as an affinity cruise), organized by experienced travel agencies like Pied Piper Travel or Rosie O'Donnell's r Family Vacations, which transitioned in 2010 from chartering entire ships for all-gay family cruises into offering affinity groups aboard regular, mainstream ships. With any gay affinity group, passengers will travel on a regularly scheduled cruise with a large contingent of other gay and lesbian folks and have the option of special group amenities like private dinners, cocktail parties, shore excursions, etc., for generally the same discounted price as everyone else onboard. (Rosie's cruises cost more because of the special events and entertainment they have arranged for those passengers who are part of their group.)
Cruising with the Joneses
Do you love having almost limitless choices in ships, itineraries, dates and prices? If you're traveling as a gay or lesbian couple, do you not mind having heterosexual strangers ask you about your relationship? ("No, we're not college roommates...anymore!") Then you'll probably join the legions of fellow gays and lesbians who love mainstream cruising.
What are some of the best ships for first-time gay cruisers? NCL's Pride of America, which sails through the romantic (and gay-friendly) Hawaiian islands year-round, is a great choice. Celebrity and Royal Caribbean, which offer big-ship itineraries that range from the Caribbean to Alaska and Europe, also get top marks. Many gays and lesbians are fans of boutique hotels and cutting-edge design, so they would be pleasantly surprised by the sophisticated decor and hip design featured in the newest crop of ships: Celebrity Solstice, Equinox and Eclipse; Royal Caribbean's Oasis of the Seas (the largest ship afloat); and Norwegian Epic, which debuted in June 2010, and boasts an exciting mix of 14 different bars and lounges and the largest spa at sea. The intimate sailing ships of Windstar and Star Clippers -- which head to more exotic destinations like the smaller ports of the Caribbean, Mediterranean and Central America -- appeal to adventurous and active gay travelers.
Azamara Club Cruises, which launched in 2010 as the new incarnation of Azamara Cruises, is one of the best values for the travel dollar, as it offers a deluxe cruising experience (alcohol included at meals, butler service in every suite, unique ports in the Mediterranean and Asia) at a lower price point than other luxury lines. In the same general deluxe cruising category as Azamara is the popular and gay-friendly Oceania, whose three midsize ships offer fabulous fine dining and the highest standards of service, along with very destination-focused itineraries that are also excellent values for the money. The line will launch its first-ever new-build, Marina, in early 2011.
If your travel budget allows, consider splurging on one of the top-rated, luxury cruise lines because frequent gay cruisers report that the sophisticated fellow guests onboard Crystal, Regent, Yachts of Seabourn, Silversea, Cunard and Sea Dream Yacht Club tend to be very worldly when it comes to matters of sexual orientation. And, of course, everyone can appreciate the highest levels of service, world-class suites and gourmet cuisine featured on beautiful ships like Crystal Serenity or the new Seabourn Odyssey, Sojourn and Quest. Upscale gay and lesbian travelers also will feel at home onboard one of SeaDream Yacht Club's two intimate, yacht-like ships (only 116 passengers each), which offer spectacular cuisine, famous top-deck Balinese day beds (which can be turned into magical evening beds for the most memorable nights under the stars) and intuitive service in a very relaxed, friendly atmosphere.
At the top of the luxury spectrum, Paul Gauguin, a six-star luxury ship that's now operated by Paul Gauguin Cruises, plies the spectacular islands of French Polynesia, mixing true pampering and gourmet cuisine with a cosmopolitan French flair. Regent's three "six-star" ships receive high praise from discerning travelers of every kind for their spacious suites (Regent's Seven Seas Voyager and Seven Seas Mariner both feature all-suite, all-balcony accommodations), flawless service and unparalleled Cordon Bleu-inspired dining options.
Gay All the Way
If you're of the "I want to be able to hold my lover's hand and kiss openly" mindset -- or just want to party all night with other gays and lesbians -- consider splurging on an all-gay charter. The three players in this huge market are gay male-targeted Atlantis and RSVP (acquired by Atlantis in October 2007) and lesbian-focused Olivia. These companies do much more than charter some of the newest ships from lines like Norwegian, Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, Cunard, Azamara and Holland America by packing them with festive gay men and women in the mood for fun and love. They provide a comprehensive and total gay entertainment and lifestyle experience, from beginning to end, with special entertainment and dance parties, onboard seminars on gay-specific topics and instant camaraderie with hundreds or thousands of like-minded individuals.
In fact, many gays and lesbians who don't live in a big metropolis like New York or San Francisco look forward to their one-week escape as perhaps their only opportunity to hold hands, kiss, dance and flirt openly in public with same-sex partners, without any fear or ostracism. Perhaps the biggest surprise among those who haven't taken an all-gay cruise is that the average guest is not a 30-year-old party boy or girl; many older couples and friends book these cruises, leading to a diverse mix of passengers. Because of their popularity and limited number, many all-gay charters sell out well in advance; book at least six months ahead of time to guarantee your spot.
There are nearly as many favorite itineraries for gay and lesbian passengers as there are gay cruisers themselves. With the exception of Jamaica and Grand Cayman, where the climate is less tolerant (and downright homophobic in some instances), gay and lesbian passengers enjoy almost every port and ship available today.
Some specific itineraries with a high gay and lesbian following include glamorous Mediterranean summer cruises that hit gay hotspots like Mykonos or Ibiza, and cultural capitals like Rome, Venice and Barcelona. It may be a stereotype, but pulsating nightlife and fine gourmet dining and arts attractions do hold a lot of appeal for many gay and lesbian cruisers. The Caribbean is perennially popular, especially the very gay-friendly ABC islands (Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao), as well as French-speaking outposts like Martinique and Guadalupe.
Crave variety? Many gays love quick Bahamas or Mexican Riviera getaways or 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 many travelers are), and some of the smaller ships with eco-tourist itineraries to the Galapagos and Antarctica, such as Celebrity Xpedition, attract substantial numbers of gay clients. Brazil and Argentina appeal to many gay cruisers, who go on Latin American voyages to revel in sexy Carnival samba, relaxed beach culture and cosmopolitan cities like Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires. Asia is now the hottest and most-requested cruise destination for experienced cruisers, and Atlantis travels to exotic ports of call in Vietnam, China, Thailand and other countries in Asia for a culture-rich voyage of discovery.
The thousands of lesbians and gays with children have become a sought-after cruising demographic in their own right. Rosie O'Donnell's r Family Vacations was the first gay travel company to charter an entire ship (the upscale Norwegian Dawn in 2004) for gay and lesbian parents and their tykes, 'tweens and teens -- although everyone was welcome. Single male and female parents, biological parents with their adoring partners, those who used surrogates or adopted their kids -- the bewildering array of parental units onboard these r Family Vacations sailings is just one indication that gay and lesbian cruising has truly gone mainstream. Although r Family Vacations had several successful years of gay charters, the rough economic waves of 2008-2009 forced the company to scale back its operations and offer only "group cruises" in Europe and the Caribbean -- small gay affinity groups that are just one of many groups onboard regular cruises. The all-gay family cruise market (focused entirely on busy gay and lesbian parents and their kids) was obviously not large enough to support entire ship charters.
Table for Two
One of the biggest, albeit unfounded, fears of gays and lesbians who've never cruised before is seating arrangements at dinner. Some of the more discreet couples or friend groups don't want to be probed on sensitive topics like politics or their personal relationships. (These days, politics is probably the touchier subject!)
For gays and lesbians, there are distinct pros and cons to both open-seating, eat-when-you-like dining plans (pioneered by NCL and now offered in some form or other on most cruise lines) and the more traditional, set-seating plans with pre-assigned tablemates. Most cruise lines offer both options; Crystal is one of the few to only offer assigned seating, though will switch to a more flexible program in 2011, while many luxury lines and river ships only have open-seating.
The upside of traditional dining is that gay and lesbian cruisers can get to know their tablemates over the course of a cruise -- an opportunity to make fast friends. On the downside, if the other diners harbor homophobic or discriminatory views, gay cruisers may be in for uncomfortable meals or feel banished to alternative eateries, such as for-fee or buffet restaurants. In this case, it's always best to request a table change, if possible, from the maitre d'. Alternately, request a table for two (or just for your group), but know that, because two-tops are limited, you might not get the table size you request.
Open-seating gives the choice of dining with new dinner companions each night or opting for a table for two, when available. This option can lead to many fabulous evenings with new dinner companions, relieving the monotony of making small talk with the same people night after night, or it can force gay travelers into explaining their relationship status again and again each night. If you enjoy the flexibility of eating when you like but prefer a table for two, you'll have more luck on luxury lines, such as Regent Seven Seas, Silversea, Seabourn and Windstar, which have all embraced the "eat when you want, with whom you wish" trend.
Gay and lesbian singletons who definitely want to connect and socialize with other gays onboard should seek out larger lines -- such as Princess, NCL and Carnival -- that are known for regularly hosting FOD meetings. Of course, there are gay and lesbian cruise staff onboard every larger ship, so if your "gaydar" is particularly honed, you shouldn't be shy in asking them if there are any gay groups onboard or gay social events that you can join in. And, of course, Cruise Critic's Gay and Lesbian Cruisers board is an excellent starting point to post a "Roll Call" announcement for an upcoming cruise. You'll probably make many new "virtual" gay and lesbian friends before you even step onboard.
Ultimately, the absolute best way to decide on which ship and itinerary is best for you is to talk to experienced gay and lesbian cruisers (or connect via the message boards on Cruise Critic), as past passengers spread the word quickly about which lines are the most gay-friendly, have the most comfortable staff and nicest crew, and offer the most unique experiences. No matter what their level of acknowledgment of the importance of the gay market (mostly high), all cruise lines know that the most powerful weapon they have to attract more gay passengers is simply positive word-of-mouth.
Gays and lesbians should talk to a travel agency that focuses on the gay market and sends many clients on cruises, both mainstream ships and gay charters; these specialized agencies are an invaluable entree into the life aquatic for legions of enthusiastic gay and lesbian cruisers. Some well-regarded agencies include Pied Piper Travel and Cruisecenter.com. Additionally, you should rely on word-of-mouth, message boards on Cruise Critic and feature stories, such as Gay and Lesbian Charter Cruises, that appear on the site.