However, gay travelers who don't want to compromise on luxury or choice of itineraries (or to be "ghetto-ized" on an all-gay ship) can choose from any cruise sailing today and feel welcomed both by fellow passengers and the ship's crew and officers. In fact, in the past few decades, all cruise lines have come to recognize the power of the almighty gay cruising dollar and have courted this valuable segment through marketing campaigns and special programs, such as the very popular "Friends of Dorothy" (FOD) --or Gay Lesbian Bisexual Transgender (GLBT) -- meet-and-greet get-togethers onboard.
But which line should you choose? Gays and lesbians researching future cruises should definitely rely on firsthand experience about which lines are the most gay-friendly, have the most comfortable staff and crew, and offer the most unique experiences. (Cruise Critic's very active Gay and Lesbian Cruisers board is a great resource, with many upcoming Roll Calls for future cruises.)
Travelers might also look for specific ships that have had successful experiences with all-gay charters. For example, Celebrity, Norwegian, Holland America, Royal Caribbean, Windstar and Azamara Cruises are just some of the lines that have hosted entire-ship gay charters in the past few years, which means that their officers and crew are more comfortable with large gay groups and their specific needs. Plus, certain ships have reputations based on longstanding experience: Holland America's beautiful and well-reviewed Nieuw Amsterdam ship (launched in 2010) is an oft-sought-out ship for gay charters.
Regardless of which ship you choose, know that explicit conflicts between straight and gay passengers are extremely rare on any ship; gays and straights seem to get along 99 percent of the time. The vast majority of gays and lesbians report nothing but positive experiences onboard mainstream cruise ships. (Some even say that the "heteros" they met onboard became fast friends, and some even chose to cruise together with them on future trips.)
So, given the almost limitless cruising choices -- from large ships to small, familiar ports to exotic, luxury to budget -- in which direction should Mr. and Mr. (or Ms. and Ms.) Traveler, in search of a memorable vacation experience, point the cruise compass? Here are our favorites.
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Best for: Crystal is the perfect choice for the older gay couple, sophisticated single or discreet group that wants to experience what true pampering at sea can be.
Standout Features: This top-rated, big-ship luxury cruise line boasts many loyal gay and lesbian passengers, who return to its two ships for their cocooning luxury and impeccable, gay-friendly service. A new draw is Crystal's Perfect Choice Dining program, which offers flexibility, as passengers can choose between traditional early and late seatings, as well as open-seating dining by reservation. Crystal offers a FOD/GLBT meeting on every single itinerary, a rarity among luxury cruise lines.
While sailing on Crystal Symphony or Crystal Serenity, passengers can enjoy the huge variety of activities and entertainment onboard or even check out the gay-themed movies in the ship's DVD library. Sophisticated gay passengers mix and mingle freely, enjoying the acclaimed gourmet cuisine (Silk Road features the finest Japanese cuisine at sea, supervised by celebrity chef Nobu Matsuhisa) and fantastic singers and dancers -- some directly from Broadway. Crystal is shifting to an all-inclusive cruising experience in March 2012, one that will include alcoholic beverage and gratuities, in line with the policies of other luxury cruise lines. As a first in the luxury cruise industry -- and a sure sign of how gay-inclusive Crystal is -- the company announced that the acclaimed Gay Men's Chorus of Los Angeles will be featured performers aboard Crystal Serenity during a special themed "Film and Theatre" cruise from Los Angeles to New York in April 2012.
Regent Seven Seas Cruises
Best for: Regent's ships are the perfect home-away-from-home for well-traveled and discriminating gay couples who enjoy the finest things in life and are looking for a casual, all-inclusive luxury cruise experience.
Standout Features: This highly rated cruise line offers an ultra-luxury experience but has a more laid-back approach than its competitors, with a slightly younger demographic and more casual atmosphere. Of course, given the high price tag of Regent's all-inclusive cruises (shore excursions, pre-cruise hotel stays, alcoholic beverages and gratuities are included in the fares), the line's three medium-sized ships host a large proportion of retired folks, but they are usually open to meeting new people from all walks of life. Open seating means you can choose your dining companions, and the fine specialty restaurants include the unique Le Cordon Bleu experience at Signatures. Cabins are large, and Seven Seas Voyager and Mariner are actually all-suite, all-balcony. The wonderfully efficient crew hardly bat an eye when asked for a king-size bed (instead of doubles) for two men. Well-traveled gay and lesbian cruisers love the 10-nights or longer Mediterranean cruises and also enjoy exotic itineraries in South America and Asia.
Best for: Fans of superb ship design and a hip, cool vibe flock to Celebrity, especially the line's newest Solstice-class ships.
Standout Features: This upscale cruise line gets very high marks among gay and lesbian passengers for its welcoming atmosphere and trendy, boutique-hotel-like decor, which is evident throughout the Solstice-class bars and nightclubs. (Several older Celebrity ships are also being refurbished to include some of the newer features and venues.) Many gays love the mix of passengers onboard, and luxury-seekers book Celebrity's Concierge-Class suites to enjoy a menu of pillow choices, high-quality duvets, Frette bathrobes and other special amenities. Spa-lovers flock to the AquaClass staterooms on Solstice-class ships; these include Concierge-level amenities, plus many spa perks and exclusive access to the gourmet, healthy-dining Blu restaurant. Foodies love the choice of more than 10 dining venues in the newer ships, including the creative Qsine restaurant, offering multicultural comfort food in unusual presentations. Gay and lesbian travelers congregate in the Martini Bar or the rich, dark-paneled Michael's Club and tend to enjoy the mix of traditional entertainment and innovative acrobatics shows performed in the evenings.
Holland America Line
Best for: Classic cruising aficionados and gourmands enjoy the fine dining and traditional atmosphere onboard Holland America.
Standout Features: This classy line is set apart by its strong emphasis on high-quality cuisine (one option is an exclusive Le Cirque dining experience). Its Culinary Arts Centers feature interactive workshops with guest chefs demonstrating how to create perfect dinner parties and memorable meals at home. As with Celebrity Cruises, many gay and lesbian cruisers who don't want to spend a small fortune for a high-end cruising experience or a longer cruise opt for Holland America and its elegant ships, which feature impressive onboard spaciousness and a higher big-ship staff-to-passenger ratio. Particularly popular are the sparkling Vista- and Signature-Class ships (Westerdam, Zuiderdam, Noordam, Oosterdam, Eurodam and Nieuw Amsterdam); these ships feature the line's highest percentage of staterooms with private verandahs. The friendliness of the Holland America staff is evident everywhere; one gay couple said that, when they danced together on a recent Holland America cruise, no one seemed to notice (or care).
Norwegian Cruise Line
Best for: Fun-loving, younger night owls and partying singles live it up on Norwegian, a line dedicated to choice and entertainment.
Standout Features: The cruise line that started an industry trend with its "Freestyle Cruising" (open seating, no set dinner times, relaxed dress codes, etc.) appeals to a broad range of gay and lesbian passengers today. Norwegian's 11 ships compose the youngest fleet in the industry, and its cruises offer great value for money. The casual, relaxed vibe onboard means that everyone, from hard partiers to more discreet travelers, will feel at home. FOD/GLBT meetings on every sailing and a history of all-gay charters mean that the ship's crew are generally very gay-friendly and accommodating. Norwegian reaches almost every popular cruising destination around the world, with homeports around the U.S. Norwegian's reputation for top-notch entertainment was raised to a new level with the debut of innovative Norwegian Epic in 2010. Onboard performances of Blue Man Group, Legends in Concert celebrity impersonators and Second City improv comedy troupe have received much acclaim. Solo yet social travelers will love the 128 studio cabins, set up for one and with access to a communal lounge, while fans of exclusivity rave about the Haven complex (a ship-within-a-ship area offering private-use sun decks, pools and dining venues) found on Jewel-class ships and Norwegian Epic.
Best for: Cunard's three ships attract upscale, conservative couples and fans of formal British traditions.
Standout Features: Savvy travelers have long known that when they are sailing aboard one of the three elegant Cunard ships (Queen Elizabeth, Queen Victoria or Queen Mary 2), they will experience the highest levels of formal service and enjoy some of the finest cuisine. Gay and lesbian travelers have the added bonus of knowing that all three ships are very gay-friendly, with FOD/GLBT meetings included on every cruise. One bar on Queen Mary 2, the Commodore Lounge, has been given the nickname of "Commodorothy" because of the high concentration of gays who liven it up each evening with informal get-togethers and flowing cocktails. Assigned seating in one of the main Cunard restaurants (Britannia, Princess Grill or Queen's Grill, depending on cabin category booked) is in tune with the formality of the old-world grand Cunard experience, and the dress code is unsurprisingly more formal than those found on other lines. All Cunard passengers look forward to superb meals with a huge range of choices every day; the Todd English restaurants on QM2 and Queen Victoria and the Verandah on the Queen Elizabeth receive special praise for their imaginative and truly memorable fine dining experiences. Finally, Cunard puts a special emphasis on dancing with its uniquely themed Formal Royal Balls, which fit perfectly in the spectacular ship ballrooms. Fans of high fashion -- and dramatic entrances -- will feel right at home there.
Seabourn Cruise Line
Best for: Experienced gay cruisers come to Seabourn for its variety of itineraries and off-the-beaten-path destinations, while fans of elegant and modern small ships enjoy the pampered onboard life.
Standout Features: Carrying from 200 guests (Pride class) to 450 passengers (Odyssey class) each, the luxury ships of Seabourn are like intimate yachts, sailing into small harbors around the world where the larger ships can't reach. The upscale passengers onboard a Seabourn cruise are a sophisticated group overall, and the small ship size means that just about everyone is included in the ship's activities and games. The well-trained staff go out of their way to make everyone feel welcome in the very sociable and pampering atmosphere. The spacious cabins on Seabourn are true suites (with such luxury amenities as walk-in closets, large picture windows or verandahs and roomy bathrooms), and the cruise fares include everything needed (cocktails and wine, meals in multiple venues, gratuities, fitness classes and water sports) to unwind completely. The more contemporary and spacious Seabourn Quest, Odyssey and Sojourn offer huge outdoor spaces and glamorous and roomy spas, as well as impressive staff-to-passenger ratios. Besides appealing to the inner sybarite in all of us, Seabourn attracts experienced, slightly older gay and lesbian cruisers, many of whom have already done the big ships; they want to visit lesser-known destinations or want a more intimate experience during sun-drenched Mediterranean or colorful Northern Europe itineraries.
Royal Caribbean International
Best for: First-time gay cruisers, parents with kids in tow and adventure enthusiasts flock to this fun-loving cruise line, which boasts some of the biggest ships at sea.
Standout Features: Any Royal Caribbean cruise will likely include many gay and lesbian passengers, partly due to the sheer size of the line's mega-ships. Gay and lesbian "size queens" favor the truly enormous, 6,000-passenger Oasis-class ships (Allure and Oasis of the Seas) and the still-impressive 3,600-passenger Freedom-class ships (Freedom, Liberty and Independence of the Seas). What's the appeal of braving the crowds on such a large ship? Active folks love the endless choices onboard, including surf simulators, rock-climbing walls and ice-skating rinks, and parents love the excellent kids and teens programs that will keep any hyperactive youngster busy for the day. The two Oasis-class ships feature the industry-first Aqua Theater, with an over-the-top aquatic and acrobatic extravaganza that would make Cirque du Soleil proud, performances of Broadway musicals like "Hairspray" and "Chicago" that elicit much excitement among the many gay theater and musical fans, a zip-line and a plethora of dining options from Mexican and seafood to cupcakes and Italian fare. It's easy to please all types with cruise itineraries in North and South America, Europe, Alaska, Australia and, of course, the Caribbean.
Best for: Active gay couples and fans of very small luxury ships seek out the sailing yachts of Windstar.
Standout Features: The three Windstar ships (more accurately, motor-sail yachts) are renowned for bringing back the meaning of the word "sailing" to the cruise industry. With their billowing sails and small passenger counts (148 passengers on Wind Star and Wind Spirit, 308 on the larger Wind Surf), the fleet gets high marks for romance. One of the other major attractions of taking a Windstar cruise is its very active itineraries in the Caribbean and Europe, where passengers can make use of free water sports equipment -- like water-skiis or snorkels -- from the water sports platforms on the backs of the ships. Windstar's unique combination of small-ship intimacy and a casual, relaxed vibe (no dress code here) makes it a favorite among more active gay couples who are willing to forego the constant hustle-bustle of the large ships. The crew and officers are very gay-friendly (Windstar has hosted many all-gay charters in the past), and fellow passengers tend to be younger and more likely to search for the closest hiking trail or adventure trip in lieu of just sitting on the sun-filled deck with a mai tai. The cruise line has been working on extensive refurbishments to the three vessels, so expect to find even more luxurious touches (such as custom-made mattresses and iPod docking stations) as well as more inclusive pricing.
Best for: Fun-loving gay couples come to Princess looking for good value for the money, as well as exotic itineraries.
Standout Features: "There's a reason it's called Princess," reports one loyal fan of the popular Princess Cruises. With the ultra-flexible Anytime Dining program (in addition to traditional fixed seating), a gay-friendly crew and staff and the third-largest fleet of cruising ships, Princess includes just about every feature gay and lesbian travelers might look for in a relaxing vacation at a good price. Many Princess ships feature pulsating dance floors and clubs that would make any West Hollywood or Chelsea native feel right at home. The newest ships in the company's line are Ruby Princess and Sapphire Princess, which are more design-centric than previous Princess ships, with popular public areas like the adults-only Sanctuary outdoor lounge. These ships also include updated looks for the Lotus Spa and an Asian-themed casino in an attempt to attract younger cruisers; they've proven very popular with gay and lesbian passengers. Other popular entertainment features found on Princess ships include Movies Under the Stars and Wii fitness programs, which ensure that passengers will never be looking for something to do. Princess' wide selection of itineraries goes beyond the typical cruise regions to more exotic locales, such as Hawaii, the Amazon or Southeast Asia.
--by Stan Wu, Cruise Critic Contributor