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Gay Charter Cruise Onboard Freedom of the Seas
About the Virtual Cruise
Gay Charter Cruise Onboard Freedom of the Seas "Friends of Dorothy," join correspondent Stan Wu and his photographer and life partner Doug Shelton -- virtually -- on world's largest ever gay and lesbian charter cruise aboard Freedom of the Seas. The trip, organized by Atlantis Events, a gay and lesbian travel operator, sets off in Miami, calling at ports such as San Juan, St. Maarten and Royal Caribbean's private beach at Labadee.

But it's the onboard festivities that make this Freedom of the Seas voyage a cruise to remember.

Stan has shared his experiences via daily dispatches from the ship (Doug's photographs offer a great visual complement) that offer a virtual view into a trip that promises its 3,700 diverse gay guests much more than just the expected fun in the sun. He'll let everyone in on a week's worth of campy anecdotes, gossip, personalities and entertainment surprises -- and, of course, a first-hand account of Freedom's fabulous features.
Day 1: Embarkation in Miami
Day 2: At Sea
Day 3: San Juan
Day 4: St. Maarten
Day 5: At sea
Day 6: Labadee
Day 7: At Sea/Wrap Up
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Day 1: Monday, Embarkation in Miami
Embarkation in MiamiMy partner Doug Shelton and I consider ourselves cruise veterans, having sailed on a dozen or so popular itineraries on major lines in the Caribbean, Alaska, Europe -- even Tahiti. Nevertheless, we're treating our upcoming Atlantis Events' all-gay charter cruise aboard Royal Caribbean's massive 154,407-ton, 3,634-passenger Freedom of the Seas, the largest ship afloat, almost as if it were our first cruise.

It's not just because this will be our inaugural journey on Freedom of the Seas but also that an all-gay cruise is unlike any regular voyage with its dizzying array of entertainment options, special camaraderie, and fun-loving guests.

We arrived in Miami on Saturday, the day before embarkation, and checked into the host hotel for Atlantis, the InterContinental in downtown Miami. Doug and I met several fellow Atlantis guests in the lobby from across the country and the world. We eventually headed to the official Atlantis Welcome Party, held in the hotel's ballroom. About 300 fellow passengers sipped cocktails and mingled. I noted that it was definitely an upscale crowd and, age-wise, was quite diverse. This was just a small percentage of the 3,650 confirmed Atlantis guests onboard, many of whom were staying in other hotels Saturday night or flying in tomorrow.

One of the differences between this type of cruise and just sailing on a regular voyage is the 30 or so young members of "Team Atlantis." These guys are responsible for organizing and coordinating entertainment and social duties throughout the week, and their week started now as they greeted all of us personally and made sure everyone was comfortable -- whether solo or part of a group or couple, and whether first timer or veteran.

There were definitely plenty of repeaters -- we met one couple that was on their 10th Atlantis voyage (the company has been hosting trips for 16 years). Part of the intoxication of an Atlantis trip is, sure, the gay-favorite entertainment options onboard (again, to compare to typical cruises, Atlantis books all its own performers) but also that after a week of fun and wacky times together passengers really do bond and become like a family.

Finally! Freedom Day

Embarkation was a breeze and after putting our hand luggage down in the cozy but comfortable outside cabin on Deck 2 and greeting some of our friendly neighbors from New York, we took a look around. "Wow!" first comes to mind, for the sheer number of Freedom of the Seas' public rooms and the Vegas-like vastness of the Royal Promenade. Looking up through the windows of the Promenade-facing rooms, we could see a few guests starting to decorate their windows in campy (and sometimes racy) designs, a longstanding Atlantis tradition. These decorated rooms are in keeping with the "gay summer camp" spirit of the week, in which everyone eventually lets their hair down, so to speak, and a social and comfortable vibe permeates the ship.

More on decorating schemes later.

In fact, one of the biggest differences onboard on a gay charter cruise is gay-oriented special features; you'll find gay-themed movies playing on the in-cabin television ("Brokeback Mountain"), couples' massage choices in the spa and dance parties almost every night.

As well, because of the activities special for this cruise (more on those later!) you really have to pace yourself. The schedule -- particularly during our three days at sea -- is packed with special events. And that's not including the regular cruise stuff we want to check out, such as Freedom's huge gym and spa, ice-skating rink, rock climbing wall, and maybe -- if I can get up the nerve -- the surf park.

During lunch at the Windjammer, we ran into an old friend from Los Angeles (our hometown, until recently) -- Alec Mapa, an actor and comedian who's appeared on "Desperate Housewives" as Gabrielle's cranky beauty pageant business partner; Mapa will be performing stand-up later in the week. Moments later, we bumped into a couple we knew from L.A. (and who we hadn't seen in over a year). We laughed at the irony of having to travel across the country and board a cruise ship to spend some time together.

In fact, Doug and I would meet at least a dozen old friends (and many social acquaintances) today, which made us feel like we were in a mini "family" reunion. From the hugs and kisses and exclamations of "Oh my god!" we saw all around the ship that day among different passengers, these reunions were common onboard this Atlantis cruise.

Sailaway

It seems like Freedom's crew and staff, most of whom come from more conservative countries such as the Philippines or from Eastern Europe, were genuinely excited to have us onboard. Perhaps it's a generational issue (most crewmembers are young), but no one seemed fazed by the sight of male-male couples holding hands or otherwise showing affection. Some crew were even joking and "camping it up" during the usually boring boat drill.

During the drill and afterwards, two other cruise ships departed Miami and passed us (Carnival Valor and the Norwegian Pearl). It was hilarious to see the other ships' passengers begin to wave to the several thousand of us gay guests assembled on the upper decks, and then to see a few of the more "conservative" passengers across the way change their expressions a bit when it dawned on them that we were ... all men! Were we an all-male convention?

Umm, I guess straight men don't make catcalls like that! Most of the passengers we waved to on the other ships were very enthusiastic; it was all in the spirit of good fun and camaraderie.

This spirit continued during the sailaway party. The Atlantis banners were placed proudly next to the Freedom logo, and the especially high-caliber sound and light system that Atlantis had installed by the main pool and bar got the crowd really dancing to house favorites from the New York and L.A. club scenes.

Even though we were only hours into the cruise, some of the guys already wore matching T-shirts, or Mardi Gras or themed outfits, as they tore up the poolside dance floor (I can't wait for the real theme parties later in the week!). Doug and I took some photos, mingled and chatted with new friends, and, of course, ran into more old friends ("I haven't seen you in years!").

For dinner, Doug and I sat with a group of four friends from San Francisco in Galileo's, the first level of the soaring three-story main dining room (all open seating and for this week, all casual). While our dinner of spinach salad, seafood ravioli and apple pie was merely average for a midrange cruise line like RCCL, we thoroughly enjoyed our tablemates; two of the guys (a marketing executive and high-tech manager), Atlantis "virgins," said they had some trepidation at first about going on an all-gay cruise because they were relatively "quiet" and not party animals. But the diversity of ages and types they found so far onboard made them feel comfortable -- which was not unlike the experience we had with our first Atlantis cruise last year.

Evening entertainment is the Atlantis specialty. We first headed to the three-story Arcadia main theater to check out the Opening Night entertainer, the "ageless" and truly amazing singer and 70's icon Charo, who's act -- a blend of campo songs and serious classical guitar -- earned catcalls.

After Charo, Doug and I checked out the crowded Schooner Bar (the Royal Caribbean classic -- with nautical decor and a subtle scent of tar) and Olive or Twist (tucked within the Viking Crown Lounge area), where Matt Yee and Mark Ferris entertained, respectively, by performing gay standards and Broadway favorites. On the other end of the spectrum, the two dance parties (in the Crypt with DJ Mann Lehman and in Studio B, the ice rink that was magically transformed into a rocking dance club with DJ Abel) were sights to behold. Several hundred guys danced the night away to the mixes of these hot L.A. and Big Apple D.J.'s, enjoying moments of camaraderie and friendship.

Despite the temptation to keep dancing with the fun-loving crowed into the night, Doug and I felt like sticks in the mud when we could only last until 2 a.m.; we're going to need to store up some energy for the rest of the week!

Tomorrow Freedom of the Seas is at sea.

--by Stan Wu, Cruise Critic contributor

Photos appear courtesy of Doug Shelton.
  Day 2: At Sea

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