Forty years ago, a then 20-year-old Judy Dlugacz and a handful of her friends decided it was time for a change in the music industry. In 1973, they established Olivia Records, a label dedicated to lesbian and feminist music. Folksingers Meg Christian and Cris Williamson signed on as its original artists, other women quickly followed suit, and over the next 15 years, the company put out more than 40 albums.
What does that have to do with cruising? By 1988, Olivia's original partners had all moved on, with the exception of Dlugacz, who was thinking about her next move. The answer came to her after a show in Seattle, when some fans commented on how fun it would be if the community established by the Olivia concerts could actually travel and vacation together. The idea stuck, the record label quickly transformed into a travel company, and the first two Olivia cruises were scheduled back-to-back in 1990, bringing 600 women each to the Bahamas. Twenty-two years and more than 150 cruises later, Olivia celebrated the 40th anniversary of the original Olivia Records in 2013. In January and February, they marked the occasion with two weeklong Caribbean cruises, featuring some of the original Olivia record label ladies.
A week before we left for this cruise, we were talking with our hairdresser about the concept of an all-lesbian cruise and why we'd choose to spend the extra money to be surrounded by women instead of opting for a cheaper "mainstream" vacation. One thing that makes Olivia cruises unique -- and the 40th anniversary cruise in particular -- is the entertainment. Music specifically for the lesbian community has always been a major focus, since the company's earliest days.
But even more important is the sense of community that follows and the feeling of absolute freedom that thrives in an all-female environment. Some of our fellow travelers confessed to having taken a dozen or more trips with Olivia, so, at some point, the vacations begin to feel like extended family reunions. And you really can't put a price on the joy of being somewhere where you can absolutely be yourself, or "Feel Free," as the Olivia motto goes.
Lest one ever forget that they were in a ladies-only space, the smallest details served as a constant reminder. Wherever you'd find a men's restroom on a regular cruise ship, Olivia hung a sign featuring their logo and the outline of a woman, and inside, each and every urinal featured a pot of irises. It was one of those things that caught your eye each time and made you smile your first few days on the ship, but seemed absolutely normal by the end of the week. Why wouldn’t a urinal always hold a potted plant? Isn't that what they're always for?
Our first stop was at Half Moon Cay, a private island in the Bahamas that's owned by Holland America. There's nothing particularly "lesbian" about this 2,400-acre bird sanctuary that caters only to cruise ships, but finally stepping onto shore with a group of more than 2,000 women was surreal. As with any other cruise that stops at this island, activities included horseback-riding, snorkeling, sailing and other water sports or (our favorite) watching a steel-drums-classic-rock cover band and drinking cocktails with pretty women in a bar designed to look like a wrecked pirate ship. It was girls, girls, girls wherever we looked -- except for the handful of men who were serving us drinks and food. Back to the kitchen, you guys!
What's a cruise without a few cheesy theme dances? Since this was the 40th anniversary of Olivia, a 1970's night was in order. We looked around the room and saw a butch-femme Sonny and Cher, plenty of ladies sporting tie-dye and several dozen nebulous characters with multicolored afros and bell bottoms. Lesbians apparently don't mess around when it comes to costumes, and we also happen to dance like we really mean it.
A few nights later was the White Party, another poolside theme dance -- less kitschy and more romantic. Most of us don't get to slow dance in public with our partners on a regular basis, so it was exciting to be in an environment where two women dancing cheek to cheek was common. On a lower level, professional photographers had set up a small studio to capture couples reveling in the moment -- think all-girl classic prom photos.
Beginning with Kate Clinton's performance on the first night, Olivia recruited some of the best lesbian comedians to keep us laughing all week. The two most popular performers onboard were Dana Goldberg and Mimi Gonzalez, who emceed the nightly karaoke parties. Olivia travelers take karaoke extremely seriously; there was at least one professional singer who showed up all casual each night, and there were a couple of women who performed the same song every night, as if it was a dress rehearsal. By the end of the week, there was a veritable karaoke community. You'd notice one another at meals and nod at "the rapper," the "Tina Turner impersonator" or "the country singer" (of which there were nearly a dozen -- who knew lesbians loved country so much?). Having our 3.5 minutes of karaoke fame emceed by famous comedians was a pretty rare and special experience.
The nightly all-women's dances and cocktail parties were fun, but the ship's guest speakers are what made the week truly memorable and ultimately warrant the higher cost of the cruise. Hearing tennis legend Billie Jean King interviewed by Olivia president and founder Judy Dlugacz on the last day is something many women on the trip will tell you they'll remember for the rest of their lives. She spoke about an incredibly tumultuous life and career -- her fight for equality in women's sports, her public outing by ex-girlfriend Marilyn Barnett (which cost her thousands in endorsements) and subsequent struggles with an eating disorder and other health problems. Despite living through so many difficult experiences, all in the public eye, King, now pushing 70 years old, seemed pleased to be in the spotlight and had an unshakeable optimism.
Our last excursion was to the island of Curacao, a popular stop for cruise ships, but also home to one of the most thriving LGBT communities in the Caribbean. Holding sacred the motto "Biba i laga biba" ("live and let live"), Curacao is more welcoming to lesbian travelers than its more conservative neighboring islands. There was even a local lesbian party happening, in special honor of Olivia, at a small hole-in-the-wall bar right near the port.
Since this was Olivia's 40th anniversary cruise, the company worked especially hard to bring in the best entertainment, with an emphasis on classic entertainers who've been around since the record label's earliest days. Cris Williamson and Meg Christian are essentially the two faces of Olivia Records, having joined the label in its infancy. Both of their performances on the final night were completely packed, with new and longtime fans. The finale included an audience-wide sing-along of Cris Williamson's 1975 classic Song of the Soul. As the night wound down, we knew that we'd been through more than just a cruise, more than an all-girls vacation. We were part of a community and an ongoing tradition of music, feminism, radical self-expression and good old-fashioned queer family values.