Those of us who grew up on Love Boat reruns have always dreamed of standing on the Lido deck under a full moon with our true love.
The gay cruise has always been the definitive LGBT vacation, and now there are more options than ever: Choose from a friendly mainstream cruise, an organized gay group on a mainstream cruise, a mixed family cruise, or a full-on queer cruise organized by companies like Atlantis, RSVP and Olivia, which charter the whole ship.
If your dream is to be crammed on a pulsating party boat with thousands of hot young men, then an Atlantis cruise may take you at least partway there. The actual demographic might not exactly match the good-looking vacationers in the ads, but the focus is on uninhibited fun, and as the purported world’s largest gay operator, they do pull in the numbers. They got even bigger when they bought RSVP in 2007.
Other queer companies also hold parties, but there may be more emphasis on different activities and on the ports of call. They’ll bring their own staff to organize and lead events. Entertainment includes stars like the Indigo Girls, Joan Rivers and Margaret Cho. There are many smaller and up-and-coming LGBT cruise companies like Sweet and Travelpride.
An increasing number of companies organize gay groups to join mainstream cruises, ranging in size from a dozen to 900. These groups may have their own dining area, their own host and some extra entertainment and programming. Prices may be lower than all-gay cruises: Check to see if tips are included. Outfits include Pied Piper, Source Events (they still do full-ship charters, including clothing-optional gay cruises) and Aquafest Special Event Cruises.
In a category of its own is R Family Vacations, a kid-friendly LGBT operator. Children, parents, grandparents and friends join mainstream cruises in groups of 300 or 400. There can be a high number of participants without children, sometimes almost four times as many adults as kids. Evening entertainment, including Broadway performers and comedy, is designed for adults, though kids can attend the early shows.
Finally, there’s the option of going on a mainstream cruise and meeting up with like-minded folks onboard. Websites like meetmeonboard.com can help you hook up in advance. Most large mainstream cruises hold special parties for their queer guests, sometimes called “Friends of Dorothy” gatherings.
Mainstream cruises don’t have to deal with the picketing and closed ports that gay-identified trips have confronted. A 1998 Atlantis cruise was denied advance permission to dock in the Cayman Islands, then faced protests in Belize. A couple of months later, a lesbian cruise met protesters in Nassau.
These days, serious incidents seem to be less frequent, and in 2006 the Cayman Islands hosted an Atlantis group of more than 3,000.
Over the years more companies have created more options. Now there are European riverboat cruises, voluntourism opportunities, high-end Asia cruises and Amazon riverboat voyages.
Olivia has a special “Sistas at Sea” program for women of colour. Sweet, which claims to be carbon-free, is trying to bring some environmentalism to this notoriously polluting industry.
With all this variety, you may not know what to expect on a queer cruise.
Large groups can be surprisingly friendly, and there’s a huge selection of activities onboard, from live game shows to 12-step meetings to two-step dance lessons.
On gay and lesbian cruises, it’s especially important to research the upcoming theme nights and bring costumes: Who says you can’t be a Mardi Gras queen one night and a Pirate the next day?
Julia Steinecke was subsidized by American Airlines and Olivia.