Giant, all-gay cruises may get most of the attention in advertisements and news coverage, but for lots of LGBT travellers, the best possible cruising experience is aboard a so-called mainstream cruise.
Unbeknownst to some vacationers, nearly every major cruise company hosts some sort of event for LGBT passengers aboard scheduled cruise itineraries, most commonly with cocktail parties, often billed as “Friends of Dorothy” gatherings in the cruise’s event schedule.
Holland America Line (HAL), for example, offers LGBT meetings during every cruise, on every itinerary and on every ship, and has offered them for at least 15 years. Generally, LGBT events on Holland America are scheduled multiple times during the cruise.
Cunard Line — which is known for its opulent trans-Atlantic cruises — offers organized Friends of Dorothy gatherings every day of each voyage, aboard all three of its ships — including the flagship Queen Mary 2, Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth.
Hosting gay gatherings on mainstream cruises is just one example of how large cruise companies cater to the LGBT market.
“Diversity is something that is embraced at HAL, both on land and on board,” according to spokesperson Jake Edwards.
“We have strong partnerships with the local and broader LGBT community, including gay-serving charter cruise lines like Olivia and RSVP. Employees and guests from all backgrounds are welcome on board our ships, and we ensure that they — along with every guest — are provided excellent service for a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” says Edwards.
“All of our voyages are LGBT-friendly, as is Cunard Line, [which] has been a bronze sponsor of the Human Rights Campaign for several years,” says Laurel Davis, a spokesperson for Cunard.
“The overall voyage experience aboard all of our ships provides a sophisticated, elegant and luxurious atmosphere among all our guests throughout each ship. Our flagship Queen Mary 2, which is celebrating her 10th year in service this year, is especially popular with the LGBT community for her regularly scheduled transatlantic crossings between New York and Southampton, England,” Davis says.
The gay appeal of mainstream cruises
Mainstream cruises appeal to a variety of LGBT vacationers, and for various reasons. Travellers should be aware of the differences between all-gay and gay-friendly mainstream cruises to be sure they get what they want, says Jeffrey Eslinger, director of account services at DK Shifflet & Associates, a tourism and travel research company based in Washington, DC.
“It’s all about what you’re looking for in a trip,” he says. “A gay cruise can be 24/7 planned parties. Yes, you have different entertainment options than you would have on a mainstream cruise. But for me, the premium you pay for something like that is not worth it. For what I could spend for a [standard cabin] on a gay cruise, you can stay in a suite on a mainstream cruise. Value, for me, is what you get for your money. But for other people, it might be worth [paying extra] to see Kathy Griffin.”
Indeed, value is a big draw for some mainstream gay cruisers; in many cases, you can get luxurious accommodations and amenities for less than what you’d pay on an all-gay cruise.
“I find very good deals on the straight cruises,” says Mark Porter, a Chicago entrepreneur and comic actor. “I’m a value-minded vacationer, so that is my motivating factor. My friends and acquaintances tell me there are rarely, if ever, bargains on the gay cruises, as they are almost always sold out.”
Eslinger, who has taken several mainstream cruises with LGBT mixer events, notes that travellers can start researching gay-friendly options — and even make contact with fellow gay cruisers — long before the ship sets sail.
“Cruisecritic.com has a gay section called G&L Roll Calls,” Eslinger says. “Not every cruise is listed, but once you know which cruise you’re going on, you can start contacting people and put private excursions together.”
Once on board, cruise lines generally make it easy to find out when mixers are taking place.
“When you get on board, it’s on the schedule,” Eslinger says. “Depending on the cruise and how the cruise director wants to work it, they might have one every night or might have it just on the first night. But after that first night, you meet people and become friends. Every cruise that I’ve been on, I have friends that I’m still in touch with today.”
Porter agrees that the quality of people he’s met on board has been a selling point.
“I’ve done a shore excursion, as well as on-ship dinners with people I’ve met at these cocktail events,” he says, adding that LGBT mixers attract a variety of passengers, “generally more couples between the ages of 30 up to and beyond 60, both male and female. The ambiance is low-key.”
“It’s a hodgepodge of people from various walks of life and various parts,” says Eslinger, who says that open-minded hetero travellers also enjoy the LGBT mixers. “On the Celebrity cruises in particular, a lot of single women and their friends seek out the gay guys to have fun, drink and dance.”
Every experienced cruiser has his or her favourite brand. “If you’re looking for a more welcoming group, Celebrity and Holland America passengers are better travelled, a little more affluent and more educated,” Eslinger says. “I also have other friends who as couples have gone on the super luxury cruises [Crystal, Seabourn, Oceania] and have a really good time. Because those cruises are so expensive, the passengers are very educated, very affluent.”
Among the mid-level brands, “I prefer Celebrity, since their demographics seem to skew older and there are fewer families with kids,” says Porter, who adds that the cruise line and on-board experience are more important to him than the destinations on the itinerary.
“I’ve only done Caribbean itineraries, since I usually sail out of Fort Lauderdale or Miami,” Porter says. “The Caribbean doesn’t thrill me. It really is the relaxation and entertainment of the cruises themselves that keep bringing me back. An interesting port is just icing on the cake, so to speak.”