Cruising Offers Something for Everyone

by Fred Palmer

Bay Area Reporter

Sunday February 1, 2015

If you are wondering about taking a cruise as a vacation I highly recommend it.

I always tell people that a cruise is like a vacation smorgasbord; it takes you to several different destinations - and often countries - and allows you to taste test each. The one downside is that you have limited time in each port, usually only a day or so. However, to me, experiencing several new cities is part of the fun, and it gives me a short look at a city that I might like to return to on a future trip.

Another great reason to take a cruise is that you unpack once, always have the same room, and wake up each morning in a new location. It's like staying at an all-inclusive resort that moves while you sleep. When you awake there is a brand new view out your window and as you sail away each night into the sunset you dine with a new view. Some itineraries do include an overnight in a port so that you can explore and dine in that city. I have had overnight ports in Barcelona, Ibiza, Puerto Rico and Key West, all of which offered a party and some fun dining experiences.

Now let's talk cruising for the LGBT folks. I have been on several different types of gay and gay-friendly cruises, and they all have something for everyone: couples, singles, triples, family, and friends. There are large ships, small ships, and even riverboat cruises that can be completely LGBT, or some that charter a medium-sized group on a normal cruise and make their own little gay travel group. Lately there seem to be more and more companies popping up offering unique vacations, everything from bear cruises, gay senior cruises, and even gay film festivals at sea. Plus there are options for lesbian-only travel; Olivia being one of the oldest women-only travel companies.

Recently, I traveled with a small group on the ship Celebrity Solstice, cruising to Alaska. We departed from Seattle where we spent a couple of days exploring before getting on the boat. The itinerary included wonderful ports in Alaska as well as one final stop in stunning, Victoria, British Columbia.

This trip was part of Brand g Vacations, an LGBT tour operator that launched in 2011 and charters gay trips, and also trips that can include straight allies as part of a larger group on mainstream trips. This allows those of us in the LGBT community to include family members. The trip to Alaska was easily one of my favorites. The boat was one of the finest ships I have had the pleasure to cruise on. Alaska was on my list of places to visit, and it was easy to catch a flight to our departure city of Seattle.

The Celebrity Solstice had numerous unique features including a top deck with a large sprawling lawn on which to play games or sit and relax, as well as an at-sea glass blowing show called "Hot Glass." The views along the way were amazing and as people say, impossible to capture in photos, and in words. I just cannot describe how breathtaking it was to sit on a lawn on the top deck of a ship and pass through the Inside Passage of Alaska.

Brand g has many unique trips this year, including one to Cuba that was already in the works before President Barack Obama announced changes in U.S.-Cuban policy.

"It's a whole new way to see Cuba," said Jeff Gundvaldson, Brand g's managing partner. "Our goal is simple. We offer unique, compelling and lesser-traveled corners of the globe to our guests. We have a real passion for LGBT group travel and especially for more intimate and meaningful trips that Brand g is best known for."

Gundvaldson said that Brand g's emphasis is on unique destinations and smaller ships.

"We always aim for exotic bucket-list destinations, along with some of the tried and true and more popular destinations," he said. "What really makes us special is our emphasis on unique destinations and smaller ships, which translates to more intimate, personal experiences for our travelers."

Another gay-owned company is Miami-based Source Events. It started in 2001 and focuses on gay travel with an emphasis on mind, body and spirit enhancement. Both cruise and land experiences are offered by Source Events, along with very unique experiences that you just don't see with larger travel companies.

According to Source Events President Craig Smith, "One of the trends we're seeing in gay travel is our guests' requesting more exotic destinations, such as Tahiti, New Zealand, and Asia. Our luxury tall ship sailings for 150-300 guests allow us travel into off the beaten path islands and ports."

He explained that on-board activities include enrichment seminars on destinations, local entertainment, yoga, and even well known guest speakers such as gay author Armistead Maupin.

"Many of our travelers are looking for travel that includes more unique experiences, which is why we are offering more customized excursions, such as cooking classes," Smith said. "And with marriage now legal in 36 states, it's not surprising that we are now getting requests for destination weddings at sea, which we'll be offering on our next Tahiti cruise."

Source has some fun stuff planned this year including a trip on the Mekong River through Vietnam and Cambodia, a trip to Venice and the Dalmatian Coast. Source also offers some fun land trips, and this year trips on the Venice Simplon Orient Express train, and a journey to Africa, are planned.

Oldest Gay Travel Group

One of the larger - and oldest - gay travel groups is Atlantis Events, which acquired RSVP Vacations in 2007 and maintains it as a separate brand. Both host large all-gay cruises and land resort adventures. The majority of their cruises are on huge passenger liners, and offer entertainment tailored to the LGBT crowd. I have been on several, and have enjoyed celebrities such as Cybill Shepherd, Belinda Carlisle, Patti LuPone, and even Charo. With the larger groups, of course, come more options along with quite a few theme parties, most held on the deck of the ship. Theme parties can include a Dog Tag Tea Dance, Mardi Gras, White Party and ... well, you get the picture.

Atlantis always charters the entire cruise liner so the whole crowd is LGBT and it always does a great job keeping guests entertained. All day long there is something happening, all over the ship, even when many guests are away on excursions. Many people think that the larger group trips are a floating party, and they truly are, but there really is something for everyone, and the experience is yours to have, couples and singles alike. Atlantis' land resort trips are a lot of fun too and are all-inclusive, which is a great idea. You can just relax and enjoy all that they have to offer, without worrying about your bar bill.

Bars, Food Aplenty

Large cruises ships always include many opportunities to pamper yourself with onboard experiences, spa packages, casinos, and yes, booze. Usually there is a martini bar, a Champagne Bar, a piano bar, a wine bar and many of the cruise lines are offering drink packages that let you relax and know your bar bill has already been paid, usually at a substantial discount. You can do the math and see if a drink package works out for you, but I know the math tells me to always buy the package.

In terms of food, on cruises almost all of it is included, and depending on the cruise line, usually is spectacular, with your choice of main dining rooms and other fantastic gastronomical options on board. Dressing up in formalwear is not usually required on cruises, as it was in the old days, but most host a dress up night, or Captain's dinner. If you don't wish to participate, you can try one of the other restaurants on board. Many cruise lines also offer up several specialty restaurants for an additional fee of $15-$40 per person, a small price to pay and it can get you a five-star steak house, or deluxe French bistro.

I usually try a couple of the specialty dining experiences on each cruise. On the smaller sailing ships, the dining experience is the pool deck transformed into an elegant, outdoor venue under the stars.

After all the eating and drinking you can always hit the fitness center to work it off. Most of the ships have a great fitness center and offer personal trainers.

I also encourage you to do your homework on the destinations that you plan to visit. There are obviously many resources in print and online for LGBT travelers. One great source is the international Gay and Lesbian Travel Association (http://www.iglta.org). Also there is still the good ol' Damron Guide (http://damron.com).

For more on Brand g, visit http://www.brandgvacations.com. For more on Source Events, visit http://sourceevents.com. For more on Atlantis Events, visit http://atlantisevents.com.


Fred Palmer is the publisher/owner of Outword Media Marketing and Events. Based in Sacramento, California for over 20 years, Palmer has traveled extensively and has written travel pieces not only for Outword, but also for other LGBT publications. For more on Outword, visit www.outwordmagazine.com

Copyright Bay Area Reporter. For more articles from San Francisco's largest GLBT newspaper, visit www.ebar.com

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