There was a time when there was no such
thing as an all-gay or -lesbian cruise, let alone today's virtual
Sears catalog of cruising options. This now-booming travel niche
began, in a rather humble and somewhat halting manner, three
decades ago, with two initial sailings about 12 years apart.
The first, a
weeklong Caribbean cruise in 1974 from tour operator the Islanders
Club aboard Paquet Cruises' Renaissance, was groundbreaking enough
to merit coverage in the New York Times, but planned follow-up
cruises never set sail.
Over a decade
later, in 1986, a nascent RSVP Vacations -- now a leader in
lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender, or LGBT, travel -- offered a
single gay charter on Bermuda Star Line's Bermuda Star, from New
Orleans to, again, the western Caribbean.
agents looking to book an LGBT cruise -- the vast majority of whom
are, it is said, heterosexual women -- for gay/lesbian clients are
spoiled for choice, in terms of charter operator, cruise line,
target customer, destination and departure date.
selection in terms of size, with LGBT cruise inventory ranging from
megacharters on the world's largest cruise ships to intimate
"boutique" itineraries on smaller liners and masted sailing
For example, within
the next 18 months RSVP Vacations will offer not only three
"traditional" gay charters on large Holland America ships
accommodating thousands -- to Alaska, the Caribbean and the
Mediterranean -- but also three smaller sailings.
First, RSVP later
this month offers the Olde World River Journey, on Europe's Danube
River, on Uniworld Grand River Ships' 136-passenger River Empress,
from July 26 to Aug. 6. Then, in 2008, the firm's Barbados Bliss
cruise will sail March 1 to 8 with 227 guests, and Tahitian
Treasure will depart with 170 passengers Nov. 27 to Dec. 7, both
aboard Star Clippers vessels.
Other boutique gay
sailings are available from smaller players in the LGBT cruise
field, such as Travelpride Gay Vacations.
The Wilton Manors,
Fla.-based operator, founded in 2003, this year has a lineup of
three cruises offered in what it terms a "five-star hotel
These include an
eight-day sailing with Windstar Cruises in Costa Rica and Panama,
which ran Feb. 24 to March 3; a 10-day Baltic Sea trip aboard
Ponant Cruises' 226-passenger Le Diamant, departing Bergen, Norway,
on July 2; and an eight-day New Year's cruise in the eastern
Caribbean on Windstar's Wind Spirit, sailing from St. Thomas in the
U.S. Virgin Islands on Dec. 29.
The Baltic Sea
cruise is sailing this week at 85% capacity, and the New Year's
cruise is sold out, with a waiting list. In 2008, Travelpride will
offer a southern France river cruise in July, will repeat the New
Year's sailing in the Caribbean and will offer a third charter, as
Travel Weekly was
aboard Travelpride's Costa Rica and Panama sailing this winter, a
rather fitting first sampling of boutique LGBT cruising, as the
Central American ports on the itinerary harkened back to that
initial Islander's Club charter 33 years ago, which called in San
Tomas, Guatemala, and at Cozumel and Playa del Carmen,
As promised, the
113 passengers who walked up the gangway of Windstar Cruises'
four-masted Wind Star at Puerto Caldera, on the Pacific Ocean coast
of Costa Rica, were treated to the reasonable facsimile of a
five-star, land-based hotel experience.
The 74 deluxe
staterooms (there was also one suite) seemed a tad more stately and
spacious than your average cruise-ship quarters, as did each
cabin's rather stylish bathroom, equipped with a roomy
onboard amenities and facilities were top-of-the-line and
cutting-edge. Technology-wise, cabins were outfitted with LCD
flat-screen TVs, DVD/CD players and iPod docking stations and
featured wireless Internet connectivity. Laptops and iPods were
also available for rent.
comfort factor, cabin beds featured Egyptian cotton linen sheets
and duvets, and bathrooms were stocked with personal-care products
from L'Occitane en Provence.
All that, of
course, comes standard with any sailing on Windstar Cruises, which
began upgrading its vessels in late 2006. That's part of the reason
Travelpride partners with the line, said Steven Champion,
"Right now, our
focus remains on small, upscale ships," he said. "That's what we're
happy with, what we know and ... what our passengers seem to be
The line has also
proved very LGBT-friendly.
"I would say
Windstar Cruises has been very welcoming to gay cruises," Champion
added. "They are pretty happy with what we bring and what we leave
behind -- money."
Vive la difference
offers prospective gay and lesbian cruisers is not only higher-end,
more intimate venues -- the Wind Star, for example, accommodates no
more than 148 passengers -- but more relaxation, in terms of both
formality and festivities.
First, although the
operator charters luxury vessels, it encourages a laid-back, more
casual approach to high-end cruising.
"The fact we
maintain a casual atmosphere on a deluxe ship is something
[customers] appreciate," Champion said. "We don't have any dress-up
"To me, there is
nothing more wonderful than having a great meal with great service
and china and atmosphere, but sitting there in shorts and a polo
shirt," he added.
Indeed, casual wear
was the order of the day, and evening on the Central America
sailing, although collared shirts were required for dinner in the
ship's main restaurant.
absent were the commemorative photo sessions in formal evening wear
found on mainstream and even on other LGBT cruises. Not missing:
The daily parties for which gay charters have become noted in
cruise industry circles.
takes legendary LGBT partying at sea down a notch, in deference to
customer demographics and desires.
"There is a
good-sized market of gay people, young and old, who want to try
something different or a bit more exclusive," said Champion,
referring to the often intense partying and entertainment scene on
other gay-lesbian charter cruises.
"Although we offer
[afternoon] dances and nighttime entertainment, if you go to bed at
midnight you're not going to miss anything," he added. "That's a
different environment than what [competitors] RSVP and Atlantis
the Central American itinerary was of high quality nonetheless,
with performances by Chicago-based pianist and singer Mark Farris;
Cashetta, a drag artist who offered up magic and cabaret acts; and
Miss Coco Peru, a noted comedian, film actor and singer who also
performs in drag.
high-seas party menu included fun, if short-lived, dances with
nautical, retro-flashback and toga themes; music was by Fort
Lauderdale-based VJ Barry Browder.
(In one nod to
naughtiness, Travelpride did schedule a nightly "starlight
skinny-dip" in the pool. It proved sparsely attended.)
In contrast to
larger competitors that emphasize, to a degree, onboard parties and
hire recording artists and performers popular in the gay community,
Travelpride prefers to focus on ships and ports.
"I think the
destination of the larger cruises is the event, the party, while
our destination is where we're going, the tour," said Champion. "We
focus more on the ship as a destination and the service side of
Ports of call in
Central America included secluded Isla Coiba, Panama, where
passengers enjoyed a private beach barbecue. In Costa Rica, the
ship called at Bahia Paraiso for horseback riding and nature walks;
Quepos and Manuel Antonio, resort towns popular with gay and
lesbian vacationers; Playa del Coco, for zip-lining and river
tours; and the islets of Curu and Tortuga.
In a nice touch,
passengers returning to their cabins each evening found a small
gift -- a T-shirt, music CD, beach bag, misting fan or travel
pillow -- on their beds.
Higher fares, fewer crowds
do come with a higher price tag than larger sailings. While per
person fares, based on double occupancy, this year start as low as
$895 from competing LGBT charter firms, Travelpride's lowest rates
were $2,500 per person on the Windstar sailings in the Western
Hemisphere and $3,500 a head on Ponant's Baltic cruise.
Pricing tops out at
$3,400, double, or $5,950, single, for an Owner's Suite on the
Windstar sailings, and $4,900, double, or $9,800, single, for the
Owner's or Balcony Suites on Ponant's Le Diamant.
economies of scale; anytime you have a bigger ship, things become
less expensive per person," said Champion, noting Travelpride must
pay for at least three entertainers per cruise, despite the lower
passenger head count, and does not have larger ships' cheaper,
interior cabins to sell.
price points, Travelpride's customers skew younger than Champion
had anticipated. The average passenger is male, in his mid-40s and
About a quarter of
the company's customers are single, as well. Perhaps they've
noticed Travelpride's smaller passenger counts make breaking the
ice with strangers a bit easier.
"You meet everyone
right away, and you don't get lost in the crowd because there is no
crowd," Champion said. "By nature of a small ship , it's just more
of a community."
Travel agents now
account for around 15% of bookings at Travelpride -- which pays
commissions of 10% and up, based on volume sold -- but Champion
sees that percentage increasing yearly.
"With every cruise,
the percentage of bookings coming through agents is increasing," he
said. "I think mainstream agents are becoming more aware of gay
product in general. Three years ago, most agents calling were
gay-centric. Nowadays, it's 50-50."
contact Destinations editor Kenneth Kiesnoski, send e-mail to [email protected].