Gay cruisers get more choices


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.

Today, travel 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.

There's even 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 ships.

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 approach."

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 yet undetermined.

Ships' shape

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, Mexico.

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 shower.

Better still, 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.

Regarding the 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, Travelpride president.

"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 responding to."

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

What Travelpride 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 nights.

"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.

Conspicuously 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.

But Travelpride 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 Events offer."

Entertainment on 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.

Travelpride's 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 it."

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

Travelpride cruises 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.

"There are 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.

Despite higher price points, Travelpride's customers skew younger than Champion had anticipated. The average passenger is male, in his mid-40s and self-employed.

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."

To contact Destinations editor Kenneth Kiesnoski, send e-mail to [email protected].


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