I’ve been on a dozen cruises, including six Atlantis sailings, two on RSVP, a pair with R Family, and a couple of straight voyages. I really enjoy Atlantis trips for a variety of reasons. I love the ships they charter, including the gorgeous Solstice, the vessel I’m now on and the Royal Caribbean ships, like the Freedom of the Seas with all their innovative features (ice skating, anyone?). I also enjoy the parties, events, and other programming. Though also incredibly friendly with lots of great activities, RSVP cruises are usually a little smaller than Atlantis charters and there are fewer of them per year.
R Family, a tour and cruise company catering to gay families, is perhaps best known for its topnotch entertainment, luring Broadway belters through the owners’ many entertainment-industry connections. With children running around and the presence of doting grandparents, you may forget that those triplets over there have two dads. Still, beyond the shows and straight presence, the vibe, humor, and atmosphere is unmistakably, unapologetically, and proudly gay.
The second you step foot on a gay cruise you are on holiday, starting with a hug by one of the many attractive, engaging Atlantis team members at the ship’s gangway. Then, a glass of champagne and endless smiles and greetings from crew, Atlantis staff, and fellow passengers. This open spirit of friendliness continues and grows during the course of the trip, with warm hellos in the hallways and humorous banter in the elevators. One cultural observation I’ve made is that when two gay men meet once at a bar or an event it is almost guaranteed that the next time they see each other, they will exchange a big hug and a kiss, like two dear and long-parted friends.
On straight cruises, not so much. Folks are on holiday and perfectly polite but absent are the constant warm greetings and friendly banter. You may never actually interact with any representative of the cruise. The biggest difference is that on straight sailings, the culture seems ruled by clans of family members, often including grandma (who perhaps financed everyone’s trip), parents, their children and their spouses. Most socializing occurs uniquely among the members of the clan. Clans may swap warm pleasantries but they are not joining one another at dinner or at the disco. On gay cruises, gay men meet, entourages grow, groups meet groups and at a certain point it seems that everyone is connected through an organically formed network. And it all just starts with an attitude-free hello in a corridor or at lunch.
Since my last post, we danced like crazy people at the ‘80s party, a light-hearted, high-energy, outdoor celebration of that crazy decade. On Wednesday, we visited the lovely, exclusive island of St. Barts, a French territory which feels more like a little piece of the Côte d’Azur chipped off and floated to the Caribbean. If you want a Movado watch, some Bulgari or a bottle of fine Champs, this is the place. It’s also where you can do a little bathing au naturel in any one of nearly a dozen pristine beaches, including gay-popular Anse des Salines or Gouverneurs. St. Barts is very popular with upscale gay and lesbian travelers (it’s known to be very expensive). There is a yearly LGBT tour organized by New York-based, lesbian-run company Islanders Travel during Thanksgiving, which offers good value for the travel dollar.
Today we stopped at Charlotte Amalie (pronounced “amal-ya”), St. Thomas in the United States Virgin Islands, an unincorporated territory of the U.S., meaning the residents are not protected by the U.S. Constitution, do not vote in presidential elections, and have no vote in Congress. They are subject to U.S. taxes and have an elected governor, lieutenant governor and legislature. It belonged to Denmark till 1917, when the U.S. purchased the Virgin Islands at a cost of $25 million. The U.S. Virgin Islands still enjoys a warm relationship with Denmark.
Though there is not a huge, visible, vibrant community, gays and lesbians live and visit throughout St. Thomas and the other two primary islands of the U.S.V.I. According to one business official, the community seems to be returning to the strength and visibility it had over 15 years ago when there were numerous gay guesthouses, restaurants, bars and clubs in St. Thomas, which he described as “similar to Key West.” That was all unfortunately wiped out during a terrible hurricane in ’95 (Marilyn) when power and water were knocked out for many residents for months and many businesses, including gay ones, left. Just across the street from one of Charlotte Amalie’s dock is Barefoot Buddha, a fab new café run by a gorgeous gay woman (seen in the accompanying picture on the left). Bring your laptop for the free wireless, but for goodness sake buy some food. Ask for a kale smoothie. It’s not on the menu but it’ll cure that hangover.
Follow me as I float around the Caribbean on the Atlantis Exotic Caribbean cruise aboard the Celebrity Solstice (March 7-14) with 2,400 other gay men (and a handful of fabulous lesbians). Check back through the week for more posts.