The next time you take a cruise, take a good look around at your fellow passengers in the ship dining room. Chances are the pair of well-dressed, middle-age men (or women) sitting at the nearby table for two aren't just old college chums on an alumni cruise. If you see them wearing matching silver rings (or canoodling in any manner), that's a dead giveaway. They aren't reliving their wild frat-boy antics; they're just another couple enjoying fine dining on their cruise vacation, as other cruise guests are doing.
Gay and lesbian travelers are welcome aboard cruise ships, and they are among the most enthusiastic cruisers around. From outrageously out couples and adventurous singles to discreet "marrieds" and groups of gay families, many gay and lesbian cruisers don't want to be "ghettoized" into all-gay charters (the most well-known being Atlantis and RSVP for men, and Olivia for lesbians). They want the freedom to sail anytime, anywhere, and on their favorite ships.
While gays and lesbians on regular cruises might encounter a few awkward moments with fellow passengers or cruise staff members, reports of these incidents are rare today. Maybe it's the Caribbean or Mediterranean sun warming up the typically friendly vibe on board, but frequent gay and lesbian cruisers interviewed for this article report overwhelmingly positive and welcoming experiences on "mainstream" cruise ships.
John, one half of a middle-age gay Miami couple who have been on a dozen or more cruises, said, "We always bond with the heterosexual couples we meet on board -- especially in the casino and Broadway showroom."
All cruise lines covet the gay cruising dollar. According to Community Marketing, a leading gay market research company based in San Francisco, 20 percent of gays and lesbians nationwide have taken a cruise in the past 12 months; the national average for all people is only 2 percent. To court this valuable segment of travelers, cruise lines employ special marketing campaigns, onboard amenities, and programs like meet-and-greets geared just toward gay passengers. Lesbians and gay men with children have become a sought-after traveling demographic in their own right, with the launch of Rosie O'Donnell's R Family Vacations (www.rfamilyvacations.com; 866-732-6822). O'Donnell's inaugural gay family cruise from New York to the Caribbean was fully booked last July, and will be repeated again this July.
Of course, the most powerful tool that cruise lines have to attract gay passengers is positive word-of-mouth mentions. Gays and lesbians researching future cruises should rely on this firsthand experience, and pay attention to the ports-of-call of their chosen ships. In 1998, the government of Grand Cayman refused to allow the Norwegian Leeward, chartered by Atlantis, to dock. There have been similar reports of unfriendly attitudes toward gays in other Caribbean islands, the ports of Jamaica, and in conservative countries like Turkey. However, these incidents are small blips on the generally clear gay cruising radar.
So given the almost limitless cruising choices these days, which cruise lines have earned the reputation for being particularly gay- and lesbian-friendly? Based on interviews with gay and lesbian cruisers, travel agents, and personal experience, here is an unscientifically fabulous list of the top 10 cruise lines for gay and lesbian travelers.
Radisson Seven Seas (www.rssc.com; 877-505-5370) This ultra-premium cruise line offers the same type of luxury experience as Crystal, Seabourn, and others in its class, but has a more laid-back vibe. All open seating means there is never a need to break bread with any closed-minded folks, and the polished staff members don't bat an eye when asked for a king bed instead of doubles. The M.S. Paul Gauguin, which sails exclusively through the romantic Tahitian islands year-round, is a gay honeymoon favorite.
Crystal Cruises (www.crystalcruises.com; 866-446-6625) This top-rated ultra-premium cruise line boasts many loyal, luxury-loving gay and lesbian guests who enjoy special seminars and flawless service; they can even check out gay-themed movies in the ship's library. Passengers mix and mingle freely, enjoying gourmet cuisine and excellent Broadway-quality entertainment.
Princess (www.princess.com; 800-774-6237) "There's a reason it's called Princess," reports one cheeky fan of the popular 14-ship cruise line. With Personal Choice dining, gay-friendly crew and staff, and some of the largest ships afloat (the new Diamond and Sapphire each holds 2,670 passengers), Princess includes almost every cruising feature, including pulsating dance floors.
Holland America (www.hollandamerica.com; 800-426-0327) This classy, 13-ship line emphasizes high-quality, diverse cuisine, which appeals to gay gourmands. As with Celebrity, many gays cruisers who don't want to spend a small fortune for a long cruise opt for Holland America. One gay couple reports when they danced together on a recent cruise, no one seemed to notice (or care).
Norwegian (www.ncl.com) This large cruise line started an industry trend with its "Freestyle Cruising" (no set dinner times, open seating, relaxed dress). This midrange line hosts many gatherings for gay groups, often with various parents, siblings, and friends in tow. Norwegian launched its Pride of Aloha ship in gay-friendly Hawaii last July.
Cunard (www.cunard.com; 800-728-6273) The Commodore Lounge bar on the Queen Mary 2 already has been given the nickname of "Commodorothy" because of the high concentration of gays who liven it up each evening. Assigned seating by cabin category is in tune with the formal, old world experience, and all passengers are treated with respect.
The Yachts of Seabourn (www.seabourn.com) With only three ships of 200 guests each, the luxury yachts of Seabourn ply smaller, colorful harbors around the world. The intimate ship size means that just about everyone is included in the onboard activities. These ships attract experienced gay and lesbian cruisers who enjoy visiting lesser-known destinations in a refined atmosphere.
Royal Caribbean (www.royalcaribbean.com; 800-949-1332) By sheer dint of having the largest fleet (19 ships at latest count), any Royal Caribbean cruise will include many gays and lesbians. Those who like their vacations "big" favor the glamorous 3,000-plus-passenger Explorer of the Seas or Voyager of the Seas. Active passengers can enjoy the onboard rock-climbing wall, ice-skating rink, and in-line skating.
Windstar (www.windstarcruises.com; 800-544-0443) The three Windstar ships (more accurately, small motor-sailed yachts) are renowned for bringing back the meaning of the word "sailing." Gays and lesbians love the gourmet cuisine, spas, fitness centers, water-skiing, and kayaking.
Stan Wu is travel editor of www.westhollywood.com and an avid cruiser.