Almost every cruise line, from luxury to mid-range to mass-market, works to attract gay and lesbian travelers, who are known for being avid cruisers. Passengers will find gay and lesbian travelers on just about any cruise, but some companies offer specialized sailings catering specifically to gay cruisers.
All-gay charter companies like Atlantis Events and RSVP (focused on gay men) and Olivia (exclusively for lesbians) charter entire cruise ships or riverboats and customize the whole trip. The charters work closely with the cruise line to develop itineraries, and they always bring aboard their own group of entertainers, musical guests, D.J.'s and more to transform the ship into a floating world of frolicking and fun on the high seas. During the past 25 years, both Atlantis and RSVP have been chartering large and small cruise ships from major cruise lines, such as Holland America, Royal Caribbean, Princess, Celebrity and Azamara. Olivia joined the party 20 years ago by focusing exclusively on women-only cruises and by chartering similarly mid-range and high-end ships. All of these gay charter companies also regularly charter European riverboats for more intimate, culturally rich experiences for their passengers.
The "Big Three"
Atlantis continues to be the dominant player in the gay cruising industry by chartering the biggest and most glamorous ships afloat -- such as Royal Caribbean's 5,400-passenger Allure of the Seas, which was used for the largest gay cruise in February 2012.
RSVP was sold to Atlantis Events in 2007. As a result of these transitions, the number of cruises RSVP offers has fluctuated from year to year. Olivia will celebrate its 40th anniversary as a company (with 20-plus years in gay travel, specifically), with two 40th Anniversary cruises in 2013 -- back-to-back, identical Caribbean sailings.
The Best of the Rest
New players in the market offer smaller, more intimate full-ship gay charters. Source Events, a gay travel company based in Miami, offers two all-gay charters of Windstar ships in 2013: Wind Star for a Panama/Costa Rica cruise in February 2013 and Wind Surf for a Lisbon-to-Barcelona cruise in September 2013. r Family Vacations offers one full-charter "group cruise" in 2013 -- a French Riverboat Cruise aboard an Avalon riverboat. However, r Family is organizing a gay-affinity group onboard a regular sailing of brand-new Norwegian Breakaway in July 2013, with a Broadway theme.
Houston-based travel agency Concierge Travel has made a name for itself by expanding the market through high-quality, lively gay-affinity groups aboard regularly scheduled cruises (i.e., partial, not full-ship, charters). For example, in February 2013, the company is organizing a large group of gay passengers (and their friends and family) to sail Celebrity Silhouette from Fort Lauderdale, hitting several gay-favorite ports like San Juan, Puerto Rico; Phillipsburg, St. Maarten; and Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas. Concierge has lined up unique entertainers, such as the music and comedy duo "Amy and Freddy." (Note: Partial charters are not listed below, but you can find more details on each company's Web site.)
Where You'll Cruise
Gay and lesbian charter companies conduct extensive research before committing to a foreign destination. There have been well-publicized incidents of all-gay charters facing opposition and scattered protests at ports in such countries as Grand Cayman, Jamaica and Turkey, so the gay charter companies generally steer clear of controversy and head to the "greatest hits" port stops, mostly in the Caribbean and Europe. Gay travelers should be aware that, at some ports, they might be faced with different levels of social tolerance.
A popular trend we're seeing for 2014 are more intimate, limited-availability sailings. However, cruise companies are continuing to offer many diverse choices for all-gay cruising -- in various sizes and itineraries. Travelers can choose trips to the most popular itineraries in Europe and the Caribbean or explore more bucket-list type places like Southeast Asia and South America, among a wide range of options.
Below is a roundup of gay and lesbian cruise departures through August 2014. This information, with specific dates, offers a snapshot of some of the adventures, but it's not meant to serve as a comprehensive calendar. Refer to each company's website for any updates or additions. Be aware that some gay and lesbian cruises sell out very quickly.
Details: For those looking to escape the frigid February temps, Atlantis has the ultimate Caribbean getaway lined up. On February 2, passengers aboard Celebrity Silhouette will sail from Fort Lauderdale roundtrip, to a private beach in Coco Cay, The Bahamas; Casa de Campo, Dominican Republic, known for its wonderful shopping and beaches; and Willemstad, Curacao, the most gay-friendly island in the Caribbean. The seven-night itinerary also includes a few days of partying at sea. Fares start at $1,749 for a balcony cabin, but space is limited.
Details: Atlantis' Buenos Aires to Rio Cruise is an exclusive opportunity for just 684 passengers to enjoy an all-gay celebration in luxury. The cruise -- which takes place aboard Oceania Regatta -- will spend 10 nights sailing South America, making stops in Punta del Este, Uruguay, and all throughout Brazil's coast before ending with three days in Rio de Janeiro during the renowned Carnival of Brazil. Onboard, passengers have a variety of entertainment at their fingertips, including comedy shows, live music and cabaret performances and dance parties featuring top U.S. and Brazilian DJs. Fares start at $4,399 for a verandah cabin, but space is limited.
Details: Heading to the Caribbean for a second time this year, Atlantis will be hosting the seven-night Exotic Caribbean Cruise with special guests (including Miss Richfield 1981) and a line-up of exciting activities. Sailing from San Juan roundtrip, the cruise aboard Celebrity Summit will be visiting the ports of Gustavia, St. Barths; Port de France, Martinique; Castries, St. Lucia; and Bridgetown, Barbados, while offering a number of dance parties with top DJs, cabaret performances and more. Fares start at $959 for an inside cabin.
Details: An intimate luxurious experience awaits just 450 passengers on Atlantis' 10-night Bali to Singapore Cruise. Beginning in Celukan Bawang, Bali, Indonesia, the cruise -- which takes place aboard luxury small ship, Seabourn Odyssey -- will continue throughout the Far East, making stops in Surabaya, Java, Indonesia; Semarang (Borobudur), Java; Port Klang (Kuala Lumpur), Malaysia; and Phuket, Thailand, before ending in Singapore. Fares are all-inclusive and start at $4,299 for a verandah cabin.
Details: Passengers on Atlantis' Copenhagen to Stockholm Cruise will enjoy visiting seven different locations throughout Northern Europe in just seven days. Departing from Copenhagen on July 20, the cruise aboard Holland America Eurodam will include Atlantis' first-ever visit to Oslo, Norway, an overnight in Warnemunde (Berlin), Germany, as well as stops in Gothenburg, Sweden; Tallinn, Estonia; and Helsinki, Finland, before ending in Stockholm. Among the onboard activities will be theater productions featuring Broadway singers, cabaret performances and parties on Eurodam's poolside dance floor with retractable roof. Fares start at $1,099 for an inside cabin.
Details: Barcelona's thriving gay community makes it an ideal starting point for this 10-night Mediterranean voyage aboard Celebrity Equinox. From Barcelona, the ship will make its way to Valleta, Malta; Catania, Sicily; Naples, Italy; Civitavecchia (Rome), Italy; Livorno, Italy; Monte Carlo, France; and Ibiza, Spain, where passengers can experience local clubs and entertainment overnight, before returning to Barcelona. Onboard entertainment also will abound. Fares start at $1,899 for an inside cabin.
Details: For seven nights starting February 15, RSVP will be hosting a Caribbean getaway aboard Miami's newest ship, MSC Divina. The cruise will sail from its Florida homeport roundtrip, making stops in Philipsburg, St. Maarten; San Juan, Puerto Rico; and Great Stirrup Cay, The Bahamas. Onboard, entertainment options include musical performances by gay and lesbian singers, comics, drag acts, dance parties or a more intimate setting in the piano bar. Fares start at $969 for an inside cabin.
Details: Olivia's first-ever Buenos Aires to Rio de Janeiro itinerary, this seven-night cruise provides an ideal winter escape aboard a luxury ship. The cruise will feature Olivia's signature activities, plenty of opportunities to meet and mingle with new friends and the chance to explore each port of call -- Buenos Aires, Argentina; Montevideo, Uruguay; Punta del Este, Uruguay; Santos, Brazil; Parati, Brazil (a UNESCO World Heritage site); and Rio de Janeiro, where the ship will stay overnight, allowing more time for passengers to explore the city by day and night. Suze Orman, American author and motivational speaker, also will be onboard as a special guest. Fares start at $5,199 for an oceanview cabin, but space is limited.
Details: The Caribbean Equality & Leadership Cruise is Olivia's largest scheduled cruise for 2014. A number of guest speakers and performers will be onboard for this special event, including Dr. Maya Angelou, an American author and poet; musical performers The Indigo Girls and C.C. Carter; actresses Meredith Baxter and Judy Gold; Edie Windsor, the subject of an award-winning documentary; Grethe Cammermeyer, an activist for LGBT equality; American politician, Debbie Wasserman Schultz; and comedians Karen Williams and Gina Yashere. In addition to the onboard entertainment, passengers can enjoy a number of activities in each port, as the ship makes its way through Grand Turk, San Juan, St. Thomas and Half Moon Cay, The Bahamas, before returning to Fort Lauderdale. Fares start at $3,299 for an oceanview verandah cabin, but space is limited.
--by Stan Wu, Cruise Critic Contributor; Erica Silverstein, Features Editor; and Gina Kramer, Associate Editor