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February 2010 Email this to a friend
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Shipping out

Smaller gay cruises don't stint on luxury

By John Rambow

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For many travelers, the term "gay cruise" implies a gigantic ship, lots of weirdly named decks, a mystifying number of classes and cabins, and gimmicky theme nights galore. And the passengers? There may be thousands of them, but you might not have much in common with any of them -- and you'll have little chance of getting to know them anyway. And all too often the cruise destination is secondary: Such monster cruises have been described as "fun parties that happen to be on a ship."
But there's another kind of gay cruise, one that's intended for no more than 300 guests -- and usually far fewer. In recent years there has been more and more interest in this style of cruising. For one thing, the smaller ships can travel some of the world's most scenic and dramatic waterways to ports the bigger fuel guzzlers could never reach. Imagine an ocean liner trying to navigate the farthest reaches of the Amazon or the Nile.
Although these ships are smaller, you're much more likely to have a personal relationship with your fellow passengers, simply because you have a much better chance of seeing the same people more than once. As Robert Conner, a San Franciscan who took a cruise to the Greek Isles with Source Events, puts it, the smaller ships are "cozy" and "personal," with almost a "family atmosphere." By the way, the passenger demographic tends to be quite broad, with no particular type; ages can range from people in their 20s to those in their 70s.
The ships for such cruises may not have their own shopping malls or enough restaurants and bars to satisfy a small city, but they more than make up for it in personalized service, attention to detail and surroundings that often verge on the opulent. As you might expect, this pampering doesn't come cheap -- charges typically start around $3,000 or so per person for a week's journey, not including airfare. That said, if you compare such trips with a week's stay in a luxury hotel, it may seem a reasonable amount for what you get.
If you do decide to book passage on one of these smaller cruises, be warned: Most people who go once like it so much they want to go again and again (for his part, Conner said he'd do it again "in a heartbeat"). Below is a taste of what some of these specialized cruise companies are like and what they have planned for 2010.

Source Events
Founded back in 2001, Source Events is a relative old-timer when it comes to organizing small-ship gay cruises. Don't expect many hang-ups here: In 2007, it became the first company to put together a gay nude luxury cruise for an excursion to Italy and Greece. Although nude cruises are planned for either this year or next, two upcoming cruises will have clothing-optional decks to help you deal with those pesky tan lines.
For its seven-night Full Moon Greek Island Cruise, set for August 2010, Source Events teamed up with Variety Cruises, a mainstream line whose roots go back to 1949. In a highly appropriate choice of destination, the cruise will take you to the birthplace of Western gay culture: the Greek Isles. Having just 25 cabins (and a max of 49 passengers) means things remain very intimate. After leaving Athens, the yacht makes stops at the islands of Hydra, Folegandros and Santorini. It takes a two-day rest in gay hotspot Mykonos, giving you plenty of time to check out the nude beaches and nonstop nightlife.
In December, another Source Events cruise sets sail on a classic Mediterranean route: an eight-night trip from Rome to Venice. The Wind Surf, which has five masts and a capacity of roughly 300 passengers, heads south from Rome to the Amalfi Coast and the island of Capri, where the hillside villa of the Emperor Tiberius was located. After Capri the Wind Surf heads to the tip of Italy's boot to visit Sicily, putting passengers quite close to the tiny island of Stromboli and its live volcano. (That's right -- the island's had nearly continuous activity, including eruptions, for hundreds if not thousands of years.) Since this is a gay cruise, all that smoke and fire provides a great excuse (and a ready-made backdrop) for an extra-big party (tea dances and other mixers occur throughout the cruise).
Leaving the volcanic island behind, the Wind Surf then heads to the sole of Italy's boot before heading up to Montenegro and its walled city of Kotor. On its way to Venice, the ship calls at the romantic medieval town of Dubrovnik and the island of Hvar, both part of Croatia.

A small, gay-owned agency, Florida-based Travelpride pioneered gay river cruising. Many of the company's first tours covered parts of France, the Low Countries and the Baltics. Most of the vessels are small ships from Wind Star Cruises.
In March, you can explore two of the great cultures of Asia in a remarkable but easygoing way -- by cruising up the Mekong River. The Vietnam and Cambodia River Cruise, which departs from Ho Chi Minh City, is on a 92-passenger ship called the MS La Marguerite. The ship, built in 2009, is outfitted with sinuous art-deco ironwork, hardwood floors and rattan chairs. That said, the French-Colonial design isn't so overblown that there isn't room to incorporate the up-to-date amenities that upscale travelers want. All staterooms have flat-screen TVs and DVD players, and there's an onboard fitness room and spa. In other words, this is hardly roughing it.
From the former Saigon, you travel up the Mekong River to the smaller Vietnamese town of Cai Be, where you can take a trip on a junk and see one of the country's famous "floating markets." Sa Dec, farther up river, is notable for being the childhood home of Marguerite Duras, the French novelist who is also the boat's namesake. Later, after crossing over into Cambodia, the ship docks in Phnom Penh for an overnight stop at this faded colonial beauty. The next day, after a short side trip to visit an ancient temple, it's on to the tour's final port, Siem Reap. From here you can visit the astounding ruins of Angkor Wat.
In August, you can be one of the first to take the sweet-looking Le Boreal out for a weeklong spin -- its maiden voyage is in May 2010.
The craft, built in Italy, is a luxury yacht with 132 cabins, and all but a few have their own balcony. The Mysteries of the Black Sea Cruise, which departs from Istanbul and then travels clockwise through the Black Sea, calling on Bulgaria, Romania and Ukraine, is long enough to give you a real taste of the area. Highlights include Istanbul's gorgeous Blue Mosque, the gritty and opulent buildings of Odessa, and the resort and naval base at Sevastopol, Ukraine.

Hanns Ebensten Travel and Alyson Adventures
Back in 1972, Hanns Ebensten Travel became the first travel company to market cruises specifically to gay men. In 2002, it merged with Alyson Adventures, a gay travel company focusing on outdoorsy adventures. While Hanns Ebensten cruises emphasize luxury, culture and history, Alyson Adventures' are a little more rough-and-ready, heading to places where nature and its beauty are the big draws. Both tour groups market to "gay men, lesbians and friends," so both tend to be more inclusive than those companies that mainly target gay men.
The Nile in Style trip, departing in mid-November, takes a group of just 25 people up the famed river. After first spending three days in Cairo, a plane flight takes you to Luxor and your waiting vessel, the SS Karim, a paddlewheel steamer built in 1917 for Egypt's King Fuad. (Hanns Ebensten is the only American tour company with rights to charter this vessel.) During the weeklong cruise, you visit the Karnak and Luxor temples as well as Thebes, the location of the Valley of the Kings. The pace is slow, which allows time to visit local bazaars or go for a sail on a boat built in a style that's changed little in thousands of years.
On the Galapagos Wildlife Adventure trip, sponsored by Alyson Adventures, your group is one of several on the 100-passenger ship. With such a small boat, everyone can go ashore at each stopping point, and an onboard naturalist will help you understand the amazing flora and fauna. Also included are two nights in Guayaquil, the main port city of Ecuador. If Antarctica and its amazing sea life is more your bag, there's a trip planned there for the end of December. It starts and ends in Ushuaia, Argentina.

Romance Voyages
Emphasizing culture and world-class destinations, Romance Voyages runs many gay and lesbian cruises. As with some other companies, not all its cruises are gay, but they are all certain to have a large gay component.
Romance Voyages has its own trips planned for the Greek Isles and the Nile, but in October it heads for a wilder location: the Amazon River. After two days in Lima, guests fly to Iquitos, a mission town founded by Jesuits in the 18th century. In the nearby town of Nauta, you board the Delfin II, a riverboat built in 2009. There are just four master suites and 10 cabins on board, so you won't have to fight for space on the observation deck -- cabins have big wraparound windows in any case. As you cruise the Amazon, you can fish for piranha, go in search of the unusual pink river dolphins, and tour some hard-to-reach riverside villages.

Click on their highlighted names for addresses, and phone numbers of the companies mentioned above, and links to their websites.

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