I am back ashore, my weeklong Caribbean cruise with Atlantis events over, the reality beginning to settle in.
More than 2,400 gay men (along with some lesbians and straight family and friends) came together on the most beautiful cruise ship on the high seas (according to
Conde Nast Traveler and other authorities) in a surge of the positive, creative energy unique to the gay community.
For one week, this rainbow tidal wave buoyed the passengers and crew of the Solstice and swept up thousands of locals, tourists and service employees in St. Barts, St. Thomas and the Dominican Republic in its irresistible wake.
I interviewed many passengers and crew during the cruise. There were several common themes that arose.
• Gay cruise passengers are the friendliest and most engaging on the seas. (During disembarkation, there seemed to be as many tears and hugs between staff and passengers as between fellow cruisers.)
• Gay cruise passengers have the ability to consume prodigious amounts of alcohol, which may help fuel the friendliness to a certain extent.
• Finally, and most importantly, gay cruises can provide a nearly transformative experience.
A number of people told me that they felt more out and proud after their cruise, and that was a motivator for repeat cruises. A couple from Arkansas, who had never before held hands in public, almost choked up telling me how good they felt doing that in the public areas of the ship.
How many other vacations can provide reaffirmation of yourself as a human while serving up all that sun and fun?
To paraphrase the parting words of Atlantis founder and president, Rich Campbell, for one week a small community (in the grand scheme of things) becomes a large community, with an energy that is friendly, inviting, caring and joyful. This contrasts jarringly with mainstream cruises, which Campbell said they are starting to refer to "as standard instead of straight."
Here are a few of the stories that I was privileged to hear during my cruise.
• Brian, a 28-year-old New Yorker dreaded his first cruise, which his friends persuaded him to try. He had many of the familiar litanies of concerns: It's just one big gay bar; you can't escape the ship; what if he doesn't meet anyone. He told me he was blown away by how friendly his fellow passengers were. "Everyone leaves their bullshit at the dock," he said. "I said hi to people in the hallways and on the elevators and it was fantastic. I decided to bring this new attitude back to New York, which didn't work out too well, but this is my third cruise and it's my favorite aspect of the vacation."
• Doug, a handsome 30-year-old Southerner is in the Marines (name and location changed to protect his identity). He defuses bombs. Yep, like Hurt Locker, and he has the scars to prove it. This straight-talking stunner was quick to laugh and to drink. He had three weeks off and decided to get his gay on in the U.S., so he attended Winter Party March 5-7, the Atlantis cruise March 7-14, and is off to Mammoth Mountain, Calif., for Elevation 2010 Gay Ski Week March 17-21.
• Joe and Louis, 77 and 78, from New York City, met over 70 years ago at the age of 6 in the Lower East Side of New York, where they both grew up. "In those days, everyone knew everyone. We became friends for life then and lovers later," said Louis, who continued, "we moved to the West Village, the better side of the tracks later." This is their 16th cruise and they love meeting fellow passengers.
• There were at least two counterterrorism officials on board, one French living in Paris, the other American who resides in D.C. I could extract no publishable information about their day-to-day lives or even the nature of their jobs beyond the most superficial descriptions. However both expressed very strongly one of the most compelling reasons to cruise was lack of cell phone contact with the office. "I catch bad guys for a living. Someone else can do it for one week while I'm away," the American said.
• For David and Steven, 38 and 39, from San Francisco, this was the first vacation since their boy, Joshua, was born two years ago. "Grandma flew in from Cleveland to care for him while we get to have a little fun on board." They've been together for 18 years and are planning on having another and possible up to four children total.
Travel editor Ed Salvato got to 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).
Ed Salvato has been called “the world’s foremost expert in gay travel.” You might remember him as editor in chief of OUT & ABOUT and The Out Traveler. He also oversaw travel as senior online editor for Gay.com, PlanetOut.com and Advocate.com. He has logged over a million miles visiting countless destinations on six continents. Antarctica is next on his list. Reach him at Ed@EdSalvato.com.