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Jim Winsor's Out to Sea: The allure of the Allure

When the good folks at Atlantis Events invited me two weeks ago to join a group of respected gay and lesbian journalists traveling on the upcoming Atlantis Allure Caribbean Cruise from Jan. 29 to Feb. 5, two thoughts immediately came to my mind: 1) I’m a respected journalist? And 2) YES!

A week later, boom, there I was on a dock in Fort Lauderdale with hundreds of other gay vacationers from around the world, staring up at the largest cruise ship in the world: Royal Caribbean Cruise Line’s Allure of the Seas. While we knew at that point we were in for quite an adventure, none of us could have predicted the emotional experience fate had in store for us.

The allure of the Allure

But first, let’s talk about the ship. The Allure is visually impressive. It’s a floating city 18 decks tall, with a super-wide width allowing for some spectacular feats of naval architecture.

A huge covered promenade larger than many land-based shopping malls is buried in the midsection of the ship. The four main pools on deck 15 look down over two uncovered canyons bisecting the center of the vessel, the walls of each lined with hundreds of inward-facing balcony staterooms. One canyon floor hosts a “Central Park” with real trees and foliage, while the other boasts a “Boardwalk” themed area complete with beach restaurants, a merry-go-round and an aquatic theater. Everywhere you turn you see marvels.

When Atlantis chartered the ship for its first gay cruise last year, the response was overwhelming. The 5,500 passenger spots sold out in record time, and a large waiting list filled up. As often happens when demand exceeds supply, a secondary market soon developed, with post after post on gay cruise message boards and online forums from people pleading for staterooms, and much lesser number by people offering to sell them at a premium. This was the ticket every "Atlantophile" had to have.

Expectations may have been set too high, however. After the cruise, many reviews on those aforementioned forums complained about issues related to overcrowding and organization, giving the impression was created that the cruise may have been too big. That, plus some irresponsible behavior by a tiny minority of passengers left a bitter taste in the minds of many.

For these reasons, and perhaps also the fact that being the second time around wasn’t quite as novel, this year’s Allure cruise was not a sell out. We had about 4,200 boys aboard, still a huge amount but noticeably less than last year. This led to one obvious blessing: I saw none of last year’s reported overcrowding problems (although, better organization by Atlantis learned from past experience no doubt helped as well).

And this year, there were absolutely no medical emergency announcements that punctuated last year’s cruise (or at least none that I’m aware of).

There was, however, a tragic incident of a different sort, which I’ll cover in more detail below.

Entertainment

As you would imagine on a ship this size, the entertainment was a notch above what you'd expect on a normal cruise. The big onboard shows produced by Royal Caribbean included "Chicago: The Broadway Musical," "Blue Planet" (a spectacular aerial acrobatic show), the "Ice Games!" ice show at the Studio B skating rink, and the "Oceanaria Aqua Show" at the AquaTheater.

Atlantis had stepped up its game as well, bringing in Jonathan Heller and his award-winning London show "The Dame Edna Experience," An Evening with Bruce Vilanich, guitarist Mark Allen James and many more. A lineup of gay comics graced the stage of the Comedy Live lounge, including Erin Foley, Alec Mapa and Jim David. And Atlantis drag regulars were there as well, with Dixie Longate hosting her signature Tupperware party, and Miss Richfield 1981 debuting her newest show 2012: We'll All be Dead by Christmas.

And then there was the headliner of the cruise, Idena Menzel. She was a little wobbly at first … by that I mean her feet, not her voice. “I’ve never performed on a cruise ship” she explained, as the gentle rolling of the ship kept knocking her off balance.

Eventually she gained her sea legs (taking off her 3-inch heels helped) and then proceeded to flawlessly sing several songs to standing ovations, from Rent and Glee and Barbara Streisand, finally finishing with Defying Gravity.

Parties

The big draw for most of the younger crowd on Atlantis cruises are the parties. Each day of the cruise had two or three major dance parties, each with its own theme, providing an excuse for creative (and usually very revealing) costumes.

The top parties of the cruise, in my opinion, were the Atlantis Kick-Off Block Party on the Royal Promenade (this was also thanks to a grassroots Facebook campaign the "Unofficial Underwear Party") with DJ Manny Lehman, the ever popular Dog Tag Tea Dance in the AquaTheater with DJ Wayne G, the Mardi Glo Party in the Solarium with DJs Manny Lehman and Pagnano, the Classic Disco Tea Dance in the AquaTheater with DJ Abel, the Into the Deep aquatic themed party in the Solarium with DJ Wayne G, and the big White Party in the Solarium Friday night with DJs Brett Henrichsen and Wayne G.

Then there were the nightly "The Cave @ Fuel" parties in the Fuel club on deck 15, which was the specially designated "cruise bar for Bears, Leather, Cubs, etc." This illustrates one of the great features of an Atlantis cruise: There's always something there for everybody. No matter where your tastes run, you're going to have a good time (unless you really try hard not to).

You can't really even try to describe these parties in words. The best way to understand them is through photography, so look for my cruise photos, including lots of pictures of boys on the dance floor in their micro-outfits, this Wednesday on SDPIX.

Ports of call

The first (and only really Caribbean) port of call on the Allure cruise this year was Labadee, a small, walled-off enclave on the north coast of Haiti wholly owned and controlled by Royal Caribbean. They call it their "very own private paradise" and it features a wide variety of shore excursion activities, such as jet-skiing, snorkeling, boating, and even a downhill roller coaster and a fairly impressive 1,000-foot zip line stretching hundreds of feet over a bay.

Next port was Costa Maya, Mexico, which we arrived at on Thursday. This stop was a bit more interesting, in that in addition to all the usual sporty excursions, there were tours to a few nearby Mayan ruins sites. I highly recommend checking out the pyramids at Chacchoban if you ever have the opportunity.

And our last foreign port was Cozumel, Mexico. It’s everything I said about Costa Maya, but with much more extensive shopping, dining and drinking options.

Odds and ends

And there were a couple other moments that made this cruise memorable as well.

First there was an "Occupy Allure" “protest” in Central Park. It began with Malcolm, our cruise director, announcing that a protest was scheduled for between 1 and 2 pm in Central Park, and that as such, we should avoid the area at that time.

Well naturally, when we all showed up, we found some Atlantis staff had set up a tent, put on some grungy clothes, and went walking around in a circle with signs demanding free cocktails and cupcakes for the 99%, and the like. The crowd mostly just stared at them; a few (like me) shouted: “Get a job!”

Second, while we were docked at Cozumel, parked next to us was another Royal Caribbean ship, the slightly smaller Mariner of the Seas. Our pool decks were roughly on the same level, and just before the Mariner was due to depart crowds gathered on both ships to see each other off. Goodnatured banter between passengers on the Allure and the Mariner ensued, including chants of “take your shirt off!” directed at some of the hot straight boys on the Mariner. Which they did, to the applause and delight of everyone on both ships. It was a fun little moment!

Man overboard

But there was another more unfortunate incident that occurred at Cozumel that I need to mention. I imagine many of you already know of what I'm referring to from news accounts, including on SDGLN, so I'll describe what happened as it appeared from our vantage point.

About 7 am Friday while most of us were sleeping, a brief announcement blared over ship's loudspeakers, requesting that a certain guest (I cannot recall the name) present himself immediately to Guest Services on Deck 5.

After that, another announcement boomed into the room at 7:30 am: It was the captain speaking. A man had reportedly been witnessed going overboard. And the ship was coming to a halt to begin search operations. And that all passengers had to report immediately to their assembly stations.

Well that was an eye-opener. Our floor’s assembly area was in the gym, so we got dressed and shuffled over there. We all knew exactly how to get there, thanks to our mandatory evacuation drill, which we all did before we departed Fort Lauderdale. Except this time, Royal Caribbean staff were calmly and methodically entering and searching each room as we left.

When we got to the gym we got scanned and counted, and after a short while the crew working the area began to call out names of those still unaccounted for. Eventually everyone in our area was found. The Royal Caribbean staff operated with great efficiency and professionalism the entire time, which was reassuring.

The captain then came back on the intercom. He announced that ships cameras had verified that someone had gone overboard, and that search and rescue boats were being launched. There were round windows in the gym area, so we could see the little yellow speedboats circling nearby; indeed, many of us began scanning the seas ourselves, in the hopes that we might actually spot something.

At about 8:30 am the captain came back on again, announcing that the search had been joined by boats from the shore, so we were now heading into port. He went on to emphasize that the search was continuing, and thanked an unnamed passenger who witnessed the fall, and promptly reported it by dialing 911 on the ship’s phone. Thanks to this passenger’s prompt action, the captain felt there was still a decent chance of rescue. We were then dismissed. The mood at that point among both crew and passengers I would describe as being somewhat somber.

Then about 6 pm came the final announcement from the captain: The search was being called off for the day. He said that this was the first time in his 22-year career he had lost a passenger overboard. His voice noticeably began to waver at this point. It was an emotional moment for the whole ship. Even though no one I know seems to have known this person (which if I may say, given the "big family" camaraderie of these cruises, is somewhat unusual), we had all been hoping they’d find him.

Later we found out via news sources that based on the video footage, the passenger, Kenneth John Gemmell, a 30-year- old from Baillieborough, Ireland, had deliberately jumped from deck 11.

Falls from cruise ships are actually not terribly uncommon; there are on average about a dozen such incidents every year worldwide. Most go relatively unheralded. However, since this happened on a gay cruise, it seems to have gotten an unusual amount of media attention.

Bottom line

I've been on five Atlantis cruises, and this one probably ranks for me as the best yet. Reported problems from last year were all addressed, and the crowd (which seemed to have a high percentage of first-time Atlantis cruisers) was super friendly. Young, old, twink, bear ... there was something there for everyone.

Not even the jumper put a damper on things ... yes it was sad, but in the long run, for most of us it made us realize how precious life is and how we needed to make the most of every moment.

New cruises

It was rumored beforehand that this was going to be the final Atlantis cruise on the Allure. And that has turned out to be accurate; next year's Caribbean cruise will be on the smaller yet still spectacular Independence of the Seas, from Feb. 2 to 10, 2013. If you notice, there's an extra day here ... this'll be an eight day cruise, beginning on a Saturday, and ending on a Sunday. And the prices will remain roughly the same, so it's like we're getting an extra day for free!

Also announced was the return of the Atlantis Australia cruise, Feb. 20 to March 3, 2013. This'll be on the Holland America Oosterdam, the same ship we just sailed on back in October on the San Diego to Mexico cruise. It'll start in Auckland and sail to Sydney ... just in time for Mardi Gras!

And of course, the next Atlantis Halloween in Mexico cruise is still on schedule, Oct. 28 to Nov. 4, 2012, on the Canival Splendor. This one should be made available for booking by the general public soon on the Atlantis web site. When it does I'll make sure to let you all know.