Part One: Atlantis
Personally I think gay cruises are one of the great inventions of the world (along with computers and Ben & Jerry’s): An entire world of gay people together in a community, a friend-making machine, a potential husband playground where your prospects are pretty much served on a platter, and all in a pristine clean hotel where your bed is made every day and your bathroom scrubbed. Nice, right?
The light-filled gym is a five-minute indoor walk away (turns out people can actually lose weight on cruises), several excellent restaurants (most free) are five-minutes in the other direction, and depending on the cruise, you can be applying 30 SPF in February under a warm blue sky by the pool. As someone who’s been on both gay and straight cruises, let me state categorically that given a choice, I would never, ever choose a straight one. The gay ones are just more fun.
There is one choice you need to make, however, and that’s which cruise to choose. First big note here: I should say up front that I have no qualifications regarding lesbian cruises; my specialty is cruises for gay men who haven’t yet adopted and/or had biological children. And if that’s your market, as it is mine, there are two main brands to choose from. The kind of person you are, what you’re looking for in a cruise, and who you want to meet will determine which brand you go with, Atlantis or RSVP. Selflessly, I volunteered to take two cruises, one Atlantis, the other RSVP, and report back to TripOut’s readers.
My first was Atlantis, from January 25th to February 1st in the Caribbean. This is probably the “most Atlantis” of all their cruises, which is why I chose it. (It’s tough work, but someone’s gotta do it.)
Here’s my report.
We sailed from Miami at 5pm on Royal Caribbean’s Freedom of the Seas. I’d flown down that morning from New York on American Airlines #2015, and the eager smell of the clean 9am flight was like aromatherapy: “Greetings, harried New Yorkers! Ever-so-gay-friendly American Airlines is now happy to transport you away from gray and freezing La Guardia to balmy sexy Miami International.” To paraphrase The Rolling Stones,” Thank you, American, thank you, Lord.”
There is something awesomely electrifying about boarding a massive ship, and the Freedom of the Seas is the largest cruise ship in the world (it has an ice skating rink downstairs and a surfing wave up on deck). 3,700 of us pulled up in waves like a gay army storming Normandy’s beaches (or Normandy’s gay bars), muscle boys maneuvering Joan Crawford steamer trunks full of teeny little bathing suits and ginormous, elaborate costumes. We looked up from the pier at the walls of white metal rising before us, the glass balconies glinting, a few queens already visible far, far up on the top decks. By 5pm we were all about 12 stories above the aquamarine Miami water, sun setting at our backs, cocktails firmly in hand. In the balmy air we watched the ship glide by South Beach’s palm trees and out into the Caribbean. (It had been, I think, 14 degrees F in New York when I left the previous morning; as my friend Peter says, “Darling, this doesn’t SUCK.”)
A little backstory: Atlantis and RSVP were separate gay male cruise lines until 1977, when Atlantis’s owner Rich Campbell bought its competitor. “The differences between the two brands and experiences are stylistic, such as different signature entertainers, activities and parties that are unique to each brand,” Oscar Yuan, Atlantis’ Vice President of Sales & Marketing, told me. “We highly value those distinctions. The two companies work primarily with different cruise lines as well. For example, an Atlantis cruise is more likely to take place on Celebrity or Royal Caribbean, while an RSVP cruise is more likely to sail on Holland America or NCL.”
Campbell has, very astutely, not just retained both brands but, just as Pixar has a separate and distinct teams create different major character in its movies, he has put a mostly independent team in charge of running RSVP. The difference, in thumbnail form, is that Atlantis skews younger and is more about dancing till dawn, RSVP slightly older and is more about the performers and the food. Yes, you’ll see 20-somethings with ripped abs who listen to M.I.A. on RSVP cruises, but you’ll see lots more on Atlantis. Which is probably the reason for Campbell’s choice: Consumers like variety.
And they are faithful to brands. I think half the people I met had planned their vacations specifically around Atlantis’ Caribbean cruise. I met tons of guys for whom it was their third, or fifth, or eighth time. And depending on the guy, this cruise was a different vacation. A few (a Chicago surgeon I spent an afternoon with at the pool, for example) just slept till noon (the inside cabins are good for that), ate (24/7 food), and tanned. These are the ones who disembark rested. Others were in it for the activities: Fresh fruit breakfast at 7 AM, gym at 8 AM, private surfing lessons at 10 AM, rock-climbing at 11 AM, and so on. (Not my thing, although I spent an entire morning boogie-boarding on the waves.) These are the guys who jam in as many land excursions as they can in each port. Our ports were Labadee, St Maarten, and San Juan, Puerto Rico. To my surprise, Labadee was hands down the most interesting; it’s a beautiful beach owned by Royal Caribbean, a small peninsula with turquoise water and emerald palms and all that great stuff, but the surprise was blinking at the morning sunlight on the top deck at an immense island that seemed to have suddenly materialized in front of us, beautiful green hills rising steeply from the blue bay, its peaks jagged edges under the clouds down to the horizon. Who knew Haiti was so beautiful?
Some of cruisers I met were in it for the entertainment, and it seemed that from noon on there were always three choices at once. No one’s every going to be into all of it; I could have done without the VGL Boys, and the production show “Once Upon A Time” was frankly Disney-lite pablum. But every day I hit things that rocked. Alec Mapa killed, you could hardly find a place to stand at Cashetta’s Newlywed Game, and to my astonishment the Freedom ice-skating show, which I only saw because my friend Jose dragged me to it, was mesmerizing and beautiful. (An “ice”* show? Maybe it’s just that you’d never, ever do this stuff at home.) And I was happy to find out that there were events for singles almost every evening.; The one that stood out for me used name tags that only IDed you by the call letters of your airport. (I was LGA; I wound up having dinner with LAX and SFO.)
Matt Yee does one of the weirdest cabaret acts you can imagine, a Liza Minnelli run by a German commandant and performed by a brothel madame from Gypsy. Out of curiosity I went to a special, very different show Matt did for couples; he played a dance for them based on how long they’d been together. The couples got up, told us how they’d met. Near the end even Matt had to comment that half of these guys seemed to have started their relationships in a 3-way. There was a particularly interesting couple whose romance involved a drunken 3-way and a destroyed water bed which, we were told, had slowed them down not a bit. Ah, gay men. When it was over I went down to Deck 5 and started learning merengue at midnight.
Of the entertainment, the real discovery was Miss Richfield 1981 (Real name: Russ). This is one of the most brilliant, quick-witted performers I’ve ever seen in or out of drag. He’s as good as Dame Edna (and that’s really saying something), a consummate professional with a razor-sharp delivery, and you split your time laughing at the humor and marveling at the talent. I’d say Miss Richfield 1981 would work perfectly on both RSVP and Atlantis, but other acts wouldn’t: The entertainment on RSVP is gauged a bit more to men who actually go to bed before 9am and appreciate more sophisticated fare, like the breathtakingly great cabaret of Amy & Freddy (I saw them a few years ago on an RSVP cruise across the Atlantic); with equal parts musical talent to burn and Amy’s pitch-perfect comedy, their selections range from Peggy Lee to Sondheim, and they are worth the entire cost of your stateroom. Atlantis, by contrast, is more Erasure singer Andy Bell—who in fact was in concert in the Caribbean and performed his Eurotech dance tracks to a packed floor of sweating, carefully sculpted triceps. Atlantis does do Broadway—Patti Lupone packed the theater—but the 20-something next to me asked seriously, “She’s on Lost, right?” (No, Sweetheart. She’s not.) But Atlantis entertainment is carefully calculated to give center stage to the main event: The parties, baby, the parties!
Did I Mention the Parties?
The parties is the vacation that, for most of the boys, constitutes an Atlantis cruise, and it’s a human sleep deprivation experiment combined with an aerobics workout that either Crunch or Falcon should turn into a fitness video. Why Absolut isn’t sponsoring these things is a mystery. You need the endurance of an American Gladiator, the costuming creativity of a Project Runway competitor, the resistance to alcohol of a Russian cossack, and the sleep cycle of a wolverine.
Every afternoon, a tea (the 70s disco tea was hands down the best; if only they’d learn that 70s disco always, always is the best dance of the entire experience and make them all Donna Summer and Chic), and every single night: A massive circuit party. Night 1: a huge Welcome Party down in Studio B, music pumping, the dance floor like a single throbbing naked animal. From then on, they were on the deck under the stars, masses of men gyrating around the pools, dancing on the railings. Night 2: Brazil, yellow and green everywhere. Night 3: Mardi Gras. (Did I mention bring condoms? Anything else you might need is your business, but I’ll mention the condoms.) Night 4: 90s Diva Party. Night 5 was ’80s. (Incidentally, drugs? Let’s just say that on the walkway in, past the point where you could turn around, stood five cops and a German Shepherd, sniffing every bag that went past, and my understanding, totally unverified, is that a few guys spent their vacation in a holding cell. Just FYI.) The music hits you like a tsunami as you walk out onto the deck, and the laser show flashes and explodes over your head. At some point at about 2 AM I was standing with a new friend (his fourth Caribbean cruise), and he looked up and laughed. “I’ve always wondered what people in airplanes think when they look down and see this,” he said. “‘Alien invasion.’” Yes, if aliens wore 2xist underwear.
But the real deal is the last party night, Day 6, and that’s the White Party. Now, I’ve seen some costumes, but these are if anything more astonishing because they’ve been packed in and resuscitated from Samsonite. A group of six glowing jellyfish floating in the air turned out to be 16th century Lords under glowing wigs made of luminous fiber optic cable. There was a gang whose costumes consisted, as far as I could tell, of nothing but thigh-high black vinyl boots strung around with neon ropes. One pack of 36 guys became 101 Dalmations, every single Dalmation in perfect, full makeup, including one in a wheelchair who was out on the dance floor with everyone else, all under the eye of a 7′-tall Cruella Deville. Cruella had an Entry Outfit, a Walking Around Outfit, and a Dance Outfit. Seriously.
It’s parties like this which truly electrify the mood onboard. At about 10pm the entire ship comes alive with a sub-audible hum of excitement, of preparation. You step outside your cabin. Astonishing creatures are flying up and down the stairs. You take the elevator to Deck 11, and as the doors slide open, you feel the pounding of the music. You walk outside and move toward the lasers slashing the black sky above the deck, awash in white.
For more information on Atlantis cruises, visit http://www.atlantisevents.com.
To book a great flight to Miami from just about anywhere, visit American Airlines LGBT-specific full-service site, www.aa.com/rainbow. You can also learn about fare sales, gay travel news and special offers just for you!
Author’s Note: My RSVP cruise is coming up next: RSVP’s Mexican Riviera April 18 – 25, 2009 from Los Angeles on the Norwegian Star, so check back soon after for Part Two of this article.