At left: The Royal Clipper under the cliffs of Soufrière, St. Lucia.
All I needed to know before making the decision to take a Caribbean cruise was one look at the ship. The SPV Royal Clipper is a dramatic, showy vessel, with a blue-and-white hull and cream-colored sails that catch the gold of a sunset in picture postcard-perfect fashion. And this voyage, through an island off the coast of Venezuela, Grenada, and Tobago, was a gay cruise organized by Concierge Travel, a boutique, gay-owned travel agency and tour operator. If I skipped this trip I knew I’d regret it for years. Built in 2000, the Royal Clipper spends its winters in the Caribbean and summers in the Mediterranean, and can do transatlantic crossings. It’s the largest fully rigged sailing ship in the world, has 42 sails on five masts, and was designed based on Preussen, a German vessel built in 1902, one of those ships sailing enthusiasts know by name.
My arm was twisted rather easily, especially in January, looking out my office window onto polar vortex-driven wind and snow and imagining dipping my feet in warm, glass-clear waters, with a fruity rum drink in my hand. Maybe a rum drink in each hand.
My husband, Andreas, and I flew from New York to Bridgetown, Barbados, the day before we set sail, and in ten seconds’ time were in tank tops, shorts, and flip-flops, checking out the beach. We met some of the other passengers at a pre-cruise cocktail party down the boardwalk from the Accra Beach Hotel and Spa (AccraBeachHotel.com) in Christchurch Parish. Many of those sailing had met on previous Concierge trips, so their hugs and kisses over hors d’oeuvres and—hooray! — fruity rum drinks had the air of a reunion.
Above: Bottom Bay, Barbados
Most of the passengers were gay men in their 40s through 60s, but I was quickly informed that there would be two straight couples and maybe a few lesbians on board too. We soon met a friendly entrepreneur from the Midwest (two of the straight folks on board were his newlywed friends), and an out judge from a southern state whose eyes glinted after I told him about my day job. “Did you know there’s a Fox News producer on board? I want to be there when you meet him!” he said, hoping, I think, to witness a Dynasty-level media catfight.
At right: Mangroves of Laguna de la Restinga, Isla margarita
The following evening we boarded the ship. The vessel was compact but not cramped. We checked into our small but nicely appointed stateroom (a double room, Commodore deck), unpacked in a flash, grabbed a cocktail at the Tropical Bar, and went up to the sun deck for what would become a ceremonial part of each evening when leaving port. The sails were raised at sunset by deckhands maneuvering massive ropes in ways they just don’t need to do on ocean liners, pulling and coiling them around winches. All the while, rousing instrumental music played. (Andreas told me it was Henry Maske’s “Conquest of Paradise,” and while suitably nautical and authoritative, the title was a bit unsettling.) And then, under the Maltese flag, the ship set sail.
The rooms are all similarly laid out; larger Deluxe Deck Suite rooms have balconies and Owner’s Suites have marble baths and round-the-clock butler service, but all are appointed in polished dark wood, brass accessories, and marine prints.
Above: The colorful houses of St. George's, Grenada
Immediately on arrival, our hosts, including some of the ship’s performers—female impersonator Chi Chi Rones and music and comedy duo Amy Armstrong and Freddy Allen—welcomed us and immediately asked about our costumes. We looked blankly at one another. As first-timers, we weren’t prepared with makeup or wigs for the Captain’s Drag Dinner (or the Sunburst party, or Pirate party), so Armstrong instantly offered us makeup and accessory services.
At right: Seven Sisters Falls, Grenada
The ship had amenities that included a full spa, gym, and reading library, so we took some time wandering the vessel before dinner. Since the capacity of the ship is a reasonable 227 passengers, it’s entirely possible for everyone to dine at once in the three-level central atrium dining room. It’s also possible to meet all of the passengers on board. During the first evening meal, we learned a fast lesson about watching the clock on the ship: On a smaller vessel, dinner starts on time. Dessert was served on the top-most level of the atrium in the piano bar, and everyone was eager to get upstairs and find a spot for coffee and one of the half-dozen sweets with a good view, so as not to miss a minute of the entertainment.
The Chicago-based act of Amy and Freddy, regulars on the gays-at-sea circuit, were already teasing the audience, who in turn were shouting out requests for favorite numbers.
“Sore Pussy?” said Amy in mock exasperation. Someone had requested “The Pussycat Song,” a ribald fixture of their repertoire about a beleagured cat. “That’s going to be etched on my tombstone,” she moaned, and the men roared.
After the show, we steeled ourselves with some liquid courage before jumping into the underwear party. I thought of it as a kind of graduate-level socializing for our first night at sea, but our fellow travelers didn’t see the point in wasting any time.
Our next port was Isla Margarita, an island off the coast of Venezuela. I signed us up for an excursion that took us to Laguna de la Restinga, a national park where we kayaked through mangroves in a large salt lagoon looking for herons, flamingos, and starfish. The beach opposite the lagoon was comprised entirely of remarkable mounds of whole and broken seashells that stretched up the lonely coast for miles. At a stop on the return bus ride, $8 got me two large bottles of the finest local rum, and one bottle made it all the way back to New York.
Above: Hanging out over the open sea.
When we returned to the ship in the afternoon, the following day’s itinerary had been laid on our made-up bed, with times for meals, times to pick up snorkeling gear, and the cocktail of the day: Mai Tai. We set sail to the strains of “Conquest of Paradise” and climbed out into the net suspended from the bow to watch the water surge directly underneath us.
At left: Coral reef off Bequia
Our next port was St. George’s, Grenada, a former British colonial capital dotted with pink and blue 19th-century buildings. We spied on a cricket game in progress, walked up to the highest point (a French fort circa 1705) for a view of both sides of the island, and poked around in some markets.
We returned to the ship, napped and sunned on the upper deck, then after dinner saw the “Hollywood Legends” show by Chi Chi, who told stories and belted out songs in the spot-on styles of Tina Turner and Judy Garland, among others.
The next morning (Planter’s Punch day) we arrived at Tobago Cays, an archipelago of five little uninhabited islands—uninhabited, of course, except for the gorgeous yachts parked in the calm waters off the beaches. Our excursion took us snorkeling in search of turtles, then we plopped ourselves down on a deserted beach, impaired by a sweet but potent concoction our snorkeling guide brought with her—for after the swim.
On Madras cocktail day—so quickly had the word Thursday become a vestige of our former, terrestrial lives—we pulled into the port at Bequia, the largest island of the nation of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. We grabbed our snorkeling gear and some books and directed ourselves off the tender (the little boat that takes you from ship to shore) to a quiet spot on another gorgeous, deserted beach, to read and play volleyball with a couple of other passengers and the ship’s young sports team (a trio of tanned, blond Scandinavian 20-year-olds; two men and a woman). I’d forgotten all about deadlines and research and fantasized about idling on a boat for months, years.
When we returned to the ship, Chi Chi (pictured above right) beat our mugs for the Captain’s Drag Dinner, even offering us some selections from her wardrobe. After dancing at the White Party later that night, Andreas ended up with a cowboy hat. He couldn’t remember from whom he’d pilfered it (I guessed it came from the French couple who took advantage of the aft deck’s nude sunbathing spot), but he was not about to return it.
At left: A cabin on the Royal Clipper
On Sea Breeze day we went horseback riding on a banana plantation to the beach, swam off the Royal Clipper’s marina platform, and saw a cinematically inspired rainbow, massive and jutting in the bright clear dusk, over the sheer cliffs of Soufrière, St. Lucia.
On that last night, Andreas and I had dinner with Kim Gustavsson, vice president of sales and marketing at the Houston-based Concierge Travel, and his partner, Charles. Gustavsson, a native of Sweden, was booking his own travel and getting much better deals than his company’s in-house travel agent when he decided to go into the travel business for himself, founding Concierge in 1997.
“I started with doing air and hotels for a corporate account,” he says. “In 2001, [gay travel operators RSVP Vacations] had a gay cruise out of Galveston and I thought I could sell it.”
He did, and within five years Concierge had become the single largest agency selling RSVP travel packages. When RSVP moved out of small-ship experiences, Concierge chartered its own cruise, starting in the Galápagos Islands in 2009. In a few years they followed that experience with cruises to Costa Rica and Panama and a European cruise to the Greek Isles and Turkey, both on Star Flyer, the smaller sister ship of Royal Clipper.
Gustavsson takes no income from the trip proceeds, he says. Once the overhead is covered, the rest is donated to equality-focused nonprofit organizations. “Currently we are major donors to HRC, we support SMUG [Sexual Minorities of Uganda], the Victory Fund, and several other not-for-profits, including local Houston charities,” he says.
In 2015, Concierge is chartering a small riverboat (capacity: 56 passengers) cruise through Myanmar in early November (two nights in a hotel, nine nights on the river), in partnership with the Brand G travel agency; planning a flexible-duration safari adventure trip in South Africa and Zimbabwe in late November; and taking bookings for RSVP’s 30th anniversary cruise in February on its largest-ever ship in the Caribbean. That and other offerings are available at ConciergeTravel.cc.
After docking in Barbados, Andreas and I returned to New York City, to the March cold and wind but with new far-flung friends, some glorious tans, and more photos of beaches and blue seas than we knew what to do with. I never did meet that Fox News producer, so I might have to sign up for another trip to track him down. For a civilized drink, naturally.