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Summer 2004 | Shipping Out, Olivia Style on the Mexican Riviera

Summer 2004 | Shipping Out, Olivia Style on the Mexican Riviera

Olivia Cruises is everything people say it is, and absolutely nothing like it

To be honest, an Olivia Cruise is something I have run from most of my adult lesbian life. The enchanting Judy Dlugacz, president and founder of Olivia, has been nudging me toward her ships for years. Although I've always thought Judy's brainchild (which grew naturally out of her pioneering work with Olivia Records) was perfect for other lesbians, it just didn't seem like my thing, to be locked up with 1,200 lesbians on a ship for a week.

However, as fate would have it, something came along that forced our paths to cross and test my preconceived notions. Since The Out Traveler feels it's important to continue covering established gay and lesbian travel experiences--in addition to all the unexpected, off-the-beaten-track ones--Olivia seemed like a logical choice for the next venture.

The cruise I picked to the Mexican Riviera had an additional event going on. On top of what Olivia strives to offer its passengers on a regular basis--a safe, comfortable space to be themselves, interesting destinations, entertainment, and relaxation--the company is expanding its sea journeys to include various networking, empowering, and inspirational events. The days of just sailing around pretty destinations and grooving on the phenomenon of being with lesbians only is no longer enough (even for the shockingly high number of closeted women who cruise with Olivia to savor the wonder of holding hands on the promenade deck).

Thus, the trip I picked for its warm weather turned out to be the launching pad for Olivia's first-ever Women's Leadership Summit. The panel consisted of Grethe Cammermeyer, Linda Villarosa, Kate Kendell, Kathy Levinson, and Elizabeth Falkner. As soon as I signed on to the cruise, I was morphed into one of the women of the forum. What had I gotten myself into? Certainly it wouldn't be more than a one-hour panel. Little did I know.

For three of the six full days we were at sea, our Holland America's M.S. Statendam made stops at Cabo San Lucas, Mazatlan, and Puerto Vallarta. The other three days the ship was just at sea. And on those days we summit ladies were on deck, so to speak. We addressed and heard from hundreds of women two times a day. It was extraordinary. But what happened to kicking back?

I wasn't just another passenger on vacation. I had, in fact, inadvertently taken on an unexpectedly profound job. But being a part of the Leadership Summit also helped me get much more information from the women who cruise with Olivia. And that nightmare I was expecting--wall-to-wall lesbians lost at sea--was instead a surprisingly pleasant week with lots of room for personal freedom and lots of opportunities for new friendships.

While I worried about the dreaded seasickness, I was joyous to find that wristbands with little buttons actually worked. Later on, comedian Suzanne Westenhoefer, a regular favorite on Olivia, informed my girlfriend about some rare but tumultuous times at sea. Clearly no sissy wristbands were going to help much in those instances. "We've left our cabins black-and-blue," Suzanne recalled. "We were literally thrown against the walls and furniture for hours. But it became part of the adventure we all had together. Even that was a good cruise."

"We've been on several cruises," Grethe Cammermeyer told me one afternoon. I would never have guessed. She seemed too private, too shy. "Diane and I love them," she continued, referring to her life partner. "We are already signed up for more. It's great because we do things that we'd otherwise never do. We've met people on these cruises who have become our good friends, people we see again on the next cruise. It's terrific."

I thought that must be because Grethe's fame (Serving in Silence) has put her and her partner, Diane, in a position where they can't easily do things or find friends in their everyday life. But when another woman in her 60s, sitting next to me on a whale-watching boat in Puerto Vallarta, told me the same exact thing, it occurred to me that maybe Olivia was especially meaningful to older women. Even Judy Dlugacz had said that her greatest joy was women in their 80s who continued to cruise with them over and over.

"It's like they've found a miracle," Judy told me in the comfort of the private Navigation room where we shared tea, red wine, and desserts one evening. "This is the safe space that they never had, where they can see the world and be with others like them. There was nothing like this for them when they were younger." With her final "this" she points to a hallway outside where women of various ages dressed in varying styles of fashion walked by in an unending but happy stream. Some were heading to the Van Gogh Lounge to get good seats for the premiere of The L Word, complete with cast members and the writer-creator-producer. Many of the older women were later reported to be hanging over their balconies, some in wheelchairs, celebrating the fact that they'd lived long enough to see such lesbian behavior on television.

So Olivia is for older women, I concluded. But that certainly didn't account for all the gregarious younger women dancing later that night with at the ship's Crow's Nest (where the cigarette smoke was so thick, crawling on the floor to an exit was a real option). Yes, older sailors are taken good care of, but Olivia has got some hot Billy Buddettes too.

"Are you going to be at the talent show later?" a girl with bright blue eyes named Chris inquired. "I'm going to play guitar in the talent contest so that I might win another cruise," she continued. Chris is all of 21. But she only wanted to talk about the Leadership Summit and the women she'd met.

"At first I was afraid to cruise with Olivia," she told me. "I was so worried that I wouldn't be able to relate to these older, richer women. But I can, and they're so cool to me." Her eyes boldly soaked up everything around her. "I sure hope I can save up the money to come again. It's hard for someone my age, even when they give us these great discounts."

There are, in fact, quite a lot of 20-somethings. Two of them saved us from wasting our day in Mazatlan and winding up at a time-share instead of watching beautiful native boys dive off 40-foot cliffs into five feet of water. Olivia is a haven for all races, sizes, and ages of women. Certain destinations definitely pull in certain women. This year Olivia is not only keeping all of its usual tours (many are almost sold out), but it's added some far-out ones like Antarctica--where 106 guests will sail aboard a luxurious, high-tech ship able to maneuver through fields of moving ice. Both Judy and Olivia's CEO, Amy Errett, are into what their women want. That's why their direct mailing lists have jumped from 75,000 in 2002 to 140,000 in 2004.

Cruises, bike trips, sports trips, walking tours, resort vacations (including one at a Florida Club Med designed for gays and lesbians with families), an alliance with AAA Travel, even lesbian retirement communities--after 31 years of soulful business, Olivia is clearly the best-positioned brand to reach the country's estimated 6 million lesbians.

Yet both Amy and Judy know that they're only scratching the surface at this point. They also know lesbians are impossible--known not to openly identify themselves, lesbians don't congregate in neighborhoods like gay men do in the Castro or Chelsea. Even other lesbians can't find lesbians. But we do travel and we do spend money to do it our way.

The most common sentence I heard leaving the Statendam was, "I'd do it again." I'm not sure, but I think I said it too. I hadn't meant to say it out loud, but the shocked look on my girlfriend's face pretty much confirmed that I had.

Olivia Snapshots

Long ago, I gave up trying to take pictures--out-of-focus people squinting into the sun standing awkwardly before some wonder of the world. Even the new digital, foolproof technology has not lured me back to trying to capture moments of my life. But certain Olivia times are etched on the daguerreotype of memory.

On a land-based Olivia experience at a Club Med once, a gray-haired lesbian told me she was taking trapeze lessons all week and invited me to the show. It was like Lesbo du Soleil. Lesbians of all ages, of all bodies, in unitards, climbing up high ladders, swinging out into the night air, letting go and being caught at the absolute right moment. That's me, mouth agape, clapping in the bleachers.

In Alaska, we piled into a fishing boat to catch us some salmon. We lazed in the sun, breathed in deep pine smell, and watched bald eagles. Suddenly a pole arched. The captain said, "Who wants to pull it in?" I was reluctantly closest. That's me and my femme fishing partners smiling squeamishly, holding up a large salmon.

On another Olivia cruise, I was happily kidnapped by a roving band of young, leggy, athletic party gals who were the sexiest dancers I'd ever had the pleasure of slithering up my leg. They all played rugby, and everything was a scrum with these gals. They roamed the ship as a pod of fun from the piano bar to the outer decks to the disco. Early in the morning they'd do some kind of furniture or potted-plant rearranging. and I'd try to slip away, but be blocked by one of them: "Where do you think you are going?" "To bed?" "Oh, no, you're not. Hey, everybody, Kate here thought she was going to sleep." That's me on the dance floor with the big grin on my face.

Links to outside sites relating to this article:

Olivia Cruises

The information in this story was accurate at the time of publication. We suggest that you confirm all details directly with the establishments mentioned before making travel plans. Please feel free to e-mail us at if you have any new information.

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