Aquafest Cruises: Going Gay on a Straight Ship
Photos: Courtesy MSC
Story by Corey Scholibo
If, like me, you're a little nervous about plunging into an all-gay cruise, gay cruise companies that coordinate groups on general cruises can be the perfect compromise. Aquafest Cruises, for example, a division of Cruise Center -- a Houston-based travel agency whose principal, Tom Baker, was awarded Condé Nast Traveler’s award for Large Cruise Specialist in 2008 -- is a friendly and helpful alternative. I joined them on their Mardi Gras cruise, leaving from Ft. Lauderdale to traverse the Eastern Caribbean for 10 days in February.
Aquafest booked gay independent music sensation Eric Himan and New York nightlife staple Hedda Lettuce as the feature performers and set sail with about 70 people on the MSC Liricia, one of many ships it uses. The group was smaller than expected -- perhaps the downturn in the economy led to cancellations -- but it was no less lively!
Many guests were returning for their second cruise with Aquafest, including two straight women who discovered the group quite by accident on a previous cruise -- when the Aquafest guests were having so much more fun than everyone else. The women have become lifelong converts.
The schedule involved daily
themed events, dance parties, performances, and group gatherings like
“drag queen bingo.” Even if you were not up for dressing in Hawaiian
or 1970s-themed garb, though, you were not out of place. On the other hand, some guests
went all the way -- many sported rainbow-colored Mardi Gras beads for a “pride” themed dinner. One couple even wore matching pink tuxedos.
Otherwise, the cruise is your own to do what you will. There's no pressure to join group activities, and Aquafest
will help you choose the best excursions to shore. If you are not
interested in that, though, you can join group outings to the best local
The group on my cruise was largely a little older and not from the coastal urban hubs, so the simple, carefree fun on board may not be to the tastes of those accustomed to gay gatherings in New York or Los Angeles. Those less interested in all-gay group fun can opt out of many of the events, joining everyone for dinner and performances, making new friends, or striking out on their own. For me, having the option was the greatest advantage of the cruise.
The MSC cruise line (with which Aquafest runs many of their cruises) is Italian, so American travelers should be prepared: it's like being in a foreign country and you must adjust to the customs. The staff did not speak much English, so special requests threw them for a loop and took a few conversations to accomplish. The Lirica is a small ship, which has its advantages but also limits some options and amenities. The food, for example, was particularly terrible. But throughout it all, the Aquafest staff maintained a good attitude and were available to help me with anything I needed -- another bonus of traveling with the group.
All in all, Aquafest cruises are unfussy fun and a great alternative to the all-gay cruise experience.