In 1990, when Olivia — then a venerable lesbian music company — chartered its very first ocean voyage, only one cruise line would lease a ship to a bunch of queer women. “On so many levels we were seen as scary,” Olivia’s founder Judy Dlugacz recalls. “First homophobia, then not believing women could charter a ship, and they were also afraid about what the religious community would think of their companies chartering to gay people. Also, the crew had to be totally in the closet or be afraid of losing their jobs.”
Since then, “we have changed the travel industry and impacted women all over the world!” Dlugacz says. And indeed, examples abound of how the pioneering company made history and changed the world of travel. In 1993, Olivia visited the Greek island of Lesbos, in what Dlugacz has called, “probably the largest lesbian pilgrimage in a few millennia.”
Six years later, when docking in Turkey, an Olivia cruise was met by protestors who objected to the queer passengers. Over a thousand women disembarked anyway and infused so much cash into the local economy that by the next port they were greeted with signs proclaiming “Welcome, Ladies of Olivia!” and Turkish newspapers heralded the “wonderful women” who helped revive the tourist industry post-Kosovo War.
“We are amazing ambassadors wherever we go,” Dlugacz notes (pictured). “Meeting people who never saw so many women much less lesbians and LGBTQ+ women having so much fun together. It is contagious and we have helped to change the way the world sees this very invisible population.”
Olivia founder Judy Dlugacz
Over the decades, Olivia cruises have hosted author summits and film festivals, leadership trips with icons like Billie Jean King, and tennis clinics with Martina Navratilova. The former recording label continued its musical legacy by booking stars like the Indigo Girls, Heart, k.d. lang, and Melissa Etheridge.
Today, Olivia Travel is the most influential queer women’s travel company in the world. “Our team and our guests represent an amazing cross-section of our community,” boasts Dlugacz, who says Olivia’s guests range from their 30s to 70s and reflect numerous ethnicities, racial identities, and international connections.
Alyson Palmer of the band BETTY performs onboard
“Since we started Olivia Travel, we have taken well over 350,000 women on vacations around the world,” Dlugacz says. “So many women never traveled outside of the U.S. before Olivia because of how insecure it was to travel as two women. Now we go everywhere with brand new travelers and well-seasoned adventurers. For lesbians and LGBTQ+ women in particular [cruising] is a great way to see the world with a community of friends,” Dlugacz says. “It is also a very secure way for women to travel.”
Solo group on an Olivia Cruise
LGBTQ+ travelers face more than taunts or outright discrimination when they travel — violence is always a possibility, especially for women, nonbinary, and gender-nonconforming folks. Singles, couples, and small groups are at more risk than a ship full of queer women. There is safety in numbers and in the way Olivia vets every port and excursion operator before partnering with them. That kind of power and security can be intoxicating and it’s one of the reasons that Olivia cruises can feel so life changing.
There really is something special about being on a boat where women outnumber men 100 to one and the majority of passengers and crew are queer. (“It’s like taking off a tight shoe,” Dlugacz jokes.) It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Until it isn’t. After going on one Olivia cruise many guests return, again and again. (I’ve been on eight myself.)
“The LGBTQ+ women who come with us have an extraordinary experience, unlike any other,” Dlugacz adds. “I always welcome our guests at the gangway and say, ‘Welcome to the way the world should be!’ [There’s a] comfort and freedom knowing we are the majority and thus the norm. When you step on an Olivia cruise or resort or any of our trips, you can feel that sense of excitement and delight and for whatever number of days you are with us, there is a fresh sense of empowerment for all.”
Olivia charters cruise ships that can carry up to 2,200 passengers, riverboats (up to 180) in Europe and the U.S., and adventure cruises (up to 100) in the Galapagos, Antarctica, and the Sea of Cortez. The company also does resort buyouts in Mexico and the Caribbean and land-based adventures in Patagonia and Machu Picchu.
In the coming year, Olivia is planning 33 trips — mostly riverboats. But the itinerary also includes Windstar sail trips in Tahiti, resorts in Turks and Caicos and Nuevo Vallarta, and small luxury cruises to Iceland, Greece, Cyprus, and Israel.
As the world learns to live with the pandemic, travel has rebounded. In fact, business is booming. Dlugacz says, “We are seeing a huge increase in new guests on all of our vacations. We have yet to do a large cruise [since the pandemic started] and the first will be our 50th Celebrations to the Caribbean. Everything we are doing is selling out.”
Dlugacz says of her crew, “We get better at everything we do every time we travel.” Those who’ve been on previous cruises will still find something new to experience on Olivia. “More and more new talent, some wonderful new ships and itineraries you’ve never done before…[and] an even more diverse group of passengers!”