The first all-gay RSVP “Cruise to Remember” sailed out of New Orleans on Feb. 15, 1986, with 750 gay guests on board. So what took me so long? 1986 was not a good time to be gay. The devastation of AIDS was on everyone’s mind, as was the Reagan administration’s neglectful response. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was in the future, and marriage equality was even further away. I had just started a new relationship, and a week in a gay love boat was something that I was not interested in. So I put a gay cruise on my bucket list, where it stayed for over 30 years.
Since then, the LGBTQ travel industry has flourished, with Atlantis, Pied Piper, Brand G, Source Events and Aquafest — not to mention the all-lesbian Olivia cruises — joining RSVP in a quest for the queer vacation buck. RSVP itself, like the community it serves, had its ups and downs before it was bought by competitor Atlantis Events in 2007. Now part of Rich Campbell’s gay vacation empire, RSVP cruises seem to take a back seat to Atlantis’s floating circuit parties. There was even a rumor going around that this year’s RSVP Caribbean Cruise would be the last one; a rumor that Campbell hotly denied. In fact, even as we speak, Campbell and Co. are busy planning a Southern Caribbean Cruise for February 2019, and an Alaska cruise later that year.
Meanwhile, I had to overcome my inhibitions (and financial limitations) before I finally decided to go on a gay cruise. I was deterred by the Atlantis ads online, which featured young muscle boys in Speedos, frolicking by the pool. Though Atlantis does attract a youthful crowd, my friends assured me that RSVP cruises are full of men my age. So I finally took the plunge (so to speak) and booked passage on RSVP’s 2018 Caribbean Cruise, sailing from Fort Lauderdale from Feb. 11-18 on Holland America’s Koningsdam. With my friend and cabin mate Barry, I boarded the dam ship only to find 2,500 men (and a few women) representing the diversity of queer humanity: young boys, old men, bears galore, muscle marys, couples, singles, all races and religions, colors, shapes and sizes. That’s when I knew this was my kind of cruise. The fact that many of my South Florida friends were on board only made it all that much more fun.
Those of you who expect me to tell all will be disappointed. I will say that RSVP’s 2018 Caribbean Cruise was the most fun I ever had with my clothes on. Though the destinations — Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas; Amber Cove, Dominican Republic; and Half Moon Cay, Bahamas — were OK, most of the fun happened on the ship itself. Even the biggest gay landlubber knows that what makes gay cruises special are the onboard parties. This RSVP cruise had plenty of them: several afternoon tea dances and a theme party every night. RSVP threw out all the stops when it hired world class DJ’s to spin the disks. And the costumes! Though I did my best to wear the proper color or costume, I could not keep up with the elaborate (and expensive) outfits many of my fellow travelers wore to the parties. Even my friend Barry wore some of his award-winning costumes, and was even kind enough to lend me some of them.
Gay cruises like Atlantis and RSVP have been criticized for their cost. Though they are more expensive than your garden variety cruise, the money goes toward providing us with a week of unique tricks and treats. In addition to Holland America’s regular entertainment, RSVP’s 2018 Caribbean Cruise featured shows by gay favorite Jackie Hoffman; comedian Jessica Kirson; jazz singer Soshana Bean; singer Branden James and his cellist husband James Clark; the Boy Band Project; and the duo of Amy Armstrong and Freddy Allen, a gay cruise favorite. There were events for guests in recovery, deaf guests, bears, singles, single bears, a Jewish service Friday afternoon, an art auction (with champagne!) and nude sunbathing on the top deck (you knew I was going to find it). In fact, there was something going on the Koningsdam all day and most of the night to please even the grouchiest traveler.
Though RSVP vacations try their best to give us the best cruise experience, it was far from perfect. Some of my fellow travelers complained about the high decibel level at the parties; the quality of the food; or the lack of opportunities for singles. Though I agree somewhat, I had such a good time that I forgot to complain. The RSVP staff, especially Cruise Director Brad Loekle, did a great job accommodating 2,500 demanding guests, some of who have been on every RSVP cruise since 1986. Many of them signed up for the 2019 Cruise even before they left the ship on Feb. 18. Though I did not do so, there is a strong possibility that I will return to the high seas next year, if not on RSVP then on Atlantis or another gay cruise. And, if I do, you know I will write an article about it.
For more about RSVP Vacations, visit rsvpvacations.com.