Excuse me, is this a fitness convention?

Sat, Dec 5, 2009, 00:00

When BRIAN McINTYREbooked a gay cruise, it was the start of nine days of stepping out of everyday life, meeting a global community and being free in a surprisingly liberating way

WHEN SHE SAW US come down the gangway an American woman from a neighbouring cruise ship wandered over. She peered out from under her large sunhat at the striking group of men who had just emerged into the bright sunshine of the Greek island of Rhodes.

About 50 of us had signed up for a 10km walking tour, and even at this early hour the group was all chatter and laughter – as well as tanned, muscular, nattily dressed and exclusively male. “Is this a, um . . ?” she began, her voice trailing off as she gestured to the men in front of her. “Is this a fitness convention?”

Gay cruises are well established, having emerged in the mid 1990s in the US. Olivia Travel serves lesbians. The dominant player for men is Atlantis, which runs up to a dozen all-gay cruises a year; three are scheduled for Europe next summer.

The proposition is simple: the cruises give gay men and their friends a chance to holiday together in a mini community on the open seas, and to see a bit of the world. Mini is a relative term: most Atlantis cruises have between 2,000 and 4,000 passengers, half couples and half singles. Most seem to be between 30 and 50, but the age range is wide.

Even on Mediterranean cruises more than 70 per cent of passengers are North American. You feel as if you are in an ultraliberal part of the US, with American brands and prices in dollars. The only thing missing is the jet lag.

Mike, my good friend from New York, and I stood for a “welcome photo” before we boarded Celebrity Solstice, a 122,000-tonne, 315m liner that seemed to dwarf every other vessel docked in Civitavecchia, near Rome, from where we would spend nine days cruising to Alexandria, Rhodes, Mykonos, Santorini and Naples. The results of the shoot are plastered all over the ship’s photo gallery for all 2,800 other passengers to see. I tried not to look like an eejit.

Boarding was now in full flow. Americans are so forward it’s killing. Any man that took Mike’s fancy was fair game: up he went, big bright smile, and introduced himself. We ended up knowing 10 guys’ names before quitting land.

Your first task on a cruise is to figure out the ship – which is difficult, as the vessel is largely symmetrical, and once you’re below deck you can’t sense which way the ship is travelling. The result is a lot of walking along corridors, often in circles.

Mike and I each had a cabin of our own, the outcome of a last-minute half-price deal. A lot of the cabins, all of which are referred to as staterooms, are a tad tight for two, but they’re so cleverly engineered that they don’t feel poky.

We decided to head to the bar and sail away with a couple of dirty martinis. So there I was, glad rags on, chatting to a man named Curtis. Mike was working his charm somewhere down the bar. Curtis, who was from Kansas, was telling me about his Irish grandmother – a story rendered all the more interesting by the handsome cut of his jib. He was mightily impressed that I was Irish, and I was glad to be one of a kind.

Suddenly, what did I hear but a loud “Ah Jaysus, lads, would ye come over here?” With that five Irish guys in their late 20s appeared, full of craic and chatting up all around them. I smiled to myself as Curtis talked on.

The food, which is included in the price of the cruise, was omnipresent and mostly pretty good, although it sometimes suffered from mass-catering blandness. Each of the ship’s principal restaurants is supported by several cafes and a few speciality restaurants – where, for a small extra charge, the menu and service are ratcheted up.

Dinner time is, of course, a really nice way to socialise and meet new people. We often ate at open tables, meeting whoever was next to us. As with getting to know people by the pool, your “cruise family” grows throughout the voyage.

Something’s always happening around the ship, from a poolside Project Runwayand dog-tag tea dances to gaming in the casino, stand-up comedy, singles’ dinners and yoga classes. My favourite entertainer was Dixie Longate, Chris Anderson’s hilarious Tupperware saleswoman. This bourbon- swilling southern belle presents each plastic container with ridiculous double entendres and electrifying monologues. Drag is a gay art form that I took some time to appreciate. It uses knowing humour to reveal the idiocy of the world – and to soothe the wounds that idiots create.

WHEN WE DOCKEDat Alexandria, in Egypt, most of the ship’s passengers set off for a long day in Cairo. More than 50 buses took us there, each tailed by a police car, for protection. This is policy for all cruise tourists, apparently, “not just for us Marys”, as one of our troupe clarified.

For a country that takes its tourism so seriously, Egypt has forgotten to think through the basics. Our trip was marred by aggressive hawkers roaming the “controlled” areas around the Great Sphinx of Giza and the Pyramids, and each tour bus is forced to spend inordinate time at the Papyrus Institute, a glorified souvenir store. At every opportunity we were implicitly reminded that the real exchange at hand was monetary rather than cultural. I arrived back at the ship tired, grubby, dispirited and reminded of the limitations of cruise travel, with its unforgiving pit stops.

Sunset brings a different pulse to the ship. It is only at night that the atmosphere gets even close to the gay scene of any cosmopolitan city. During the day it has the character of a gentler, more embracing, wider gay community. Every night sees a different party on deck, with themes such as empire or the 1980s. It’s much more fun to arrive with costumes and go for it. I tended to dress up, mess about for an hour and then head back to my cabin and change into jeans. It was too hot to walk around in a Roman tunic and gladiator’s mask.

I arrived at a deck bar one night to find the five Irish lads again – on such a large ship it’s easy to lose people for days. They were easy to spot in their Irish rugby shirts, and were creating many admirers. We chatted for a while. One of them just wouldn’t believe that I, too, was from home. Somehow this ship, full of gay Americans in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, took on an other-worldly dimension. I knew how he felt.

I found Mykonos beautiful and welcoming, if rather expensive. We spent a great afternoon at Elia Beach, where the mixture of sun, company and beer hit the spot. As a cruise progresses, warm friendships grow. As we strolled through the town late that evening, Mike introduced me to three friends from New York. They were charming, one of them particularly so. After we parted I tried to figure out which of them was not in a couple. “Actually,” said Mike, “they are living together, all three of them, for the last two years. They’re a thruple.” I stared, wide-eyed, first at him and then back at the lads as they disappeared around a corner. “Let’s go find some ice cream.”

The penultimate night aboard is the ship’s ultimate party night – White Night, when you must dress only in white, regardless of how little clothing you choose to wear. The result is like a monochrome Rio Carnival. It’s also the only night when the ship’s off-duty crew can join the party. The 1,500 crew, as gay as any average population, seemed quite enamoured by the Atlantis cruise. It must be such a different vibe from their usual cruises, full of families, elderly couples and calm.

We arrived back in Rome in the early morning and had disembarked by 9am. To quit the ship is to end a life, a make- believe world that dissipates as we resume our regular lives. A dear gay friend in Dublin tells me he’d rather have his teeth pulled than go on such a holiday. For him it smacks of ghettoisation and tawdry antics among consenting adults. I understand why he thinks this, but I do not share his view. For me this nine-day adventure is a way of stepping out of normal life, of meeting a global gay community, and of being free in a surprisingly liberating way.

A gay cruise is not for every gay man, but it is a highly social, energising and stimulating holiday. And it’s got to be more fun than a fitness convention.

Cream of the cruise

A flight with Pam Ann A camp, over-the-top satire of life as cabin crew with Pam Ann, which claims never to make the same mistake more than four times. Pam brings us through the arduous daily tasks of smothering first class with inappropriate attention and herding cattle class to the rising din of plastic cutlery. Hilarious.

Singles’ dinnerMore than 200 singles show up to mingle and mix over a meal where you’re asked to move table for each of the three courses. Pot luck, and you might feel slightly queasy at the start, but a fun way to meet people.

Gym and wellness zoneThe ship’s huge gym is equipped to the teeth with the latest equipment; alongside, a wellness centre offers everything from hot-stone massage through Botox and teeth whitening. Very popular when the ship is at sea.

PoolsideThe ship’s huge outdoor splash-and-dip pool becomes the heart of the cruise in fine weather. Hundreds of deckchairs, fresh towels and great bar service make it the place to hang out or socialise. An adjoining pool in the air-conditioned solarium has a quieter atmosphere if you want to read, sleep or manage a hangover.

Other gay holidays

RSVP VacationsThis long-time operator in the gay-cruise market, which is now part of Atlantis, attracts a more mature, less party-party set. Usually does about seven cruises per year, although its website currently details only one, to the Caribbean. rsvpvacations.com.

Olivia TravelA long-established business catering for lesbians, operating both cruises and specialised resort and adventure holidays. olivia.com.

Alyson AdventuresOffers small groups of gay and lesbian customers – typically about 20 people – a wide range of adventure-based holidays around the world, such as hiking in Iceland, cycling in France and rafting through the Grand Canyon. alyson adventures.com.

Atlantis’s European cruises next year sail from Venice to Athens, Athens to Barcelona and Copenhagen to Amsterdam via the Baltic States. The company also offers gay resort vacations in Mexico. atlantisevents.com, 00-44-20-72922380