I’m not self-hating, nor am I the least bit uncomfortable acknowledging my deep affection, abiding appreciation and ongoing attachment to the more intellectually and physically gifted representatives of my own sex. However, when faced with the thought of taking to the high seas on a small luxury ship for seven days with 140 gay men I hardly knew—well, let’s just say my initial reaction was a cross between ‘get me the hell out of here’ terrified and utter intimidation.
What would the other passengers be like? What if I hated them all? How could I escape? Would they all be judging me daily? Was this going to be like the first day of high school? What would my posse look like, because I needed a posse, right?
These were just a few of the burning questions running through my mind as we pulled into port in Costa Rica and the massive 226-foot sails of the 170-passenger Star Flyer came into view. As the sun set over the horizon, we were greeted by a veritable cavalry of be-dragged “crew” members giddily passing out sailor hats and waiters armed with trays of fruity cocktails as we boarded the ship. It was a lively and picturesque start to the trip to say the least. Suddenly, what at first seemed a terrifying adventure began to hold the promise of great fun.
Staring around the deck on that first evening, I witnessed actual, physical social engagement, of the variety not often seen in big city gay life these days. Introductions among the passengers were fluid and not the least bit awkward and no one seemed to have an agenda or an attitude. Even more shocking was the sight of guys varying in age from 30-something to 70 engaged in easygoing conversation. This was no stand-and-pose crowd. This was instead a “hey girl,” slap-you-on-the-back (or backside) kind of crowd. It didn’t take long for me to conclude that I was both physically and psychologically a world away from the occasionally socially chilly climate of Los Angeles. And that perhaps is the greatest charm of the small ship cruise experience. It takes you out of your element, whatever it may be, and forces you into a new, friendlier one.
Small ship cruises pack the razzle-dazzle of a big cruise ship excursion into a smaller more digestible package that lends an authentic sense of community to the experience. It’s sort of like the difference between going to a great cocktail lounge and hanging out a major nightclub—you can have drinks and a fantastic time at both, but you’re more likely to talk to your friends and make new ones at a lounge than you are at a club because the lounge venue is just more conducive to interaction. Such is the case with small ship cruises.
Kim Gustavsson, Vice President of Sales and Marketing for Concierge Travel, which organized and hosted the seven-day chartered cruise around Costa Rica and Panama that was my introduction to the small ship cruise experience, concurred with my assessment, adding that he “would recommend small ship cruises for people who are looking for a smaller, more intimate experience.” Gustavsson says that though a smaller ship may not have the “wow” factor you might expect from a large ship with thousands of people on board, the experience is a fit “for those who may be a bit more laidback and enjoy conversations and spending quality time with friends—new and old.”
Quality time is what Concierge Travel, a top boutique, gay-owned travel agency and tour operator based out of Texas, is all about providing for its guests. It is a core value evidenced not only in the congenial vibe of Concierge cruises but also in the company’s pretty astounding 90 percent repeat client rate. But then again, that’s kind of what happens when you create a friendly atmosphere where people truly feel that they can be themselves, even if that means they’re standing alone on the deck dancing to the strains of Lady Gaga while wearing nothing more than a jockstrap. It also helps that Concierge aims to be more than just a tour operator, but also, as the company’s name suggests, a concierge catering to the needs of their guests.
“At Concierge Travel, we try to focus on service and details as a concierge would,” Gustavsson says. “As one of our clients put it, ‘a vacation is not a time when I like surprises, and in traveling with Concierge Travel my experience is that all the details are cared for and thought through, and there aren’t any surprises.’”
On the Costa Rica-Panama cruise, each and every day Gustavsson not only minimized surprises, he and his merry band of boys circulated around the ship like the ‘fun patrol,’ talking to every passenger to ensure that we were having the best time possible. And each afternoon we returned to our cabins to find a thoughtful little present and a note from the ‘Boyz of Concierge,’ which always engendered a smile, if only because it reminded me that sometimes it really is the little things that make you feel cared for.
By night I watched and listened as my newfound friends convened over dinner to leisurely discuss tales of what happened by the pool that day or to recount their exploration of islands like Quepos and Tortugas. As the days passed, more faces became familiar and there were more ‘hellos’ to dish out at every meal. Moreover, intimacies were developed between me and my fellow passengers as stories and histories were shared at the various happy hours and parties throughout the cruise. It was undeniable that a communal bond began to form among all the guys on the cruise, and there was something a little magical about it.
That very magic is where Concierge Travel’s Gustavsson journey to becoming an aficionado of small ship cruises began. “My first small ship cruise was an amazing experience,” he recalls. “I was traveling without my partner, and the guys I met on that cruise I am still in touch with over 10 years later. The type of quality time I could spend with individuals on that first small ship has stayed with me ever since, and it is what we now work on creating, both on our own small ships as well as for our clients who travel with us on the big ships with RSVP Vacations. The focus of our first charter as well as subsequent charters has always been to make everyone feel welcome and special. If we can create a space where everyone feels like they belong and are ‘a part of,’ then I think we have created what matters.”
Admittedly, I was clearly not a believer in the small ship cruise experience at first, but by one of the final nights of the cruise, as I sat on the floor in the lounge after dinner listening to the amazing Amy Armstrong and Freddy Allen perform a medley of classic songs, I realized that I had been converted. I had escaped not to a massive floating club but to a quirky, fun house party full of interesting people, and it wasn’t the least bit scary or intimidating. In fact, it was actually quite special.
I know some folks think that size matters, and I’m not saying it doesn’t. I am, however, saying that size may not matter as much as you think, particularly when it comes to small ship cruises. Contrary to conventional wisdom, big things do sometimes come in the smallest of packages.
Concierge Travel not only operates small ship chartered cruises but also books groups for larger RSVP cruises, where they bring their personal touch to the larger cruiseship experience. Find out more about Concierge Travel and their upcoming lineup of cruises to the Mediterranean, Turkey and Greece, South Africa and Rome and Venice at conciergetravel.cc.