The world of cruising, let alone gay cruising, was completely new to me in February 2023 when I embarked on the Celebrity Reflection with VACAYA. I always thought of cruising as something of a novelty, where you can drink your days away poolside with a splash of entertainment and sightseeing. Little did I know a cruise could transcend time and space and create a queer-friendly little paradise out on the open seas.
My husband and I booked our cruise with VACAYA, an adults-only gay & LGBT+ travel company with a good reputation for putting on a party but also being a little more “relaxed.” We knew some local gay men who book a cruise with them every year, and assured us it was not as crazy as the “Atlantis” gay cruises, which of course, I had never done to compare it to. What I found aboard was fast friendships, gorgeous destinations, and a whole lot of much needed queer community time.
Things to Know about Taking Your First Gay Cruise
It’s natural to have lots of questions before going on your first gay cruise, even if you have done “straight” cruises before. Though you can find a million tips on what to expect on a cruise ship and what to pack and not pack online, gay cruises are just different! Here are some things you need to know and how to gay cruise and what to expect on one.
The Gay Cruises Are Composed Mostly of Cis Gay Men
It may not come as a huge surprise, but the VACAYA cruise I took was mostly comprised of gay men. Of the three thousand or so passengers, we only saw maybe 10-20 women or nonbinary folks. The VACAYA cruises are in no way marketed as exclusive to gay men, but the general draw seems to be toward them. The age demographic was also slightly older, with the average age seeming to range from about 45-50.
VACAYA is aware of the diversity disparity, however, and did a good job of providing meetups on the schedule that would apply to people that were a bit different than the general demographic. This included age-disparate relationships, lesbian and women’s meetup groups, and a place for solo travelers to meet up. VACAYA finds a way to bring people together, and everyone felt supportive of one another.
Bathrooms Are Completely Gender Neutral
One of my favorite features of the VACAYA cruises is that all bathrooms are gender-neutral. And this isn’t just something they leave you to assume – every single bathroom has signage on the doors stating such. So no matter how you identify, you are welcome in that space and everyone is aware of the policy. Besides being welcoming to our trans and non-binary friends, it logistically just makes it easier – more bathrooms mean extra convenience!
There Are Parties Every Night
You cannot spell gay without “party” (well, without the “ay”, anyway). And VACAYA keeps you on your toes with so many themed parties every day. Whether it was the main party every night or one of the afternoon T dances, VACAYA keeps you on your feet burning those drink calories.
The themed parties allow everyone to express themselves – whether that means an elaborate costume or something simple as a jockstrap (and there were lots of those!). The party on the first day was a hometown team theme, where you could sport some hometown pride and show everyone where you are from. It was a great way to make introductions and connections.
Other dances included the “red light, green light dance” to see those who were ready to mingle, the “arrow” party for Valentine’s Day, and even a “five senses” party where you had to interpret a costume that related to the five senses. The highlight of the parties was the “nasty” Andrew Christian party where you displayed your favorite undies, and the “anything but clothes party”, where participants wore anything from a flamingo pool raft to a fanny pack to a pizza box with a hot dog inside.
As someone who has passed the age of 30, I wasn’t expecting the desire would be so strong to dance until 2am, but hey, VACAYA made that happen with the great energy and awesome DJs (like DJ Whitney Day, who brought it every set). A little tip while partying – the pizza buffet stays open late, so recharge there during or after the dance!
The Entertainment is Top Notch
Much like the rest of the cruise being tailored towards a gay and queer audience, the entertainment is specifically crafted with a queer audience in mind. While many cruises have general entertainment suitable for all ages and people, VACAYA goes the extra mile by hiring queer, gay, lesbian, trans, and non-binary folks to razzle dazzle you.
Of course, music is the main form of entertainment. This past year included a combination of 80s gay icons like Sheena Easton and Taylor Dayne, but also queer and upcoming artists like Vincent and Levi Kreis. The headliner was none other than Drag Race superstar Alyssa Edwards who performed her very funny and over the top one-woman-show.
Each artist generally has two shows per evening, so make sure to catch one of them. It’s a great place to mingle with fellow cruisers and to show off what you’re wearing, and to kick off an evening of partying!
Research Excursions and Ports Before You Go
Before we left for the cruise, we booked three excursions, one of which was canceled before the cruise disembarked. As a professional travel blog editor and writer, I should have been a little more diligent about researching ports and excursions, but hey, I wanted to treat this more like a vacation.
Though you absolutely don’t need to visit any ports or do any excursions (and we met plenty of people who never got off the ship), part of the magic of cruising is getting to see new parts of the world, so knowing where you’re going is helpful.
Obviously, booking an excursion takes the guesswork out of your day off the ship, but keep in mind the longer the excursion, the more likely the longer your travel to that excursion will be. In Cozumel, it took guests almost 90 minutes by car to get to the temple which was part of the excursion, not to mention the ride back. If you’re prone to car sickness this can be problematic, and of course, it cuts into your actual time at the attraction.
You can always Google the port and attraction and see how far they are apart by car. Also, keep in mind some ports will be overwhelming – there will be barkers trying to sell you their wares and people trying to sign you up for tours. Knowing a little bit about a port first and knowing where you want to go (especially if you plan on walking there) will cut down on overstimulation or anxiety.
Pack the Clothes That Make You Feel Most Like You
One of my favorite things about the cruise, and specifically that it was a gay cruise, was that I felt no pressure to dress to fit in. In my daily life, I do weave in a flair of gay, showcasing my own style (which is mostly 70s influenced, if I’m honest), but there is always the thought in the back of my head not to take it “too far”.
The thing about being on the open seas on a vessel full of gay men and queer people is that the worry of me being “too gay” was tossed into the open waters. People wore every kind of garment – dresses, kaftans (ahem, me), speedos, thongs, jumpsuits, and as previously mentioned, jockstraps. Honestly, if I had one complaint, it’d be that people could have dressed more flamboyantly. Express yourself – wear those heels you always wanted, and wear that sequined kaftan you’ve been eyeing. Now is the time to let loose!
The only small thing to keep in mind is how you dress for the excursions. Some Caribbean countries you visit may be more religious and conservative, and you may see in the information packet from the ship to “dress conservatively” for certain places. I was a bit confused if that was coded language for “don’t dress gay” (I wore a very bright pink outfit for most port days), but I think it’s alluding more towards “don’t wear a jockstrap”. I will say, our local guides on our excursions seemed to be in on us being a crew of gay men and were very friendly.
Let Loose and Have Fun
As I mentioned, the beauty of a gay cruise is that you are in your own little queer bubble, and nothing could be more catered to the gay experience than having a safe place to be naked and to play.
During the days out to sea, the upper sundeck becomes a nude sunbathing deck. Here you can let it all hang out (literally) and enjoy warmth on all of the places where the sun usually doesn’t shine. Of course, this deck isn’t just for laying out but also for checking out those around you, and while you have to be a little secure in yourself, it doesn’t feel judgmental and is quite relaxing.
Once the sun goes down and it gets a bit later into the evening, you can visit the “red light district”, which is another way to unwind that is perhaps a little more physical than on the sundeck. Having a designated and safe place to play is very important, especially for gay men – it becomes an area of consent and free expression. Whether you want to watch or participate, the red light district is a way to become friendly(er) with your fellow passengers.
You’ll Make Friends Fast
Making new friends can be hard – especially if you’re not the most extroverted person. But cruises are social settings, whether you are talking to new people at the bar or striking up conversations in the hot tub. The dining room is an especially social spot, where you can choose to eat at a large table with strangers, or to frame it in a better way, “friends you haven’t met yet”.
One way VACAYA helps facilitate new relationships is with lanyards that you can choose when you board the ship — Green for “available”, yellow for “it’s complicated, but let’s talk” and Red for “I’m in a relationship, but let’s be friends.” This is a good way for singles, and those just ready to mingle, to connect! It’s also a great way to start conversations, especially if you’re single and looking for a little attention.
Another way to make friends fast is by decorating your cruise ship door. Much like a college dormitory, people cover their doors with photos and artwork, and usually their names, so you can look them up. We saw a door of old college roommates with photos from their travels, themed doors of campy cult classic movies, and cheekier ones with big dildos stuck on them with “free rides” written on the door.
Once we disembarked we immediately booked our cruise for next year. Over the week we met people from all over the country and left with some people we would consider to be close friends. Something magical happens in the middle of the ocean when you’re out and proud – and we can’t wait for our next reunion with these fabulous people!