On an early September evening in the Aegean, some- where between the Greek island of Lemnos and the mainland, seven gay men and everyone's new bestie, singer Abigail Zsiga, are literally hanging out over the bow of a gorgeous clipper ship. We are tanned from the day and tipsy on mai tais, laughing and taking pictures as we zip over the deep blue toward the horizon under fiery slashes of an orange and pink sunset. We're hanging on tightly to our smartphones, as there's no going back for anything that falls through the thick rope net that holds us up over the flashing sea 30 feet below.
The Blue Mosque, Istanbul
This moment is exactly the kind I'd hoped the trip would offer. I didn't think twice when offered the chance to board that dramatic SPV Royal Clipper again--it had provided immea- surable relief to my polar-vortex doldrums in the Caribbean in 2014--and this time it was for a Brand G cruise from Istanbul to Athens, with Turkish and Greek ports, on the mainland and islands, for an entire week.
The trip featured a ton of upsides: an all-LGBT cruise (nearly all gay men, one lesbian couple), a truly romantic tall ship (based on the Preussen, a famous German five-mast wind- jammer, circa 1902), ports of call including some significant sites of antiquity, a relatively small passenger manifest ( just 227 at maximum), and ports that the big cruise ships don't have access to, making the experience more about sailing and the destinations, and less about cruising.
Royal Clipper Excursions
But not all can be perfect. There's inherent risk in traveling, and sometimes world events get in the way of even the best-laid plans: Between the booking and setting sail, a shocking coup d'etat was attempted in Turkey, against state institutions and the repressive government of President Recep Tayyip Erdog an, organized by a faction of the Turkish Armed Forces. The fac- tion attempted to seize control of key cites in Ankara, Istanbul, and elsewhere, ultimately failing, but not before 300 people were killed and more than 2,000 were injured. Since the coup, 40,000 people have been detained, including soldiers, judges, and teachers. I had to think hard about my own safety but also the safety of any LGBT visitor to whom The Advocate might recommend a destination. And Turkey was not currently an uncomplicated destination. Istanbul is a vibrant cosmopolitan metropolis, and Turkey is a secular state, but a coup is a coup, and the shift toward religious extremism tinged the coup and Erdog an's response.
Brand G, the gay-travel company chartering the ship, was quick to inform and protect the welfare of the passengers. "We are working closely with our land providers and port security to minimize risks in Turkey," Jeff Gundvaldson, owner and operator of Brand G, told me a month before departure. "We plan to break up our [pre-departure] Istanbul tours into smaller groups to avoid drawing too much attention. Our ground opera- tors will also implement other security measures to help keep our guests safe. For those who wish to avoid spending time in Istanbul, we have made it easy for them to go directly to the ship for boarding."
Basilica Cistern, Istanbul
Ultimately there were no incidents, on a large or small scale, and no one was harassed or troubled in Istanbul. But because
of decreased tourism from the West, I experienced something
I never thought I would feel, at least not in any major city in
the 21st century: the sensation of being the only Westerner in
a place. (Obviously I wasn't, but nevertheless I could imagine myself traveling in a pre-globalization Turkey.) My husband and I visited the most famous tourist destinations--the labyrinthine Grand Bazaar, the intricate Blue Mosque, the sprawling Topkapi Palace, the Basilica Cistern with its inscrutable Medusa heads, and the Hagia Sophia--but never lined up for tickets or fought crowds to see the sights. And walking down I stiklal Caddesi, Istanbul's famed high street down from Taksim, I saw Turks and visitors from Arab states but no obvious North Americans or Europeans. We ate mountains of fresh seafood and classical Turkish cuisine, got a scrub in a 15th-century hammam, and as we left the Istanbul port at night following a passenger meet and greet, the glowing minarets and domes receded in the darkness.
That first evening Abigail, a singer best known for her EDM anthem "Let the Joy Rise," performed a set of stripped-down songs on piano with guitar accompaniment by her husband, Andrew Zsigmond. I plopped down on a deck chair next to the musicians on deck later, and we became fast friends, drinking and geeking out on the Milky Way, so clearly visible far from the lights of land.
The next morning we arrived at the Turkish port of Canakkale, and though the sky was calm, the seas were rough, prohibiting most ship-to-shore trips. On board, Evan Wolfson of Freedom to Marry gave a talk and answered questions from passengers about the state of LGBT rights and marriage equal- ity internationally. We stayed on board, reading and soaking in the sun until the dance party in the Tropical Bar that evening.
At about 9 a.m. the next morning, September 5, we approached the port of Myrina on the Greek island of Lemnos. On shore, we hiked the ruins of the fortress overlooking the port; it was built in the 13th century on the site of 12th-century Byzantine fortifications and even earlier ancient ramparts (built by the apocryphal Amazon women of Lemnos?). After a walk through the alleys of shops and a coffee on the other side of the island, we had lunch at a quiet outdoor taverna with rickety tables next to the port's small Manos beach. It was one of the simplest and best meals I can remember, of Greek salad, ten- der octopus, sardines, and a jug of dry "Moshato" white wine. The feta, seafood, produce, wine, and olive oil were all locally sourced, and so fresh I could taste the sunshine in the food.
The island of Skiathos, which we visited the following day, was more heavily trafficked, and the waterfront was covered
end to end with populated cafes, their chairs and couches fac- ing the water for optimal sun and views of incoming ships. Alleyways and narrow roads led up the steep hills to tavernas, little bars (they would open later in the evening), and thou- sands of picturesque whitewashed houses. A mile-long walk over the top of one hilltop and down led to an especially nar- row beach, where we rented chaises, swam, and nursed a beer as the sun sank and the tide rose. Later we found a taverna and ordered the most delicious moussaka and a bottle of red wine suggested by our waitress. The elderly English couple at the next table confessed they were envious of our ride, the impres- sive five-masted clipper they'd noticed coming into the harbor. That night, Toronto-based drag artist Miss Conception (a.k.a. Kevin Levesque) performed her Hollywood-inspired quick- change act: For each musical number, a layer of sequined cos- tuming was shed in a flash to zip between The Sound of Music's Maria, the Cowardly Lion, and Little Orphan Annie.
That next night onboard, after a day of stand-up paddle- boarding and kayaking on a little beach near Poros, Abigail added an impromptu performance to the schedule. She sang some of her club hits for a tea dance on the top deck as the sun set. The White Party that followed was the last of the dance parties on the ship, and the diehards and those who had skipped most of the dancing so far came out for a last hurrah.
Super Paradise Beach, Mykonos
We arrived in Mykonos about 1 p.m. on September 8 and made our way by taxi to Super Paradise Beach, a gay-popular beach on which three or four beach clubs offer chaises and umbrellas for rent (or you can sit on the pebbly sand free of charge). At the far end of the beach, go-go dancers on elevated
boxes shimmied to dance music while an emcee hosted a wet T-shirt contest, or drinking contest, or some other competition in which being drunk and wet was an advantage. We opted for the other end of the beach, for a slightly more sedate experi- ence (no emcee, no club bangers), though there wasn't a spot on Super Paradise that wasn't a scene of one kind or another. In small groups, tanned men (and some women) chatted and showed off their physiques in fitted brief-cut swimsuits, some smoking or drinking from bottles of beer. Some even swam. I didn't get a lot of reading done; there was plenty to watch with- out cracking open my book.
A few of us from the cruise took a taxi to Elysium, a gay hotel set in the hillside above the port--the ideal spot for a sun- set cocktail; from ocean liners to yachts of the mega-wealthy, all the ships' lights went up as the sun went down. We walked down the hill to the town, through the twists and turns of the alleyways crammed with shops, restaurants, bars, and vacation- ers all enjoying the warmth of a late summer night, and made a pub crawl out of several of the gay bars on the island (favorites were Jackie O' and Porta Bar).
Very early on the morning of September 10 we disembarked at the port of Athens, having sailed a total of 693 nautical miles. We settled our bar tab, collected our luggage and pass- ports, and joined the ship's tour of the spectacular Acropolis and museum. A final cocktail party atop the Electra Palace hotel capped off the trip. We had sparkling wine and grappa and took pictures and swapped email addresses with new friends against an amazing backdrop, the Parthenon atop its mesa, lit up at night.