I'd never considered myself much of a cruise person, having only been on one of the massive ships before this year. That experience had put me off cruising completely: the crowds, the buffet lines -- the sheer mediocrity of it all. I swore never to return. That all changed this year, when I took five nearly back-to-back cruises,: from high-end luxury to expedition style, and ending with a gay cruise. Suddenly I'm addicted.
To the Ends of the Earth
This year, I checked off two bucket list locations I wanted to visit before climate change irreparably altered them: the Arctic and the Antarctic. The best way to get near Earth's poles? Taking expedition-style cruises. Starting at the top of the world, Adventure Canada's expedition-style cruise to Greenland and the northern territories of Canada was on the educational side, with incredible guest speakers who provided daily lectures throughout the journey. Each time we docked, there were naturalists, geologists, marine biologists, and other experts to answer questions and enlighten us about the world around us. The ship itself provided spacious accommodations and fewer than 200 passengers, with room options from bunk bed shares to private suites. Weather patterns can change suddenly and alter original schedules, but in these cases the crew offered engaging alternatives. The most spectacular part of this trip -- outside the simple, breathtaking, natural beauty -- was an eye-opening visit to several small Inuit villages, learning about their traditional culture and how they live today.
To head to the opposite end of the planet, I joined National Geographic Expeditions, partners with Lindblad Expeditions. Like my Arctic trip, this was most definitely an expedition, with approximately the same number of passengers. This ship, however, had additional public spaces and upgraded cabins that were a treat.
Experts on board included an incredibly helpful National Geographic photographer who encouraged everyone to take the best photos possible with the equipment they brought. Both ships also offered camera-lending programs that were fun to use.
Antarctica is hard to describe; for me it was less about the particular sights and more about the feelings one has. Looking at a map, I had seen how far we traveled during our two-week trip but was blown away that we had barely made a dent in the immense continent. That was humbling. There's also just something about experiencing moments that most people will never have, especially seeing marine mammals and other amazing wildlife. That was a 12 out of 10 stars experience, and I had numerous unforgettable once-in-a-lifetime moments.
Luxury Passenger Ships
Until this year I simply wasn't aware there were cruise ships made for fewer people. I was only familiar with the massive ones that cram in thousands of passengers, who are then wrangled into long buffets lines and housed in small (mostly interior) cabins. But at a different price point, there are ships that board only 700-900 passengers in suites that all look out to the ocean. These ships might not offer eight pools or four nightclubs, but they are still able to pack a lot of entertainment choices and drool-worthy dining options onboard. Both of the ships on which I sailed offered verandas or terraces with each room (all suites).
Above: AP Images
With Viking Ocean, a newer division of Viking River Cruises, I sailed to the "Viking Homelands," which included Finland, Estonia, Germany, Poland, Denmark, Russia, and Norway. The year-old ship was stunning. The Nordic Spa was by far my favorite place to hang out, as it had an ice room and cold-water bucket pulley system to help get you into the spirit of things. Restaurant options on the ship were all fine dining, including the buffet line, which made it hard to decide where to eat each evening. Viking Ocean offers free and upgraded excursions at each port. (Editor's note: LGBT safety in Russia is limited, and while group travel is the safest option, it may be safer to stay on the ship in certain ports.)
On my second luxury cruise, I sailed Regent Seven Seas through the Italian and French Riviera. This particular ship was an older vintage but had just undergone a full-scale renovation. Like Viking, Regent's all-suite cruise also included free excursions with additional upgraded ones. But I found Regent to have the more all-inclusive experience. For example, there were multiple nights when we ordered caviar, lobster, and wine to the room -- at no additional charge. In addition, the suites were so large they featured unheard-of amenities, including a walk-in closet and a bathtub. Dining dress codes are strictly enforced, so visitors should pack the requisite clothing. Both Viking and Regent also offer trip packages with airfare included, as well as pre- and post-trip extension options.
A Gay Cruise Unlike Any I Expected
I'll be the first to admit that the thought of gay cruising makes my heart race. Being on a ship with 2,000 gay men -- for a week or more -- actually makes me want to run and hide. It's not for me. But since I'd been venturing into uncharted territory with cruises and had been pleasantly surprised, I decided to take a gamble on Florida's Source Events to the French and Italian Riviera. I booked this particular excursion mostly because of the ship, the Royal Clipper. Looking like something straight out of Pirates of the Caribbean, the Royal Clipper is the world's largest sailing yacht, with five masts. Truly, there was something special about spending the week on board with 190 (mostly) gay passengers. The daily theme parties were more than I expected, and greatly appreciated. Arriving to ports with a gaggle of gays was also empowering in its own way. In the end, I made a lot of new friends and was able to let my hair down for a week among people who mostly get me -- giving me new appreciation for all-gay cruises.