Given that we're two hard-core independent travelers who get seasick on Disneyland's "Pirates of the Caribbean" ride, a weeklong cruise through the Greek isles didn't seem, perhaps, like the most ideal vacation choice. But this cruise, sponsored by the Oakland-based Olivia company, was a bit different.
Certainly the onlookers lining Athens' Piraeus harbor seemed to think so. As Sun Lines' Stella Oceanis steamed out last September en route to Crete, Rhodes, Mykonos, Samos, Santorini, the Turkish coast and Lesbos, blase dockworkers and strollers alike glanced up, back down--and then, with broad double takes, back up again.
Could it be that the hundreds of departing passengers snaking in an exuberant conga line around Stella's swimming pool were all--every last wildly whooping one of them--women? "It's all right!" comedienne/cruise emcee Marga Gomez jokingly reassured the gapers through her megaphone. "The guys are downstairs! All of them! In the staterooms! They're napping! Don't worry!"
In fact, we 251 female passengers were part of a historic event that was reported--in blaring banner headlines--in the Greek press: the largest invasion of "small-l" lesbians (as opposed to capital-L natives of Lesbos) in recent Aegean history. "These priestesses of Sappho caused sensation and talk wherever they went," reported the National Free Press, "simply because they did not hide their homosexual identity."
In America today, the gay travel boom is hardly news. What's hard is finding a travel expert who hasn't proclaimed the gay market virtually recession-proof. At least a dozen tour operators now arrange floating gay group vacations. The largest offering all-women's cruises is Olivia, known in 1970s and '80s feminist circles as the leading producer of lesbian-oriented women's music records and concerts. In its first three years, Olivia has had over 5,000 passengers on 10 North and Central American cruises.
Greece, on the other hand--and despite an unparalleled roster of ancient gay celebs, including Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Alexander the Great, Sappho of Lesbos and several top gods--is quite conservative on the gay issue.
But Dlugacz says that Greece, despite its reputation as a hotbed of hot-blooded Casanova wanna-bes, was a shoo-in for Olivia's first European dip: "Lesbians in Lesbos! It was impossible to resist." Possible problems between an all-lesbian passenger list (Olivia always charters the entire ship) and a presumably mostly heterosexual male crew were minimized by pre-trip meetings between Stella and Olivia staffers, who emphasized that "this group was unavailable to them." (During the cruise, the one persistent sailor who refused to believe this was reported to the captain the fourth night out, and wasn't seen again for the rest of the voyage.)
We can personally testify that most of the staff absolutely rolled with the punches. One evening, when we were celebrating an anniversary, we found our table surrounded by a squadron of champagne-bearing, accordion-playing, beaming Greek waiters, who treated us just like any straight couple who'd made it through 15 years.
"When gay people go on a regular cruise, they basically find themselves in one of two positions," Dlugacz explains. "Either they are in the closet, or they are expending a good deal of time and energy explaining themselves, because we are stared at for things straight people take for granted in a romantic setting: strolling hand in hand on deck, dancing with your partner. All-gay cruises simply give passengers a level of taken-for-granted freedom they don't have in their daily lives."
Probably the thing that made these gay passengers most different from regular cruise passengers, though, was our age: mostly baby boomers rather than seniors. As for stereotypes, despite a Sun Lines brochure requesting that "At dinner, gentlemen are asked to wear a jacket and tie," most cruisettes did not. Normal attire for most was casual, but for formal occasions a surprising number were decked out in floor-length gowns, slinky Madonna-esque gold lame jumpsuits and more jewelry than Cleopatra ever would have dreamed of donning at one time, most of it acquired on the trip.
All around, trip ambience was decidedly G-rated, right down to occasional mass outbreaks into "Found a Peanut." Shipboard life consisted not of orgies in the lifeboats, but of five Herculean meals per day, plus Olivia's customized version of the usual endless activities most cruises offer specifically to foil us couch potatoes who plan to loll around the pool and gain weight. Aerobics at 7 a.m. Greek folk dancing lessons. Pool games. For the 15% of so of the women who were traveling as singles, the Lesbian Dating Game. For winners of the latter, the Lesbian Newlywed Game. A "Sappho Lookalike" contest. Bingo. Movies. Ouzo parties. Parties for 12-steppers. Lectures about goddesses. Folky live women's music concerts.
Then there were the shore excursions. In Santorini, a local male jeweler, spotting a passenger's Olivia T-shirt, asked with genuine unmalicious curiosity if she'd mind telling him exactly what it was that two women did in bed. When she did so, he was dumbfounded. "That really works?" he asked.
But we generally found that the only slightly nervous local Greek guides had been well-prepped as to all group preferences, sexual and otherwise. "Our women tend to be more gung-ho about history than average cruise passengers," Dlugacz explains. "They want to see everything." Consequently, tour buses to the extensive ruins at Ephesus, in Roman Empire days the greatest city in Asia Minor, made an off-the-regular-tourist-track stop in Selcuk to also view the Temple of Diana, one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world.
Naturally, the sentimental favorite shore excursion was to Skala Eressos, a mostly untouristed village on Lesbos which may or may not have been the hometown of Sappho, the ancient Greek poet/professor/political agitator. Banned and even burned over the ages, her surviving work 2,500 years later still evokes the sensuality, strength, beauty and desire of women loving women. Today, three towns on Lesbos claim Sappho as their own. To its credit, Olivia chose the one with the best beach.
Despite careful groundwork, however, Olivia's mass invasion threw Skala Eressos into turmoil. "At least half the people were extremely enthusiastic, but a strong minority didn't want us to be there," Dlugacz sighs.
One restaurant refused to serve Stella Oceanis passengers. The mayor, who was supposed to officially welcome us to Skala Eressos, "got sick" and sent a representative instead. But in the end, those Lesbians who decided lesbians were good business won out. A greeting committee of three old ladies at the bus stop was the tipoff. (As anyone who's visited Greece knows, those old ladies in black may not be elected officials, but they run the country.) Kicking off the day's historic activities was the "First Olivia Olympics," which decidedly emphasized enthusiasm over nitpickin' stuff such as, say, rules. Next, more than a dozen couples, including us, took part in a uniquely touching group "commitment ceremony" held below the hilltop ruins of "Sappho's house."
Then townspeople got into the act, putting on a fiesta complete with live band and an exhibition of folk dancing by local schoolchildren in traditional costume. By the afternoon's end, lesbians and Lesbians alike were doing the syrtaki (a kind of Aegean hora) around the main square, clinking glasses and planning future celebrations. The whole town cheered when Olivia organizers presented a contribution to help erect a statue of Sappho.
"That's the experience we've had everywhere we go," Dlugacz says. "It also helps," she added with a grin, "that our women tend to spend lots of money. I don't underestimate the impression it makes when 250 people buy every T-shirt in sight that says 'Lesbos.' "
But underneath all the scandalized Greek newspaper headlines (which often identified us as "members of Club Olivia," like some knock-three-times-and-ask-for-Josephine secret sin society), photos told the same story. "Click": Those scandalous lesbians, writing postcards! "Click": Sitting around tavernas, eating lunch! "Click": Trying to climb out of small tender boats without falling into the Aegean! "Click, click, click": Sun burned lesbians! Lesbians waving "Hi, mom!" at camera! Lesbians attempting Greek folk dances! (Actually, that last pic does not look entirely normal. Let's face it, no American vacationer in shorts and a T-shirt, high-kicking like Zorba the Greekette in front of an ancient stone house where Pythagoras could have lived, looks normal.
But that's the point, really: Lesbians are just as conventional, and just as silly, as any other tourists.
Cruises for Gays and Lesbians
There are a growing number of companies specializing in gay travel. Here are two that offer cruises:
For women: Olivia Cruises makes arrangements with major cruise lines to charter entire ships for the exclusive use of lesbian groups. This year, among other cruises, Olivia has scheduled a 13-day trip to Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands departing Aug. 20 aboard the Isabella II, described as a small luxury yacht accommodating 40. The cost is $4,020 per person, double occupancy (not including air fare to Ecuador). A weeklong Thanksgiving cruise in the eastern Caribbean is set for Nov. 20 aboard the Crown Dynasty. Prices are $995-$2,495 per person (air fare excluded). Olivia has additional cruises available in 1994, and also offers other travel packages designed for lesbians, such as a resort vacation in May at Mexico's Club Med Playa Blanca. For more information: Olivia Cruises, 4400 Market St., Oakland 94608, (800) 631-6277.
For men: RSVP Travel Productions, a Minneapolis-based company specializing in cruises for gay men, recently purchased its own ship, the SeaSpirit, a 100-berth vessel that is the country's first year-round, all-gay cruise ship. This summer, the SeaSpirit makes weeklong voyages along the East Coast, visiting New Bedford, Newport, Martha's Vineyard, Nantucket, Provincetown and Boston. Prices begin at $995 per person, double occupancy; suites are $1,795. RSVP also charters ships. On Sept. 6, the company has planned a week's cruise of the Greek isles aboard the 620-passenger Greek liner Stella Solaris; prices range from $1,695-$2,795 per person, double occupancy. For more information: RSVP, 2800 University Ave. S.E., Minneapolis, Minn. 55414, (612) 379-4697. Cruises must be booked through a travel agent.