Travel

Making a Difference :: Sweet Lesbian Cruises

by Merle Exit
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Saturday Apr 10, 2010

Late last year, Sweet - a lesbian travel company - launched the company's inaugural cruise, setting sail to destinations in the Western Caribbean. Setting Sweet apart from other lesbian cruises is the goal of company co-founders Shannon Wentworth and Jen Rainin: to make the world a better place while having a blast in it. How do they plan to do it? For starters, they're organizing "voluntourism" at each port.

Cruising, the Sweet way :: A Travel Diary


Day 1 :: New Orleans

Checking In and Off To Lunch

Most cruise companies suggest that vacationers arrive in the city from which they’ll be embarking one day before the cruise actually leaves, to make sure there’s enough time to board the ship and get settled in. It’s a good idea, and one we highly recommend, especially given the "issues" and insanity with the airlines and air travel today. While it may mean the added expense of a night’s hotel stay, it makes things much easier come embarkation day, and should problems arrive during transit beforehand, it can be a lifesaver- and possibly mean the difference between making your cruise and missing it.

I arrived in New Orleans a day early, and took a shuttle bus to the Chateau Bourbon, a gay-friendly Wyndham Historic Hotel located in the famous French Quarter. My room was beautiful; for starters, it featured a small sitting area - separated from the sleeping area - with a second television, small coffee table, and sofa. A door lead onto a common terrace, used mostly for events (although I pretended it was my private yard!). After a long flight it was great to have somewhere to stretch my legs.

Since I was setting sail in less than 24-hours, I didn’t bother unpacking; instead, I decided to meet up with Andra Douglas, owner of the New York Sharks. A friend of mine, Andra was traveling with her partner Linda; me, I was traveling with Esther, my rubber chicken.

Hungry, we headed to a nearby restaurant for a quick lunch- at the adorable (and gay owned and operated) Cafe Amelie (pictured, www.cafeamelie.com ) Although they offer a few tables indoors, for the full effect you’ll want to take advantage of the atmosphere of the Princess of Monaco Courtyard and Carriage House. Then get ready for some great food.

We took general manager Danny Akers’ advice, and were happy we did. I enjoyed the Roasted Beet Salad (field greens, goat cheese and walnuts) followed by Cochon De Lait, a sandwich featuring spicy pulled pork, mayo, and sweet-spicy pickles on ciabatta. One of their signature "mocktails" - a fruity non-alcoholic drink of fresh lemonade with crushed berries - was another big winner.


Voluntourism

Not simply satisfied with giving guests a fabulous vacation, Sweet believes that companies should also help support - and beautify - the communities in which the company operates.

Before embarkation began, co-owner Shannon Wentworth led a team of "Sweeties," who visited - and helped to clean up - local marshes that were devastated by Hurricane Katrina. Together the team planted 600 batches of new grasses.

Next :: Embarkation


Day 2 :: New Orleans

Embarkation & Preparation

When boarding a cruise, what you don’t want to receive at check-in is a sheet of paper with the following message:

This letter is to inform you that during our previous 16-day cruise, approximately 12 percent of guests on board the Norwegian Spirit experienced the symptoms of acute gastroenteritis.

Apparently one of the passengers or crew members not only brought their bathing suit, but also this lovely "gift;" one which he or she may or may not have left behind. We were told that symptoms included diarrhea and vomiting, nausea, body cramps and mild fever, generally lasting 24-hours... when treated.

At this point there was little we could do other than taking precautions to reduce or eliminate contamination- and crossing our fingers. Stating that they didn’t "believe that this illness would be an issue," the cruise line offered passengers the option of traveling on an alternative sailing date. This was a lesbian cruise, however, and Sweet had taken over the entire NCL Spirit for this private cruise- something that may or may not happen again on this cruise line. We decided to go for it.

For the entirety of the cruise, whenever we approached the entry to an area that served foood - restaurants, bars, the casino, the pool deck - there was staff on hand, armed with industrial sized sanitizer and disinfectant sprayers - along with instructions - to make sure that we were all clean and disease-free.


Staterooms... and lifejackets

Not being a seasoned cruiser, I had requested a stateroom on a high floor as close to the middle of the ship as possible; I’d heard that this is the best spot to be in case of "turbulence." The room I got was good sized- especially for one person - and had a balcony, which would later provide space for drying laundry.

During boarding, the staff made several public announcements, each of which was preceded with a musical chime. Since you couldn’t hear them well in the rooms, most passengers opened their doors and stuck their heads out into the hallway. Over the course of the rest of the cruise, with each chime, I kept picturing long hallways with dozens of half-naked women popping out of stateroom doors.

As soon as everyone boarded, the staff led the standard cruising drill: find your life jacket, put it on, and stand in lines in your designated area based on stateroom. I made it a point to listen to this information carefully... and later contemplated wearing the life jacket as sleepwear.


Calm Before The Storm

Happily settled and feeling ready for anything, I set out for dinner; tonight’s was scheduled at Windows, the largest restaurant on the ship.

As a member of the media, I got to spend some time with Sweet founders Jen Rainin and Shannon Wentworth, who spoke of the company’s goals, focusing on volunteering... and making sure we all had a great time on the ship! I also met comedian Suzanne Westenhoefer.

Dinner was followed by karaoke at Henry’s Pub, hosted by FlawLes. Never one for self-restraint, I took the stage to sing The Rose. As I approached the mic, someone in my group began to chant, which only encouraged the crowd; I made it a point to perform rather than just sing. For days I was referred to as "Hey, there’s The Rose."

Shortly after my performance, I headed back to the "safety" of my room, as the boat began to rock... contemplating whether I should don my life jacket over my pajamas.

Next :: An unwelcome guest


Ida had a better time if...

Informing us that a hurricane (Ida) was headed towards our planned cruising route, the captain announced that we’d be leaving port half an hour early. After this ’introduction’ (and surprise), we were also greeted by Simon, the ship’s cruise director - who prefaced each announcement by referring to us as "Sweeties." Cute.

I’m a land lubber; I get seasick quite easily and for reasons unknown, I did not prepare with a patch, fresh ginger (my original plan), or even ginger pills. Having headed back to my room hoping to let the boat rock me to sleep, I discovered that what I’d hoped would be gentle and relaxing was instead a bit more "active."

Rather than simply swaying gently side to side, the boat was also pitching up and down, the result of the massive ship being lifted by - and then falling from - 25-foot waves. The movement seemed to produce a sort of ’whiplash’ to my back; no position seemed to help, and past experience told me that any movement on my part would result in nausea. Then I got another surprise.

Apparently I had failed to properly secure the balcony door; a fact I found out when it was violently flung open by the wind. How much water should I allow to enter? If I’m not sleeping anyway, the howling of the wind wouldn’t make a difference... except now I have to pee.

Did I really want to get up? Can I blame the water that’s creeping in? Getting out of bed, I grabbed the closest thing jutting from the wall and made my way to the bathroom. As I was about to get back into bed I realized that I no longer felt dizzy; why not close the balcony door?

Back in bed, I returned to tossing and turning, thinking about Simon’s possible morning announcements.

"Hello Sweeties, have you been intimate with the floor last night? Hurricanes are half price at the bar! And as part of Sweet’s voluntourism, you also get the chance to preview the beach cleanup experience later this evening... we’ll provide mops, gloves, and gasmasks."


Day 1 at Sea

The Hurricane

When the telephone rang at 7:30am to the tune of "Good morning, this is your wakeup call," I responded with hysterical laughter followed by, "Why? Did I sleep?"

Hurricane Ida continued her path during our first day at sea. Managing to rouse myself, I joined my cruisemates - who, although not feeling 100%, seemed to have avoided intimacy with the floor and toilet bowl - and headed to breakfast.

We arrived at the main deck to discover that many things were postponed. In spite of the ship’s movement, I walked about meeting "survivors" and listening to their hurricane stories. Much of the day’s mingling took place around the pool area.

I joined in a few games of bingo in the afternoon - or at least a modern version of what I know as bingo. Forget paper and stamps, on this ship we used an electronic gadget that you place on your lap. As numbers are called, it automatically ’does its thing;’ all you have to do is watch. It even tells you how many numbers you have left to win - and on how many cards!

When cruising, one thing you won’t be is bored; something was always happening. I stopped by the bar to see an NCL duo, Arvin and Emily, performing popular songs - and performing them quite well. Emily had no problem with a Celione Dion number and Arvin could certainly hit some tenor notes.

Andra, Linda and I had decided to try one of the fee-added ($25) restaurants, Cagney’s Steakhouse. Was it worth the extra money?

Not really. Although I was able to order a different cut than what was available the night before in the "regular" joint, I felt that the $25 could have gone towards an excursion, bingo, or the spa.

Speaking of the spa, I was scheduled for a facial at immediately following dinner - and was looking forward to calming both my face and mys mind. It worked.

Spa treatment complete, "save me a seat" to see comedian Erin Foley perform at the Stardust Theatre.

Not ready to park my head on the pillow, we stopped in for a bit of karaoke. I repeated my performance of "The Rose," as well as "Nobody Loves Me Like You Do," dedicated to Andra and Linda.

Next :: Day 2


Day 2 at Costa Maya

Land Ahoy!

Avoiding rougher waters, the captain decided to take a different route - which put us on land much later than planned, leaving us with less time to explore. In the meantime, I attended the Sweet Sparks networking and empowerment workshop, postponed from Monday.


Costa Maya

Finally at Costa Maya, we grabbed a quick lunch, then scoped out the port of before our excursion. Needless to say I was happy to be on land again. Time for shopping!

There are excursions available (for an additional fee) for nearly everyone. At Costa Maya, Andra, Linda and I opted for the Chacchoben Maya Ruins, which took us on a city tour and then to three impressive sites. Andra and Linda were in better shape to climb them... when allowed to.

Back on the ship, we headed dinner at Windows, then back to Champagne Charlie’s for more entertainment.


Voluntourism

Not all fun and games, the "Sweeties" are here to help as well! On this stop, 150 of us filled more than 200 large bags of garbage on Uvero Beach... in 45-minutes! (To be fair, it was a contest.)

Trash included everything AND the kitchen sink. Literally. Also a television, vacuum cleaner parts, and tons of other oddities one should never see in the ocean.

"We found trash from Greece, China and many parts in between," said Shannon.


Day 3 In Belize

Belize

Arriving at our second port of call - Belize - we discover that we’re not in fact "docked" so much as "close to land," which means taking a tender - a small boat that takes people from a large boat to shore - to the port. I decided on a double excursion: an Airboat Adventure and Belize City Tour. What does that mean? Basically I’m going from the ship to the tender to a bus to an airboat, then back to a bus to a tender to the ship.

The trip on the tender (say that five times quickly) took at least half an hour and was almost as rocky as the ship during the hurricane. Arriving on land, I realized that I had my knapsack, camera, passport... and no money. Apparently after using my key card on the ship for so many days, I’d forgotten what cash was.


Excursion

Somehow I managed to tour most of Belize City in the time before and after my airboat excursion; and met a bus driver named "Mr. Butch!"
Highlights of this excursion included baby crocodiles and an extremely fast boat - the equivalent of a water based roller coaster. On the nature front, we spotted several species of birds, and mini-crocs, including one that approached the boat and jumped up to eat us! (OK, it was actually a small piece of food from the tour guide.)

Back at the dock, I picked up a few rum cakes made locally; and sampled one made with chocolate chips - yum! I also tried a local hot sauce; one drop in my meal and I already felt the burn! (Check out their rum cakes at www.rainforestrumcakes.com )

In the meantime, Andra and Linda took a zip line on another excursion.


Excursion

Somehow I managed to tour most of Belize City in the time before and after my airboat excursion; and met a bus driver named "Mr. Butch!"
Highlights of this excursion included baby crocodiles and an extremely fast boat - the equivalent of a water based roller coaster. On the nature front, we spotted several species of birds, and mini-crocs, including one that approached the boat and jumped up to eat us! (OK, it was actually a small piece of food from the tour guide.)

Back at the dock, I picked up a few rum cakes made locally; and sampled one made with chocolate chips - yum! I also tried a local hot sauce; one drop in my meal and I already felt the burn! (Check out their rum cakes at www.rainforestrumcakes.com )

In the meantime, Andra and Linda took a zip line on another excursion.


Voluntourism

Since I couldn’t put it any better, here’s an excerpt from Sweet co-founder Shannon’s blog, about the Belize experience.

Partnering with Lifeline, a philanthropic organization run by the first lady of Belize, Sweeties painted bright cartoon characters on the walls of a children’s hospital ward. Donations of toys and clothes were also made. Across town, another "gaygle" of Sweeties painted three classrooms and a storytime corner. Over 1,000 children’s books plus other school supplies were delivered. Sweet guest Erin Cottom of The Cottom/Shakkottai Investment Group donated a much-needed copier with toner and tons of paper. It was all totally Sweet!"

Next :: Day 4


Day 4 in Roatan, Honduras

Back on the ship, y’all!

I got back to the ship early and grabbed a bit of lunch before heading to karaoke again. They say that the third time’s a charm, so I a stuck with my classic, "The Rose," and added "Nobody Loves Me Like You Do." Again.

I met Andra and Linda at Champagne Charlie’s to see Corday & The G Strings; great trio. Corday’s father was on the cruise, and he was up with the ladies, dancing... and stripping off his shirt.

Tonight’s dinner was at Gardens Restaurant, followed by a Comedy Showcase starring Gloria Bigelow, Kate McKinnon, Sandra Valls and Tavia Smalley, hosted by Nicol Paone of "The Big Gay Sketch Show."

Simon made a brief announcement, although it was much tamer than what I was expecting, which - in my head - went something like, "Hello, Sweeties! I was going to tell you about the hurricane that were headed into, but I just assumed that you dykes could handle it all. In fact, I was quite surprised that you didn’t get out there and beat the hell out of the water and send it off to the Bible Belt."

He’s much more professional than that.


The Animals of Honduras

Fast forward to our next stop: Roatan, Honduras in Central America. An excursion here takes us first on a bus tour - to Gumbalimba Park - where we get to interact with cute animals; something you’d never get to do in an American park. We also got to cross a shaky wooden bridge that scared the bejesus out of me... or opt for the regular, modern one. Pushing fear aside, and despite my fear of heights, I opted for the former.

Having crossed that bridge when we came to it (sorry; couldn’t resist) we discovered a cave, where we learned about the native people - and Christopher Columbus’ visit. I don’t think the wall painting in the cave was placed there by the original natives.


Hummingbirds, Parrots and Monkeys, Oh My!

The first animal we encountered were hummingbirds, feeding intensely on their honey-water and were most likely used to the murmuring of the people, although we couldn’t quite hear their humming. It was easy enough to get up close to them.

We were, of course, wanting to pet the parrots, but dared not! (Andra came close though.) One of the smaller parrots apparently got out, and seemed to enjoy my serenade to one of the others still in the cage. It crawled up the sides to my face as I whistled to it, and stared me in the eyes until - finally - it whistled the same sounds back.

Having been teased with parrots on our shoulders that we weren’t allowed to pet, we headed to the monkeys- who choose to jump on whomever they wished, whenever they wanted to.


Tabyana Beach

The excursion continued as we moved from Gumbalimba Park to Tabyana Beach- which appeared to be a private locale. We found a rather large group of cruise goers taking in the sun, chilling out and enjoying the BBQ lunch buffet. Keeping in line with the rest of the trip, there was a souvenir shop, as well as a building with changing rooms, lockers and bathrooms equipped with someone expecting a tip...just like everywhere else!


Shore to Ship

Personally, I think we could have spent less time at Tabyana Beach, but others enjoyed it. Back on the ship I met Andra and Linda at Champagne Charlie’s (again) for cocktails, before we headed off to the Garden Restaurant for dinner. The highlight of tonight’s meal? Two women at a nearby table announced their engagement!

Next :: Day 5


Day 5 In Cozumel

Voluntourism

Shannon had a great time in Cozumel:

"In Roatan, Sweeties repainted a children’s e-learning center and donated two new computers. It costs $150 per kid per year for access to the e-learning center. Our Sweeties rummaged through their pockets and donated enough to give four more kids access to the center."


Making Lemonade From The "Lemon".

It would have been great if we had an entire 12 hours in Cozumel as there’s probably the most do to at this port. The plan was to go to a park called X-Caret where Andra, Linda and I were to first walk under the water wearing one of those helmets with the air hose. Then we would go to another area where we would have a real shark encounter (with a tamed shark). Unfortunately that didn’t work out, but we decided to turn a lemon to lemonade...or rather "Sea Trek Becomes Sea Drek becomes C Shark!" Instead, we decided on an excursion while on the ferry back. Glass bottom boat and whoever wants to snorkel.

For dinner, we ate at a restaurant called Casa Denis, in "the square". Andra chose to snorkel, and made her way into the waters searching for the New York Sharks! Fins Up!


Day 6 at Sea

Voluntourism

We spent a lot of helping out the locals, as Shannon blogs

"In about 30 minutes, we pulled 1,500 pieces of plastic off the beach. Next, we planted 25 mangroves in a swamp devastated by Hurricane Hugo. Finally, we ended our day with a celebration with the local Rotary Club at Carlos Canseco Community Party, where we painted park benches and trees (to protect them from bugs) and planted more trees. The community made us lunch, too."


Press Conference

Now on our way back to New Orleans, we were fortunate enough to have a more calm day at sea. As a member of the media, I "got to" sit in on a press conference, most of which focused on voluntourism, with one expert predicting that 10 years from now - when everyone is doing it - lesbians will have been the forerunners.


Day 7, Departure

Final Evening

Our final night, we went to see "Elements," a Norwegian Cruise Lines show being performed at the Stardust Theatre. The tagline? "Mesmerizing magic, to the visual feast of flying, to exciting music and dance, this dazzling show will revel in the four elements of Earth, Air, Water and Fire".

Expecting a horribly tacky "cruise crew song and dance production," I was very pleasantly surprised when it turned out to be one that I hope no one missed. Sort of a Cirque du Soleil meets magic- hats off to the performers! Will the Farewell show be as spectacular?

Jennie McNulty opened the show and announcing that Andra was in the audience, which led her into some comedy regarding her playing football. (Andra got a big cheer for this.) Jennie was pretty funny. Then came the main act... Suzanne Westenhoefer. I have to say that anyone who made fun of the hurricane got a laugh. She said little and went into her own spiel. Most of it was humorous but the audience didn’t seem to care for the humor involving her sister who died as a child. She also joked about her goofs with audience members such as when she kept asking some woman to come up on the stage to find out that the women was in a wheelchair. Part of her routine also centered on what she called "bio man," I think. A guy who is born a male, likes being a male and straight. She compared it to her cat. Pretty cute.

Although there was PJ Party and Club Skirts Party to end the cruise and evening, I opted to pack and get some shuteye for an early morning wakeup.


Sweet Tears and Goodbyes

Question: How do you pass the time when your flight doesn’t leave until 4 p.m.?

I got up at 7:30 and met Andra and Linda for breakfast. They were leaving a lot earlier than I was; lucky them. I decided to take photos of people saying "goodbye," among new friends and old. It was heartwarming seeing the hugs.

Finally at the airport, I approached the AirTran counter only to notice that the name of the man behind the counter was Rodney Dykes. Now, that’s even funnier than Mr. Butch.

Apparently I wasn’t the only one leaving late; it looked like a lesbian convention at the airport. As for the cruise, it appeared to everyone that it was one Sweet success!

For more info :: www.discoversweet.com


Airline Info

I flew Air Tran due to the price, schedule and my past experience of traveling with them. Knowing that there were no public laundry facilities on the NCL Spirit, I packed two suitcases and a carry-on. Air Tran allows the two pieces if you travel on business class, which in the long run is worth the upgrade considering what you would pay for luggage ($40 for the two pieces) as well as both the comfort of the wider seats and freebies.

For more info :: www.airtran.com


Merle Exit is a both a journalist and radio personality from New York City. Her background in show business as a comedian/singer and love of travel is the basis of sharing her life. You can view her website of www.merleswhirls.com.


Comments

  • hotforolderf, 2012-11-27 10:39:36

    My name is Tiffany. I am going to be 22 in January. I am still in the closet. After reading about this wonderful cruise I would love going on one of these real soon. I am working now since graduating college so the time will have to be known a few months in advance so i can make plans. I want to come by myself if that is advisable. Reach me at my e-mail its ...... Tiff01011991@aol.com I hope this gets to the right woman. Thanks


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