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RSVP Mediterranean Cruise
Holland America ms Westerdam
by Mark Thompson & Robert Doyle
August 9-19, 2007   photo-album Bookmark and Share

We can thank the Greeks—for clearly the Mediterranean was the birthplace of gay life. Think about it: Odysseus meandering through the Mediterranean, taking eleven years to return to his wife, Penelope. Those Sirens on that island, singing Odysseus into surrender with their music, and Circe with her magic potions, and Calypso forcing Odysseus to become her lover—for seven years. And what about those Lotus-eaters? Living in a state of ecstasy?

So perhaps it was little wonder that the Holland America ms Westerdam was sold out for its recent RSVP Mediterranean Odyssey cruise. With a full passenger load of gay men and lesbians, porn stars and entertainers, deejays and dancers, and family and friends ranging in age from 21 to 90, the ms Westerdam retraced Odysseus’s journey home—albeit in ten sun-drenched (amidst other elixirs) days.

Imagine it—ten days on the Mediterranean with nearly 1900 dancing queens and wild lesbians, twenty percent of whom came from California, with another twenty percent from Texas, New York, and Florida. There was a group of forty who’d traveled en masse from Galveston, Texas (and environs), as well as trainloads of Europeans, and another 300 passengers who’d traveled on six or more RSVP cruises—which says a great deal about RSVP’s return business. As the Director of Operations for RSVP, Rob Pritchard, stated “What we’re aiming for here is a safe and inclusive environment—with friends who last a lifetime.” That spirit of inclusiveness commenced immediately, as Cruise Director Steven Guy proceeded to hug every single person who came aboard in Civitavecchia on the 9th of August. Now there’s a dream job.

And the ports of call were a name-dropper’s dream: Napoli, Capri, Sicily, Corfu, Dubrovnik—and all that was before Venice, Malta and the Amalfi Coast. Imagine the shopping—and the potential for fabulous costumes during those on-deck theme parties. We’re talking out and out over-the-top, no-holds-barred, excess to the max. Those girls were werking their looks!

Back in 1985, RSVP Vacations (with an emphasis on the word “vacation,”) originated the concept of the all-gay and lesbian vacation. In other words, this was a shipful of people who knew what they were doing—and how to do it right. Take, for example, the stable of entertainers who’ve become part of the RSVP family: cabaret artists, Amy and Freddy, who’ve been with RSVP since 1999, and Paul J. Williams, aka Sister Helen, the final arbiter of all things unacceptable and gay, and the gay comedian Ant, as well as deejays Robbie Leslie, Kimberly S., Randy Bettis, and DeLeon. More than a few of these entertainers and RSVP staff had just completed the six-day RSVP Danube River boat cruise and they were locked and loaded for fun—and conceivably more outrageous than usual.

As Pritchard remarked, RSVP works to create an environment whereby people can freely express themselves. Pritchard remembered an elevator ride on Halloween night during the RSVP Mexican Riviera cruise where he found himself surrounded by two twenty-something ravers, two silver daddies and two Hairspray-haired women, one wearing a shirt reading TRICK and the other wearing TREAT. It was Trick who said to him, “You know, this cruise means everything to us. We don’t even get to hold hands where we live.”

The world is changing, perhaps in some places more quickly than others, but no matter where one lives, urban or rural, there’s nothing quite like a boatload of family. As Pritchard acknowledged, the highlight of any cruise is “the connections” (by which one might infer any number of interpretations….) and RSVP’s emphasis on a nurturing environment insures that connections will be made. It’s one reason RSVP insists upon hiring artists who are approachable and friendly—and amenable to family and friends coming up to them during parties and meals. In other words, entertainers without attitude—apart from being as fierce as Ant, for example, or Kristine W., both of whom were often found partying with the boys long after midnight.

In fact, friendliness is paramount on an RSVP cruise. Everyone says hello and hey—and for the first couple of days, we kept thinking, “How does everyone know us?”—until we realized it wasn’t just us…. It was the kind of cruise where we overheard one Madrileno saying to the head chef, “Salad? You must have salad on a gay cruise. He eats salad and I eat him.” Of course, him was a well-known porn star, a fact that might’ve escaped the chef (who was himself quite amusante…)

And there’s much to be said for the familiar faces at the ports of call. One afternoon, we were seated at a cafÈ in Dubrovnik when suddenly there appeared the RSVP go-go boy posse (as buff as they were friendly) taking time for a photo op in front of the Cathedral, much to the amazement of the tourists.

Of course, on a cruise as long as this one, you keep running into your favorite cast of characters, some of whom you might re-christen—with monikers such as Stoker, and Folsom, and Silver Daddy and Pup—so that you can follow their antics from stateroom to stateroom. So many colorful characters, and such exotic ports of call, which, if nothing else, enable you to preface a story with an introductory remark such as “I heard this joke from Sister Helen who heard it from a drunk Dutchman on the island of Corfu…” Even a bad joke gets more mileage after an intro like that.

And speaking of Sister Helen (aka Paul J. Williams), she presided over Gay Bingo which was a show in itself, but all the more thrilling thanks to payoffs such as $821 and $1756. Just like that, your entire bar tab wiped clean with one Bingo win!

And meanwhile in the Queen’s Lounge, Tom Yaz, veejay extraordinaire set the tone for the nights with an incredible amalgam of videos, such as “I Just Wanna Fuckin’ Dance” alongside Christina’s “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” and Bette Davis singing her disco hit, “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane,” followed by Charo and Shirley Bassey and Madonna’s live concert version of “Disco Inferno,” the cumulative effect of which was to send the boys racing upstairs to dance beneath the stars.

There was, of course, the Leather Party (sponsored by the Barracks of Palm Springs) which got kick-started into high energy by a 19-minute show starring Kristine W. and her back-up dancers from Vegas—as well as a Gods and Goddesses of Mount Olympus affair which featured some of the more inspired god(desses) of the Pantheon (who knew there was the god of multiple phalluses?) And Jeffrey Sanker sponsored the Masquerade Party which coincided with our departure from Venice—and surely not a mask remained behind in that fabled city. There was a toga party as well, and also that all-time crowd favorite, Discotheque, whereby suddenly it was 1976 again as the Lido Deck became Studio 54. And also a Body Beautiful pageant, and a Best Costume pageant (which had Sister Helen asking one long-term couple, “How long?” “Thirteen?” she repeated. “No, no, I mean how long… Thirteen, you say? Lemme come over there right now. I’ll throw that thing over my shoulder and burp it.”)

So many parties, and so many “connections,” whereby the motion of the ocean—or rather, the Mediterranean—took on new meaning beneath a shipful of gay men and lesbians….

And then there were those mornings— Waking at seven a.m. to Capri shrouded in mist. The splendid isle sliding by as we stood on our balcony, awed into silence. (And then later, the passing of vomit bags as the boat to Capri rocked its way over the atypically turbulent Mediterranean….) As we overheard one fellow in the elevator saying, “You missed the boat to Capri? Too bad. A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.” That’ll teach you to stay out too late, dancing on deck—or below.

And the shore excursions: to Napoli, for a pizza run from the birthplace of pizza, and to the ruins of Pompeii, which, as Sister Helen so astutely noted, was basically little more than a Roman village of bordellos. Every second house a house of ill repute—and no wonder that particular shore excursion sold out. Because what’s a gay cruise without a sex nest—and this boat had one, and for those who need to know, without being too specific, let’s just say, “Don’t go into the light, Carol Anne. Go into the dark.”

Of course, this being a Holland America experience, there were the requisite towel animals on the bed nightly, everything from manta rays and octopi, to puppies and elephants. As well as Purell everywhere—inciting a sanitary revolution to insure no outbreaks of Nanovirus. Stewards stood at attention before every meal, ready to squirt your hands with Purell—and in so doing so did everyone remain healthy, and happy.

From port to port, we traveled, the clocks moving forward, then backward—until time became irrelevant. By the third day, the Lido Pool was like a high school cafeteria—everyone chaise-hopping, with lesbians licking in the water like golden retrievers. And some of the silver daddies began letting their own puppies out on a somewhat longer leash.... “Let the Games Begin” as one party’s invite suggested.

The book of the cruise was the final Harry Potter. Everyone was reading it—at the pool, atop the Crow’s Nest, at a cafÈ in Amalfi. Does he die—or does he live? And if that weren’t enough entertainment, there was Amy and Freddy in the Vista Lounge. Amy with pipes to rival Ethel Merman, and the interpretive skills of Bette Midler, singing her version of a Karen Carpenter song—so that in the span of five minutes, we were all back in school, lusting for the boy/girl next door.

And then there was Venice, where we were told by a guide that at one point in that city’s illustrious history, prostitutes comprised more than ten percent of the population. There were prostitutes of all station, from courtesans to streetwalkers, and when they were banished by the Doge, they chose to return on gondolas, up the Grand Canal, en masse and in full mask—which sounded, to us, oddly similar to the Invasion of the Pines….

So we sat at Florian’s in the Piazza San Marco—alongside a table of eight queens with a bottle of Veuve on ice—and we toasted to the royals, of all kind, who had come before us. And from there, it was on to the Biennale—at the Giardini—where gay couples roamed the grounds, as happy as the hos returning up the Grand Canal. Later, we took the less beaten path, into Cannaregio, to sit at Cantina, for ciccheti—and to watch the locals on their way home for the night. And after a night back on the Westerdam, there was a morning at Peggy Guggenheim’s—where we witnessed a clueless philistine unconsciously walk through the Vaseline from Matthew Barney’s Cremaster 2—which only goes to prove: there’s art everywhere in Venezia—even on the soles of your feet.

Oh, those ports of call... Islands in the Mediterranean, calling like Sirens. The afternoon we found ourselves in Sicily, during siesta, on the eve of San Gennaro, and the town of Messina so still, even the street vendors were absent, leaving their sugar-laced treats to soak up the afternoon sun. We passed a shuttered gelateria/pasticceria with a hand-written sign in the window: NUOVO—GRANITA NOCCIOLA. Hazelnut ice. Who could resist? The wooden door not quite closed, only just ajar, we pushed in, just to see. Near the back of the nearly darkened cafÈ two youths sat, intently focused on a chessboard between them. They motioned us in, with smiles—and soon both of them were busying themselves behind the counter, happy to serve us and asking us to sit and join them.

Such adorable Sicilian boys, as eager to please as puppies. They would have made perfect additions to the RSVP family which awaited us on the ms Westerdam. Next time we’ll kidnap them.

Because this was what it was like: ten whole days—or daze???—of solicitude and service, not only from the incredibly warm Holland American crew (comprised primarily of Indonesians who quite obviously know a great deal about hospitality….), but also the extremely charismatic, and omnipresent, RSVP crew—a fleet of sailors whose sole desire seemed to be their passengers’ relaxation and happiness.

It wasn’t easy to let it all go—except the final port of call was Roma—and there are worse places to say goodbye. All that last night, in the vicinity of the Piazza di Spagna, on those narrow cobblestoned streets, we kept running into family and friends—from the ms Westerdam, on the RSVP Mediterranean Odyssey cruise—so that Roma quickly became the latest gay village—and an extension of home. And in the end, how right that so many of us were spread out across the Eternal City, peppering the town with a love that knows no shame.

Purchased by PlanetOut in 2006 (which itself has been infused with a fresh burst of capital by Bill Gates (amongst others) to the tune of $26 million), RSVP Vacations has an itinerary for the rest of 2007 and on into 2008 which includes further gay vacation cruises with Holland America—such as a seven-day Alaskan cruise in September, and the Exotic Caribbean Cruise in February which happens to end, coincidentally, in Fort Lauderdale—just as Winter Party commences in South Beach. From one cruise to another, as it were…. And there are also a couple of RSVP all-gay sailing journeys on Star Clippers’ Royal Clipper and Star Flyer, with destinations such as Barbados, and—get this—Tahiti. Ten days In Tahiti—it sounds like a movie just waiting to happen.

As that one fellow said, “It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity.” And as for the RSVP Mediterranean Odyssey cruise: you wouldn’t want to miss the boat next time.

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