The cruise holiday that’s too exciting to leave – even for Caribbean beaches

Within hours of boarding the Celebrity Apex along with 3,000 other LGBTQI passengers, it became clear this was a cruise with a difference.

Nineties-era Madonna played as I shimmied with 6ft, sequin-clad septuagenarian drag queen Miss America to the left, and five gentlemen wearing skintight sports kit to my right.

It was the first of many fancy-dress themed parties – there was one nightly, and sometimes two a day. And this party invited passengers to wear something that would tell others where we’re from.

Other parties on the seven-day cruise ranged from the standard fun fancy dress themes – cowboys, pirates, “wear red” – to the more poignant.

Prom night was designed to give these queer guests an opportunity they may’ve been denied at school: an authentic prom date. It was a night that saw the some gay men drag up in ballgowns, while others were decked out in risqué, leather S&M twists on formal wear.

From the get-go, such events on this Caribbean cruise, chartered by LGBTQI owned and run company VACAYA, are designed to encourage conversation and connection outside of your existing social circle.

It doesn’t feel forced because all the guests, mostly gregarious Americans, get behind it. There was a nightly solo and single travellers’ dinner; I joined on night two and broke bread with people I may never have otherwise spoken to out in the gay bars of my home city. We found much common ground despite our 30-odd year age difference.

Gay cruise holidays are a growing trend. While only two per cent of the general population has taken a cruise, 16 per cent of LGBT+ travellers report having taken one, according to US website TravelPulse. It is a burgeoning sector. The Cruise powered by La Demence is among VACAYA’S competitors and new players are coming to the market, such Big Gay Cruise. Olivia has been offering cruises for lesbian and bi women for 35 years.

The group on the pool deck of the Celebrity Apex (Photo: VACAYA/Gabriel Goldberg @HollywoodBruisers)

VACAYA means “vacation” in Polari, a slang language, which incorporates Italianate words, rhyming slang and Romani. It was used in places such as theatres, pubs and markets by some gay men, in the 20th century.

While some guests were old enough to still speak Polari – the oldest on board I chatted to was 94 – VACAYA is now targeting a younger market. That’s reflected in some of its on-board entertainment programming, including 25-year-old pop singer Daya, who performed alongside the first African American Miss America, and Vanessa Williams, who performed her 1992 hit Save the Best Till Last.

The packed show schedule fit around the parties. British drag sensation La Voix thrilled with her ribald humour, impersonations, and incredible live singing voice. Alan Cumming also brought a unique new show on board; an unlikely pairing with journalist, Ari Shapiro. They sang, danced and offered some rehearsed, but amusing, repartee with Cumming doing what Cumming always does best: A-list celebrity storytelling.

Performances included drag artists, Alan Cumming, Daya and Vanessa Williams (Photo: VACAYA/Gabriel Goldberg @HollywoodBruisers)

This cruise had fewer active on-board daytime activities than I had experienced during an itinerary with one of VACAYA’S main LGBTQI cruise company rivals, Atlantis, in 2022. That voyage took place on Royal Caribbean’s Odyssey of the Seas ship, which had a climbing wall, surf machine, skydive simulator and bumper car track.

Both cruises offered a volleyball competition, but VACAYA’s daytime offering was, in general, more experiential. On day four, I attended a meditation session run by a medium. It resulted in an elderly male audience member weeping into her bosom as she “channelled” encouraging voices from the other side. He seemed to find it cathartic.

Another day, there was a book club with Shapiro. It made up for the fact that I couldn’t nab a sunbed. There were also daily AA meetings for those who no longer partake.

VACAYA prides itself on being fully inclusive towards every letter of the LGBTQI rainbow alphabet.

Gary Nunn on VACAYA cruise Gary Nunn Photographer: Gabriel Goldberg Photo Credit: VACAYA/Gabriel Goldberg @HollywoodBruisers
Gary Nunn on the VACAYA cruise (Photo:
VACAYA/Gabriel Goldberg @HollywoodBruisers)

I found though, that most its passengers are cis (a person whose gender identity corresponds with the sex they were assigned at birth) gay men. Although there were lesbian couples and some “allies” – straight people who feel comfortable in queer company – on board. And the gay men were less stereotypical “gay gym bunny party boy” – a term for muscly and ripped gay men who like to party hard – than I had found on the Atlantis offering.

There’s a wider diversity of ages and body shapes on VACAYA, but it skews slightly older and attracts more people from the “bear” community: larger, hairier gay men. I saw at least five different puns on the word “daddy” emblazoned on t-shirts. VACAYANS, it seems, own their alternative identity as a point of difference.

That’s when they were wearing clothes; there’s a nude sunbathing deck, there were “nearly nude” and fetish party themed nights, and some male passengers opted for derrière-revealing thongs as swimwear. After hours, there was a “play zone” on the top deck for those feeling frisky.

Miss Jennifer was one of the on-board allies. She was attracted by the lack of children on board and the abundance of creative outfits.

“My gay friends split up as boyfriends after jointly booking the cruise and I lucked out taking one of their places,” she told me.

“Seven days surrounded by gay men and dress ups? I wasn’t gonna say no to that. My prom gown is ready. It’s crimson.”

Another couple in their forties, Mark and Jason, interrogated me in the hot tub before I turn the questions on them.

“Mark’s mum died last year,” said Jason, as Mark quietly started to cry.

“That made us book. We’re plus-sized guys, and we’ve been putting this off for too long. I can’t believe we did. I’ve never felt so comfortable; I can be myself and not ashamed of myself or my body.”

The port stops were relaxed but some chose not to get off the boat (Photo: VACAYA/Gabriel Goldberg @HollywoodBruisers)

The stop offs on a Caribbean cruise like this one – Puerto Rico, Saint Croix, Antigua – are a predictably more chilled affair than some of the more eventful stops on a Mediterranean cruise. It says something that more than one passenger I spoke to choose to stay on board for two or more of the stops.

When a safe space on board is created for those who feel ostracised, not just because of their sexual orientation, but because of body pressures within their own community, it’s evidently hard to drag them away – even when the Caribbean’s golden sands are beckoning.

“Out there is an average beach and a few men selling average bracelets,” Miss Jennifer told me after a very brief foray out into Saint Croix.

“That’s why I came straight back on here. The atmosphere around the pool is more fun – and the jewellery is more camp.”

Booking it

VACAYA’s 2025 Caribbean Cruise on the Brilliance of the Seas starts from $1,147pp based on two people sharing an interior room. The seven-night, round-trip cruise from New Orleans departs 22 February, 2025, myvacaya.com.

Gary Nunn travelled as a guest of VACAYA.