February is gay cruise month—Atlantis, RSVP, and a variety of travel agencies are hosting LGBT-themed trips all month, leaving out of Ft. Lauderdale and sailing the warm waters of the Caribbean. After all the ships return, over 10,000 people will have sailed on a gay cruise, all through the Port Everglades cruise terminal. The cruises are so popular that Atlantis has reserved the 5,000–plus capacity Allure of the Seas, one of the two largest cruise ships in the world, for January 2011 as well.
Why are gay Caribbean cruises so popular? Part of the allure is the weather—temperatures are in the mid-80’s, perfect for lounging on the Lido Deck—but the port locations also offer plenty of exciting options for when visitors disembark.
We here at GayCities came up with an insider’s guide to some the more popular ports. Even for travelers who aren’t taking a gay cruise, these islands are a great choice for a cruise stop of your own—or even to spend a few days. Bon voyage!
PORT: Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.
BEST CHOICE: See the cities!
Yes, yes, your cruise is exciting, you can’t wait to get to the ship. But don’t forget to spend a day or two exploring South Florida. Although the gay cruises are listed to leave from the city of Ft. Lauderdale, the actual port—Port Everglades—is in Hollywood, perfectly situated between Ft. Lauderdale and Miami. Staying around the port may be convenient, but there is virtually nothing fun to do.
In the Ft. Lauderdale area, go to Wilton Manors, the ‘hood that has several gay bars, and a multitude of cute shops. If you like bears and a somewhat sleepy lifestyle, Wilton Manors is the place for you.
Visiting Miami is a great option; from Port Everglades, it doesn’t take too long to reach the famed South Beach district. Take an Art Deco district tour, sip café con leche, and shove all your dollar bills into the underwear of a Latino stripper at Twist. South Beach is very, very touristy, and there isn’t as much of a gay “scene” in South Beach as there was during the mid-90’s heyday, but the area is now very integrated. Gay couples walk hand in-hand along Lincoln Road as they window shop, and the gay beach at 12th Street is still the best Speedo bulge-watching anywhere in Florida.
PORT: Nassau, The Bahamas
BEST CHOICE: Where are the free beaches?
Nassau, and The Bahamas in general, is not a gay-friendly location. In the past decade, local leaders have protested the arrivals of GLBT-themed cruises, causing some to change their itineraries and skip the port entirely. The Bahamian government apologized, but locals continue to openly heckle visitors who appear to be gay. This is worst in the touristy shops around the port, although those shops mainly sell t-shirts and “I Love The Bahamas” ashtrays and such, so people who choose to skip shopping there aren’t missing much.
The main draws to Nassau are the beaches, and the snorkeling/diving a few miles off shore. Of course beaches are everywhere—but they can be difficult to reach, thanks to the huge resorts with their walls blocking pedestrian access. If you want to lie in the sun, take a cab to the north side of the city—technically a separate island, called Paradise Island—and walk around the beaches near Riu Paradise Island Resort. This is next to the most famous attraction in Nassau, the Atlantis mega-resort, which boasts gorgeous pools, water slides, a casino and restaurants. Unfortunately, doing anything at Atlantis is shockingly expensive: a day pass to use the pools and water slides costs $110. Yes, that’s per person. Even looking at the aquarium in the lobby costs $39. (However, many visitors, including GayCities journalists, have been known to sneak into Atlantis’ pools via walking along the beach from the Riu, but you didn’t read that here.)
For visitors who are staying overnight—which is common for cruise ships docking in Nassau—there are gay bars that pop up around town, but they change frequently and are best found through local web searches.
PORT: St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands
BEST CHOICE: Drop your towel and drop your drawers
For cruise passengers visiting Charlotte Amalie, the main city in St. Thomas and the capital of the U.S. Virgin Islands, there are endless day-trip possibilities to go snorkeling or see the Coral World interactive ocean aquarium. But for gays who want to get away from the crowds, head to Little Magens Bay, the unofficial gay beach—where locals partake in the unofficial activity of sunbathing nude. This stretch of beach is small, and Little Magens can be quiet—perfect for relaxing on the white sand. To get to Little Magens: take Magens Bay Rd. to Magens Bay Beach, a crowded and touristy beach popular with families. There is a marked path to Little Magens; you can also just walk along the east side of the beach (to the right when facing the water), up to a collection of rocks. Walk past the rocks, and Little Magens is on the other side. (Note: bring drinking water: there are no stores.)
There isn’t a lot of gay nightlife in St. Thomas; San Juan, Puerto Rico has long reigned as the epicenter of gay nightlife in The Caribbean. However, in recent years the little island of St. Thomas has developed a thriving gay identity of its own, where people connect at local restaurants and coffee shops in a tolerant atmosphere protected by U.S. laws (the U.S. Virgin Islands are American territories, residents are American citizens and American laws apply).
PORT: St. Martin
BEST CHOICE: Get naughty in the caves
C’est magnifique! St. Martin—a French territory that takes up half of a small Caribbean island, the other half being a Dutch territory called St. Maarten—is a lovely little island with picturesque streets and fabulous beaches. For the outdoorsy-types, Scuba diving and snorkeling at St. Martin/St. Maarten is excellent.
The port at Marigot has the typical Caribbean “duty free shopping area,” with endless streets of jewelry, watches, liquor you can’t drink back on your cruise ship. There is more shopping on the Dutch side, in Philipsburg, along Front Street, with some major retailers. But back to the St. Martin side: French restaurants and cafes abound, and it’s often easier to find a croissant than it is to find native Caribbean food.
Thanks to the influence of its European colonizers, the island is famously gay-friendly. (However, this is still the Caribbean and away from liberal expat business owners, local attitudes about the GLBT community can be hostile, so use caution.) Day visitors may enjoy the gay beach at Cupecoy, a nude beach on the Dutch side of the island, which is also popular with hetero “naturists.” Recent condo development along Cupecoy has led to some nasty beach erosion, so the stretch of sand can be very small at high tide. Don’t want to lie out on the beach? Walk over to the nearby caves, where all sorts of naked shenanigans happen. When you’re through getting a workout in the caves, go to Danny’s beachside bar—basically a table—and get some chicken and rum punch. Danny is always there.
PORT: Cozumel, Mexico
BEST CHOICE: Dive into the ocean blue (and see sea turtles, too!)
The Mexican island of Cozumel is approximately 30 minutes by ferry from Playa del Carmen. The main city, San Miguel, is basically a collection of t-shirt shops, jewelry stores, and wildly overpriced restaurants. Seen it, done it, no big deal.
Away from the city, however, the island is lush and tropical with stunning beaches, and snorkeling/diving in the offshore marine parks (including Parque Marino Nacional Arrecifes de Cozumel and Parque Natural Chankanaab) is among the best in the Caribbean. Also, depending on the season, tours can visit sea turtle programs for up-close turtle encounters. Nothing is cuter than freshly-hatched baby turtles.
Although the area is socially liberal, and there is a gay bar in Playa del Carmen (as well as a few in Cancun), there isn’t much of a gay scene in Cozumel. For anyone who wants to get away from the tourist crowds wearing sombreros made out of twisty-balloons, stop by gay-friendly El Coffee on 3rd Street South, around the corner from the waterfront. Besides serving great coffee, lunch is low-priced and pretty tasty.
If you have enough time: A few hours south by boat/car, you can reach the ruins of Tulum, an ancient Mayan city with a series of small pyramids.
The ruins have remained marvelously preserved, and the beach beneath the cliff presents a stunning view. Even for people who have an aversion to historical sites, a visit to Tulum is engaging and easy to enjoy. (Before you go on a tour, find out how much time is spent at the ruins, and how much time they keep you at the souvenier shops. The tour guides get kickbacks for any merchandise their clients buy.)
PORT: Costa Maya, Mexico
Best Choice: Chill out
Costa Maya is a created-for-cruise-ships port. Visitors disembark their ships to hang out in the various restaurants, pools, and other tourist facilities that were built specifically for visitors staying for the day. (Translation: There is basically nothing Mexican going on, other than the margaritas sold at the bars.) For visitors who wish to venture out of the area, there are some ancient Mayan ruins nearby, including Chacchoben, which are somewhat more eroded than Tulum but are nonetheless historically important.
Costa Maya is similar to “private islands” like Great Stirrup Cay, Coco Cay, etc., which are owned by the cruise ship companies and are just sandbars in the ocean. With these small cays (pronounced “keys”), you get beach, some palm trees, perhaps a hut serving lunch—and lots and lots of water all around. Snorkeling is usually at a novice level, but it’s also free except for equipment rental, so that can’t be beat. For optimists, these private cays are relaxing and beautiful; for critics, well…these are great days to stay on the ship and visit the spa.
PORT: Roatan, Honduras
BEST CHOICE: Swing out, sister
On the island of Roata, the beaches are alright; diving along the reefs is alright. There is a little town on the island, West End, with beachside bars and restaurants owned by expat stoners, although its main street is just a dirt road. Some visitors love the “rustic” feel—there is no tourist-friendly infrastructore, nor are there any major hotels built (yet)—but others say the island isn’t charming–it’s just poor.
So what’s the big deal about Roatan? Zip lines. Roatan is basically a pile of mountains sticking out of the ocean, and zip lines cascade down the slopes through the trees, offering thrill-seekers gorgeous views of the landscapes and ocean beyond.
Whatever you choose to do while you are there, arrange it before you leave the ship. The port at Roatan is a chaotic mess, with locals swarming around the exit and screaming at tourists as they try to sell illegal taxi rides, broken-down scooters…and sometimes themselves! Fun fact: In Honduras, prostitution is legal. Most of Roatan’s prostitutes are women, or at least they are dressed like women, and they either hang out in certain bars or walk the streets. A few men (good-looking, swarthy Latin men) hang out around the port, looking for clients from the ships. You’ll recognize these Latin lotharios by the way they nonchalantly rub their own chests and, ahem, crotch areas. Needless to say, partake in their services at your own risk. If something goes awry, the cruise ship will not wait for you—and you may not get a lot of help from the U.S. Embassy.
Photos courtesy Atlantis