Online Extra: New travel company markets to entire LGBTQ+ community, including kink
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As I crossed the gangway to board the Celebrity Cruises' Summit for VACAYA's maiden voyage this summer, the Scissor Sisters serenading over the speakers reassured me that "a kiki is a party for calming all your nerves." I took it as welcome foreshadowing that the first large-scale LGBTQ+ travel company to launch in decades had taken the initiative to musically score my journey from the moment I boarded. Yes, h-h-honey, they were serving and working and turning out VACAYA's inaugural kiki.
I instantly became giddy with anticipation. This was my first gay cruise. Somehow, I'd made it this long — a seasoned gay man in his 40s — without ever specifically sailing with my community.
What was different now? VACAYA is setting out to change the existing model of queer travel. From its inception, it set the lofty goal of serving the entire LGBTQIAPK community. On its website it clearly explains and creates an alphabet soup utopia that welcomes (in its words): "Lesbian, Gay, Transgender/Transsexual, Questioning/Queer, Intersex, Asexual/Ally, Pansexual/Polyamorous and Kink."
As VACAYA co-founder Patrick Gunn said, "If you believe love is love, you belong on our vacations." And we did. Though the largest percentage of guests was by far men, they were men of all ages, shapes and sizes — another coup for inclusivity. And from my conversations with the topless ladies splashing in the pool and my new friends from East Lansing, Michigan, Jennifer and Johanna, who I met at the ship's ice cream parlor, all shared in the joyous excitement. (Guests interviewed for this article preferred to use only their first names.)
On the first day, VACAYA organized meetups for every flavor and proclivity of our inclusive spectrum. From pansexual to trans to straight ally guests, everyone had the opportunity to meet their like-minded neighbors for the next seven days. However, to make friends all one had to do was step out of the stateroom. In my many years attending gay events, I can't remember being surrounded by a more engaging, welcoming crowd.
And, truly, it was a run-your-own-race kind of experience. I had a friend who spent most of his days on his balcony, ordering room service and reading; another who scoped out the pool chair nearest the buffet every morning for fear he would "miss a new yummy dish;" and then there was the shy one who reluctantly wore a harness to the Black Party leather-themed dance for the first time in his life. Two days later we had to practically pry it off his body to avoid unfortunate tan lines. With a newfound strut in his step, I think it's safe to say he took to it quite well. Is a "Dom Tan" the gay cruise version of a "Farmer's Tan?"
To coincide with the aforementioned Black Party they designated the ship's basketball court as a puppy pen (not the ASPCA type). Every other night the basketball court, located in a secluded part of the ship, was renamed the Red Light District and welcomed exhibitionists to double dribble all day and night in VACAYA's sexual play area (condoms, lube, and towels were freely provided). During days at sea, they even had a clothing-optional sundeck for those averse to tan lines or confining swimsuits.
"I love that VACAYA thought about so many different types of people in our community and featured areas for everyone to be comfortable, get to know each other and relax. I've never felt so comfortable on a cruise before," said Dan from Connecticut, as he disrobed and meticulously folded his boardshorts and polo shirt by his lounge chair. "Having a safe place to be naked on the ship is amazing. And I especially enjoy that it isn't a small area hidden away. I'd never had this experience on a cruise before. The entire area is fun, lively, and totally judgment-free. It's pretty great!"
The company's CEO explained how the all-LGBTQ+ inclusive travel company came to so openly embrace a community, operating outside traditional lines.
"From leather and fetish-wear to puppy play and everything in between, we've tried to create a sex-positive space for those who enjoy the darker arts. Like group play? There's nothing wrong with that," VACAYA founder and CEO Randle Roper said. "Enjoy fisting? There's no shame in that. We create an environment where people can openly embrace each and every side of their desires and personalities without judgment."
Though the company is still in the planning stages of expanding its programming, its sex-positive commitment extends beyond a refurbished cruise ship basketball court.
"It's our goal to one day offer a sexually-focused cruise — one where people can explore their deepest desires in a completely open and safe way," said Roper. "We're working with other kink-focused community members — both gay and straight — to build off their successes and offer our guests something entirely new. It's our passion to play a big part in ending sexual repression. With the exception of our asexual community members, sex is a commonality for all us — no matter your age, race or predilections. There shouldn't be any shame in enjoying what you enjoy."
More trips planned
Next, VACAYA is shifting its focus from the open seas to a liberated land, when it hosts a full resort takeover at the UNICO 20°87° Hotel in Riviera Maya, Mexico, from October 27 to November 2. Celebrating both American-loved Halloween and Mexican-revered Day of the Dead, VACAYA is bringing its come-as-you-are attitude to the all-adult, five-star resort.
"And you should know this isn't your typical all-inclusive," Gunn said. "From the moment you enter UNICO, you'll be blown away. There is a special feeling when you enter that lobby.
"The way they take the traditional, cultural elements of the region but modernize them is like no other," he added. "Then layer on top-shelf locally inspired cocktails, five stand-alone gourmet restaurants, and the pampering of all-inclusive luxury accommodations ... for us, UNICO has the level of luxury and inclusivity we wanted to offer our community."
Each of the guestrooms at the resort extends into its environment in a unique way: all ground-floor rooms come with a semi-private swim-up pool, while all other rooms open to a private terrace with its own outdoor spa tub.
UNICO 20°87° Hotel is about an hour's drive from the Cancun airport and easily reachable with direct flights from San Francisco and a myriad of connection possibilities from all over the world.
Guests at UNICO can expect special parties by the pools and theme dances deep into the night, along with specially curated entertainment, unique excursions and the "best LGBTQ party Riviera Maya has ever seen," according to Gunn.
In promoting the inviting atmosphere, VACAYA at UNICO will feature a secluded clothing-optional pool the entire week, an opening party named "Slap!" that reimagines different colored "slap bracelets" as a 21st century hanky code, and a "Lights Out Leather" party for those guests who enjoy the lure of leather. Additional events include various V-dances (VACAYA's version of an old-fashioned T-dance), evening parties and, of course, elaborate celebrations of both Halloween and Day of the Dead. So, start picking out your costumes and re-watching the Coco movie as your official Dia de los Muertos refresher course.
"I feel that VACAYA is hitting it out of the park," said Martin from Arizona, who has been on 15 previous gay cruises and resorts and traveled on the inaugural cruise. He has also already booked the UNICO resort takeover. "VACAYA's customer-centric mindset is so refreshing. We had the party themes 90 days in advance and the schedule 30 days in advance. That is almost unheard of these days from their competitors."
Apparently, the party themes notification was a big plus for this cruising crowd. "What was most noticeable was VACAYA changing things that everyone complains about with the other cruises. The party themes were given in advance, they played music with words, had a proper leather party and the Red Light District," said Terry, a handsome ginger from Chicago. "The other cruises always end up having a dick deck but the ship tries to police it and stop it."
VACAYA is rounding off its first year with two cruises in its "Luxe Experiences" category. First, it is exploring European waterways with a two-week river cruise in December, visiting the Christmas markets from Amsterdam to Budapest. Guests can choose to travel the first week, the second, or have the entire 14-day experience. Finally, VACAYA summers above the Arctic Circle with a seven-day cruise circumnavigating Iceland in August 2020. (Prices vary, of course. For the European cruise, rates range from $1,649 per person to $3,849 per person, according to the website.)
Regardless of your chosen journey, the company's goal of inclusion is front and center. According to its mission, the number one aspect that sets it apart is its welcoming attitude: "Traveling with VACAYA is all about being completely comfortable in your own skin, no matter where you fall on the LGBTQ+ spectrum. Whether you're single, coupled, black, white, skinny, thick, or even straight, you'll easily find a welcoming tribe."
And if its inaugural cruise was any indication, you can add kinky to that list.
Ivan Quintanilla is a freelance travel writer whose work has been published in the Washington Post, New York Times, New Now Next, EDGE Media, and Out Traveler, among others.