In 1996 Jeanne LaFrantz, then a manager at a home health agency, decided to treat herself to a vacation cruise. But soon after setting off on their seafaring escape, she and her girlfriend discovered one thing from back home they hadn't escaped: homophobia. "They sat us at a table by ourselves, and we were just kind of shunned by the other people on the cruise," LaFrantz recalls. "And most of the time I just felt a little out of place."
Then she found Olivia Cruises & Resorts, a lesbian-exclusive vacation company. "There is no comparison [between Olivia and the other company]," enthuses LaFrantz, who has since been on 10 Olivia vacations. "Just being able to be free and out and not worry if someone was looking at me--it was such a relaxed atmosphere. My whole circle of friends started with Olivia." Not just friends. In 1999, on her sixth Olivia outing, LaFrantz met her current partner, Rhonda Lashbrook.
LaFrantz and Lashbrook aren't the only ecstatic queer vacationers out there. In recent years travel companies focusing on gay-specific travel packages have proliferated. In addition to Olivia, two gay-male--focused companies, RSVP Vacations and Atlantis Events, have perhaps the highest media profile, while vacations including everything from white-water rafting to intimate five-star comfort journeys are also being offered by Above and Beyond, Toto Tours, Coda Tours, Alyson Adventures, Gayjet, Q7C, Venture Out, Pride International, DavidTours [see page 39], and other companies.
"Our repeat rate is unbelievable," notes Rich Campbell, president and founder of Atlantis Events, whose Web site even hosts a busy alumni section. "That's what we do: create communities, no matter how artificial [the setting]--a cruise ship, resort, or safari."
RSVP lays claim to being the oldest gay tour operator. Having been harassed by locals while vacationing with his boyfriend, fed-up RSVP founder Kevin Mossier looked into booking resorts and cruise ships exclusively for groups of gay men. Since its first cruise in 1986, RSVP has organized cruises and resort vacations in the Mexican Riviera, South America, Thailand, Alaska, and Europe, hosting between 200 and 2,000 travelers each. Entertainment is a high priority, says RSVP director of marketing Paul Figlmiller, with past celebrity guests including Armistead Maupin, Harvey Fierstein, and Nell Carter having come aboard.
There are also discos and parties, although Figlmiller cautions that recreational drugs are discouraged--it is not, he says, a floating circuit party: "People shouldn't fear that when they go on an RSVP cruise it's going to be like they're locked in a gay bar for a week." First-timers often don't know what to expect, he says, adding, "Younger people tend to think it's going to be all older people, and vice versa. People who aren't in shape are afraid it's going to be all people who have beautiful bodies, and vice versa. …