Written by: Matthew Wexler via Edge Media Network
Originally Published: August 28, 2019 - Click here to view the original article
Featured image credit: Gabriel Goldberg/VACAYA
I'm sitting in the Rendezvous Lounge onboard VACAYA's inaugural cruise, listening to the hilarious Susie Mosher improvise her way through stories and songs, punctuated every so often with a shrill "I'm GAY!" just to remind the 2,000 or so passengers that they're sailing on a rainbow-hued expedition.
I shut my eyes for a moment, feeling the ship's gentle sway and sipping my third Campari and soda. Mosher transforms into my mother's equally piercing voice. The year is 1985 and clear as the blue sky outside the porthole, I can see her standing gape-mouthed at the tube TV in our shag-carpeted family room. "Has the whole world gone gay?" she asks, watching Boy George come out (technically as bisexual) to Barbara Walters.
"I'm changing..." sings Mosher's guest, Broadway and television star Alex Newell, snapping me back into the moment as the transformative voice tackles the Act II power ballad from "Dreamgirls." I, too, am changing during this seven-day journey up and down the Atlantic coast. It's all part of the VACAYA brand as the newly launched LGBTQ tour operator finds its niche.
Kristin Chenoweth( Source: Gabriel Goldberg/VACAYA)
VACAYA aimed high with its inaugural cruise, chartering the newly renovated Celebrity Summit for an itinerary to St. John, Canada, followed by stops in Bar Harbor, Maine, and an overnight in Provincetown. Its co-founders have decades of experience with competing brands like Atlantis Events and RSVP Vacations, which have primarily targeted gay men.
VACAYA hopes to capture a broader demographic, which includes lesbian, transgender, gender non-conforming and anyone else who falls into the vast spectrum beyond heterosexuality, though high profile allies like Kristin Chenoweth and Katharine McPhee remind me that we're only as strong as the inclusive community we build.
The first afternoon is scheduled with meet-ups where guests can connect with their tribes of choice (Asexual - head to Mast Bar! Poly Guests - gather at the Cellar Masters!). Sometimes I feel that being everyday gay is no longer de rigueur, and I've packed a caftan and pair of sensible gender-fluid Steve Madden strappy sandals if I feel inspired to bloom. I'm more interested in positioning myself for Chenoweth's symbolic christening, where she's dubbed "Queen of the High C's" and belts out "For Good" from "Wicked" with McPhee. There's not a musical theater geek subset, but I'm sure that it'd be packed if it was on the meet-up agenda.
I join a reception on the helipad, where Founder's Club and other VIP guests mingle, and it's here that I see McPhee and new husband, Grammy Award-winning David Foster, joyously taking in the sunset with the crowd. McPhee reveals during her solo show later in the week how grateful she is for the warmth the couple has received, reminding me that the desire for acceptance transcends sexual orientation.
The following day is at sea, and in between grazing at the Oceanview Café, I struggle to unplug from my life on land. The pools overflow with revelers of all shapes, ages and sizes. Lady Bunny deejays the POP! V-Dance and it's clear this crowd is in for the long haul, thumping and swaying as the iconic drag star spins her favorite tunes.
By morning we've docked in misty Saint John, New Brunswick. I've arranged a drive around town with SeeSight Tours, which offers small group itineraries that are a nice change of pace after shuffling around with several thousand passengers and crew. The sleepy harbor town sits at the intersection of the Bay of Fundy and the Saint John River.
After brief stops at Carleton Martello Tower and the SKYWALK observation deck, where if you arrive at the right hour you can see the Reversing Falls (hint: Niagara it is not), we stroll through the town square to Saint John City Market. The historic gathering place for grocery shopping, prepared foods and local goods has been in operation since 1876. (Previous incarnations burned down 1837 and 1841.) While it doesn't have the wow factor you might find at Montréal's various markets, there are still charming vendors to be found, along with the local delicacy, dulse, a dried seaweed reminiscent of a briny, vegetal jerky.
I stop for a local brew at Big tide Brewing Company, which celebrates its tenth anniversary this summer. The rotating roster of drafts showcases the handiwork of brewers Wendy Papadopoulos, Thomas Frauley, and Chris Welch. I enjoy a pint of Fogbound Hemp Pale Ale and meander back to the ship.
VACAYA has stacked the entertainment roster to capacity and this evening is no different. Emmy winner Leslie Jordan ("Will & Grace") shares his life story through a comedic lens in his one-man show "Exposed," but I'm most excited to discover comedian-belter Tori Scott draw a crowd in the Rendezvous Lounge. Throughout the week she'll play three concerts, weaving stories of Sunday bar-hopping with her gay entourage and other observations that have the audience belly-laughing, interspersed with a song list that ranges from Lady Gaga to Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin's "The Man That Got Away."
I'm traveling alone, which gives me plenty of time to stew in my singledom. There are plenty of opportunities to chat up fellow travelers at the Martini Lounge or dunk in the overflowing hot tubs, which remind me of a mostly gay version of a New England lobster boil. Small talk has always been an effort, and no amount of Mai Tai's can remedy what many have perceived over the years as my melancholy nature. I remind myself that I don't need to be anything other than who I am, so the following day I slather on a layer of SPF-50 and head into our next port of call, Bar Harbor, Maine.
Instead of a day at Acadia National Park, I opt for a casual stroll around Bar Harbor's various shops, restaurants and galleries. Artist Russell D'Alessio celebrates 50 years of creating paintings, drawings and mixed media. His downtown gallery is currently exhibiting a retrospective of his works, including his latter affection for Klimt-inspired gold leaf.
"In the course of every day, I try and move on my own path of discovery," says D'Alessio. It's a simple yet profound idea, one that I take to heart as I wander in and out of various retailers, settling in at Testa's for Maine Street lobster tacos with blueberry-pineapple salsa and charred lime aioli, followed by a leisurely walk along the Shore Path.
Back on board, I hit a mid-week dip, over-stimulated by the themed parties and endless amount of food and booze. If there's any place to challenge your FOMO, it's on a cruise where a daily planner offers a bevy of activities scheduled by the half-hour, often with can't-miss happenings simultaneously scheduled. Instead, I place the Deep Sleep sign on my stateroom door, turn off the phone, and curl up with my summer read,"Red, White & Royal Blue," a frolickingly fun gay read about a budding relationship between the First Son of the United States and the Prince of Wales.
The following morning I draw the curtains and see Provincetown's pier in the distance. We'll be docked here overnight to revel in pre-Carnival celebrations. Pilgrims first landed at Provincetown Harbor in 1620 before venturing on to Plymouth Rock. For the next several centuries it became known as a prosperous fishing hub until 1898's Portland Gale destroyed much of the industry. Artists revitalized the peninsula; among them were colorful members of the LGBTQ community, which has since seized the town for themed weeks ranging from Bear Week and Girl Splash to an annual White Party and Tennessee Williams Festival.
I kick off the day with an homage to Ptown's heritage by gobbling down a fresh lobster roll from The Lobster Pot before joining the ranks of meandering visitors along Commercial Street. There's plenty of kitsch to discover, along with an array of galleries and high-end home good stores.
By late afternoon, nearly every gay on the east coast has descended on The Boatslip's daily tea dance, where DJ Maryalice spins tunes and the crowd shows no signs of slowing down. VACAYA's on-ship, themed dance parties have featured DJs Steve Cunningham, Whitney Day, Corey Craig and others — cumulatively, it feels as if I've danced more this week than my entire 20s.
After checking The Boatslip off of my Ptown bucket list, I catch a show at one of Ptown's newest entertainment venues, Lea DeLaria's The Club. The "Orange Is the New Black" star partnered with longtime friend Frank Christopher to reboot the former Pied Bar into a fuchsia-hued hot-spot with a roster of talent ranging from DeLaria ($50) to Qya Cristál, The Bart Weisman Trio (free), and Natalie Joy Johnson & Brian Nash ($30).
DeLaria hopes to crack the mold of typical Ptown programming, which includes nearly every drag artist working the eastern seaboard and a stream of theater talent courtesy of producer Mark Cortale and Seth Rudetsky's Broadway @ concert series at The Art House. Sticking to her jazz roots (DeLaria's father was a jazz pianist), her set this particular night includes "Welcome to My Party," "Miss Otis Regrets," David Bowie's "Let's Dance," and an innovative arrangement of Sondheim's "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd" that lifts the song from 19th century London to New York City's jazz clubs. The menu also holds up, with a focus on raw bar items, fresh salads and other shareables like charcuterie and a black truffle veggie platter. Be sure to allow time to enjoy the outdoor deck before or after the show.
The following day I stroll into more galleries and discover photography prints by Roy Barloga at Steven Katz's Memories Gallery. Katz is old school —no website or email — but you can find a terrific collection of curated pieces at 169 Commercial Street. I head for a late lunch at The Canteen, where I sip fróse, nibble at a shrimp banh mi, and bask in my solitude among the bustle of tourists.
Lady Bunny (Source:Gabriel Goldberg/VACAYA)
Back on board, the pool deck buzzes as guests return to the ship. I'm amazed at the endurance of those able to incessantly socialize for days on end. This type of cruise attracts extroverts ready to revel with their travel companions and meet new people. Many of the guests I've spoken to throughout the week are frequent cruisers who have made lifelong friends from their years at sea.
I find the most joy as an observer, whether it's standing on the upper deck watching the dance party below or strategically positioned fifth row center for Alex Newell's mainstage performance. The former "Glee" star recently made his Broadway debut in "Once On This Island" and soon heads to Vancouver to start filming "Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist," slated to air on NBC in 2020.
Newell's extraordinary range tackles a song list ranging from "As If We Never Said Goodbye" from "Sunset Boulevard" to Judy Garland and Barbra's Streisand's famous "Happy Days Are Here Again/Get Happy" duet, sung with Tori Scott. Sporting a double-sequined gown, turban, and precariously high heels, Newell delivers a tour de force performance.
Newell's gender fluidity flummoxes some. (His website biography uses male pronouns though he sports a particularly sassy cruise wear collection throughout the week.) At one point the cruise director refers to him as transgender (perhaps confusing him with the character he played on "Glee"), then at another appearance when the host uses the pronoun "he," a guest bellows "SHE!" from the back of the room. When asked to set the record straight (no pun intended) he cracks a joke and simply says he likes to get paid.
The exchanges remind me that as much as the queer community wants inclusion and acceptance, we often assign L-G-B-T-Q-I-A-P-K labels to help us understand where somebody fits into our world. The freedom with which Newell — or any of the 2,000 guests on VACAYA's inaugural cruise — chooses to present strikes at the epicenter of VACAYA's ethos.
There's irony in VACAYA's name, which draws inspiration from Polari, a secret gay slang used in mid-20th-century England. The company's founders hope that travelers will embrace the freedom to be whoever they want to be — even those who occasionally prefer a good book over a pulsating, alphabetically diverse dance floor.