How Rosie O’Donnell’s cruise changed this girl’s life.
For the first hour of our 2007 cruise video, it’s Heather and me on the balcony of the suite she’s sharing with her girlfriend Haviland Stillwell (my best friend) on the Norwegian Dawn. We’re bubbling with vodka tonics and sticky happiness, and the boat’s just started sailing from New York to Key West.
The sunset’s reflected off the surface of sliding glass doors, and I get up, lean over the railing, turn to Heather and say, “You know, I’m not into like, sentiment or scenery, but this, right here, is more or less perfect.” And there it is again: the waves rise and lilt, everything is beautiful, everyone is gay, we’re all on this boat, cruisin’ together, more or less perfect.
My first R Family cruise was to Alaska (Juneau, Skagway and Ketchikan) and Victoria, British Columbia in 2006. Haviland, who knows Rosie O’Donnell from Fiddler on the Roof, is performing in the Rosie’s Broadway Belters show and she invites me as her plus-one.
So I fly to Seattle from New York City, meet up with Hav at the airport, and we bus to the docks. Along with a platoon of gay families radiating contagious enthusiasm, we board, and in the seven days between that moment and our return to the world, I am transformed.
“I wish we were on the boat right now,” Haviland is liable to moan on any of the 358 days of the year she’s not on it. After the boat, there is only “boat” and “not-boat.”
The first night in Alaska, the khaki- and pinstripe-clad R Family team starts off in the Stardust Theater with a clever opening number, “Big Gay Cruise Ship,” peppered with gay in-jokes and ending in a crescendo of “What’s better than being on a cruise ship where almost everyone is gay?” That “almost” is key. Kelli O’Donnell, who co-owns R Family Vacations with Gregg Kaminsky, says: “We’re all-inclusive; the only gay and lesbian travel company that invites gays, lesbians and their straight friends and family on board our trips. We embrace everybody.”
Rosie easily charms the crowd. These are her people; we’re on her side. We’re on Susan Powter’s side, too, and that’s why in a few days we’re in our sweatpants at 8 a.m., upside down, pressing our toes into sticky purple mats with the intent to erase the patriarchy. Susan’s got big white-and-pink dreadlocks, a million tattoos and the most contagious narcissism I’ve ever encountered. We love her. Susan teaches daily yoga and gives motivational speeches.
Norwegian’s cruises are “freestyle,” which means you’re free to eat and entertain as you please.The food is fine-to-decent and something’s always open. The Freestyle Daily newsletter, delivered nightly along with gift bags from assorted gay-friendly donors, details the next day’s activities: themed dinners, parties, cooking lessons with Martha Stewart’s chef, adoption seminars, auctions, football camp with Esera Tuaolo, presentations, films and shore excursions when the boat is docked.
“If you don’t have children, our trips are just as applicable to you. We have specialty dining, adult-geared entertainment, disco, casino, piano bars with Broadway star talent and plenty of daytime programming,” Kelli points out. “We’ve got singles mixers and dinners on board for those looking to meet other singles.”
Alaska is beautiful and chilly—the snow-capped mountains, glaciers—all of it. Excursions like dog sledding or glacier watching are available for between $50 and $1,000. Haviland and I usually just grab snacks and reboard—with the children gone, we’ve got the entire silent sun to ourselves, all of it. These are some of our favorite moments.
In Ketchikan, Kathy Griffin and her assistant Jessica spot Haviland and me in the piano bar: “Are you a gay?” Kathy asks. “We need some gays to guide us off this boat; we’re lost. We need someone who knows the territory.” The boat feels like an artists’ colony, but earnest and cleaner. It’s so lovely that I soar past nauseated to genuine ecstasy. Performers include Cyndi Lauper, Kathy Griffin, Audra McDonald, Elvira Kurt, Jill Sobule and tremendous Broadway talent. The Broadway Belters show, including scenes from Wicked, Evita and Les Misérables, often features a role’s original performer, and I actually cry when Haviland sings, even though she’s dressed like a cupcake.
On the second to last night, we’re dining in La Trattoria with a group that includes two straight couples and their children. Esera smiles at me and Haviland, mimes taking our photograph and mouthes “Beautiful.” We’re so high on life that we’re not sure if it’s just us or if the boat’s actually rocking a little—languid sinking and rising floor. Am I drunk, or is this a storm?
We’re walking past the casino and the piano bar, and walking isn’t working. Walking is a lot like falling. “It’s like the tsunami,” I exclaim as we push the heavy doors out to the deck, where waves shoot triumphantly over the railings onto the shuffleboard courts. The wind tries to kill us. Laurie, our friend and one of Ro’s production assistants, takes us to her suite—so we can stand on the balcony and get drenched by ambitious waves. ‘This is so cool,” Haviland says. I’m hoping this means she won’t throw up later, but she does. We both do.
The next morning it feels like we’ve all been through trauma together and we’re bonded by the experience of those waves—the earth’s failed embraces lumbering back at us, and failing again to hold on. As Elvira Kurt pointed out in her closing-night act, although many passengers were literally throwing up in the hallways, Kelli was together and with it, cheerful as if magnetized, which is why, like Rosie, we’re all in love with her.
So much happens every single day: Your skin changes color; you randomly converse with someone brilliant and interesting from far, far away; you dress up like a girl without worrying you’ll be mistaken for straight. It’s summer camp for kids who got beat up at summer camp. It’s magic. Everything that makes me scowl in the real world is better here because we’re all different, and therefore we’re all the same.
To be honest, I’d take an R Family Cruise to Somalia; destination is an afterthought. The crowd is mixed, though there are more people our age in 2007—mid-20s to mid-30s. You find each other quickly.
On the Bahamas and Florida cruise, optional excursions include Universal Studios, historic Cocoa Beach or, while in the Bahamas, snorkeling and parasailing. We hit Key West at mid-afternoon, my skin feels like microwaved butter. A drag queen snatches our crowd from the street into a half-empty bar and cajoles Haviland into singing “Like a Prayer” karaoke, while patrons the color of orange rinds and coffee stare, languid and awestruck. We film and cheer.
The 2007 talent includes Erasure, Sandra Bernhard, Judy Gold and a revival of Annie starring Broadway’s Annie, Andrea McArdle. The Family Pride coalition hosts a panel and Sharon Gless participates in full Debbie Novonty costume (as her “proud gay mom” character from Queer as Folk). I practically hyperventilate. It’s cool here that I have a gay mom, too; it’s almost assumed. It’s Gay Opposite Day all the time.
Heather and I hit happy hour always—we dash across the deck in our bathing suits to make it before 6 p.m. It’s The Amazing Race with babies as obstacles; we’re running down to the icy-cool bar, we’re picking up friends on the way and we’re all around the bar like bees to nectar if nectar was two-for-$9.
Mid-trip, Heather and I get the idea to put on a staged reading of a sitcom I’ve been writing with a buddy, and McArdle reads the lead. It’s a writer’s dream—so much accessible talent. Later that night (but there is no time, really), I’m IM-ing my co-writer from the overpriced Internet cafe while Ross the Intern awaits the upload of his Rosie vlog. It takes so long it’s hard to believe that someone had the patience to leak Rosie’s anti-Hasselback shtick from the first night’s performance onto YouTube.
In Grand Stirrup Cay, the water’s the same color that water is in dreams—clean aqua. Our limbs echo and ripple underwater as we paddle out and lie in the sun all afternoon, just drifting, miles from home. At night there’s a luau, drunken dancing and glowsticks. We hear two women having sex in the ocean. We’d thought one of them was straight. Well, she has her fun. We all have our fun.
There’s drama, because we’re lesbians, and that’s how these things go. Ambiguous couplings, fights in public, tales of morning-after walks-of-shame, like Jen’s, in a mini-skirt and boots, to the front desk to replace a demagnetized key card.
They spin pop hits all night in the Spinnaker Lounge. This is where you can find people, or else on the pool deck or the Market Café. I feel like we’re always wearing exactly what we want to wear, always a little tanner, less hungry and more relaxed. There’s always something to do—too many things to do, sometimes. However, there is plenty included in the ticket price—we only spend extra on alcohol and Internet access.
I never expected to love something that sold plush toys of its logo, photographed you every 10 minutes or hosted Pirate Night. But I get it, why everyone cried at the end of “All Aboard,” like they’d died and gone to heaven, only to be thrust mercilessly back into the rest of the world. It’s hard, readjusting to the world. I often think, “Wow, I didn’t realize there were so many hot gay girls in the city,” and then I remember that not everyone’s probably gay anymore..
Kelli says this: “Mostly, I believe that the magic onboard our ship is truly hard to define in words. It’s an experience that’ll transform you for a week into a place that feels free, open, wrapped in love and acceptance.” See that? I totally buy it, every word.