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Signing up at the last minute for my holiday of hedonism, the 2019 Atlantis Events Asia 10-day all gay charter cruise from Hong Kong to Japan via Taipei and Shanghai plus a couple of "awesome" days at sea, I packed six pairs of bathers but only four t-shirts, because I knew precisely what I was getting myself in to. Or so I thought.
Advanced emails alerted us to the costume parties, held on the open air pool deck or high up on the charter ship Norwegian Jewel's 13th-deck Spinnaker Lounge with its panoramic views of the ocean. These included the dog tag afternoon T-Dance, the neon late-night Blink party and a disco T-Dance. (tea?)
My costumes included unicorn pants, a NY diamond-studded gold medallion (fake), a Robin Hood outfit a friend made me, plus an afro wig large enough to merit its own carry on.
At the military-themed dog tag T-Dance, guests were issued with commemorative Atlantis dog tags and chose a combination of green or red stickers, to indicate dating availability, while outfits for another party were to be sourced solely from the famous Hong Kong and Taipei street markets.
If parties weren't your jag, social groups provided more of a chance to chat. Meeting at one of the Jewel's 15 bars and nightclubs, including the sake bar, Martini bar, Champagne bar and Irish pub, the groups included: the Lure of Leather (for guests who like or love leather), Real Daddies (gay parents and those to be) and Guns and Hoses (for cops and fireman).
But even before I jetted to Hong Kong to board the 93,000 tonne, 965ft, 15-deck Jewel, with its 16 dining options, two pools, gym, library, games room and spa, my firmly-held stereotypes became subverted.
I was under the impression that all-gay charter cruises, of the type Atlantis Events has run since 1991 on a variety of cruise lines, was about who had the best mahogany tan and biggest pecs.
Yet on the voyage's informal Facebook group, ordinary Joes were much more interested in posting photos of their business class airline berths and flutes of champagne than their torsos.
Perhaps monies spent on my costly gym regimen had been misallocated, and I should have spent the money on a better cabin berth. But both the gym junkies and elder statesmen, found funds for one essential budget line item ... the amazingly regenerative powers of Botox.
Atlantis has always been about provided the best elements of a cruise: theatre shows, specialty dining, ground tours, provided by the cruise line, and adding in Atlantis' signature costume parties, drag queen comedians, and gay bingo. But there were further surprises on board, when Atlantis Events' age-defying US founder Rich Campbell made introductory remarks in the Art Nouveau Stardust Theatre, welcoming guests "from the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s", leading me to believe gents on board ranged in age from gents in their 50s down to 20-somethings.
Hold my Mai Tai. In a depressing moment of clarity, I realised that I had misheard. Campbell was actually welcoming guests not from the 1960s, but aged in their 60s, as well as in their 70s, 80s and 90s. I had been hoping for a cruise just like Sex in the City, but was this going to be more like The Golden Girls.
In truth, there was something for everyone. Over its 28 years, gay travel company Atlantis Events, which hosts also all-gay resorts, has rewritten the world's geopolitical regions into party zones.
Thus its Caribbean and Mexican cruises, which sail from Los Angeles or Florida on massive ships stacked with more than 4000 revellers, are party ships aimed at younger US passengers who don't have the time nor the money to fly across the globe.
The Mediterranean cruises, generally in August and often including the party city of Barcelona, are more finely balanced between parties and sightseeing, with tours of Rome, Sorrento, Pompeii Santorini and Mykonos often on offer, depending on the itinerary.
Asian cruises are more sedate still, lacking the sunny guarantee of other voyages, with older passengers more focused on the entertainment and tours.
Because I booked at the last minute and friends weren't available, I was a solo traveller, like many Atlantis passengers. So I signed up to the share cabin scheme, where you share a stateroom with a complete stranger for ten days, as a way to defray costs. Here I struck gold. Alan was a Vietnamese American from Atlanta, an oceanographer who ran a business creating home and office aquariums. He had zero interest in parties but a great interest in food. Thus in Shanghai, after photos on the mist shrouded Bund, he took me to tiny dumpling place Jia Jia Tang Bao, where locals patiently queued to sit on tiny plastic tables and chairs and enjoy pork and crab dumplings of exquisite steamy hotness. Later, in the Japanese port city of Kochi, overlooked by its charming 17th century castle atop a steep hill, Alan found local seared Bonito fish at the local food market just before it went out of season.
Guests could take advantage of organised tours such as from the port city of Osaka in Japan to the ancient capital of Kyoto, with its gardens and ancient vermillion torii gates at the Fushimi Inari shrine. Or simply go their own way. A tip off from a well travelled friend led me to the Sunday afternoon Shanghai marriage market, held in the People's Park, where parents stuck laminated sheets on umbrellas about their sons and met other parents to discuss the suitability of organising a date between their children.
Back on board, karaoke, hosted by droll US drag queen Miss Richfield 1981, was a predictably hot ticket, with the crowed preferring show tunes and love ballads from yesteryear to any dance party anthems.
Robert, celebrating his anniversary with his partner, whom he met 25 years ago via a Village Voice ad, turned in a memorable if pitchy performance of Anne Murray's I Fall in Love with You. Alas, when Miss Richfield sought out the lucky serenaded husband in the audience, he had fallen asleep and was snoring quietly.
The more the ten day voyage wore on, the more the emphasis seemed to be on friendships and relationships. To help find our stateroom and allow guests to get their bearings down the long corridors, guests stuck up photos of themselves, or flags, or feather boas, or white board detailing where they were on the ship. Once memorable landmark was Don and Michael's shiny multicoloured letters proclaiming "33 years and still here."
On the final night Rich Campbell again took to the stage to in effect give voice to the Atlantis mission statement. "You guys start out as total strangers and leave with new friends and deeper bonds and try a lot of things you would never do at home and act a little silly," he told the audience at the Stardust, after the performance by the all-male "sexy and sensual circus style show" Airotic, of gym-taut bodies in various stages of undress.
"We are a tiny part of the world ... but we don't get to be the majority very often. We don't often get to do this, which is be kind of ordinary, be the normal that everyone else gets to enjoy all the time."
He urged his passengers to step onshore and keep acting as they had for past ten days: "Dress up, act a little silly, share a meal with someone you don't know. Go out and keep breaking down those barriers."
Cruises can be either "all gay" where companies such as Atlantis charter the entire ship, or "gay group" cruises, where cruise lines such as Celebrity offer larger ships with several hundred gay passengers among a much larger passenger group, with special parties and hosted dinners. Atlantis on its recently acquired RSVP brand is cruising Europe on the Royal Carribean 5500-person Oasis of the Seas departing Barcelona for Italy and France on August 25. Its Los Angeles to Mexico cruise on the Celebrity Eclipse departs October 20.
All cruise lines have a buffet café opening almost 24 hours, plus one or two main dining restaurants included in the price, which for Norwegian included the vast Tsar's Palace, which had a Romanov Faberge Egg theme. Then there are the specialty restaurants, of varying quality, which cost extra, including sushi, teppanyaki, Italian and a steakhouse.
On shore tours are often at the mercy of the cruise company and often make sense if they are further afield like tours into the Taiwanese countryside or to see Mount Fuji from the Japanese port city of Shimizu.
Like all cruises, you can pick the cabin size and deck to suit you, from The Haven has its own butler and sundeck, with its own private buffet breakfast restaurant, while the other staterooms range from suites down to balcony, oceanview and inside cabins.
Stephen Brook travelled independently.