Monday, September 17, 2012

Straight cruise gets gay kick off by Copenhagen Pride Parade; St. Petersburg highlight of trip

COPENHAGEN -- Through the window I saw what I assumed to be a tough-looking hooker in a white sundress standing on the crowded sidewalk in the city’s historic district. Her attention seemed to be focused on something in the street in front of my stalled taxi cab where my traveling partner and I impatiently sat watching the meter tick off the time.

Anxious to get to my hotel so I could relax for an evening before boarding the Emerald Princess the next day for a Baltic Sea cruise, I asked the taxi driver about the delay. ” It’s a parade.” he said, just about the same time I noticed a rainbow flag banner in the distance.

I couldn’t believe it. I had arrived in Copenhagen not only at the exact time of the city’s annual Pride parade, but I had inadvertently become a part of it. I wasn’t staring at a hooker, but instead a drag queen. My taxi cab literally had pulled into the parade’s line-up from a side street as we crawled toward the Imperial Hotel.

It was to be my second cruise of the summer. I had toured the Mediterranean on an RSVP gay cruise off the coast of Spain in July and now in late August I was about to see Norway, Germany, Russia, Finland and Sweden on a straight cruise that ironically had turned out to have a gay kick off for me.

Later, my longtime friend and I sat at a table in the hotel’s sidewalk cafĂ© watching the rest of the parade, which included a counter protest by a small group of Neo Nazis protected by numerous police officers with dogs. The waiter told me the presence of the counter protesters surprised him because Denmark along with the other Scandinavian countries tend to be tolerant of LGBT people, a statement which was confirmed to me by guides during the rest of my trip.

The next day before we boarded the ship I realized the people of Copenhagen indeed did seem to welcome same-sex couples as we toured Tivoli Gardens,  admiring its beauty and thrilling to the carnival rides at the historic amusement park.

When it was time to head for the cruise ship where we were to meet another gay couple, I wondered if a straight cruise would be as much fun as the gay cruise – my first ever – that I had enjoyed six weeks earlier. 
My answer to that question came quickly as the ship blew its horn announcing our departure from port.

Whereas earlier in the summer when we cruised out of Barcelona enjoying a loud, colorful cocktail party with music blaring and dancing on the top deck, the departure from Copenhagen was decidedly sedate. It was to be that way for the rest of the cruise. We definitely were not on a party boat this time.

Still, it was an incredible experience, and I will never forget the awe I felt at the beauty of St. Petersburg’s cathedrals and the palaces where the czars once lived. Berlin was a masterpiece under restoration to the period before World War II bombing left it almost destroyed. The natural beauty of Norway, Finland and Sweden will remain vivid in my mind to my last days, and I certainly will always consider my visit to the Russian ballet one of the highlights of my life.

The atmosphere on the ship was friendly and welcoming by the staff and other passengers so there were no complaints to be found in that regard. There were a few other gay passengers and gay crew members. On the gay cruise, it was just a lot more fun during meals, at cocktail time and during the evenings at the gay-themed shows.

On the Mediterranean cruise we missed one of our ports of calls because Moroccan officials decided not to allow our ship to dock because of safety concerns about an all-gay cruise visiting the country for the first time. It was a surprise because Morocco has long been known for an “anything goes” type of culture, but it happened, even though the country’s tourism officials later denied they banned the ship.

The only port raising any concern on the Baltic Sea cruise would have been St. Petersburg, but I learned from our guide there that an all-gay cruised had docked several weeks earlier and he had escorted a group from the ship around the city. No one paid any of the gay tourists any mind at all, he said.

After I returned I decided to ask the Atlantis Events organizer about the two-day stop in St. Petersburg, and he confirmed that it went without a hitch.

“We had a fantastic two days in St. Petersburg and our 2,000 guests said it was the highlight of their cruise,” said Rich Campbell, president of Atlantis Events, in a message via Facebook. “We’ve been going there for years and have never received anything less than a warm welcome from the locals, officials and otherwise.”

It was a possible concern because St. Petersburg officials have made the gay news in a negative way in the past year because of a law they passed to ban public pro-gay demonstrations. Attempts to hold Pride parades have resulted in arrests. Some groups have urged gay cruises not to visit countries where there are anti-gay laws on the books.

Our guide told me the law has caused many LGBT Russian people to exercise more caution, but that it is well known there is a large gay community in St. Petersburg.  Some people have “gone underground” because of it, he said.

Campbell, who described the St. Petersburg gay community as “significant and thriving,” said his all-gay cruises, which include both RSVP and Atlantis Events, would continue to visit countries where there are anti-gay laws on the books as long as local officials welcome gay tourists. A visit to Dominica by Atlantis Events in the Caribbean earlier in the year resulted in a gay couple being arrested by local authorities because they allegedly were viewed engaged in sex on their stateroom balcony by some people on the island.

“Yes, they have a very unfortunate law on their books, but so do a lot of states in the USA, as well as our federal government,” Campbell said. “None of those are a reason not to enjoy the treasure these places have to offer.”

As far as I’m concerned, I feel fortunate to get to travel and see the world’s fabulous sights however I can, but in the future I’m going to choose the gay route whenever it is available. It’s just more fun to me and like everybody else, I prefer to be with my own kind on vacations.

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