“Our maiden voyage turned a concept into a reality,” says Shannon Wentworth, co-founder and CEO of Sweet, the 26-month-old lesbian travel company. She has reason to feel proud: The recent November 2009 Sweet Caribbean Cruise, the company’s first foray into eco-conscious luxury travel, was a hit with guests and with the folks in the ports of call. “I’ve been running around for almost two years telling people that Sweet is special. Now, they’ve seen for themselves,” Wentworth adds.
What makes Sweet especially, well, sweet? One thing is its innovative spin on the now almost classic lesbian travel company formula, in that unlike other vacations aimed at gay women it offers participants—or “voluntouristas,” as Wentworth calls them—a way to give back while they’re letting off steam on vacation. Sweet‘s driving mission is to connect adventurous lesbian travelers with opportunities to help out within the regions they visit. “On paper, giving back on your vacation doesn’t sound that exciting. In reality, it was incredibly rewarding and fun for people,“ Wentworth says. “Our voluntouristas and voluntour-mistas all had amazing experiences giving back and meeting people in the communities we visited.” Sweet is particularly concerned with offsetting the carbon footprint of the vacations themselves through eco-conscious volunteer projects, such as replanting wetlands ecosystems and clearing trash off beaches. Sweet’s guests are encouraged, but not required, to participate in these “voluntour” excursions.
Sweet is the co-invention of Wentworth, who has an extensive background in marketing and promotions and has been an executive at a number of LGBT media companies, and co-founder Jen Rainin, who, in addition to sitting on Sweet’s Board of Directors, heads the Kenneth Rainin Foundation, which funds innovation in the arts, education and medical research. Both women are longtime supporters of LGBT community organizations and causes, giving them the perfect platform from which to develop the newest concept in lesbian travel.
The inaugural Sweet Caribbean Cruise took place November 8–15, 2009 aboard the Norwegian Cruise Lines’ ship Norwegian Spirit. From its New Orleans departure, the ship called at Costa Maya, Mexico; Belize City, Belize; Roatan, Honduras; and Cozumel, Mexico; then returned to New Orleans. From New Orleans’ huge cruise terminal, where passengers were greeted with a free glass of pink bubbly once they got on deck, swarms of female vacationers boarded the ship and soon became acquainted with nautical terminology—forward and aft, starboard and port, and so on—as they located their staterooms and relaxed in the dozen or so bars, lounges and restaurants while waiting for the ship to set sail.
Dozens of celesbians were on board, all scheduled to perform during the week. Comics included cruising vet Suzanne Westenhoefer, Sandra Valls, Kate McKinnon, Gloria Bigelow, Jennie McNulty, Erin Foley and many more, while musical guests included singer-songwriters Jen Foster, Edie Carey, Natalia Zukerman and others. Elsewhere on the boat, various TV and Internet personalities and LGBT political activists sponsored talks, filmed series episodes and occasionally mingled casually with the other passengers. And the non-famous passengers? The twelve-hundred women (and a handful of men) hailed from all walks of life, and a broad range of ages, ethnicities and cultures seemed accounted for—a wonderful and unexpected experience for anyone who thought that cruising was only for rich, white retirees.
Passengers—including myself—spent the first night and next day at sea, steaming toward the first port of call. All thoughts of a restful evening were abandoned when our captain informed us that Hurricane Ida, a Category 2 storm, lay directly in our route through the Gulf of Mexico. Despite the captain’s best efforts to steer around the disturbance, the massive cruise ship rolled and bounced in all directions well into the next day, much to the distress of excited but weary passengers. Even the top-deck pool was drained of water due to rough seas. The attentive staff at the reception desk eased our pain by wisely handing out free motion-sickness pills, which were much needed.
Things got smoother, in all senses, from thereon out. The thoughtfully structured cruise itinerary included dozens of optional shore excursions: planned group activities that offered a range of experiences for cruisers at each port, from “beach breaks” (afternoons of sunbathing and open bar) to zip-lining above rainforest canopies, exploring ancient archeological sites or scuba and snorkeling at coral reefs. At each port, at least one volunteering project was offered as part of Sweet’s eco-conscious mission, and more than 300 Sweeties took part during the week. Here, for your vicarious pleasure, are my scattered reminiscences of our journey.
COSTA MAYA, MEXICO
Costa Maya, one of the newest cruise destinations in the western Caribbean, is located on the Yucatan Peninsula near Mexico‘s border with Belize. The nearby fishing village of Mahahual—until a few years ago, a town of 400 people—has burgeoned as the cruise business has drawn some 3,000 additional workers to the strip of powder-soft beach, palm trees and crystal clear sea. Low-slung buildings are topped with palm thatch or simply constructed with cinderblocks and brightly painted in pastel colors, and beer huts—you couldn’t really call them bars—line the road that parallels the sea, where beach chairs are set up on the sand. A Corona with a deliciously juicy lime will set you back $2, and all of the commercial establishments accept American dollars. Not surprisingly, many Sweeties rode the $3 shuttle bus a few miles from the cruise terminal to Mahahual’s beach and wiled away the afternoon splashing in the bathtub-like water.
In Costa Maya, Sweet passengers, myself included, got their first taste of eco-conscious travel. More than 150 “voluntouristas” participated in a cleanup of nearby Uvero Beach and gathered more than 200 bags of trash in 45 minutes. Sadly, there was much more to be done than we could get to, but at least we made a dent.
Belize City, Belize
After sailing through the night, we were jarred awake by Simon, the Australian cruise director, announcing our arrival over the loudspeaker. Skies were cloudy over Belize City, our second port of call, as everyone mustered for debarkation.
Colonized as a British logging outpost in the seventeenth century, Belize is the only Central American nation with English as its official language, though its rich indigenous heritage influences many aspects of its modern character. Belize City is an excellent base for ecotourism: large areas of biodiverse rainforests and mountains offer opportunities for wildlife viewing, hiking, zip-lining and cave exploration, while the Belize Barrier Reef just offshore is the second longest in the world and perfect for marine activities. Many Sweeties opted to snorkel on the reef. They were transported directly from the ship by boat to a spot that looked like open ocean, given snorkeling equipment and instruction, and allowed to hop in. Beneath the surface, huge living corals teemed with brightly-colored schools of fish, fan corals anchored to living rock waved gently in the current, and the intermittent sun illuminated horse conch shells, parrotfish, angelfish and wrasses on the sea’s sandy-white floor. Can you say paradise?
Cruisers who didn’t get dropped off directly in the ocean went instead to volunteer their talents to the local community. One group of women painted a drab pediatric ward at the city’s hospital with cheerful cartoon characters chosen by the kids, while yet another group painted classrooms in a primary school and led story time with a group of children, reading from a couple of the more than one thousand books donated by Sweeties before the cruise.
At the crack of 8am, our cruise director Simon announced the next day’s arrival in Roatan, Honduras. Roatan, the largest of Honduras’ Bay Islands, is located in the Caribbean Sea about 50 miles from the mainland. Its long, skinny topography is dominated by a central mountain ridge covered in tropical forest, sloping down to postcard-perfect beaches dotted with palm trees. Roatan is another relatively new cruise port; as in Costa Maya, its pier led to an onshore open-air mall with luxury stores and bars accessible only to cruise passengers. Outside the mall’s gates, the humble cinderblock dwellings, set right at the sea’s edge, and the apparent poverty of the residents was a startling and jarring juxtaposition which reminded some of us of the underlying “giving back” part of our mission.
Though it was possible to take taxis to the beaches about ten miles away, some women hired local drivers for half the cost and took the winding mountain drive to the West End, an area with semi-private developments of European-owned vacation condos and gorgeous white sand shores. Brand-new luxury resorts were scattered along the coast and open to day visitors for a small fee. It was hard not to grab a beach chaise and relax with a bottle of Salva Vidas, the local beer, while gazing at the sea’s undulating tones of aquamarine, turquoise and deep blue.
For some of us, the stark economic disparity on the island was alleviated at least a bit by the Sweeties’ work at one of Roatan’s few e-learning centers. Some Sweet volunteers repainted the facility and donated two computers, which the Sweet IT girls installed as some excited children watched. Upon learning that it cost $150 per child to access the center each year, many of the volunteers dug into their pockets and pooled enough money to subsidize another four kids at the center.
The ship reached the last port at Cozumel, Mexico on a crystal clear morning; for the first time on the cruise the sun was brilliant, the winds soothing and the seas a calm, mesmerizing blue. Cozumel, Mexico’s largest Caribbean island, is known around the world for its unparalleled coral reefs; Jacques Cousteau put Cozumel on the map in a 1959 television special and since then, marine tourism has been Cozumel’s bread and butter.
As the Sweeties debarked for their shore excursions, about 50 women assembled for the day’s volunteer project, a three-part plan for ecological and community restoration. First, participants rode a bus along the coast to the Punta Sur Ecological Park at the southern tip of the island for a beach cleanup, where guides explained that most of the trash on Cozumel’s beaches originated from other countries and was carried there by currents, and that the majority of trash was non-biodegradable plastics. After dividing into teams, volunteers picked up hundreds of pieces of plastic, metal and glass, including shoes, bottles and snarls of plastic rope.
Next, volunteers planted 25 mangrove seedlings to help restore a wetlands area destroyed by a hurricane in 2005. While planting the mangroves, whose root systems provide a haven for young fish and other organisms in the salt marsh environment, a crocodile swam by to take a look at their progress.
A short rest-stop followed at the Celarain lighthouse at Cozumel’s southernmost point. There, the dazzling turquoise sea surrounded a small park with ruins of a Mayan temple dedicated to Ixchel, the Mayan goddess of fertility and midwifery.
Directly after the rest, the volunteers arrived at Carlos Canseco community park in San Miguel, Cozumel’s main town, to help local Rotary Club members repaint the benches and plant trees that were damaged in the 2005 hurricane. Afterward, the Sweeties and Rotary members enjoyed a Mexican picnic of grilled chicken, rice and spicy stewed jalapeños prepared by the Rotarians’ wives.
Of course, those that opted for a less strenuous morning had plenty of other options. Some spent the last day at port snorkeling just off shore, while others shopped for souvenirs or experienced the spring break they never had at the kitschy bars and restaurants that catered to American tourists.
And speaking of options, there were many to choose from each night back on the ship: Choices of decadent entertainment included a menu of musical performances, happy hours sponsored by lesbian organizations (including GO), uproarious shows from the biggest names in lesbian comedy, pool parties with nationally-known DJs and themed dances which kept the ladies up until the wee hours. On our last day at sea, the ship’s pool was packed with women. Club Skirts, producer of the notorious Dinah Shore Weekend in Palm Springs, provided the afternoon’s entertainment and hyped the crowd for the ultimate wet T-shirt contest—and needless to say, actual T-shirts were in very short supply.
Unfortunately, Sweet’s blissed-out guests—this one among them—were forced to return to reality when the ship docked in New Orleans. For Shannon Wentworth, the culmination of Sweet’s first cruise offered the opportunity to savor the experience as well as to reflect on challenges and successes, and to plan for the next lesbian adventure. “It was such a thrill to have such amazing women on a ship for a week,” said a glowing Wentworth. “I was on cloud nine from the moment I woke up to the moment I closed my eyes. I’ve been working for the past year to realize this dream. I put all of myself into this cruise. I didn’t hold anything back.”
Then Wentworth pondered the overall meaning and significance of the cruise in broader strokes. “Women in general and lesbians in particular lead with their hearts,” she said. “When lesbians travel, they see what needs to be done in different communities. We’re just making it easier and more fun to do it. It’s incredibly empowering to feel like you are making a positive impact as you decadently travel the globe.“ And Sweet seems to have had a lasting impact on its passengers: “I’ve heard from dozens of guests about projects they are spearheading after doing our community service projects, like collecting money to send a vet to Roatan or collecting books for Belize instead of gifts at their holiday parties,” adds Wentworth.
What’s next for Sweet? The upcoming adventure, the Sweet Kenyan Safari, takes place February 7–16, 2010. A small group of Sweeties will travel to some of Africa’s most beautiful plains to see abundant wildlife and breathtaking scenery. A bit closer to home, the Salmon River Rafting trip (August 16–21, 2010) brings even city girls face-to-face with the America’s great outdoors in Idaho’s pristine high country. Last but not least, from September 4–11, 2010 the Sweeties return to Cozumel for a luxurious week at the Palace Resort, an all-inclusive hotel right on the beautiful shore. Word has it that one of the community projects will involve releasing baby sea turtles into the wild!
Wentworth summed up the subtle, but most important, result of the Sweet experience this way: “More than planting trees, pulling trash off beaches and educating children, we built bridges of understanding between communities that enriched everyone. The best part is that this is only the beginning.”
For hundreds more incredible photos of the inaugural Sweet cruise, click here!