When planning their holiday last year, Bryan and Kevin Manley-Green made the choice that more and more adventure-seeking gay travelers around the world are making — they booked themselves on a river cruise.
The Manley-Greens knew they wanted to explore Eastern Europe, but they wanted to do so safely in a region that's not known for being incredibly gay-friendly. So they chose a 10-day Danube river cruise from Bucharest to Budapest being offered by Emerald Waterways, one of a growing number of companies now catering to fierce public demand in this hot tourism sector.
"A river cruise is a really easy way to go to a place like Serbia, which for a gay couple could be really dangerous," said Bryan Manley-Green, who runs a translation company in the 29-year couple's hometown of Birmingham, England. "On a river cruise, we know we've got the safety of the cruise ship, and we'll be on guided tours. If we venture off on our own and if push comes to shove, we could say we were brothers."
The Manley-Greens opted for a "mainstream" cruise, since they said they prefer traveling with a wide range of fellow passengers. "We've never wanted to be surrounded only by gay people," Kevin Manley-Green explained.
However, for many gay travelers, being surrounded by others like themselves is a big part of the pleasure of cruising. With these folks in mind, several tour operators are now offering LGBTQ-specific river cruise charters, which journey to an ever-increasing roster of global destinations, and combine the convenience of pre-arranged travel with the intimacy of a smaller-boat experience.
No company has dedicated itself to this concept more fully than Minneapolis-based Brand g Vacations. "We recognized that LGBT travelers were looking for new and more exotic types of travel opportunities," said Brian Van Wey, who co-founded Brand g in 2011. "Since river cruising was quickly becoming the hottest segment in travel, it only seemed natural to offer deluxe river cruise tours all over the world."
Van Wey and his Brand g partner Jeff Gundvaldson are both veterans of RSVP Vacations, where large-ship ocean cruises had long been the focus. "A Brand g river cruise takes the best of ocean cruising and gives it a refined gay spin," Van Wey said. "You’re still cruising with an exclusive LGBT crowd, but the group is much smaller. Instead of 2,000 to 5,000 guests, there are anywhere from about 50 to 150, depending on the ship and destination. On an ocean cruise, you may meet someone on the first day and never see them again. On a Brand g river cruise, you’ll have multiple chances to meet up again."
Brand g's passengers — mostly couples, but many singles, too — come from all over the world, with about 90 percent from the U.S. and Canada, and the rest from Europe, Australia and South America. Around 90 percent are gay men and 8 percent are lesbians, Van Wey said.
For women seeking a much higher female quotient for their holiday, longtime lesbian tour expert Olivia Travel has also been upping its river cruise game.
"When Olivia first started river cruising in 2008, we shared the rivers with only a few ships," said Tisha Floratos-Silano, Olivia's vice president of travel and business operations. "Now, seeing an Olivia riverboat sailing down the Rhine, for example — flying the Olivia and rainbow flags — lets everyone know we're a part of the popularity of river cruising."
Floratos-Silano said Olivia takes great pride in customizing a complete experience for its river cruising guests. "We bring our own entertainment, our own Olivia cruise director, and our own team of staff that hosts activities for the week," she said. "Our Olivia team adds a uniqueness to the entire experience that you just can’t get anywhere else." Brand g likewise supplies its own cruise entertainment, often including Broadway divas and gay comedians.
"Sightseeing is also a bigger focus of river cruises than ocean cruises," Van Wey explained. "On an ocean cruise, you may spend several days at sea. On a river cruise, you're generally in port every single day — sometimes two in the same day. And since most, if not all, of your excursions are included in the price of the cruise, and since river ships tend to dock right in the heart of a city, there's a lot of sightseeing."
River cruise prices naturally vary greatly by trip length, destination and cabin size — for the upcoming Brand g and Olivia rosters, rates range from just over $3,000 to nearly $13,000 per person. Prices are based on double occupancy, and are generally inclusive of meals, excursions and airport transfers, often also including hotel stays before and/or after the cruise as well.
Floratos-Silano said Olivia normally offers two or three river cruises a year, trips that don't typically stay on the market for long once they're available. "It's not unusual for an Olivia riverboat cruise to sell out in three weeks or less with a trip that's scheduled a year out," she said.
Several other LGBTQ tour operators — among them HE Travel, Out Adventures, Zoom Vacations, RSVP Vacations and Pied Piper — have also jumped on the river cruise bandwagon with a variety of itineraries.
For now though, Brand g remains the gay river cruising king, offering about six to ten trips a year, with forthcoming journeys already slated for the Danube in Europe, the Amazon in South America, and the Mekong and Ganges in Asia. Even more new locales are hopefully on the horizon, Van Wey said. "We always aim for exotic bucket list destinations," he added. "The Po River in Italy and Indonesia are a few places that we hope to get to someday soon."