So this is part review, part travel journal, and part introduction. I am Butch Jaxon, intrepid entertainment lawyer by day, by night, lesbian blogger, lover of bow ties, breasts, movies, music (all kinds), bookstores, dogs, geocaching, Polar Bears, the gym, travel, craft beer, and my gorgeous fiancé. I write a tiny little blog over at ButchOnTap.com and I recently took a cruise to the Mediterranean with Sweet Travel. Never one to be at a loss for words, I am happy to share with all of you what I thought of the cruise and, more importantly to those of you reading this, what I thought of Sweet.
Note: You are most likely a sharp lesbian and hip to current news and whatnot. As such, you know that one of the Sweet co-founders, Shannon Wentworth is also one of the founders of www.lesbian.com … where you might be reading this – unless you are on my site, in which case ignore this first two paragraphs! I am sure it will be no surprise to you that I have very good things to say about Sweet. You know what they say. If you have nothing nice to say, whisper. But I digress. You don’t know me. Read my blog and then you can decide how biased I am or not (not). By the way, I paid all official-like for our cruise and met the Sweet staff for the first time on board.
1. Sweet & Sour: The Cruise
The cruise we chose sailed from Barcelona, Spain, spent a day at sea, and then docked a day in each of the following ports and returned to Barca (as the locals call it) seven days later: Naples (for Pompeii), Civitavecchia (for Rome), Florence, Cannes, and Marseilles. First, a note about “cruising.” No, not that kind, what are we gay? I am told, like opera, people either love it or hate it. I loved it (as I do opera), so I guess that makes me a cruiser (again, not that kind). You board, unpack, do fun stuff, eat, drink, dance, go to sleep, and wake up in a new city. Seriously, that’s cool. No driving, trains, or stress in transit. This is a great way to go. If you’ve never tried it, do it! If you love it, send me a thank you thought; if not, well never mind.
The Sweet cruise is a new thing – like a hot new sexy model, compared to the well-established, I’m sure cool in some similar and some different ways, older more mature Olivia cruise, or the also respectable R Family Vacations. Unlike its older competitors, Sweet does not book the whole boat (usually), but instead gathers a group of lesbians (a gaggle?) to travel together. This keeps the cost down. My research showed that Olivia costs quite a bit more than Sweet. So Sweet has its pluses and minuses. Plus: cheaper and you can do as little or as much with the group as you want. Minus: not surrounded by lesbians as far as the eye can see. This really is the crux of it. As one who gets stared at a lot (I’m a 5’10” butch lesbian with a Mohawk), I love the idea of being with all dykes, but not enough to pay a large premium for it. An interesting note from a “Sweetie” on the trip with us: she’d been on both Olivia and Sweet cruises and said that being surrounded by all the lesbians was freeing, but that she didn’t make the kind of connections with other women that she did on the Sweet cruise with us. There were 70 of us and I can tell you almost everyone’s name. I was already on Facebook with about 15 of the Sweeties before we had even gotten home. So, you decide.
Alright, so we picked our cruise and signed up with Sweet. Easy. I paid for one of us at sign up and spread the other fare out over eight months. There was no fee to do that so why not keep my money? As the cruise got closer, we got lots of emails from Sweet laying out our excursion options. There was plenty of communication, and we always got quick replies from the Sweet staff (Shannon, Babs, and Julie) each time we sent an email.
A note about Norwegian Cruise Lines: this is the partner that Sweet has chosen and for the most part, we were impressed. Their registration process was top-notch; they even mailed us luggage tags in advance. The embarkation and disembarkation (fancy ship words for getting on and off the boat, err, ship) process was very smooth and seamless. So, kudos. The ship is clean and huge with lots of floors, activities (a bowling alley, rock climbing wall, movies in one of the lounges, etc.), places to eat, a spa (which we didn’t use, so I can’t review), a well-appointed gym with a great view over the water, and an ice bar (mixed reviews). Top marks also to the NCL staff – 5 bow ties out of 5. Bottom marks, and not in a good way, to NCL for the food – only 1 bow tie out of 5. The only exception was the Teppanyaki place, outstanding, but we paid an upcharge. In fact, none of the good food was available without an up charge. Cruising is supposed to be all-inclusive, except for drinks and shore excursions, not all-inclusive of crappy food. Fail to NCL on this point. Maybe Sweet can make some noise about this.
2. A Sweet Deal: Excursions
We made our selections through Sweet and registered for all three offered for Italy, and we were very glad we did. They booked up and not all who wanted to join could (boo). So, if you go, book these ASAP. Sweet set us up with fancy vans (comfy, A/C, one even had Wi-Fi) with great Italian drivers. There was chaos at each port while they tried to gather us all and horde us into vans, but I don’t think this can be helped. Sweet’s Julie McCoy, Babs, took great care of us in the tours. She even called our cabin the night before to remind us of the details and meeting place. We were given a printed, updated itinerary on board of all the activities and it was very useful. Some were confused about the two dinner options nightly. One was standard and one was an upcharge. It was explained in earlier emails, but could be noted on the itinerary for ease.
Back to the tours. Fantastic. We saw a ton, didn’t have to plan, and got some free time. On our tours we saw Pompeii (particularly awesome for the GF who studied Latin for many years and learned about Pompeii), the Amalfi coast, and the cliff village of Sorrento. In Rome, we saw Circus Maximus, the Emperor’s Palace, the Colosseum, the Pantheon, Trevi Fountain, the Vatican Museum, the Basilica (including Michelangelo’s Pieta), and the Sistine Chapel. Our day in Rome was like our own private “Amazing Race” of sightseeing because of all the sites. In Florence, we saw the Campo di Fiori (market), Michelangelo’s David, Ponto Vecchio, il Duomo, and the Piazza della Signoria. The excursions were a bit pricey, and you might be able to do better if you did it all yourselves, but unless you lived in a city for several years and know the lay of the land, who has time to do that? The convenience is well worth the cost.
We did not do any organized excursions in France, correctly figuring that we would be too tired by then. Cannes is gorgeous, by the way, and we casually walked around. Marseilles was utterly unremarkable (whisper). The fact that we spent it with new, dear friends, however, made it a most memorable success for us. We laughed our asses off all day, but it would be a good day to stay on board and relax.
3. Sweet Child of Mine: Charity
It’s very cool that charity work and community service are important to Shannon. She tries to incorporate some of this in each trip. For example, on their inaugural cruise down the Mississippi to New Orleans, they planted 600 new grasses in the marsh after Hurricane Katrina. On this trip, we stopped and donated money, clothes, and toys to Italy’s oldest orphanage not run by the Vatican – a fact I appreciated – the Spedale degli Innocenti. It was really special to have a tour of the facility and to see how pleased the woman was who runs it. Side note, we thought it would be neat to get a book for my kids from their gift shop – donate to their cause and educate my kids about the efforts – so we grabbed one. A few minutes later when we asked the driver to help us with the Italian because the GF was having some trouble translating, we learned that the book is literally gibberish, made up Italian words and sounds to allow creative play with Italian kids. It will not translate very well to mine. At least we supported the charity!
4. Sweet New Friends
We had so much fun doing the organized activities with the other Sweeties. The welcome mixer, dinner seatings, and happy hours were where we began to build friendships with other lesbians from around the world, including the US, Canada, England, Spain, and Turkey. After we made these connections, we were able to make non-Sweet plans to do things both on the ship and off with new friends. And, that we did.
In particular there are a couple of standouts for us. Participating in a marriage proposal right outside the Sistine Chapel (she said yes!) with our new buddies from Atlanta; ordering pizza delivered to the nightclub on board at 3 AM with some amazing over-educated folks from Boston; searching for cheap beach towels in Sitges with our friends from Arkansas; and laughing our way through Europe with “Our Brits.”
We had so much fun comparing cultures and phrases. Did you know that “fanny” is a provocative and bad word in the UK? It’s the opposite of rear end here in the US, and every mention of the word by us brought peals of laughter and some blushing from Our Brits. Just for them, reading this – FANNY!
Parting Is Such Sweet Sorrow
We became so close with Our Brits that there were quite a few tears shed when they headed to the airport and we headed back into Barca. Even without a formal plan, all of the Sweeties left in Barca found our way to dinner together the next two nights. Friendships were cemented, emails exchanged, and photos shared.
This trip was amazing for us, a really wonderful experience with a lifetime of memories. Sweet contributed a great deal to that with careful planning, knowledge of the area, good activities, and a committed staff. Thank you Sweet for a truly sweet vacation!
It’s butch to be Sweet. Be Butch.