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Cruising Greek Isles With Daughters of Sappho : Aside from unaccustomed freedom to be themselves, it was silly cruise business as usual on this all-lesbian charter.

March 28, 1993|LINDSY VAN GELDER and PAMELA ROBIN BRANDT | Van Gelder and Brandt, the authors of "Are You Two ... Together? A Gay and Lesbian Travel Guide to Europe" (Random House), are based in New York.

ABOARD THE STELLA OCEANIS — Given that we're two hard-core independent travelers who get seasick on Disneyland's "Pirates of the Caribbean" ride, a weeklong cruise through the Greek isles didn't seem, perhaps, like the most ideal vacation choice. But this cruise, sponsored by the Oakland-based Olivia company, was a bit different.

Certainly the onlookers lining Athens' Piraeus harbor seemed to think so. As Sun Lines' Stella Oceanis steamed out last September en route to Crete, Rhodes, Mykonos, Samos, Santorini, the Turkish coast and Lesbos, blase dockworkers and strollers alike glanced up, back down--and then, with broad double takes, back up again.

Could it be that the hundreds of departing passengers snaking in an exuberant conga line around Stella's swimming pool were all--every last wildly whooping one of them--women? "It's all right!" comedienne/cruise emcee Marga Gomez jokingly reassured the gapers through her megaphone. "The guys are downstairs! All of them! In the staterooms! They're napping! Don't worry!"

In fact, we 251 female passengers were part of a historic event that was reported--in blaring banner headlines--in the Greek press: the largest invasion of "small-l" lesbians (as opposed to capital-L natives of Lesbos) in recent Aegean history. "These priestesses of Sappho caused sensation and talk wherever they went," reported the National Free Press, "simply because they did not hide their homosexual identity."

In America today, the gay travel boom is hardly news. What's hard is finding a travel expert who hasn't proclaimed the gay market virtually recession-proof. At least a dozen tour operators now arrange floating gay group vacations. The largest offering all-women's cruises is Olivia, known in 1970s and '80s feminist circles as the leading producer of lesbian-oriented women's music records and concerts. In its first three years, Olivia has had over 5,000 passengers on 10 North and Central American cruises.

Greece, on the other hand--and despite an unparalleled roster of ancient gay celebs, including Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Alexander the Great, Sappho of Lesbos and several top gods--is quite conservative on the gay issue.

But Dlugacz says that Greece, despite its reputation as a hotbed of hot-blooded Casanova wanna-bes, was a shoo-in for Olivia's first European dip: "Lesbians in Lesbos! It was impossible to resist." Possible problems between an all-lesbian passenger list (Olivia always charters the entire ship) and a presumably mostly heterosexual male crew were minimized by pre-trip meetings between Stella and Olivia staffers, who emphasized that "this group was unavailable to them." (During the cruise, the one persistent sailor who refused to believe this was reported to the captain the fourth night out, and wasn't seen again for the rest of the voyage.)

We can personally testify that most of the staff absolutely rolled with the punches. One evening, when we were celebrating an anniversary, we found our table surrounded by a squadron of champagne-bearing, accordion-playing, beaming Greek waiters, who treated us just like any straight couple who'd made it through 15 years.

"When gay people go on a regular cruise, they basically find themselves in one of two positions," Dlugacz explains. "Either they are in the closet, or they are expending a good deal of time and energy explaining themselves, because we are stared at for things straight people take for granted in a romantic setting: strolling hand in hand on deck, dancing with your partner. All-gay cruises simply give passengers a level of taken-for-granted freedom they don't have in their daily lives."

Probably the thing that made these gay passengers most different from regular cruise passengers, though, was our age: mostly baby boomers rather than seniors. As for stereotypes, despite a Sun Lines brochure requesting that "At dinner, gentlemen are asked to wear a jacket and tie," most cruisettes did not. Normal attire for most was casual, but for formal occasions a surprising number were decked out in floor-length gowns, slinky Madonna-esque gold lame jumpsuits and more jewelry than Cleopatra ever would have dreamed of donning at one time, most of it acquired on the trip.

All around, trip ambience was decidedly G-rated, right down to occasional mass outbreaks into "Found a Peanut." Shipboard life consisted not of orgies in the lifeboats, but of five Herculean meals per day, plus Olivia's customized version of the usual endless activities most cruises offer specifically to foil us couch potatoes who plan to loll around the pool and gain weight. Aerobics at 7 a.m. Greek folk dancing lessons. Pool games. For the 15% of so of the women who were traveling as singles, the Lesbian Dating Game. For winners of the latter, the Lesbian Newlywed Game. A "Sappho Lookalike" contest. Bingo. Movies. Ouzo parties. Parties for 12-steppers. Lectures about goddesses. Folky live women's music concerts.

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