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    Tips for LGBTQ Travelers Based on My Journeys, Including a Recent Cruise to Spain

    By John Chen–

    Almost everyone has a bucket list. My bucket list has but one item: to see the world. This, however, is a catch-22 because it is virtually impossible to see the world given our limited time. My modified bucket list is now to see as much as I can before my time is up and an excellent way to do so is going on cruises. In the last 15 years, I have cruised to the islands of Hawaii and the Caribbean, Hong Kong and Southeast Asia, Australia and New Zealand, and the West Coast of Canada including Southern Alaska.

    Today I would like to take you on my most recent “see the world” journey on a cruise through five beautiful and historic port cities in Spain on the ship Virgin Valiant Lady. I would also like to share with you some pertinent travel tips, pointers, information, and recommendations.

    For those of you who don’t know, the majority of the cruises I’ve taken thus far have been with LGBTQ cruise companies. Some major advantages of going on a “gay” cruise or with a known gay-supportive company are: 1) traveling in a safe, non-judgmental environment surrounded by friends, loved ones, and supporters; 2) traveling with minimal mainstream societal restrictions and mores while on the cruise ship; and 3) partying like it’s 1999 with thousands of like-minded travelers!

    *John’s Tip #1: Fly Non-stop.

    Traveling today is unlike that of pre-pandemic days. I highly recommend direct flights, with no connections, if possible. The pandemic has caused major travel headaches with last minute flight cancellations around the world. Several of my friends nearly missed the cruise because of this.

    *John’s Tip #2: Reserve tests and fill out required forms in advance.

    Weeks before the trip, my husband and I reserved rapid antigen COVID “fit to fly” tests at an approved cruise ship travel testing clinic in Barcelona. We also had to register and clear health checks through the Spanish Health Portal three days before getting on our flight. These inconveniences are the norm of traveling internationally nowadays, but worth the effort.

    Day 1: Tapas and Barcelona LGBTQ Scene

    After a 12-hour non-stop flight from SFO, we were ready to kiss the ground in Barcelona. From the airport, we took a taxi to the Cram Hotel, one of two LGBTQ hotels (the other one is Axel) in the heart of the gay district where we were greeted by streets, buildings, and businesses lined with rainbow and the various LGBTQ community flags. Barcelona is definitely a very LGBTQ friendly city!

    We met up with our friends from Palm Springs in the early evening and had drinks at a popular and iconic gay bar, Priscilla Café, before dinning outdoors for our first of many Spanish tapas meals at Lexi’s. Later that night, we toured Barcelona’s gayborhood on foot visiting several “businesses as such.”

    *John’s Tip #3: Have an idea of transportation (e.g., taxi and public transport), customs (e.g., tipping), advisories (e.g., scams) and costs before you travel, and have some destination goals such as what to do, see, and eat.

    Although the thrill of an impromptu trip with no agenda can be alluring, no matter the type of trip you plan to take, I recommend that you do some basic research and preparatory work prior to your trip. You definitely don’t want to be caught blind, especially in a foreign country.

    Day 2: COVID Test and Private Tour of Historic Barcelona

    Our other cruise friends from Los Angeles and Houston arrived in the early, early morning hours and joined us at Schbelta Clinic Centro Medico to receive our rapid antigen COVID test. The six of us were very nervous because testing positive would spell disaster. Fortunately, we all took tremendous precautions weeks before the trip and while visiting businesses in Barcelona and tested negative.

    Around noon, we met up with our private Barcelona tour guide, Milena, for a seven-hour walk to the most historic and cultural landmarks, including whimsical structures created by Antoni Gaudí, an internationally renowned Catalan architect for his “nature of animals” style. Originally from Argentina, Milena was well versed in the history and the people of Barcelona, especially Spanish national hero Christopher Columbus and the region’s Catalonian roots. Milena also warned us about pick pocketers who run rampant in tourist destinations all over Spain.

    *John’s Tip #4: Think about going on an introductory/overview tour to acquaint yourself with the destination. Use a reputable tour agency with reviews, contact info, and cancellation policy. I almost always use Viator/Trip Advisor.

    Our tour began in La Rambla, a tree-lined street designed for tourism. We then visited Placa Reial in the famed Gothic Quarter, tasted Iberian cured meats and fresh exotic fruit juices at the ever-popular Mercat de la Boqueria, followed by a visit to Dick Waffle, where ice cream and many delectable sweets were sold in the shape of a very large penis!

    Zig-zagging through the picturesque alleyways of Barcelona, Milena explained that a recent law prohibited tourist groups over 12 people due to congestion in the highly visited narrow stone paved streets. We navigated the labyrinth and admired the Catalan structures of Güell Palace, the Cathedral de Barcelona, the Picaso Museum and Casas Batlló, and Milà. Oh, and we ate more tapas. Finally, we spent several hours at the pièce de résistance, Antoni Gaudí ’s architectural masterpieces Sagrada Família and Park Güell. By now, even in writing if you haven’t noticed, I sound extra sophisticated, cultured, and so Catalonian and French!

    After a long day of walking and feeling like an erudite snob, we were starving! Back at our hotel, our concierge worked his magic and got us a last seating at the hotel’s 2 Michelin Star restaurant, Angle. It took us nearly four hours to complete an “18 course” meal accompanied by a tasting wine/liquor option!

    Day 3: All Aboard Virgin Valiant Lady

    After a late night, we slept in until checkout at noon. Leaving our bags at the hotel, we went in search of the most excellent brunch and found the Cremat Lounge, a brunch place that hung six large rainbow flags and showcased a diva drink menu. Did you know that a Spanish breakfast plate comes with two poached eggs, always? When I asked for over easy, the wait staff looked at me like I was some crazy American tourist. Oh, and the Spanish pancakes are smaller, but thicker, meatier, and more substantial than American pancakes. Two thumbs up from this crazy American tourist!

    After filling our bellies, we taxied to the cruise port and proceeded to board the Virgin Valiant Lady with 1,400 enthusiastic and energized gay men of all ages, shapes, sizes, and colors from all over the world … and 10 women! Immediately, we met a young “Abbot and Castello” couple from New York City, an interracial couple from San Francisco, and a trio of “ready to party” singles from Italy, England, and the country Georgia.

    First day on board is all about getting to know the ship. Get to know where all the restaurants and eateries are, when the available entertainment and activities (translation: themed dance parties) are, and all the amenities such as the 1,000 bars on board, the pool and spa, the “dick deck,” and the gym. The gym is especially important to the gays because it’s not just about health; it’s about displaying the most brilliant peacock plume to attract many, and I mean many, potential suitors. The voyage may be called Virgin, but I can’t imagine a single virgin among 1,400 gay men.

    *John’s Tip #5: Reserve popular shows and premium/specialty restaurants in advance.

    Every cruise ship has a number of “premium or specialty” restaurants where the food is levels above the others (and all you can eat). On this trip, premium restaurants were free, whereas most cruise lines charge a set fee for their specialty restaurants. If you love food, you absolutely must dine at these restaurants. Although walk-ins are welcome, due to their popularity, you really should reserve your space in advance or risk not getting seated.

    This cruise line generally has several shows that are extremely popular, such as the headline performer, drag bingo, and comedy shows—but with limited capacity. If allowable, reserve spots as soon as available for you, yours, and friends so that you are not left outside looking in.

    Day 4: Valiant Lady at Sea and Dog Tag Tea Dance

    A day on a cruise ship with no docking port is commonly referred to as a sea day. The Valiant Lady glided effortlessly through the Balearic and Alboran Seas, then the Strait of Gibraltar before finally entering the Atlantic Ocean to Southwest Spain.

    The cruise line that we chose is well-known for onboard mega and sometimes wild theme parties where attendees dress up in extravagant costumes. Generally speaking, the first big party is the afternoon dog tag tea dance where many party goers sport ultra-sexy and rather revealing military style camo “uniforms.” Although the Valiant Lady could not house a full capacity of passengers due to COVID restrictions, still several hundred near-naked men packed the pool deck under the sun-kissed sky gyrating and thrusting to the latest house music.

    If big “circuit” like parties aren’t your thing, there are a plethora of other activities such as sunbathing, spa, bingo, arcade, basketball, trivia, casino, board games, live entertainment, shopping, and restaurants for cruisers with various interests. There’s something for everyone onboard.

    *John’s Tip #6: For less experienced travelers or those who are first time to a destination, go on the cruise company’s onshore excursions for security, reliability, and safety.

    One thing about cruising I must mention is that all cruise companies offer many onshore excursion options at every port. Excursions, in my opinion, are the best ways to get the most out of every port destination, especially if it is your first time there. Excursions can be cultural (UNESCO World Heritage Sites), scenic (National Parks), sporty (biking, hiking, or kayaking), relaxing (beach), or educational (cooking class, wine tasting, craft/art making). I recommend that cruisers to go with excursions offered on the ship. They are trustworthy, use reputable travel agencies, and if something happens, the cruise ship will not leave you behind. This will save you lots of headaches!

    Of course, you may choose to go out and explore on your own and that’s perfectly fine. Just be cognizant of the local customs, language, advisories, and when the ship leaves port. Do not be late, because the ship will not wait for you. You are not that special!

    Day 5: Cádiz, El Bosque, and Zahara

    We woke up to the Valiant Lady already docked at Cádiz, the southwestern most city as well as province in Spain. A major advantage of being on a cruise ship is that Valiant Lady towers over most structures giving cruisers stunning panoramic views of the landscape. In Cádiz, we ate breakfast with the beautiful Catedral de Cádiz in the background!

    For Cádiz, we selected an excursion that took us deep into the province to learn about the Moorish origins and why the region is famous for its cheese and picturesque white mountainside villages. Our bus ride took us through the golden Spanish countryside, canvassed with field after field of blooming sunflowers.

    Our first stop was El Bosque, home to the Queso (Cheese) Museum where the history of world-famous Cádiz goat cheese and cheese making processes are documented. The curator informed us the species of goats used to make the cheeses were not only indigenous to the area, but also endangered, with a mere several thousand left. Moreover, we were able to get our hands dirty and learn to make and mold cheese and sample the best cheeses the region has to offer including the 3rd best voted cheese in the world, Oveja Emborrade.

    Our second and final stop was Zahara de la Sierra, a painting-like, white, mountainside village 3,600 feet high in the hills of Andalusia. This municipality was once a castle fortress quelling enemy attacks, with only remnants of the castle still standing today. In Zahara, we strolled through the many narrow stone paved streets, visited the Church of Santa Mária de la Meza and the Plaza Mayor, where we shopped and dined (tapas, what else?) in the heart of the pueblo blanco.  

    Arriving back at the cruise port with a few hours to spare, we ventured into the heart of Cádiz, where modern shops, restaurants, and residences are built on top of a defunct castle. Naturally, we toured yet another historically significant cathedral, the Catedral de Cádiz.

    Back on the Valiant Lady, we attended a very adult comedy show, “All About Sex with Dr. Anya,” where anything goes—and ordered everything on the menu at Pink Agave, a premium Mexican restaurant onboard.

    Day 6: Málaga, Alhambra, Granada, and Scarlet Party

    At Málaga, we signed up for an all-day excursion to UNESCO World Heritage Sites Alhambra and Granada. The bus ride to Alhambra was long (2 hours!) but fairly comfortable. Unlike the sunflower-drenched Cádiz, miles and miles of olive trees on rolling hills lined the Málaga countryside all the way to the province and city of Granada.

    Alhambra, the best representation of ancient Islamic architecture, is one of the most visited tourist attractions in all of Spain. Once an Islamic palace, the Alhambra became a complex with subsequent additions and modifications through Christian Reconquista and the Renaissance, but fell to neglect and squatting until its rediscovery and restoration since the 1800s.

    From Sabika Hill where Alhambra sits, our tour descended to the city of Granada down below and best known for its medieval architecture, Catholic influence, and historical significance to the division and unification of Spain. At the city center, we visited the Cathedral of Granada (yes, yet another cathedral) and the Royal Chapel, where many Catholic monarchs were buried.

    After a tapas break (is there another type in Spain?), our tour moved to modern Granada, where shops and restaurants dotted the plazas and boulevards. Almost immediately, we noticed pride flags were prominently displayed on several buildings and streets. Apparently, we missed the Granada Pride Celebration by just a week. The sight of support and acceptance made our little LGBTQ tour group felt very welcome.

    Back on the Valiant Lady, we caught a fun variety show followed by dinner before heading to the next theme celebration, the Scarlet Party, where everyone dresses in red. This was truly a long day that started at 7 am and finally ended at 2 am after 20,000+ steps.

    Day 7: Eurovision Tea Dance, Ibiza, and Birthday Celebration

    Day 7 is mostly a sea day. Valiant Lady doesn’t dock in Ibiza until 7 pm and remains docked until 7 pm the next day. After a long tour of Granada, we slept in but did manage to roll out of bed for lunch and some afternoon sun before the third theme party, the Eurovision afternoon Tea Dance. With scores of men wearing Eurovision inspired fashion, minus some body coverings, the party fashionably announced Valiant Lady’s entrance into Ibiza, a Spanish island in the Mediterranean Sea famous for wild late-night clubs and parties.

    This night, instead of partying in Ibiza like many of our fellow shipmates, our friends joined us for my husband’s birthday celebration onboard at The Wake, a premium steakhouse. After a 2-pound tomahawk steak, five 7-ounce filets, three fried polenta steaks, a bowl of shrimp and grits, a plate of seafood pasta, a grilled salmon entrée, enough side dishes to feed a small army, three chocolate mousse tarts, three panna cottas, two chocolate ganache cakes, and two cheesecakes, the six of us were stuffed and had to be carted out of the restaurant!

    Day 8: Citadel Dalt Vila, Eivissa (Ibiza Town), Castell de Eivissa (Castle of Ibiza), and White Party

    Although Ibiza is well known for its late-night party scene and electronic dance music, the vast majority of destinations on the island are registered as UNESCO World Heritage Sites including the fortress citadel Dalt Vila and the surrounding Renaissance walls. Our excursion took us deep inside the citadel where we toured the Castle of Ibiza, Catedral de Santa María de les Neus (our 100th cathedral), and the historic landmarks, structures, and shops of the Old Town (Dalt Vila). The near 360-degree view of Ibiza from the top of the castle alone was worth the price of admission. From the top, we zig-zagged down the narrow streets through the heart of Old Town to the main entrance under the Renaissance wall, and finally, into Eivissa.

    At 7 pm, Valiant Lady left port leaving behind a magnificent sunset with Ibiza in the distance. After another amazing dinner at the premium restaurant Razzle Dazzle, we got a little rest before heading to the iconic White Party, where it seemed as if everyone was wearing nothing but a white jock strap.

    Day 9: Palma de Mallorca, Castell de Bellver, Valldemossa, and Deborah Cox

    At 8 am, the Valiant Lady arrived in Palma, the capitol of Mallorca and a cosmopolitan resort city. From the upper decks of our ship, we were treated to a spectacular view of Palma Centre and the Gothic Roman Catholic Catedral-Basílica de Santa María de Mallorca.

    From Palma, our excursion took us to Valldemossa, a small mountain village and a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Serra de Tramuntana where Frédéric Chopin spent a winter with his lover and French writer George Sand at the Carthusian Monastery. The monastery was once a royal charterhouse that was yielded to the Carthusian monks until their expulsion. At the monastery, we toured the Chopin Museum and were treated to a piano recital of the music Chopin wrote inspired by his time spent in Valldemossa.

    Our excursion ended at Castell de Bellver, one of the largest and few circular castles remaining in the world. The castle has a moat outside of the castle walls as well as a moat inside the castle walls. The outer moat was used to defend against attackers. The inner moat was used to capture the attackers.

    Typical of this cruise line, the entertainer on the final night of the cruise is the headliner. On the Valiant Lady, it was Canadian Music Hall of Fame Inductee Deborah Cox. If you are gay and you don’t know who she is, you may now give your membership card back. One of the biggest dance music chart toppers ever, Cox has also starred on Broadway’s Aida and The Bodyguard. We had to reserve our seats as soon as they were available. Cox’s performance was electrifying, and she worked the crowd into a frenzy! My quick-thinking friend Luke Nield was able to get a selfie with her in the middle of a song!

    Day 10: Valiant Lady in Barcelona and Friendships

    At 8 am, we were all packed and ready to disembark. With a little extra time on our hands, we headed to the main dining area called The Galley to have a final meal knowing we most likely would see many of the new friends we met and could say goodbye. One perk of traveling on gay cruises and gay-friendly lines is meeting amazing LGBTQ people, and over the years, we have had the honor of befriending many outstanding men including a trailblazing gay couple who courageously challenged and fought the state of Florida on marriage rights and equality 20 some years ago.

    This trip was no different as we met several remarkable and accomplished LGBTQ leaders including a former Naval officer, a major corporate executive, an accountant to drag queens who successfully competed on Ru Paul’s Drag Race, a professor of medicine, and a young fitness entrepreneur.

    One of my new friends in particular, Andy Green, stood out. Green arguably was the first person to successfully negotiate public access to private networks, thus, giving birth to the internet as we know it today. Green is a successful technology innovator and recently developed the potentially life-saving app, MyRadar, which tracks and informs in real-time local severe and dangerous weather patterns.

    After 11 days, including flight time, I can check coastal Spain off my bucket list. I feel very fortunate to experience firsthand the history, culture, and people of this beautiful country. I am also glad that we chose to do so through a gay cruise company. And, of course, the Virgin Valiant Lady provided comfort, style, amenities, and activities as well as amazing food.

    *John’s Final Tip: If you haven’t already done so, try cruising to your next destination, and perhaps sail with an LGBTQ cruise company or one that is known for being supportive of the LGBTQ community. You never know whom you are going to meet!

    John Chen, a UCLA alumnus and an avid sports fan, has competed as well as coached tennis, volleyball, softball, and football teams.

    Cover Story
    Published on October 6, 2022