Your Best Vacation Ever? Try the High Sea Thrills of the HIV Cruise Retreat

One regular passenger explains why there is a vital, joyful community on board.

BY Mark S. King

July 01 2014 11:47 AM ET

The lush tropical greenery was flashing by underneath me as I flew along on a zipline at breakneck speed. The sound of the wheel on the cable that carried me whirled loudly in my ears.  I was holding on for dear life and miles above the ground it seemed, traveling too fast to catch my breath.
 
I could hear the cheers of my new friends at the other end of the zip line, laughing and clapping at what must have been a look of crazed terror on my face.  My fellow passengers on the HIV Cruise Retreat were having as much fun as I was, probably more, since they probably didn't share my fear of heights. They stood on a platform awaiting me, reveling in the excitement.
 
Then it struck me. Something wonderful. I'm not going to die of HIV, I thought. Life is too exciting, too much of an adventure. There are friends to make and more thrills yet to come. Life is exactly as it should be.
 
And then I looked down. I'm not going to die of HIV, I thought again. I'm going to die from a 500-foot plunge into the Caribbean rain forest.
 
Years after my first voyage with the HIV Cruise Retreat, an annual event celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, that memory remains and always makes me smile. The friends remain as well, happy souvenirs from the cruise who pop up on my Facebook page or get together for dinner or a movie. We share something now that goes far beyond our HIV status.
 
 
If you're looking for a circuit party on a ship, you've got the wrong cruise. The HIV Cruise Retreat (also known as The Poz Cruise) embraces everyone, and we come in a glorious collection of gender and sexuality and sizes. The group of around 300 passengers is primarily HIV-positive gay men, but we are happily joined by straight men and women, some negative partners, and even a few loving moms or adventurous family members. For that matter, HIV itself barely comes up among us.  We support one another and share some advice here and theere, but it is such a relief for many of us not to have to worry about disclosure for one week that HIV is hardly the focus of our shared experience.
 
There's also no time for the usual posing that you might associate with other gay vacations. Sure, some of us look better in our swimwear than others, and that is perfectly fine, because the hunks are teased or talked into The Newlywed Game or can be found devouring the midnight buffet just like everyone else. The cruise is family, and we care about each other. You can easily make friends with anyone, and building community is a passion of mine.
 
For the last ten years, HIV-positive travel agent Paul Stalbaum has been organizing the event with the help of volunteer hosts like myself. Although no cruise is exactly cheap (shared cabins begin at $549), it really is a labor of love for those who do the planning.  There is a full schedule of special events aboard that are tailored just for us.  
 
We have private cocktail receptions, mud masks on the beach, theme parties, and our own excursions at each port of call. My favorite is The Dating Game, because we like to reserve a round for the straight cruisers, who always succeed in outdoing the gay men when it comes to the outrageousness of their answers.
 
For the special anniversary cruise, we set sail November 1-8 aboard the top-rated Celebrity Summit and travel round-trip for the first time from San Juan, Puerto Rico, to Barbados, St. Lucia, Antigua, St. Maarten, and St. Thomas. (Special group rates expire on July 4, so I urge you to look into it now if you're interested.)
 
Find out more by checking out the HIV Cruise Retreat web site, and be sure to watch my video blog above from last year's cruise. I hope to see you aboard!
 
Tags: Stigma

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