Palm Springs is one of North America’s premier gay destinations. Its harsh, arid, desert setting offset by the surrounding snow capped mountains certainly make it a unique stop on the tourist trail. Sun, sun and more sun, a host of clothing optional gay resorts and a bumper crop of gay bars create a perfect sandpit in which gay men can play to their hearts content. Our two hour drive north west from San Diego was relatively easy, through spectacular desert landscapes and hillsides covered in vivid orange and yellow wild flowers, a product of the unusually plentiful spring rains. Visitors to Palm Springs soon learn the city is no metropolis. A small CBD with wide open spaces and light traffic flow make it very easy to negotiate, even for newcomers.
It was 8 am and we were ready to explore the world’s largest sand island just off Hervey Bay in Queensland. Strapped into our off-road, four-wheel drive bus we were soon hurtling through the Australian bush on the narrow, rough, sandy roads of Fraser Island. With names like ‘the rollercoaster’, these tracks into the ‘never never’ were sure to provide plenty of thrills. First stop was Lake McKenzie. This spectacular rain-filled, crystal clear blue basin of water floats serenely on powder white silica sand. No swimming for us on this cool morning but it didn’t stop the intrepid tourists from Norway. Central Station was our next stop with towering 400 year old Fraser turpentine trees, exotic stag horns, and ancient, rare ferns growing in Wanggoolba Creek, a truly pristine environment.
On Jewel of the Seas, heading from Miami through the Panama Canal to San Diego, we had the opportunity to chat with Alessio Quaglio who has only been with Royal Caribbean for one and half years. Before Royal he was with Norwegian Cruise Lines for six years. His interest in people and travel grew from being a tour and staff leader in his hometown of Civitavecchia, the port closest to Rome. He trained originally as a biomedical engineer but after his first contract with ship life he became ‘hooked’. His first job at sea was as an immigration officer, then front desk manger and now as a Guest Services Manger on Jewel of the Seas. Alessio has multiple responsibilities as the officer in charge of guest services. He looks after the loyalty program, front desk operations, guest administration and the huge task of printing the ship’s daily Compass Newsletter.
Miami Cruise Terminal, one of the largest cruise ship terminals in the world, is home port for the Royal Caribbean Cruise Line company. This is where we headed to board our ship, Jewel of the Seas, which became our home away from home for 16 nights, along with 2500 fellow passengers, and 800 delightfully friendly crew members. The final destination for this cruise was San Diego but the highlight would undoubtedly be the passage through the amazing Panama Canal, famous as one of the world’s greatest feats of modern maritime engineering, allowing ease of passage between the northern and southern hemispheres. We bid farewell to Florida as we sailed past Miami’s famous South Beach, heading to our first destination, Cartagena, Colombia. The first part of the cruise was completely devoted to relaxation. As we had discovered on previous cruises it wasn’t hard to take full advantage of the indulgent leisure facilities on the ship.
Our recent visit to Florida coincided with the Beach Pride Festival celebrations in Fort Lauderdale and gave us the opportunity to travel to Miami to meet Francisca Phillips, Engagement Diversity & Inclusion Manager for Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. We were also fortunate enough to meet members of her team, Carlos and Ingrid, who gave us some fantastic insights into their roles and program responsibilities within the company. They have a complex task to manage working in a company with over 70,000 employees from more than 120 different nationalities. As our interest was the LGBTI+ community we were able to have a more focused discussion about that specific area. The team enthusiastically outlined a wide range of strategies they knew were being employed by the company, both on land and at sea.
Our ship slowly inched its way into the Port of Muscat, a tableau of stark contrasts. Arid, parched mountains flanked ancient forts. Gleaming, white buildings produced brilliantine sparkles and multi-million dollar pleasure cruisers languished in the harbour. Beyond the sanctuary of the port gates eager taxi drivers proffered services at inflated prices. We ventured independently towards the small horseshoe harbour and within ten minutes had discovered the heart of the city, the Mutrah Souq. This traditional old Arab souq or bazaar attracts mainly international tourists but we were securely anchored in the Middle East by the evocative aromas of burning frankincense, sweet cinnamon and spicy cardamom. Turban clad store traders haggled gold, carpets, head scarves, colourful cloth and burnished souvenirs. Kohl-eyed and dressed in ‘thawb’ (full length, white, traditional Arab garb) they more resembled spirits than shopkeepers.