Lesbian cruises carving out niche thanks to Bay Area firm

A Bay Area lesbian travel company is springing to the surface as a major player in the widening ocean of niche cruises.

Sweet, founded earlier this year by San Franciscan Jen Rainen and Oakland resident Shannon Wentworth, has finalized an agreement with Norwegian Cruise Line to charter the 1,972-passenger Norwegian Spirit. Sweet’s weeklong maiden voyage to the Western Caribbean will set sail Nov. 8 through Nov. 15 from New Orleans.

While gay travel is nothing new, Sweet’s voyage will mark the biggest lesbian cruise to date, Wentworth said. The trip is also geared toward volunteerism and ecotourism. All of Sweet’s cruises will involve projects such as beach cleanups, city rebuilding efforts and habitat restoration. “We want to demonstrate that cruise passengers aren’t coming into your port to eat all your chips and drink all your beer. We’re going to help stock your schools and build your houses,” Wentworth said.

Lawrence Dessler, executive director of the Niche Cruise Marketing Alliance, said specialty cruises have doubled in size during the last five years. There are cruises for wine connoisseurs, goths, those who are trying to quit smoking and getting fit. Both gay cruises and cruises that focus on ecotourism have flourished, Dessler said.

“The market is large, it’s vibrant and there’s an appreciation of traveling with like-minded people,” he said.

San Francisco as a cruising departure city continues to be challenging, Dessler said, because its distance from cruising hot spots such as the Mexican Riviera or Alaska means more days at sea.

But while larger cruise companies often overlook San Francisco, niche cruises up the Napa River are growing rapidly, Dessler said.

“They’ve created these wine-immersion tours where small boats make their way up river in fall and then stop and connect with motor coaches,” he said. In the coming years, Dessler said he expects to see niche cruises leaving from San Francisco and making their way up the coast to Oregon.

A San Francisco port may also be in the cards for Sweet.

“We would love to use San Francisco as a port and maybe do some three- or four-day weekend projects out of San Francisco,” Wentworth said. “We’d also like to do some boutique wine country cruises with a smaller passenger count.”

tbarak@sfexaminer.com

By the numbers

$1,099 Price per person for a lower deck, inside room

$4,499 Price per person for the owner’s suite

1,970 Passengers the Norwegian Spirit holds

11 Restaurants on the ship

8 Bars and lounges

6 Ports visited during the trip

Source: www.discoversweet.com

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