Travel » Features

Clipper Ship Cruising Along Costa Rica with Concierge Travel

by Mark Thompson
EDGE Style & Travel Editor
Monday Mar 21, 2011

Imagine a travel day that commences with the sunrise and sees you flying at 38,000 feet through choppy air, the plane rolling just enough to remind you anew of the wonder of flight - Is this your Icarus moment? - and then, some hours later, having safely landed in Costa Rica, you're in the North Pacific Ocean, aboard the Star Flyer, a four-masted clipper ship, which sails through the night, lulling you to sleep in your stateroom with the ancient rhythms of the ocean across which Christopher Columbus commenced the Spanish influence over the New World. It's as if you've ricocheted back in time, leaving behind the age of aeronautics for the glories of the maritime.

The Star Clipper line of three clipper ships (the Star Flyer, the Star Clipper, and the Royal Clipper) has a devoted following of nautical enthusiasts - particularly those cruise queens who live more for Moby Dick than The Lady Eve, let's say - and the staterooms on these luxury yachts are jewel boxes of highly-polished teak and brass, with nautical prints of classic ships hanging above oil-lamp sconces.

Initially there's the slightly disconcerting sensation of being disconnected - cell phone reception is spotty, at best, and more often non-existent, and as for the temptations of Facebook, Manhunt, and Grindr, the Internet is eons away from Costa Rica's unspoiled eco-pleasures.

The Family That Plays Together

Instead, there’s the pervasive sense of family that marks a Concierge Travel cruise, whereby connectedness takes on an entirely new meaning. In other words, the family that plays together stays together - and this is a family as happy as 101 Dalmatian pups.

Established in 1997, Concierge Travel is a Houston-based LGBT travel agency that, for years, has been the world’s largest-booking travel agency for RSVP Vacations - which has often resulted in cruises marked by a Concierge Travel family of upwards of 350 people, all traveling and partying together on the RSVP Vacations cruises.

In 2009, Concierge began offering its own charter cruises to remote and romantic locales (such as the Galapagos Islands), utilizing smaller ships that enable access to otherwise unreachable destinations. Moreover, the smaller ships, some with a capacity of no more than 170 passengers, foster that same sense of an extended family reunion that mark the Concierge Travel experience onboard the RSVP Vacations cruises.

Built in 1991, the four-masted Star Flyer is currently the tallest "tall" ship in the world, with a mast that reaches 226 feet. More than 36,000 square feet of sails billow in the wind - as did the rainbow flag on this cruise, flying above the Concierge Travel banner and proudly signaling: Queens on the High Seas; Buenos Dias, Costa Rica!

Pura Vida: Costa Rica’s Unofficial Motto

The Star Flyer’s polyglot crew of more than seventy sailors is from countries all around the world - and with a passenger list of less than 150, the odds were perfect for bespoke customer service from comely Spanish and East European youths. Climb a mast? No problem. Kayak, snorkel, and scuba dive. Check, check, and check. See you after midnight? Well, that was your business.

Or you could simply watch the sunset from the widow’s net attached to the bowsprit beyond the fore deck. Imagine a hammock over the ocean - and as the Star Flyer clipped along at eight knots, a school of manta rays in the water directly beneath you, you felt like the lovechild of Huckleberry Finn on his Mississippi raft and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, with her diaphanous scarves whipping in the air.

The Star Flyer splits its year between Costa Rica and the Mediterranean, locales particularly noted for relaxation. The unofficial mantra of Costa Rica is "Pura Vida," a phrase meaning "pure life" or "good life," which is often used as a local greeting and which beautifully highlights the inherent optimism of Costa Ricans. This is a country, after all, that permanently abolished its military in 1949, and is, currently, the only country in the world without an army.

The Welcoming and Inclusive Community

Perhaps, then, it’s small wonder that Costa Rica ranks first in the Happy Planet index and is the only Latin American country included in the world’s democracy index. As one measure of the country’s civility towards its citizenry, Costa Rica’s health care system is more highly ranked than the United States’ - and this with only a fraction of the States’ GDP. A pioneer in the eco-tourism movement, with over 25% of its land protected as conservation area, Costa Rica will become the first carbon neutral country by 2021.

Throughout the seven-day Central American cruise, that "pura vida" spirit ruled the atmosphere aboard the Star Flyer. Surely, the easygoing vibe encountered at the six Costa Rican ports o’call helped to sustain that bonhomie - but, without question, the genesis of the ship’s laidback vibe comes from Concierge Travel.

Concierge Travel founder and owner, Kim Gustavsson, conducts leadership conferences for Fortune 500 companies and is a proponent of Landmark Education, which extols the virtues of integrity and personal responsibility in becoming who you are meant to be on this planet. The resultant atmosphere on a Concierge Travel cruise is one in which everyone’s idiosyncrasies are celebrated, providing enough room for everyone to feel a part of the welcoming and inclusive community.

Celluloid Glow

In other words, there’s no "attitude" of the sort that leaves one feeling excluded - and the parties on deck become a kind of idyllic desert island scenario, whereby every subculture within the LGBT community commingles with carefree abandon.

The Star Flyer’s passenger list included the former gay mayor of Tempe, Arizona, and former head of GLAAD, Neil Guiliano, as well as legendary Saint deejay, Robbie Leslie, and Source Events founder, Craig Smith, and the incandescent Holly Goheavy, partying alongside doctors, therapists, drag queens, opera singers, Canadians, Brazilians, vegans, fagnets, Swedes, lesbians, cabaret stars, muscle boys, bears, scuba divers, kite-makers, naturalists, hair stylists - as well as the myriad personae who emerged nightly from the various trunks of costuming that these libertines dragged aboard.

On a boat this romantic, nearly every encounter took on a celluloid glow. At dinner, the dining room shimmered with amber light (or purple or red, depending upon the light gels installed by Concierge Travel’s own cruise director) and for a moment, everything was civilized - at least until Maissie entered the room, all tarted up as Baby Jane set loose on an unsuspecting audience.

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A Cavalcade of Talent

Part of Concierge Travel’s cavalcade of talent, Maissie is also known as Johnathon, who - in another galaxy, far, far away - is a British bobby (as in policeman...). As Maissie, however, s/he was the Captain’s Consort, a riotously, rubber-faced amalgam of Ab Fab Patsy and every British sitcom battle-ax - and it was a measure of Captain Jurgen Mueller-Cyran’s good humor (as well as his years of nautical experience) that he, and the entire crew, indulged Maissie’s daily sexual shenanigans.

The ribald spirit of piratical jollity was maintained throughout the seven-night cruise, thanks to an assortment of Concierge Travel characters such as Emmy-award-winning Chi Chi Rones who brilliantly channeled Judy Garland at her legendary Carnegie Hall concert, as well as Kitty Kelly, a limber comic with the mimetic chops of Martha Raye and Red Skelton who did a mean SNL "Sisters" act with forks instead of doll hands.

In short, Gilligan’s Island had nothing on this crew of crazies.

Parties included the first-night, defense-lowering Underwear Party, and an Eighties tea dance, noteworthy for a surfeit of egregious fashion faux pas, as well as an elaborate Carnivale party held on Fat Tuesday as the Star Flyer sailed from Panama. This being a Houston-based company, there was also a Cowboys Party, with an entire deck full of two-steppin’ cowpokes and rodeo boys - and the truly tragic sight of Miss Kitty Kelly in a corset and little else.

Armstrong Took the Boys Nightly to Church - to Sing "Pussy"

And there was also Amy & Freddy. Every second night, the wildly-popular and well-loved duo of Amy Armstrong and Freddy Allen entertained a packed piano bar of show queens and sing-a-long chorus boys who knew nearly every lyric (as well as every little inside reference, such as "the monkey who peed on me" allusion and the Crochetta doll jokes about the dolly who travels the world with her two homo owners).

This award-winning, Chicago-based duo has performed around the world on no less than 44 cruises - and all of them gay. As Armstrong says, the gays are her people - and to partake in an evening with the deep-throated, soulful singer and her exemplary accompanist is to feel the sense of family that exemplifies a Concierge Travel cruise. Imagine, for example, an entire shipload of gleeful gays singing along to every favorite sitcom theme of the Eighties. Or deliriously shouting out the lyric, "Pussy." Or holding its collective breath as Ms. Armstrong breathed new pathos into the John Prine/Bette Midler classic "Hello In There."

As ribald and quick-witted as Sophie Tucker, with a powerhouse voice that evokes Aretha, Armstrong took the boys nightly to a church where the only sin was not feeling the joy generated by such a loving relationship between performer and audience. And when Armstrong announced that she and Allen had been invited to join Concierge Travel’s Greek Isles & Turkey cruise, the resultant cheer was cacophonous.

Summer Camp Redux

One of the ancillary benefits of booking a Concierge Travel cruise is knowing that 20% of net travel revenue is donated annually to LGBT non-profit, service organizations. In 2009, Concierge Travel donated more than $50,000 - and on this cruise alone, more than $40,000 was raised for Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBT civil rights organization, for which Concierge Travel is a Bronze National Partner.

For many patrons of Concierge Travel, this cruise on the Star Flyer was like a family reunion - or a return to the best summer camp of your youth (the one where your lust for your camp counselor was finally rewarded late one night...). It’s, therefore, not surprising to discover that many of Concierge Travel’s clientele are return customers - and not just because of the gifts that arrived nightly in the stateroom (and no, we’re not talking about towel animals - or, alas, any of the comely crew members...).

Each day, a small gift lay waiting on the bed: Costa Rican coffee, Mardi Gras masks, leather bracelets, sailor hats, wood carvings, rubber duckies - as well as chocolate kisses on the pillows. It was this attention to detail and thoughtfulness that kept everyone smiling as they sank into sleep - before another day at sea with Concierge Travel.

Book a cruise with Concierge Travel - and you’ll gain a whole new perspective on family.



Manuel Antonio National Park: Established in 1972, this island park, the smallest in Costa Rica, is an idyllic refuge for 109 species of mammals, including the two- and three-toed sloth, the raccoon, the capuchin monkey, the raccoon, the white-faced monkey, the howler monkey, as well as numerous iguanas, lizards, and multi-hued insects, and more than 184 species of birds. Hire Mario Brenes, a guide from Costa Rica Jade Tours - and you’ll better understand why this park is the most visited park in Costa Rica.

Apart from the flora and fauna, there are two pristine, white sand beaches at Manuel Antonio, lined with lush forest. This is where you sink into a reverie about leaving behind your life in the States and settling full-time into Costa Rica’s sylvan charms.

LINK: Manuel Antonio National Park

Costa Rica Jade Tours: To put it simply, Mario Brenes is a Costa Rican treasure. With ten years of experience as a naturalist guide, Mario knows an incredible amount about Costa Rican flora and fauna - and to walk with him through Manuel Antonio National Park is to see a whole new world that might otherwise go unnoticed by untrained eyes. Not only intelligent and well-educated, Mario is passionate about the natural world and its conservation - and to spend an afternoon with him and his Swarovski telescope is to be closer to an Edenic world, unspoiled by Homo sapiens.

LINK: Costa Rica Jade Tours


(Story continues on next page: Where to Eat in Costa Rica...)


The Fish Hook Marina and Lodge, Golfito: An absolutely charming establishment, the sort of place that you might imagine Ernest Hemingway lolling away an afternoon in between fishing trips. There’s a marina and a lodge, with restaurant and sunset bar - and a kind of serenity and calm that you associate with a life from another century. There’s also WiFi and cell phone reception (and an incredibly computer-savvy staff, including a twelve-year-old computer wizboy), but more importantly, the Fish Hook is a kind of portal into another time, when afternoons were meant for gazing peacefully at the ocean - rather than at a computer screen.

LINK: The Fish Hook Marina and Lodge, Golfito

La Esquina en la playa, Manuel Antonio, Quepos: Just off the beach, across the street, there’s a little restaurant with a small cat and some of the nicest people in Costa Rica to serve you some of the freshest, home-cooked cuisine in Quepos. The gazpacho is delicious as are the well-seasoned, hand-cut French fries - and the batidos are made from tropical fruits such as cas, a sour guava that imparts a pale green shimmer to this delicious, refreshing elixir. This is the kind of place where you can easily order another round - and do nothing more than watch the beachgoing parade just beyond your table. Cheap and delicious and friendly: it’s a recipe for a perfect afternoon.


Upcoming Concierge Travel Trips:

Pineapple Point Weekend Getaway, Fort Lauderdale
Concierge Travel, Inc.
June 10 - 12, 2011

Journey into South Africa
Concierge Travel, Inc.
November 19 - 29, 2011

Our Family Meets Yours on the Allure of the Seas: LGBT Group with Families and Friends
Concierge Travel, Inc.
January 3 - 8, 2012

Greek Isles & Turkey
Concierge Travel, Inc.
August 25 - September 1, 2012

Amazon River Expedition Cruise
Concierge Travel, Inc.
October 27 - November 3, 2012

Upcoming RSVP Vacations Trips:

Grand Mediterranean Cruise
Holland America Nieuw Amsterdam
July 9 - 16, 2011

Eastern Caribbean Cruise
Holland America Nieuw Amsterdam
February 12 - 19, 2012

Please note that all RSVP Vacations, as well as Source Events trips, can be booked through Concierge Travel.



Concierge Travel

RSVP Vacations

Concierge Travel Central American Clipper Ship Cruise Photo Album

A long-term New Yorker and a member of New York Travel Writers Association, Mark Thompson has also lived in San Francisco, Boston, Provincetown, D.C., Miami Beach and the south of France. The author of the novels WOLFCHILD and MY HAWAIIAN PENTHOUSE, he has a PhD in American Studies and is the recipient of fellowships at MacDowell, Yaddo, and Blue Mountain Center. His work has appeared in numerous publications.


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