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  WINDY CITY TIMES

BUSINESS A Sweet travel experience
by Rachel Pepper
2009-12-23

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Sweet—a company specializing in eco-friendly travel packages for lesbians—launched its inaugural cruise from New Orleans Nov. 8 with 1,200 party-minded lesbians determined to make history as the first cruise ship offering "voluntour" opportunities in its ports of call, and full carbon offsetting for the ship and its participants.

Loaded with lesbians; a few gay men; and a handful of straight allies and transfolk, the Norwegian Spirit set sail for the Caribbean as Hurricane Ida roared up to meet it. On board were community leaders, activists, DJ's, authors, publishers, comics, entrepreneurs, filmmakers, actors, media, "celesbians," and a wide swath of women that ranged in race, size and age.

More than 330 passengers onboard volunteered at least once in ports of call Costa Maya, Belize City, Roatan Honduras and Cozumel. At Costa Maya, this included a beach cleanup at Uvero Beach, where participants collected more than 200 bags of trash at a beach where almost 90 percent of the debris washes ashore from other countries. Participants held contests for the weirdest item collected, which included a vacuum cleaner nozzle and a television. Sweet founder Shannon Wentworth called this "the perfect formula and Sweet model—unleashing 152 lesbians on the beach with trash bags for 45 minutes, then having a huge party afterwards." In Belize, the "Magic Brushes Pediatric Ward Cheer-up" at Karl Heusner Memorial Hospital transformed a dreary hospital corridor into a bright, cheery area.

On Cozumel, Sweeties replanted mangroves at Parque Punta Sur Ecological Reserve in Cozumel and brightened a city park with local Rotary Club members. In addition, about half of the cruise guests brought books onboard to donate to a children's library at a school in Belize City. In total, about a thousand books and art supplies were donated. In Honduras, an overhaul was done on the Sandy Bay E-Learning Center, which provides literacy in this impoverished country to students for a mere $150 a year. New computers and printers were donated, and enough extra money was raised to provide a year's tuition for four new students. Sweet also hosted shore replanting in New Orleans prior to the launch. Local media in all ports of call noted the arrival of thousands of lesbians intent on helping their communities.

First-time cruiser Denise Johnson from Chicago spoke for many of the women onboard in calling the mix of volunteering with a queer vacation as "brilliant." Further, she said, "I decided to take my first cruise ever, to be a part of the volunteerism aspect of the cruise. I did three out of four ports. The highlight of my trip was seeing the look on the faces of the clearly appreciative children in Belize and Honduras." Other first time cruisers expressed delight in supporting a company that pitched itself as catering to a more urban, slightly younger clientele than other lesbian travel companies. Although the age range onboard spanned from 20-91, a noticeably high proportion of women appeared to be in their 20s and 30s.

Charles Rounds, president of the 25-year-old travel company RSVP, which primarily serves gay men, was onboard the cruise and had high acclaim for Sweet. "This was a monumental first effort for Sweet. I know the sign onboard says that Sweet is the future of lesbian travel, but this is really the future of all travel, as led by lesbians." For passengers who were not as excited about donating their vacation hours to charity work, there were a plethora of other excursion options, including the usual sailing, barrier reef snorkeling, and sightseeing adventures.

Like any cruise, the on-board schedule was packed with events. While rocky weather kept many in their cabins for the first full day, by the third day, the skies had cleared and the "Sweeties," as guests were called by the boat's staff, were obviously having a wonderful time. The seemingly endless activities onboard included bingo; karaoke; sex-toy workshops facilitated by Babeland; a morning boot-camp led by workout guru Shawnee Harkins; a Curve magazine happy hour hosted by columnists Lipstick and Dipstick; "Sweet Sparks" networking sessions; pub crawls; a wet T-shirt contest by the pool where contestants where doused with water by reality-show contestant Dani Campbell; nightly dance parties with powerhouse DJ's like San Diego's Dirty Kurty; comedy by Suzanne Westenhoefer, Erin Foley, Sandra Valls and Gloria Bigelow; singles mixers; filming by afterellen.com's CherryBomb; and stars Cathy DeBuono and Jill Bennett of the hit Web series "We Have to Stop Now;" concerts by Adrienne and the Jen Corday band; and screenings of films And then Came Lola and Itty Bitty Titty Committee, complete with director Q&A afterwards. It seemed almost impossible to walk the ship's decks without bumping into someone you recognized, and the energy onboard was tinged with the crackle of celebrity encounter.

Sweet founder Shannon Wentworth praised Norwegian Cruise Lines and her cruise guests at a news conference on board the ship. The cruise company, she said, was extremely responsive to her vision and was very gay-friendly. Concerning the voluntour opportunities, Wentworth said, "Everything worked with this model. We're coming home very successful in what we accomplished, and it was fun at the same time. It was really profound to be able to go to these countries and be an ambassador for the United States. And we were so warmly greeted everywhere we went." Wentworth plans to revisit some of the sites where Sweet did volunteer work, and said that her company's next trip to the Caribbean, a week long resort stay on Cozumel, would also have voluntour opportunities. She noted that making the cruise eco-friendly cost about an extra $20 a person, and that participants told her "they loved the idea of traveling while solving the world's problems. " One woman, she said, even suggested, "Let's not go home, let's just keep traveling around the world and continue the work we've been doing on this trip."

Upcoming Sweet vacations include a Kenyan safari next February, a six-day rafting adventure on Idaho's Salmon River in August of 2010 and a visit to Cozumel's all-inclusive Palace Resort in September 2010. The next cruise will be a return to the Caribbean in 2011.

See www.DiscoverSweet.com .


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