I never would have expected a cruise to change my life. But then who would have ever expected a homegrown record company to not only succeed but morph one day into a travel company that took women around the world more than 10 times a year? I’m referring, of course, to Olivia and specifically to a Western Caribbean cruise that I took recently. A cruise that inspired me.
I expected it to be fun: seven days on the high seas with my girlfriend and a ship full of women, 98 percent of whom were lesbian. The only men on board worked as waiters and cleaners and chefs and ship’s officers. The itinerary would take us to Belize City, Roatan (an island off Honduras), and Cozumel and Costa Maya in Mexico. Sunny destinations and nothing to do but enjoy. What could be better?
The story behind it all, actually. The woman behind it. The history made and in the making. That, amazingly, was even better.
Olivia records was a collective cofounded in 1973 by Judy Dlugacz because women generally, and lesbians in particular, were so hideously underrepresented in music. There might be a female singer or two, but never an all-female band. And rarely a major venue booking female acts, let alone more than one female group playing a show.
“The music was so powerful in my own life that when the idea of a record company came up, there was no question it would work,” Dlugacz explained. Then she said with a laugh, “of course, we had no money and we didn’t know anything about the industry.”
One of the very first things you learn when you meet Dlugacz is that nothing seems to scare her. Nothing seems impossible. In her mind, if it has to be done, it can be done. Olivia records launched the careers of such musicians as Meg Christian and Cris Williamson. Running Olivia “was an impossible job, but I did it because we needed it,” Dlugacz explained.
“The records enabled women in the closet to get the music sent to them and they could suddenly be connected to a whole community they didn’t have before. Women who knew they were gay and were deeply in the closet and women who were feminists and never considered being a lesbian.”
Olivia records recorded and marketed women’s music. But, perhaps even more importantly, it put on concerts and helped women in other parts of the country to put on concerts of their own. It was a double whammy of empowerment.
Then one day someone asked Dlugacz, “Wouldn’t it be great to have concerts on the water?” that was all it took. With the changing face of the music industry, Olivia would have to change with it or fade away. The latter simply wasn’t an option. So, in 1990, Olivia records became Olivia and launched its first all-women cruise.
Dlugacz chartered a boat and promised women not just a vacation but an experience. Supporters of Olivia records handed over their deposits without question for that first Olivia cruise.
Dlugacz delivered as promised, and the rest, as they say, is his- tory, remarkable history any way you look at it. Olivia celebrated its 20th anniversary this year with a cruise to the western Caribbean. From a ship that held 600 passengers to one that held 2,000, Olivia has gone from a crazy dream to a shockingly successful reality. No economic downturn here.
That anniversary cruise was my first Olivia cruise, which seems apropos in some ways. As a second-wave feminist, I have teetered on that line between being fully empowered and pushed to the back of the closet. I was a toddler when Olivia Records began and now as an adult, I got the chance to cruise with the woman who founded the company that was a huge part of paving the way for the life I now lead.
I’ve traveled a great deal, more than a dozen trips a year for the last three years, and I live a very “out” life. But as much as I have loved every outing and valued not fearing being outed, nothing came close to the pleasure of being on a meticulously planned, women only, predominantly lesbian trip.
It wasn’t that the trip was particularly gay; it’s just that we were the norm. We were the majority. We not only weren’t afraid of who we were, it would have felt weird if we were someone else. I wonder what it was like for the straight people on the trip. I wonder if they had a sense of being the “other” for a change – not that I wish that on anyone. Still, one wonders about the power of such an exercise.
It’s hard not to think at least a little about the political on such a trip, but it’s not a must. The thing about Olivia is that it draws so many different types of people. Although the median age might be the 40-to-50-year-old set, there were many women in their 20s and 30s as well as some older than 50. Everyone laughed and played and sang and ate and drank together.
If it sounds like summer camp, it’s because it was like summer camp. Every evening we’d receive a newsletter letting us know all of the activities that would be going on the next day: trivia, bingo, pool games, shore excursions, evening entertainment. Every morning we would awaken to Tisha Floratos’ voice over the PA system.
“Good morning, ladies of Olivia,” she would say and then fill us in on where we were and how to disembark if we cared to.
Floratos was the cruise director for the week, and although she makes a great Julie McCoy, that’s just one small part of her job at Olivia. She’s also the vice president of travel and Business operations for the company when she’s on dry land.
“Right now we are really focused on reaching every lesbian who wants to be reached and giving them the opportunity to experience this world of Olivia. It’s sort of a life-changing experience for women,” Floratos said.
It was life changing, as it demonstrated how life could be. I don’t mean fun and games all the time – although that would be nice, too – I mean people allowing others to live and let live. I mean wearing whatever you like (whether that be pajamas or a prom gown) without fear of judgment. I mean being open to people and opportunities.
The trip offered so many opportunities, it was impossible to do it all – but we sure tried. We saw every show onboard: Indigo Girls, Dana Goldberg, Julie Goldman, Vickie Shaw, Suede, Meg Christian, Karen Williams, Leisha Hailey, Julie Wolf, and even the oldyweds/newlyweds Game. All in one week. Crazy, I know, but so much fun.
We tried to vary what we did in each port. We shopped in Cozumel. We went snorkeling off the coast of Belize city. We visited with the monkeys – and an anteater who loved to have his back scratched – in Roatan , off Honduras. We snorkeled again off costa Maya and enjoyed the best Mexican food in the village of Mahuhual. During the two days we were at sea, we played bingo and scrabble, read in the sun, went to the Good Vibrations “Get your Buzz on” Workshop, took the daily trivia quiz, attended an Olivia retrospective film and discussion, and power walked around the ship’s deck.
Amazingly, we missed as many activities as we participated in. there was a sexy t-shirt making workshop, spa services, dance lessons, fitness classes, art auction, solo travelers events, sisters at sea events, high tea, massage class, photo workshops, a group commitment (or recommitment) ceremony, social circle chats, and plenty of other activities that we just could not fit in. When we got home, we actually needed a vacation from our vacation.
Choice is the other thing I loved about our Olivia cruise experience. Because of the many activities and events offered, there was something that worked for every possible personality or sensibility. There was no pressure to do any of it. I saw some of the same people reading every day on deck in what looked like contented bliss. And if the night is more the hour of choice, there was a great clue/dance scene in the ship’s crow’s nest every evening. It was like the best of Chinese restaurant menus except there was no limit. Everyone could do and see as much as she could handle or as little as she wanted to be bothered with. My kind of vacationing. My kind of living, actually.
That goes for a lot of people Dlugacz has observed over the years, which explains her next project. “My fantasy is about to come true,” Dlugacz explained, “which is that we’re going to start a community. The concept is to take what we do here (on an Olivia cruise) and create it 365 days a year – in palm springs.” the property was once the racquet club, where such people as Marilyn Monroe and Lana Turner lounged by the pool. It’s mostly a new construction of 70-80 units, although some of the original buildings will be renovated. I get giddy just thinking about living “Olivia style” all year long.
Of course, you’d be in big trouble if you ate “Olivia style” all year long. One thing you have to be careful of on the cruise is not eating yourself into a coma. Twenty-four hour room service is included along with table service meals three times a day, buffet meals three times a day, and snack bar goodies all afternoon long. You can also opt to pay a small additional charge to eat in the ship’s elegant Pinnacle Grill, which we enjoyed one night. You could pretty much make food the center of your trip, if you wanted, but we tried our best not to.
Olivia makes it a point to not just serve its guests, but to also serve the communities it visits and the communities to which we all belong. On one cruise, Olivia raised $100,000 for the Susan Love Foundation. On the trip I was on, donations were made to an orphanage in Roatan.
“We’ve been doing this for years and years and years,” explained Dlugacz. “We give half a million dollars a year to organizations that auction off the trips. We helped to start an LGBT Haiti relief fund when the disaster occurred and raised a quarter of a million dollars. We’ve raised money for breast cancer research. For the last 20 years, we have been going into the ports and providing aid, as well as raising money for different places where there were disasters.”
In 1999, crazy as it may sound, hundreds of Olivia guests turned a failing Turkish economy around with just a day of shopping. The press in Turkey went wild. Just another surprising aspect of what could be just another travel company and just another trip.
But it simply wasn’t just another trip. In fact, every time we regale someone with the details, we remember something else we did or saw, someone else we met, or some other experience we had. However, what I always remember to say is that Judy was right – Olivia is more than a trip, it’s an experience. It’s one that I’d like to have more of, not just because it fits my life, but because it makes room for anyone’s life. In a world where people continue to refuse to make space for everyone, it’s nice to be able to stretch out a bit and not worry about bumping into anyone else’s sensibilities.
In the words of Judy Dlugacz , “Welcome to the world the way it should be.”