So what really makes a great gay holiday?
The idea of Melmoth Travel came out of a number of conversations with our great friend David Melmoth, a lively and thoughtful older gay man and an experienced traveller.
We asked David to summarise his views about gay holidays for this article and we have invited him to join us on our Krakow tour in December to access how well we’ve acted on his advice.
So here are his top tips…
1 Places that are about people
I like people. They are what most interests me when I travel. Even when I am looking at ancient ruins, it is the people who lived in them that stir my imagination. I also love stories – especially new ones. So when I got on holiday it’s a plus for me if I don’t know the historical background to the place I’m visiting.
Destinations in Eastern Europe have a strong appeal. Now that we have Estonians and Slovaks living in the UK you frequently hear their countries mentioned but what are these places like? I only have vague, fairytale impressions: forests, castles, handsome heroes and beautiful flaxen-haired maidens. All wrong, I’m sure, but tantalising …
One place I would love to visit is Transylvania. I find the Dracula legend so compelling but, to be honest, I am not sure the famous castle even exists. How amazing it would be to find out!
Sun and sand holidays, on the other hand, are not really my style. I’ve done the Costa del Sol and the Greek islands in August. Now it’s the Mediterranean in winter that speaks to me. I’d like to climb Mount Etna when the temperature isn’t in the nineties, find out whether the Greeks eat hot puddings in winter, look at some serious archaeological sights and museums. These are the sort of holidays I would go for now, holidays with magic where new stories are always beginning.
2 Going in a group
I’m single at present and a gay group holiday would be far preferable to holidaying on my own. There’s less of a gay scene in my area these days so I don’t socialise too much. I tend either to go on dates or I trek to London for an evening in a pub where I’m mostly mixing with strangers. A holiday in the company of other gay people would be just up my street.
The dynamics of a group on holiday allow you to get to know people better than a string of one-to-ones. You see them in different situations interacting with each other. That’s certainly what I found when I used to go abroad with friends from Uni. And everyone is different. Some people are good to talk over experiences with while others will buck you up if you need encouragement. When I’m in countries where English isn’t spoken, I sometimes have to swallow hard before going into a bar or cafe on my own. Those sort of nerves don’t even happen when you’re in a group.
I think some people might prefer a holiday where the destination is a backdrop for the group: that would apply to stag weekends for example. But it’s not quite me. I would prefer to be in a place that’s fascinating in its own right with the group making it a shared experience. That would strike a better balance.
A guide on a group holiday is a necessity. Particularly on a short break. Particularly in unfamiliar places. The main reasons are practical. We’ve all been on tours where the guides have been charming and obliging. However, that is not the essential thing about guides. It’s the time and stress they save you. Of course, you know that you could actually do most of their work for yourself but who wants to spend a holiday navigating a strange city, working everything out by trial and error? I once spent a whole weekend in São Paulo without realising it had a Metro. That’s the sort of thing that can’t happen when you have a guide.
By the way, when I say a guide I’m not just talking about a knowledgeable person who shows you around ancient monuments. I mean someone who is part of the group and can resolve any difficulties almost before they happen. That’s especially important when the group members are gay men. There may be information they need and are shy about asking for: where to buy things, where to cruise, local sensitivities or whatever. The guide needs to be well-informed, discreet and ready to help with any of these issues.
4 Financial security
Boring I know, but if I’m splashing out on an all-inclusive package then I want the confidence that I’m getting what I’ve paid for. That means an ATOL certificate and the necessary bonding arrangements to ensure that if the operator goes bust I’ll get a similar holiday or my money back. This isn’t negotiable for me. I haven’t heard of cowboys in the gay tourism sector but it’s a rapidly developing market so you can be sure there are a few out there. I like adventures and I like the unexpected but some risks I don’t take. For me, financial security is a red line.
After everything I’ve said about groups and guides and financial security, it may sound a bit rich saying I want to be free on holiday. But I do. Although I’m pretty gregarious but I also like to get away from time to time. I can see myself spending a few hours with just one or two other members of the group or maybe just going off to explore on my own. I’m quite typical of many gay men in that I know how to enjoy my own company. I’ll be frank too. If I’m going to visit a sauna or somewhere like that I don’t necessarily want to be surrounded by people I know.
From the tour operator’s point of view, giving people freedom means making some excursions optional but it’s also a question of approach. Right from the start, in the marketing, it should be clear that the tours are for people who don’t want to socialise a lot as well as those who do. The attitude of the guide should reinforce this. It’s imperative to avoid people being pressured into more involvement than they want.
6 Gay means gay
If a holiday is sold as “gay” then that’s what it should be. “Gay-friendly” doesn’t pass muster. I realise that most of the barriers between gay and straight have come down in recent times, but that makes me more, not less, interested in services that are specifically designed for gay people. Virtually all hotels, restaurants and bars welcome gay customers now but that doesn’t make them particularly gay. It just sends out the reassuring message that they’re homophobia-free which is great but doesn’t make for a gay experience in any positive sense.
What I would really like to do on holiday is meet other gay people socially. That is not going to happen in a gay-friendly hotel if there don’t happen to be any gay people in it! I’m not saying I want to time-travel back to a 1970s ghetto where everyone’s a friend of Dorothy and speaks Polari. But I would like to experience things with other gay people so that we can talk about them over dinner in the evening. That sort of relaxed approach increases the possibility of making friends, perhaps even long-term friends. Of course, no tour operator can guarantee that but it ought to be possible to make it a bit more likely. It’s certainly worth a try.