THE BLOG
12/17/2014 05:40 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Cruising, European-Style

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Photo credit: Klaus E. Krauss

Spending a whole week on a ship with 1,400 gay men: great fun or a total nightmare? Before you decide, you should know what you'll be getting yourself into!

Every summer since 2009 Belgian Thierry Coppens has organized his own Mediterranean cruise, known as "La Démence Cruise" or, more recently, just "The Cruise." It has its origins in the Belgian clubbing event La Démence, which has been running for 25 years. It involves well over 1,000 gay men coming together on a relatively cramped cruise ship -- to party round the clock. Here are some of my impressions of the party marathon, which I experienced during a press trip on the cruise at the event organizer's invitation.

Day 1 (Marseille): Can I Unscrew the Shower Head?

As soon as I arrive at the gate for my AirFrance flight to Marseille from Berlin Tegel airport, I notice the unusually high concentration of gay men around me. While I'm waiting, I read a bit more about the event on the La Démence Cruise Facebook group page. The excitement has been building for days; for many guys this cruise is the vacation of the year.

Images of joyous anticipation -- open suitcases full of fetish gear, or topless photos complete with cabin number -- are making the rounds on Facebook. But there are also plenty of practical issues being cleared up at the last minute: Can you unscrew the shower heads in the bathrooms on board the Zenith? Can you do a decent workout in the on-board gym? Who's coming on which trips? Can you buy poppers and lube on board?

None of the questions goes unanswered, because the cruise has long been something of an institution in the gay scene, so there is no shortage of guys who are going for the third or fourth time and are happy to give newbies plenty of tips.

Once we arrive in Marseille, people start bumping into old acquaintances on the street and at dinner. The gay scene is a much smaller world than many believe.

Day 2 (At Sea): Here We Go...

The next day the check-in area of the Croisières de France cruise ship is almost half-full of men by midday. Most of them look like the types who have made La Démence one of the most popular gay parties in Europe over the past 25 years.

The cruise no longer sees itself just as a Brussels clubbing label's company trip, which is why this year it is being referred to simply as "The Cruise." When the ship pulls out of Marseille's cruise port at 6 p.m. sharp, there are around 1,400 men and all of 18 women (two of whom are lesbians) on board -- from more than 60 different countries.

It is very telling that 75 percent of the spots on the cruise were taken within the first few weeks after booking opened, and the trip was completely sold out several weeks before the ship set sail. Most of this year's cruisegoers are from France and Belgium, followed by Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland.

Day 3 (At Sea): Who Is the Fairest of Us All? The Mr. Cruise Contest

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Photo credit: Klaus E. Krauss

The day starts off pretty normally. The service staff are visibly overwhelmed by the crowds descending on the breakfast buffet; it takes over half an hour to get a coffee at the mocha bar. As I collapse into an armchair with my hard-won drink, my cup falls apart. Well, at least the other people on board had an amusing start to their day! The weather leaves a lot to be desired as well.

When the Mr. Cruise contest kicks off in the early afternoon, it starts to rain. That doesn't put a damper on the fantastic mood, however. Perhaps it's precisely this that makes the cruise so special: I've never experienced such a completely relaxed, cheerful, down-to-earth and exuberant atmosphere on a press trip before.

Day 4 (Porto Venere): The Naked Buffet

As the Zenith docks at the Italian coastal town of Porto Venere in the morning, it's pouring rain. Time to try out the ship's on-board gym. Everyone here is sizing each other up, chatting each other up and flirting -- and the sexual tension increases when we get to the hot tubs on the deck in front of the gym rooms.

The sun has come out, and in the hot tubs the flirting has turned into uninhibited, hands-on action. It's only the third day of the cruise, but the rules that forbid sex in public areas of the ship (bar the two cruising rooms that have been set up specifically for that purpose) seem to have been forgotten. The rule about wearing at least a T-shirt and shorts in on-board restaurants seems to have gone out the window this evening as well.

When the Sportswear Tea Dance comes to an end at 9 p.m., the sweaty crowd, dressed in nothing but bare chests and jogging shorts (some are even bottomless), stampedes toward the buffet with such confidence that the ship's crew (who have been specially briefed about the unusual target group) abandon their timid attempts to enforce the dress code after just a few minutes.

"This would be unthinkable on the Atlantis," an American tells me -- and makes no attempt to disguise his envy of us Europeans for the liberal openness we enjoy.

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Photo credit: Klaus E. Krauss

Day 5 (Corsica): Disco Followed by a White Party

As the last stragglers from the afterparty -- some dressed just in jocks, sneakers and socks -- stumble to the breakfast buffet or back to their cabins, the ship berths on the southern coast of Corsica. Today most of the guys are enjoying the sun on the decks of the Zenith.

Beside the large pool there is plenty of tanned flesh, cocktails, soft drinks and exuberant laughter. Then, as the cruise ship moors at 5 p.m., the first party of the day gets into full swing. DJs Jo and Paul Heron have chosen disco as the theme for tonight's party and are playing disco classics from the '70s right up to the present.

Again, most people are sporting outfits perfectly suited to the theme of the party. The same can be said of the White Party, which kicks off on the pool deck at midnight and ends at sunrise. It's incredible to see the energy and professionalism that the boys have put into preparing for all the parties here. And it's just as astounding to see how openly most people here show it if they think someone's sexy.

Sometimes a guy you've just been shyly flirting with comes up to you, says "Hi," and sticks his tongue rather unceremoniously down your throat before giving you his cabin number. And if you're lucky, you'll go back to your cabin to find other numbers and details about people's sexual penchants pinned to the door.

Day 6 (At Sea): When 300 Leather Boys Sing ABBA

"Is this your first Cruise?" is a common opener for conversations on the Zenith. Spending all day at sea means that I too have the chance to talk to many other passengers about their cruise experiences. Jonas and Marc, for example, flew all the way from New York to Marseille to try out this "typically European" cruise. According to them, it's completely different from the Atlantis: Here the cruisegoers show off less and take fewer drugs, and there's less big business and advertising. Instead they found a welcoming, very unforced and genuine atmosphere where they felt at home straight away.

Ulli, a colleague who works at Mate Magazine, feels the same. It's his fourth time here, and he is always using phrases like "friendly" and "relaxed party atmosphere." He says he's in a kind of constant trance, even though he doesn't take drugs -- not even alcohol.

Very few of the people I meet here have a different opinion. Some aren't so keen on more-minor aspects such as the old-fashioned ship, the youth-hostel atmosphere at meals, or the gym, which is not big enough for their liking. But there's nobody who would say, "Never again!"

Taking that into account, it comes as no surprise that a good 40 percent of this year's cruisegoers are not here for the first time. And in the evening, when La Diva performs in the ship's Grand Théâtre, I realize what the two American guys meant by "European" and "welcoming": Her voice, theatrical gestures and outfit remind me of the world's greatest diva, Dalida -- as do the songs she has chosen, which she sings live without exception.

The moment around 300 grown men and boys, some of them already in their outfits for the fetish party afterwards, leaped enthusiastically out of their seats and joined in, growling, "Non, je ne regrette rien," or, "Dancing queen!" was, for me, one of the unforgettable highlights of the cruise.

Day 7 (Palma de Mallorca): Culture or Chilling?

At around midday the Zenith docks in the harbor of Palma de Mallorca. Anyone who isn't recovering from partying through the night at the decadent 2-a.m. fetish party, sleeping or chilling in the sun next to the pool heads out to Palma's old city, or to one of the beaches near the island capital.

In the museums, cafés and restaurants surrounding Palma's Gothic cathedral, I keep bumping into other guys from La Démence, easily recognizable thanks to the blue cruise backpacks that were given out to everyone on board. And here, just like on all the other trips, there are spontaneous conversations about art, history, architecture or simply the living conditions in each person's home country.

Day 8 (Mahón): Grown Men Dancing in the Evening Sun

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Photo credit: Klaus E. Krauss

Mahón on Menorca turns out to be a pretty mediocre travel destination. But that isn't all that important, according to managing director of the cruise, Thierry Coppens. Most of the passengers aren't really interested in the trips anyway, he says; they often just want to relax on the sun deck or in the cabins to recharge their batteries for the wild nights of partying to come.

While he would like to run a cruise more focused on culture and spa treatments, this is simply how things are at the moment, he says. At least Mahón, a small town that otherwise tends to see only sedate retirees, still has the charm of its residents gazing in astonishment at the hordes of gay men who descend on the area, hand-in-hand and snogging the faces off each other.

As the Zenith pulls out of Mahón's impressive natural harbor late in the afternoon, it is almost time to say some goodbyes. All the party outfits that had been tucked away in suitcases, ready for departure the next day, are unpacked once again.

As Berlin DJ Oliver M, best known for the Revolver Party, and violinist Dylan Naylor from Cologne start the music and hundreds of practically naked, tanned, dancing bodies glow in the red light of the sunset, you get the feeling you are witnessing a huge ritual that leaves nobody unmoved.

Day 9 (Marseille): Tears and Consolation

"That was the best week of my life!" A young man from a small, very Catholic town in Poland appears very genuine when he tells me this over our last breakfast on board. Many people have tears in their eyes as they bid farewell to their holiday beaus or friends they have been seeing on the cruise for years. But this is also part and parcel of the cruise's overall welcoming atmosphere.

Behind all the showing off, hidden behind big sunglasses and fetishwear, there was (contrary to my expectations) a lot of space for emotions and very open, profound conversations. And, as consolation to all those who left the ship in Marseille with a heavy heart, the next La Démence cruise is coming, without a doubt. It will leave from Barcelona in July 2015, with an even bigger -- and, more importantly, more-modern -- ship.

This piece originally appeared on HuffPost Germany and was translated into English.