A Toe Tapping Vacation: Setting Sail on a Music Festival Cruise

Choosing a Destination: Oh, What Should I Do?

With such a variety of vacation choices out there, it can be incredibly hard for me to decide what to do. My mission at Gazettour is to tell you about the great outdoors and give you the information you need so you can: Explore.Live.Learn. I write about vacation ideas that get you outside, like seeing great views of sunrise or sunsets out on the trail, a view not shared by many other travel blogs.

But instead, in this post I am going to try something new: I’m going to tell you about taking a vacation that immersed me in music and fun in a crowd of good people. So this story will be a little different from my usual post, and it might sound similar to other travel blogs, but in this case, it’s not a bad thing. Because I’m going to tell you how to lock yourself on a ship with several of your favorite music artists—along with a couple of thousand other fans—watching these famous entertainers playing their music, and even catching them on the ship at meet-and-greets and experiencing the cruise along with you.

Breaking the Mold

When it comes to vacations, I tend to pick wide open spaces as my destinations. Spending time in these spaces often recharges me and gives me a fresh return to work. When I remember my favorite vacations, I seldom think of cruises or weeks spent at an all-inclusive resort. It’s not that I dislike these trips, or that I would say not to consider them; they are just not my first choice. But over the past few years, Sirius XM Radio programming has introduced me to the music festival cruise. That exposure helped change my mind about a cruise as a good vacation option, and as a result, I booked my first all-inclusive music festival cruise in 2017. The cruise was scheduled to set sail out of New Orleans, on its way
to Mexico, in January, 2018.

The first thing to consider—and it’s an important one—is that you must like the music theme of the cruise. It should be something that gets your blood pumping when you hear it. I chose an event that featured country music—or a variation of country music—that plays on Sirius XM’s Outlaw Country station channel 60. The Outlaw Country genre includes a mixture of blues, rock, Texas Twang and everything in between. Big names such as Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams and Rodney Crowell, along with several other top acts in the industry, entertained a few thousand lucky fans during my cruise. During my week at sea, I had opportunities to mingle and chatted with many of the performers as if they were old friends from high school—really getting a chance to see them as, for lack of a better term, regular people.

My Host

Atlanta-based themed cruise producer
Sixthman hosted my cruise. The company started in 2001 when Andy Lavine, of the band Sister Hazel, had the idea to put 400 of their fans on a ship and set sail for Mexico. That first trip was a huge success. The very next year they took over a larger ship, added three more bands and 400 of those bands’ biggest fans, and changed the cruise industry forever.

Three years later in 2004, Sixthman added another cruise, and by 2008 the company filled six sails with as many as 20 or more artists and thousands of lucky fans on each trip. Performers such as Zac Brown, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Barenaked Ladies and John Mayer were just some of the talent hosted by Lavine’s travel company in the early years. Sixthman continued to fill ships with enthusiastic fans and revolutionized the festival cruise industry. Then in 2011, Sixthman partnered with Norwegian cruise lines. This partnership gave Sixthman its very own ship, called the Pearl. The Pearl was remodeled to accommodate the festival cruises comfortably, creating a modern-day floating concert venue.

Meet Jess Loud

Jess Loud, the project manager of my cruise, made all the Outlaw Country cruisers’ week at sea so much fun. Jess took time out of her hectic day to tell me her story, along with the mission of Sixthman. She had been at Sixthman for six years and spends several weeks at sea each year. Jess’s enthusiasm is contagious, and I couldn’t help but share her excitement associated with this event and Sixthman’s story.

Jess works with a team referred to as “Warriors” consisting of eighty people to put together this show on the sea. Planning for next year’s voyage starts as soon as the current cruise finishes. Her group and Sixthman also take the time to hear from their guests by sending out detailed surveys shortly after they arrive back home. These surveys are designed to gather information including what guests liked about their experience and what they’d like to see added next year, and from my experience, it looks like they listen.

The Pearl

Intimate concert venues are positioned all over the ship. Show times are spaced to keep people moving and to break up the crowd. This arrangement also allows concertgoers to see their favorite entertainer’s front and center. Bringing a camera is not out of the question either, allowing for an excellent opportunity to capture that once-in-a-lifetime shot with a zoom lens and a DSLR.

My home for the week was a room with a view: a modestly appointed cabin with a balcony—which, I might add, was my favorite place to hang, while sitting with my feet up, sipping a beverage with a sea breeze on my face as I went over Gazettour’s notes and watched the sun set (Do I need to say much more than that?). I received a room with a balcony as an added bonus for being later in the booking pool. As for the ship’s staff, I found them to be friendly and accommodating, and they kept the ship clean, making the whole experience a real joy.

The Fans

Everyone on board the ship was there for one thing: the music. Love of the music creates an instant feeling of kinship. My fellow travelers told stories of their journeys: These fans had traveled from all corners of the globe and some, like me, were on their first trip, while others had never missed an Outlaw Country cruise. Many travelers I met work in the entertainment industry, from venue owners to promoters to artist themselves, and they cruise alongside plain old music lovers like myself, so you never will know who you may meet to share a drink.

Along with the music, drinking and enjoying yourself is another theme of these cruises, and there is plenty of booze to go around. But even with all that partying, I never saw things get out of hand. I only noticed everyone having a great time, and as a solo traveler, it felt as if everyone was my old friend. I found that feeling to be one of the best parts of this theme festival cruise.

Port for the Day

The destinations of these cruises are not the main draw, of course, but a stroll on a beach or enjoying local cuisine during a stop at port are things anyone can appreciate. Our destination on this trip was the cruise ship port of Costa Maya, Mexico, and the neighboring town of Mahahual. With six hours on dry land, I had the extraordinary opportunity to roam around and take in the culture of the area.

Grabbing my trusty Canon 80D, I walked deep away from the crowds once I got ashore and tried to capture the local daily life. It seemed much different from the life I know back in the States. I observed none of the frills seen on a regular basis back home, but instead signs of a hard life lived by hardworking residents. Despite the apparent hardships, I noticed that most people I met had smiles, I heard sounds of laughter, and I saw people waving as I passed. The sight of these people living in this way made me think about what is truly important in life.

Of course, as I made my way back to the beach and the crowds, merchants made attempts to sell me their goods, which some may find annoying, but I saw it as an opportunity to help someone who is potentially less fortunate than I am. The merchants’ fare included, to my delight, freshly caught lobster prepared by a local restaurant, which I enjoyed beachside for lunch, along with a cold margarita, the bright sun and the soothing waves.

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All Good Things Come to an End

As the week came to a close, I couldn’t tell from the continued upbeat pace of the festival that the trip was almost over. The festivities kicked back up as soon as we left Mexico, and the shows continued up until 1:00 a.m. of the final day.

As we arrived back in New Orleans, I was glad I decided to take this trip off my usually “unbeaten” path. It turns out that just like a vacation to those wide open spaces, this cruise was good for my soul.


 

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