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Gayest & Greatest 2018: Travel, Vacation, and Auto

Aquafest embarks on its 18th annual LGBTQ Halloween cruise.

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Tom Baker—with his partner, Marc Garcia, by his side—helps LGBTQ travelers see the world with a family of LGBTQ travelers by their side. Baker is the founder of Aquafest, which began 17 years ago with a Halloween cruise out of Galveston. 

It’s no wonder Baker ended up in the travel industry. His grandparents, who played a big part in raising him, loved to travel and took Baker on many “incredible journeys,” he says. In 1984, after graduating from college, he went to work for a travel company in Los Angeles called Ask Mr. Foster Travel. 

Fast-forward ten years, and Baker moved to Houston to start Aquafest, which he owns and operates with two business partners. The three also own Aquafest’s parent company, CruiseCenter.com, which sells vacations to non-LGBTQ travelers as well.  

Aquafest is a private group-tour operator and special-event company founded in 2001 “to meet the needs of LGBT travelers wanting an alternative to higher-priced charter companies,” Baker says. 

The company began with a group of 100 people—mostly from Galveston and Houston—on a Halloween cruise aboard the Rhapsody of the Seas. Within three years, the Halloween cruise was an annual event sailing out of New Orleans with 350 passengers and well-known LGBTQ performers. 

“The goal from day one was to create affordable and entertaining travel for our target audience, and make it a friendly environment where all guests are called our ‘Family at Sea,’” Baker says. 

This year, Aquafest will return to its roots for the Halloween cruise, sailing from Galveston with performers including Billy Gilman, Miss Conception, and Amy and Freddy. 

Baker is proud of creating a trip within a trip, with non-stop LGBTQ activities, entertainment, gatherings, shoreside excursions, and late-night theme parties. “It is amazing fun,” he says. And it must be, with ships boasting 50 percent or more repeaters onboard. Guests, of course, can take advantage of all of the ship’s regular programming as well. “So they have the best of all worlds at sea,” Baker says.  

Aquafest utilizes a team of volunteers who serve as onboard staff, and Garcia handles marketing and helps manage the trips that can now accommodate up to 500 people. Their goal  is to serve the entire LGBTQ community. “We want inclusion and not exclusion,” he says, adding that the events also break down barriers with the non-LGBTQ travelers on the ship. 

“We have had huge numbers of guests thank us for allowing [them to get] a better understanding of who we are. While this might sound patronizing, it is making strides in tearing down walls between different but similar human beings,” he says. 

Aquafest also supports a number of charitable LGBTQ organizations in Houston and beyond. And it now offers overseas cruises “without the fanfare of Halloween, but still an exciting opportunity for LGBT travelers to see the world [while being comfortable in the company] of like-minded travelers,” Baker says. 

Aquafest also organizes land tours to destinations including India, Southeast Asia, Peru, the Amazon, and Africa. “Aquafest is here to continue building our ‘Family at Sea’ and elsewhere,” Baker says. 

—Jenny Block

Best Airline

Southwest Airlines
Finalists: American Airlines, United Airlines

Best Honeymoon Destination

Casa Azur, Costa Rica
Finalists: Las Vegas, Paris, Puerto Vallarta

Best LGBT Cruise or Tour Company

Aquafest Cruises, Concierge Travel (tie)
Finalist: Olivia Cruises

Best LGBT Travel Destination

New York City
Finalists: Provincetown, Puerto Vallarta

Best Local Hotel

Le Méridien Houston
Finalists: Hotel ZaZa, Marriott Marquis Houston, Sam Houston Hotel

Best Local LGBT Travel Agency

Concierge Travel
Finalist: Aquafest Cruises

AUTO

Best Auto Body Shop

Master Car Care
Finalist: Ryan Automotive

Best Auto Mechanic

Beckwith’s Car Care
Finalists: Master Car Care & Collision, RMS Auto Care, Tech Auto Maintenance

Best Car Wash/Auto Detailing

Mister Car Wash & Express Lube
Finalists: Aqua Hand Wash & Car Detail, Carriage Glass & Detail Co.

Best Domestic Auto Dealership

Planet Lincoln
Finalists: Beck & Masten Buick GMC South, Central Houston Cadillac, Knapp Chevrolet

Best Import Auto Dealership

Audi Central Houston
Finalists: Central Houston Land Rover, Momentum Mini,  Sterling McCall Lexus, Subaru of Clear Lake

Best Local Transportation

Uber
Finalists: Lyft, Metro

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Jenny Block

Jenny Block is a frequent contributor to a number of high-profile publications from Huffington Post to Playboy, and is the author of The Ultimate Guide to Solo Sex, and O Wow: Discovering Your Ultimate Orgasm. She has appeared on a variety of television and radio programs from Nightline to BBC Radio, and has spoken in bookstores and at events all across the country. Block is also a featured performer on Olivia Travel cruises and resorts.
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