Reflections from the 17th annual Poz Cruise

It is nicknamed the Poz Cruise, but I like to call it my pilgrimage. Started in the late 1990s, the cruise is designed to be a “retreat at sea” for people like myself who are living with HIV. Most of the cruisers at this point are over age 50, and the vast majority are male, but we celebrate everyone who is able to join us. This past November marked my eighth cruise.

Upon boarding, the weather was typical of a South Florida winter, sunny and warm. I was excited to be getting away from work and truly grateful for the opportunity to do some self-care. After several years of COVID and dealing with a lot of internal strife, I needed and deserved my floating support group more than ever.

The night before embarkation, there was a pre-cruise party at the host hotel. The event gave everyone a chance to meet and greet fellow cruisers. It was like a reunion with extended family members. I gain such pleasure in seeing people I’ve known for over 20 years but only see on the cruises or on Facebook, and then meeting new family members who are cruising for their first time.

Every poz cruise I’ve been privileged to take part in has gifted me with the opportunity to meet so many amazing, funny and loving people. Essentially, they are my tribe; we are kindred spirits navigating this journey with HIV together. Although I might not see the same people on each cruise, we really are a family. Most of us stay in touch via a private Facebook group specific to the cruise throughout the year. The friendships I’ve been able to build have endured the test of time despite our varied geographical locations.

We dressed up, dressed down. We played games, held contests. We chatted, cracked jokes and laughed. We dined (a lot), and of course we danced.

The concept of a cruise for people living with HIV was the brainchild of a professional travel agent, Paul Stalbaum, who was also a member of the HIV and LGBTQ+ communities. Over the years Paul did an amazing job of putting together exciting itineraries and securing community members to serve as hosts on board. My first cruise in 1999 was specific to heterosexual individuals living with HIV, but there were also concurrent cruises for LGBTQ+ folks. At some point in the mid-2000s the two cruise groups merged and eventually became known simply as the Poz Cruise.

Paul Stalbaum passed away in August 2020 from complications related to cancer, leaving the future of the cruise uncertain. During a virtual memorial service, and with many past cruisers in attendance, Paul’s brother Bob, also an accomplished travel agent, agreed to step in and keep the cruise going. So, on November 3rd, over 100 members, 98% of us living with HIV and hailing from locations throughout the U.S., Canada, the UK, and even Saudi Arabia, boarded the ship. We set sail with stops in Falmouth, Jamaica; Cartagena, Colombia; Limon, Costa Rica and a partial transit of the Panama Canal before ending our journey with a day in Grand Cayman.

Avoiding the potential of being identified as an HIV group by other passengers, we were simply identified as the “Cruise Retreat.” Members were instructed not to share the nature of our group. Maybe because we were such a large group, or because of our outgoing personalities, though, it wasn’t uncommon for other passengers to ask about our group. We simply told them that we were a random group of friends that travel together once a year, which tended to satisfy inquiring minds.

Over the course of the next 10 days we stayed up late (or simply stayed up) and we slept in. Private group excursions in the various ports were a highlight, especially Costa Rica, where we came up close and personal with a sloth and a few monkeys, as well as other flora and fauna. Many of us drank far more than we probably should. We had amazing private parties, which included a pajama party one night and a Bling, Glitz and Glam event on another. We dressed up, dressed down. We played games, held contests. We chatted, cracked jokes and laughed. We dined (a lot), and of course we danced.

As a straight 58-year-old woman living with HIV since 1995, I have to admit I really look forward to these cruises. I’ve been pretty lonely, especially during COVID, but in general as well. I suppose I should appreciate the fact that I’m still around. Frankly, managing the virus is the least of my concerns these days, but the aging part of living with HIV is surprisingly hard. The poz cruise always gives me that special emotional lift that I need. It’s an opportunity to be with my “peeps” without any of the stigma, judgment, body-shaming, ageism, sexism or any of the other -isms and crap that people who live with HIV deal with on a daily basis. The last night of the cruise is always the most bittersweet because, despite missing our pets, I think we all would rather stay on the ship and just float around together. Such an amazing group of people.

The 2023 cruise is already being planned, an eight-night voyage aboard the Celebrity Equinox. It’ll sail October 28–November 5—imagine spending Halloween at sea; bring a costume. Leaving from Fort Lauderdale, the ports of call will include San Juan, Puerto Rico; Saint Thomas; Saint Maarten; Tortola, British Virgin Islands; and Puerto Plata, in the Dominican Republic. We make the party on every ship we’ve sailed on. And, while the cruise may seem out of reach financially for many people, it may be helpful to know that many cruisers are on disability, retired or otherwise on a fixed income.

Lily, from New York, has been coming on the cruises for at least 10 years. Diagnosed in 1987, she says, “I used to think I couldn’t afford it, but I saved $25 a week.” By October she had well over $1,000, more than enough for a shared cabin.

Many cruisers elect to share a cabin with either a partner or a friend to save money. A roommate matching option is available for singles. Extra perks such as free Wi-Fi or drink packages are often included in the cruise package. 

For more information about the 2023 Poz Cruise, email or go to

Cruisers’ comments

Thomas from Arkansas, on his first cruise: “It was better than I imagined. I really appreciate the kindness and love expressed by fellow cruisers.”

George from Michigan, has been on more than 10 cruises: “I can’t say enough good things about the cruise. I encourage everyone in our situation to try and participate. It’s not horribly expensive, and may take some budgeting, but it’s so worth it.”

Faisal from Saudi Arabia, on his third poz cruise: “There’s nothing like this for people with HIV in my country. HIV is still very stigmatized, so I was searching online for a support group and found this, and I was happy this year to meet another cruiser who is originally from India. We formed a unique connection. I love these people.”

Patrick from Canada was one of the social hosts for this year’s cruise. His first cruise was in 2013. He knew no one when he boarded, but within a day and a half realized he had found a new family: “I became a host because I wanted everyone to feel what I felt on that first cruise.”

Wanda, a long-time cruiser from the East Coast: “The first poz cruise I went on back in 1998 was a heterosexual group. I wanted to meet someone. Now I just come for the amazing sense of fellowship.”

Randy, a first-time cruiser from Iowa: “It was like the love and camaraderie of being on Fire Island—instant friends.”