Welcoming Diversity and Inclusion to Southern Florida: Captain Sandy Yawn and Michelle Dunham Christen Celebrity Ascent

Celebrity Cruises‘ winning formula continues with their newest award-winning resort at sea, Celebrity Ascent – the fourth and most innovative ship in their highly awarded Edge® Series. Celebrity Ascent features 32 distinctive restaurants, bars, and lounges, including the newly designed Le Voyage by Chef Daniel Boulud. Ascent does not disappoint, with all the best features of Celebrity’s Edge Series – from the huge atrium Martini Bar, the inviting multi-deck Sunset Bar designed by Nate Berkus, to the open-air Rooftop Garden where two cantilevered floating pools offer breathtaking views over the ship’s edge.

Celebrity once again made cruise ship history by naming two brothers as co-captains of Ascent – the extremely accomplished, handsome, and affable Captains Dimitris Kafetzis and Tasos Kafetzis. And just when you think the “firsts” have all been had, Celebrity named two sisters as co-godmothers of Ascent. They found the perfect pair there as well, in Captain Sandy Yawn, star of Bravo’s Below Deck, and her sister, Michelle Dunham. Captain Sandy is a tireless advocate for women in the maritime industry, children’s education, children with disabilities, and the environment. Michelle is the successful founder and executive director of a nonprofit school for children with autism. Says Celebrity Cruises President, Laura Hodges Bethge, “These two women are on a mission to make a positive life impact on others, in their pursuit to educate, engage and inspire.”

“We name this ship Celebrity Ascent. May God bless her, and all who sail on her,” Sandy and Michelle said as they christened the ship during the naming ceremony onboard the vessel in waters off Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.

Everything about this ship says relaxed luxury. From the ship design, which is improved even from the Beyond, which launched in 2022. Soft color palettes, curved walkways, museum quality artwork … every attention to detail looked after. The staff are, as expected, stellar. Genuine, attentive, and not overbearing. They all work very long hours, but all have a smile and the goal of a positive guest experience.

The Infinite Veranda cabins, the largest cabin type onboard, are designed to blend indoors and outdoors, and add a good amount of square footage to the size of the cabin by using bi-fold doors. Of course, if you are opting for a luxury suite, Ascent has options, from the 5000-square-foot Iconic Suite with two bedrooms and 700-square-foot balcony, to the two-story Edge Villa with private plunge pool. Book a suite and you’ll gain access to The Retreat, a resort-within-a-resort, offering private pool, bars, lounge areas, and more.

One of the magical highlights of the new Celebrity Ascent, is the Edge series signature orange “Magic Carpet” which is another cruise industry first – an open-air cantilevered platform that moves and up and down the side of the ship – positioning itself as a Bar/Lounge, tender platform, or restaurant, at various decks. This engineering feat makes for great Instagrammable moments.

Another highlight is the newly designed Le Voyage Restaurant by Chef Daniel Boulud. Chef Boulud is widely celebrated as one of America’s leading culinary authorities, with restaurants across the U.S., as well as Toronto, Montreal, Dubai, Singapore, and The Bahamas. In Ascent’s Le Voyage, Boulud’s signature remains the contemporary appeal he brings to soulful dishes rooted in the French tradition. His inspired global flavors resonate in the menu and take you on a culinary journey. On our recent voyage, we were lucky enough to have Chef Boulud himself in the kitchen. Dinner begins with a complimentary glass of champagne and an amuse-bouche. My main course of lobster risotto was melt-in-your mouth perfection. And, as an admitted chocoholic, I couldn’t resist the Café Cardamom, a chocolate encrusted dessert, in which ice cream is revealed when the waiter pours warm chocolate sauce on top. Heavenly! Chef Boulud has also designed contemporary dishes for Luminae, Celebrity’s private dining experience included for all guests of The Retreat, offering another glimpse of the master chef.

For fans of anytime dining, Celebrity has not one dining room, but four complimentary main restaurants for you to discover, each with a distinctive design and signature dishes inspired by specific regions of the world – the Mediterranean dishes of Cyprus Restaurant, the French cuisine of Normandy Restaurant, the Italian flare of Tuscan Restaurant, and the worldly flavors of the Cosmopolitan Restaurant. So, whether you enjoy specialty dining options or not, you will always have menu and ambiance choices for your culinary experiences on board.

Entertainment is another key aspect of any good vacation, and the Ascent again raises the bar with “The Theater” of mesmerizing visuals on the wrap-around LED screens, staging which juts into the audience, moving stage parts and lighting elements, and true surround sound … this is theatre innovation at its best. And to accompany the physical stage are unbelievable theatre productions and performances by world-class artists and musicians. There is certainly nothing average about these performers or productions.

Now you might be thinking, this ship sounds wonderful, but will I feel comfortable on a sailing that is not exclusively LGBTQ? The answer is a resounding YES. Celebrity was the first cruise line to host a legal same-sex marriage at sea back in 2018. And they continue LGBTQ passenger support across their fleet with LGBTQ meet-ups and cocktail hours, where you can connect with other community members and allies and talk about your travels. Celebrity Cruises continue to strive to make every single one of their guests feel welcome, and we know how much they value the importance of diversity among all their guests and crew.

When asked about diversity and equity, Jason Liberty, President and CEO of Royal Caribbean Group, said, “We want to make sure that we are a company that leads in diversity, equity, and inclusion, and we don’t do that by just saying words. We are making sure culturally that we are waking up every day and doing that.”

Starting her season in the Caribbean, with her home port being Ft. Lauderdale, is surely another reason to arrive for your Celebrity cruise a few days early to enjoy Ft. Lauderdale and the surrounding areas. While the current political climate in the state of Florida is dicey, we cannot abandon the LGBTQ business and business owners that rely on our tourist dollars to survive. I would suggest planning and spending your dollars wisely, as you should be doing in any state.

The hub of LGBTQ life is the City of Wilton Manors, who proudly states on their website, “The City of Wilton Manors is a place where diversity is not tolerated, but embraced.” Billed as the second gayest city in America, after Palm Springs, Wilton Manors is small but mighty. Wilton Drive has a large concentration of LGBTQ+ friendly businesses, but there is no “gayborhood” as found in many other LGBTQ+ friendly cities. Instead, all of the neighborhoods in this two-square mile “Island City” are diverse and safe for all residents.

One such business in Wilton Manors is Bubbles & Pearls (2037 Wilton Drive), a restaurant and raw bar, owned and run by Chef Josie Smith-Malave of Bravo’s Top Chef. She spent a decade in the New York food scene before settling down in Wilton Manors with her girlfriend Marcy, and where she can be seen cooking and laughing with customers. “I have always utilized the oyster as a source of inspiration, knowing that any setback in life is merely agitation that is used to create the pearl of the future. Bubbles & Pearls is a location that invites others to celebrate their life,” says Chef Josie.

Photo courtesy DrYnk
Photo courtesy Hunters

We visited Bubbles & Pearls during Happy Hour, which boosts $1 oysters. They, and the Flight of Oysters (baked, Rockefeller, and Shishito/Miso), were de-li-cious. What followed was equally delicious – a Fig, Fontina, and Speck Flatbread; Roast Airline Chicken Breast, with bok choy and lemon caper sauce; and the 16oz Black Angus Ribeye with kale, potatoes, and horseradish crema.  And the finale – Blueberry Crumble with coconut ice cream. A visit to our table from Chef Josie topped off our meal and we spoke about the area, the need for support, and the bubble that is Wilton Manors. “Bubbles & Pearls prides itself on being a safe space for everyone to eat. No matter who you are, we believe that great food can bring us together in a way that celebrates everyone’s differences.”

Nightcap anyone? Here are a few other gay spots to support and quench your thirst: First up, DrYnk Bar & Lounge (2255 Wilton Drive) is an upscale bar with a large back patio complete with fire pits and cozy seating areas. The bartenders (and customers) are friendly and mix a great drink! As a frequent patron of Hunters in Palm Springs, our next stop had to be Hunters (2232 Wilton Drive). Hunters is a friendly nightclub featuring a large dance floor, a video bar with eight screens, and an upstairs lounge overlooking the dance floor. The courteous staff and great music just added to the experience.  Our last stop was the bar that started it all – Georgie’s Alibi (2266 Wilton Drive). Proudly claiming the title of “Florida’s #1 Gay Bar & Restaurant,” Georgie’s Alibi is a popular spot with locals and visitors. Check out the Monkey Bar and the Patio. Fridays is 2-4-1 all day!

Our home-base was in nearby Hollywood. While not as well-known as Ft. Lauderdale or Miami, Hollywood has been at the forefront of promoting equality and respect for the LGBTQ+ community and was the first city in Florida to fly the Progress Pride flag at City Hall. Quiet and relaxed, it boasts a beautiful stretch of beach. The Diplomat Hollywood Beach Resort is the perfect escape right ON the beach. Each thoughtfully appointed room has an amazing view – either facing the ocean or the Intracoastal Waterway – you’ll get sunrise or sunset views to die for.  This property is meant for afternoons by the inviting pool or on the private beach with cabanas and loungers. Opting for the beach and after we were escorted to some available loungers and given towels, we were ready to relax and soak up the sun! You can eat beachside at the Playa Restaurant & Bar, or, as we did, have the food and drink delivered to you on the beach!  After lunch on the beach, an unplanned siesta called while listening to the surf and seagulls.  A quick steam at the Spa was the final key to relaxation. The Spa offers a host of wellness services and treatments, including massages, facials, wraps, and scrubs, as well as salon services for men and women.

A shave and a shower later, and we were off to dinner at Diplomat Prime. This 1950s-inspired boutique steakhouse and lounge features prime dry-aged beef, seasonally driven seafood dishes, unique shareable plates, and an extensive wine cellar. We indulged in the 38oz 45-day Dry Aged Long Bone Prime Tomahawk Ribeye, with sides of Truffle Whipped Potatoes and Charred Broccolini. Grilled to perfection, this was the epitome of prime steak. Other offerings include Twin Lobster Tails for two, Crab Crusted Halibut and Pan Roasted Half Chicken. Unfortunately, we were unable to save room for dessert (this usually doesn’t happen) but they offer some delectable-sounding desserts such as Tropical Rum Cake and Yuzu Pear Pillow. We will indulge on our next visit.

A one-two punch for a friendly vacation experience, a Celebrity Cruise and a visit to LGBTQ locales in Southern Florida will delight you and also support those that need our continued community support. Our dollars speak loudly. So, spend wisely, be yourself, and enjoy the adventure!


All Ascent Photos: ©Metrosource

All Wilton Manors Photos: ©Metrosource (except where noted in title)

All Diplomat Photos: Courtesy of Diplomat Hollywood Beach Resort

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Michael Westman

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