PUERTO VALLARTA, Mexico -- We've barely set sail on our trimaran cruise before Diana DeCoste and her "Boys" are plying us with cocktails, beer, scrumptious chocolate banana bread -- not to mention "fruit cups."
The 40 gay men and half dozen lesbians, including my wife and me, are already feeling very gay ... er happy... to spend the day with DeCoste, knowing the food and drink will be flowing, the scenery breathtaking and that she and her staff will spoil everyone.
DeCoste, a native Montrealer who moved to Puerto Vallarta 16 years ago, has been doing a cruise of some sort for 13 years.
Our route -- after boarding at Los Muertos Beach in the heart of the city's downtown -- takes us that Friday along Banderas Bay to snorkel at the famous landmark of Los Arcos to the beautiful hidden beach at Colomitos Cove and finally to a beach not far from where the film, Night of the Iguana, was shot in 1963.
Many of those on our cruise are repeat participants, partaking of her all-day cruise not once but many times.
Several of her repeat customers now arrive on Wednesday so they can jump on her cruise on Thursdays or Fridays to meet up with new and old friends.
"A lot of people come at the same time (every year)," she says. "They keep in touch on Facebook."
No wonder. Like a den mother, DeCoste and her long-time staff fuss continuously over the cruise guests. She ensures no one drinks too much without eating. She checks to see everyone is lathered in sunscreen before they bake in the relentless sun, and even asks her Boys to rinse us off with cold, clear water when we climb back onto the boat after snorkelling.
She thinks of everything.
"She always cooks kosher for me," says Zvika Mizrahi, 31, a repeat customer from Tel Aviv.
DeCoste -- who knows so many people in Puerto Vallarta's Romantic Zone she's been nicknamed the town's unofficial Gay Mayor -- is just one of a group of lesbians who came on vacation here and never left.
"I was fed up with being in an office, with the politics (in Quebec) and with winter," says the 55-year-old former nurse who took out dual Mexican and Canadian citizenship four years ago. "I fell in love with the city ... I felt good here."
The city is often referred jokingly as Puerto Gay-arta because it attracts so many LGBT clients -- most particularly, but certainly not exclusively, to the downtown core, where one can find many gay-friendly hotels and the famous Blue Chairs resort.
Vicky Barr and her partner Christy Bouma find Puerto Vallarta one of their favourite places to visit.
The Sacramento couple not only love Mexican culture but prefer hanging out in the Old Town where the restaurants, businesses and hotels are so gay-friendly.
"We can be ourselves when we're down here," Barr says.
Charlotte Semple and her partner Carole Fast moved here from Victoria six years ago -- opening a designer chocolate boutique called Xocodiva.
Semple, the former executive director of Victoria Women in Needs Society, said it took her until age 50 to discover her passion for making chocolates.
Once she did, it took a year and a half to perfect her new calling, to sell their house and set up shop in the Romantic Zone -- making everything by hand for the first six months until they got a special chocolate machine from Holland.
"Everyone said it could not be done," she says. "But here it was such an untapped opportunity."
With plenty of hard work, they've never looked back.
When we visited in November, they were just about to move the chocolate-making part of their business to a larger location a few blocks away, where they are now selling their own ice cream called Lix by Xocodiva.
Semple says while there is no official lesbian community in Puerto Vallarta, a number of gay women from Canada have found their way down to this "small town in a big city" and have never left.
She adds that she and Carole have never felt any sort of intolerance. In fact, the locals embrace them and the contributions they've made to the city's economy.
"Anywhere we go in Puerto Vallarta, Carole and I are a normal couple," Semple says. "We're always treated with respect."
Mari-Ann Rattray, a former social worker who left the stress of her life behind in Vancouver 15 years ago, didn't find it quite so easy when she first tried to open her martini bar.
One official of a four-person town panel tried to refuse her a liquor license because of her sexual orientation. But one never should never put a "lesbian in a corner," she says.
One appeal later, she got her licence and opened Apaches in early 1998. Her partner, Endra Buining, whom she met when Buining came over to Mexico from Holland for a soccer tournament, now tends bar.
"I am blessed," Rattray says.
On a clear, sub-tropical evening we join Don Pickens, owner of 10-year-old gay boutique hotel Casa Cupula at his hot new restaurant Taste, enchantedly set in the hills that stretch behind the city's downtown.
On his terrace set in the trees, we sample such faves from his creative menu as short ribs (done Mexican style), seared tuna, quinoa and Mexican broccoli with duck.
(Taste offers a choice of three dishes from American, Mexican, Asian and South American menus for a very "accessible" 269 pesos or about $21.)
Pickens' story is similar to the ladies. The former web company operator came down on vacation from San Francisco, fell for a local and never left, starting first with the hotel and then Taste 1.5 years ago.
He emphasizes that while the hotel is gay-friendly, he doesn't just cater to LGBT clients.
"If you like hanging out with gay and lesbian folks, you are welcome ... we have all kinds of guests!" he says.
Meanwhile back on DeCoste's trimaran, we are heading back to port -- having had a full day of sun, swimming, sandy beaches and gaiety with our new friends -- when we spot a pack of dolphins playing in the boat's wake.
We tease DeCoste, asking her how she even gets the dolphins to put on a show for us.
Ever the hostess with the mostest, she laughs and busies herself making sure no one misses the porpoise performance.
"I love the ocean," she sighs. "I love the people."
Carman Porras is one gutsy lady.
Nine years ago, the 40-year-old who once worked for the Four Seasons chain, opened El Arrayan to fill the void left by the lack of "good traditional Mexican food" in town.
Sadly, she noticed there wasn't any restaurant serving the kind of savoury authentic Mexican dishes she remembered being served in her hometown of Mexico City. Dishes like duck enchiladas served with black mole or green mole sauce, cerviche made from scallops and guacamole. For the more adventurous, there are even real crickets roasted and served in a tomatillo-avocado sauce.
She even built the restaurant -- named after the guava-like fruit tree in the courtyard -- virtually from scratch. Sacred Mexican art -- gifts from her family -- adorns its walls.
"It took two to three years to take off," she said over the best and most creative organic Mexican fare I've ever eaten.
We visited her restaurant on the second night of the 18th-annual International Gourmet Festival, 10 days of gastronomic events, gourmet safaris and cooking demonstrations held in mid-November. Slightly off-the-beaten track from the beach, it is well worth the walk up from the eateries that surround the city's Malecon (boardwalk).
Porras hosted a visiting chef and planned to keep some of the dishes on her menu once the festival was over. She even gives cooking classes filled with local trips to farmer's markets and food growers.
NEED TO KNOW
We stayed at the spanking new all-inclusive Hilton resort -- a taste of South Beach in the heart of hotel zone. The views of Banderas Bay and the mountains were to-die-for and the service impeccable. For travel information, contact dianastours.com or visitapuertovallarta.com.mx. For more on El Arrayan, contact elarrayan.com.mx.