Where the Boys Are, Part 2

Ft. Lauderdale Beach
The feet of Jim Kilingler, right, and Kevin Novreske, both from Seattle, on the gay and lesbian part of Ft. Lauderdale Beach, one of America's most gay-friendly cities. (Richard Patterson - Getty Images for The Washington Post)
By Gary Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 15, 2005

Saturday night had edged into Sunday morning, and most of the patrons at Boom were propped languidly against the bar and walls when Christina Aguilera's "Beautiful" suddenly blared from the speakers. As if on cue, nearly everyone in the Fort Lauderdale gay club hit the dance floor. Middle-aged men, Generation Xers, muscular and thin bodies, guys dressed in everything from wrinkled khakis to designer jeans -- all joined in a group boogie. One happy reveler who looked well into his sixties stood near the stage waving white flags. The song had struck the right chord.

The message in the music: that this balmy southern Florida enclave is quietly edging ahead of San Francisco, Key West, Fla., and other locales in the ranks of America's most gay-friendly cities. By the account o:f the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau, last year more than 800,000 gay men and lesbians visited, placing it among the top U.S. vacation destinations for gays. It's now the fifth most popular U.S. destination for gay vacationers, according to a 2004 national poll of gay travelers conducted by Community Marketing, a San Francisco research firm. Lauderdale came in behind New York, Las Vegas, San Francisco and Los Angeles, and just ahead of Miami.

Many rainbow travelers say they view the Fort Lauderdale scene as far more low-key, accessible and inclusive than Miami's hip South Beach, just 40 minutes south.

"It's a kinder, gentler alternative to SoBe," says Ed Salvato, editor of Out & About, a popular gay travel newsletter that gives Fort Lauderdale glowing ratings. "You don't have J-Lo or Madonna making a scene. There are no throbbing all-night skin clubs or a whole bling-bling thing. It's a good cross section of places where lots of regular guys hang out having a good time."

Although Fort Lauderdale has attracted a quiet following of gay retirees for decades, until a generation or two ago it was better known as a destination for a young, rowdy straight crowd. After the frothy feature film "Where the Boys Are" hit cinemas in 1960, using the city as a backdrop, spring breakers began to flood the beach by the thousands, beers in hand. In the mid-1980s, fed up with students roaming the streets, drinking and trashing properties, city planners started taking away the spring break welcome mat. The biggest move was to pass a 1985 ordinance banning drinking from open containers in public places. Instead, hoping to attract a better-behaved crowd, developers began to open trendy restaurants and boutique hotels and to spruce up the cluttered beach.

That makeover added a glow to Fort Lauderdale's considerable natural assets: 23 miles of wide, clean beaches, a climate that averages 66 degrees in winter and 84 in summer, and a vast network of inland waterways reminiscent of Venice.

A decade ago, the city's tourism officials also began to actively court gay travelers by promoting its gay-friendly lodging and other travel options at trade fairs. Last year they devoted more than $250,000 in marketing to gay travelers. "We watched that chance we took pay off big time," said Nicki E. Grossman, president of the visitors bureau. "Especially after September 11, 2001, gay and lesbian travelers were the first in the air, resuming their travel habits." Gay visitation is growing at an average rate of 10 percent a year, she said. Straight travel to the city is also booming, and the groups seem to mingle well together, she added.

Ft. Lauderdale Beach
The feet of Jim Kilingler, right, and Kevin Novreske, both from Seattle, on the gay and lesbian part of Ft. Lauderdale Beach, one of America's most gay-friendly cities.(Richard Patterson - Getty Images for The Washington Post)
Richard Gray, owner of the tony Fort Lauderdale gay guesthouse Royal Palms and self-styled ambassador of gay tourism for the city, has seen the city evolve from a seedy backwater to a trendy resort in his 14 years here. Originally from London, the effusive 47-year-old entrepreneur moved to Fort Lauderdale in 1991 and quickly began organizing and promoting the then-fledgling gay tourism infrastructure.

Driving around the 34-square-mile city in his blue Mercedes sports car, Gray pointed out the transformations a decade and a half had brought. The most dramatic change, he said, was the beachfront area, stretching about a mile along the A1A highway (a k a Ocean Drive) from Sunrise Boulevard to Las Olas. In the 1980s, it was a motley mix of cheap hotels and fast-food eateries whose best customers were the spring-break crowd. Now one side is lined with upscale shops and cafes; the other is a vast stretch of beach, where locals and vacationers sprawl in the sun.

A good base for gay travelers is the so-called Beach Area, the residential settlement of low-rise buildings just off the ocean from Las Olas to Terramar Street. In particular, quiet Terramar Street and Birch Road are home to a concentration of about a dozen gay hotels and guesthouses. They range in style from the upscale Grand Resort and Spa to the more basic Alhambra Beach Resort, but in general are neat and appealing.

A 10-minute drive from the beach is the downtown, which has a few gay clubs and a concentration of upscale clothing boutiques. A five-minute drive north of there is Wilton Manors, an enclave of homes, restaurants and cafes popular among gays. The past decade, Gray said, has brought a vibrant gay presence to this small middle-class city. The population of 12,600 is 30 to 40 percent gay, by his estimate, and the city elected successive gay mayors in 2000 and 2002. It is home to dozens of gay-owned businesses, including the popular lunchtime hangout Hamburger Mary's, the sports bar Georgie's Alibi and the Rainbow Laundry, a laundromat.

At the pretty Stork's Bakery and Cafe on NE 15th Avenue, Gray offered his take on Fort Lauderdale's special appeal. "It's always good to see so many rainbow flags flying," he said. "But the truth is [gays] can go just about anywhere [in surrounding Broward County] and get good service and a smile. This is about as tolerant an area as they come." Broward has a strong record of support for gay rights, he said.

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