The grand 13th century Caernarfon Castle reflected in the Soilont River in Wales.
The grand 13th century Caernarfon Castle reflected in the Soilont River in Wales.
britainonview/David Angel

Traveling With Pride

By Rich Rubin
Special to
Tuesday, September 26, 2006; 6:22 PM

When it comes to gay travel, much of the world is waving a rainbow flag these days. The number of choices has exploded and savvy destinations are marketing specifically to the community in an unprecedented way.

"When I first came on onboard in 1998, there were maybe a handful of destinations marketing to the gay or lesbian consumer," says Ed Salvato, travel editor for mega-Web site Planet Out. "Zoom to eight years later and you have over 70 tourist boards around the world marketing to gay and lesbian travelers and a huge increase in the diversity of options."

Not only are there more destinations eager to accept your rainbow-hued dollars, there are more services and resources available. The number of all-gay cruises, for instance, has expanded exponentially and Planet Out's Web site lists over 40 travel agents that specialize in gay travel. Informational sources are mushrooming, as well. In addition to Planet Out's wealth of online information, Passport Magazine -- the only national gay travel magazine on newsstands -- covers a wide variety of destinations in both print and Web versions. Out Magazine also packages a periodical quarterly with its regular publication called Out Traveler and Purple Roofs offers listings from hotels to home trades.

"The value of the market has become recognized," says Don Tuthill, publisher of Passport, "because they realize what we've known all along: that we travel ten times as much as other markets."

Why gay-specific travel? It's all about comfort level. Unlike heterosexual tourists, gay and lesbian voyagers have a series of questions to consider: will couples raise eyebrows, or worse, when they check into a double-bedded room or cabin? Can they boogie with their partner at that hot dance club? What happens if the waiter sees them canoodling over the crème brûlée?

Salvato says: "If you live somewhere you can't hold your partner's hand in public, it's great to be able to do it on vacation." For this reason, certain gay "havens" have always been popular. Manhattanites have long flocked to the Fire Island communities of Cherry Grove and Fire Island Pines, while San Franciscans made the Russian River area tops. Desert-lovers choose Palm Springs, Calif., seafarers Key West, Fla. and Provincetown, Mass..

"If a gay or lesbian couple hasn't been somewhere like Key West or Provincetown," says Salvato, "I'd recommend that. It's the quintessential experience," noting that the "protected magic bubble" of a place like Provincetown can be a stress-reliever in itself. "If you're cut off from gay people 51 weeks out of the year," he asks, "why not spend one week a year with them?"

Again, don't overlook the smaller spots. New Hope, Pa. has long drawn a crowd attracted to its low-key riverside charm and gay-friendly outlook, while Rehoboth Beach is Delaware's answer to Fire Island, though considerably less A-list (and more mixed).

Craving a big-city getaway? New York and San Francisco are tried-and-true, along with such destinations as Atlanta, Miami, and, of course, West Hollywood, Calif. But destinations less traditionally "gay" hold some surprises, as well. Minneapolis is avidly courting the market, as is Philadelphia. Fort Lauderdale, Fla. is doing so well with gay tourists that many think it will take over from Miami. Even small towns like Bloomington, Ind. or Madison, Wisc. are up-and-comers, with their large, open-minded student populations. While a smaller town might not offer gay clubs on every block, that's not everyone's goal.

Notes Tuthill: "Some people don't want to go to a place that's overwhelmed with nightlife. They might want to go hiking, but they'd like to know if there's a gay community there. Or they want to experience the culture and hopefully get to meet other members of the tribe." (Hint: enter "gay lesbian" and your destination into a search engine. You're likely to come up with not only bars and clubs but local groups devoted to sports, politics or socializing.)

For Europhiles, London, Paris, Berlin, and Amsterdam have long been leaders. Barcelona, with its tres-gay resort of Sitges nearby, always draws a rainbow crowd, as does Madrid's copious nightlife and early-morning traffic jams of revelers. But Manchester, England is a tried and true stop; Scandinavian countries are always a sure bet; smaller Dutch cities are as friendly as the capital, and Hamburg, Germany has enough nightlife to keep you going well into the morning. And don't neglect Belgium, where gay marriage is legal (as it is in Spain and the Netherlands) with pleasures ranging from the urban -- and culinary -- delights of Brussels to several fascinating towns like Ghent, Liège, and Bruges. Switzerland, Germany, Austria, and Great Britain have been leaders in marketing to the gay/lesbian traveler and all have gay sections on their tourism Web sites.

"One thing about the gay market: We love to explore places that are new, that are not necessarily the well-trodden," Tuthill says. "Because we tend to travel more, we may pay repeat visits to the expected places -- Palm Springs, Key West, Paris, Barcelona -- but we're also going to look at places like Reykjavik, Basel [Switzerland], Tokyo or Minneapolis."

Even the Caribbean -- long thought of as gay-unfriendly -- is beginning to change. The prime trail-blazer has been the island of Curaçao, which has a gay-devoted Web site -- unprecedented for a Caribbean island. Other options include: Martinique, whose French laissez-faire attitude makes it a good bet; San Juan, Puerto Rico, which has the most gay nightlife in the Caribbean and the U.S. Virgin Islands are very welcoming. Even the Cayman Islands, which famously turned away a gay cruise in 1998, are now trying to hop back into the market and in some less-friendly spots, you're likely to find individual hoteliers (usually at the more chic and savvy properties) who welcome your presence. Mockingbird Hill in Jamaica, or Laluna in Grenada are two examples.

Perhaps because of the "protected bubble" appeal, the biggest boom in gay travel has been in the area of cruises. RSVP and Atlantis for men and Olivia for women have always been the leaders, but the expanding market testifies to the popularity of these adventures, with a ship from a major cruise line hired out for a gay voyage. Choose a Mediterranean, South Seas or Baltic adventure from one of these giants or check out a smaller company like Romance Voyages, which offers gay cruises to exotic locales like Machu Picchu or the Temple of Luxor. RSVP has also expanded to the land-tour market, joining such gay tour operators as Above and Beyond Tours and Outwest Global Adventures.

In the end, it's up to you: Do you want an all-gay experience or a "straight friendly" one? All male or female? Land or sea? A gay hotel or a mainstream-but-accepting one? There's no one "right" answer to having a gay old time. What does exist are significantly more options than in the past. Ultimately, says Tuthill, "What makes a great destination is as individual as the person going there."

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