warms, welcomes LGBT travelers
by Ed Walsh
South Florida is the perfect LGBT-welcoming antidote for the Bay Area's cold and rainy winter blues.
Besides the sun and beaches, Key West and Fort Lauderdale are unbeatable LGBT travel destinations that are known for some of the finest gay resorts in the world and abundant nightlife.
Fort Lauderdale is a good place to begin a vacation in South Florida. Both Virgin America and JetBlue fly nonstop to Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International from San Francisco International and that competition has translated into good airfare deals. The draw for passengers will heat up even more in March when United begins flying nonstop to Fort Lauderdale. The Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood airport is also easier to get in and out of than Miami International, which is about a 45-minute drive south. Miami Beach once was the center of gay nightlife in South Florida, but Wilton Manors, the city next to Fort Lauderdale, now owns that title.
Many people combine visits to Fort Lauderdale and Key West by flying into Fort Lauderdale, driving or taking a bus to Key West, and flying back from Key West. For a minimal charge, many car rental companies will allow you to do a one-way rental. The highlight of the road trip is the view from the seven-mile bridge, about an hour from Key West. The drive takes about 3.5 hours if you don't stop. There are also regularly scheduled shuttle buses that run between Fort Lauderdale and Key West taking about 4.5 hours for about $100. Flights from Fort Lauderdale take less than an hour and start at about $150 or so.
The Fort Lauderdale area is the Palm Springs of the East Coast. The city is the undisputed gay resort capital of the East. Most of the nearly 20 gay resorts in the Fort Lauderdale area are near the famed Fort Lauderdale beach. The unofficial gay section of the beach is where Sebastian Street meets the ocean. And unlike the chilly Pacific, you can swim comfortably in the Atlantic all year round.
"It's all about size here in Fort Lauderdale. As Florida's gay mecca, the LGBT traveler has a multitude of choice when it comes to the LGBT scene," Richard Gray, managing director, LGBT market for the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau, told the Bay Area Reporter. "Our beach is always full of appealing eye candy, especially around Sebastian Beach. Dining choices are abundant, with affordable cuisine for all, and shopping is outstanding. A visit to Sawgrass Mills outlet mall is a must. How can you resist Prada, Gucci, and Neiman's, to name but a few."
Fort Lauderdale doesn't take the gay travel market for granted. The LGBT business association, the Rainbow Hospitality Alliance, operates under the Greater Fort Lauderdale Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce to promote and support gay businesses.
The resorts of Fort Lauderdale range from ones that welcome both men and women to more cruisy, clothing-optional resorts that are for men only.
With nearly 40 rooms, the Elysium Resort is one of the largest gay male resorts in the Fort Lauderdale area. The longtime owners, Gary Mercado and Steve Barnes, are on the property every day and, despite the hotel's size, it maintains a family atmosphere that wins it regulars who return year after year.
The nearby men's resorts The Worthington, Alcazar, and Villa Venice recently merged and operate under the umbrella name, The Worthington Resorts. Guests have access to all three buildings, each with its own pool. The Worthington and Villa Venice also have hot tubs. The new Worthington Resorts boasts that it is the largest clothing-optional resort in the U.S., with 63 total rooms.
The Grand Resort and Spa is one of the more upscale gay properties near the beach. You are required to wear a bathing suit in the front swimming pool area but clothing is optional in the back.
The Royal Palms Resort and Spa opened two years ago and is known for its minimalist style and upscale, chic furnishings. The Royal Palms also has a poolside restaurant-bar open to guests and non-guests starting at 7 a.m. The Royal Palms is not to be confused with the original Royal Palms Hotel, which changed its name to the Lush Royal Hotel.
The Ed Lugo resort is gay/lesbian/straight mixed and is in Wilton Manors, just a short walk from most of the gay nightlife. The resort offers one and two bedroom luxury suites. Breakfast is not included. Guests can use the gym across the street for free.
Fort Lauderdale sights
Fort Lauderdale is known as the Venice of America because of the canals that were carved out near the beach to build more waterfront property. The famed Jungle Queen Riverboat Cruise gives visitors tours of the front yards of the rich and famous who call Fort Lauderdale home.
Wilton Manors is an island city surrounded by canals just west of Fort Lauderdale. With a population of nearly 12,000, Wilton Manors is one of the gayest cities per-capita in the world. Estimates are that about 30 percent to 40 percent of the city is gay. Wilton Manors also has what may be the largest LGBT center in the world, with several buildings spread out over a six-acre campus.
Wilton Manors nightlife
The city's main street is Wilton Drive. That's where you will find more than a dozen gay bars and nightclubs. The newest gay bar, The Village, opened in October and is already one of the most popular bars on the strip. It is in the space once occupied by The Mix bar. The Wilton's Bier Garden also opened this year. The outdoor patio set up resembles beer gardens in Germany.
The New Moon bar is Wilton Manors' only full-time lesbian bar. Foodies should plan on going there during the first Tuesday of the month when food trucks take over from 5 to 9 p.m.
The Ramrod bar is Wilton Manors' Levi-leather bar. It has a main bar and pool table with a smaller back patio bar.
Georgie's Alibi bar continues to be one of Wilton Manors' mainstays, along with the neighboring bar and dance club, Boom. The Wilton Manors bars run alternating specials during the week geared to bringing crowds out year round.
Key West was one of the first cities in the world to actively promote gay tourism. The city's slogan now aptly is, "We were out before it was in." Visitors who fly into Key West immediately are made aware of the city's gay friendliness. Mannequins depicting a traditional heterosexual family stand along side a same-sex family over the airport arrival entrance on the tarmac.
Gays are a big part of what Key West is today. Gay businesspeople helped revitalize a very economically depressed Key West in the 1970s. The city's main boulevard, Duval Street, was best-known back then for boarded up storefront windows. Now, the biggest complaint many business owners and residents have is the high cost of rent.
Key West is the southernmost point of the continental U.S. A sculpture in the shape of a buoy at that point is one of the island's most visited attractions. It tells visitors that Cuba is just 90 miles away.
One thing every visitor should do is take one of several guided tours of the island that run throughout the day and let guests hop on and off at an attraction. The famous Conch Train is made up of open-air tramway cars that are towed through the highlights of the city, including the Hemingway House, the Southernmost Point, and the house President Harry Truman used as his second home.
If you are in Key West on a Saturday, be sure to take the LGBT trolley tour of the city. It will take you by all the regular stuff the other tours do, plus the gay specific attractions that the mainstream tours overlook, including the house where gay writer Tennessee Williams lived. By the way, the city has a Tennessee Williams museum at 513 Truman Street, just off Duval Street. It is part of the city's gay information center. The center is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week.
The LGBT trolley tour, as well as the mainstream tours, stops by the waterfront AIDS memorial. The names of Key West residents who died of AIDS are chiseled on a plaza in front of a pier.
The Blu Q runs a number of gay sightseeing and adventure trips on the water. The two-hour Blu Q sunset tour is $45 and includes free beer, wine, sangria, and soft drinks.
Key West is famous for its ghosts. Both a motorized and a ghost walking tour keep the legends going every day and night. Key West's cemetery is known not so much for ghosts as humor. One gravestone reads, "I told you I was sick," another, "Just resting my eyes."
Key West hotels
Key West is home to the Island House, which deservedly ranks near or at the top of lists of best gay resorts in the world. Some guests check in and rarely leave the property until check out. The 39-room, men-only resort has a full-service bar and restaurant, a very well equipped gym, a sauna, steam room, indoor and outdoor Jacuzzis, an XXX video room, and of course, a pool. The resort draws travelers from all over the world. It has a full-service restaurant and bar. Free drinks for guests are served up during an early evening cocktail hour.
The Equator resort is just down Flemming Street from the Island House and is another first-rate property. Just next door, the Coral Tree Inn is still an all-male gay resort but the sister properties across the street, the Oasis and Coconut Grove, were sold and will no longer be gay resorts.
The Orleans House on Duval Street is the place to be if you want to be where everything is. The property is part of the Bourbon Street complex, which includes four gay bars, including the men-only, clothing optional Garden bar.
Pearls used to be an exclusively lesbian hotel, but more than a year ago it changed to "all welcoming." It is still lesbian-popular but not exclusively so.
The Alexander House, across from the Island House, is a gay resort and both gay and lesbian mixed. Big Ruby's, in the heart of downtown, is another gay-lesbian mixed resort, which is known for serving complimentary made-to-order hot breakfasts for all guests. Both are among the finest guesthouses that you will find anywhere on the island.
Most of the gay bars and nightclubs in Key West are near the intersection of Duval and Petronia streets. The Bourbon Street complex includes a Levi-leather bar, cabaret space, and the Garden bar that faces the pool for the Orleans House Hotel. The Bourbon Street Pub will take center stage when it hosts the famous New Year's Eve "Shoe Drop" that is covered live on CNN. Key West's famous drag queen, Sushi, is hoisted down from a balcony in a giant high heel shoe at midnight.
The lesbian-owned Aqua Nightclub is just a few steps away from the Bourbon complex on Duval. Aqua has the biggest gay dance space in the city and draws a big crowd for its famous drag shows. On Simontin Street, one street over from Duval, you will find the Monkey bar, which is known as the locals' bar because most tourists don't know it's there. For a unique experience, check out the bar at the Island House hotel. It stays open until 4 a.m. and you don't have to be a guest to use the bar or restaurant. (There is a $25 day pass if you want to use the resort's amenities.) The La Te Dah bar and nightclub is famous for its entertainment and community fundraisers. Pearl's Patio, while no longer exclusively lesbian, is still very lesbian friendly.