Curaçao, St. Croix and San Juan beckon.
While it’s not the PDA-profuse environment of P-town or Key West, more and more islands are rolling out the red carpet for gay and lesbian travelers. Whether you’re planning a romantic Valentine’s Day getaway or you’re vacationing with friends, check out the new gal-friendly meccas south of Miami.
When it comes to gay travel destinations, we’re smitten with lovely Curaçao, where the popular philosophy is “live and let live,” or “biba i liga biba,” as the locals say in their native Papiamentu. This Portuguese-based Creole is the social language of Curaçao, and while the official language is Dutch, most of the locals speak English as well. Situated just outside the hurricane belt in the Netherland Antilles, this Dutch Colonial gem of an island is committed to welcoming visitors of all stripes, and holds the largest International Gay & Lesbian Travel Association (IGLTA) membership in the Caribbean. Perfect for ladies who want to relax, recharge and represent, Curaçao combines the tolerant, urban outlook of bustling Amsterdam with all the storybook charm of a breezy tropical paradise.
Beach babes and day-trip enthusiasts will enjoy a boat excursion to Klein Curaçao (Dutch for “Little Curaçao”), a tiny, unspoiled island off the Southeastern coast of greater Curaçao. Check out the spectacular, beached shipwrecks on the windward side and snorkle to see some below the surface. Or just sunbathe, picnic and splash around on the shores of this totally uninhabited oasis.
When you’re not laying low on one of Curaçao’s shimmering, white-sand beaches, you’ll find yourself welcome in any bar or restaurant in town. Check out Sunday happy hour at Wet & Wild Beach Club (Babor Kibra, wetandwildbeachclub.com), or have a girls’ night out at Lyric’s Gay Café in Willemstad, where the party goes until 4am.
Our pick for best accommodations in Curaçao is Habitat Curaçao (from $140, Coral Estate, Rif St. Marie, habiatcuracaoresort.com), a sultry retreat for friends and lovers of all orientations, and a top-five rated Caribbean dive resort. Strap on the scuba gear to witness a coral spawning two to four days after the full moon and see where baby coral comes from. A breathtaking event in itself, the spawn also draws a cornucopia of tropical fish to the reef, making it a magnificent must-see for divers. Indulge in the Habitat Spa’s signature “Waves of Bliss” full-body massage for some quiet time. Hike along the coastline and let the 50-foot sea spray cool you down, or hop on Habitat’s complimentary shuttle to explore the historic capital city of nearby Willemstad.
Ladies with larger budgets will find gay-friendly, luxury accommodations at the Floris Suite Hotel (from $170, Piscaderabay, florissuitehotel.com), a 71-unit, four-star ultra-mod resort designed by Jan Des Bouvrie. Sports buffs will enjoy unlimited use of the Hotel’s tennis courts, and the proximity to Blue Bay Curaçao Golf, an 18-hole championship course that runs right along the sea. For even more extravagence, consider Hotel Kura Hulanda Spa & Casino (from $220, Langstraat 8, Willemstad, kurahulanda.com). This swanky, 67-room, luxury resort village features two pools, including a Hefner-inspired swimming grotto. The décor is sexy and decadent with East Indian accents, and there are four restaurants on-site. Like Habitat, these two larger resorts are both IGLTA members, and gladly welcome a diverse array of travelers.
If you’re planning a romantic jaunt for two or celebrating a special occasion, take a gander at St. Croix. As the least touristy U.S. Virgin Island, this quaint, Creole paradise boasts miles of sparkling beaches, crystal-blue coastlines, breathtaking mountain views, exotic wildflowers and a laissez-faire, lesbian-friendly vibe.
In terms of accommodations, the choice is clear: the lesbian-owned, boutique, beachfront hotel Sand Castle on the Beach (from $99, 127 Smithfield, Frederiksted, sandcastleonthebeach.com) is our top pick. Formerly the King Frederik, the Caribbean’s first gay hotel, Sand Castle is the brainchild of partners Sheryl and Simone, who run the island getaway themselves. Together, they have created a picturesque paradise for lesbian couples, singles, families and friends, where everyone is welcome. Sheryl and Simone first discovered the property as guests of the King Frederik during their holiday vacation in the winter of ’99. “It was our first time staying in a beachfront property where we could be ourselves,” says Simone, “and the feeling of camaraderie was amazing!” When they learned that the place was for sale, the two entrepreneurs leapt at the opportunity to buy it.
Sand Castle offers couples’ packages and a variety of accommodations to fit your budget, from standard rooms to luxury villas. Sheryl and Simone also host special events and commitment ceremonies on Sand Castle’s beautiful beachfront, making it an ideal backdrop for the sunset wedding of your dreams. (For those who fancy a spring wedding, there’s a 10% discount on commitment ceremony packages in May.) Onsite activities such as scuba, snorkeling, sailing, kayaking, yoga, Qigong, and Tai Chi will keep you busy, or just go for a dip in one of the hotel’s two pools: beachfront, or clothing optional. Sand Castle’s award-winning Beach Side Café offers romantic, outdoor dining and a seaside breakfast. Stop by the Iguana Lounge for Cruzan rum cocktails and afternoon flirtations.
Follow your happy hour with a trip to nearby Steele’s Smokes and Sweets (1102 Strand St, smokesandsweets.com) where rum-dipped Cuban cigars and homemade confections will tempt your inner connoisseur.
For a more robust resort experience, try The Palms at Pelican Cove (from $190, Christiansted, palmsatpelicancove.com) a seven-acre ocean-front resort where every room has an ocean view. Twelve-thousand feet of glittering, white-sand beach await you at The Palms. Elizabeth’s, the resort’s highly acclaimed restaurant, serves the island’s best crabcakes and fresh, local lobster in an open-air, beachfront setting.
Those who want to see more of the island should call Judi of Croix Car Rentals (877-903-2123, judyofcroix.com), a proud member of The St. Croix Business Guild of gay, lesbian, and gay-friendly business owners. Judi’s offers free car delivery and pickup anywhere on the island to suit the explorer in you.
Most retail items on the island are duty-free, so enjoy the affordable, eclectic shopping around King’s Alley Walk. From Soul of Africa for ethnic art and accessories to The Coconut Vine for cotton batiks, you’ll find many colorful shops to tickle your fashion sense. Surprise your sweetie with something from Sonya Ltd. (sonyaltd.com), home of the famous “Hook Bracelet,” St. Croix’s signature souvenir. Each piece is individually hand-crafted by creator Sonya Hough and her team of artists to form a wide selection of local jewelry at its finest.
Finally, for an often overlooked lesbian travel destination, look no further than Puerto Rico, where the artsy, liberal San Juan neighborhoods of Condado and Santurce provide what few Caribbean islands can offer: an actual urban, gay scene about town. Located just outside of historic Old San Juan, these laid-back, cultural enclaves are the East and West Village of Puerto Rico’s capital city.
For a fun and cozy place to stay, try the gay-owned Andalucia Guest House (from $99, 2011 McLeary St, andaluciapuertorico.com), just around the corner from the gay-friendly Ocean Park Beach. Nestled between the Condado and neighboring Isla Verde districts, the seven-room Andalucia is convenient to all the gay nightlife in the area. A seventy-five-cent bus ride will take you anywhere within the city, from the cobblestone streets of Old San Juan to the casinos of Condado. Andalucia is just a 30-minute car ride from the El Yunque rainforest and its exquisite La Mina waterfall. Hungry? Tasty, inexpensive food abounds. Walk over to the long-standing Kasalta Bakery (1966 McLeary Avenue, 787-727-7340) for the greatest media noche sandwich this side of Cuba.
The best choice on a shoe-string budget is the all-gay Atlantic Beach Hotel (from $70, 1 Calle Vendig, 787-721-6900), where the accommodations are modest, but the Condado beachfront location is prime. The Atlantic features an in-house gay bar, and a rooftop jacuzzi. Wanderlusts who don’t mind spending a bit of extra cash can opt for the ultra romantic Hotel El Convento (from $215, 100 Cristo St, elconvento.com). Located in Old San Juan, this beautifully restored, 18th-century convent epitomizes old-world opulence with its lush, Spanish Colonial grandeur.
Visit the Museum of Contemporary Art at Ponce De Leon to see some modern Carribean art. After dark, roll up to Eros (1257 Ponce De Leon Ave), a gay and lesbian nightclub and disco where erotic murals of Greek gods and goddesses are the main decorative motif. Further along Ponce De Leon, near the San Mateo Church, is Cups (1708 Calle San Mateo), a women’s bar and tavern. Spacious enough for live music, dancing and billiards, this hip lesbian haunt has something for both the pool shark and the party girl. For some real local flavor, try Tia Maria’s Liquor Store (326 Jose de Diego Ave), which is not a liquor store at all, but a casual gay bar for men and women.
The first Tuesday of every month from February to May and September to December is Gallery Night in Santurce’s urban art district, when the galleries open their doors to the public and you can drift in and out as you carouse through the streets to the beat of live bands. This wild, boozy romp tends to attract a younger crowd, but adults of all ages can be found rocking out. The people-watching alone makes it worth going.
The Plaza de Mercado de Santurce (Santurce Marketplace) is the place to find tropical fruit and just-picked mountain vegetables. It’s also the place for fragrant spices, medicinal herbs, hand-made crafts, gifts and more. In the evening, the outdoor cantinas surrounding the market square draw a bohemian crowd. On Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, the marketplace becomes a street party as the sun dips down below the city horizon.
For an up-to-the-moment guide to nightlife and events, grab a copy of Puerto Rico Breeze, the local gay newspaper and cultural guide. On the web, go to orgullo-boricua.net, a website dedicated to gay social life and community in Puerto Rico.
Whether you’re single, in a group, or traveling as a pair, Curacao, St. Croix and San Juan offer welcoming atmospheres for your tropical adventure. No matter which gal-friendly island you visit this winter, make sure that you go in pride, and as a wise woman once wrote, “wear sunscreen.”