It's A Gay World After All
The Unexpected Magic Of Three International Hot Spots
Costa Rica: The End of the Rainbow
If you have a taste for lush tropical landscapes, outdoor adventures and balmy weather, Costa Rica is a hot, wet spot to put on the top of your list. Active nature girls and lazy beach lovers alike will find themselves in holiday-heaven. Relative to Latin America, Costa Rica is one of the most accepting of the LGBT community; homosexuality is protected under its constitutional law.
Larger cities, like Costa Rica’s capital San Juan, host many LGBT businesses, as do the towns all along the island‘s luscious Pacific coast. Discretion is paramount to the locals, meaning rainbow flags won’t necessarily be flying, so before heading south send an email to Triángulo Rosa (translation—the pink triangle, firstname.lastname@example.org) in San Jose for a current list of lesbian watering holes and other LGBT-friendly establishments.
Gay travelers on a budget in San Jose should check out the Secret Garden Bed and Breakfast (from $35, 14 Rohr Moser, San Jose, purpleroofs.com/secretgardencrca. html), a quaint and charming gay-owned-and-operated haven centrally located near many of the exotic sites and secluded beaches Costa Rica has to offer. When the sun sets, take in a delicious, just-caught seafood dinner and a juicy, fresh fruit cocktail at Barba Roja Restaurant (hilltop in Manuel Antonio), located on San Jose’s main drag, a popular haunt among local lesbians.
Las Aguas Jungle Lodge (Dominical/Perez Zeledon, Southern Pacific Zone, CR, lasaguas.com) is nestled in the mountains just south of Manuel Antonio National Park. This gay-owned-and-operated eco-resort offers deluxe rooms at a reasonable nightly rate (from $130), as well as single or group activity packages (from $498).
If you’re up for a more rustic retreat, take advantage of Costa Rica's breathtaking hiking trails, where you can walk through some of the last protected rainforests in the world, home to endangered wildlife and waterfalls shrouded in rich vegetation. The Cabo Blanco National Park and Wildlife Reserve (nicoyapeninsula.com/caboblanco) offers an opportunity to see several varieties of rare animals, from half a dozen species of monkey to a rainbow of tropical birds and meandering armadillos. Hikes are rated from easiest to most intense; it’s a good idea to go with a seasoned guide who can pace you and point out the hard-to-find secrets of the land. Reserve a guided tour through the thick canopy with Rainbow Traveler CR, Costa Rica's LGBT travel guide collective (rainbowtravelercr.com).
The sculpted waves of Costa Rica's ocean are one of its most cherished treasures. Surfers from around the world flock here for the excellent water conditions, but novices and old-timers alike can hang ten in these accommodating swells. The women-exclusive Kelea Surf Spa (Mal Pais, Nicoya Peninsula, keleasurfspa.com/costarica) is located in the town of Mapais along the southern tip of the Pacific peninsula. Founded by Elenice Senn and Stephanie Tufts, Kelea offers packages including full accommodations and assorted activities (from $1,745). Snorkel in the crystal clear water of the surrounding beaches, join in on one of several daily yoga classes, or relax with a beach-side massage or in-spa facial. Saturday evenings are salsa night, where you can gyrate your hips all night long as you learn the rhythmic flavor of the region.
Because of its close proximity to the equator, the temperature rarely dips below 70 degrees, the mountaintops being cooler and the coasts a bit more humid. If you plan your travels between May and November, expect to be greeted by the island's wet season. The off-season advantages are lower travel prices and less crowds, but count on an hour or two of gentle showers a day, with heavier rains at evening-time. Another upside to this moist time of year are the extra luscious nature walks, when all the flora and fauna thrive in splendor.
Costa Rica offers one of the friendliest and most accommodating international escapes south of the United States. Whether you have a small budget or room to splurge, want to burn calories or take a siesta all day, this warm and wet climate is any girl's dream. JR
Monte Carlo, Monaco: Where the Fabulous Frolic
Occupying a coastal niche of about 500 acres, Monaco sits between the European Alps and the breathtaking Mediterranean Sea. French is the official language and biggest cultural influence, but Italian and English tongues are just as prevalent. As one of the most exclusive and majestic travel destinations, Monaco is not for the faint-of-wallet. As a well-known tax haven for some of the world's wealthiest inhabitants, Monaco is a playground of luxurious offerings and material delights. With careful navigation, however, you won't need an Amex Black Card to have a taste of this exceptional spot. Enjoy regionally brewed beer at a pub in the Old Town section for no more than you'd expect to pay in New York, or have a gourmet dinner (because all the food in Monaco is gourmet) at one of the cheerful brasseries that dot the Boulevard des Moulins. For as little as $150 a night, you can stay in a double room at the Hotel Le Versailles (4-6 Ave Prince Pierre), situated in the swank Rue de Grimaldi area known for its world-class shopping.
Enjoying the beaches of Monaco can be more of a trick, as many of them are privately owned or reserved for guests of the most upscale hotels. If you’re in the market for a beachfront view, the Hotel Fairmont Monte Carlo (from $460, 12 Ave Des Spélugues, fairmont.com/montecarlo) sits right on the water and offers paramount luxury suites, antique décor, and amenities fit for a princess, as well as coveted beach access. One public beach frequented by friendly locals and visitors alike is the Lavrotto (holiday.monacoeye.com/ monaco_larvotto_beach.php), where the water is just as warm and pristine as at the private beaches, but the attitude is more laid-back.
If you're a car-buff, do not miss Monaco's world famous Grand Prix race in May (monaco2008.com). For the right price, you can rent your own private balcony with a bird's eye view of the track, live TV screens, a full-service bar, and a chance to mingle with the racecar drivers. If you've got an extra 10 grand burning a hole in your pocket, the Fairmont’s Platinum Adventure Package includes special pick-up from the airport by helicopter to whisk you away to your private suite, followed by days of endless champagne, buffets and one-on-one time with the stars of the Grand Prix. Or, if you're more of a hands-on kind of gal, treat yourself to the Room and Vroom Package; for $1,000 a night, you’ll get 60 minutes of driving time in a Ferrari 355 Modena on the racetrack, and as much adrenalin you can stand.
Besides fast cars, another of Monte Carlo's pleasurable vices include the famed Monte Carlo Casino (Place du Casino, casinomontecarlo.com). Established in 1863, it attracts tourists from around the world eager to meet Lady Luck amid historic 19th-century architecture and regal interiors. For the less serious gambler, moderately priced slot machines ring all night, while big players are invited into the inner club where $100,000-chips are pocket change. Those who would rather just watch the high-stakes adventures are allowed entry for mere $20. Be warned: those in flip-flops will be turned away without a second glance.
As a principality and independent state, Monaco has a rich and proud history, and one of the few remaining active royal families. Lesbian and gay residents and visitors are welcomed, as Monaco exists under a very French umbrella of liberal views towards sexuality. Decadence is Monte Carlo's middle name, and the bottom line in Monaco is, if you can afford to play in it, you’ll be welcomed with open arms. JR
Budapest: Eastern Europe's Hidden Gem
This is not the dark and gothic city you might imagine (although that side of Budapest still exists), but a youthful, vibrant destination with a burgeoning gay and lesbian subculture waiting to be explored.
Since the 1990s, gay life in Hungary has been improving, and the LGBT community in Budapest has become increasingly visible. In fact, a new law will be instituted in 2009 allowing gays in Budapest to register as domestic partners. Every July, Budapest hosts a gay pride parade that draws an increasingly bigger crowd, and though the city has no specifically gay neighborhood, there is a thriving scene with gay bars and clubs, bookstores, cafes and sex shops.
You won't go hungry in this town. Lesbian- owned Café Eklectika (30 Nagymezo Utca, eklektika.hu) has outdoor seating in the summer and music most nights of the week. (Don't be fooled by the guide books; this popular spot has recently moved.) Gay girls can be found sipping coffee at their laptops any time of day, and are always happy to point you in the direction of their favorite bar. As you roam the city, be sure to stop by the oldest gay-owned restaurant in town for Hungary-style pizza and pasta at Club 93 Pizzeria (2 Vas Utca).
There are two monthly lesbian parties, meaning every girl-seeking-girl in town shows up. Ösztrosokk is a women only lesbian party held every last Saturday of the month at Living Room (V. Kossuth L. Utca 17). Join the local lesbians as they shake it at milkS/HakE every second Friday of the month at Bamboo Club (Dessewffy Utca 44).
Budapest rocks as it celebrates music from around the world at the annual mid-August Sziget Festival (sziget.hu/festival_english). Among this year's featured acts are R.E.M., the Sex Pistols and Iron Maiden. Stop into the festival’s Magic Mirror Tent, erected specifically to entertain the LGBT crowd with acrobatic acts and a variety of other kinds of alternative performances.
The tranquil Danube River divides the city, and all throughout it are islands waiting to be explored. Margaret Island is especially relaxing, providing visitors a haven from the bustle of the more cosmopolitan downtown, with its small zoo and numerous footpaths. Wandering the eight bridges that connect the Buda and Pest sides of the city is an enchanting way to explore its rare combination of old-world and modern day charm.
There are shopping districts tucked all over the city, but Andrássy Utca is the main shopping drag. Nicknamed the "Champs d'Elysée" of Budapest, you’ll find some of the best food in the city there. Continue down Andrássy to Heroes Square, a vast open space with a huge 130-foot monument in the center, constructed in 1896 for the city’s millennium celebration. Behind Heroes Square is the tree-filled and picnic-ready City Park of Budapest, where you can also enjoy a dip in Széchenyi Bath (Állatkerti körút 11, spa.hu/angol/szechenyispa_en.html), built in 1913. This is the largest thermal bath in the city, promising an authentically Hungarian therapeutic experience. Other baths that are an absolute must-dip include the Rudac, Rac and Kiraly. The latter is an ideal spot for lesbians, as they are women-only every other day.
The Buda side of the city is the Castle District, the stronghold of ancient Budapest. The view from Fisherman's Bastion is particularly stunning for a photo-op and romantic nighttime adventure.
The architecture throughout Budapest is one of its biggest draws, as exemplified by The Opera House (Andrássy Utca 22), arguably the most lavish building in the city. The churches here double as museums. For example, St. Stephen's Basilica (Szt. István tér) is the largest in Budapest. It’s dedicated and named after Hungary's first king, and is home to an odd but enticing infamous relic: St. Stephen's mummified hand.
The modern mixes well with the historic, and there are many new and old hotels in Budapest. The Four Seasons Hotel (from $540, Roosevelt Tér 5-6, fourseasons.com/ budapest) and the Andrássy Hotel (from $265, Andrássy Utca 111, andrassy hotel.com) are both good bets for a deluxe, hip experience. Also check out the gay-owned KM Saga Guest Residence (from $100, Lónyai Utca 17 III, km-saga.hu), geared more towards the boys, but the English and French speaking owners are happy to accommodate “les femmes” as well.
Budapest is Europe's best kept secret—a city small enough to navigate on your own, and big enough to get lost in as you discover your own favorite corner of the world. SH