With apologies to Disney World, this might be the gayest place on earth
Back in the 1980s, Ft. Lauderdale was known as spring break central. Thousands of college kids would descend on the seaside city for a week of debauchery, which left an unflattering civic reputation. In the 1990s, city leaders began shifting the image of Ft. Lauderdale from an outdoor frat house to a cleaner, classier destination for well-heeled vacationers. Judging from the beautiful beaches, tidy streets and 45,000 luxury yachts tied up at private marinas, the plan succeeded beyond expectations.
The cleanup seemed to attract a huge number of queers, too. According to the Greater Ft. Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau (sunny.org), the city boasts the highest percentage of same-sex couples in the entire country and welcomed a record-breaking 1.3 million LGBT visitors last year. The CVB is the only major tourism board with a managing director dedicated to LGBT marketing. (Maybe you saw the TV ads last winter featuring gay and lesbian tourists frolicking on Ft. Lauderdale’s beaches.)
Wilton Manors is the epicenter of LGBT life in Greater Ft. Lauderdale. Many of the 150 gay-owned businesses can be found in this cozy suburb, along with resources like the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association headquarters (iglta.org) and the Pride Center at Equality Park (2040 N Dixie Hwy, Wilton Manors, 954-463-9005, pridecenterflorida.org). Later this year, Phase I of the World AIDS Museum is scheduled to open at the Wilton Station complex (1201 NE 26th St., Suite 111, Wilton Manors, 954- 815-2550, worldaidsmuseum.com). The museum will offer a global view of the disease and community-oriented exhibits, such as a display of T-shirts from 30 years of AIDS marches and fundraisers.
In Ft. Lauderdale proper, the Stonewall National Archives and Museum (300 E Sunrise Blvd., 954-763-8565, stonewallnationalmuseum.org) maintains a collection of books, periodicals and historical objects related to LGBT life and culture, some of which is on permanent display. Also, check out the FAT (Flagler Arts and Technology) Village Arts District, where there’s a free art walk on the last Saturday of the month.
We won’t blame you, however, if your number-one vacation priority is lying on sand with the surf tickling your toes. Ft. Lauderdale is one of the best places to sunbathe; Broward County is bordered by 23 miles of white, powdery sand and gentle waves. Six individual beaches—Ft. Lauderdale, Hollywood, Deerfield Beach, Pompano Beach, Dania Beach and Lauderdale-by-the-Sea—are certified by the Clean Beaches Council as especially pristine.
The Intracoastal Waterway, New River and man-made canals, which gave the city its nickname, “Venice of America,” wind through lively neighborhoods. Hop on a water taxi (watertaxi.com) to shuttle between upscale entertainment options in Las Olas, the peaceful Esplanade Park and Riverwalk, waterside restaurants and other attractions. You can also charter a private yacht, sport-fishing excursion or sightseeing trip from a local company (sunny.org/ways-to-play/sightseeing-tours). Whichever way you travel, you’ll be floored by the multimillion-dollar yachts and sumptuous mansions along the waterways—homes on “Millionaire’s Row” near Las Olas bear particularly high price tags.
Ft. Lauderdale may have successfully buried its rowdy reputation, but the city still offers distinctly campy sights and activities. After spending the day ogling the lifestyles of the 1 percent, go bargain-hunting at Swap Shop (3291 W Sunrise Blvd., no phone, floridaswapshop.com). The colossal combo of outdoor flea market, amusement park, circus and 14-screen drive-in movie theater is so big, you can probably see it from space. The merchandise might be old and arcane, but the movies on screen are all new releases.
Want more frugal finds (and air-conditioning)? Check out Sawgrass Mills (12801 W Sunrise Blvd., 954-846-2300, simon.com/mall/sawgrass-mills), America’s largest outlet mall. Nearly 350 stores crowd the climate-controlled retail mecca, from Burberry and Gucci factory stores to thrifty favorites like Target and Forever 21. Shop ‘til you drop—you can refuel at Starbucks.
The hotel scene is saturated with clothing-optional gay men’s resorts, but there are many LGBT-friendly B&Bs and hotels that welcome everyone. At the chic B Ocean Fort Lauderdale (999 N Ft. Lauderdale Beach Blvd., 954-564-1000, boceanfortlauderdale.com), every room faces the ocean, and the ultra-modern, white-on-white décor just accents the bright blue waters outside the oversized windows. All rooms and suites offer free Wi-Fi, Aveda products and plush beds. The pool is small, but the beach is across the street. La Casa del Mar (3003 Granada St, 954-467-2037, lacasadelmar.com) is a vintage tropical hideaway tucked between beachfront high-rises. Palm trees and foliage provide seclusion for this charming, Spanish colonial gem, featuring comfy accommodations around a pool and patio. Each room includes a kitchenette, free Wi-Fi, parking and access to the nearby beach.
Head to lesbian-owned 13 EVEN (2037 Wilton Dr., Wilton Manors, 954-565-8550, 13-even.com) for tapas and drinks. The Manor (2345 Wilton Dr., Wilton Manors, 954-626-0082, themanor complex.com), Wilton Manors’ premier gay club, occasionally hosts a women’s Sunday tea dance with cheap drinks and eye candy.
Longtime lesbian bar New Moon recently closed, but the girls won't be lost for long. Pandora Events, the well-known South Florida producers of long-running events and destination weekends like Girls In Wonderland and Aqua Girl, will launch its new women’s soiree in Ft. Lauderdale in May. The party must go on!
For lunch, dinner and drinks, have it your way—extra-gay—at Rosie’s Bar & Grill (2449 Wilton Dr., Wilton Manors, 954-567-1320, rosiesbarandgrill.com). Cure your hangover with a Pinky Tacodero, a pile of taco-seasoned beef, salsa, jack cheese and guacamole. The festive Sunday brunch and drink specials lure regulars to the outdoor deck.
15th Street Fisheries (1900 SE 15th St, 954-763-2777, 15streetfisheries.com) is a gastronomic landmark right on the Intracoastal Waterway. Walk in or pull your boat to the dock for waterfront dining and daily feeding of the canal’s wild tarpon (a big sport fish you don’t want to mess with). Upstairs, the elegant dining room overlooks the water and offers a menu of “Floribbean” cuisine. Try the Bahamian conch chowder to start, followed by pan-roasted black grouper for a taste of local seafood.
Finally, the 1950’s tiki craze lives on at Mai-Kai Restaurant and Polynesian Revue (3599 N Federal Hwy, 954-563-3272, maikai.com), a tiki bar and eatery festooned with leis and torches. The menu of mid-century classics is heavy on roasted meats (Peking duck!), grilled fish and pan-Asian noodles; all the better to sop up the booze. Owner and choreographer Mireille Thornton creates a new live show with costumed dancers each year, inspired by her South Pacific travels. Only in Florida! –Kat Long
Tally-ho! See the other side of Florida in the capital city with a wild streak
When you think of spring break, Tallahassee is probably not the first Florida destination that comes to mind. In fact, natives say Florida’s capital feels more like southern Alabama than Orlando or Miami—genteel, quiet, and a little off the beaten path. That’s why I loved it. Everyone is unfailingly polite, answering “yes, ma’am” or “no, ma’am” without a hint of sarcasm. Branches of live oaks, draped in Spanish moss, arch across picturesque canopy roads. Historic sites dot the city and evoke the many cultures that shaped the 190-year-old state capital.
At the same time, Tallahassee—Tally, for short—is home to the state government and three gigantic universities: Florida State, Florida A&M and Tallahassee Community College. These schools boast a total of almost 100,000 students who bring energy and diversity to the city. LGBT residents are gaining visibility and rights: Leon County (where Tallahassee is located) enacted a domestic partnership registry last year. Pridefest (tallahasseepride.com), a week of events celebrating the LGBT community, takes place in April. The annual festival benefits the Family Tree (2415 N. Monroe St., 850-222-8555, familytreecenter.org), the local LGBT community center.
Visitors come for many reasons, and chief among them is the opportunity to see a different side of Florida—specifically, its wild side. The Big Bend area, where the Florida peninsula turns into the panhandle, is one of America’s most important regions of biodiversity and home to many endangered animals. When I visited on a trip designed by Visit Tallahassee (visittallahassee.com), the city’s tourism bureau, I knew I was in for an adventure.
Our first stop was T-n-T Hide-a-Way (6527 Coastal Hwy, Crawfordville, 850-925-6412, tnthideaway.com), a locally legendary kayak and canoe outfitter on the banks of the Wakulla River, 20 miles south of town. I settled into my kayak for the three-mile trip downstream, hoping that no one could tell I was a complete novice with the paddle. On either side of the river—usually crystal clear, but then stained a Lipton hue from recent storms—thick stands of vine-tangled cypress evinced a prehistoric, jungly feeling. We encountered manatees, which live in the warm rivers around Tallahassee all year. Though these rotund beasts can weigh up to a ton, they swam silently under my kayak, graceful despite their bulk.
That afternoon, we met another of Florida’s iconic residents: gators. A few miles upriver from T-n-T Hide-a-Way lies Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park (465 Wakulla Park Dr., Wakulla, 850-561-7276, floridastateparks.org/wakullasprings), a popular park with one of the deepest freshwater springs in the world. Water flows at a rate of 600,000 gallons per minute, providing wetlands for native birds, mammals and reptiles. Speaking of the latter, we came upon dozens of alligators; some floating motionlessly with only their eyes showing above the surface. We discovered a 14-foot-long specimen sunning himself on a log. Even the native Floridians in our group were spooked.
Before leaving the park, we sat down for lunch at the historic Wakulla Springs Lodge. The décor was Mediterranean revival, but the menu was distinctly southern, with a scrumptious selection of local Apalachicola oysters. These plump beauties weren’t offered raw on the half-shell; the regional way is to serve them roasted atop a saltine cracker. (Don’t ask.)
The next day, I tried another sport: mountain biking. The region features 600 miles of hiking, jogging, biking and paddling trails on every kind of terrain. Last year, the city launched Trailahassee.com, a website with trail details, maps and user reviews to encourage people to appreciate Tallahassee’s natural resources. The trail we chose meandered six miles through forests and fields, down dry gullies and along grassy paths—and I only wiped out twice.
Our last excursion brought us to the Tallahassee Museum (3945 Museum Dr., 850-575-8684, tallahasseemuseum.org), a 52-acre venue where visitors can walk, climb and fly through centuries of Florida culture. Overhead in the treetops, a zipline and adventure course challenged even the fittest adventurers. I opted to keep my feet on the ground and visited the zoo, which includes native wildlife like the endangered Florida panther; and explored traditional buildings that showed how early pioneers lived. Kids will dig the life-size dinosaur sculptures made from scrap metal installed around the museum.
All the activity kicked up our appetites. Tallahassee is about 25 miles from the Gulf of Mexico, which means just-caught shrimp, oysters and fish are on every menu. Gulf shrimp, grilled or chilled, exude juicy sweetness. The Front Porch (1215 Thomasville Rd., 850-222-0934 frontporchtallahassee.com), a charming restaurant with a huge wraparound veranda, specializes in local seafood and modern twists on southern favorites. Try the appetizer of pickled watermelon rinds, or shrimp and grits with bourbon gravy for an entree.
Aside from the outdoors, Tallahassee’s other scene revolves around politics, and Andrew’s Capital Grill and Bar (228 S. Adams St., 850-222-3444) has served every sitting Florida governor for 40 years. Pull up a chair on the shady patio and drink in the convivial scene—Andrew’s is popular with college students and workers from the capitol building next door. The menu is loaded with salads, burgers and hearty entrees.
To really plumb Tallahassee’s foodie traditions, check out the Downtown Marketplace (Ponce de Leon Park, 850-224-3252, tallahasseedown town.com), a greenmarket on Saturdays from March through November. Here you’ll find farm-fresh produce, local crafters selling their work, and unusual snacks. Take boiled peanuts—bags of slimy, briny legumes only a southerner could love. Freshly roasted kettle corn was more my speed. At one stand, a vendor manned a giant copper pot of popped corn while his colleague scooped out the crispy kernels with a shovel.
I found the hip elegance of the Hotel Duval (415 N. Monroe St., 850-224-6000, hotelduval.com) sinfully relaxing after slogging through the swamps. The chic guest-rooms are decorated in muted tones with adjustable lighting for total serenity, and the rainforest shower, with a river-rock floor, felt like a personal spa. The rooftop bar also frames incredible views of the city skyline. Aloft Tallahassee Downtown (200 N. Monroe St., 850-513-0313, alofttallahassee.com) offers colorful digs with an outdoor pool and backyard for sipping a chilled glass of wine.
Tally is so fun that it won’t remain under-the-radar much longer. Get there quick before word gets out. —Kat Long
Our "key" to a spring break paradise
The outgoing season was the winter of our discontent: months of dreary, cold weather and snow beyond our wildest imaginations. So what’s the antidote? Go to the southernmost tip of the East Coast—Key West, Florida—for a break you won’t soon forget. The moment you step off the plane, you begin to relax. Your shoulders drop, your breathing slows and you drink in that “Keys breeze.” Plan on staying at least a weekend, or, a full week. There’s always something to do in Key West, even if it’s nothing.
Since Key West is well-established as a vacation destination for northerners, several airlines fly there regularly. US Airways/American Airlines, American Eagle and Delta provide service to Key West International Airport. Marathon Airport is a close regional terminal for local flights. From Miami International Airport, you can drive to Key West on U.S. 1, passing over aquamarine waters and verdant islands on the way. Two shuttle services operate between Key West/Miami and Key West/Ft. Lauderdale airports as well. By boat, you can depart from Ft. Myers and Marco Island.
Your home away from home can be a luxurious resort with on-site spa, cozy B&B, or something in between. On the fancy end, there are several options. The Casa Marina Resort (1500 Reynolds St., 305-296-3535, casamarinaresort.com) and the Hyatt Key West Resort and Spa (601 Front St., 305-809-1234, keywest.hyatt.com) offer ultra-posh rooms and tons of amenities for relaxing in style. Key West is known for its residences, many of which are gay-owned. My favorites include Alexander's (1118 Fleming St., 800-654-9919, alexanderskeywest.com), where every room is different, or Pearl's (525 United St., 800-749-6696, pearlskeywest.com), which hosts many events during Key West Womenfest (womenfest.com). Or, book a room at the Lighthouse Court (902 Whitehead St., 305-294-9588, historickeywestinns.com/the-inns/lighthouse-court) across the street from the Ernest Hemingway House (more on that later). The island also offers a handful of men-only and women-only residences with clothing-optional sun decks, so ask the hosts what’s on the menu.
Once you’re settled in, pink cabs (keywesttaxi.com) are an easy way to zip around the island. Locals suggest renting bikes, scooters or golf carts (523 Truman Ave. or 513 South St., 305-896-1921, amscooterskeywest.com) if you want to follow a personal itinerary. Most hotels, restaurants, bars and fun things to do are within walking distance of each other, and half the fun is soaking in the vibe and going wherever your heart leads.
For first-timers, I suggest the Gay Key West Trolley Tour (Saturdays, gaykeywestfl.com.) Newbies will enjoy a drive around town with narration by a knowledgeable guide. You’ll get a good sense of Key West’s unique architecture and gay culture, along with your bearings. Hop on the trolley on the corner of Duval Street, the main drag, and Angela Street.
If you enjoy sailing, snorkeling and jet-skiing (and a crew that’s not hard to look at), reserve a spot on one of the Catamaran Fury’s Ultimate Adventure Cruises (various departure locations, 888-976-0899, furycat.com). Admission gets you breakfast and lunch on board, along with a day of water sports. You haven’t lived until you’ve taken a dip in the warm, clear waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Women-owned Venus Charters (Garrison Bight Marina, 305-304-1181, venuscharters.com), offers fishing trips, snorkeling adventures and sunset booze cruises for drinking and dancing under a blazing Key West sunset. Best of all, you’ll return in time to change and go out for the evening. The Catamaran Echo (611 Grinnell St., 305-292-5044, dolphinecho.com), Sunset WaterSports (various locations, 855-378-638, sunsetwatersportskeywest.com) and the Catamaran Fury all offer entertainment packages.
Are you more of a landlubber? There are plenty of shopping opportunities. Head to Duval Street or Mallory Square for art galleries, local crafts shops, souvenir stands and upscale boutiques. Visit the Butterfly and Nature Conservatory (1316 Duval St., 305-296-2988, keywestbutterfly.com) or the Key West Aquarium (1 Whitehead St., 305-296-2051, keywestaquarium.com). Sign up for local artist Rick Worth’s painting classes—even if you’re no Van Gogh, you’ll feel like an artist after one of his sessions (540 Greene St., 305-294-3973, luckystreetgallery.com). Check out the historical homes of our 33rd president, Harry Truman (111 Front St., 305-294-9911, trumanlittlewhitehouse.com), and author Ernest Hemingway (907 Whitehead St., 305-294-1136, hemingwayhome.com)—look for the famous three-toed cats at the latter! Take a day trip via ferry or seaplane to Dry Tortugas National Park (nps.gov/drto), a 200-year-old military fort 70 miles west of Key West surrounded by coral reefs. Whatever you decide to do, gay bingo Sundays at the 801 Cabaret (801 Duval St., 305-294-4737, 801bourbon.com) with Qmitch Jones is a must.
Your hotel or residence might provide a free or cheap breakfast. I suggest you take advantage of that, so you can splurge on Key West’s incredible cuisine. Local specialties blend food traditions of Florida, Cuba and other parts of the Caribbean. Think conch fritters, fat pink shrimp, lobster, key lime pie, fresh fish right off the boats and Cuban sandwiches.
Enjoy beachfront eats at Sun-Sun Beach Bar & Grill (1500 Reynolds St, 866-397-6342, casamarinaresort.com/Dining/Sun-Sun). Kermits’ (802 Duval St, 800-376-0806, keylimeshop.com) key lime treats will send you to sweet-tart heaven. Dive into hearty Italian dishes served family style at Abbondanza (1208 Simonton St., 305-292-1199, abbondanzakeywest.com). El Siboney’s (900 Catherine St, 305-296-4184, elsiboneyrestaurant.com) menu includes Latin classics like ropa vieja, tostones and conch chowder. For a romantic evening, try the Flaming Buoy Filet Co. (1100 Packer St., 305-295-7970, theflamingbuoy.com) and share the lobster mac-and-cheese. For a celebrity twist, try Kelly McGillis’ spot, Kelly’s Caribbean Bar, Grill & Brewery (301 Whitehead St, 305-293-8484, kellyscaribbean.blogspot.com). And don’t leave Key West without getting your “two cents” in at 2 Cents Restaurant & Pub (416 Appelrouth Ln, 305-414-8626, 2centskw.com) with its Sunday Brunch and great eats any day.
On the other hand, if you’re single, you’re in luck. Gay girls flock to Key West throughout the year, but especially during Key West Pride (key westpride.org) every June. Other hotspots include the Pink Triangle area on Duval Street and the pool at Pearl’s. Check out the nightly entertainment at Aqua (711 Duval St., 305-294-0555, aquakeywest.com) with drag shows on the weekend. Later this year, the city hosts the annual Taste of Key West in May, Pride and Cuban American Festivals in June, Hemingway Days in July and Lobsterfest in August. Get more vacation tips from the Florida Keys Tourism Bureau (fla-keys.com). -Mardi Grant