Whether you prefer to heat up or chill out, choose to beat those winter blues in one of these sizzling locales.
In a country where gay marriage rights thrive, the Canadian capital's social scene is accordingly welcoming. Downtown Ottawa's lively Bank Street Promenade, home to many businesses and shops, makes this welcome as unsubtle as possible, what with dozens of rainbows adorning doors, street signs and windows. Ottawa's gay heartbeat runs between Somerset Street West and Gladstone Avenue, and Barrymore's Music Hall (323 Bank St, barrymores.on.ca/index.htm) provides the soundtrack, its stage being a prime destination for successful and soon-to-be-famous musical outfits since its inception in 1914.
Byward Market is another golden neighborhood under the rainbow; its hundred-year-old brownstones now house modern boutiques, bars and restaurants. History buffs need not be disappointed by the trendy interlopers, though; Byward Market contains its own museum mile, housing The Canadian Museum of Civilization (100 Laurier St, Gatineau, Quebec, civilization.ca), a particular wonder of architecture and heritage. Contemporary art fans can ogle the latest at National Gallery of Canada (380 Sussex Drive, gallery.ca) and be pleased that the museum's towering glass structure is a work of modern art in itself. And eerily accurate dioramas of nature and early human life will have you gazing for hours in the Canadian Museum of Nature (240 McLeod St, nature.ca).
Ottawa's real claim to fame, though, brings the dead of winter to life with Winterlude, a two-week long festival celebrating the season in all its chilly joy. Festival-goers can cut their ice skates on a whopping five-mile long rink on the Rideu Canal, pause at the Ice Café—a restaurant constructed totally of, yes, you guessed it, ice!—and snack on some beavertail donuts (pastries shaped like the animal tail, you Sapphic rascal). When your athletic urges have waned and your munchies have been sated, stroll around some imposing ice sculptures, listen to outdoor jazz, or yell at the ref at a Senators hockey game.
If after a busy festival day you crave some tranquil dining time, The Buzz Restaurant (374 Bank St, thebuzzrestaurant.-ca/home.htm) accompanies stylish bistro food with quiet martinis and wine, and the menu favors seasonal dishes and local ingredients. Then conclude the meal with a traditional visit to the popular Canal Ritz (375 Queen Elizabeth Driveway, canalritz.com) for a soul-warming chocolate sabayon cake or homemade apple pie. After catching your second wind, stay out late at Bar 318 (318 Lisgar, 613-233-0152), a female-only pub founded and run by the Community Association of Lesbians, Gays and Bisexuals of Ottawa, or Coral Reef (30 Nicholas, 613-234 5118), another women-only spot (only on Fridays).
After all the wintry fun, hit the rack at one of the city's many lesbian-owned bed and breakfasts. Ambiance (from $85, 330 Nepean St, ambiancebandb.com) and Radclyffe House (from $95, 160 Waverley St, radclyffehouse.-ca/index.htm) offer low-key, cozy warmth, while A Wild Daisy (from $75, 52 Lorne Avenue, bbcanada.com/9876.html) is a brief walk from downtown's center.
Ottawa is conveniently positioned to accept direct flights from almost every city on the Eastern Seaboard. For more information, visit ottawatourism/ca.en.
California's Channel Islands
Sure, Los Angeles and San Francisco are well-trod, gay-friendly tourist destinations in the Sunny State. But if you're craving a natural beach vacation free of crowds and noise, consider Channel Islands, a small, secluded archipelago of eight isles off the Southern California coast. Native Americans have made the region their home for over 10,000 years, and luckily most of the Islands have remained free from development over the centuries. For a travel escape free of commercialism and filled with archeological curiosities and an array of diverse sea life, this is a unique spot, so much so that fewer than 250,000 tourists set foot in the area each year.
Some 2,000 animal species thrive on Channel Islands. One hundred and forty-five of these species do not exist anywhere else in the world. And the elusive blue whale—the largest living mammal on earth—is frequently sighted here. During winter months, migrating gray whales can be watched easily, seas are clear enough to offer wondrous diving views, and underwater kelp forests are lush. Rent a kayak to gape into giant sea caves with Aquasports (800-773-2309, islandkayaking.com). You can also hike the varied island trails, test your sea legs on an ocean sailboat, and cast a line for deep-sea fishing.
The northern islands are San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz, Anacapa and Santa Barbara, a group that makes up Channel Islands National Park (805-658-5711, nps.gov/chis). There are no timeshares or hotels here; instead, pitch a tent and enjoy the sounds of the waves and the meditative isolation. For the less intrepid, day trips are easily made by ferry from Ventura or Santa Barbara.
Each Island has a great range of hiking trails, and Channel Islands National Park Rangers and Naturalist Corps volunteers all offer guided hikes. White-sand beaches and wonderfully rocky coves are ripe for combing on San Miguel. The last trees of an ancient Torrey pine forest from the Pleistocene era graces the south side of Santa Rosa. Sea caves beckon kayakers at Santa Cruz, and the rare, endangered island fox may come out for a peek at human visitors. Tide-pools in Frenchy's Cove at Anacapa Island teem with ocean life, and a long climb of 150 man-made stairs will be rewarded with views of corkscrew-diving pelicans and the Arch Rock natural bridge. The warmest waters, perfect for diving, can be found in Santa Barbara, also home to Xantus's murrelet, a small, rare bird that makes its home in rock nooks. Sea urchins and purple starfish are colorful, prickly sights at Landing Cove. Finally, finish an aqua-themed day by getting fresh: catch your own lobster dinner with Horizon Charters (858-277-7823, horizoncharters.com).
In the southern region of Channel Islands, Santa Catalina is the most populous, the only one of the isles with a permanent human settlement. Walk the cobble-stoned town of Avalon, which recalls the Mediterranean. Don't be lulled into too calm a trip by the many tourist shops and restaurants, though; instead, take on the rocky interior by mountain bike (for permits, contact Catalina Island Conservancy, 310-510-2595, catalinaconservancy.org) and visit the unincorporated town of Two Harbors. Veg out at Snug Harbor Inn (from $140, 108 Sumner Ave, Avalon, snugharbor-inn.com), and watch the dazzling sunset over Avalon Bay from your room window. Fresh catches can be had at popular Armstrong's Seafood (306 Crescent Ave, Avalon, armstrongseafood.com), including steamed lobster tails and sautéed red snapper. Dinner for two is an affordable $40.
The southernmost islands, San Nicolas and San Clemente are both under Navy ownership. The diving here is not for beginners, but the challenge is worth it for its unparalleled view of sea life. The region is also known for a strange, true story: in the mid-1800s a ship of Christian missionaries took an entire Native tribe to the mainland from San Nicolas, abandoning a single native woman to solitude. For eighteen subsequent years, she lived alone on San Nicolas, surviving on small catches of sea creatures and fending off fierce winds and wild dogs until she was discovered. Her brave plight is the basis for the book Island of the Blue Dolphins, now required reading in most California middle-schools. Modern visitors need not fear the isolation, though; boats make a 75-minute run each day to the park from Ventura and Oxnard (805-642-1393, islandpackers.com) and from Santa Barbara (805-962-1127, truthaquatics.com). The trip to Catalina from Newport Beach (949-673-5245, catalinainfo.com) or Long Beach (800-481-3470, catalinaexpress.com) takes about an hour. Of course, if landlubbers are still not convinced to go out to sea, they can stay mainland and cycle around Newport Beach at the Four Seasons Newport Beach (Newport Center Drive, fourseasons.com), on the hotel's available mountain bikes.
Visit The Ventura County Rainbow Alliance (4567 Telephone Road, lgbtven-tura.org) to greet fellow members of the community and receive local travel tips. They may direct you to stay at the quirky Cheshire Cat Inn (from $199, 36 West Valerio St, Santa Barbara, cheshirecat.com), which is totally inspired by Alice in Wonderland; the rooms are themed, like the Madhatter, Tweedledum and the March Hare. This B&B is, fittingly, composed of two Queen Ann Victorian homes, both built in 1894. And it's a five-minute amble to downtown Santa Barbara, a bustling hub of restaurants, shopping, beaches and museums. The Inn also arranges direct transportation to the wonderlands of the Channel Islands.
The Berkshires & Pioneer Valley
Beloved gay Vermont offers a mainland array of natural beauty that is hard to match. Of course, many tourists know this and tend to crowd the region with endless skis and traffic. Replace a Vermont trip, then, with a visit to the neighboring Berkshires in Massachusetts, a region that offers all of nature's amenities, minus the congestion. Lakes, rivers, farms, hills and valleys provide a sweeping, majestic atmosphere away from the chaos of city life, and during winter, hotel rates descend by nearly 30 percent. Despite being considered the off-season, winter sees many trendy stores open in Great Barrington along with the tantalizing finds of Sheffield's antique shops. Year-round art collections are also open for viewing in the region. For visitors restless for some outdoor action, nearly 140,000 near-unoccupied acres of natural land beckon, most comprised of cross-country and snowshoe trails. So set your snowshoes down on the grounds of Mount Washington State Forest (RD 3 East St, Mt. Washington, stateparks.com/mount_washington.html).
A close neighbor filled to the brim with lesbians is Northampton, known playfully as NoHo. Here is the site of the renowned women's school, Smith College. Being a college town, NoHo offers many budget options for fun, like craft galleries and street musicians bearing steel drums, guitars, violins
Despite the fact that you may no longer be hitting the books, Berkshire County's museums will give you a primer in art masterpieces. Start with 19th century masters at The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown (225 South St, clarkart.edu), currently housing 35 Renoirs. Move forward to iconic American works at the Norman Rockwell Museum (9 Glendale Rd, Route 183, Stockbridge, nrm.org), where over 500 paintings and sketches capture the classic and changing social mores of American life. A more modern edge colors The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (87 Marshall St, North Adams, massmoca.org), an enormous former factory in North Adams hosting everything from paintings to performance art.
A simpler way of life is on display at the Hancock Shaker Village (34 Lebanon Mountain Road, Hancock, hancockshakervillage.org), one of only 19 original Shaker societies founded in 1783. Then read with reverence the plaques adorning The Emily Dickinson Homestead (280 Main St, Amherst, emilydickinsonmuseum.org), where the master poet spent most of her isolated existence. Loyal literates make their pilgrimages to both The Homestead and The Evergreens, an imposing Italian-inspired home built nearby by Dickinson's brother.
For a refreshing rest, the lesbian-operated Kemble Inn Bed and Breakfast (from $175, 2 Kemble St, Lenox, kembleinn.com) provides breathtaking views of the Berkshire Mountains. Gourmet restaurants and high-end shops neighbor the Inn at Lenox Village. Other cozy options include the Porches Inn at Mass MoCA (from $175, 231 River St, North Adams, porches.com) and The Old Post Inn (from $95, 32 Old Post Road, Worthington).
Afternoon lounging, reading and tea-sipping abounds at the low-key Cup & Saucer (413-663-7543), while the Italian Milan @ 55Main (55 Main St, North Adams, milan55main.com) will offer hearty, refined Northern Italian entrees. Finish the day with dancing, karaoke and pool at Diva's Nightclub (492 Pleasant St, Northampton, divasofnoho.com)
To start planning, visit berkshires.org, the Northampton Chamber of Commerce (explore-northampton.com), or the Northampton Pride Committee (northamptonpride.org).
Key West, Florida
Social members of the LGBT community often gear up for a ritual visit to the traditionally gay mecca of the Florida, Key West. While much of the country shivers, winter means party time in the Keys, with skin-baring international visitors, raucous parties, warm beaches and warm locals. Swim around coral reefs to view sea life and the majestic ruins of sunken ships. Tropical fish shimmer with color, especially when one sets off swimming from a catamaran or schooner, and guided night dives offer a rare glimpse of nocturnal sea creatures. Clad yourself in a good snorkel by getting in touch with Fury Water Adventures (877-994-8898, furycat.com) or Snuba of Key West (305-292-4616, snubakeywest.com).
There are plenty of gay-friendly hotels for luxury stays in Key West, but the quiet hideaway Pearl's Rainbow (from $89, 525 United St, pearls-rainbow.com) is the only area accommodations specifically for women. With much of the hotel bordering the Atlantic Ocean, guests can wear as little clothing as they prefer without fear of testosterone-filled gawkers. Couples can reinvigorate their connection while singles scope out new possibilities. Breakfast is included at the hotel restaurant, The Strand, and room service and dinners can be made to order. That Florida fixture, the poolside bar, is in full swing here, and a concierge service takes care of all your vacay needs. Queer movies and repeats of the small-screen mainstays, Queer as Folk and The L Word, screen every Monday, so catch up on the latter's plot twists before the fifth season begins.
Outside of the hotel, get a home-cooked meal at Camille's Restaurant, (1202 Simonton St, camilleskeywest.com), a popular local haunt with ocean-fresh menu offerings. Most dishes have tropical touches, like crab claw meat cakes with rum and mango sauce and a fresh-caught yellowtail snapper with a macadamia crust and a lime sauce. Playful mischief abounds in the restaurant décor, with naughty trinkets and sexy menu quotes. Ladies' nightlife erupts in dance-filled fun at Aqua (711 Duval St, 305-294, aquakeywest.com), Key West's hugest gay dance club. The formidable temple to all-things-party features no fewer than three bars, and drag show mavens the Aquanettes run a great show, along with karaoke, battling bartenders, happy hour trivia and card games.
A more refined Key West can be witnessed from January 20th to April, embodied in Sculpture Key West. This far-reaching, contemporary outdoor art exhibit begins at the West Martello Tower (Atlantic Blvd. and White St, 305-294-3210) and moves to the historic Fort Zachary Taylor (305-747-2709, fortzachary-taylor.com) on February 24th
Concurrent with the opening of the exhibit on January 21st is Acura Key West, 2008, when 300 international sailboats race toward class championships; catch the swift yachts on their tides to victory.
Finally, the only gay and lesbian trolley tour in the country provides a less competitive but no less fun reverie for the community. Rainbow-decorated trolleys are ripe for hopping-on, so accompany the Key West Business Guild on any Saturday at 10:50am to catch this 70-minute tour outlining Key West's deep gay and lesbian history. Your guides will lay out colorful anecdotes from years past, while pointing out aged and modern hot spots of community interest. Swell with pride as you learn how LGBT folks helped to build the ever-thriving politics, economy and culture of Key West.
Get cracking on your itinerary by visiting gaykeywestfl.com. Bon voyage!