Sunny S. Florida is a great LGBT winter getaway
by Ed Walsh
Gay South Florida will take center stage this weekend when Key West's famed drag queen Sushi will descend from a balcony in a giant high-heel shoe as a cheering crowd counts down the new year.
CNN traditionally broadcasts the shoe drop live. It effectively adds a dash of quirkiness to the traditional ball drop in Times Square and other run-of-the-mill celebrations around the country.
The New Year's celebration is held in the gayest part of Key West, which has long been one of the country's gayest cities. Miami and Fort Lauderdale have also long been LGBT-welcoming, and, if you can, it's easy to combine all three in one trip. Just be sure to allow yourself at least two or three nights in each city.
Gays have been a big part of the revitalization of South Florida beginning in Key West in the 1970s, Miami's South Beach in the 1980s, and Fort Lauderdale in the 1990s. That gay influence is woven into the political and cultural tapestry that continues to keep those cities hot tourist destinations.
If you want to combine all three cities, you could easily start by flying into the Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood airport. JetBlue is the airport's biggest carrier with two daily nonstop flights from San Francisco. Virgin America and United also have nonstops from San Francisco and you can catch connecting flights to Fort Lauderdale from Mineta San Jose International and Oakland International. After spending a few nights in Fort Lauderdale, you could continue on with a 45-minute drive south to Miami. The ride through to the Florida Keys to Key West takes about 3.5 hours from Miami. You can drive back or with a one-way car rental, fly back to the Bay Area with a connection in Miami or Fort Lauderdale.
Just 88 miles to Cuba, the city on the southernmost point of the continental United States may soon become even more popular because of the U.S.'s warming relationship with Cuba. Several tour companies are talking about launching ferry service to Cuba, making it feasible to take day trips to the once-forbidden Caribbean island.
While Cuba is warming to the concept of gay friendliness, it can't compare to Key West, which was LGBT-friendly long before it was fashionable. Beginning in the 1970s, gays helped revitalize businesses along Duval Street, the city's main drag, and a bounty of gay resorts sprung up in place of run-down smaller hotels in the city's historic Old Town.
While many of the formerly gay resorts have since gone mainstream, Key West still has a handful of gay hotels that deservedly have a loyal repeat clientele. The gay men's hotel, Island House Key West (http://www.islandhousekeywest.com/), ranks at the top or near the top of lists of the best gay resorts in the U.S. The 34-room clothing-optional property includes a 24-hour cafe and bar, gym, indoor and outdoor hot tubs, dry and wet sauna, and a large pool surrounded by upstairs and pool level sundecks. It is also a great place to meet locals who frequent the resort. The daily complimentary early evening happy hour is always very popular.
If you prefer a mellower atmosphere, check out the beautiful Equator Resort (http://www.equatorresort.com/), which is just down the street from the Island House. The property took over the adjacent Coral Tree Inn a few years ago, expanding the resort to 34 units with two pools and hot tubs. The resort is not open for day passes and includes a free continental breakfast.
Since Pearl's Rainbow went mainstream six years ago, there are no exclusively lesbian resorts on Key West, but the fabulous Alexander's Guesthouse (www.alexanderskeywest.com) is marketed exclusively to gays, lesbians, and friends of the LGBT community.
It is about a 15-20 minute walk from the Island House and Equator resorts to the gay bars on Duval Street but if you prefer to be right in the middle of the party, the New Orleans House Inn (http://www.neworleanshousekw.com) is on Duval and its pool is part of the Garden Bar in the 801 Complex, at 801 Duval. The aforementioned Sushi descends from the New Orleans' balcony on New Year's Eve.
Its equally warm and sunny residents only match Key West's warm and sunny climate. Locals are very tight-knit and are known for helping one another out. It was a tradition that was born out of necessity in its early days as an isolated island outpost.
You may have heard the "One Human Family" slogan. It was the brainchild of well-known and -loved island resident JT Thompson. His foundation (http://www.onehumanfamily.info) produces bumper stickers and rubber wristbands to help spread the message of inclusiveness, tolerance, and respect for people of all races, sexual orientations and religions. Thompson has received messages of support from small villages in remote parts of Africa to large cities from all around the world.
A good way to take in some of the highlights of Key West without getting lost is by taking its world-famous open air Conch Tour Train (http://www.conchtourtrain.com). It's not a real train but an open-air tram that runs regularly all day with a couple of stops if you want to get out and explore.
Key West has an active LGBT business association, the Key West Business Guild, that maintains the great website, www.gaykeywestfl.com, which lists information on LGBT nightlife, special events, and tours. One of the best gay-focused tours is the Blu Q Catamaran Gay Sailing. The gay-owned and -operated company has regularly scheduled excursions, including a sunset tour. It is on hiatus now until February because of an unforeseen maintenance issue but you can book ahead at http://www.bluqkeywest.com.
The Greater Fort Lauderdale area includes Wilton Manors (population 12,000) that is second only to Provincetown, Massachusetts as the nation's gayest city per capita. Wilton Manors also has the largest number of bars, restaurants, and shops of any place in Florida. Most of the gay resorts are closer to the ocean, in Fort Lauderdale city limits, about a five-mile drive from Wilton Manors' nightlife.
The most popular gay clubs include Georgie's Alibi (http://www.alibiwiltonmanors.com/), Hunters (http://www.huntersftlauderdale.com), and the weekend nightclub, the Manor Complex (www.themanorcomplex.com). Georgie's will celebrate its 20th year in business next year and it almost always draws a crowd. The neighboring Hunters nightclub took over from the old Boom nightclub and the space, which includes a stage, is a very popular venue for live performances and dancing. Hunters is known for its very friendly staff and routinely hosts community fundraisers. Manor is a block from Georgie's and Hunters and tends to draw a younger crowd who pack in Thursdays through Sundays. One of the newest Wilton Manors bars is the Gym Sportsbar. It is across the street from Georgie's and Hunters and draws a friendly crowd of sports fans.
While you are having fun, you can also get tested for HIV. A van is in the Georgie's/Hunters parking lot every night to offer free HIV tests to anyone who stops by.
Wilton Drive is where you will find most of the city's gay nightlife and it is also home to some of South Florida's best restaurants. Marcy Miller and her wife, Bravo's Top Chef 2 contestant Josie Smith Malave, opened Bubbles and Pearls (http://bubblesnpearls.com/) six months ago and, thanks to their culinary talents, it serves up delicious gourmet food in a very casual and friendly setting. Be sure to order its signature Key Lime pie, which draws raves from even non-Key Lime pie fans.
With the closure of the New Moon Bar a couple of years ago, Wilton Manors doesn't have a lesbian bar any more but South Florida's Beach Betty's in Dania Beach is about 15 minutes south of Fort Lauderdale and has often been described as a lesbian Cheers and a place where everyone is welcome.
Wilton Manors hosts a small, but worth seeing, storefront museum dedicated to LGBT history. The Stonewall National Museum and Archives (www.stonewall-museum.org) includes a display case dedicated to the victims of the Orlando Pulse nightclub mass shooting as well as artifacts from the entertainment industry. Visitors are greeted near the door by the bathrobe worn by Harvey Fierstein in the groundbreaking 1980s movie Torch Song Trilogy. The museum is part of the larger Stonewall Library and Archives in Fort Lauderdale that also contains exhibits as well as an LGBT-focused library. The archives contain more than 30,000 historical artifacts dating back to the early days of the gay rights struggle, including boxes filled with more than three decades worth of the Bay Area Reporter .
Be sure not to miss the AIDS Museum (http://www.worldaidsmuseum.org) in Wilton Manors. It is the only museum in the world dedicated to AIDS. A room in the museum is dedicated to the impact AIDS has had on the African-American community. It features photos from San Francisco's own Duane Cramer, who helped design the space. Cramer liked Fort Lauderdale so much that he now is bicoastal, splitting his time between San Francisco and the Florida city. No doubt the room will continue to be a very positive impact on raising HIV awareness under Cramer's influence.
The museum includes a large red AIDS ribbon that was made of pill bottles that were used by the museum's director, Ed Sparan. He also fashioned a framed heart made out of needles from the Egrifta medication he took to deal with the fat distribution side effect from his HIV meds. A Bay Area TV news story about the first person functionally cured of AIDS, Timothy Brown, plays on a loop in one of the exhibits. The story was by the now-retired KPIX anchor and reporter Hank Plante, who was known for his groundbreaking and compassionate reporting of the AIDS crisis.
Of course, Fort Lauderdale is best known for its beach, lined by its signature white rolling wave wall, with columns at the various entrances to the beach. People often refer to the section of the beach by the street that intersects with it. The two sections of the beach that are most popular with the gays are the parts of the beach at Sebastian Street, and on the far northern end of the wave wall at 18th street, which is more popular with locals.
Fort Lauderdale has long courted the gay travel market and now is actively marketing to transgender tourists, with various campaigns through social media and other outlets with the message that Fort Lauderdale is a very welcoming and safe destination for trans visitors. The campaign is thanks in large part by efforts of Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau's LGBTQ managing director Richard Gray.
Fort Lauderdale's largest gay resort, Worthington Resorts (www.theworthington.com), is three resorts combined into one with a total of 63 rooms, three swimming pools, two hot tubs and a small, but well-equipped, fitness room. It is just two blocks from Fort Lauderdale Beach. A free continental breakfast is included in the rate. The gay men's resort is clothing optional and is a perfect place to meet fellow gay travelers.
The upscale 33-room Grand Hotel and Spa (www.grandresort.net) is next door to the Worthington and includes a fabulous spa on the property that is open to guests and non-guests alike. Swimsuits are required for the pool in the front of the property, but the large hot tub and deck in the back are clothing optional. A continental breakfast is included and the property includes a well-appointed fitness room.
If your budget allows, the 26-room Pineapple Point Resort (http://www.pineapplepoint.com/) is Fort Lauderdale's most luxurious resort. It is ranked #1 of 33 specialty hotels in Fort Lauderdale. All the rooms are in pristine condition with a designer chic minimalist motif. Amenities include free poolside drinks, a wonderful continental breakfast and a very well maintained gym.
For more information, check out Fort Lauderdale's official travel website at http://www.sunny.org/lgbt.
Miami Beach's South Beach has an official gay beach known as the 12th Street Beach, you will know it by the rainbow flags planted in the surf. It is directly in front of the Palace Bar and Restaurant (http://www.palacesouthbeach.com).
The gay bars within walking distance of the beach include Miami's longest-running gay club Twist (http://www.twistsobe.com). It's been a fixture on Washington Avenue for 18 years. About a half mile north of Twist on Washington is the dance bar Score (http://www.scorebar.net). It used to be on Lincoln Road but moved three years ago. The boutique hotel, Gaythering (http://www.gaythering.com), as its name implies, is marketed toward the LGBT community, but straight-friendly, and is located at the west end of Lincoln Road.
One of the best ways to see the Greater Miami area is on the "hop on and hop off" tourist buses. A couple of companies offer the service. You can pick it up in South Beach and it makes stops in Miami Beach as well as the city of Miami. Although tourists call it all Miami, Miami Beach is a city separate from Miami, and is part of the barrier island between Miami and the Atlantic Ocean.
A good overall guide to gay Miami and other South Florida cities can be found on the website http://www.jumponmarkslist.com.
Key West is an ideal place for cycling and a number of companies rent bicycles and scooters but bikes are a better option because they are cheaper to rent and you can park them almost anywhere. We Cycle Key West (http://www.wecyclekw.com) is probably your best option. You can rent a one-speed coaster bike for $10 a day. You don't need a bike with different speeds there because the city's highest hill is barely noticeable, at just 18 feet in elevation. The short cab ride from the Key West airport to the Old Town is about $17, including a 20 percent tip.
If you are flying into Miami International, you can catch the Airport Flyer express bus that goes to the beach for just $2.25. Once you're there, you can easily get around on foot or by bicycle. Miami Beach has a bicycle-sharing program similar to San Francisco's called Deco Bike (http://www.decobike.com/). A rental car is more trouble than it is worth. During busy times, traffic can be heavy in the beach area and parking can be a challenge.
A car is a good idea in Fort Lauderdale, especially if you plan on exploring Wilton Manors or the quaint shops along Las Olas Boulevard. It is about a 15-minute drive from the gay resorts on Fort Lauderdale beach to the heart of the LGBT nightlife in Wilton Manors. The good news is that car rentals in Florida are among the least expensive in the country.