In a fresh look at the gay travel scene, Vermont, New Mexico and Indiana are “coming out” along with some classic resorts.
The 2007 summer season was the busiest one post-9/11, and it left some new trends in its wake. Among them, we have juvenile spas; pet hotels and restaurants and… yes… pet spas; yoga everywhere; fitness-equipment-filled hotel rooms; an abundance of butlers; and again, mounting interest in the LGBT market. LGBT stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (“gay” for short); not only has the travel industry outed itself to attract this market, it’s coming along nicely in support of same-sex couples traveling with children. Here’s what’s in store.
According to the San Francisco-based research firm Community Marketing Inc., 97% of gay travelers vacationed in 2006, compared with 64% of the general American population; 82% spent at least five nights per year in hotels; 84% had a US passport (29% is the national average); and 20% took at least one cruise. It’s natural that savvy travel companies are courting this market with advertising dollars and new products to new destinations. Wayne S. of Staten Island, father of a teen, agrees, “There are tons more venues where we find ourselves welcome than there were 10 or 12 years ago.”
But for the near future, some of the newest destinations being marketed are unlikely to be on the gay travelers’ short list. We’re talking about Santa Fe, New Mexico; Burlington, Vermont; and Bloomington, Indiana. They ranked as the top three US cities with a population under 200,000 in the number of gay residents, according to a recent analysis of Census Bureau data from 2000.
As the Bloomington Convention & Visitor Bureau states on www.visitbloomington.com under the “Gay Bloomington” tab, “While Bloomington obviously has an appeal to gays and lesbians looking for a place to live, its potential as a vacation destination for the discerning traveler is just beginning to attract attention.”
New Gay-Friendly Family Destinations
What is it about these three cities that attracts discerning travelers? Let’s take a look.
Burlington, Vermont is not only a hip and very fun college town, it’s also a great base in northern Vermont for visits to the Shelburne Museum (802/985-3346), Lake Champlain, Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream Factory (866/BJ-TOURS), or the Vermont Teddy Bear Factory (800/829-BEAR). Check out Vermont’s official site or call directly at (800/VERMONT); seasonal recreation, such as boating, hiking, mountain biking, skiing, snowboarding and ice climbing abound. A few recommended everyone-welcome hotels include:
The Sheraton Burlington Hotel & Conference Center (802/865-6600) is the state’s largest, with 309 rooms furnished with all the mod-cons you’d expect at a business hotel. Some sleep up to five people. Most popular for its proximity to several ski areas, this full-service resort provides free shuttle service from the airport and a continental breakfast. Added perks: the heated indoor pool is staffed by fitness center personnel and has an adjacent outdoor sundeck and hot tub.
Outside the city is the notable Inn at Essex (800/727-4295, 802/878-1100), which bills itself as Vermont’s “premier culinary destination.” In fact, their restaurant is staffed by graduates of the acclaimed New England Culinary Institute. Your kids will more likely be impressed by the 120 elegant guest rooms, many renovated in a colorful mix of country and Swedish modern style. The property has lovely gardens, gazebos and on-site golf. Note that the Essex Inn also offers packages for Civil Unions and Commitment Ceremony receptions.
New Mexico’s culturally rich city of Santa Fe, or FantasÃ© as some prefer, has long been a magnet for alternative lifestylers and the tourists who follow them. In addition to its famous International Museum of Folk Art (505/476-1200), Georgia O’Keeffe Museum (505/946-1000), world-class galleries and educational Native American attractions, this chic pueblo boasts excellent restaurants and hotels. Families will find wonderful opportunities for hiking, biking and not too far away, skiing. Contact the Santa Fe Convention & Visitors Bureau (800/777-2499) for more information.
Of the many top tier hotels, the Bishop’s Lodge Resort & Spa (800/419-0492, 505/983-6377) is among the most welcoming. It mixes the local Native American stucco pueblo flavor with some Spanish colonial flair to create a beautiful and pricey hotel. The Lodge is located at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, and has been a restful retreat since 1851, when namesake Bishop Jean Baptiste Lamy stayed there. Today, families will find Camp Appalossa, a summer children’s program, organized Bar-B-Qs, trail rides and Dive-In movies every Saturday night during the summer, as well as a pampering staff, and richly furnished rooms with Indian patterned carpets and exposed beams.
Casa Pacifica B&B (877/982-2078 toll free or 505/982-2078) is much smaller and a has a very different style, focusing on the Healing or New-Age interests of Santa Fe visitors. Large guestrooms each have their own steamroom for bathing, and the inn’s chef recommends and likes to prepare special healing menus. The sales people say, “We are completely handicapped logical, adult pet friendly, child friendly, elderly friendly and gay friendly,” which covers all the bases. Public spaces are great for expending energy; there are courtyards, an open air courtyard dining room and small gardens. Inquire about their spacious suites, some with sofabeds or extra beds.
Bloomington, Indiana for the gay family? Why not Indianapolis, you ask?Indy has the famous raceway, a highly lauded Children’s Museum, Wonderlab Museum of Science, Health & Technology (812/337-1337) great art collections and a downtown of famous architecture. Well, Bloomington boasts a certain New England charm — sort of small town meets college quad — and it’s less precious and pricey than Cambridge for the visiting family. According to the Bloomington C &VB, the city is “home to the nation’s fifth largest per capita population of same-sex couples and one of the most progressive cities in the Midwest, both socially and politically.” You’ll find a diverse local population, a huge University (home to the famous Dr. Kinsey and his Kinsey Research Institute) and lots of ethnic restaurants, galleries and fun shops. The city also boasts some fine museums, as well as Lake Monroe, popular for outdoor activities during the summer.
Bloomington’s Fourwinds Resort & Marina (800/824-2628, 812/824-2628) is unusual in that it promotes itself as a “tropical” resort. This place seems to offer waterfront dining, boating, fishing and tennis, along with a casual vibe, to all its guests. Along with its motel style decor and marina on the shores of Lake Monroe, there are simple rooms, most with two double beds. Rates are reasonable, with midweek specials in summer, and steep discounts in icy winter.
A Summerhouse Inn (800/371-0934, 812/332-2141) is more a motel than an inn, but it features a very kid-welcoming lawn, picnic area with firepit and Bar-B-Q, a sunken speedboat turned sandbox (no kidding!), play ground, and outdoor pool. The 96 rooms, not grand, are comfortable and inexpensive, and the staff are known for their can-do attitude. Gay and straight families will appreciate the range of guests, from sports teams, to wedding parties, to visiting parents and Hoosier alumni.
Classic Destination Resorts Become Gay-Friendly
Besides promoting new destinations, the travel industry — including some of the major hotel chains — has turned its attention to attracting same-sex couples to the classic resort destinations. That’s good news for gay and lesbian parents who are more interested in being around other families than those with their sexual orientation. Notes one gay Mom, “I have tons of gay friends, but on holiday with my kids I’m not looking to bond with other gay couples.” Reasons for this vary; most gays agree that lesbians traveling with children attract little attention and so, feel more welcome in a variety of destinations. But, concede Ann and Kathy of New Jersey, mothers of two toddlers, “Maybe two men with kids (and with no ‘Mom’) might get a different reaction.” No parent wants her/his child to be put in an uncomfortable situation. Some male couples even prefer mainstream resorts to avoid the prejudice they feel from other gays, who may think having kids is a “hetero” thing to do.
“I’ve never been to a lesbian resort and I certainly wouldn’t choose to go to one,” insists Australian Carol Ann, who travels frequently with three teens and a ‘tweener from a prior marriage, with and without her female partner. “I’m not a homogeneous type of person — our family’s idea of travel is more cultural — to go to India, visit a monastery, meet the monks.” Many years of international travel, including 12 summers on the gay-friendly Greek island of Mykonos, have given her kids, “an attitude that anything goes.”
The newly gay-welcoming Wyndham Hotels & Resorts (877/999-3223) have been a favorite with families for many years. The company’s Wyndham ByRequest guest loyalty program, which promises the pillow of your choice and other pre-selected, personalized amenities, is the umbrella under which gay, lesbian and other travelers are welcome. Deluxe, service-oriented resorts such as the El Conquistador (866/317-8932) in Puerto Rico and The Peaks (866/282-4557) in Telluride, Colorado — each with their own superb outlet of the Golden Door Spa — have award-winning children’s programs, wonderful facilities for sports and recreation, and a pet-friendly policy. (Some resorts even offer pet massages through their Golden Door Spa progam!)
In 2005, these resorts and some Wyndham properties, such as The Boulders in Arizona; Palm Springs and Hollywood hotels in California; Key West and Miami hotels in Florida; Boston; and Philadelphia, became official members of the IGLTA – the world’s leading travel trade association committed to the gay and lesbian tourism business. The company says many other Wyndham hotels and resorts will become IGLTA-approved next year. This synergy makes Wyndham a good choice for same-sex couples who prefer a diverse mix of clientele; their guests typically come as much for the beautiful resorts as for the noted spa treatments, tennis, golf, watersports and ski facilities.
The Viva Wyndham brand of self-contained, all-inclusive resorts in the Caribbean is another option popular with families. Same-sex couples should be extremely discreet when touring most Caribbean isles, where homosexuality of any type is culturally (and often, legally) taboo. Note: As part of its new LGBT initiative, Wyndham will offer specially-designed commitment ceremonies at some of its resorts, making them ideal honeymoon destinations for same-sex couples with children and step-children.
Many families – gay or straight – prefer the privacy (and anonymity) that rental homes or condos provide. The gay-welcoming Club Sunterra (800/GETAWAY) is self-described as “one of the world’s largest vacation ownership companies, with more than 300,000 owner member families and 100 affiliated resort locations in 13 countries.” Sunterra’s Americas destinations include Arizona, California, Florida, Missouri, New Mexico, Tennessee, Virginia and the Caribbean. Travelers will find that many of these timeshare resorts have studio, one-, two- and three-bedroom apartment or townhouse style units that are available as rentals to families who don’t have an ownership stake. The prices are moderate and the facilities exceed most hotel standards: kitchens, extra bedding (such as pullout sofas), balconies, fireplaces, pools, hot tubs, laundry facilities, restaurants, spas, supervised children’s programs and myriad recreation opportunities are demanded by year-round owners — and provided at each property to renters as part of their fee.
Location and recreational opportunities are not the only factors that go into choosing a vacation. A key for any family travel planner is the participants’ ages. When interviewed, the dads of 1- and 4-year-old daughters said they would prefer to vacation at a resort with other gay families with toddlers. But they acknowledged that when the girls get older, they’ll prefer to spend time with their peers. “Our friends have said that when we have teens, we’ll be going to regular places like Club Med, where we can find something for everyone,” they sigh. In fact, Club Med (88/WEBCLUB) has a long history of working with gay and lesbian tour operators who typically book an entire resort for a week-long LGBT group. While these are mainly all-gay, adult, party-oriented affairs, Club Med management insists that their sophisticated staff and clientele are used to welcoming same sex couples with children at any resort, any time of year. A spokesperson adds, “Our focus is on the child in the activities program, not who their parents are.”
Classic Gay Destinations Welcome Families
America’s top gay resort destinations include Key West, Florida (see FTF’s coverage of Key West here); Palm Springs, California (see FTF’s coverage of Palm Springs here); Provincetown, Massachusetts; and Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. While a large destination resort makes an easy, self-defined vacation on its own, many families prefer the smaller, more intimate and cheaper getaways to inns and B&Bs. That type of lodging abounds in these destinations.
Provincetown, Massachusetts is a favorite destination for many families and gays. During the annual Family Pride Week, its Main Street is transformed by LGBT parents and their kids, window-shopping and strolling from early morning to well past midnight. One same-sex couple and teen that have spent many summers in Provincetown prefers a condo, where they can prepare meals before and after a day at the beach. They recommend renting a condo through In Town Reservations (866/376-5170).
Among Provincetown’s many B&Bs and small hotels is the Benchmark Inn & Central (888/487-7440) a member of the Foremost Gay & Lesbian Hotels group, but a very family-welcoming place. Five of its 14 rooms will accommodate a family of three, and there’s no charge for children under 6 years sharing a room, if they use existing bedding. The Four Gables Cottages (866/487-2427) in the town’s west end is also recommended. Here, kids and pets fill the 1940’s-style Cape Cod cottages, each with its own porch and kitchen.
The South Florida area has a gay haven in Greater Ft. Lauderdale, an area with 23 miles of beaches (three of them gay-friendly), more than 100 gay-owned establishments and more than 30 gay or lesbian-oriented accommodations. While most are members of the active Rainbow Carpet Lodging & Hospitality Alliance (954/258-9915), few allow guests under 18. Instead, this beach town has sister resorts, the Sheraton Yankee Trader (954/467-1111) and the Sheraton Yankee Clipper (954/524-5551). Both are similar white highrises on the broad, gold sand Ft. Lauderdale Beach, and each has its own steak restaurant, 24-hour deli, poolside grill, laundry room, private childcare with advance notice, and daily recreation program. The smaller Yankee Trader has 459 rooms and a tennis courts, the larger Yankee Clipper has 500 rooms yet sends its guests next door to the Trader’s tennis courts. Both are known for thfeir friendly staff and top value rates.
Nearby is Orlando, every family’s dream vacation. The success of the annual Gay Day celebration, held the first week of June, is further proof of growing tolerance of the LGBT market. More than 10,000 guests have attended this event, noted Brian Bottorff, the festival organizer, in an interview. While he cited several hotels, such as the Wyndham Palace Resort, that were selling themselves as “boy hotels” or the Courtyard by Marriott that billed itself as a “girl hotel,” he noted that same sex-couples with children, an important segment of festival-goers, had almost sold out the Hilton brand Doubletree Suites (800/222-TREE) and Embassy Suites (800/EMBASSY) hotels affiliated with Walt Disney World. Added amenities, extra sleeping quarters, guaranteed early admission to some of the theme parks, and character breakfasts, noted Bottoroff, made these properties the most popular with families.
Other cities popular with families are making their orientation known. The city of Minneapolis (888/676-MPLS) boasts one of the nation’s top children’s theatres, the enormous Mall of America, fine museums, dining and recreation facilities. It’s also the home of Rainbow Families, one of America’s largest gay, lesbian, bigender and transsexual parenting organizations, with more than 2,000 family members. Working with the local tourist promotion board, they have created a very useful website, www.glbtminneapolis.org that features all of the wonderful things to do with kids when visiting Minneapolis and the region, and lists a calendar of local Rainbow Family events and conferences. Note Safe Space, the nation’s first after-school recreation center for LGBT teens, their friends and families.
Washington DC, not considered the most “open” city during the George W. Bush administration, is actually a popular destination for gay and lesbian travelers, and certainly for families with children. (See FTF’s coverage of Washington DC here.) The nearby beach community of Rehoboth, Delaware, known for its Atlantic beach, lively boardwalk, shops, and attractions for all ages, has recently begun welcoming LGBT families as a summer playground.
Cruises For The Gay Family
The family market remains a huge segment of the cruise industry, with many cruise lines vying for parents by instituting new kids clubs, teen lounges and juvenile massages, plus skating rinks, rock walls, and cyber cafes. For gay families, the only success story is R Family Vacations (866/732-6822), a tour company begun by Rosie O’Donnell. R Family Vacations offers an annual chartered family cruise from New York harbor. Instead of returning to the Bahamas, its original port of call, the chartered Norwegian Dawn has sailed up the New England coast to Canada.
A heart-warming account by Liza Schoenfein of the 2004 journey published in Out Traveler (May 2005) begins, “I looked around at the joyous seas of parents and children who had come from near and far for this floating festival of family diversity…”
As the travel industry continues to make social progress, a landscape of diversity will be something to aspire to.
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