Most LGBT travelers fall into one of two categories: those who love to rough it versus those who prefer luxury. Some of us are equally at home in a tent as we are in a five-star hotel.
Some same-sex couples are travel-discordant, in which hiker and Hilton will alternate their travel choices so that each gets their preference half of the time. Other couples happily choose separate vacations when they cannot agree on a travel-style.
Here are the best choices for either extreme of gay travel. Some of these destinations attract a mixed crowd of women and men, while others are predominantly for men with certain annual weeks/events for women or both. Check before you book.
On the luxury side, trust HEtravel.com and Island House Key West. On the adventurous side, again trust HEtravel.com, Florida’s Sawmill Campgrounds and Georgia’s Metropolis Complex.
HEtravel.com out of Key West provides both extremes of gay travel, including a Grand Canyon white-water rafting tour and a refined “Italy Unveiled” tour. President and owner of HEtravel.com Phil Sheldon and his chief honcho Zach Moses honor the company’s founder Hanns Ebensten by delivering exceptional experiences both in the wild and in the laps of luxury.
Zach Moses describes their formula as, “Understanding the expectations of our clients: for luxury lodging, it’s comfortable beds, modern convenient bathrooms, spacious rooms, some kind of stunning view or ambiance, and excellent service. For the tour experience, it’s small congenial groups, and taking care of everything so that clients don't have to reach into their wallets. For rousing outdoor adventures, it’s having someone handle the logistics. In the Grand Canyon, this includes operating the raft, providing comfortable bedding, delicious meals, setting up the bathroom ‘with a view,’ and still providing ice and Diet Coke on day 8 if that’s what the group wants. Try doing that on your own.”
Related: Transman in The Grand Canyon
Phil Sheldon adds, “Hanns Ebensten's goal was to provide amazing experiences in some of the world’s most challenging destinations, while creating a safe place for his clients, most of whom were closeted. We maintain his vision today, but in a more open way because the large majority of clients today are "out" to their families, jobs, and home communities. For those who are still closeted, we provide both discretion and a friendly environment. Our packages service every gay traveler from the ‘roughing it’ gays who stay in hostels or sleep under the stars, to the ultra luxury tented camps in the middle of nowhere in Tanzania. Where will gays go next? How's space sound? Stay tuned...”
The most thrilling adventure trip imaginable might be HEtravel’s “Splash!” white-water rafting excursion in which you will hike, wade, swim, float and explore what may be the most gorgeous place on earth. HEtravel will make sure you are well prepared for your time in the canyon, sleeping under the stars or in a tent if you want some privacy. If you follow their list, you’ll never have a trip with more minimal packing.
HEtravel also has some “hybrid” tours, such as a week of cycling in Puglia designed for the fit guest who is not averse to lodging and dining at the deluxe Villa Cappelli at the end of a day spent bicycling through the gorgeous countryside. This tour sometimes attracts couples in which one will cycle while the other lounges by the villa pool or travels with the support crew in the van to the next town on the itinerary.
On the deluxe side, HEtravel’s “Italy Unveiled’ tour in October will have its third annual edition. This is for those who have already seen Rome, Florence and Venice and want to go south to Naples, Pompeii, Capri, the Amalfi coast and over to Basilicata and Puglia. The dining, accommodations and sightseeing are dazzling, and the HEtravel host is with you constantly to make every moment of the trip effortless.
Among deluxe gay hotels, Island House Key West, the fabulous clothing-optional gay men’s resort, is always at the top of the list. Many of its guests sheepishly report spending a full week there without leaving the premises. Why? Island House Marketing Manager Jeff Smead says, “We are known for luxury because of our attention to detail, offering the best products money can buy. Our café uses only the best ingredients available, our bar has only top shelf spirits, and we serve only Starbucks coffee. We provide Aveda bath products, use only 300-thread count linens, and we employ roughly a 1:1 staff to guest ratio. We aim at getting guests to rebook before they even check out. The morning servers will know you by name on day-two. The afternoon shift will already know what you like to drink when happy hour rolls around. Housekeeping has this place running with warm towels 24 hours a day, and the café serves food around the clock. This is your playground, this is your oasis. You’re a walking/talking part of it when you’re on the property. You instantly belong.”
Related: A Fresh Look At Florida’s Keys
Recent Island House improvements include shifting to an exclusively call/premium bar, rebuilding the gang shower, glamming the infamous video playroom, upgrading every chaise lounge, adding small savory plates to the menu, and adding new West Elm furniture in the guestrooms. They carefully guard their reputation for excellence.
When you are ready to rough it, pack nothing more than bug spray and poppers and head to the Sawmill Resort and Campground in Dade City, Florida. Rent a cabin, bring your RV or pitch a tent. A friendlier group of folks – mostly gay men and a few lesbians – you will not find. Sawmill is a 21-and-up private membership club. The $25 membership is valid for one year. Their calendar is stuffed with outrageous events year round. Don’t be surprised if you see a naked man walking his dog and stopping to chat with a neighbor. There are roughly 100 residential lots with RVs and mobile homes for folks who spend part or all of the year at Sawmill.
Also, for those who really want the back-to-nature experience, Short Mountain Sanctuary in Tennessee, where the aroma of sweet smoke drifts among the tents in the dense woods as hundreds of “Radical Faeries” dance naked or in glittery rags around the May Pole, is an experience you ought to have at least once in life. The Short Mountain community does not want to expand (as has “Burning Man” for example) and does not market itself. It has no website. You will need to seek it out and rely on help from those who have been there. Think gay Woodstock.
For men, mirth and mysterious midnights, try the Metropolis Complex in Augusta, Georgia. A transformed Alamo motel with a gay RV/mobile home community, a snazzy new pool and locals who get passes to prowl the dark maze or the outdoor watersports area 24/7, this is not luxurious, but it is clean, friendly, with free WiFi and very well run by owner Jimmy Key and managers Brien Eckert and Chris Stephens. They continue to expand, having annexed the adjacent hotel with a second pool, a retro cocktail lounge and a popular nightclub. A sexy stop for migrating snowbirds.