Cannes-DO attitude

There’s more to this French sea haven than a film fest, as gay travelers know

ALONG THE MEDITERRANEAN | A view from Fort Royal of Ile Sainte-Marguerite looks across the harbor to the hills of Cannes and the French Riviera. (Photo courtesy Andrew Collins)

Last week, we profiled the French Riviera gay hub of Nice, but smaller, neighboring Cannes may be even more famous. Renowned for its legendary film festival each spring, Cannes curves gently around a sheltered bay, its glamorous hotels and swanky beach bars strung like jewels along La Croisette promenade, it has an increasingly visible LGBT community (Cannes Rainbow promotes gay tourism to the area).

This city of about 80,000 is perfect for strolling and window shopping, rife as it is with antiques and food markets as well as luxury boutiques and department stores.

To get your blood flowing, climb the steep, narrow streets to Suquet hill for majestic views of the harbor, and then walk back down through Old Town, perhaps stopping at a sidewalk café for lunch.

Set aside a half-day for taking a passenger ferry across the harbor to the Lerins Islands, the most famous of which is Île Sainte-Marguerite, home to the famed 17th-century Fort Royal, the cliff-top fortress (now a museum) in which the legendary Man in the Iron Mask was imprisoned in the 1600s. The island is also home to the excellent (seasonal) open-air restaurant, La Guerite, which serves superb seafood, including the addictively delicious tiny fried fishes, called blanchaille.

Wine is, of course, important to French culture, and rosé is the most commonly produced wine in Provence —  locals consume it happily at virtually every meal. If you’re looking to pick up a bottle or two, check out the outstanding La Cave Bianchi wine shop in Cannes. The town also has some favorite gay restaurants, including breezy Restaurant le Vegaluna along the beach; see-and-be-seen Le Sparkling et son Club, which is also fun for pre-clubbing cocktails; and Barbarella, a romantic spot with sidewalk seating in at Old Town.

For gay nightlife in Cannes, the intimate and rather ancient Zanzibar tavern makes a nice starting point, perhaps before heading to the city’s top gay venue, trendy Le Night Disco. Also, the nightclub and casino Palm Beach Cannes occasionally hosts gay parties and is always very LGBT-welcoming.

You’ll find a nice mix of swanky seaside hotels and affordable gay B&Bs throughout the region. Movie stars in Cannes regularly nest at the stunning Carlton Inter-Continental Hotel — many suites are named for luminaries from Sean Penn to Elton John. The gay-popular Hôtel 3.14 lies just around the corner and is notable for its over-the-top quirky rooms — floors have fun, if bizarre, themes like American pop art and Moroccan chic. The rooftop pool is a wonderful place to while away an afternoon.

Picasso’s stomping grounds

OOH LA LA! | The swanky Hotel 3.14 is popular with gay travelers, in part because of its uniquely flamboyant rooms.

You don’t have to plant yourself in only the two biggest cities in the region to have a gay ol’ time. Between Cannes and Nice, you can visit a pair of lovely communities, Vallauris Golfe-Juan and Antibes, whose Roman fortifications overlook the largest pleasure-boat harbor in Europe. A walk through Old Town’s narrow lanes leads to the exceptional Picasso Museum, outside of which a small sculpture garden looks over the sea. Around the corner you’ll find the city’s famous city market, which hums with activity and sells everything from fresh peaches to stuffed rabbits.

Vallauris Golfe-Juan, where Picasso lived for many years, has boasted a reputation for pottery-making that dates back 2,000 years. It’s home to several art museums, including the amusingly offbeat Museum of Kitsch, a celebration of jade-hued ceramic poodles and tropical-fish ashtrays. More esteemed attractions include the Castle Museum complex, which comprises three distinct art museums, including the National Picasso Museum “War and Peace” (with massive murals by Picasso).

Finally, there’s Espace Jean Marais, a gallery celebrating the sculpture (and film career) of the celebrated gay actor Marais, once the lover and muse of Jean Cocteau.

In the leafy, inviting Juan les Pins section of Antibes, the gay-friendly Hôtel Juana and Hôtel Belles Rives — which have the same owners and are within walking distance of each other — make excellent bases for exploring the entire Riviera. Hotel Belles Rives, in which F. Scott Fitzgerald lived while writing Tender is the Night, is the more historic and atmospheric of the two, and it’s home to the exceptional restaurant, La Passagere. Up in the hilly Vence, the gay-owned La Maison du Frêne is an exquisitely decorated B&B whose stunning rooms are hung with bold, playful contemporary art — it’s a perfect hideaway for a romantic vacation.

Two nearby interior villages of note include the medieval town of Vence, whose delightful village center is home to Chapelle du Rosaire, which contains stained-glass by Henri Matisse, and nearby Saint-Paul de Vence, a walled, medieval hilltop town whose cobblestone alleys are lined with art galleries, open-air cafes, and fashionable boutiques. Be sure to walk through the cemetery in which artist Marc Chagall is buried — he lived here late in life, as did the gay American novelist James Baldwin. Down the hill, check out the Maeght Foundation museum, whose grounds and galleries are filled with dramatic, large-scale contemporary art installations and sculptures.

— Andrew Collins

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 23, 2011.

—  Michael Stephens

My ol’ Kentucky homo

Louisville and Lexington  offer bluegrass appeal for gay travelers

BOURBON AND BLUEGRASS | Verdant Bluegrass County surrounding Lexington and Louisville abounds with scenic horse farms and bourbon distilleries. (Photo courtesy Andrew Collins)

ANDREW COLLINS  | Contributing Writer
outoftown@qsyndicate.com

Each May, eyes fall upon Kentucky’s pastoral Bluegrass area as Louisville holds the Kentucky Derby, the world’s most celebrated Thoroughbred race. But from spring through late autumn, it’s a fine time for touring the hilly, verdant swatch of northern Kentucky that includes the state’s two largest cities, Louisville and Lexington. Despite the region’s generally conservative demeanor, Louisville has a growing core of hip neighborhoods, an increasingly locavore-driven restaurant scene, first-rate culture and one of the world’s largest gay nightclubs, while collegiate Lexington makes a charming base for exploring nearby horse farms and acclaimed small-batch bourbon distilleries.

A large, modern metropolis (city-county population 721,000) on Kentucky’s Ohio River border with Indiana, Louisville’s West Main Street area boasts an impressive stock of grand, Victorian cast-iron buildings and a few of the city’s gay nightspots. A paved RiverWalk affords great views of the city as well as the Louisville Slugger Museum, the excellent Frazier International History Museum and Muhammad Ali Center. Louisville excels at the arts, with respected opera and ballet companies and the Actors Theatre of Louisville, which hosts the acclaimed Humana Festival of New American Plays every spring.

You’ll find a number of gracious residential districts both downtown and south of it, and a particular lively and gay-popular stretch of businesses and restaurants along Bardstown Road in southeastern Louisville’s Highlands and Cherokee Triangle neighborhoods. Many of the city’s most gay-popular eateries are on Bardstown, including the community’s favorite java joint, Days Espresso, and Lilly’s, where you can sample such contemporary regional American specialties as catfish spring rolls with Asian dipping sauce, and locally farmed pork confit and braised shoulder.

One of Louisville’s most distinctive emerging neighborhoods is East Market, a relatively compact stretch of cafes, galleries and funky shops just a short drive east of downtown. Here be sure to check out Bodega at Felice, a trendy market, deli, and coffee bar all in one, and Toast on Market, which serves tantalizingly tasty breakfast and lunch fare, including a memorable Monte Cristo.

Other dining standouts include downtown’s modern take on down-home cooking, Hillbilly Tea (try the “road kill stew” of venison, chicken and mountain vegetables) and a handful of spots along lively Frankfort Avenue.

Louisville’s gay bars are spread around the city, with a few standouts downtown, including the legendary Connection Louisville, an immense nightclub with several distinct spaces, from a drag show bar to leather lounge (Boots, with its own entrance) to an area with male erotic dancers — there’s something for all tastes here. Around the corner, Tryangles is locals-oriented cruise bar with male strippers on weekends.

At the other end of downtown, in the Cultural District, Starbase Q is a handsomely decorated bar with a welcoming staff, fun theme nights (C&W line dancing, cabaret, karaoke), and a great mix of guys. Gay neighborhood spots south of downtown include Teddy Bears, Marty’s Tavern, and the mostly lesbian Tink’s Pub. Also of note is the famed Magnolia Bar & Grill (aka Mag Bar), an Old Louisville institution with a mixed gay-straight crowd and a fantastic jukebox.

Downtown’s Cultural District is home to one of the most fascinating accommodations in the country, the 21c Museum Hotel This luxe property with 90 sleekly designed rooms has been crafted out of a row of warehouses that once held bourbon and tobacco producers. The multilevel public areas comprise a dramatic, 9,000-square-foot contemporary art museum, and the hotel also contains a chic spa, a full fitness center and one of the hottest restaurants in the region, Proof on Main, which fuses mod Italian and Southern culinary traditions.

Stylistically, Louisville’s grand Brown Hotel is the polar opposite of 21c, but this regal 1923 property is every bit as cushy, its nearly 300 rooms outfitted with classic Old-English-inspired dark-wood furnishings and baths with Spanish marble. Make every effort to dine in the hotel’s formal English Grill, and plan a breakfast or lunch in the more casual but renowned J. Graham’s Cafe, which is famous as the home of the “Hot Brown” sandwich, a local take on a Welsh rarebit.

The city’s historic Old Louisville neighborhood has several gay-friendly B&Bs, all of them set in stately old homes with ornately appointed rooms: Austin’s Inn Place, Culbertson Mansion and Columbine B&B.

About 75 miles away, gentile, attractive Lexington (population 296,000) is surrounded by picturesque countryside graced with lovely old horse farms. Although the city has just one gay bar, the presence of the University of Kentucky has given the city a more progressive bent than much of the region, and in 2010 the city elected openly gay Jim Gray as mayor.

(If you’re headed to Lexington from Louisville, go by way of U.S. 60, stopping for a look at the historic downtown of the state capital, Frankfort, and passing through the quaint town of Versailles, which is home to one the respected single-batch bourbon makers, Woodford Reserve.)

The residential neighborhoods around the university comprise one road after another of gracious brick and limestone homes with neatly tended gardens and broad green lawns. A highlight is Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate.

Excellent dining options in Lexington include Metropole, the cozy French bistro Le Deauville, Alfalfa (which specializes in healthful veggie-oriented fare) and the legendary breakfast joint, Doodles (beware — there’s always a long wait for brunch on weekends).

The Bar Complex is the city’s most popular gay nightspot — it’s always packed at happy hour and well into the evening. Also worth a look is the loveably gruff neighborhood joint Al’s Bar, an eclectic but gay-friendly spot, great burgers, live bluegrass and stiff drinks. The upscale dance club Soundbar also has something of a gay following, especially with students from university.

Lexington has a nice mix of hotels and inns, with the upscale Gratz Park Inn, a three-story 1906 hotel with 41 pleasantly furnished rooms and a fine restaurant, Jonathan’s. The seven-room, gay-friendly Lyndon House B&B is perhaps the most romantic and luxurious inn in Lexington.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 8, 2011.

—  Michael Stephens

Gay Alaska? You betcha

It ain’t the Castro, but our 49th state has gay appeal amid the natural beauty

ANDREW COLLINS  | Contributing Writer outoftown@qsyndicate.com

Harvard Glacier
NICE ICE BABY | Harvard Glacier is one a highlight of a cruise through College Fjord. (Andrew Collins)

Things may be bigger in Texas, but nothing’s quite as big as Alaska, America’s largest and least populated (by density) state. More than twice Texas’ land mass, sometimes it’s difficult to grasp the state’s sheer dimensions — for example, Alaska is about 15 times bigger than Pennsylvania, but Pennsylvania has 17 times the number of residents. Aside from geeky stats like these, it’s difficult to describe Alaska’s terrain and scenery without resorting to trite superlatives. You must visit this land to comprehend it.

Among the highlights for most visitors are up-close views of massive glaciers, a fascinating array of wildlife and North America’s highest peak (20,320 foot Mt. McKinley in Denali National Park). Alaska also offers rafting, hiking and camping. The abundance of delicious fresh seafood makes this a terrific dining destination.

Alaska is ideally suited to outdoorsy travelers, but thanks to cruise ships and scenic railroads it’s relatively easy to enjoy the natural beauty from a comfy and controlled environment.

But is there a gay scene in the 49th state? Let’s put it this way: I wouldn’t recommend a trip just for a tour of gay nightlife, or meeting other “family.” But Anchorage is a large, modern city with a couple of gay bars, including the extremely fun and friendly dance club Mad Myrna’s. And you’ll find excellent museums and many stellar restaurants here. The state’s second largest city, Fairbanks, has a small but active gay scene, some of it tied to Alaska’s oldest college, the University of Alaska at Fairbanks.

Juneau, with a population of about 30,000, is the capital and is generally considered the most progressive city in the state — a fair number of gay folks live here, and bars and restaurants are generally gay-friendly. Also noteworthy is tiny but funky Talkeetna, midway between Anchorage and Denali National Park. This cool little village is a great base for exploring Denali and a haven of free spirits (it was the inspiration for Northern Exposure). Throughout Alaska, and especially around Anchorage, you’ll find many gay-owned and gay-friendly inns and B&Bs (there’s a good list at PurpleRoofs.com; an excellent general LGBT resource for the state is BentAlaska.com).

Even if you’re not especially enamored of cruises, traveling by boat is without question the best way to see southeastern Alaska’s scenery, including areas like Glacier Bay National Park and College Fjord. Many major cruise lines offer Alaska cruises, with Holland America Line and Princess Cruises offering the greatest variety of itineraries, along with the exceptional line of smaller, upscale ships, Cruise West.

These are all extremely gay-friendly and gay-popular cruise lines. Several LGBT-oriented tour operators, notably RSVP Vacations, Olivia and Atlantis, book all-gay charter trips on some of the major lines that ply Alaska waters, including Holland America, Princess, Carnival, Celebrity, Norwegian and Royal Caribbean. Ultra-luxurious lines such as Silversea and Regent Seven Seas regularly visit Alaska.

Even on cruises booked to the general public, you’ll nearly always find gay and lesbian passengers (and certainly some crew), and there’s usually at least one and sometimes several LGBT mixers or meet-ups onboard during a week trip. (If you’d like to find other gay travelers booked on the same cruise, or read other LGBT feedback related to cruise travel, check out the gay cruising forum at Cruisemates.com.)

My recent rip aboard Holland America’s exceptionally well-outfitted Statendam set the bar. I chose a glacier-intensive itinerary, through the Inside Passage, with calls at Ketchikan, Juneau (my favorite) and Skagway, plus a day each sailing through Glacier Bay and College Fjord. This Holland America cruise was a wonderful adventure from start (out of Vancouver) to finish (Seward). And if you are planning a trip with a few friends or relatives, a cruise can be ideal in terms of logistics, value and the pure fun of sharing countless memorable experiences together.

Alaska cruises range greatly in price, starting for as little as $600 (double-occupancy) for with an inside cabin on less-fancy ships (the Carnival Spirit or Norwegian Star) during the shoulder months (May and September). For a stateroom with balcony on an upscale line like Holland America, expect to pay $1,500 or more, depending on the size of the cabin, the ship and the time of sailing (June through August are high season). If there were ever a great time to splurge for a balcony cabin, it’s an Alaska cruise, as a huge part of the experience is observing the magnificent scenery from aboard the ship.

For those who prefer less structured tours, you can get around via an extensive network of state-operated ferries, just as many Alaskans get from town to town, either without a car or (at considerably greater expense) with one. This is an adventurous way to sail through the Inside Passage, starting either down in Bellingham, Wash., or much closer to Alaska in the Canadian port city of Prince Rupert. The ferry stops at all the major towns in southeast Alaska.

You can also sail via the ferry system through Prince William Sound to Kodiak Island (with stops in Valdez, Cordova, Whittier, Homer and others), or through southwestern Alaska’s remote Aleutian Chain, from Chignik all the way to Unalaska/Dutch Harbor. Again, traveling with a car and sleeping onboard in cabins can make this a fairly costly trip — figure on about $800 to $900 for two passengers, a car, and a cabin for a one-way trip from Port Rupert to Skagway. But you can choose an itinerary that allows you to get on and off at a number of ports, and it’s still cheaper and allows for greater flexibility than a cruise.

Whether you reach Alaska by cruise ship, plane or car (the 2,300-mile drive from Great Falls, Montana to Fairbanks on the Alaska-Canada Highway is memorable), it’s worth taking some time to explore some parts of the state’s rugged and largely unspoiled interior.

Many cruise lines offer one-way itineraries that begin or end in Alaska, typically in a port that’s relatively close to Anchorage, such as Whittier or Seward. You can, as we did, rent a car and explored the area, continuing on to Anchorage and stopping in Talkeetna. Other notable areas within relatively easy driving distance of Anchorage and the Kenai Peninsula include the charming little vacation town of Girdwood, which is home to upscale Alyeska Resort; Homer, a popular fishing town; and Whittier, which has kayaking and boating on Prince William Sound plus access to several stunning glaciers. Farther afield and also well worth investigating are Denali National Park (four to five hours north of Anchorage), Fairbanks (two hours farther north of Denali), and Valdez (six to seven hours east of Anchorage).

One way to explore the interior without a car, as far north as spectacular Denali National Park and on up to Fairbanks, is via the scenic Alaska Railroad. Many Alaska cruises offer post- or pre-trip options that include several days on the railroad, or you can book your own railroad package, which includes riding the railroad’s gleaming railcars past incredible scenery, tours at different stops, and overnight hotel accommodations. Packages start at five nights for around $1,800. Shorter day trips are also available on the Alaska Railroad — among the most rewarding itineraries are the ride from Anchorage to Denali (starting around $150), and the Glacier Discovery Trains to Grandview (starting around $85).

Another great option is to book a trip with a local outfitter. Based in Fairbanks, Out in Alaska is a highly reputable, gay-owned tour operator that offers exciting trips, both camping (starting around $1,800 for six days) and hotel-based (from $2,500 for seven days), to some of the state’s most scenic areas. Out in Alaska trips typically last a week to 10 days, have five to 10 participants, and include meals, transportation within the regions visited, activities and — in the case of camping — gear.

Some Out in Alaska trips are oriented primarily toward sightseeing and might cover major national parks (Denali, Kanai Fjords, Wrangell-St. Elias) and the regions around Fairbanks and Anchorage. The more activity-driven trips — which can be themed around glacier trekking, hiking, rafting, or kayaking — venture into the state’s remote wilderness, from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to the Yukon or Copper rivers. The company also organizes small LGBT group adventures on some of the mainstream cruises offered through the Inside Passage.

However you explore this majestic land, it’s absolutely worth the time and effort to get yourself up here — and to plan on spending a minimum of seven days. When even seasoned travelers talk about “trips of a lifetime” and “most memorable travel experiences,” they’re often referring to adventures had in Alaska.

…………………………………

Little Black Book

Cruise lines and charters
Atlantis, AtlantisEvents.com.  Carnival, Carnival.com.  Celebrity, CelebrityCruises.com. Cruise West, CruiseWest.com.  Holland America, HollandAmerica.com.  Norwegian Cruise Lines, NCL.com.com.  Olivia, Olivia.com. Princess, Princess.com.  Royal Caribbean, RoyalCaribbean.com, RSVP Vacations, RSVPVacations.com.

Resources
Alaska.net. CruisesMates.com.
PurpleRoofs.com.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 17, 2010.

—  Michael Stephens