Midnight in the garden of gay and EVOO

Expect not just olive oil, but butter and lard on a low-country culinary tour of historic, gay-friendly Savannah. But it’s so worth the extra time on the treadmill

Chicken-and-waffles-at-River-on-the-Rocks

FOOD GLORIOUS FOOD | The chicken and waffles at Rocks on the River are just one Southern take on the buttery low-country food that marks a culinary tour of Savannah. (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)

View more photos HERE

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

Like Charleston, S.C., its neighbor to the north, Savannah, Ga., is a coastal community steeped in history and tradition — a characteristic that extends naturally to its culinary scene. “Low-country cuisine” is a discrete genre of Southern cooking, marked by its Afro-Caribbean influences (okra gumbo, hoppin’ john, and red beans and rice are staples) and predominance of seafood, especially shrimp and crab.

But it’s not just low-country food that distinguishes Savannah’s food scene — or the city as a whole, for that matter. It’s a place that oozes gentility with a welcoming attitude that supersedes its Old-South atmosphere. Whether going there for historic walks down its charming streets or to focus on a fattening but oh-so-worth-it foodie tour, Savannah is a great gay destination.

Without waving its rainbow flags too boldly, Savannah still celebrates its gay-friendly faves (hag chef Paula Deen is a local; composer and native Johnny Mercer has his name slapped on countless roads and landmarks) and even its queer scandals — Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, gay author John Berendt’s phenomenally popular 1994 yarn about how an antique dealer Jim Williams shot his lover, remains the unofficial history of the city, and is proudly on display throughout the city even still.

Such longevity is not altogether a surprise. People speak of the city’s most famous residents, past and current, as if they are personal friends who might pop around the corner at any moment.

An-ivy-draped-house

WALKING HISTORY | Savannah’s rich past includes an architectural tradition unequaled in most of the U.S., from lovely gardens and beautiful ironwork to ivy-draped mansions and Spanish-moss looming over the monument dotting the two-dozen squares that made up the city’s grid. (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)

They very well may. Even the dead ones. Savannah has a mystical quality to it. Elders proudly tout its reputation among paranormalists as the most haunted city in the U.S. Even non-believers may sense an aura of the supernatural. About two dozen squares dots the downtown district, imbuing the city with the shadowy, Victorian mood of a Bronte novel. Scattered among the squares are houses with long-standing ghost stories attached, and cemeteries that glow under a full moon with spooky drama.

Want to know just how much? Take a walking tour of the city’s graveyards and haunted squares, courtesy SavannahTours.us. This dusk-to-darkness stroll depends, of course, on your guide; we had a good one, who took us by the convincingly creepy 432 Abercorn on Calhoun Square.

The gay scene is undeniable here; even the tour guides mention it. But it’s not just the historic touches, but the current. Yes, The Lady Chablis became America’s most famous drag queen (sorry, Ru!) after the publication of Midnight, and she still performs regularly at Club One, the premiere dance club in the city. The gay club Chuck’s Bar abuts the river.

Savannah’s Riverfront is another draw of the city. A cobblestone thoroughfare fully 30 feet below street-level, it’s a touristy but fun way to spend an afternoon. Docked sailing ships are available for walk-throughs, and you can take a slow riverboat ride up and down the waterway.

On land, shops sell everything from knickknacks and T-shirts to pulled taffy and other confections, including the best damn pralines you’ll ever have. Indeed, the Savannah Candy Kitchen is about as close as you can come to feeling like Charlie Bucket let loose in Willy Wonka’s factory.

Which raises a point: For all the charming history and attractions, Savannah’s food beckons. Along River Street, Rocks on the River provides a distinctly Southern take on soul-food classics like chicken and waffles drizzled in a fruit demi-glace, or a sea scallop on spoetzl courtesy chef Jonathan Massey, amid a rustic atmosphere and exceptional service.

Rocks on the River is inside the Bohemian Hotel, a funky-assed property with moody lighting, intriguing décor and plush rooms. The resto is at ground-level; go to the top floor for Rocks on the Roof, a buzzy, gay-friendly bar that serves a kicky brunch.

Low-country cooking is plentiful, but not the exclusive option in this savvy city of savory sophisticates. We happily ventured over to Gallery Espresso, Savannah’s oldest coffeehouse and another bit of bohemian in this staid Southern ’burg.

IMG_0295

DIY DELIGHTS | Chef Darin Sehnert, who runs the cooking school at the Mansion on Forsyth Park, escorts you through the techniques needed to turn out your own Southern cooking. (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)

Moon River Brewing Co. is the local micro-brewery not to miss, with a selection of in-house suds available along with its bar menu. Their Hefeweizen (a citrusy, Belgian-style wheat beer) and chocolatey porter are must-tastes for avid beer drinkers. (Like much of Savannah, the building itself is almost as much a destination as what’s inside it. Ask nicely, and you might get a tour of the attic here, with lovely bones, like exposed latticework and beautiful masonry.)

You can sample an authentic afternoon tea at Davenport House, including a participatory recreation of any antebellum interaction with actors in period costume.

Head outside the city to tour the Savannah Bee Company and sample some locally produced honeys (the whipped winter white is heavenly on scones). Keep driving for an even better excursion: a kayak trip out on Tybee Island.

You’ll be hungry when you get back, so that’s a perfect opportunity to sample more low-country cooking. Of course, this is Paula Deen territory, but don’t be fooled: All the locals will tell you, the better food is at Mrs. Wilkes’ Dining Room. No reservations are accepted so arrive early — the lunch line snakes around the block quickly. Seating (and service) is family style, so expect to dine with strangers. But you won’t have to fight over the food — there’s simply too much of it to consume, including the best banana pudding and mac & cheese you’ll likely taste anywhere. (The motto here: “If the colonel made chicken this good, he’d be a General.” No truer words spoken.)

Don’t be put off that the Mansion on Forsyth Park used to be a funeral home; it’s just another otherworldly aspect of Savannah that you have to accept. Anyway, you’d be lucky to lie in repose here. Part of the Kessler Collection of boutique properties (it also includes the vastly different Bohemian), the Mansion offers an enchanting spa experience in its basement (please don’t call it the embalming room) and spectacular rooms with cushy beds, beautiful décor and spacious claw-foot tubs.

The art here is not to be missed. Mr. Kessler, whom you’re likely to meet walking through one of his hotels, or even around the city, is a furious art collector who proudly displays his eclectic tastes in every room. There’s even a gallery attached that’s worth a gander.

Some of the art here isn’t on the walls; it’s on the plate. 700 Drayton, the hotel’s elegant new restaurant in an old-school setting, offers, once again, Southern specialties presented with culinary flair. Chef Michael Semancik tweaks the standbys, like blackened shrimp and grits abed microgreens, stunning fried green tomatoes and a blueberry crème brulee than will lead you back to eating crème brulee again.

But the restaurant isn’t the only way to eat here — though the other way requires some work. Chef Darin Sehnert leads the 700 Cooking School, a three-hour experience in learning to make your own low-country food, from red-eye gravy to blackeyed pea salad and rosemary biscuits. You do a lot of the work, but Sehnert guides you with exceptionally useful advice from knife techniques to seasoning. Plus you get to eat what you cook at the end. It’s a fabulous way to spend an evening, and a great conclusion to a culinary adventure in Georgia.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition February 10, 2012.

—  Kevin Thomas

Kitsch and tell

Nestled in the Ozarks, the hetero haven of Branson, Mo., proves that there’s more than meets the eye — if you know where to look

BAZAAR EXPERIENCE  |  Dick's 5 & 10 in Branson's historic downtown district offers everything you could need or want, but claustrophobics beware. The tiny aisles are always crowded.

BAZAAR EXPERIENCE | Dick's 5 & 10 in Branson's historic downtown district offers everything you could need or want, but claustrophobics beware. The tiny aisles are always crowded.

RICH LOPEZ  | Staff Writer
lopez@dallasvoice.com

On the surface, Branson, Mo., does not hold a lot of appeal to the LGBT community. With its reputation as a sort of Las Vegas lite, the tourist town seems to cater to an older, retiree crowd.

But while shows featuring acts like Tony Orlando and The Osmonds might not hold much sway for hip gay crowds, even ironically, Branson does have its charm that can woo even the most skeptical traveler. Just look closer. And if you’re a Christmas-holic, you might think you’ve gone to heaven.

Marketing Branson as a travel destination for gays is a hard sell, but locals want LGBT people to know they shouldn’t be afraid of the city. Granted, it is not the party destination of, say, South Beach or Provincetown, but that’s not what the place is about, even for straights.

“For the gay traveler, they are not coming here because it’s a gay destination,” says Mark Bryson with the Branson Tourism Center. “It’s a holiday destination and we offer a lot of recreation as well. The nightlife may not exist, and we’re not the stop for something like the White Party. We just want to prove that the gays don’t need to be afraid of Branson as they long have.”

LANDING STRIP  |  Branson Landing is a new development that  offers an unexpected sophistication, in town with high-end shops  and restaurants overlooking Lake Taneycomo.

LANDING STRIP | Branson Landing is a new development that offers an unexpected sophistication, in town with high-end shops and restaurants overlooking Lake Taneycomo.

As an out gay man, Bryson knows his stuff. Branson is a pleasant sort of Twilight Zone that shuts out the rest of the world but welcomes all to its happy, little corner.

And he’s right. The city succeeds in courting a mature crowd, but it does not lack in alternative offerings for those uninterested in kitschy stage shows. With a beautiful landscape, there are plenty of recreational activities.

Ziplining is big in these parts, and for good reason. The hilly terrain makes for an ideal ride that should get the heart racing. Murder Rock and Thousand Hills are among a large list of golf courses within a small radius. Take a scenic tour of Branson by boat on Ride the Ducks — a car-boat if you will — or by train on the Branson Scenic Railway, a 90-minute round trip that takes you through the Ozarks and into Arkansas. Both offer holiday options such as Holiday Lights Duck Style through Dec. 11 and The Polar Express through Dec. 3.

Branson ups its game with the Branson Landing, an outdoor mall complex located on the waterfront of Lake Taneycomo. Shops and restaurants run from high-end such as Level Steakhouse and White House|Black Market to easily accessible like Cantina Laredo and Chico’s, but the centerpiece of the Landing is its $7.5 million water fountain exhibit, which features shows synchronized to lights and music. During the lighting of the grand Christmas tree, the fountains danced to Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas.” That’s pretty gay.

The Landing includes the Hilton Promenade that makes for a convenient stay. Blocks away is the historic district where the charm kicks in small-town style. An array of homey shops feature all the trinkets and tchotchkes you’ll never need, but are nevertheless irresistible.

The anchor of the district is Dick’s 5 & 10. This large store hosts a heavy crowd hungry for good deals and perhaps a step back in time. The store is cramped, with aisles that offer everything from candy, sewing patterns, tools and souvenirs. It’s kind of ridiculous and it’s also cool. But if you’re claustrophobic, do some serious consideration. The crowd is a heavy mix of tourists and regular shoppers and weekends are almost impossible to navigate through.

Dining options are hit-and-miss. Local eateries like Mel’s Hard Luck Diner and Moon River Grill offer bland tastes at breakfast and dinner, respectively. The city fares better with desserts. The Downtown Diner in the historic district has sublime homemade pies and singer/pianist Dino Kartsonakis backs up his claim at 24 Karrot Cake Company in Branson Landing that his carrot cake is the best.

The Christmas season in Branson starts Nov. 1 and if you must do the strip, head to the main drag (W. 76 Country Blvd.), which has either incorporated holiday music into the act, or presents a blowout extravaganza of Christmas such as the Andy Williams Moon River Theater, a grand venue with an adjacent restaurant. A small trail of trees and greenery are lighted, adding to a holiday ambience, even if the weather can sometimes be a muggy 70 degrees. But it’s a fantasyland nonetheless and the Andy Williams Christmas Spectacular is just that. A variety of acts including The Lennon Sisters, Bob Anderson and sometimes Williams himself perform as if Christmas were around the corner and the magnificent sets house an impressive orchestra and dancers.

SEASON’S GREETINGS | Singer Andy Williams, who revealed a serious illness just last week, is still responsible for the Andy Williams Christmas Spectacular, which shows that Branson is serious about the holiday, already underway. (Rich Lopez/Dallas Voice).

SEASON’S GREETINGS | Singer Andy Williams, who revealed a serious illness just last week, is still responsible for the Andy Williams Christmas Spectacular, which shows that Branson is serious about the holiday, already underway. (Rich Lopez/Dallas Voice).

While those names may not ring  many bells, the crispness of the show makes it worthy and at the very least, the Russian Adagio Dance Team Pasha and Aliona will blow your mind away. Simply put, they are quick change artists and it’s Aliona who puts drag queens to shame with her nanosecond dress swap — onstage. When Pasha waves a tasseled hula-hoop over her and one dress morphs into another, it is jaw-dropping and electrifying.  You might spend the whole night thinking, how did they do that — and multiple times?

The Knudsen Brothers’ SIX, at the Hughes American Family Theater, strays from corny impersonations like the passable Legends in Concert show at Dick Clark’s American Bandstand Theater. Instead, they perform songs from the Beach Boys, Lady Gaga and more with arena like flair but sans instruments. When they drop U2’s “With or Without You” on the audience, they fill the room with music all from their own stunning vocal tricks.

Other holiday musts include the Shepherd of the Hills Trail of Lights (through Jan. 2) and An Old Time Christmas as theme park Silver Dollar City (through Dec. 30), but prepare for your ankles to ache — the slopes are killer.

The roads are as well, but get lost and drive through the curvy roads to see the natural landscape of the area. The trees in fall are picturesque and the Ozarks flank the roads. They are both intimidating and inspiring.

True, Branson isn’t going to be the place for boys in briefs dancing at the bar, but for those willing to just let go of the frenetic energy of everywhere else, the city can be a magical one for both LGBT families and couples.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 11, 2011.

—  Michael Stephens

’Mo town

Rich with culture and a strong queer identity, Detroit rocks as a gay destination

travel

DETROIT ROCK CITY | The 73-story GM Renaissance Center is an icon of the Detroit skyline and home to the upscale Marriott Detroit. (Photo courtesy Andrew Collins)

As the cooler weather of early autumn settles in, southern Michigan becomes a particularly enchanting spot for a vacation. The scrappy and culturally rich Detroit makes an appealing weekend destination, with its slew of friendly gay bars and stylish restaurants and some of the Midwest’s most acclaimed cultural attractions. The country’s 18th largest city is difficult to get a full grasp of on a short visit, but a couple of days is enough time to see one incredible city.

For art lovers, a must-see is the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA), whose central foyer contains spectacular Depression-era frescoes by Diego Rivera. The museum holds 65,000 works and anchors the Cultural Center district near Wayne State University. Such notable attractions as the Detroit Historical Museum and the Motown Museum, which celebrates the careers of such R&B legends as Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross and the Jackson 5, are conveniently nearby.

Walk along Woodward Avenue, downtown’s main drag, to a stellar theater district, including the fantastical 1927 Fox Theatre; the Bonstelle Theatre, where Lily Tomlin got her start; Orchestra Hall at the Max M. Fisher Music Center, home of the Detroit Symphony and the impressive Detroit Opera House.

Northwest along Woodward Avenue is Ferndale, a formerly working-class community that’s become something of a gay stronghold over the years. West 9 Mile Road, has a few hip boutiques and vintage stores, as does Royal Oak, a bastion of more cool dining and retail spots. See the recently renovated and expanded Cranbrook Art Museum in Bloomfield Hills designed by architectural legend Eliel Saarinen, whose nearby house is open seasonally for tours.

Head west to Dearborn, the heart of the America’s auto-manufacturing heritage, to tour the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village, a fascinating 81-acre complex of historic homes and structures moved here from across the country as well as an incomparable museum that traces the development of American technological innovation over the generations.

When it comes to dining, metro Detroit has a number of highly regarded options. One of the most famous is Opus One set inside a former taxi garage built by Kimbell Museum designer Louis Kahn in 1916, and serves superb contemporary food. A funky eatery on the edge of the Cultural Center, the Majestic Cafe scores high marks for art exhibits and eclectic comfort food, while lesbian-owned Avalon International Breads is renowned among foodies for its fine coffees, artisan breads and delicious sandwiches and salads. Royal Oak restaurant notables include the dapper Town Tavern and the charming Cafe Muse, which serves a delectable grilled cheese good enough to be featured in Esquire Magazine.

Fans of clubbing will find plenty of options in Detroit. Popular spots include Royal Oak’s gay video bar Pronto; Ferndale’s sophisticated yet friendly SOHO lounge; and Detroit mainstays such as Menjo’s Complex, where Madonna used to party in her early days, and Gigi’s, with its stable of hot male dancers.

For lodging options, consider the upscale Marriott Detroit, which is set inside the soaring 73-story main tower of the GM Renaissance Center, and the more moderately priced Courtyard Marriott. Also excellent is the sleek Atheneum Suite Hotel. All of these are close to Detroit’s festive Greektown neighborhood and the popular Greektown Casino.

— Andrew Collins

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 14, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas

There’s no place like home

With the Mavs’ victory and the Super Bowl, all eyes are on Dallas lately. But many locals don’t know just what Uptown has to offer

CLANG CLANG CLANG WENT THE … | Uptown’s trolley service has a history and plans for expansion. Best of all, it’s free. (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

Every year, when they bring in travel journalists from all over the world to promote Dallas as a gay destination, the Tavern Guild shows them everything the city has to offer a visitor. (See sidebar.) Just this week, all eyes were on Victory Park as the Mavericks won their first NBA championship title. In other words, lots of people from outside have had Uptown Dallas on the brain.
So let me ask: Where, exactly, is Uptown?

There’s a lot even Dallas natives don’t know about the Oak Lawn-adjacent neighborhood. And that’s something the local association is trying to change.

Uptown, officially, is just a single square mile, bordered roughly to the south by Woodall Rodgers Freeway, to the west by the Katy Trail, to the east by North Central Expressway and to the north by Haskell Street. But they’ve packed a ton of stuff in that district: Five hotels, all pretty high end (the Stoneleigh, the Ritz-Carlton, the Crescent Court, Zaza and the Hotel St. Germain); 90 bars and restaurants; three live theaters … and tons of gay folks, of course.

Uptown didn’t used to be “up;” it used to be “low.” When the plans were drafted in the 1980s for construction on the Crescent, the area was described as “Lower Oak Lawn,” which is how many in the gayborhood still see it. But Uptown has some attractions unique to it.

Not the least of these is the McKinney Avenue Trolley system, which circles Uptown before crossing over the Woodall canyon and dead-ending on St. Paul Street between the Dallas Museum of Art and the Fairmont Hotel. That’ll change soon; plans are underway to extend the end of the line and make it a true loop. That should add to the 390,000 riders who hopped one of the three trolleys in 2010. And best of all, they rode them for free.

If you haven’t ridden the trolley yet, it merits your time. Because they are antiques, these are not cookie-cutter light rail trains but variously sized, one-of-a-kind streetcars loaded with history. One of the cars is 101 years old; one has distinctly European styling; they come from as far away as Australia, and run on tracks that won’t need to be repaired for decades.

One trolley trip can take you from right next to Stephan Pyles Restaurant back up McKinney Avenue, where you can grab a cocktail at Sambuca and an appetizer from Fearing’s across the street; up toward State-Thomas, which hides some hip bars like The Nodding Donkey; and past the West Village where Cork has a variety of wines. And you’re just a few paces from the Cityplace DART stop, so you don’t have to drive home after indulging.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition June 17, 2011.

—  Michael Stephens

2011 Readers Voice Awards: Travel

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BEST STAYCATION
W Dallas — Victory Hotel

2440 Victory Park Lane
214-397-4100

If you’ve never taken a staycation — or even heard of one — trust us: If gas prices continue to head the way they are, you will. A lot. Staycations allow you to get away without going away (and paying for travel). Crave a spa treatment, clean sheets every night, a breathtaking view of a miraculous city skyline, access to a swimming pool and fine dining without stepping outside? Then you’re talking about a few nights in the W Dallas Hotel in Victory Park. With Craft restaurant serving up top-notch meals and the notorious Ghostbar providing pulsing dance music and loads of delicious cocktails, it’s just like a vacation to WeHo or Lauderdale without the TSA agents performing a cavity search. Save that experience for your birthday.

— Arnold Wayne Jones

 

TOP SINGLES GET LAID
DESTINATION
Palm Springs, Calif.

It’s not in any official guidebook, but it’s probably a pretty safe assumption to say that Palm Springs has more naked gay men per capita than just about anywhere in the world. Home to tons of intimate gay resorts where clothing is almost always optional (except in line for the continental breakfast), it’s no wonder that people consider this one of the best places for singles to “have relations.” It’s a quaint little city where you not only don’t have to buy the milk, the cow will show you everything it’s got for free. And then some. Of course, even if your goal isn’t to get busy in the desert, Palm Springs is a great gay destination for anybody looking for plenty of sunshine, beautiful pools and scenic views in every direction. Just don’t be scared if there’s a nude man behind that cactus when you go to take your new profile pic for Facebook.

— Steven Lindsey


BEST SMARTPHONE TRAVEL APP
American Airlines

Travel tech junkies rejoice with the American Airlines app available for iPhone, iPad and Android to make flying easier — even fun. The app can be used for check-in, to review schedules and notifications, to access AAdvantage accounts, book flights and even act as a mobile boarding pass, complete with scanable code. It’ll even give you gate and seating information and track your spot on the standby list. American has made traveling as simple as a swipe and a tap. And for those with layovers and delays, it has you covered: The app features a Sudoku program to play while waiting for your group to be called.

— Rich Lopez

 

BEST PLACE TO TAKE
OUT OF TOWN GUESTS
Where the Cowboys Are

In announcing this selection, we aren’t referring to the kind of cowboy you’ll see wearing Wranglers and Stetsons and showing out every weekend dancing together at the Round-Up Saloon (although that’s a good spot for this category, too). Give your visitors a taste of real cowboy culture at the Fort Worth Stockyards, which not only has some dandy shopping  (best place for boots and leather goods) and restaurants (Tim Love’s Lonesome Dove, for instance), but does a twice-daily cattle drive of Texas Longhorns, at 11:30 a.m. and 4 p.m. Find out more about the Fort Worth Herd at FortWorth.com/TheHerd. They’ll even let you pick one out.

Or, for another kind of Cowboy-spotting, but one no less sexy, take them on a tour of Cowboys Stadium in Arlington. Perhaps you’ve heard of it. It got a lot of not-so-positive press attention when Super Bowl XLV was hosted there, but the facilities themselves are pretty amazing, despite the seating issues for the big game. It’s also a monument to hubris, and in our state, that’s not necessarily a bad thing: We are famous for boasting that everything is bigger here.

— Mark Lowry


BEST AIRLINE
American Airlines

AA.com

 

ULTIMATE DOMESTIC LGBT
DESTINATION • TIE
San Francisco
New York City
Provincetown, Mass.


ULTIMATE INTERNATIONAL
LGBT DESTINATION
Puerto Vallerta, Mexico


TOP COUPLES ROMANTIC GETAWAY
Cross Timber Ranch Bed & Breakfast

6271 FM 858, Ben Wheeler, Texas 75754
903-833-9000
CrossTimberRanch.com


BEST WEEKEND GETAWAY
Austin

 

BEST LGBT CRUISE COMPANY
Atlantis Cruises
AtlantisEvents.com


BEST ONLINE TRAVEL SITE
Orbitz.com

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This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition March 18, 2011.

—  John Wright

An island calling

Faded but still fierce, Catalina oozes tropical romance just off SoCal’s coast

NICK VIVION  | Contributing Travel Writer
gaytravel.com

“Are there more resident bald eagles on the island or resident gays?” my traveling companion asks a gay resident of Catalina, who works for the Catalina Island Conservancy, which controls 88 percent of the land here.

“Definitely gays,” exclaims Shaun, the knowledgeable biologist tasked with removing invasive plant species on the island.

It’s a fair question. There are a whopping 22 bald eagles living on the island, and there can’t be too many gays on a spit of land only 55 miles around. Catalina Island isn’t the first place that comes to mind as a gay destination, but this unassuming vibe is one of its best traits. It’s a mixed crowd, allowing you to mold your experience.

Catalina-Island-Rainbow
RAINBOW’S END | Small and still elegant, Catalina Island is a haven for wildlife — and gay adventurers.

“I don’t think many gay people realize that other gays come to the island often. It is gay-friendly, relaxed and comfortable,” Shaun elaborates after the laughter simmers down.

Catalina was originally developed by the Banning Brothers during the period of prosperity in the late 19th century that brought the newly moneyed set to the island in droves, ready to party politely in their modest, fully-clothed bathing gear.

As Hollywood developed, so did interest in Catalina. It quickly became a glamorous getaway for the Tinseltown set, and its appeal was accelerated after chewing gum czar William Wrigley bought the island in 1919, bringing his Chicago Cubs here for spring training until the 1950s.

While the glamour has faded somewhat, Catalina’s historical tapestry has golden gay threads woven throughout, and the feeling permeates your stay on the island. And there’s still a fascinating history magnifying the romantic aura of the island. This place has a distinct whimsical appeal that combines with top class amenities and attractions to become a perfect gay getaway for those in Southern California and beyond.

Catalina Island has a growing and well-deserved reputation as an adventure destination. For those who crave an escape from the concrete gridlock of Southern California, there is not a single stoplight on the entire isle.

It has its modern perks. The Eco Zip Line is the newest activity on the island, and it’s pure joy. Strong winds on add a wholly unexpected dimension to the experience of flying down steel cables 300 feet above the Descanso Canyon floor.

The numerous outdoor experiences make for a soul rejuvenating weekend escape. In a two-day visit, we explored a botanical garden, avoided rattlesnakes as we hiked a portion of the 37.2 mile Trans-Catalina Trail, checked out one of three scenic and remote campgrounds, parasailed high above the ocean and went zip lining from mountain to sea.

There is also an incredible Marine Preserve called the Lover’s Cove, calm and ideal for snorkeling amongst the scintillating orange Garibaldi and spotted opaleyes. Several extensive wrecks are accessible for walk-in SCUBA diving on Casino Point, and you can tackle the challenging trails on mountain bike or by foot. Last but not least, exploring the island’s perimeter in an ocean kayak is an unparalleled way to get out onto the legendary crystal-clear waters along the Catalina Coast.

Catalina Island has been a romantic’s playground from the beginning of its development in the Gay Nineties. Dozens of movies have bestowed romantic allure, and the Four Preps’ 1958 hit song “26 Miles” extolled the virtues of its romantic side, which is now a perfect soundtrack to the quaint, timeless aesthetic on the island.

Development is strictly limited, so the architecture remains consistent. There is a 15-year waiting list for conventional cars on the island, so personalized golf carts dominate transportation. Walking’s not bad, either. Take a leisurely stroll from Avalon around the point past the stunning, 12-story Art Deco Casino, and onwards to the tidepools past Descanso Beach. Then end the night sitting by the blazing fire pit at the pleasantly updated Pavillion Hotel, sipping pinot noir and nibbling on goat cheese as the sun sets somewhere beyond the hills, and the clouds in Avalon harbor turn a fierce purple. Romance, indeed.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition March 11, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas

What’s Brewing: Flour Bluff, Navy DADT discharge, Israel

Your weekday morning blend from Instant Tea:

1. A gay-straight alliance will be allowed temporarily at Flour Bluff ISD near Corpus Christi. We reported last week that all clubs had been banned from the school rather than allow a GSA. A resolution passed at a five-hour school district meeting that will allow the club temporarily.

2. A navy petty officer will be discharged under “don’t ask, don’t tell” after falling asleep in bed with another man. This will be the first DADT discharge since November. Although a repeal has been signed, the policy is still in place until all branches of the armed forces certify it as ready. That should happen in June. They were watching a movie and fell asleep on a twin bed, one under the covers, one over. A roommate of one walked in and reported the incident. No “homosexual conduct” was reported and the incident is being labeled an extreme overreaction.

3. While cities like Dallas are marketing themselves as a great gay destination, Israel is now going after that market as well. At an international tourism fair in Berlin, a delegation from Tel Aviv will invite LGBT tourists to visit their city. The city spent $94 million to promote tourism to the LGBT community last year. The effort will be expanded in 2011.

—  David Taffet

Gay getaway: Some updates for SoDec

In this week’s print edition, I wrote about New Orleans as a great gay destination, especially for Southern Decadence, which starts early next month over the Labor Day weekend. Well, there are some updates to sweeten the deal even more.

The Marriott Hotel has introduced the Rainbow NOLA Getaway for SoDec. Starting at $134 per night (two-night minimum), it comes with a complimentary bottle of champagne, a $50 food and beverage credit and complimentary Internet access. And even if you don’t get to town over Decadence, the rate is valid until July 31, 2011. Ask for rate code VIQ at its website or reservation line (800-228-9290).

I can also give a shout out to another GLBT publication, the travel magazine Passport, which again is teaming with the W Hotel New Orleans, pictured above, for a party over SoDec. For a $10 donation at the door benefitting Project Lazarus, you can get Szambelan vodka drinks and a chance to win prizes. It takes place at the W on Friday, Sept. 3.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones