Mix Master

Blaine Soileau brings old-school philosophy to modern DJ techniques

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HE GOT THE BEAT | Dallas’ Blaine Soileau has perfected his DJ style after years of practice, but spinning still challenges and interests him. (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)

RICH LOPEZ  | Staff Writer
lopez@dallasvoice.com

Blaine Soileau wouldn’t say that his DJing is about his image. The beefy arms, scruffy good looks and shirtless spinning, however, don’t hurt one bit when he’s at the turntable. If being a muscle daddy gets him a few fans… well, there are worse fates.

Soileau has been a staple in the Dallas DJ scene for years, but don’t mistake his image for his talent. He’s been mixing music since well before he had hair on his pecs.

“I started [DJing] in high school, which was 1979,” he says. “I feel like I’ve gotten where I’m at not because of any image. I just knew how to market myself.”

Soileau (pronounced “swallow”) knows the P.R. game well, owing to a stint in Los Angeles when he pursued an acting career. Having to get his name out as much as possible was the game then and it continues to be now. It’s just a different arena.

He’s fared much better on the DJ path than acting. Soileau has built himself into a marquee name even outside Texas. With bookings in D.C., L.A, Phoenix, Fire Island and more, he’s not only put his name into a national spotlight, he’s also bringing something back to Dallas each time with some specific hope and with his regular gig at the Dallas Eagle.

“The gay scene here is finally graduating to what’s going on now,” he says. “I never really had good things to say about Dallas’ music scene because of my travels. The music I would experience in other cities was always livelier and happening.”

He’s changed his mind now that he senses Dallas audiences aren’t “stuck in the ’80s and ’90s” anymore. It’s taking a while, but the sounds of Los Angeles, New York and even Eastern Europe are making way here. And Soileau sees audiences responding.

“For a while, all of us [DJs] here had to spoon-feed the crowd, but I think it’s moving into a good direction,” he says. “The stuff I’m playing at the Eagle, and the other DJs, we have a much more progressive sound.”

He brings that sound to Release, the club night he hosts at the Eagle twice a month. As Soileau infuses a cosmopolitan, modern sound to his party, he’s still a purist about technique.  He’s embraced digital music over vinyl, but in a time when people can call themselves a DJ and program their mixes to autopilot, Soileau still brings some of his old skills to the proverbial turntable.

“There is definitely so much more you can do with digital music, but I don’t agree with the programs some are using,” he says. “I’m so thankful I learned how to beat-mix. I can manipulate a song just as I would a piece of vinyl and line up the beats old school. Programs that sync songs for you, that’s not DJing.”

Sometimes Soileau sounds like he misses the club environs of years before. He enjoyed playing the anthems of disco divas like Kristine W and Deborah Cox, but he finds that sound isn’t happening right now. His focus was on house music with vocals, but trends now lead to more instrumental tracks. But an unlikely tool now works in his favor.

“The good thing is that radio has become more dance oriented,” he says. “There are no remixes needed so when people go out to clubs, they wanna hear stuff on the radio. That gets them on the floor dancing. When it gets packed, then I can give them what I want but maintain the energy of it.”

Soileau doesn’t worry about setting himself apart from other DJs; he just wants a flawless night. So if that means playing music from the radio in order to have a happy dance floor, he’s on board with that.

“If I have to bite the bullet and play Britney, am I selling out? No,” he says. “My goal is to make people have a good time. I’ve never thought about being different from other DJs.”

Which perhaps makes him different after all.

But we still like it when he takes his shirt off.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 19, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas

Let’s get ready to rumba!

Rhumba
SO THEY KNOW THEY CAN DANCE | Lewis and Fridmanovich, who teamed up last year, bring professional ballroom to North Texas.

For fleet-footed Ryan Lewis and partner Natalia Fridmanovich, ballroom dancing is still an underground gay scene in Dallas

JEF TINGLEY  | Contributing Writer
lifestyle@dallasvoice.com

For those of us with two left feet, just the words “foxtrot” and “cha-cha” can induce panic attacks and sweaty palms. Dancing is like public speaking to a beat: It’s a deep fear, the kind that can’t be erased — even by images of a Dirty Dancing-era Patrick Swayze as your partner.
But according to professional gay rug cutter Ryan Lewis, ballroom dance doesn’t have to be scary. In fact, it can be a place where you can find your inner Fred Astaire or Ginger Rogers … or maybe a combination of both.

“The gay community has many outlets [for people] to participate in and express themselves whether it be sports, clubs, politics or the art scene,” says Lewis. “However, as a gay man, I realize that some of these opportunities are not well known. [My dance partner] Natalia and I feel that ballroom dance is a perfect fit…While the community has plenty for someone to feel comfortable with their sexuality on a Friday night, I wished, when I was coming out, there were more avenues for me to be comfortable in my own skin, as well as [to] participate in activities alongside the heterosexual world.”

Lewis has been training and competing for more than 13 years in international Latin and standard dance, specializing in international Latin for the past eight years. Last June, after trying out with other dancers on the competitive circuit, he made a visceral connection with Natalia Fridmanovich, a Russian native who began dancing in her father’s studio at age 11. Fridmanovich holds titles that include Eastern Russia ballroom champion. After she relocated to North Texas, she and Lewis started dancing together and have been a team ever since.

Last month, Lewis and Fridmanovich traveled to Italy for the Italian Open, an international ballroom dance competition, where they were the only couple representing North Texas; they had an impressive showing, making it to the semi-finals, putting them in the top six couples out of nearly 100 entered.

It’s not just competing that keeps them busy. The duo teaches classes in Latin and standard dance, which embraces favorites such as the waltz, foxtrot and tango. Although the classes aren’t specifically created for same-sex couples, Lewis welcomes them, and says it’s not uncommon for the pairings to occasionally end up that way anyhow.

“Each class is 45 minutes of warm-up followed by 45 minutes of partner work. Since we usually have more girls than guys in the class, you end up with girls dancing with girls — but it could be the same if there were more guys in the class, too,” he says.

Lewis credits the popularity of TV shows like Dancing With The Stars and So You Think You Can Dance with raising the visibility of ballroom, yet people still feel like they won’t have a chance to use it. Lewis claims that’s only true if they don’t know where to look.
“Most people don’t realize that in just one [dance] lesson, you can learn enough to go to social dances and be able to do one or two dances that evening,” he says.

For beginners, Fridmanovich recommends simple steps like the foxtrot and rumba. Once armed with a repertoire of moves, the couple suggests joining an organization like USA Dance Dallas, whose sole mission is to “promote social dancing throughout the city.” To do this, the group holds weekly dance classes and annual shows and workshops.

While Lewis ranks Dallas’ ballroom dance scene on the national scale as top 20, it’s not in the top 10, and still something seen as slightly underground. “If you don’t know it exists, you would never see it. But once you see it, you know it is everywhere.”

One example of these lesser-known dance hideouts is Gloria’s restaurant at Beltline and the Tollway. “On Saturdays at like 11, they clear all tables and chairs and until one or two in the morning it’s salsa and partner dancing like merengue,” says Lewis.

That’s certainly a different kind of salsa than you usually find at Gloria’s … but one that can be just as addictive.

For more, visit RyanNataliaDance.com.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 15, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas

TRAVEL: San Francisco is Queertopia

The City by the Bay is a must visit for all gay Texans — World Series titles notwithstanding

NICK VIVION  | Special Contributor
lifestyle@dallasvoice.com

San Francisco is regularly recognized as one of the world’s most visited cities, and equally as often is dubbed the most European city in America. The Bay Area boasts a live-and-let-live ethos that has attracted a population with equal parts creativity and quirk (it’s the fictional homes of Marvel’s X-Men and Star Trek’s United Federation of Planets).

It’s also just about the gayest city in the world, a veritable Capital of the Queers — some estimates put 30 percent of the population as LGBT-identified. And despite their baseball team trouncing the Rangers in last year’s World Series, it’s still a desirable travel destination for gay Texans.

The city has welcomed the weary, the weird and the wacky for more than a century. The first wave was during the Gold Rush of the 1800s. The prospectors had no prospects — and no women. So they made do, and are said to be the ones who invented the Hanky Code to organize their newfound homo desires.

Post-World War II, soldiers of both sexes began to carve a niche for themselves amidst the already-thriving gay scene. A spread in Life magazine in 1964 maliciously declared San Francisco the gay capital of the nation, but while the tone was accusatory, it had one unintended effect: Publicity.

OPEN UP THAT GOLDEN GATE | The famed bridge, opposite page, is the best-known image of San Francisco, but for gay travelers the Castro District is a must-see destination.

“Thousands of gay people poured into California now that they knew where to go,” says Kathy Amendola, owner of Cruisin’ the Castro, about the meteoric rise of gay San Francisco in the 1960s. “In 1967, the Summer of Love exploded in the Haight. There were so many tens of thousands of people in one place at one time on such a high level of consciousness [from LSD] that it shifted energy. San Francisco could not stop people from pouring in, from the gays to the hippies. It was supposed to be the utopia: free drugs, free food and free love. Who wouldn’t come here?”

But San Francisco is more than just a cliché of drugged-out hippies and handkerchiefed homos cruising the streets. It has an energy that you can savor, a magical serenity that makes molecules vibrate more vigorously. It’s exhilarating. San Francisco is freedom from judgment, a place where people are living their lives mindfully, yet without much regard to what people think.

“We recycle 77 percent of our garbage and food. We still have that sense of utopia,” says Amendola without the slightest hint of new-age pretense. She, like most San Franciscans, is serious about her community’s shared values.

Harvey Milk was known as the “Mayor of the Castro,” and is widely credited with bringing the gays to the district. He saw the Castro’s cheaper rent and better climate when he was living over the hill in Haight-Ashbury, and jumped at the chance to open a camera store right on Castro Street.

Today, the camera store sits empty awaiting the embattled move of the HRC Store. In its window is an image of a group of people outside the Castro Theatre waving a flag that says “Gay Revolution.” Above, from the second floor where Milk used to live, is a mural of Harvey looking down on the street. On his chest is painted one of his most potent phrases: “You gotta give ‘em hope.”

Visiting the Castro is a must for every gay visitor. It’s unlike any other remaining gayborhood in contemporary society — our Mecca, and not just because there are a lot of gay people there; it also breathes history.

Milk first spoke out at the corner of Market and Castro right underneath where the Pride flag now billows. Murals abound depicting the decimation of the AIDS crisis, and how the city’s gay population rallied, protested and fought incessantly to stem the tide of deaths.

The recent opening of the GLBT Historical Museum on 18th Street is a much-needed fulcrum of our collective queer identity. The handsome museum facilitates an understanding of our history as a group, and shows those younger folks like myself the oft-unbelievable realities of gay life in decades pat.

As I stood in front of the picture of Leonard Matlovich on the cover of Time in September 1978, I nearly cried. I had never heard of him, nor had I ever noticed the large plaque commemorating him on the corner of 18th and Castro. He was discharged from the military for being gay, saying: “When I was in the military they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one.”

My visit to the museum was the day before DADT was repealed; I had no idea we had been fighting for this long.
The queer experience is central to the San Francisco experience, as it is the city’s acceptance — not just tolerance — of queer people of all kinds that really makes it unique. This is not the “diversity” of New York, rather a whole-hearted commitment to queering the world.

Standing outside Hotel Abri near Union Square, hearing the buzz of four languages, it strikes me that there are so many microcosms in this city, neighborhoods so distinct they could be in separate cities or states. San Francisco, at its geographical core, is queer.

San Francisco gets under your skin, into your blood and hooks you for life. It will electrify you, and like your first true love, you will never be able to shake it.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition Jan. 21, 2011.

—  John Wright

If he could turn back time…

… Dallas drag legend Wayne Smith wouldn’t change a thing. After all the stops and starts, he leaves leaves town reflecting on a career of laughter, music … and a nip slip

STEVEN LINDSEY  |  stevencraiglindsey@me.com

profile
DO YOU BELIEVE IN LIFE AFTER WAYNE? | You’ll have to — next week the Cher impersonator and his handsome husbear head to life in the Midwest. (Gregory Hayes/Dallas Voice)

WAYNE SMITH FAREWELL
The Round-Up Saloon,
3912 Cedar Springs Road.
Jan. 11 at 8 p.m.  Free.
Hungdinger, 4000 Cedar Springs Road. Jan. 12 at 8:30 p.m.

…………………………

For nearly 20 years, Cher has performed almost nightly along the Cedar Springs strip.

“What’s this?” you say. But oh, yes. With a voice and appearance so convincing, patrons react to her as if she’s the real superstar, not Dallas native Wayne Smith performing what has become his signature role.

Known for being friendly and outgoing to everyone who crosses his path, it’s Smith’s singing prowess that has sets him apart from the many drag performers who lip-synch. He’s a true impersonator and a remarkable performer who has helped define Dallas’ gay scene for the past two decades.

But not so much the future of it. Smith will be missed by thousands as he packs up his bags next week to move with his husband Ben Wilson to Columbus, Ohio. It only takes a quick glance at his Facebook page to see how many lives he’s touched here.

In true Cher fashion, Smith isn’t going gently into his Texas retirement. He’ll give multiple farewell performances, with the final curtains this week at the Round-Up Saloon, Hungdinger and the Drama Room.

But performing isn’t the only major event of the week. Tomorrow, he and Wilson celebrate their third wedding anniversary (they were legally married in Stowe, Vt.); a few days after he turns 50.

“I don’t mind. AA-Freakin’-RP!” he jokes about his age. “It’s wonderful to be this old because I’ve done so much with my life. I had a hit children’s books; I sold 67,000 toys at Neiman Marcus, I had a fashion show at the Beverly Hills Hotel, I had my own salon one street over from Rodeo Drive and so much I can’t even remember. I was even a question on Hollywood Squares!”

Smith left Dallas after high school because he thought Los Angeles would be a better place to live as a gay man.

“I went out there to be the next Bob Mackie. Instead, I ended up working for him, which was great because I got to shop with Cher and hang out with people like Marie Osmond, Betty White and Carol Burnett, which was really incredible.”
One fateful Halloween, Mackie talked him into dressing up as Marilyn Monroe; he won a costume contest with his outfit. From such humble beginnings came the drag legend.

“Somebody approached me from La Cage, the original club in Los Angeles that started the show in Vegas. They were starting a new show at the Fontainebleau Hilton in Florida and they needed a Marilyn.” He also had to come up with a second character; a friend convinced him to do Dolly Parton. But one little nip slip changed his attitude forever.

“It was a total disaster,” he laughs. “I think I was the first person to have a wardrobe malfunction. I was doing Marilyn in the pink dress from ‘Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend’ and every time I raised my arms, my nipples showed. The producer was watching me with his hands over his eyes and I thought, ‘Oh this is great.’ I’d already done Marilyn in a couple of gay bars and I knew I was the best ever. I was a diva, girl. That is really the day when I learned humility.”

Convinced he’d blown his chances, he was persuaded to give it another shot — with a twist.

“I turned it into a comedy act,” he says. “We had big neon poles around the stage and I pretended that my boobs got stuck and I had to pull one around the other side. Everyone was walking in, the performers and the staff, and they were all standing there laughing.”

He was hired on the spot and for a year, he performed in the famed La Ronde Showroom, a stage once graced by Judy Garland and Frank Sinatra. When the Florida show closed, Smith was invited to join the cast in Hollywood — and finally got to play Marilyn.

“In Hollywood, if you’re Marilyn, you’re the star of the show. She’s on everything. She’s on toilet paper!” he laughs. “It was the best thing that could have ever happened because I really learned to perfect character makeup. I did Norma Desmond, Marilyn, Dolly — I even got to do Lucille Ball because she personally asked me to impersonate her when she was at a birthday party for Milton Berle at the club. If the room had blown up that night, we would’ve lost so much Hollywood royalty. The room was just packed full of people. It really was amazing.”

Ball never got to see his impersonation of her because shortly after her request, she passed away. To this day, he has a picture of the star from a scene in Mame, which she autographed, “To Wayne, Love Lucy.” It’s one of his most treasured pieces of career memorabilia. “I broke up with a boyfriend while I was performing in Aruba and had a friend break into my apartment in Los Angeles to make sure he got that picture back. And he did!”

In 1989 — shortly after If I Could Turn Back Time was released — Smith ventured into performing as Cher. After a year abroad where he performed Marilyn, Dolly and Cher, he landed back in Dallas and has been performing here ever since: First at Moby Dick, then at Woody’s, Mickey’s, and his latest home, the restaurant/cabaret Hungdinger. For much of his time in Dallas, Smith performed as Cher five to six nights per week up and down the Strip.

“I’ve had an incredible, incredible career here in Dallas. I really have never wanted for work. I’m giving up five nights a week to go to ‘what if’ in Ohio,” he says.

He may not know what lies ahead, but he’s sure of his mark on the world.

“I used to feel like I haven’t done anything with my life. But my dad actually taught me a long time ago that I had. He asked me how many people I’d performed for over the years,” Smith recalls. Between all the shows at La Cage and on TV, they estimated that he’d entertained millions of people. “My dad asked me, ‘Did you make those people forget their problems for a little bit and laugh? How many people can say that?’”

It dawned on him that what he does is much more than just sing a bit in clubs.

“Yeah, some people say I’m an attention whore, or just a drag queen, or just a female impersonator, but you know what? I’ve had people come up to me who are sick or had somebody die in their family to thank me for helping them forget their problems, even if just for a little while. I’m a court jester. I just wear different outfits,” he says.

But though he’s leaving town, this is definitely not the end of Smith — wherever he may end up.

“I’m not Cher, I’ve never claimed to be. But if I can mimic it enough that people still like it, I’ll keep doing it if I’m in a wheelchair gummin’ it to I Got You Babe.”

And that’s something plenty of people would gladly pay to see.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition January 7, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas

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

Louisiana: Top & bottom

Southern Decadence is almost here, but even closer than the Big Easy is the Shreve

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

BE GAY HERE | NOLA shows its pride with gay-friendly businesses boldly inviting queer customers in for some retail therapy. (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)

It was five years ago this month that Hurricane Katrina barreled through the Gulf of Mexico, ultimately ravaging New Orleans just before Southern Decadence, the gay end-of-summer bacchanal in America’s favorite municipal speakeasy, got underway.

Now, half a decade (and one more SoDec evac) later, the city welcomes its gay patrons openly. It might not be right to say it’s back — in some ways, it never went away, and in others, it’s more low-key — but the Crescent City remains a great draw for gay travelers.

But not the only one in the state. Even closer — about two hours by car — is Shreveport, a smaller town, more family-oriented burg best known now for its casinos. And while the gays in “the Shreve” make treks to NOLA for the big gay scene fun, there’s a lot to do here that’s cheaper and easier to get to.

So which is it: Extravagance or convenience? How about a little bit of both?

New Orleans

Now in its 39th year, Southern Decadence is a Labor Day weekend tradition that attracts countless gay men, a decent number of gay women and a surprisingly large contingent of straight people who come to revel in the exuberance. You can’t live in — or really even visit — New Orleans without being a little open-minded about sex and alcohol. But that’s not all there is to do.

New Orleans boasts two W Hotels, as different from each other as they can be. They do have one thing in common, though: An enthusiasm for gay clientele. (Last year at SoDec, one of the hotels hosted an Andrew Christian underwear fashion show and party that was as sexy and raucous as you’re probably imagining.)

The W Hotel New Orleans is a high-end high-rise with the W’s signature mod look (plums and scarlets with rich velvets and busy prints set the tone), including hipster-style lounge areas. (Whiskey Blue, the bar, exudes flashy urban cool.)

New Orleans
WHERE  THE BOYS ARE | Bourbon Street is gay bar central, with lots of rainbow flag and ‘to go’ drink spots along the flesh-filled streets. (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)

The “Wet” pool, lined with private cabanas equipped with TVs and room service, is as social as the pub and affords good views of downtown, as well as Harrah’s Casino, if you want a quick walk to empty your pockets. Zoe, the restaurant, is a multipurpose eatery open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, serving contemporary American cuisine in a relaxed setting. (A new chef was hired since last year’s SoDec.)

Just a few blocks but a universe away, the W French Quarter, nestled in the heart of party activity and historic sites, is a boutique property with small but charming rooms and a courtyard that looks like something from a Roman garden. A dramatic staircase overlooks a small shaded pool area with a dramatic fountain. Best of all, it’s shielded from the hubbub of the Quarter, but also in the thick of it, so you can go native or relax in a luxury cocoon.

The luxury element extends to Bacco, the onsite eatery from famed New Orleans restaurateur Ralph Brennan. In a town known for great food, Bacco is a standout for brunch or dinner, with the filet Oscar with a vegetable medley a heavenly bit of surf-and-turf, while the house shrimp entrée — whole prawns in a beer broth with rosemary and Creole spices — breath authentic Bayou cuisine.

The Ritz-Carlton splits the difference between the two Ws. Located on the corner of the French Quarter but with full-service amenities, it’s gorgeously ornate property constructed hacienda-style around a central court. The interior spaces are lush, and the amenities (an umbrella in the room in case you forget yours) justify the legend. (Rates at the Ritz are surprisingly affordable, especially in the summer off-season.) The Melange restaurant was relaunched as M Bistro, but the essence of the place — locally-sourced and organic foods predominate — remains.

CAJUN HEAT | The whole prawns at Ralph Brennan’s Bacco are a to-die-for dish.

The 41-story Marriott, also in the French Quarter, recently underwent a massive renovation and defies the old-school “Marriott-style” expectations. Its casual but tasty 5 Fifty 5 restaurant offers a marvelous takes on mac and cheese and oysters Rockefeller, and the bread pudding is more like pound cake doused in caramel and ice cream. Then again, you don’t come to NOLA to lose weight; you come to lose inhibitions.

The famous Brennan’s is unmissable for brunch, renowned for its alcoholic milk punch and of course its flaming bananas foster (which they invented). It’s an institution for a good reason.

Perhaps even more revered in the FQ is Arnaud’s. In a city that has taken casual exuberance to near pornographic extremes (flashing in the streets is not uncommon during Southern Decadence), Arnaud’s remains a bastion of erudition and dignity: The main dining room still requires gentlemen to conform to a dress code. We were fine leaving the coat and tie at home and holing up in the jazz bistro, where live music isn’t the only art: The food is (the menus are identical). Classic dishes, like the oysters Bienville and the house crab cakes, need to be tried. For dessert, treat yourself to the café brulot, a coffee drink with flames and booze and fruit prepared tableside. The show alone is worth it.

FRENCH  OASIS | The pool area at the W French Quarter is charming and quiet … and just steps from the hubbub of Southern Decadence. (Arnold Wayne Jones/.Dallas Voice)

The building that houses it is a massive structure that extends far beyond the well-appointed but gracefully ageing dining rooms; that’s true of a lot of New Orleans. Architecturally, it’s a monument to sturdy, bold structures that have weathered more than a few storms.

Galleries welcome browsers (and you can find some fabulous, often affordable art), and the street vendors are worth a look, too: From tarot card readers along Jackson Square to a permanent flea market along the waterfront, it’s a walking city meant to be enjoyed. (Dress comfortably, though — it’s a swamp in the summer, and it smells like it.)

You can enjoy most of the delights of New Orleans almost anytime during the year, but there are some definite key times to visit. The gay clubs book some racy headliners during Southern Decadence, but the entire city goes pretty gay during that time: There’s a street parade and the entire French Quarter becomes almost inaccessible to vehicles. Mardi Gras, of course, is also a draw, but also Halloween and even late spring, when the arts community comes out for the Saints & Sinners festival. That’s part of the charm of the city — the party never stops.

Shreveport

Those in Shreveport-Bossier City like to call their corner of the state “Louisiana’s Other Side,” but there’s much more to it than just NOLA’s poor relation. True, it does not celebrate SoDec in quite the same way, but be in town on Super Bowl Sunday with the Saints playing and you don’t doubt the city knows how to party.

A complete profile of the city will appear in two weeks in Dallas Voice.

Click HERE to see more photos.

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LITTLE BLACK BOOK

Accommodations
New Orleans Marriott, 555 Canal St. 504-581-1000. Ritz-Carlton, 921 Canal St., 504-524-1331. W Hotel French Quarter, 316 Chartres St. WHotelsNewOrleans.com. W Hotel New

Orleans, 333 Poydras St. WHotelsNewOrleans.com.

Food & Drink
Arnaud’s, 813 Rue Bienville. Arnauds Restaurant.com. Bacco inside the W Hotel French Quarter, 316 Chartres St. Bacco.com.

Brennan’s, 417 Royal St.

BrennansNewOrleans.com.  5 Fifty 5 inside the Marriott, 555 Canal St. Whiskey Blue inside the W Hotel New Orleans, 333 Poydras St.

Resources
SouthernDecadence.com.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 6, 2010.

—  Michael Stephens