Key West: still the gay and lesbian oasis

Key West: still the gay and lesbian oasis

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It’s no secret that the good people of Key West know how to throw a party, and why wouldn’t they? On top of being a subtropical paradise, the island often plays host to hordes of LGBT visitors and a number of annual festivals and events.

More than 500,000 LGBT tourists visit the island each year, which boasts rainbow colors of bougainvillea, royal poinciana and hibiscus blooms, as well as its year-round temperatures that seldom go below 70.

Gay men and women can choose from exclusively gay-and-lesbian water activities such as snorkeling, fishing, sunset sailing and dolphin watching; or join other island visitors above, on or below the sea. The beaches offer sunning, volleyball, wind surfing or just relaxing under the trees.

Nearly a third of Key West’s 28,000 year-round residents are gay or lesbian, and a large percentage of businesses proudly fly the rainbow flag. In a recent Harris Poll, Key West was selected as the second-most gay-friendly city in the United States, ahead of every other resort destination. The Key West Business Guild, founded in 1978, operates a gay and lesbian visitor center seven days a week and provides information at www.gaykeywestfl.com and www.returntokeywest.com.

LGBT travelers to Key West have more options than ever, featuring different levels of amenities, adult-themed activities, scenic locations and much more. Key West features several men-only, clothing-optional resorts and an internationally acclaimed women-only resort, as well as clothing-optional resorts that welcome both gay men and lesbians. The island also features more than 100 gay-friendly inns, private vacation homes and condos for rent and hotel choices ranging from budget chains to luxury oceanfront resorts.

Some of the best bets for accommodations in Key West include The Island House Resort [1129 Fleming St.; (800) 890-6284, www.islandhousekeywest.com], which has been consistently voted one of the best male guesthouses. For the ladies, Pearl’s Rainbow [525 United St.; (800) 749-6696] is one of the best women’s guesthouses, featuring two swimming pools, two hot tubs, onsite massage and a poolside bar.

One of the best ways to take in Key West and its rich gay and lesbian history is to catch a ride on the Key West Business Guild’s Gay and Lesbian Trolley Tour, which runs at 10:50 a.m. every Saturday year-round. As the only one of its kind offered in the U.S., this 70-minute tour highlights a unique blend of architecture, history and the impact gay and lesbian figures have had on the Keys. For more information, call (305) 294-4603 or visit www.gaykeywestfl.com/trolley.cfm.

Key West’s nightlife has long been known for its uninhibited nature and legendary bars and clubs. Each night, a different crowd of LGBT visitors fills hot spots both on and off Duval Street with options including cabarets, dance clubs, drag shows, piano bars, a leather/Levi bar, a gay-friendly country bar and neighborhood saloons.

The bars and clubs should be enough to keep visitors occupied for weeks, but you might want to arrange for your Key West visit to coincide with some of the area’s highly anticipated and over-the-top events.

August in Key West brings the heat, and it’s not just because of the temperature. The annual Tropical Heat Key West, held Aug. 20-23, is a four-day event for men who like to play. The theme this year is all things Roman, with all kinds of adult events designed to keep attendees dancing and partying all night and into the next day. For more information, visit www.tropicalheatkw.com.

Key West’s signature event for women, WomenFest, is a weeklong festival Sept. 8-13 that draws lesbians of all ages and styles, both singles and couples. WomenFest features a series of beach parties, sunset sails, snorkeling cruises, galas at area gay nightclubs and Key West trolley tours. There’s also a golf tournament, a lesbian film festival and group commitment ceremony. For more information, visit www.womenfest.com.

Every October, 50,000-80,000 visitors party in the streets and nightspots of Key West during the outrageous masking and costuming festival known as Fantasy Fest. The theme for this year’s 30th-anniversary celebration Oct. 23-Nov. 1 is “Villains, Vampires and Vixens” and includes costume competitions, street fairs and a grand parade featuring marching groups and lavish floats. For more information, visit www.fantasyfest.net.

Later in the year, things get even wilder with the island city’s New Year’s Eve festivities, which serve as as an answer to the New York City ball drop. Drag icon Sushi is lowered in a 6-foot red stiletto to ring in the New Year. For several years, the offbeat “drag-queen drop” has been broadcast internationally on CNN.

There are plenty of general tourist attractions to check out in Key West as well. One of the most famous is the Hemingway House [907 Whitehead St.; www.hemingwayhome.com]. If literature, history or a massive amount of cats (more than 60 call the house home) is your cup of tea, this is the place to visit: Ernest Hemingway lived and wrote here for more than 10 years. Visitors can step back in time and visit the rooms and gardens that witnessed the most prolific period of this Nobel Prize-winner’s writing career, while educated tour guides are on hand to give insightful narratives (i.e. gossip) and answer questions.

If your sightseeing tastes veer toward the strange and freaky, make a beeline for the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! museum [108 Duval St.; (305) 293-9939, www.ripleyskeywest.com]. It features 500 exhibits ranging from the fantastic to the downright disturbing.

From its gay and lesbian nightlife, accommodations and events to its welcoming community and live-and-let-live, come-as-you-are attitude, Key West is internationally acclaimed as a top gay and lesbian destination.

Key West was the first city in the United States to elect an openly gay mayor and currently has a gay police chief and openly gay law-enforcement officials committed to protecting the rights of residents and visitors regardless of race, age, gender or sexual orientation. For LGBT visitors, Key West is a place to be open and relaxed, as well as a place to play from dawn to dusk. Above all, it’s a prime destination in which to enjoy carefree days and nights on an irresistible, accepting tropical island unlike any other.


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