Travel

Hang Out in Florida's Most LGBTQIA+ Friendly Small Town

Take a weekend gaycation in Wilton Manors.

YES Market Media/Shutterstock
YES Market Media/Shutterstock
YES Market Media/Shutterstock

If you were asked to point to South Florida’s premier gayborhood on a map, where would your finger land? Key West? South Beach? Though they’re both technically island cities with a longstanding reputation for inclusiveness, there’s only one “Island City” in our book: Wilton Manors. While this picturesque pocket of Greater Fort Lauderdale is completely encircled by water-hence its official nickname-the surrounding canals don’t double as a moat-like barrier to protect its denizens from the outside world. Nope, not in Wilton Manors. This one of the most welcoming, open-minded communities in the country-and it’s been like that for decades. Wilton Manors was the first municipality in the state to elect an all-LGBTQIA+ city commission. There are also more same-sex couples that reside here than anywhere else in the United States (besides Provincetown, Massachusetts). But this year, as Wilton Manors celebrates 75 years of being a safe space for all identities, creeds, and cultures, it’s apparent that out-and-proud Floridians and their allies are still facing an uphill climb in securing equal rights. So, cruise up the coast-during Pride Month or any other time of the year-and you’ll discover why this wee island community is unlike any other in Florida or the rest of the US.

Wilton Manors Stonewall Pride Parade & Street Festival
Wilton Manors Stonewall Pride Parade & Street Festival
Wilton Manors Stonewall Pride Parade & Street Festival

Partake in one of Florida’s largest pride celebrations

Every June since 1999, Wilton Manors’ Stonewall Pride Parade & Street Festival has taken over The Drive to commemorate the pivotal Stonewall riots while celebrating inclusivity and LGBTQIA+ heritage. The festivities draw crowds upward of 40,000 revellers to the vibrant street fair and Twilight Parade which thrums with live music and entertainment. This year’s event boasted six stages and a whopping 16 bars along the route. (If South Floridians know how to do anything, they sure know how to throw an epic party.) With the state’s LGBTQIA+ community shrouded in uncertainty from political leaders, the positive impact of the Stonewall Pride Parade on Wilton Manors is much more than an economic boon. Don’t forget to check out the events calendar from the non-profit Pride Center at Equality Park, which hosts a slew of year-round activities, from creative symposiums to a beloved Saturday flea market flourishing with over 50 vendors.

Immerse yourself in the outdoors

With 15 parks certified by the National Wildlife Federation and thirteen miles of waterways teeming with wildlife, outdoor pursuits abound in Island City-on both the land and on the water. For the latter, rent a see-through “Crystal Clear” kayak or paddleboard from OTWaves Kayaks & More and cruise along the Middle River. Put your upper body strength to the test by circumnavigating the entirety of Wilton Manors along the seven-mile loop. Back in the 1890s, the area was settled by explorer William C. Collier, who planted an orange grove and traded with the local Seminole tribe. In his honour, they named the waterway “Colohatchee,” which lives on as the Colohatchee Park. Hit up the elevated boardwalk, which winds through a seven-acre swath of protected mangrove-a prime spot for birding. Alternatively, head to the Richardson Historic Park and Nature Preserve, which offers guided nature tours along its riverside trail and observation pier. The park is also home to an old-world Manor House and the Carriage House, the oldest structure in Wilton Manors originally built by its founder, E. J. Willingham.

Stonewall National Museum & Archives
Stonewall National Museum & Archives
Stonewall National Museum & Archives

Tour two of the world’s premier LGBTQIA+ museums

Just outside of Wilton Manors are two of the world’s foremost museums dedicated to queer history: The World AIDS Museum-the first-ever institution dedicated to the history of the HIV/AIDS epidemic-aims to mitigate the persisting stigma associated with the virus by sharing first-person accounts and ongoing educational programming to foster dialogue among the community. The museum’s 55-ton AIDS Memorial Quilt, constructed of more than 48,000 tribute panels to those who have passed, is so massive that it is rarely displayed in its entirety. In 2020, The Stonewall National Museum & Archives became the largest LGBTQIA+ museum in the United States when it relocated from Wilton Manors to the same building as the original The Stonewall library in Fort Lauderdale, today holding more than 28,000 materials related to the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York City.

Tulio's Tacos and Tequila Bar
Tulio’s Tacos and Tequila Bar
Tulio’s Tacos and Tequila Bar

Stroll Wilton Manors’ rainbow-flagged main drag

With more than 40 independent LGBTQIA+ businesses, Wilton Drive (“The Drive”) is a hub of queer entrepreneurship. The bulk of them is concentrated at The Shoppes at Wilton Manors, a canary yellow retail plaza packed with popular eateries like Tee Jay Thai Sushi, coffee joints like Java Boys, and trendy eyewear shops like Chic Optique. Further along The Drive are some of Wilton Manors’ most cherished culinary hotspots. Snag a table on the lush patio of perennial favourite Rosie’s Bar and Grill to enjoy a boozy brunch, or head to Tulio’s for epic tacos and tequila. For stellar European comfort food, there’s Le Patio (dubbed “The Tiniest Cutest Restaurant in South Florida” thanks to its pocket-sized footprint) and ethos Greek Bistro for authentic Mediterranean. To those with a sweet tooth: Don’t miss To The Moon Marketplace, a candy emporium stocked with over 13,000 (!) sweet treats-chocolates, gummies, and everything in between-from more than 60 countries. You’ll even find novelty confections like old-school penny candies that date back to 1806.

Rediscover your creative side

Artistry transcends disciplines in Wilton Manors, which has become a buzzing hive of creativity. Scope out the crop of boutique galleries along The Drive and in its periphery, like Gallery XO, which specializes in homoerotic art, and the nonprofit Art Gallery 21 at the Island City Cultural Center. Or visit local studios run by independent creatives like painter and sculptor Claudia Castillo and mixed-media artist Trey Opp, a.k.a. Topp Artist (both of whom can commission custom pieces). Craving a more hands-on experience? Book a ceramics workshop at Sculpture by Sylvie and manifest your clay masterpiece. Aesthetes will also encounter a slew of eclectic showrooms like blu Egg Interiors and Island City Traders to inspire their own home design projects.

Chill out in a breezy, bohemian urban oasis

Shaded under rows of Rainbow Eucalyptus trees in between mural-covered walls, The Yard-though you’ll still catch locals calling it by its former name, Eucalyptus Gardens-is a veritable sanctuary set away from the bustle of The Drive. With a farmers market, vintage boutiques, plant nurseries, and nearly a dozen eateries, this open-air shopping centre is the definition of a hidden gem. Tuck into The Alchemist Coffee to sip some of the best espresso drinks in Broward County, Voo La Voo Cafe for unpretentious French fare, or La Mexicana for top-notch tacos and heady margaritas served up with live music. If you’re on the hunt for some souvenirs, Lola’s Bazaar Art and Music (open only on the weekends) is a treasure trove of unique finds from handcrafted jewellery to vinyl records.

The Cabanas Guesthouse & Spa
The Cabanas Guesthouse & Spa
The Cabanas Guesthouse & Spa

Stay at a locally-owned (and queer-friendly) guesthouse

Wilton Manors is a brilliant choice for a day trip. But should you choose to spend the night, just know that big-named resorts and hotel chains are nowhere to be found (you’ll have to stay “off” the island for those). And hey-that’s all part of the charm. Instead, rest your head at one of the low-key guest houses that dot the island. The majority tends to cater to gay travellers, like the clothing-optional Cabanas Guesthouse & Spa and male-exclusive Ed Lugo Resort. Ritzier patrons will be delighted with the swanky digs at Casa Herm√®s, a former mansion kitted out with mod Italian furniture, while family travellers should opt for the Island Sands Inn. Look to Airbnb for a solid array of accommodations walkable to The Drive-that’s where you want to stay.

Island City Stage
Island City Stage
Island City Stage

Catch a show at an award-winning local theatre

Island City Stage was founded in 2012 by members of Greater Fort Lauderdale’s LGBTQIA+ community, and in the years since has garnered an exalted reputation as one of South Florida’s most acclaimed professional theatres. This small but mighty theatre company has capably tackled world premieres from up-and-coming talent and beloved classics written by celebrated playwrights such as Tennessee Williams. And while Island City Stage’s characterful productions overwhelmingly focus on aspects of the queer experience, any spectator can relate to common thread themes of love and loss, relationships, and individuality.

Hamburger Mary's Fort Lauderdale / Wilton Manors
Hamburger Mary’s Fort Lauderdale / Wilton Manors
Hamburger Mary’s Fort Lauderdale / Wilton Manors

Party all night with the boys

Little Wilton Manors goes big when it comes to nightlife. (Again, South Florida.) Naturally, the queer bars are where you can dive into all the action is-and boy, are there allll types of bars here. Without leaving The Drive, you can watch the game at Gym Sportsbar, sip a sophisticated cocktail on the patio at Drynk, or catch a raucous drag show at Hamburger Mary’s. Oh, and remember The Shoppes we mentioned earlier? That strip mall where you can grab a coffee, gorge on sashimi, and even get your eyes checked in one go? It shouldn’t surprise you that two of Island City’s hottest bars sit in the same plaza. At 25 years old, Georgie’s Alibi Monkey Bar is one of the oldest in South Florida. The legendary nightclub has four sections, including a full-service restaurant, so scarf down one of the award-winning burgers before hitting the dancefloor. Migrate to Hunters across the parking lot for even more nocturnal debauchery.

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Paul Jebara (@pawljebara) is a travel writer, content specialist, and polyglot based in New York City.

Travel

Take a Submarine to the Bottom of the Great Lakes

You too can sink down to the watery grave-er, depths.

Gail Shotlander/Moment/Getty Images
Gail Shotlander/Moment/Getty Images
Gail Shotlander/Moment/Getty Images

When the waves of Lake Huron closed over my head as I sank down to the bottom of the Great Lake, I admit I was a little panicky. I definitely thought about drowning. After all, I’d nearly drowned three times in my life.

Though the first two times I was too young to now recall, the third time was in Wisconsin and the sensation has stuck with me. I remember how, as a middle schooler, I got pulled deeper and deeper into a wave pool until every wave sucked me underneath just long enough to choke on a gurgly mouthful of water. Despite kicking and fighting to swim back to safety, I could feel the water overtaking me, bubbling up over my head as I sank down. The pool was choking me, I was suffocating, and the fear of death was right in my face. As you can probably guess, I was eventually saved. Someone noticed and pulled me out of the pool, and that relief was enormous.

But here I was again, as an adult, watching sediment from the bottom of the lake swirl up around me. But this time I wasn’t drowning. This time I was perfectly safe. This time I was in a submarine.

My small group and I were passengers on one of Viking Cruises’ newest itineraries, the Great Lakes Explorer. The expedition allows guests on the Viking Octantis ship to see one of the great lakes from the other side of the surface. Though guests can participate in science-research activities like microplastics research, bird-watching, and weather balloon launches, it’s also just really cool to dive in a submarine. Whether you’re overcoming your own childhood experiences or you’re just an adventurer at heart, here’s what to know about going on a submarine expedition in the Great Lakes.

Photo courtesy of Viking Cruises
Photo courtesy of Viking Cruises
Photo courtesy of Viking Cruises

Boarding a submarine

These are-of course-yellow submarines. Can you guess their names? If you picked John, Paul, George, and Ringo‚Ķ you’re absolutely right.

The Beatles can go down to about 1,000 feet and stay underwater for eight hours. Each side of the submarine has three very comfortable seats for passengers, surrounded by glass domes that allow optimal viewing at the dive site. It’s a small space (you can’t stand up straight), but you can hardly tell once you’re in the water. The seat platforms swivel so you can look out over the lake floor instead of staring at the pilot and other passengers.

The submarines are equipped with lights, cameras, and some handy claws to pick up anything valuable the pilot sees on the lakebed. They’re typically used as research vessels to take information back to the Octantis’ science program, which works in collaboration with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). NOAA eventually plans to tack instruments to the bottoms of the submarines to get more detailed information about the water, the lakes, and the lakebed.

If you’re like me (that is, both claustrophobic and afraid of drowning), you’ll be happy to know that the subs are awash with safety features. Onboard, you’ll find directions on what to do if the pilot goes unconscious, supplemental oxygen hoods, a big green button to push if the sub needs to surface immediately, and a program that tells the submarine to surface if it doesn’t detect any activity from the pilot. Up above you, the sub is followed by a safety boat with a team that ensures the surrounding waters stay clear and everyone is safe beneath the surface. (So even when the safety boat radioed our pilot, Peppe from Sweden, and said, “You’re a little close to the rocks, but that’s as good a dive site as any,” I decided to trust the marine scientist.)

Photo by Jennifer Billock
Photo by Jennifer Billock
Photo by Jennifer Billock

Sinking down to the depths

Here’s how the dive works. You take Viking-owned Zodiacs (military-grade rigid inflatable boats) to a predetermined dive site that the scientists onboard the ship picked out that morning. For now, the sites will always be in Canadian waters-because Viking is Norwegian, the Jones Act disallows them from deploying subs in the United States. To transfer from the Zodiac to the submarine, you have to hold onto a metal bar, climb out of the Zodiac, and sit down on the edge of the submarine hatch. You swing your legs into the hatch, then climb down a three-rung ladder into the middle of the sub to find your assigned seat.

Once everyone is in the sub, the pilot climbs in, closes the hatch, and then radios to the safety boat to make sure you’re clear to sink. With the all-clear, air is released from outside tanks on the submarine, and thrusters push the entire thing underwater.

For our dive, we went down about fifty feet to the floor of the lake. It had been raining all morning, which stirred up the sediment around us, making everything a mossy green colour that spotlights sparkled through to highlight the lakebed. I saw a few tiny fish and a ton of invasive zebra mussel shells. Depending on the weather and your dive site, you’re likely to see more. But even just exploring the floor of the Great Lakes, something almost no one in history has done before, is an amazing thing.

Sign me up!

If you want to take a submarine dive into the Great Lakes yourself, you have to be a passenger on the Viking Octantis or sister ship, Viking Polaris. As of this writing, no other companies offer passenger submarine trips down into the lakes-especially not in a military-grade exploration submarine that is worth $6 million each. The Great Lakes expedition itineraries start at about $6,500 and can be booked on the Viking website.

Cavan Images/Cavan/Getty Images
Cavan Images/Cavan/Getty Images
Cavan Images/Cavan/Getty Images

Hike, kayak, or get yourself a cinnamon roll afterwards

What you can see nearby depends on your dive site. On Octantis, the subs went down in Lake Huron and Lake Superior-my dive was in Lake Huron, surrounded by the stunning Georgian Bay UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in Canada. Here, you can kayak in the bay, hike through the surrounding landscape, and enjoy a Zodiac nature cruise.

Or if you can, try to take your submarine dive at Silver Islet in Ontario’s slice of Lake Superior. The small community is historic and completely off the grid, and the general store has some of the best cinnamon rolls you can find around the Great Lakes.

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Jennifer Billock is a freelance writer and author, usually focusing on some combination of culinary travel, culture, sex, and history. Check her out at JenniferBillock.com and follow her on Twitter.

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