Travel

These Small Towns Are Packing a Big Punch for Their Pride Celebrations

Discover the joyous parades, community gatherings, and inclusive festivals in places you might not expect.

Marfa Public Radio
Marfa Public Radio
Marfa Public Radio

Pride celebrations are sure to be bigger, bolder, and brighter than ever this year. The call for inclusive gatherings has become increasingly crucial, as legislators across the country continue to ban gender affirming care. So it goes without saying that there’s never been a more important time to get involved, whether your state is red or blue. Yet while iconic queer meccas like San Francisco and New York City will always be heavy-hitters during Pride month, it’s not just the major metropolises that are rolling out the metaphorical rainbow carpet this summer.

All across the country, small towns are proudly waving their rainbow flags for Pride events all their own, hosting joyous parades, community gatherings, and inclusive festivals in places you might not expect. It’s smaller towns like these that prove there’s love and diversity to be found-and celebrated-in every pocket of the country. From a quiet Florida island celebrating its newly established Pride festival to an Alaskan town that’s all about disco and barbecue, here are nine small towns going big for Pride this year.

Combine glacier hikes and drag shows in Seward, Alaska

June 8-11
Seward, Alaska: Come for the puffins, stay for the Pride. One hundred and twenty miles south of Anchorage, the tiny coastal hamlet is mostly known for its wildlife, its glaciers, and as the gateway to nearby Kenai Fjords National Park, but beyond the breathtaking natural beauty, the community celebrates inner beauty at its annual Pride festival. Held from June 8-11, and starting with a free night of drag queen bingo, it’s one of the most surprisingly robust Prides in the nation.

For a town with about 3,000 residents, Seward goes big with unique, inclusive events, including a parade at Wellington Park, a Pride cruise, and a drag show at Yukon Bar, concluding with an all-ages Pride barbecue at noon on June 11, with free eats, games, merchandise (like sweatshirts proclaiming “Protect Trans Kids”), and resources for the LGBTQIA+ community. Alaska isn’t exactly known as a queer destination, which is what makes festivals like this such a heartwarming celebration-and an affirming reminder that #loveislove, even in communities where porpoises outpopulate people. 

Get sporty in Charleston, West Virginia

June 1 – 30
West Virginia capital city Charleston has long been an LGBTQ-friendly refuge-complete with small town vibes-in an otherwise red state. It’s where Rainbow Pride of West Virginia is headquartered, a community-based organization that provides the state’s LGBTQIA+ residents with health resources, education, advocacy, and more. The city celebrates Pride all June-long, and you can choose from a bevy of sporting events that’ll take you out to the field, like Pride Kickball on June 4 at the Shawnee Sports Complex or a Rainbow Run on June 17 that starts at Capitol Market (the 5K race will raise funds to support Rainbow Pride of West Virginia’s Educational Scholarship). But the main event is the Pride Parade on June 3, followed by a festival headlined by acts like RuPaul’s Drag Race all-star Manila Luzon and American Idol finalist David Hernandez.

Dance with drag queens and kings in Paducah, Kentucky

June 3
Nestled in the western nexus of Kentucky, at the southern tip of Illinois, the riverside town of Paducah is an unassuming-and totally unexpected-place to find a robust Pride festival filled with floats, drag queens and kings, and rainbow flags. The small city, home to quaint art galleries and the only all-lesbian film festival in the country, is the tiniest blue bubble-a safe haven for LGBTQIA+ residents and visitors alike, thanks to its Fairness ordinance, a policy that protects queer community members from discrimination in employment and housing.

Paducah Pride, then, shines bright with live music, performances, and pageants, all day long on June 3. This year’s headliners include Noah Davis, Heidi N Closet, Roxxxy Andrews, and Landon Cider, who will be performing and hosting meet-and-greets. Other performers will hit the downtown stage throughout the day, culminating with the crowning of Miss and Mr. Paducah Pride 2023.  

Celebrate Pride, island-style, in Fernandina Beach, Florida

June 10
Between major out-and-proud cities like Miami and famously queer communities like Wilton Manors, Florida has no shortage of well-trod destinations for Pride. But beyond South Beach, there’s a much smaller and quieter island option hosting a more intimate celebration of its own in June. On Amelia Island, the northernmost barrier island in Florida, the small city of Fernandina Beach is hosting its third annual Pride festival. Northeast Florida tends to be much more conservative than, say, South Florida, which is why a designated Pride festival for the local LGBTQIA+ community-following the first time a Pride flag was flown over city hall in 2018-is an important step toward inclusion and visibility.

Held in Central Park, the festival kicks off with a parade at 10 am on June 10, followed by live music, food trucks, and artisan vendors selling everything from handmade soap to sunglasses. The festival will be followed by drag brunch at Disco Witch Brewing on June 11, hosted by performers like Hecate and Riley Ann.

Embrace your inner kid in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho

June 3 – 29
The North Idaho Pride Alliance brings a month’s worth of gatherings to Coeur d’Alene, an area that continues to stand strong in its allyship despite attempted riots from a white nationalist organization last year. Here, the CDA4Pride campaign continues to foster more safe spaces for queer locals, kicking things off with Pride in the Park on June 3, a free community event featuring food and entertainment. Later, the festivities continue with tie-dye parties, pizza fundraisers, and fashion shows. Be sure to stick around for the Inclusive Healthcare Informational Session, sponsored by Kootenai Clinic Family Medicine Residency, which will gather healthcare professionals around the region to share new techniques for better understanding LGBTQIA+ Idahoans and their health needs (date to be announced).

Support Black Pride and Civil Rights in Montgomery, Alabama

June 15-17
As a pivotal setting in the Civil Rights movement, Montgomery, Alabama, has long held an important, singular place in American history-something the town proudly continues to celebrate and honor. One such celebration is Montgomery Black Pride, held to emphasize diversity and support one of the most marginalized communities in the country (Black transgender and gender-nonconforming people experience the highest levels of discrimination in the country).

The three-day festival is organized by The Knights and Orchids Society Inc, whose mission is to provide health and wellness resources for LGBTQIA+ Black people in Alabama communities. Following its founding in 2012, it became the first AIDS Service Organization in the state, and it’s remained at the forefront of visibility and progress ever since, using Black Pride as both a festival and a means to raise awareness and resources. The festival will feature vendors, drag performances, pageants, speed dating events, silent discos, and other inclusive events.  

Stand in solidarity with Franklin, Tennessee

June 3
Tennessee’s queer population has had a rough go of it lately. Earlier this year, Governor Bill Lee signed legislation prohibiting any kind of gender-affirming care for transgender people under age 18 and made waves when he approved the country’s first-ever ban on public drag performances. In the town of Franklin, located right outside of Nashville, the planning of the annual Pride festival has been met with opposition from anti-LGBTQIA+ residents. But Mayor Ken Moore has voted that the show must go on, and allies of Franklin are steadfast in their mission. The Franklin Pride festival will take place in Harlinsdale Park on June 3, boasting a lineup of food trucks, vendors, and musical performances by Sisters Mann, Bryan Ruby, and more.

Come for the Prada, stay for the Pride in Marfa, Texas

June 9-11
Known mostly for its twee inns, hip galleries, and offbeat Prada stores in the middle of the West Texas desert, there’s much more to Marfa than roadside Instagram moments. The tiny town, with a scant population of around 2,000, has emerged as a cultural oasis known for its food and art, spotlighting indie artists from all walks of life, so it’s only fitting that this hip haven for creatives is now home to a danceable Pride fest all its own.

Held from June 9-11, this year’s Pride turns Marfa into a mecca for queer travelers in an otherwise remote locale in far West Texas. It kicks off with a music-filled welcome mixer at El Cosmico, followed by a dance party at The Sentinel the next night, before it all culminates with a mimosa-splashed pool party at Hotel Saint George on June 11. 

Follow the rainbow to ’90s dance parties in Bangor, Maine

June 24
When it comes to queer culture in Maine, Portland tends to take the spotlight as the most metropolitan pocket in an otherwise remote state. But two hours northeast, the beautiful, tree-filled town of Bangor has blossomed into an inclusive bastion worth the extra mileage. Although the small city has historically been known as a timber hub, as exemplified by the giant Paul Bunyan statue in the middle of town, now it’s a hub for New England Pride. Bangor helps fill a much-needed niche in the Northeast, minus the crowds and traffic. The annual event takes place on June 24 in West Market Square and Norumbega Park, with a drag show and a throwback-themed dance party to kick things off the night before at the Bangor Arts Exchange. Want more Thrillist? Follow us on InstagramTikTokTwitterFacebookPinterest, and YouTube.

Matt Kirouac is a travel writer with a passion for national parks, Disney, and food. He’s the co-founder and co-host of Hello Ranger, a national parks community blog, podcast, and app. Follow him on IG @mattkirouacofficial

Jessica Sulima is a staff writer on the Travel team at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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