Walking the French Quarter with the Gay Ghosts of New Orleans

This LGBTQ+ history tour spills some ghostly tea.

Photo courtesy of Walking with the Gay Ghosts of New Orleans; design by Maitane Romagosa for Thrillist
Photo courtesy of Walking with the Gay Ghosts of New Orleans; design by Maitane Romagosa for Thrillist
Photo courtesy of Walking with the Gay Ghosts of New Orleans; design by Maitane Romagosa for Thrillist

Notorious for voodoo lore, above-ground tombs, and timeworn taverns, New Orleans is often regarded as a mystical destination with no shortage of allegedly haunted places. Capitalizing on such mythos, ghost tours are a dime a dozen here, taking guests on strolls through morbid history with varying levels of camp, creepiness, and debauchery.

But there’s only one tour in town that combines ghost stories with jockstraps, and that’s Walking with the Gay Ghosts of New Orleans, a weekly tour through the French Quarter that’s as saucy as it is illuminating.

I’ve done ghost tours in New Orleans before, but never like this. My husband and I, in town for Southern Decadence, convened at the meeting point at Cafe Lafitte in Exile, the oldest continuously operating gay bar in the country. Even amidst the merry melee of Decadence, our guide was easy to spot, thanks to his hot-pink jockstrap and giant flag of Britney Spears and Madonna kissing. To-go cups in hand, Marcus Shacknow wrangled our gaggle of gays and paraded us around the French Quarter to stops both familiar and unexpected, pausing every couple blocks or so to spill some ghostly tea.

Walking with the Gay Ghosts of New Orleans reveals a new side of this storied city-a side that, as Shacknow describes it, bridges gay history with gay smut-and showcases New Orleans as an epicenter of queer culture. I expected it to be funny, campy, and crass, with some horny hearsay sprinkled in here and there. It’s all of those things-but it’s also heartwarming and illuminating, leaving us with a newfound adoration for a city we all love for different reasons.

Growing up in New York City and working on Broadway, history and theatrics have always been in Shacknow’s blood. It wasn’t until a fortuitous trip to New Orleans, which was supposed to be a brief sabbatical but turned into four ongoing years due to the pandemic, that those passions inspired him to create a new kind of ghost tour in a city teeming with them. “I was already a nerd, so when I first moved here, I took every walking tour I could possibly take,” Shacknow recalls. “And when my friends would come visit, I would give them an unofficial tour.”

Photo courtesy of Walking with the Gay Ghosts of New Orleans
Photo courtesy of Walking with the Gay Ghosts of New Orleans
Photo courtesy of Walking with the Gay Ghosts of New Orleans

His tours evolved from unofficial to a full-fledged business two years ago when Shacknow got his tour guide license and offered his first gay tour of the Quarter. He later put a haunted spin on the itinerary for Halloween and to help broaden the interest for a city inherently rapt by ghosts.

While the tours aren’t ghostly in a scary sense, they scratch that eerie itch through salacious folklore and sordid infamy. Now held once a week, they highlight everything from homoerotic vampires who may or may not have been locked away in a French Quarter building to the commissioning of Jackson Square by Baroness Micaela Leonarda Antonia Almonester y Rojas, who may or may not have been a lesbian.

Some elements are saucy, like tales of Marlon Brando’s alleged bisexual hookups in the French Quarter during the filming of A Streetcar Named Desire. Other stories are wrenching, like the arson attack on the UpStairs Lounge gay bar 50 years ago-the deadliest tragedy in LGBTQ+ American history until the Pulse shooting in Orlando.

These tours are as much about community as they are about scandalous storytelling-a sentiment we felt strongly on the tour, and one that lingered all weekend, as we ran into newly familiar faces at rainbow-clad block parties and gay bars.

“These tours are so fun because gay history is not written down, and it’s all folklore,” Shacknow explains. “I’ll be on the tour and this old queen will interrupt with something that they heard when they came to New Orleans in the ‘70s, so these history tours become super communal.”

For Shacknow, Walking with the Gay Ghosts of New Orleans is an opportunity to show New Orleans in a new light, as a city that’s long been integral to queer culture, and one that rivals the gayest of metropolitan meccas.

“I grew up in Manhattan, and Manhattan people have this superpower of thinking New York City is the only city in the country,” he proclaimed at the start of our tour. “So I grew up thinking gay history was just Manhattan with a little San Francisco sprinkled in, but when I came here, I realized that wasn’t the case. Now I believe fully that New Orleans is the gayest city in the country.”

It’s also an opportunity to give visitors and locals alike something to be proud of, unified over untold New Orleans stories from someone who lives and breathes it. “Something I take a lot of pride in with this tour is that it’s run by a gay person, for gay people,” adds Shacknow. “It’s about New Orleans and it’s of New Orleans.”

That sentiment is on full, unabashed display on Shacknow’s tours as guests walk with the “gay ghosts” who paved the way and alongside those who continue to honor them.

Walking with the Gay Ghosts of New Orleans tours are held once a week, all year long. Tickets can be purchased online.Want more Thrillist? Follow us on InstagramTikTokTwitterFacebookPinterest, and YouTube.

Matt Kirouac is a travel writer with a passion for sharing queer stories, exploring national parks, and visiting Disney World. Follow him on IG @mattkirouacyork.


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: 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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