Travel

6 LGBTQIA-Friendly Small Towns You Need to Visit

From California to Maine, these queer-welcoming destinations do not disappoint.

Shutterstock
Shutterstock
Shutterstock

It gets less attention than queer-friendly metropolises like San Francisco and New York City, but small town America is actually home to a mosaic of diverse LGBTQIA+ enclaves (in states both red and blue). Despite having less than 50,000 full-time residents, our favorite small towns wear an inclusive attitude on their sleeve and have tons of fun doing it – all while allowing LGBTQIA+ businesses to flourish and welcoming all travelers to come as they are. Pick one to visit or see them all.

Wilton Manors, Florida

Located on the outskirts of Fort Lauderdale is the gay-friendliest small town on the Florida mainland: Wilton Manors. The city became the first in Florida to elect an all-LGBTQIA+ city commission in 2018, and its funky main thoroughfare, “The Drive,” remains a stronghold for LGBTQIA+ businesses with over 40 gay-owned establishments lining the street. You could spend morning to night exploring Wilton Drive, going from a latte at indie coffee shop Java Boys, to a boozy alfresco brunch at Rosie’s Bar and Grill, to dinner and a night out at Georgie’s Alibi & Monkey Bar. Beyond “Island City”- so nicknamed for the waterways that surround Wilton Manors, which you can traverse by kayak – are some of the world’s most renowned institutions dedicated to the gay experience, including Stonewall National Museum & Archives and the World AIDS Museum in nearby Fort Lauderdale. To be close to the action, Stay at Casa Hermès, a swanky mansion-turned-guesthouse.

Saugatuck, Michigan

The “Art Coast of Lake Michigan” is home to a number of top-tier creative institutions like the Saugatuck Center for the Arts and Ox-Bow School of Art, but it’s also been a Midwest mecca for the LGBTQIA+ community for decades. There are more than 140 Saugatuck businesses owned and operated by queer folks, including the adults-only Dunes Resort (its calendar is always jam-packed with events from drag queen bingo to karaoke) and the serene Lake Shore Resort, which overlooks the swoon-worthy bluffs of Lake Michigan. Though beach season reaches its peak in the summer (keep an eye out for the Saugatuck LGBT Music Fest‘s 2022 dates), the region’s stunning nature hikes, historic landmarks, and wineries along the Lake Michigan Shore Wine Trail can be appreciated all year long.

Provincetown, Massachusetts

Before the Pilgrims established a New World colony in Plymouth, the English settlers first came ashore in Provincetown. Luckily, P-town has since come a long way from its Puritan origins. Owing to its geographic seclusion at the extreme tip of Cape Cod, it eventually became America’s first artist colony in the 20th century, and not long after, New England’s most inclusive haven. Simultaneously quaint and cosmopolitan, Provincetown is a year-round haven for the LGBTQIA+ community, though certain weeks assigned to queer archetypes (Bear Week, Family Week, Girl Splash) are known to inject high-octane party fuel into the streets. Post up at one of P-town’s many gay-owned accommodations like White Porch Inn or AWOL for a campy setting across from the hidden nature trail to clothing-optional Herring Cove. For eats during your stay, don’t miss trying pastries at Provincetown Portuguese Bakery, made-to-order sandwiches at Relish, and lobster rolls at Patio. Also, be sure to reserve a dinner table at Italian restaurant Sal’s Place. When you’re craving a rowdy night out after sunset tea dances at The BoatslipA-House is the place to be.

Ogunquit, Maine

Ogunquit tends to be overshadowed by Provincetown as a New England gay destination, but that’s not to say this coastal village is any less welcoming, fun, or scenic. Its nickname, “Beautiful Place by the Sea,” says it all. Ogunquit is also a lot more convenient to reach, located just off Route 1 not far from the New Hampshire state line. Here, the majority of businesses on and off charming Main Street are LGBTQIA-owned, from boutiques to art galleries and restaurants, with dozens of pride flags waving from telephone poles throughout town. Join the masses who arrive in summer to chase lobster rolls, stroll the Marginal Way cliff walk, and plop a towel down on one of America’s top-rated beaches. Mosey over to storybook Perkins Cove for heady rum punches, steamer clams, and lobster dinners at Barnacle Billy’s, or Brix + Brine for inventive cocktails and coastal cuisine. Ogunquit’s diminutive size belies its impressive nightlife. Hit up Maine Street, a nightlife emporium with several dance floors and a two-story patio with grill. And don’t skip The Front Porch, an iconic piano bar that you can hear from down the street. For something wholly unique, visit Leavitt Theatre, a 1920s movie house that was recently converted into a cocktail bar and concert venue.

Key West, Florida

Venture to the southernmost point of the contiguous US to find Key West, an enclave of come-as-you-are inclusivity. Ernest Hemingway and Tennessee Williams are some famous names that sought refuge in The Keys, and for generations now, so has the LGBTQIA+ community. Hedonists descend upon Key West for its quirky ambiance, Caribbean-style beach resorts, and buzzy queer-oriented nightlife. Book a room at the Ocean Key Resort and Spa or Southernmost Beach Resort, waterfront properties walking distance from Old Town. Embrace the kitsch of the Conch Tour Train to tick off a handful of must-visit attractions in one go, like the Hemingway Home, the Butterfly Conservatory, and the Key West Lighthouse. When you’ve built an appetite, head to Hot Tin Roof for “conch-fusion” fare with water views, or The Flaming Buoy Filet Co. for surf and turf specials whipped up with tropical flavors. The concentration of gay bars, drag shows, and clubs is on Duval Street between Angela and Petronia Streets, including hot spots like The Back Bar, Aqua, and Sidebar.

Palm Springs, California

While Palm Springs’ iconic mid-century modern homes fill coffee table books, the desert city’s progressive milestones have also made queer history, with the most same-sex households in California and the country’s first all-LGBTQIA+ city council. From Hollywood’s Golden Age to today’s Coachella and Stagecoach music festivals, Palm Springs has long been a getaway for the who’s who of the celebrity world who come to party under the desert sun just two hours from Los Angeles. But Palm Springs hosts more than its fair share of queer events, too. Beyond annual Pride celebrations, there’s The Dinah, the world’s largest lesbian festival, and the White Party, the largest LGBTQIA+ event in the world. Before you go, snag a room at The Marley, a former motor lodge glammed up with playful decor, or the Parker for a plush retreat that beams with Old Hollywood vibes. The local food scene has been on the up-and-up the past few years, with highlights such as Vietnamese restaurant Rooster and the Pig, farm-to-table Italian at Birba, and vegan fare at Chef Tanya’s Kitchen. Oh, and be sure to set aside some budget for shopping at the Desert Hills Premium Outlets, the largest luxury outlet mall in California.

Orbitz believes everyone should be able to travel freely, no matter who you are, who you love, or where you’re going. Discover LGBTQIA-welcoming hotels, plan queer-friendly trips, and get inspired to vacation. You’ll feel welcomed whenever you book with Orbitz. Travel As You Are.

Paul Jebara is a travel and design journalist, content expert, and photographer in NYC. Follow him on Instagram @paulgoesthere.

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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