By: Andrew Collins/TRT Travel Columnist—
Throughout the 20th century, as particular neighborhoods in America’s largest cities became LGBTQ strongholds, a number of corresponding resort towns became similarly famous as gay vacation spots. Provincetown, Fire Island, Key West, Palm Springs, and the Russian River grew into international queer havens, united by their creative spirits and often flamboyant and permissive personalities. Slightly more low-keyed burghs—Laguna Beach, Saugatuck-Douglas, Ogunquit, Rehoboth Beach, New Hope-Lambertville—also developed big-time gay followings despite their tiny populations.
While all of these places—albeit to varying degrees—remain touchstones of queer vacation life; they also now have plenty of competition. In recent years, dozens of small communities with less pronounced queer cachet but nevertheless progressive vibes, alluring settings, and sophisticated cultural offerings have become increasingly fashionable with the LGBTQ set, both as places to live and travel.
Listed in alphabetical order, here are 10 of the most compelling of these diverse and desirable little towns with emergent gay followings. To be considered for this list, each community (as well the accompanying alternative recommendations) had to have fewer than 10,000 year-round residents, at least a couple of reliably inclusive lodging options (plus plenty of vacation rentals and Airbnb listings), and an exceptional mix of enticing activities and attractions.
Astoria, OR (pop. 9,800, travelastoria.com) – Dramatically situated where the mighty Columbia River empties into the Pacific Ocean, Astoria was visited by the Lewis & Clark expedition, permanently established as a fur-trading outpost, and eventually developed into a prominent port city and salmon-canning center. Today, with many of its stately downtown buildings and riverfront wharves occupied by hip lifestyle boutiques, artisan breweries and coffee roasters, and retro-chic cocktail bars, this hilly town at the northern tip of the spectacular Oregon coast has begun to resemble a miniature version of Portland (two hours away), complete with a sizable LGBTQ population and a super-fun Gay Pride weekend in mid-June. Pop culture alert: The Goonies was filmed here, and the former Clatsop County Jail—featured prominently in the movie—now houses the Oregon Film Museum.
Also consider: Hood River, Manzanita, and Yachats, OR; Bainbridge Island, Orcas Island, and Port Townsend, WA; and Homer, AK.
Bethlehem, NH (pop. 2,600, bethlehemwhitemtns.com) – Although neighboring Vermont contains the lion’s share of liberal mountain hamlets in northern New England, this diminutive New Hampshire village—an ideal base for ascending Mt. Washington or skiing Bretton Woods and Cannon Mountain—cultivates a decidedly bohemian air. Its quaint main street is home to a clutch of women-owned businesses, from gallery co-ops to restaurants, and nearby you’ll find one of the world’s longest-running lesbian resorts, Highlands Inn.
Stay: Adair Country Inn and Restaurant (adairinn.com) and Highlands Inn (highlandsinn-nh.com).
Also consider: Franconia, NH, and Chester, Manchester, Stowe, Waitsfield, Waterbury, White River Junction, and Woodstock, VT.
Bisbee, AZ (pop. 5,200, discoverbisbee.com) – A rollicking erstwhile copper-mining town near the Mexico border that boasted the largest population of any city between St. Louis and San Francisco during its early 1900s heyday, quirky Bisbee feels today like the set of a vintage Hollywood Western, albeit with John Waters sensibilities. Hippies, artists, queer folks, and plenty of self-proclaimed oddballs have been living in—and restoring—the town’s ornate buildings and homes since the 1960s, and Bisbee hosts a vibrant Pride festival over three days in mid-June. It’s a terrific getaway for stargazing, gallery-hopping, touring haunted buildings, and hiking throughout the dramatic surrounding high desert.
Also consider: Jerome, AZ and Silver City, NM.
Eureka Springs, AR (pop. 2,100) – It’s strange but true: this tiny village in northwest Arkansas’s Ozark Mountains has for decades been a bona fide LGBTQ hot spot, especially among urban dwellers of South-Central U.S. cities like Dallas, Oklahoma City, and Kansas City. Although religious and political conservatism prevail in this part of the world, and this hilly town of quaint Victorian buildings and narrow topsy-turvy streets is home to a 66-foot-tall statue of Christ, Eureka Springs could not be more inclusive. You’ll find more than a dozen B&Bs and historic hotels that eagerly welcome LGBTQ guests, and three times a year, the town hosts well-attended Diversity Weekends featuring dance parties, drag shows, arts and crafts fairs, transgender workshops, kids entertainment, and more.
Also consider: Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, TN, and Waynesville, NC.
Hawi, HI (pop. 1,100, gohawaii.com) – The vast majority of visitors to Hawaii spend their vacations in sprawling oceanfront resorts, which tend—with the exception of Lahaina on Maui—to be relatively modern and heavily developed. But the progressive Aloha State has a number of low-keyed, historic, and utterly bewitching smaller communities that offer a happily authentic slice of free-spirited Island life and authentic Old Hawaii culture. Occupying a lush plateau that’s perched atop sheer sea cliffs at the North Kohala tip of the Big Island, Hawi Town is anchored by a cluster of funky cafes and galleries, which thrive along its colorful main drag of 19th-century wood-frame, plantation-style buildings. It’s close to the stunning and rarely crowded Pololu Valley black-sand beach, and it’s a good base for exploring the island’s rugged and mountainous Upcountry and the white-sand beaches and swanky resorts of the volcanic Kohala Coast.
Also consider (all in HI): Hana and Paia (Maui), Hanalei and Waimea (Kauai), Volcano and Pahoa (Big Island), and the entire island of Molokai.
Hudson, NY (pop. 6,300, visithudsonny.com) – Among the string of appealing, queer-friendly destinations in the Hudson River Valley—many of them (Beacon, Hyde Park, Kingston, New Paltz) too large to be considered for this list—the compact and densely settled city of Hudson has enjoyed a dramatic renaissance over the past two decades. The once workaday downtown now buzzes with destination-worthy restaurants and artfully curated homeware boutiques and clothiers. About 2.5 to 3 hours from Boston and New York City, Hudson is also a quick hop from several celebrated arts destinations, such as Frederic Church’s Olana and Thomas Cole National Historic Site.
Also consider: Rhinebeck and Woodstock, NY, Great Barrington, MA, and Washington, CT.
Marfa, TX (pop. 1,800, visitmarfa.com) – Rock Hudson, James Dean, and Liz Taylor spent weeks in this high-desert ranching town in far West Texas while filming the Hollywood epic Giant in the mid-1950s. Two decades later, the late minimalist artist Donald Judd began snapping up local buildings, and eventually ranches, ultimately spurring Marfa’s transformation into a center of contemporary art and—over time—fashion, photography, and striking, if sometimes jarringly self-conscious, hipster culture. Tours of Judd’s Chinati Foundation are a must for art lovers, and outdoors enthusiasts can use the town as a base for exploring nearby Big Bend National Park. Occasional sightings of the “Marfa Lights” lend a touch of mystery to any visit, and a growing clutch of stylish eateries and cool hotels have helped vaunt this visually striking town into a favorite destination for LGBTQ weddings and romantic getaways.
Also consider: Alpine and Wimberley, TX.
Nevada City, CA (pop. 3,200, nevadacitychamber.com) – A short drive from both Lake Tahoe and Sacramento, this former Gold Rush town and its similarly inviting neighbor, Grass Valley, have become increasingly popular enticing among LGBTQ Northern Californians, especially given its relative value compared with Napa and Sonoma, and because it’s just a three-hour drive from San Francisco. An easy jumping-off point for swimming at clothing-optional Hoyt Crossing as well as myriad hiking and snowsports activities, atmospheric Nevada City remains a friendly, unpretentious town with a growing bounty of notable places to eat and drink.
Also consider (all in CA): Calistoga, Ferndale, Forestville, Idyllwild, Mendocino, and Solvang.
Salida, CO (pop. 5,300, salidachamber.org) – Ski towns are usually what jumps to mind when you think of little LGBTQ-welcoming towns in the Rockies, and indeed, the jet-set-approved winter-sports hubs of Aspen, Telluride, Vail, and Park City are all first-rate places for slopeside fun (especially during annual Gay Ski weeks). Nestled in the less-touristy but nonetheless breathtaking Arkansas River valley and still close to world-class skiing, hiking, rafting, and cycling, sunny Salida offers plenty of galleries and public art installations, festivals, and concerts in Riverside Park, and a burgeoning culinary scene. It’s at once easy-going yet packed with opportunities for adventure, and it’s also a kid-friendly spot that’s perfect for LGBTQ families.
Also consider: Pagosa Springs and Victor, CO, Moab UT, and Taos, NM.
Sturgeon Bay, WI (pop. 9,200, doorcounty.com) – It’s fair to call western Michigan’s twin coastal towns of Saugatuck and Douglas the LGBTQ vacation capital of the Great Lakes. But a number of other stunningly situated and gay-welcoming communities throughout North America’s inland seas abound with charming waterfront inns, folksy cafes and ice cream shops, and an array waterside activities, from kayaking to beachcombing. The largest town on Wisconsin’s famously charming Door Peninsula offers plenty to see and do, from a first-rate maritime museum to wineries, regional theater, and stunning beach parks.
Also consider: Bayfield, WI, Honor, MI, Grand Marais, MN, and Wellington and Gananoque, ON (Canada).
*Writer Andrew Collins divides his time between Mexico City, Oregon, and New Hampshire. You can read more of his work at AndrewsTraveling.com.