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6 Surprising Vacations

6 Surprising Vacations

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Miami & Fort Lauderdale
The land of gorgeous beach bodies also features tantalizing high design.

The sandy waterfronts are inviting, and there are few places that compare with metropolitan South Florida for tight, tanned, and jaw-dropping eye candy, but there are plenty of aesthetic experiences to take in when you're not on the beach.

While most travelers are aware that greater Miami is awash in sultry art deco architecture, the hidden secret is that you can enjoy these amazing designs up close. The nonprofit Miami Design Preservation League (MDPL.org) takes design-minded locals and visitors on historian-led tours of the deco and Mediterranean revival styles found throughout the Miami Beach Architectural District.

Not a bookworm? No matter. You'll still love the newly opened Taschen bookstore on Miami Beach's Lincoln Road (Taschen.com/stores). The famed publishing house, known for glamming up the world's bookshelves with stylish tomes ranging from a collection of Eadweard Muybridge's photographs to an oversize ode to large penises, has created the perfect showcase for its product with a contemporary store designed by Philippe Starck and featuring immense murals by British artist Toby Ziegler.

Over the past few decades, the former site of a pineapple grove has blossomed from desolation row into the Miami Design District (MiamiDesignDistrict.net), an area teeming with an eclectic mix of high-end home design showrooms, galleries, eateries, and bars. The second Saturday of each month brings Art & Design Night from 7 to 10 p.m., featuring wine and hors d'oeuvres, works by local artists, and live music.

Take a trip back to the early 20th century with a tour of Vizcaya Museum and Garden (VizcayaMuseum.org) on Biscayne Bay. The Italian Renaissance-style villa was built as a winter retreat for Chicago businessman James Deering and covers a sprawling 50 acres, including magical gardens and forests. Jam-packed with antique European furnishings and artwork from the 15th through the 19th century, the villa has provided inspiration for modern-day designers like David Bromstad.

Some 20 miles up the coast in Fort Lauderdale lies the colossal Bonnet House Museum and Gardens (BonnetHouse.org), a historic landmark spread over 36 acres of coastal wilderness and lavish gardens that boasts a whopping five distinct ecosystems and an impressive collection of wildlife, including Costa Rican squirrel monkeys, gopher tortoises, and manatees. The main house, begun in 1920, and its grounds are an authentic example of old South Florida charm. --Winston Gieseke

Also...

Finally, a Miami Beach hotel for us! Calling itself the hottest gay resort in Miami, the Lords South Beach, which opened last December, could succeed on location alone. It's only a block from South Beach's gay beach and nightspots and 15 minutes' walk from chichi Lincoln Road. Design gives it extra gay cachet: a canary yellow, aqua, and white color palette, Warholesque Debbie Harry surveying the mid-century lobby, Liz Taylor in Cleopatra drag over beds, all inside a 1939 art deco shell. The Cha Cha Bar shimmers with gold decor, and photo posters in the Cha Cha Rooster restaurant celebrate the "too" of Miami denizens (too made-up, too little clothing, too tanned). Even nonguests are welcome at events like Movie and Martini Tuesdays and the Sunday Punch Brunch, which segues into a party around the Lords' three small pools. Room designs range from chic Pads to luxurious Penthouses. Rates for a Pad begin at $149. (LordsSouthBeach.com) --Andrew Bender

Las Vegas
Roll the dice and check out the Sin City gay locals know and love.

Visitors to Las Vegas tend to be Strip-centric. Whether entrenched at the Wynn's casino, seeing Celine at Caesars, sunning by the Mandalay pool, or maxing out the credit card at any number of Vegas's boutiques, it's easy to get swept up into the never-ending tourist traps. Las Vegas Boulevard now boasts more reasons than ever not to veer off onto side streets. The magnificent just-opened Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas adds 2,295 hotel rooms (2,200 with balconies), 13 restaurants, and a bar perched inside a chandelier. And though it's easy to rely on the concierge and cab drivers to act as tour guides in town, it's the city's gay locals who know the best places to kick back and have a good time.

"I don't go out all that much, but when I do, I go to Revolution Sundays at the Mirage, or, once in a blue moon, I go to Krave (KraveLasVegas.com). But the place I love that doesn't get a lot of attention is Charlie's (CharliesLasVegas.com). It's a country western gay bar. It's always a good time and a fun place to people watch."
--Marla McReynolds, dancer in Viva Elvis at Aria Resort and Casino

"When I'm on the Strip I love the raw bar at RM Seafood (RMSeafood.com), and when I can get off-Strip my favorite spot in Vegas is in a strip mall -- Lotus of Siam (SaipinChutima.com). They have really authentic Thai food, unique dishes that are not your usual touristy fare."
--Susan Feniger, co-chef and co-owner of Border Grill Las Vegas at Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino; Bravo's Top Chef Masters season 2 alum

"The food at Joel Robuchon at the MGM Grand (MGMGrand.com/Restaurants/Joel-Robuchon-French-Restaurant.aspx) is simply impossible to parallel. Think food's version of Wonderland or a dream. Nothing is undoable and everything is extravagant. From the level of service to the careful calculation behind the culinary technique, the bar has been raised to a level most people will never experience in their lifetime."
--Jake Saady, vice president of marketing for the Light Group

"My favorite little Las Vegas watering hole used to be a biker bar before the gays took it over. The Fun Hog Ranch (FunHogRanchLV.com) is not glamorous at all. In fact, it's a dive. But that's why it's great. It's a drink-beer-eat-peanuts-throw-the-shells-on-the-floor kind of place. Big pours, low prices, friendly staff, and no attitude."
--Christopher Kenney, who plays Edie, the Mistress of Sensuality, in Zumanity at New York-New York

"My favorite under-the-radar place for hanging out at the MGM Grand is the West Wing Bar (MGMGrand.com/nightlife/west-wing-bar.aspx), mostly because it's quiet and away from the loud cheers of the casino. When I'm away from the Strip, one of my favorite places that's not as well known to visitors is the Escape Lounge at the Sahara (4213 W. Sahara Ave.). Just like its name, it's a place where you can escape, let loose, and have a good time."
--Bobby Robinson, performer in KA at MGM Grand

London
Ditch the double-decker for an entirely new perspective on this capital city.

With a few outstanding exceptions (Big Ben, the London Eye, the "Gherkin" building, and the cathedrals), most of London's biggest attractions are pretty low to the ground. And that's probably one of the biggest reasons -- next to novelty, of course -- that so many tourists scurry to the top of those ubiquitous double-decker buses when they want to survey everything the city has to offer. If, by chance, the queen is on the balcony when your bus rattles past Buckingham Palace, there's no better way to look her in the face.

But the chance of such a royal sighting is slim. And in a city as congested as London, the bus's promise of a pigeon's-eye view of the Houses of Parliament, the Tower of London, and Piccadilly Circus is likely to also include long stretches of soaking in car exhaust as you crawl from site to site.

Fat Tire Bike Tours is a terrific alternative. The company, which got its start in Paris in 1999, offers two tours to choose from -- Royal London and River Thames -- and each lasts about four hours, varying according to how quickly your group pedals.
Truth be told, I was kind of dreading the bike ride. Not only am I lazy by default, it was raining. But not long after manager David Phillips handed me a poncho, directed me to my designated one-speed beach cruiser, and confessed his infatuation with Princess Anne (the kind of attraction only a straight man could have, alas), I'd forgotten the weather and was ready to ride.

We warmed up in Kensington Gardens, stopping to admire Kensington Palace (former home of Princess Diana); trekked through Hyde Park, saw Wellington Arch (pictured), and then cruised around St. James Park, where palace guards marched down the Mall. We stopped outside Clarence House (Prince Charles's official residence), where Phillips described (complete with dramatic reenactment) the 1974 kidnapping attempt against Princess Anne and then-husband Mark Phillips.

Phillips (our guide) and his team are full of historical tidbits and trivia, which they pass on as you pedal -- and during frequent stops along the way. After four hours on the bike, I was wetter than I would have wished, but I also was more invigorated than I've ever been after participating in an organized tour. Part of that was the exercise; part of it was what I learned along the way. But most of it was knowing that I'd succeeded in seeing London like never before. --Jon Barrett

Where to Stay
The Athenaeum Hotel: Immaculate, five-star hotel with splendid furnishings, a can't-be-beat location (across Green Park from Buckingham Palace), free minibar food (what?!) and outstanding views.

How to Get There
Air New Zealand's nonstop service between L.A. and London: Splurge on the flat beds in premium, if you can. And chat up the in-flight concierge to get the ins and outs of London.

More info
Go to Visit London for anything and everything to book your next trip.

San Francisco
The City by the Bay has endless culture, a rich history, and unpretentious nightlife. But a vital food scene may be the best reason to head west right now.

San Francisco is famous for steering clear of convention, and the city's take on gastronomy is appropriately novel. Innovative food is regularly created and devoured there. But keeping up with the city's fast-paced culinary scene requires extensive reading -- in its 47 square miles, San Francisco is home to more than 3,500 restaurants. The weak economy has pushed owners and chefs to new creative heights, San Francisco Chronicle food critic Michael Bauer wrote recently, saying 2010 was the best year for new restaurants in the city in 25 years. Here are several luscious choices -- many with a gay bent:

A few blocks east of the Castro's epicenter is Leticia's, a Mexican restaurant beloved by locals for its food and especially its margaritas. At press time, owner Leticia Luna was putting the finishing touches on a new eatery in the SoMa neighborhood that's a revamp of Lineup, a restaurant she originally launched in the same space in 1979 but shut down in 2005. Expect the same high-quality Mexican food and drinks at the new Lineup (398 Seventh St.) as well as American favorites like hamburgers and sandwiches mixed in with the chilaquiles and salsa verde.

A stone's throw from both Leticia's and the new GLBT History Museum is Frances, a small restaurant with big ambitions. While many Castro eateries are raucous, Frances is subdued and sophisticated. There are only four entrees on the menu, but they're doozies: Items like a bavette steak with a toasted farro ragout are attracting North Beachers and Pacific Heights residents back to San Francisco's gay core.

Downtown San Francisco is full of shopping, tourists, and the down-and-out. What it's not full of is great restaurants--a search for a nice bistro or wine bar will often be met with frustration and a few requests for spare change. If you're shopping or seeing a play in the nearby theater district, Bar Adagio is a great respite. Good wine, pizza, and prawns can be found in the warm-hued restaurant tucked into the lobby of the Hotel Adagio, part of the gay-friendly hotelier Joie de Vivre.

If the Castro is San Francisco's gay ground zero, the Mission is the city's youthful epicenter. Art and music emanate from its apartments and storefronts, while delicious smells waft from its eateries. Commonwealthis a 15-minute walk from the Castro and a few blocks west of Folsom Street (site of the world-famous leather street fest). Commonwealth's food is Michelin-rated, but the prices, even for dinner, are not. All the high-minded food (salt-cured foie gras, quince-rooibos sorbet) is tempered by an overhead disco ball discovered in the attic during the restaurant's recent remodel. --Neal Broverman

New Orleans
There's more to New Orleans than French Quarter's bawdy Bourbon Street. Ellen's hometown has always been a haven for gay culture.

As host to such "anything goes" events as Mardi Gras and Southern Decadence, New Orleans is logically regarded by many as a beacon for bacchanalian behavior. As one of the country's most walkable and picturesque cities--and as a leisurely stroll down bustling Chartres and Royal streets in the French Quarter or any of the tree-lined avenues in the Garden District to view the mix of American, Creole, French, and Spanish architectural styles will attest, it's also a cultural melting pot.

Naturally, the Mississippi River-nestled metropolis was and remains a fertile breeding ground for many distinguished literary figures who have called the bayou city home and used the vibrant locale as the backdrop for their best-known works, including novelist Anne Rice. The writer's former Garden District mansion with its lacy iron balconies is a popular tourist destination, and her homoerotic vampire novels figure prominently in the city's shadowy mystique.

It hardly needs mentioning that playwright Tennessee Williams is practically synonymous with the city's steamy French Quarter. The Pulitzer Prize-winner used the Big Easy as the setting for many of his most acclaimed plays, including A Streetcar Named Desire and Suddenly Last Summer.

Perhaps the richest literary monument in a city teeming with them is the historic, majestic Hotel Monteleone (HotelMonteleone.com). The luxurious French Quarter establishment, a 19th-century beaux arts architectural jewel, was designated an official literary landmark by the Friends of the Library Association in 1999. Virtually every writer of note -- from Ernest Hemingway to John Grisham -- has made this hallowed hall a home away from home. New Orleans native Truman Capote often boasted that he was born in the Monteleone (for the record, he wasn't; although his mother briefly lived at the hotel during her pregnancy, she safely made it to the hospital in time for Truman's delivery).

The city's literary heritage is so vast that it currently hosts two separate festivals to celebrate. The 25-year-old Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival (TennesseeWilliams.net) in March features many notable authors and actors associated with the playwright and new productions of his plays. For even more of an LGBT-specific focus, there's the four-day Saints and Sinners (SaSFest.org), held each May, which brings together readers, writers, and publishers for panels and master classes.

Obviously New Orleans history buffs should pay respect to the late Clay Shaw by visiting his stately home, located in the Quarter at1313 Dauphine St. Shaw, though vilified in the Oliver Stone film JFK, was in fact a genteel gay entrepreneur falsely accused and tried (the only person to be prosecuted) for the assassination of President Kennedy by ambitious New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison.

Film fans will find it worthwhile to visit Houmas House (HoumasHouse.com), a gorgeous antebellum plantation. It's about an hour's drive from the city, but it's worth the effort to see the verdant gardens and lakes as well as the home itself, which provided the filming location for the Bette Davis thriller Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte. The plantation is also home to a world-class restaurant, Latil's Landing. --Jeremy Kinser


Feast of All Saints
Where the glitterati dine

Brennan's
Offering a spectacular wine list, a lush courtyard, and fine, traditional Creole and French cuisine, the restaurant is noted for a spectacular Southern-style brunch. Countless luminaries from Vivien Leigh to John Wayne have sampled its signature hangover remedy, the Brandy Milk Punch, and delicious flaming dessert Bananas Foster.
BrennansNewOrleans.com

The Carousel Bar
The famed revolving bar atop the Monteleone is a don't-miss, as proven by visits from Dennis Quaid and the various Top Chef contestants. In days past it wasn't unusual to see William Faulkner enjoying a nightcap in the hotel's swanky, swinging Swan Room nightclub. Liberace was the first person to play the bar's piano in 1949.
HotelMonteleone.com

Commander's Palace
One of the city's best restaurants offers one of its worst kept secrets--their tantalizing twenty-five cent martinis. Guests such as Anderson Cooper have savored the lesbian co-owned institution's widely heralded "haute creole cuisine."
CommandersPalace.com

Galatoire's

The century-old culinary grande dame has a rigid dress code but the rich tradition of graceful dining on its delectable and authentic creole cuisine has movie stars and politicians waiting in line. It's such a landmark that Williams sent Blanche DuBois to dinner there in his masterpiece Streetcar.
Galatoires.com

Iris
Nestled cozily on the ground floor of the charming Bienville House (sister property of the Monteleone), the innovative and palate-pleasing creations of award-winning chef Ian Schnoebelen and the bar's imaginative cocktails--considered among the best in the city--are a favorite of visiting and discerning notables.
BienvilleHouse.com

New York
After a little arm-twisting, some residents reveal their secret spots.

"My favorite spot is Mud Coffee (TheMudTruck.com) in the East Village. It's one of the few coffee places that still has that Old World, pre-corporate vibe with its cozy interior and funky garden. I often sit in the corner with my laptop, making new beats, words, and music while surrounded by inspiring people and delicious coffee."
--Our Lady J, musician

"There is a black box theater in the Lower East Side called the Kraine Theater (HorseTrade.info), and it houses a troupe called Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind. It's the most bizarre and exciting show for only $10 plus the roll of a die at the door. Afterward, go upstairs to the KGB Bar and drown your sorrows or laughter in potato vodka."
--Jasika Nicole, star of Fringe on Fox

"For a romantic dinner out with my wife, I love to go to Gascogne (GascogneNYC.com) in my neighborhood, Chelsea. The atmosphere is perfect for candlelit conversation. They even have a cute garden in the back for dining in warmer weather. The menu is classic French, very chic. Ooh-la-la."
--Jincey Lumpkin, porn mogul and Chief Sexy Officer of Juicy Pink Box

"My favorite new shop is called Any Old Iron (AnyOldIron.net). They have the coolest clothes, all imported from the United Kingdom. Andrew Clancey, who owns the shop, is very sweet and really knows his shit. I'd buy everything in the store if it fit me!"
--Mike Ruiz, photographer and star of Logo's The A-List New York

"Moldy Fig Jazz Club (178 Stanton St.) is the 2011 manifestation of the great live jazz clubs that have always populated downtown. Great live music every night in an authentic, relaxed atmosphere with food. It is my home performance space."
--Penny Arcade, performance artist and author of Bad Reputation: Performances, Essays, Interviews
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