Gay Vacations

6 Romantic Gay Vacations: Seattle, San Juan, Palm Springs, Austin, Vermont & Asheville

Our guide to planning an idyllic gay getaway, honeymoon adventure, or destination wedding to six magical destinations throughout the U.S.

Seattle and San Juan Islands, Washington

A trip to the crisp-aired, pine-shaded Pacific Northwest, whether you base your explorations in dynamic Seattle or a picturesque nearby community, offers magnificent outdoor recreation, world-class museums and performing arts, acclaimed wineries and third-wave coffee roasters, and superb farm-to-table cuisine. One of the first states to legalize same-sex marriage (and, soon after, recreational marijuana), Washington—especially Seattle and its vicinity—are famously liberal and gay-friendly. If you’re thinking of getting hitched here, note that although it can be rainy from late fall through early spring, summers are stunning. If you can, give yourself 10 days to see the area, spending a few in Seattle and the rest exploring nearby natural wonders, such as the Cascade Mountains, Olympic Peninsula, and Puget Sound islands. Among the latter, Bainbridge Island is a short ferry ride from Seattle, and the idyllic San Juan Islands, near the US/Canada maritime border, feel blissfully secluded.

Romantic Gay Vacations
Roche Harbor Resort, San Juan Island. By Jenn Repp
Don’t Miss

Seattle abounds with worthy diversions, including the touristy but spectacular Space Needle at Seattle Center, which contains the excellent Museum of Pop Culture and Pacific Science Center. Bypass the crowds by instead visiting the much taller 73rd-floor Sky View Observatory at Columbia Center, which is also a dazzling venue for weddings.

Make your way through some of Seattle’s many inviting neighborhoods, such as the hub of gay life, Capitol Hill, which also teems with outstanding eateries. Try Bateau for house-butchered steaks and adjoining Bar Melusine for oysters and champagne; Sitka and Spruce and lesbian-owned Terra Plata for exquisite regional Northwestern fare; and Poppy, for thali-inspired seasonal small plates created by openly gay culinary star Jerry Traunfeld. North of downtown, Ballard and Fremont pulse with indie shops, purveyors of craft beer and spirits, and hip restaurants.

From Seattle it’s an easy daytrip to Woodinville, home to nearly 150 tasting rooms and wineries, many producing world-class vino (Januik/Novelty Hill and DeLille Cellar Carriage House are two standouts). It’s a 35-minute ride across Puget Sound to relaxing and scenic Bainbridge Island, where the village of Winslow buzzes with engaging shops and cafés. Do explore the peaceful paths and gardens of nearby Bloedel Reserve.

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Biking by Pelindaba Lavender Farm, on San Juan Island; photo courtesy of San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau

If you seek seclusion and nature, take a ferry (or a float plane) to the San Juan Islands, a tranquil and stunning archipelago comprising hundreds of islands, of which three have visitor facilities: San Juan, Orcas, and Lopez. San Juan lies just across Haro Strait from Victoria, BC, and is the most populous, with diversions ranging from touring Pelindaba Lavender Farm (also a charming wedding venue) to hiking around Lime Kiln State Park, where it’s often possible to spy migrating orca whales. Less crowded but larger and with fantastic, mountainous hiking at Moran State Park and Turtleback Mountain Preserve, Orcas Island is also a foodie paradise. Stop by Hogstone Pizza for thin-crust artisan pies, the hipster-approved Barnacle for cocktails and seafood tapas (including excellent sushi some nights), and gay-owned Brown Bear Baking for morning pastries. Even quieter Lopez Island is a favorite for cycling, boating, and simply relaxing. Plan to dine at Haven Kitchen & Bar—with its expansive water views and globally inspired menu, and Ursa Minor, opened this past spring by noted Seattle restaurateur Nick Coffey and serving locally foraged and farmed seasonal fare.

Stay

The swanky W Seattle offers supremely posh and stylish digs and is a top LGBTQ wedding venue, especially for social butterflies. After your reception, your guests can keep partying in the trendy lobby. Kimpton has four outstanding Seattle properties, including the design-driven Palladian Hotel, its cool rooms outfitted with claw-foot tubs and pop-art pillows depicting the faces of sexy celebs like Brad Pitt and David Bowie. Plan a fantastic seafood-centric repast at Shaker + Spear restaurant.

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W Seattle; photo courtesy of W Hotel, Seattle

A 40-minute drive east of Seattle, Twin Peaks fans will recognize Salish Lodge & Spa and its dramatic perch atop a soaring waterfall. This upscale hideaway with a soothing spa begs for a fun weekend romp or a memorable wedding. Have breakfast in the historic dining room overlooking the falls. Speaking of Twin Peaks lore, the interior shots of the lodge and the fabulous home of Pete, Catherine, and Josie were filmed at Kiana Lodge, itself now a highly popular wedding site on the Kitsap Peninsula, just over the bridge from Bainbridge Island.

On San Juan Island, the magical waterfront setting of Roche Harbor Resort has made this late-19th-century hotel and marina one of the most storied wedding venues in the Pacific Northwest—it even has its own adorable little white nondenominational chapel. For the ultimate honeymoon splurge, book one of the historic McMillin Suites, each with its own terrace overlooking the water. On Orcas Island, Rosario Resort is another grand locale for a waterfront wedding, honeymoon, or even just a meal in the exceptional Mansion Restaurant. Other notable island spots for weddings and romantic overnights include charmingly unpretentious Edenwild Inn on Lopez Island, contemporary Snug Harbor Resort on San Juan Island, and casually refined Inn at Ship Bay—which also has a fantastic restaurant—on Orcas.

Featured image courtesy Salish Lodge & Spa

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Downtown Asheville’s irreverent street life; photo courtesy of ExploreAsheville.com

Asheville, North Carolina

Often mentioned in the same breath as Portland, Brooklyn, and Austin thanks to its locavore-minded artisan aesthetic, fervent progressivism, and proliferation of hipsters, Asheville, population 88,000, is more intimate and easygoing than those places. This creative hub famous for Arts and Crafts architecture has a highly visible LGBTQ community and storied setting in the Blue Ridge Mountains, with easy access to an abundance of natural attractions. With a craft beer and farm-to-table culinary scene that rivals any in the Southeast, Asheville has also become a top destination for foodies.

Don’t Miss

At the famed Biltmore Estate, which contains the immensely grandiose 180,000-square-foot retreat of George Vanderbilt II (a great-great uncle of Anderson Cooper), tour the glorious gardens, winery, and pastoral grounds— the property is also highly popular for weddings. Set aside an afternoon to drive a stretch of the famously scenic Blue Ridge Parkway—stop inside the Folk Art Center, which celebrates the region’s rich design heritage. The Appalachian Trail also cuts through this outdoorsy region rife with hiking, white-water rafting, and cycling, and the glorious peaks, glens, and rippling lakes of Great Smoky Mountains National Park are just a 45-minute drive west of Asheville via Interstate 40.

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Hot-air ballooning over Asheville’s French Broad River; photo courtesy of ExploreAsheville.com

In downtown Asheville, it’s impossible to throw a rock without hitting a fantastic restaurant. Start with a hearty Southern breakfast at Early Girl Eatery or West Asheville’s Sunny Point Cafe (try the grit cake tostadas). Breweries abound, from the eastern outposts of heavy hitters like New Belgium and Sierra Nevada (the latter gives impressive tours of its Arts and Crafts–inspired facility), to quirkier local spots like Burial Beer, Wicked Weed, and Wedge, which has festive outdoor seating, live music, and food trucks. Stop by French Broad Chocolate Lounge to indulge in exquisite chocolates and pastries, or a mug of luscious Liquid Truffle sipping chocolate. For lunch or dinner, look to All Souls for creative thin-crust pizza (try the one with smoked North Carolina shrimp and chiles)—it’s steps from the River Arts District, where more than 200 artists—many specializing in pottery, metalwork, and fiber arts—work and sell their creations in studios and galleries that occupy about two-dozen former factories and warehouses.

At Cúrate, chef Katie Button—who trained at Spain’s world-famous El Bulli—prepares ethereal tapas (Galician-style octopus, house-made morcilla blood sausage, Segovia-style cochinillo roasted suckling pig). Local Provisions offers an artful take on modern Southern cuisine, and East Asian restaurant Gan Shan Station, set in a funkily retrofitted auto repair shop, turns out
flavorful pork belly ramen and Korean-style chicken wings.

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Soaking in the spa pools at Asheville’s Grove Park Inn; photo courtesy Omni Grove Park Inn
Stay

One of the Southeast’s most memorable wedding settings, the Omni Grove Park Inn captures the rustic grandeur typical of a national parks lodge. This Arts and Crafts jewel with panoramic views of the Blue Ridge Mountains is noted for its renowned 43,000-square-foot subterranean spa with serene soaking pools framed by rough-hewn rock walls and soaring arches, and an award-winning golf course. Plan to dine on the terrace of Edison Craft Ales + Kitchen, which serves delish creative comfort fare and offers a fine local beer list. This is one of the most memorable wedding venues in the Southeast. Just outside the gates of Vanderbilt Estate, the contemporary and luxurious Tudor-style Grand Bohemian Hotel Asheville has cushy rooms with stone floors, antler chandeliers, and tufted-velvet headboards. Walls and public areas are hung with a world-class art collection, and the lobby restaurant, Red Stag Grill, is notable for wild game, including elk loin and bison hanger steak. You’ll also find a number of attractive, upscale B&Bs in town, including the LGBTQ-owned 1889 WhiteGate Inn & Cottage and the exquisitely furnished 1900 Inn on Montford.

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The rooftop deck and pool at Hotel El Convento in Old San Juan; photo courtesy Hotel El Convento

San Juan, Puerto Rico

For couples wishing to marry or honeymoon in a tropical paradise that feels culturally distinct from the United States but doesn’t require passports or currency exchange, Puerto Rico fits the bill perfectly. The bustling 500-year-old capital, San Juan, offers a welcoming LGBTQ scene, alluring beach resorts, and charming Old San Juan, a hilly warren of cobblestone lanes and colorfully painted buildings, many housing noteworthy restaurants and shops.

Don’t Miss

Old San Juan is perfect for strolling without a map or a plan—treasures abound in every direction. Stop by 16th-century fortresses, Castillo San Felipe del Morro and Castillo de San Cristóbal, now national parks, and the outstanding Museo de Arte e Historia de San Juan, a fascinating museum set in a Spanish Colonial former market hall. Dine at sophisticated Marmalade, which serves supremely delicious French-inspired Caribbean delicacies, or casual El Jibarito for authentic Puerto Rican fare, including cod croquettes and pork cubes in plaintain gravy. Hipsters, gays, and cocktail aficionados are among the congregants at La Factoría, set in a shabbily grand old building and offering live music and dancing.

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Old San Juan, from Castillo de San Cristobal; photo by Andrew Collins

Nearby Condado flanks the city’s north shore and contains several posh resorts—
it’s also home to a popular gay beach (at the end of Calle Vendig). For a romantic meal of exceptional Puerto Rican food, such as seafood-stuffed mofongo and pork ribs with guava barbecue sauce, book a table at cozy and refined Casita Miramar. San Juan has the best LGBTQ nightlife in the Caribbean. Most of these bars are clustered together around the same block of Santurce, the city’s business district— mainstays include Circo and Temptation.

For a taste of the island’s spectacular natural scenery, venture 30 miles east to El Yunque, a 28,500-acre rainforest laced with trails, many leading to rushing waterfalls. Stop for lunch at the colorful kioscos at gorgeous Luquillo Beach—Ceviche Hut is a standout for first-rate Peruvian fare.

Stay

In Old San Juan, romantic Hotel El Convento occupies a 17th-century monastery and exudes old-world charm, its 58 high-ceilinged rooms decorated with elegant Spanish furniture. A small roof-deck and pool afford sweeping views of San Juan Bay, and there are several different salons well-suited to smaller weddings. For sheer luxury, it’s hard to beat the century-old Condado Vanderbilt, whose palatial suites have plush Rivolta Carmignani linens, 24-hour butler service, and balconies with dazzling views. Amenities include the swanky Vanderbilt Spa and the acclaimed 1919 Restaurant. Next door, La Concha Renaissance Resort stands out for its festive midcentury-modern vibe. Laze on the beach or by the multilevel infinity pool, and note the myriad wedding spaces, including a 12th-floor rooftop terrace. Also highly inviting and featuring its own secluded lagoon for snorkeling and kayaking, the Condado Plaza Hilton has nearly 600 rooms and a stellar restaurant, Pikayo, helmed by celeb chef Wilo Benet.

If planning more than a few days in Puerto Rico, consider tacking on a short visit to Vieques, a small, blissful island easily reached by ferry from Fajardo or by a short flight from San Juan. It’s home to the trendy W Retreat and Spa and several smaller LGBTQ-popular boutique inns.

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Boating on Lake Travis near the gay-popular, clothing-optional section of Hippie Hollow Park; photo by Andrew Collins

Austin, Texas

Famously progressive and Fast-fast-growing Austin offers urbane, hipster-approved restaurants, bars, and boutiques and proximity to the picturesque Hill Country. It’s the optimal getaway for fans of indie music clubs, single-origin coffee roasters, and painstakingly curated lifestyle boutiques, but at its historic and still thriving heart, this youthful burg remains fun-loving and easy-going, with endless diversions, from kayaking on downtown’s Lady Bird Lake to food-truck-hopping in East Austin.

Don’t Miss

Experiencing the best of Austin is less about touring formal attractions than exploring the wealth of vibrant retail and entertainment districts around town, with South Congress/South First, East Austin, Rainey Street, and the Warehouse District (home to several hoppin’ queer bars) leading the way. That said, the excellent LBJ Presidential Library is a must for history buffs, and several beautiful parks—including Mount Bonnell for its views of the countryside, Barton Springs Pool for swimming, and Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center for garden tours—beckon outdoor enthusiasts.

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Shopping on South Congress Avenue in Austin; photo by Andrew Collins

On weekends, LGTBQ revelers flock to Hippie Hollow Park, where nude sunbathing is permitted on the limestone-terraced shores of 30-square-mile Lake Travis. It’s a lively, flirty spot for sunning and swimming. Finish the afternoon by sipping margaritas and noshing on guac and chips on the Starlight Terrace of the nearby Oasis on Lake Travis, which offers some of the best sunset-viewing in Texas.

Stay

Austin swells with offbeat, arty accommodations, including three intimate properties in South Congress designed and operated by the LGBTQ-owned Bunkhouse Group: the Austin Motel, Hotel San José, and Hotel Saint Cecilia. The latter offers the swankiest suites and bungalows—plus a stunning garden-shrouded terrace and lap pool. Downtown has lately witnessed an explosion of sleek hotels, such as the tony W Austin—with its fabulous spa—and local music–themed Kimpton Hotel Van Zandt, but the city’s beloved 1886 Driskill Hotel—with its storied history and art-filled individually designed rooms—remains the Austin address for an romantic getaway or fairytale wedding. Anchoring the swanky Domain retail-residential village on the north side of the city, Archer Austin boasts a nifty pool terrace and a scene-y restaurant, Second Bar + Kitchen, serving eclectic contemporary regional cuisine (don’t pass up the addictive avocado fundido with asadero cheese and chorizo).

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The quaint village of Grafton, Vermont; photo by Andrew Collins

Manchester, Vermont

Tucked amid the soaring Green Mountains of southwestern Vermont, Manchester offers all the elements of a classic New England retreat, and it’s a short drive from several smaller hamlets with their own considerable charms, including Dorset, Chester, and Grafton. Famous for its brilliant fall foliage, which hits its prime around the third week of September through mid-October, this easygoing town of 4,500 is also a top winter draw for skiers headed to the nearby slopes of Bromley, Stratton, and Mt. Snow, while in summer, it’s a lush, generally temperate locale that’s perfect for a magical outdoor wedding.

Don’t Miss

Manchester is made up of an endearingly sleepy historic village center and a larger and more modern downtown teeming with quirky cafés and independent boutiques as well as a clutch of upscale retail outlets, including Michael Kors, Marimekko, and Eileen Fisher. The flagship Orvis store is a must for fly-fishing and other outdoors enthusiasts. For breathtaking foliage views, drive to the top of 3,855-foot Mt. Equinox.

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Manchester’s 1871 Congregational Church; photo by Andrew Collins

Be sure to tour Hildene, the former home of Robert Todd Lincoln (Abe’s first son). The Georgian Revival 1905 mansion is known for its 1,000-pipe Aeolian organ, and you can also hike along more than 12 miles of interpretative trails through emerald meadows, splendid arbors, and colorful formal gardens. For a bite to eat, Depot 62 serves tasty wood-fired pizzas and is also a stylish houseware store, and the lively Silver Fork turns out creative contemporary pan-American fare, including plantain-encrusted mahimahi and vanilla flan with dulce de leche and banana. Fancier meals are had before the stone fireplace of the renowned and refined Chantecleer Restaurant, in nearby East Dorset. Steak tartare, and venison and duck breast medallions with a lingonberry-peppercorn sauce are among the specialties.

Day-trippers should make the 50-minute drive east to Grafton, a quintessentially quaint Vermont hill town that’s home to both a rambling Federal-era inn and an endearing general store that carries local Grafton cheddar and other gourmet goodies.

Stay

One reason destination weddings are popular in Manchester is the town’s wealth of diversions, which range from traditional to trendy. In the latter category, the urbane Kimpton Taconic Hotel  is a stylish overnight roost and wedding setting. In-room spa services are offered, and the lively Copper Grouse serves deftly prepared creative American fare. The hotel also offers in-room spa services, and there’s a small but inviting pool. Up the street, the legendary Equinox Resort has hosted dignitaries—from Ulysses Grant to Teddy Roosevelt—since 1853 and offers championship golf, tennis, and lessons in falconry, off-road Land Rover driving, and fly-fishing.

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Equinox Resort; photo by Andrew Collins

If you’d rather hole up—or get hitched—in a small village, consider the cozy 45-room Grafton Inn, which dates to 1801 and lies 30 miles east of Manchester. It’s home to a superb farm-to-table restaurant, the Old Tavern.

Vermont Gay Travel Resources

For more information on planning a trip to Vermont, have a look at the helpful site of the Vermont Gay Tourism Association and also the Vermont Tourism Office.

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Swimming and sunning in Palm Springs; photo courtesy of Visit Palm Springs

Palm Springs, California

It’s one of the world’s definitive LGBTQ playgrounds, rife with cheeky (pun intended) clothing-optional resorts, raucous circuit parties, and scene-y gay bars. Palm Springs is a party town, but it’s also a romantic desert oasis surrounded by natural wonders. It’s appealing whether your honeymoon style is laze-by-the-pool or blaze-a-trail-in-the-wilderness, plus there’s the striking midcentury-modern architecture and plenty of human eye candy.

Don’t Miss

Relaxation is the name of the game here. Kick back on the lanai and plan for some leisurely alfresco meals, starting with farm-to-table brunch at Cheeky’s, and continuing with dinner at some place with an inviting patio. Favorites include Tropicale, with its neon lighting and gurgling fountain, and Trio, a hot spot in the Uptown Design District serving creative comfort fare.

Long popular with Hollywood glitterati, Palm Springs hosts countless glamorous annual events. You can also visit homes formerly owned by industry royalty on architectural tours offered by the Modern Tour company. (The city’s Modernism Week is in late February). Design fans should also stop by the Architecture Design Center, and the excellent Palm Springs Art Museum.

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Palm Springs Aerial Tramway; photo courtesy of Visit Palm Springs

Outdoor adventures also await, including rides on the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, which slowly rotates on its ascent to an 8,500-foot section of the San Jacinto Mountains, where you can hike for miles and dine with a view at Peaks Restaurant—they even host weddings up at the top. Hikers should also check out Indian Canyons and its stunning waterfall and ancient rock art. If you have a full day, make the hour-long drive to Joshua Tree National Park, a 1,235-square-mile tract of mesmerizing rock formations and eye-popping flora, including the distinctive trees for which it’s named.

Stay

The retro-fabulous Riviera Palm Springs has two big pools and an alluring outdoor wedding space. Having just refurbished its event space, the colorful Saguaro Palm Springs is another great place to stay or tie the knot. The nearby Ace Palm Springs is favored by hipsters and millennials and has a playful bent. And brand-new Arrive, which has 32 rooms and an exceptional American restaurant, is terrific.