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The Boston Globe
Different Isles, Different Attitudes Toward Gay Travelers
Amy K. Graves, Globe Staff
February 23, 2003
So you want to escape to the Caribbean with your sweetie or your pals. A week sunning in soft sand and body-surfing the warm, cerulean waves equals one week less spent shoveling snow and fending off frostbite, no?
Three winters ago (another tough one), my love and I looked up a travel agent in Harvard Square to book a package deal. Trying to sell us five nights on Grenada, she asked, "Is this a mother- daughter trip?" (My girlfriend and I are four years apart.)
We did our own research and ended up in Vieques , a small island off Puerto Rico 's mainland, known, unfortunately, for the controversy over Navy practice bombing there - which ended this month, by the way.
We surfed the Internet until we found an inn we liked (Inn on the Blue Horizon, www.innontheblue horizon.com, 787-741-3318) and found out sometime after we arrived that it's gay-owned (first clue: lots of lovely antiques). The beaches were beautiful and nearly empty, and there was an Oscars-night party at our inn that drew a lot of the gay locals.
Does it matter if the natives are gay friendly? Everyone has their own answers, but I do know that Vieques was a galaxy away from the inn on Antigua where two women friends of ours were vacationing. The maids quizzed them on their sleeping arrangements, and the management refused to give them a room with a double bed.
The Caribbean archipelago covers a lot of territory, culturally and otherwise. Puerto Rico, the capital of the gay-friendly Caribbean, has more gay- and lesbian-owned hotels and clubs than any of the other islands. The smaller islands just off Puerto Rico, like Vieques , also seem infused with a gay sensibility.
The Dutch islands of Saint Martin and Saba are said to have a more relaxed attitude toward sexual orientation, as do French islands like Martinique. Saba has no beaches but lush, dramatic cliffs.
Sasha Alyson, a longtime South Ender who founded Alyson Adventures, a gay and lesbian travel outfit, just returned from an excursion to Costa Rica. His group explored Manuel Antonio, a small national park.
"There's an abundance of wildlife, and beautiful beaches," he says. There are also some gay-friendly guesthouses nearby. Alyson and his group were led by a gay naturalist who lives there.
On the flip side are the Cayman Islands, where in 1998 a gay- operated cruise ship was turned away from port on the pretext that cruise participants could not be counted on to uphold the island's "standards of appropriate behavior."
The Sandals resorts on St. Lucia, Antigua, and Turks and Caicos don't just pitch only to heterosexual couples with "weddingmoon" packages (wedding plus honeymoon, best man, maid of honor, flowers, and champagne) and honeymoon suites; the chain actively excludes gay and lesbian guests.
How do you find out, besides anecdotally, which island is going to roll out the rainbow carpet? It may be hard to determine but it's worth the effort, travel specialists say.
"As open as the islands are culturally, there are a number of places that are not that friendly to gay travelers," says Dan DiStasio, a former travel writer who works for Alyson Adventures.
Jamaica and the Caymans have a reputation for intolerance, he says. He and Alyson agree that a lot depends on the island's mother country.
"It's certainly improving, but there are big differences from one island to the next in the Caribbean," Alyson says. "Very broadly, the Dutch and French islands, just based on their heritage, are very good. The British are the worst. The Spanish islands are fine but they are less open.
"On Saba, the director of tourism is gay and everybody knows him," Alyson says. "A number of gay couples go there and stay throughout the winter season."
Alyson looks for enclaves where a small community of gay men and lesbians runs inns and restaurants.
You know things have changed when Caribbean travel guides start talking about places like Cuba. So hostile to its own gay population for years, Cuba has a budding gay scene. One cause is the influx of tourists, especially Canadians and Europeans. Americans go, too, although this is against US law unless you travel with a licensed tour.
Last March on Varadero Beach in Cuba, a man about my age struck up a conversation in Spanish and asked me whether I liked girls or boys. He pointed to a group of women about my age watching us intently from a nearby dune. I had come all the way to Cuba and walked onto what turned out to be the gay section of the beach.
MARDI GRAS GAY-LA It's summer in Sydney, and the biggest Mardi Gras party in the world for gay men and lesbians is in full swing. What began as a protest march in 1978 has blossomed into a month of dance parties, seminars, cabaret shows, standup comedians, films, and one very colorful, political, satirical parade. Almost everyone in the city turns out for the parade, on March 1 this year, and the festive frenzy spills over for the party, which starts at 10 that night and runs until 10 the next morning. Tickets, at $95 per person, were still available when we checked on Tuesday and can be ordered on line at www.ticketek.com.au. The event's official website (www.mardigras.org.au) says ticket buyers from 36 countries have boosted sales to an all-time high. Visit the site for information on parade entries and seating. Of course, air fare at this late date might put Sydney out of everyone's reach (Hello, Priceline?). Ah well, there's always next year - so mark your calendars now. Meanwhile, for vicarious enjoyment, keep checking the website for updates to the photo gallery. This year's launch party and fair day look like a lot of fun.