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Essential tips for COVID-free travel

Be ready for a patchwork of confusing rules this summer

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Fort Lauderdale, Fla. (Washington Blade photo by Yariel Valdés)

COVID-19 will make travel a bit more complicated this summer. Going to Europe? Taking a cruise? Visiting Hawaii, San Juan or St. Lucia? Or maybe you are planning a road trip? The rules for traveling responsibly during COVID vary greatly. Be ready to encounter a patchwork of confusing rules and requirements this summer.

Depending on what you choose to do for your well-earned escape, it is going to be necessary to educate yourself on what to expect; how to travel by the rules; and be ready to prove you have a negative COVID-19 test (and it may cost you to prove it). Trust, prepping for your trip in advance will pay off.

Your health, safety, peace of mind, and fun are an important part of the travel experience. Here are five essential tips for to ensure you have a fabulous summer getaway.

1. Research before booking your trip. Before you book your trip, be sure to understand how COVID-19 has changed the experience. Nearly everything about travel has changed due to COVID-19. Hotels, airplanes, trains, theme parks, destinations and resorts have all have modified safety precautions in place. The good news is that you will likely find fewer crowds, more space and enhanced cleaning. You may also find limited services such as curfews with bars and restaurants closing early. A driving trip within the U.S. likely will find fewer restrictions compared to an island trip.

2. Make reservations and buy tickets in-advance. Before leaving for your trip, you should book your restaurant reservations and reserve your tickets to a museum or attraction. While you might not like having to plan out your vacation in advance, you will likely find it hard to do all the things you want to do by waiting. COVID-19 means capacity restrictions, so there is limited availability especially on weekends and during peak periods. You can always make changes when you are there.

3. When flying give yourself extra time at the airport. Many stores and food establishments may still be closed or have limited service, so it will take longer to buy food and drink. Some airlines have also eliminated beverage and snack service in coach, so be ready to “Bring Your Own.” If you are used to flying first class, be ready for a curtailed (i.e. downgraded) experience as well.

4. Stay at a trusted hotel. Staying at a hotel is perhaps one of the most important travel decisions you will make. Most hotels have developed respected cleaning protocols to keep you and their employees safe. Among the hotel industry’s leaders is The Four Seasons. The Four Seasons has developed “Lead With Care” that includes both obvious hotel guest protocols and enhanced procedures behind-the-scenes including employee trainings. The Four Seasons also developed an app that provides guests with the high-standard customer service the luxury chain is known for while providing guests with privacy and limiting interactions with the team. COVID-19 has increased the costs for many hotels so it is important to stay with a trusted brand that you can count on to deliver on the safety measures promised.

5. Proof of a negative COVID test. The most complicated and expensive part of COVID-free travel will be meeting a requirement, if needed, to prove you have a negative COVID test. Hawaii, San Juan, cruise ships and other travel experiences are requiring that travelers prove they are COVID negative upon arrival at the destination or before starting your trip. Some destinations even require a mid-trip test to prove, again, that you are still COVID negative. Hawaii implemented a program that requires travelers to the islands to use a ‘trusted partner’ (so you can’t use any test and vaccinations are not accepted). You must create an account at travel.hawaii.gov, download an app, and submit results upon arrival from a COVID test within 72 hours of arrival from a trust partner. Coming from Philadelphia through Chicago, that means I had to order an expensive test from American Airlines that was sent to me by UPS, the test included a virtual call to prove my identity and a virtual assistant to show me how to properly take the nasal smear.

Within a day of sending my test back via UPS, I had my results. I printed out my negative test, uploaded my results and also downloaded the QR code to my phone. Aloha! Are you negative? Mahalo.

 

Jeff Guaracino is the author of two books on LGBT travel, a syndicated travel columnist and a tourism executive with more than two decades in the industry.

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4 fabulous brunch options in Palm Springs

Good food, plentiful cocktails, and high style to start the day

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King's Highway (Photo by Lance Gerber)

Brunch — that all-day weekend affair — is where days can begin, and end. In a town that already wakes up early, brunch has a special place among meals. With the cooler weather, there’s no better time to head to Palm Springs for a taste of the brunch festivities it has to offer. Below, four distinctive – and distinct – brunch options.

Jake’s: Helmed by industry veterans (and gay men) Chris Malm and Bruce Bloch, Jake’s is an institution, as much a destination as it is a spot for locals. The goal of Jake’s, says Malm, is to make it “a hip, fun dinner party with good friends.” 

At brunch time, plan to spend some time with other new besties, Mary and Rita. Jake’s offers one of the most extensive and diverse brunch cocktail lists in Palm Springs: 10 Bloody Marys, six mimosas, six margaritas, seven “refreshers,” several other cocktails, and of course, rosé. It’s no surprise that the bartender has collected awards. 

The shaded, cozy patio is also a hit. Lined with soaring, 20-foot Ficus trees, locals refer to it as “The Ivy” of Palm Springs. In the winter, there’s space for heaters; summertime brings in misters. 

As for the dishes, it’s the crab cake benedict that repeat customers dive in for. There’s also a tempura softshell crab BLT that’s a menu mainstay. Malm points out that the tater tots, infused with truffle, “are incredibly popular.”

Finally, if you’re especially lucky, you’ll meet Jackson: a West Highland Terrier who serves as mascot (though he won’t serve your mimosa). 

Oscar’s: Located in the heart of Palm Springs, Oscar’s is the town’s epicenter for full-octane energy. While the party rarely stops at Oscar’s, Sunday brunch turns it up to an 11. 

The restaurant didn’t hold back by christening its Sunday event as the “Bitchiest Brunch.” It doesn’t hold back. The show’s drag queen star is Anita Rose; she’s supported by a rotating cast, bringing distinctive attitude and style to brunch. Soon after pandemic restrictions were lifted, Oscar’s restarted the brunch party, taking advantage of one of its biggest selling points: a patio that can seat up to 120. 

Dan Gore, the owner and a gay man, said that the restaurant quickly outgrew one showtime. They quickly added a second. There’s now a full three seatings (9 a.m., 11 a.m., and 1 p.m.); two outside and one inside. 

One of the reasons that this brunch has been wildly popular is that Oscar’s can draw “different kinds of families and feel welcome and accepted. It’s not just entertainment by fabulous performers, but also a loving, safe space. It’s an all-ages event.”

Of course, Oscar’s serves bottomless mimosas; there are also super-size (16-ounce) Bloody Marys.

To dine, it’s a classic egg-focused menu, with omelets and eggs Benedicts. Pancakes, French toast, breakfast tacos, and bagels and lox round out the menu.

After brunch concludes, adult diners tend to hang out for another of Oscar’s mainstays: afternoon tea dance.

Parker: As quintessential Palm Springs as it gets: Parker is an upscale resort designed by Jonathan Adler. Its restaurant, Norma’s, distills that chic styling into brunch. Norma’s serves breakfast all day and all night, but brunch is the time to see and be seen. The extensive patio and wraparound orange banquette allow for both people-watching and nature-watching. Inside, white stone and wooden accents keep things cool.

A Parker representative notes that “the concept of breakfast at Norma’s can be a no-holds-barred extravaganza of decadent proportions,” something that certainly extends to brunch time. 

Diners can start off minimalist with an egg white omelet – or go maximalist with the “zillion dollar lobster frittata,” on which diners can toss an ounce of Sevruga caviar. There’s a slew of traditional carb-heavy diner items, like blueberry pancakes and chocolate French toast. Gluten-free, vegan, and vegetarian options abound. 

In terms of cocktails, there’s a short list of classics (Bloody Mary, mimosa), plus French and Californian roses, as well as glasses (or bottles) of Dom Perignon and Veuve. 

King’s Highway: Infused with the desert spirit, King’s Highway brings chic to cactus country. Snug inside the Ace Hotel & Swim Club, King’s is a roadside diner with retro nods (it used to be a Denny’s) and handsome saddle leather banquettes. Khuong Phan, food & beverage communications director at the hotel, notes that “we’ve kept that same diner vibe and spirit… but we’ve completely made it Southern California contemporary.”

Beveled mirrors slope above the bar for some surreptitious people-watching; the outdoor patio is just as welcoming, situated as it is next to the popular pool.

Beyond coffee and pastries, substantive and diner-forward entrees include Belgian waffles, bagel sandwiches, and biscuits and gravy built on pork sausage. East Coast visitors will feel comfortable with the salmon lox plate; locals dig in to the homey and filling King’s Highway Breakfast of eggs, potatoes, and sausage. Additional salads, sandwiches, and burgers are available after 11 a.m. 

To drink, detoxers may wish to choose the Sunrise (orange, coconut water, lemon, ginger, turmeric). The date shake is concocted with local dates, plus oat milk and vanilla ice cream. Naturally, there’s a Bloody Mary, using housemade mix. Another tropical-style drink is the Pina Antigua: pineapple rum, rye, and creme de banana. A popular local bottle shop, Dead or Alive, curates the wine list.

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LGBTQ travelers show how to explore safely this fall

More destinations enacting COVID safety protocols

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Fort Lauderdale, Fla. is among our top picks for winter travel. (Blade file photo by Yariel Valdés)

Just when we thought it was safe to hit the road, we were walloped by the Delta variant, the latest plot twist in the 18-month-and-counting pandemic story. The surprising data that fully vaccinated people could transmit the virus came shockingly from Provincetown with a 90% vaccination rate. Ptown quickly tightened restrictions requiring masking at all indoor locations and proof of vaccine at all entertainment venues — interventions that worked. As of press time, the positivity rate there is much lower than much of the rest of the U.S. and it remains one of our top recommendations this fall and beyond. Ptown demonstrated a successful response — stressing safety yet continuing to deliver a deeply satisfying experience.

Read on for our favorite queer-friendly destinations striving to create a safe space for you and strategies for navigating the increasingly complex world of pandemic travel. Safe, beautiful and fun LGBTQ-friendly destinations, experiences and accommodations beckon whether you seek to recharge your batteries, deplete them or a little of both. 

Queer and safe destinations

• Provincetown, Mass. is our very own home beyond the rainbow as suggested by this year’s Carnival theme. Book far ahead for popular weeks (July 4; Bear Week; and Carnival) but we recommend visiting outside of the most popular times for a less frantic more enjoyable stay. There are diverse LGBTQ-oriented events almost every weekend through New Year’s Eve. Information: Provincetown Business Guild and Provincetown for Women.

• Fort Lauderdale and Miami remain the beating heart of LGBTQ-friendly Florida despite the barbaric state-level response causing the Sunshine State to be among the worst hit in the U.S. by the pandemic. Fort Lauderdale has been world renowned for its authentic and inclusive vibe for all visitors since 1996. More than 1,000 local businesses have taken the Safe & Clean Pledge. Likewise, Miami has implemented the Greater Miami Travel Guidelines and Destination Pledge accessible from the destination’s homepage outlining how safety measures are being implemented throughout the community.

• Puerto Rico is the undisputed LGBTQ capital of the Caribbean enticing visitors with reliably warm, sunny weather and a sincere outreach to queer travelers. Despite unfortunate, highly publicized attacks on local transgender people, Puerto Rico boasts a visible and vibrant trans community, and nightlife options that specifically cater to queer and non-binary folx. This helps create a safer and more comfortable environment than other warm-weather destinations in the Caribbean or Mexico, which lack venues for a trans community that mostly lives in hiding. Information: Discover Puerto Rico.

• Philadelphia makes for a fun urban getaway. Once the kids are back in school and the lines at the Liberty Bell disappear, you’ll find a warm, walkable and LGBTQ-welcoming city. Find LGBTQ restaurants, safe nightlife, engaging events and recommendations galore at Visit Philly. Pro tip: Try to schedule a half day at the Barnes Foundation art collection. 

Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Wait, what? Yep, this charming midwestern town is our top unexpected recommendation. You’ll find historic cultural venues, a walkable entertainment district with plenty of topnotch live music and theatrical performances, a delectable culinary scene and a truly warm welcome. Find trip-planning recommendations at the destination’s website.

Queer cruises and land vacations

Cruises are coming back, and it may be surprising to hear that they are probably the safest vacation you can take. According to Randle Roper, CEO at VACAYA, an LGBT+ vacation company, “With cruise lines soon to mandate that all guests and crew members must be vaccinated, cruise ships will be among the very safest locations on the planet – with the entire population vaccinated. Making sensible choices like masking and social distancing while ashore, cruisers can avoid infection altogether.” Resort vacations are also safe with similar universal vaccinations and plenty of room for guests to spread out. Remember with no children during LGBTQ weeks at mainstream resorts, they offer much more space per adult guest. VACAYA’s big 2021 fall events include an all-inclusive Mexico resort vacation (Oct. 30-Nov. 6) and a New Orleans Cruise (Nov. 14-22). In 2022, there are only two trips that still have rooms available: the Caribbean Cruise (Jan. 10-17) and the all-inclusive Costa Rica Resort (June 5-12). Information and booking at MyVACAYA.com.

Not only will queer tour companies get you there and back safely, but “they also can ensure your money is being spent with other welcoming, progressive and even queer businesses and individuals around the world,” according to Robert Sharp, founder of Out Adventures. “This is even more important,” he continues, “when planning travel to countries that are known to be less than queer welcoming.” Visit their site to read about their New Year’s Eve trips to Thailand and Cuba and in 2022, their Iceland winter trip, and four back-to-back Croatia small group cruises, which are starting to sell out.

R Family Vacations is one of our top recommendations for planning an incredibly fun and satisfying tour or cruise (big ship and river cruises) in the company of other queer travelers and allies. You don’t even have to have children to join their trips. In 2022, R Family offers land tours in Thailand and Ireland; an LGBTQ group on board a cruise in Alaska; and a magical all-queer full-ship-charter Uniworld river cruise in Northern Italy among other trips. Information: R Family Vacation, rfamilyvacations.com.

Even in this uncertain time, you can enjoy enriching and joyful travel opportunities in LGBTQ-friendly environments in a way that maximizes safety and minimizes risk. You just have to plan a little more. We highly recommend using an LGBTQ expert travel adviser who keeps up to date on LGBTQ-friendly tour, cruise, and safari providers, as well as destinations and hotels and that understand innately the needs and concerns of LGBTQ travelers. They dedicate themselves to both LGBTQ travel safety and keeping up with the latest, ever-shifting pandemic-era guidance, health protocols, openings, and closings. They know how to get the best value for your time and money, and, thanks to their global connections, they can often score VIP upgrades for you at hotels, on cruise lines, on tours, and more. They are also your most important advocate when trips are cancelled or rescheduled. Best of all clients use travel advisers, like our top picks here, for no additional fees:

Kelli Carpenter, who also co-owns R Family Vacations; [email protected]

Jonathan Alder, Travelstore USA; [email protected]; and 

Sandie Anders; Bursch Travel; [email protected]

Giuseppe Giulio; Gay Friendly Italy; [email protected]

We’ve heard far too many stories of queer guests receiving a frosty welcome (or worse) when checking into a hotel or AirBnB. These are our top choices for LGBTQ-friendly resources for accommodations where you can truly relax and be your authentic selves:

MisterBnB includes one million LGBTQ-friendly listings in 200 countries and is primarily geared towards gay men.

FabStayz proudly offers accommodations inclusive of all the letters of our ever-growing acronym.

Orbitz Pride lists LGBTQ-friendly accommodations; and

Booking.com is rolling out an LGBTQ certification program, including live training and ancillary materials, for their hotel partners over the next year. Look for the “Proud Hospitality” label on listings. 

NYC-based Ed Salvato is a freelance travel writer, instructor at NYU and the University of Texas at Austin’s NYC Center, and an LGBTQ tourism marketing specialist. This article is courtesy of the National LGBT Media Association.

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Saugatuck/Douglas is the art coast of Michigan

Beaches and peaches abound in this LGBTQ-friendly escape

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The Saugatuck Dunes State Park offers breathtaking scenery. (Photo by Bill Malcolm)

The Saugatuck-Douglas villages in Southwest Michigan are the only LGBTQ-focused vacation areas between Provincetown and the Russian River in California. Nestled with sandy beaches along Lake Michigan (and fresh, shark-free waters), the area is not only an artist colony but now features a plethora of wineries and microbreweries and is a fruit basket (blueberries, peaches, apples, and more are all grown here). With two LGBTQ+ resorts (Dunes Resort and CampIt), there is something for everyone and for every budget. Don’t forget to take home some blueberries and peaches.

WHAT TO DO

Oval Beach in Saugatuck is an award winner. The sunsets are incredible. You can hike for miles in the nearby dunes or walk along the beach. You can also climb to the top of nearby Mount Baldhead, a high sand dune on the west side of the river. 

Take a tour of the Kalamazoo River out to Lake Michigan on an authentic stern wheel paddleboat. I loved the sunset cruise. Snacks and drinks available (cash only). You will find them at 716 Water St. in Saugatuck (saugatuckboatcruises.com). Check out the new 1860s era fish shanty and Fish Market next door. It features posters telling about the colorful fishing history of Saugatuck. 

Take a hike to the beach at the Wau-Ke-Na Nature Preserve at 116th St. just south of West Side County Park. Further north you will find the historic Pier Cove Beach (2290 Lakeshore Dr., Fennville).

North of Saugatuck you can take a hike up the dunes and down at Laketown Beach. It’s free but parking is limited. 

Take a walk around historic downtown Douglass, which even has a park honoring the Dunes Resort founders who turned the area into an LGBTQ destination. Enjoy “Unmasked: Photographic Portraits After 2020” at the new Douglas Library. 

The Saugatuck Center for the Arts has shows all summer including “Dixie’s Tupperware Party” and “Just Too Big: Songs from Broadway Blockbusters.” Details and tickets at sc4a.org.

Pick blueberries at Blue Star Farms or just grab a pint to go. (bluestarblueberries.com)

Take a hike through the sand dunes and forest down to the beach at Saugatuck Dunes State Park. 

WHERE TO STAY 

The Dunes Resort in Douglas (333 Blue Star Highway) offers cabins and motel rooms that are affordable at the weekday special rate (Monday-Wednesday). Don’t miss the bar scene, the outdoor bar and dance floor, and the many special events. The T Dance on Sundays includes a barbeque. The pool scene includes cocktails and food to order as well as cabanas. It’s another must and is great for people watching.

Upcoming events include:

Aug. 6-8 Mardi Gras Weekend

Aug. 20-21 White Party Weekend

For more information, go to dunesresort.com.

Other nearby motels include The Blue Star Motel next to the Dunes or the AmericInn just down the road, both in Douglas. The Northern Lights Condos also are an option. 

Down in Fennville, stay at the Camp It Resort, located at 6635 118th Ave. in Fennville (campitresort.com). This Michigan LGBTQ resort welcomes everyone. They just had their first trans week. Camping, cabins, bunk house, and other lodging options make this a place your affordable option. The Biggie Food Truck is perfect for a meal or snack. The pool scene is a lot of fun and they often have shows. Set on 33 acres, there store has everything you need and is open late on weekends. They too have a lot going on this season including:

July 23-25 Christmas in July

Sept. 17-19 Wine and Dine Weekend includes a tour of nearby wineries

Oct. 8-10 includes a tour of 3 new nearby microbreweries

WHERE TO EAT

The new women-owned Guardian Brewery and restaurant has a great Sunday Brunch. Their micro brews are very good. They are just off exit 41 off I-196 in Saugatuck. 

The Farmhouse Deli (100 Blue Star Highway, Douglas) features farm to table deli sandwiches, soups, and fresh squeezed juices. They are at 100 Blue Star Highway in Douglas. Try the carrot blend, Zing, fresh juice creation.

The new Isabel’s Market and Eatery (across from the Dunes Resort at 310 Blue Star Highway) features local products and has an Italian theme. Try the pastrami sandwich. You can even take a cooking class. 

Don’t miss the pizza and subs at Lakeshore Convenience and Pizza, 155 Blue Star Highway in Douglas. 

The Uncommon Coffee Roasters in downtown Saugatuck is perfect for a coffee. Pick up some beans to go.

The What Not in Fennville is another local favorite. Don’t miss the fish fry on Fridays. 

GETTING THERE

The area is about two hours from Chicago and three hours from Detroit. You can also fly into Grand Rapids or take Amtrak to Holland. If you stay at the Dunes, you might be able to get away with no car. Otherwise you need one although they do have an on-demand bus and bike rentals in downtown Saugatuck. 

FOR MORE INFORMATION 

Stop by the Saugatuck Douglas Visitors Information Center in Douglas (95 Blue Star Highway) or visit their website, Saugatuck.com.

Bill Malcolm is the nation’s only LGBTQ+ value travel columnist. Based in Indianapolis, his columns have appeared in publications across the country. His opinions are his own. Special thanks to Oval Beach, the Saugatuck Douglas Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, Douglas Dunes Resort, and Camp It Resort.

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