KEY WEST, Fla. -- Everything old can be new again, and this quaint
island outpost -- popular with gay and lesbian travelers since the
1970s -- is enjoying a revival on the alternative-lifestyle
vacation front, even as it welcomes more cruise passengers and
While some gay vacationers pass up tried-and-true Key West for
exotic Palm Springs, Calif., or Sitges, Spain, others are
rediscovering this balmy islet's cozy charms and traditional
In one of the most obvious signs of this gay revival, many of
the town's famed guesthouses -- some of which opened decades ago,
spearheading Key West's first tourism boom -- have gotten
multimillion-dollar face-lifts and overhauls.
The island even boasts a lesbian-run inn for women only.
In fact, Stephen Smith, sales manager for gay markets at the
Monroe County Tourist Development Council, said Key West today has
"more exclusively gay and lesbian beds in guesthouses and
bed-and-breakfasts than we ever have had before."
That trend mirrors the rise of the local gay population, who now
accounts for about 30% of 7,400 residents.
Of course, while many of the 650,000 gay visitors Key West
welcomes each year opt to stay in "gay-exclusive" properties --
which account for only 4% of room inventory -- almost half choose
mixed venues, such as the Atlantic Shores Resort, or mainstream
accommodations, such as the Sheraton Suites, most of which are
"Just about every street you go down you see rainbow flags," said
Smith. "Whether it's on the fringes or in the historic Old Town,
'gay' is just so blended we don't even think of it as a separate
Yet the guesthouse stay remains the quintessential Key West
experience for many gay and lesbian visitors, who "hang around the
houses the bulk of the time, to chill out and relax," said
Travel agents typically account for up to 35% of bookings at Key
West's gay guesthouses, he added; not surprising, considering that
most -- despite limited inventory and high demand -- continue to
pay 10% commission to retailers.
Although guesthouse bookings can be a surefire money-earner for
retailers, Smith had one caveat: Match your clients to appropriate
"Agents should make sure they know what their clients want," he
said, as options range from romantic idylls for couples to more
freewheeling resorts geared to singles.
Retailers also should be aware that most gay guesthouses are
clothing-optional, at least in pool or sunbathing areas.
"Agents should call any property they're not familiar with to be
sure," he noted. "The guesthouse owners are very open."
A recent site inspection tour of several gay-owned and -operated
guesthouses on or near the Fleming Street historic corridor
revealed stylish and/or new accommodations and a range of client
mixes, from all-male or all-female to a convivial mix of the
All the following guesthouses pay 10% and welcome drop-in site
inspections by travel agents.
Something for everyone
Alexander's Guesthouse: This distinctive inn is about as
integrated as guesthouses get in Key West, with a 60/40
male-to-female guest ratio.
Built in the early 1900s, Alexander's was renovated in 1981 in
Key West casual style.
Select rooms boast private verandas or decks; guests enjoy
complimentary expanded continental breakfast poolside and cocktails
All 17 rooms and suites are equipped with air conditioning,
cable TV, refrigerator, hair dryer and iron and ironing board.
Nightly rates run from $90 for a queen room to $180 for a
two-bed apartment in low season; $105 to $225 in midseason; and
$150 to $300 in high season. For details, call (800) 654-9919 or
Big Ruby's: One of Key West's oldest gay-exclusive guesthouses,
Big Ruby's offers 17 plush rooms to an upscale, more mature and
largely male clientele, although women are welcome.
Guests enjoy complimentary breakfasts cooked to order, evening
wine get-togethers poolside and air-conditioned rooms featuring
king-size pillows and extra-thick linens.
The courtyard, clothing-optional pool is shaded by exotic,
tropical foliage; the property contains a small gym.
Rates range from $137 to $300 (to May 31 and from Oct. 1 to Dec.
17) to $163 to $455 (Dec. 18 to March 31). For more, call (800)
477-7829 or visit www.bigrubys.com.
Pearl's Rainbow: Key West's only lesbian-run guesthouse for
women only opened in 1989 but was purchased in 2000 by its current
proprietors, who've been busily renovating it in a colorful, airy
Caribbean style ever since.
Set in a former cigar factory on the south end of the Duval
Street corridor, the property's 32 rooms and suites boast queen or
king beds, color TV and air conditioning; clothing is optional
poolside and on sundecks.
There are two swimming pools and hot tubs, large sunning decks,
on-site massage services, daily continental breakfast and Pearl's
Patio, a poolside bar and grill.
Nightly rates range, depending on season, from $99 to $139 for
"skyview" rooms with queen beds, to $149 to $299 for poolside
suites with king beds. To book, call (800) 749-6696 or visit www.pearlsrainbow.com.
Equator Resort: This 6-year-old, men-only resort sports 19 rooms
and suites -- some of the largest on the island. Two of the suites
come with two-man Jacuzzis.
Smokers beware: The entire property -- housed in two adjoining,
beautifully renovated wooden residences -- is nonsmoking, save for
Amenities include a heated pool; an eight-person whirlpool spa;
outdoor, private balconies and decks; and soundproofed walls.
Nightly rates run from $100 to $145 (May 27 to Oct. 17) to $125
to $170 (to May 21 and Oct. 27 to Dec. 19) and from $150 to $205
during holiday periods. For more, call (800) 278-4552 or visit www.equatorresort.com.
For your guys only
Island House: According to locals, this legendary all-male
guesthouse was "falling apart" until new owners Jon Allen and
Martin Kay embarked on some $2.5 million in renovations four years
What's resulted is a secluded, self-contained and well-appointed
vacation complex that features 38 double, queen or king rooms (20
with bath); a large pool and Jacuzzi; a fully equipped gym; a small
movie theater; and a cafe and bar.
Each guest room features a luxurious bed: a premium mattress
topped with a feather bed; 250-thread-count linens; white
goose-down comforter; and four down-filled pillows.
What hasn't changed is the inn's decidedly "adult" orientation;
more conservative clients may feel uncomfortable.
Nightly rates run from $119 to $239 in spring and fall, $99 to
$209 in the summer and $139 to $289 in winter. For details, call
(800) 890-6284 or visit www.islandhousekeywest.com.
Oasis/Coral Tree Inn: These "sister" guesthouses are adjacent
all-male properties under constant renovation by owner Hobart
Clients at the 20-room Oasis and 11-room Coral Tree Inn share
amenities, facilities and services, including three pools; the
island's largest Jacuzzi, which seats 24; and multilevel sunbathing
Other perks include an in-room bottle of wine on arrival and
on-site bicycle rental.
Rates from May 1 to Dec. 16 range from $109 to $149 per night at
the Coral Tree and from $109 to $169 at Oasis. To book, call (800)
362-7477 or visit www.keywest-allmale.com.
For more on gay Key West, contact the Monroe County Tourist
Development Council at (877) 724-5247 or visit www.fla-keys.com/gaykeywest.
Room Key: Atlantic Shores Resort
Address: 510 South St., Key West, Fla. 33040-3118
Phone: (305) 296-2491
Fax: (305) 294-2753
Reservations: (800) 547-0715
Reservations manager: Todd Jones
Rates: Until May 26, $90 to $175; May 28 to Dec.
25, $75 to $150; Dec. 26 to Dec. 31, $220 to $360.
No. of Rooms: 72
Facilities: 24-hour reception/concierge;
oceanfront pool/deck; poolside grill; Diner Shores restaurant
Review: Basic accommodations in art-deco,
motel-style digs. Mixed gay/straight clientele. Oceanfront,
clothing-optional pool area with grill and bar is open to the
public. Sunday and Wednesday dances and Thursday outdoor movie
nights are popular with locals. Overall, a friendly, no-frills
property with responsive staff and fairly wholesome ambience at
quieter end of the Duval Street corridor.