Key West guesthouses spearhead gay revival

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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 family travelers.

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 tolerance.

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 gay-friendly.

Pearl's Rainbow is Key West's sole guesthouse run for and by gay women exclusively. Above, the pool. "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 thing."

Agent-friendly option

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 Smith.

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 properties.

"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 two.

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 at sunset.

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 visit http://home.aol.com/alexghouse.

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 balconies.

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 ago.

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 Resorts.

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 decks.

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
E-mail:[email protected]
Web:www.atlanticshoresresort.com
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.
Commission: 10%
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.

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