Above: Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras may be the lure that first brings many gay and lesbian visitors to Australia, but it is the continent's natural beauty and unique fauna that bring those visitors back.
The author: Sasha Alyson is the founder of Alyson Publications, the country's leading publisher of gay and lesbian books. He sold that company in 1995 to start Alyson Adventures, which specializes in active and adventure vacations for gay men and lesbians.
Return to Table of Contents of Venturing Out
My friend Gerry, born and raised in Massachusetts, boasts that our New England winters build character. A colleague in our local gay business group says that a two-week vacation in the Caribbean makes winter practically painless. And John explained that he took up skiing when he moved to Boston, "so I'll have something to look forward to as the leaves drop off the trees."
In short, all of us in the north have evolved strategies for getting through the cold season. And most of us have decided that following the birds on their migration south, albeit for a shorter visit, goes far toward making the winter tolerable.
Florida, the Caribbean, California, and Hawaii are the most popular destinations for these winter escapes. But if you're looking for a truly different experience, three countries offer a special appeal for the gay visitor with a little extra time and money.
Many of us in North America think of South and Central America as one big, undifferentiated territory south of the Rio Grande. But once you've been there, you know: Each country has a distinct character. Costa Rica and Columbia are as different as California and Kansas. If eco-tourism appeals to you, Costa Rica is an ideal choice.
First, it's gay-friendly. Costa Ricans have largely avoided the machismo that pervades so much of Latin America. San Jose, the capital, has an open gay community with several gay bars, restaurants, and guesthouses. Manuel Antonio National Park has a clothing-optional beach with a gay section in a nearby cove. ("Watch out for the tide!" advises Jon Sween of Above and Beyond Tours.)
Costa Rica's varied ecosystems are the principal reason for visiting, however. If you join a gay tour, do so not in the expectation of hot nightlife, but "to experience the most beautiful places on Earth in a gay group", as Dan Ware of Toto Tours puts it. The sights include the spectacular pyrotechnic displays of Arenal Volcano, one of the world's most active. Forest hikes and boat safaris provide a chance to see such wildlife as crocodiles, tortoises, tapirs, jaguars and a multitude of birds.
Take the Alps from Switzerland and the lakes from England, the dolphin-filled waters of Greece and the deep glacier-carved fjords of Finland. Put them all together on a small island -- and you'll be amazed how much room is still left for sheep. That's New Zealand.
January temperatures average 72 degrees in Auckland, amidst summer "Down Under", and no country has more varied and picturesque scenery. Since they speak English (sort of), and are well set up for tourists, many Americans find it best to get a guidebook, pick out the sights, cities, and attractions that most appeal to their interests, and see New Zealand independently.
Those who prefer a more organized approach can try Above and Beyond Tours' "New Zealand Adventure", February 14-20, which concentrates on the South Island. From the snow-capped Alps to meadows of sheep to a cruise on the fjords of Milford Sound (and more sheep!), it's a perfect sampler of this friendly country. Serious party animals can stay for Auckland's Hero Party, February 21-22 -- the weekend before Sydney's Mardi Gras.
Many gay men and lesbians, including myself, were first drawn to Australia by the growing reputation of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, which is now the biggest gay party in the world.
What keeps me (for one) going back are Australia's other charms. The people are friendly and laid-back, with not a touch of pretension. (The big status symbol is claiming direct descent from one of the convicts who originally settled the continent.) Sydney, set on a sparkling harbor, is clean, safe, exciting, and pretty. Beaches are superb; so are the lifeguards.
Homosexuality is legal and most Australians consider it no one else's business what you do in bed. And the natural areas, from the mountains to the Great Barrier Reef, provide a vast playground in which to enjoy plant and animal life unique to this long-isolated island.
Several gay travel companies have a Mardi Gras trip, each with its own accent. If maximum party time is your goal, try Atlantis Events. Their Sydney week can be followed by "Day Dream Island", where a whole resort turns gay from March 2-7 (800-628-5268; ).
My own company, Alyson Adventures, emphasizes active vacations when we venture Down Under, so we combine hiking and canyoning in the mountains, snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef, a rain-forest excursion, and 5 days in Sydney (800-825-9766) at Mardi Gras time. Also compare packages from Above and Beyond Tours (above). I've posted photos from the Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras for those considering a visit.
(Update: Since this was written, my enthusiasm for New Zealand has been translated into a trip: Wild Kiwi, on which you can do a different activity every day, from kayaking to snorkeling with dolphins to canyoning. If you'd like to see New Zealand with a friendly gay group, I hope you'll consider joining us!)