Montreal offers a warm welcome to gay and lesbian visitors -- until it's time to leave.
Above: The province of Quebec is well ahead of most U.S. states in welcoming gay visitors; this poster was issued by the tourism board.
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.
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The International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association held its annual convention in Montreal in May. The 4-day event was a lively reminder to several hundred gay and lesbian travel professionals that we don't have to cross the Atlantic to get the charm of Europe. Montreal is blessed with a lovely location, extensive cultural life, a vibrant gay and lesbian community, and a friendly population. And English is the official second language, not the unofficial one.
Best of all, this is a region where a gay group is fully welcomed. The province of Quebec issued a poster with the slogan "Visit Gay-Friendly Quebec '98", and I never heard a report of even a single anti-gay comment from any of the hundreds of guests.
Montreal is an easy 60-90 minute plane ride from major cities in the northeast and Midwest, and just a 5 hour drive, through scenic countryside, from Boston. You can feel like you've really gotten away to Europe, but in less time, for less money, and little or no jet-lag.
This column makes no effort to substitute for a good gay guidebook, but three spots are high on my list for a return visit the next time I'm in Montreal: The Drugstore (a bar) for a beer on its breezy outdoor terrace, South Beach Grill for innovative cuisine; and the vast dance club Unity. All are on, or near, the block of rue St.-Catherine known on gay maps as "Le Super Block".
Party animals will want to visit Montreal in the autumn, to catch the big Black & Blue Festival (Oct. 7 to 13), a week-long gala of parties, culture, sports, culminating in a 12,000-body party. Proceeds go to the non-profit BBCM Foundation, to support community and AIDS organizations. (514-875-7026).
Montreal weather was sunny, everyone was friendly. The weekend's only disappointment came at the airport, where some clueless bureaucrat had decided it would be clever to nickel-and-dime visitors one last time with an "airport improvement fee" upon departure.
"I feel like I'm in a banana republic," gruffed the man ahead of me, who paid a tax on top of the tax: Having spent up his Canadian cash, he had to pay with American dollars, which were accepted, but he couldn't get change back. Next year, perhaps the Montreal airport will distribute pistols to its staff, so everyone can shoot themselves in the foot and save on the cost of toenail clippers.
The Gay Games open in Amsterdam on August 1, with large crowds expected -- including some 15,000 athletes. Hotel rooms were booked up a year ago, but that doesn't mean last-minute travelers are out of luck. As I write this, many tour operators still have space, and are eager to sell it. Try European Gayways (800-923-3308); Club Hommes (201-861-5059); Men on Vacation (800-959-4636) and Above and Beyond (800-397-2681). This is a situation where the telephone is better than the web -- so close to the departure, availability may change faster than websites are updated.
Independent travelers also have a good shot at finding space. Tour operators often block out more space than they can fill, and by now, that's been released. A hotel that was booked up last month for the Gay Games may now offer a choice of rooms.
What are those hotels? Several gay Amsterdam guidebooks are available. A new one that I like is Damron Amsterdam, packed with information from a well-respected publisher. Check your local gay bookstore or call Damron: 800-462-6654. You can also get a good information kit from Netherlands Board of Tourism: 888-GOHOLLAND.
Holland is today considered the gay capital of Europe. Less known is the country's long history as a leader on gay rights. At a time when so many corporations court us for purely bottom-line reasons, it's refreshing to visit a country with a longstanding commitment to our civil rights. The pioneering C.O.C. began offering support and social opportunities for Amsterdam's gay community in 1946, and continues to be active. The Dutch government launched an early, active, and explicit AIDS prevention campaign. Gay people have served in the armed forces since 1974, and same-sex marriages are recognized in many cities.
It's too late to participate in the Gay Games as an athlete, but for other information go to www.dds.nl/~gaygames
Merger is in the air lately, and not just for the multinational corporations. Two of the leading web sources of gay travel information have joined forces: Planet Out Travel and Over the Rainbow. Look for them at www.overtherainbow.com; AOL users can just type in the keyword OTR.
Next Month: Discovering Southeast Asia