Spring break partying and vacationing has been a rite of U.S. college life for decades, and as gay and lesbian students continue to become more visible, active, and socially connected on college campuses, "Gay Spring Break" trips are becoming wildly popular. The spring break season runs from around the first week in March through early April, depending on when colleges schedule their breaks, and the top GLBT destinations range from lazy beach resorts to action-packed ski towns.
To a large degree, the leading spring break spots regardless of sexual orientation tend to be sunny, relatively affordable, and abundant with nightlife. Beach resorts have long led the charge, dating back to the '50s and '60s, when Fort Lauderdale attracted swarms of partying students. Interestingly, that city eventually began to discourage spring break visitors, in an effort to redevelop its beachfront into a more upscale, sophisticated resort destination. By the end of the '90s, Fort Lauderdale had succeeded, in part, by courting gay and lesbian visitors and rebranding as one of the nation's GLBT vacation hot spots. Not surprisingly, Fort Lauderdale has again become popular with both straight and gay spring breakers, although the scene is comparatively upscale and a bit more mature these days.
The spring break meccas you hear most about (Panama City, Florida; Cancun, Mexico; South Padre Island, Texas) fit the tradition of affordability, beaches, and clubbing. These three spots aren't especially popular with gay students, however. The best bets for gay spring break include a mix of classic gay resort destinations (Key West, Palm Springs, Puerto Vallarta, and to a lesser extent Fort Lauderdale, Miami, Orlando, San Diego, and Los Angeles), along with the key ski towns in Colorado, New England, and to a lesser extent Utah as well as Lake Tahoe.
Not all spring breakers are keen on vacationing among huge groups or being restricted to places with affordable hotels and cheap flights. If you've got the budget for it, and you're up for a more romantic, upscale, adventure-driven getaway, you might consider Honolulu or other islands in Hawaii, or perhaps Costa Rica, Puerto Rico, or Curacao. The variety of inviting, gay-friendly spring break locales is considerable and diverse
Key West, Florida
The quirky, historic community at the southern tip of Florida (it's actually in the Caribbean, about 80 miles from Cuba), Key West has been a mecca for gay travelers for more than a half century (and it discreetly cultivated a "family" following long before that). As a spring break option, it has a lot going for it. It's among the warmest destinations in the country, so even when cooler temps prevail elsewhere in Florida, Key West tends to remain ideal for beach-combing and sunning by the pool. The palm-shaded community abounds with gay bars and funky restaurants, most of which are within easy walking distance of the several gay resorts in town (you'll find a mix of gay-male-exclusive and mixed gay/lesbian resorts).
In recent years, Key West has actively courted gay college students, hosting an official Gay Spring Break Key West celebration that's helped raise its image and popularity during the spring break season. A number of businesses in town offer discounts to participants. Just drop by the Key West Business Guild (513 Truman Ave.) when you arrive in town, present a student ID, and you'll be given a pass entitling you to deals at gay-popular resorts, restaurants, and bars.
As a gay party destination, Key West works well because it's a compact, welcoming community where a car isn't needed to get around, and where it's easy to mingle with and meet others at gay resorts and bars. It's upscale but not excessively expensive, and it's easy to find flights directly to the island from Miami, Atlanta, Tampa, and Charlotte (major carriers include American, Delta, and United). If it is massive crowds, miles of beaches, and a circuit-party scene you're after, Key West might not be your best bet. It's happily laid-back and has a population of just 25,000 or so. But balancing cool diversions, gay-friendliness, value, climate, and beauty, Key West is a terrific overall gay spring break getaway.
The top gay resort destination in the West, the dry and sunny desert community of Palm Springs offers easy access to spring breakers in this part of the country. The city's airport has direct flights on most major airlines from numerous major hubs, and it's also within a two- to three-hour drive of Los Angeles and San Diego. Although the city's many clothing-optional gay resorts and pulsing nightclubs have made it a top vacation destination this time of year, until recently, it tended to attract a somewhat older crowd. Many hotels have undergone hip makeovers, and a reinvigorated dining and nightlife scene has increased the city's cachet among younger gay and lesbian visitors, and the solid supply of economical and mid-range accommodations (to balance out the many fancy spots) makes it a good bet for students with limited budgets.
One major caveat: If your spring break plans are for early April, keep in mind that Palm Springs hosts two of the biggest and wildest GLBT parties in the world at this time: the lesbian-oriented Dinah Shore Weekend over five days in early April, and the guy-centered Palm Springs White Party, in late April. That's great news if you want to party with masses of other gay and lesbian revelers (of all ages), but it also means that rates at hotels in Palm Springs can be very steep at this time, and the most popular gay resorts and hotels in Palm Springs tend to book up early.
Western Ski Towns: Aspen, Telluride, Vail, Park City, Lake Tahoe
As America's top ski regions go, Colorado is tops for gay spring breakers. It's home to several ski resort communities with popular GLBT followings, including swanky Aspen, stunning Telluride (which hosts Telluride Gay Ski Week from late February through early March), and diverse and accessible Vail. Although somewhat less noted among gay travelers, ski hubs like Crested Butte, Breckenridge, Steamboat Springs, Durango, Winter Park, and Pagosa Springs also make terrific spring-break skiing getaways.
Unless you're attending one of the aforementioned gay ski weeks, none of these towns is going to wow you with gay nightlife or GLBT parties, so planning a spring break adventure to a Colorado ski town works best for small groups of buddies vacationing together. Of the state's ski areas, Vail probably has the strongest tradition with spring breakers (albeit, the scene is mostly hetero but very laid-back and welcoming to all).
Compared with sun-in-the-fun destinations, ski destinations are consistently more expensive, at least if you actually plan on doing any skiing. You're not going to find many resorts that offer lift-ticket discounts for adults (the cutoff for student deals is usually 18) in March and early April, as this is big-time high season for all ages. Aspen and Telluride are among the most expensive ski towns in the country, but if you're within driving distance of these towns and can find a few friends to share a basic condo or motel room with, even these high-end spots are potentially doable. You'll find cheaper accommodations at many of the ski areas along the I-70 corridor, including Vail.
As an alternative, Park City, Utah has similarly amazing skiing. Conservative Utah has less of a gay following than Colorado, but Park City and the state's largest city, Salt Lake, which is just 30 to 40 minutes away by car, are quite tolerant.
Another reason to consider Utah: If you're aiming to save some money, you can find very cheap hotel accommodations in Salt Lake, which is also easy to reach from just about anywhere in the country, because it's a hub for Delta Airlines. And using Salt Lake City as your base, you can easily drive to nearly a dozen different top-of-the-line ski areas each day. Back in town each evening, you'll be close to several fun gay bars, including Club Jam and Try-Angles.
Last but by no means least, major California ski areas like Lake Tahoe and Mammoth also draw plenty of gay spring breakers. Mammoth hosts its hugely popular Elevation Mammoth Gay Ski Week in mid-March, and it's a big hit with college students. And similarly popular Lake Tahoe Snowball Gay Ski Weekend takes place in early March.
Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
Although Mexico has received plenty of negative attention in recent years because of drug-related violence, most of the tourism-driven parts of the country are quite safe, and the Mexican Riviera city of Puerto Vallarta, long a major winter retreat among gay travelers, is one of the safest. Concerns about safety in Mexico, coupled with weak local currency versus the U.S. dollar, make Puerto Vallarta remarkably affordable, even for students with limited funds.
Puerto Vallarta isn't quite the spring-break mecca that Cancun is, but keep in mind that Cancun draws a predominantly hetero crowd. For gay partying, Puerto Vallarta has lots to offer. The charming Zona Romantica neighborhood is easy to explore on foot, has wonderful beaches (including Los Muertos gay beach, which draws hundreds of cute sun bunnies this time of year), and a good variety of reasonably priced, gay-friendly hotels, restaurants, and bars.
Great for a romantic spring break with a girlfriend or boyfriend, or a social getaway with friends, Puerto Vallarta also offers plenty of opportunity for recreation, hiking, boating, and even zip-lining. The gay-friendly tour company Vallarta Adventures is a fine resource.
Florida's Other Gay Hot Spots: Fort Lauderdale, Miami, Orlando, and St. Pete
Florida has plenty of superb gay spring break possibilities beyond the charming resort town of Key West. Fabulous Fort Lauderdale was the state's original Spring Break party hub before the city classed things up in the 1990s, but it remains popular with students in March, thanks to the wealth of clothing-optional resorts and gay bars. Miami holds its famed gay Winter Party Festival in early March, Orlando has Walt Disney World (where Disney Gay Days takes place in August) and a myriad of other theme parks, and St. Petersburg and Tampa both enjoy a lively gay scene and offer solid value both in terms of places to stay, cheap flights, and inexpensive dining.
Gay Spring Break Road Trip: San Diego to Santa Barbara and Beyond
The coast of Southern California from San Diego up through Laguna Beach, Long Beach, Santa Monica (and, by extension, Los Angeles and West Hollywood), Malibu, and Santa Barbara provides some of the most dazzling scenery in the country. It's perfect for road-tripping, and that's one style of spring breaking that can be incredibly fun for the right group of friends. The great thing about hopping in the car and spending a night or two in these gay-friendly cities dotting the California coastline is that you can combine partying and relaxation with rugged adventure and memorable sightseeing.
The big cities of San Diego and Los Angeles abound with gay nightlife, not to mention countless opportunities for shopping, culture, and great dining. Head to Hillcrest and North Park in San Diego and West Hollywood in Los Angeles for the best in socializing. In between, the laid-back gay-popular coastal town of Laguna Beach, in Orange County, is well worth a visit, as is underrated Long Beach, which has some cool gay bars, fun coffeehouses, and a friendly, easy-going vibe.
Check out coastal Venice Beach and Santa Monica once you make it up to Los Angeles, and continue north for great beaches, hiking, and wineries in Santa Barbara and, if time allows, clear up the central coast through San Luis Obispo, Monterey, and Santa Cruz, before reaching the San Francisco Bay Area. You really can't go wrong choosing any stretch of coastal California for a spring break road trip. Just bear in mind that the weather is sunniest and most pleasant farther south.
Road-tripping as a spring break vacation isn't for everybody. It's not necessarily any more or less expensive than spending a week in one place, but be sure to factor in the cost of gas, rental cars (as applicable), and the fact that it's sometimes pricier to book a series of hotel rooms in different cities than a one-week-long hotel stay or condo rental in a beach resort. On the other hand, if you're traveling as a group of three to five friends, you can split the costs of a road-trip quite economically.
Factoring in the weather in March and early April and the opportunity for great scenery, a welcoming gay vibe, and fun nightlife, Southern California is the best gay spring break road-trip region of the country.
However, as an alternative, you might consider a trip in the Southwest through the Four Corners region (some combination of Sedona, Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, and Canyon de Chelly, Bryce and Zion, Arches and Canyonlands, Durango and Mesa Verde, Taos, Santa Fe, and Albuquerque. The Four Corners is spectacular, though it's almost entirely absent of nightlife. Think of it as the ideal nature adventure.
The entire southern half of the country is worth considering for a road trip during the spring break season. The Carolinas to the Georgia coast would work (think Wilmington, Myrtle Beach, Charleston, and Savannah), as would the Gulf Coast (Pensacola to New Orleans). It really just depends on your interests.
New England Ski Towns: Stowe, Killington, Sugarloaf, and the White Mountains
Spending spring break on the snowy slopes of some of America's top ski resorts can be tremendously rewarding. New England has several fine areas for this pursuit, from Stowe and Killington in Vermont to the several resorts of the White Mountains in New Hampshire to Sugarloaf and Sunday River in Maine. See above for a discussion on gay spring break ski vacations in Colorado and Utah. New England ski areas not only have great slopes, but they're also in a very gay-friendly part of the country.
Money Not a Concern? Consider Hawaii, Costa Rica, or the Caribbean
The common assumption about spring break travel is that the focus should be on economical destinations, where college students of limited means can potentially afford to spend a few days, or perhaps even a week. But not all spring breakers are strictly constrained by tight budgets, and if you're in a position to spend some dough, consider such intriguing tropical resort destinations as Hawaii (Honolulu for an urban partying experience, the other islands of Maui, Kauai, and the Big Island for nature), Costa Rica, or the Caribbean.
In fact, day-to-day expenses related to accommodations, food, nightlife, and attractions aren't necessarily much steeper in these regions than they are in the other spring break destinations mentioned here. Hawaii can be quite pricey, especially during the late winter high season. The more gay-friendly parts of the Caribbean like Curacao, which has lately been making a major effort to attract gay and lesbian visitors; Puerto Rico (think San Juan and the blissful island of Vieques); and the U.S. Virgin Islands (there are gay-friendly resorts on St. Croix and St. Thomas) have some fairly affordable accommodations.
Costa Rica can be downright cheap, even for quite elegant accommodations. But the challenge with all of these places is finding airfare from most North American cities that won't set you back $400 or more round-trip.
Most of these spots are geared more toward couples seeking romance than students angling to party, but Honolulu has a handful of fun gay bars, as does San Juan. And if you spend your time in Costa Rica around Manual Antonio National Park and the village of Quepos, it's pretty easy to meet other GLBT travelers.
Some of the other places mentioned in this guide like Aspen, Telluride, Miami Beach, Palm Springs, and Santa Barbara also abound with high-end accommodations, although cheaper motels and condos are found in all of them, to varying degrees. Again, just keep in mind that luxury vacations, as it concerns younger travelers, typically skews more toward intimate and refined travel experiences, rather than nonstop parties and youthful socializing.
Las Vegas, Nevada
Among landlocked U.S. cities, the glitzy metropolis of Las Vegas gets plenty of attention from gay spring breakers. It's easy to get there, as it's served by virtually every airline with direct flights from all over the country, and it's within a half-day drive of Southern California, Phoenix, Albuquerque, and Salt Lake City.
It's fairly easy to find cheap hotel rooms, and there's no shortage of opportunities to party, whether at Sin City's many gay and gay-friendly nightclubs, or gambling in casinos. Vegas has a wealth of noteworthy restaurants, from high-end celeb-chef palaces of haute cuisine to bargain-priced dives and 24-hour buffets. Some find Vegas brash and irritatingly noisy and commercial, but the glamour, neon, and energy are much of the fun for many visitors.
New Orleans, Louisiana
Depending on the timing each year, it's possible to plan your spring break vacation to coincide with the famed (and quite gay-popular) Mardi Gras celebration in New Orleans each year. Regardless of whether you come for Mardi Gras, the six weeks from early March into mid-April are excellent for visiting this festive city.
There are many gay bars and clubs around the French Quarter and just downriver is the Faubourg Marigny district. New Orleans has an incredible food scene, all-night gay bars, quirky and distinctive shopping, and a fine mix of gay-friendly hotels in all price ranges. For social butterflies and groups of friends traveling together, New Orleans is like Las Vegas, a reliably fun and exciting urban
What About the Hetero Spring Break Meccas - Cancun, Panama City, Padre Island?
Many of North America's top spring break destinations aren't especially appealing or popular with gay and lesbian travelers. Cancun, Mexico is arguably the top spring break getaway on the continent, and it does have a handful of gay nightclubs and accommodations.
Within the United States, the Gulf Coast community of Panama City Beach has gradually edged out Daytona Beach as Florida's spring break hub. Again, it's pretty straight. South Padre Island in Texas and Lake Havasu City in Arizona are others.
Are these mostly straight party playgrounds to be avoided by GLBT students? Not necessarily. It really depends on what your criteria are for a good time. None of these destinations are inherently unsafe for gay visitors, but obviously, if you're in Cancun or Panama City at a nightclub or party that's packed with straight collegiate types, many of whom have had a bit to drink, you might want to exercise more discretion and caution (avoid same-sex public displays of affection) than were you in Key West, Palm Springs, or any of the other more gay-welcoming destinations outlined elsewhere in this article.
That being said, there is gay nightlife in Cancun and Panama City, and the popular Texas spring break getaway, South Padre Island has a gay circuit party each spring and fall, called Splash Padre Island (these are held in late April and mid-October, however, not during spring break). One of the more rapidly burgeoning spring break spots in the country, Lake Havasu City, has virtually no gay scene to speak of. This popular boating and hiking destination just across California from the Colorado River is somewhat conservative, but as students are coming here in greater numbers each year, the nascent gay presence is growing.
For the most part, these predominantly straight spring party meccas probably aren't the best bets for gay travelers seeking a vacation among like-minded souls. But if for some reason you're headed to any of these places, perhaps because you run with a mostly straight group of friends, you'll probably find Cancun offering the best gay scene (also see the notes above, in the Puerto Vallarta section, on safety in Mexico), with Panama City and South Padre Island both tied for second. Panama City Beach does have a very fun gay dance club, Splash Bar.