Walla Walla, Washington
Rapidly growing in reputation as one of America's fastest-growing winemaking regions, the laid-back but sophisticated town of Walla Walla, Washington lies just east of the Columbia River valley, roughly a four-hour drive east of Portland, Oregon, and a 4.5-hour drive southeast of Seattle. This city of about 30,000 has an inviting, historic downtown rife with wine-tasting rooms, cute cafes, and fun shops. A number of gays and lesbians have settled in this area in recent years, lured by the region's sunny climate and beautiful setting (the hills surrounding the city recall southern France), outstanding wineries, and educated, relatively progressive population - the city is home to the excellent liberal arts school, Whitman College, as well as Walla Walla University.
Dozens of wineries and vineyards are producing highly acclaimed wines, including such notable vineyards as Abeja, Cayuse, Leonetti, L'Ecole No. 41, Pepper Bridge, and SYZYGY. Among restaurants, check out such gay-popular spots as the trendy and contemporary CreekTown Cafe, and the charming 26 Brix. Foodies should also check out the wonderful cheese and salumi shop, Salumiere Cesario, as well as the genial, gay-friendly bakery and cafe, Colville Street Patisserie, as well as lovely Walla Walla Roastery, which is by the several wineries located by the city's small airport. There's not much in the way of gay nightlife in these parts, but you'll find a mix of gays and straights at most of the popular wine bars in town.
Downtown Jerome, Arizona
Just a 25-mile drive across the verdant Verde Valley from the red rocks of Sedona, the funky old mining village of Jerome clings precipitously to a steep hillside, its downtown buzzing with offbeat shops, art galleries, and gay-friendly saloons, cafes, and restaurants - plus a few hotels. Contact the Jerome Chamber of Commerce for tourism information on this quirky little community.
Cannon Beach, Oregon
About 40 miles southeast of Anchorage on the Turnagain Arm of Cook Inlet, the small, outdoorsy village of Girdwood is home to one of the state's most luxury ski and sports resorts, the Alyeska Resort, along with a number of vacation rentals and a few B&Bs. It's a tiny town, perfect for a weekend getaway from Anchorage, or as a stopover en route to the Kenai Peninsula and towns like Whittier or Seward. The nearest gay scene of any kind is back up in Anchorage (which also hosts a well-attended Alaska PrideFest Gay Pride celebration each June), but this is a welcoming, laid-back community, and the Alyeska Resort is quite gay-friendly - it's the best spot in town for dining as well as a great ski area and a popular spot for mountain biking, hiking, horseback riding, and other summertime adventures.
Madrid, New Mexico
Madrid (pronounced "MAH-drid", emphasis first syllable, as opposed to how it's pronounced in Spain) had been a thriving mining community during the first half of the 20th century, fell into a state of neglect after the mining business pulled out, and was gradually transformed into a progressive, artsy, eccentric (and again thriving) community from the 1970s onward - Madrid now abounds with first-rate art galleries and crafts shops, generally offering wonderful items at far lower prices than in nearby Santa Fe. For a tiny town, Madrid has an active and vibrant GLBT community, with the community's festive and funky Mine Shaft Tavern serving as an unofficial social (and culinary) hub.
This small village in North-Central New Mexico along the Turquoise Trail (Hwy. 14), a scenic byway that connects Santa Fe and Albuquerque. It's a slower but more enjoyable alternate route to I-25. By interstate, the drive takes about an hour, while it takes about an hour and 45 minutes, not including stops, if you take the Turquoise Trail - here's a map of the route. Madrid is 25 miles or 40 minutes' drive south of Santa Fe, and 45 miles or 60 minutes' drive north of Albuquerque).
Situated on the shore of shimmering Lake Pend Oreille (pronounced "PAHN-dor-ay"), which is only about 20% smaller than Lake Tahoe and is the fifth-deepest lake in the country, artsy and progressive (by Idaho standards) Sandpoint is a popular base for outdoor recreation. There's great boating, fishing, and hiking in summer, and superb skiing all winter at Schweitzer Mountain, just 10 miles north of town. Located in the narrow northern Idaho panhandle, Sandpoint is 75 miles north of Spokane.
Given its considerable distance from major cities (Seattle, six hours away, is closest) and its location in a conservative state, Sandpoint doesn't have an especially visible gay scene. You wouldn't want to come here with high expectations of meeting fellows "family." However, as a relaxing, beautiful, and sophisticated outdoors mecca, Sandpoint is an ideal—if underrated—destination for gay couples or friends traveling together.
The town of about 7,000 sits on the lake, and its lively downtown hums with art galleries, boutiques (it's the headquarters of the women's apparel company, Coldwater Creek), cafes, and pubs. Among places to drink and eat, the inviting Coldwater Creek Wine Bar, which is directly above the downtown shop, is a terrific option not only for sampling great wine but also for creative salads, panini sandwiches, and organic coffee. You can also sample quite good local wines at Pend d'Oreille Winery and Tasting Room - they produce an especially notable Sangiovese reserve, and they serve light tapas in their Bistro Rouge Cafe.
Other excellent venues for dining include rambling Eichardt's Pub, which is ground-zero in town for people-watching and serves first-rate elk burgers, garlic fries, and deftly prepared comfort food; sophisticated Sand Creek Grill, whose creative regional Northwestern fare is among the most accomplished in town; and Joel's, a casual Mexican restaurant.
Among gay-welcoming accommodations, one of the coolest is Sleep's Cabins, a cozy collection of smartly decorated vacation cottages on the lake (the photo above is taken from their dock). Established in 1936, this rustic compound is the quintessence of lakeside serenity and beauty. Also excellent and directly on the lake, the upscale Lodge at Sandpoint is a snazzy, contemporary boutique hotel built in 2007. For longer stays, also consider Dover Bay Bungalows, a new collection of 19 warmly decorated, modern cottages on the lake - it's just a few miles west of downtown Sandpoint.