Palette Magazine

Caribbean Pride: LGBT-Friendly Island Getaways

By Shayne Benowitz

When it comes to easy getaways from South Florida, the Caribbean is a quick flight off the grid to islands where the water’s just a little bit bluer and the sun shines just a little bit brighter. And for those ready to bask in that sun — be it for a simple springtime escape or a long-awaited honeymoon — the Caribbean is calling. Whether you’re looking for a cosmopolitan retreat, the Caribbean's largest gay pride festival, island hopping in the lap of luxury or the relaxation of an all-encompassing resort, we’ve got four distinct destinations to tempt every type of traveler.

Puerto Rico – An Urbanite’s Paradise

With splashy hotels lining the beach, a burgeoning arts district, sizzling culinary delights and a nightlife scene that goes strong into the wee hours, Puerto Rico’s capital San Juan is one of the most gay-friendly destinations in the Caribbean, especially in trendy neighborhoods Condado and Santurce.

The oceanfront Condado is packed with resorts, like the Atlantic Beach Hotel (atlanticbeachhotel.com) on Calle Vendig, site of a popular gay beach, weekly drag shows and plenty of cafes and restaurants, like the chic, gay-owned Oceano (oceanopr.com), perfect for sunset drinks and dinner to the beats of a live DJ.

Nearby, Santurce is the hip, up-and-coming mecca for art and music with a string of sexy gay bars along Calle Condado. There, you’ll find Circo Bar, a multi-level hub for gay nightlife, featuring drag shows and dancing until dawn. Similarly, Scandalo draws a crowd ready to party, while Tía María’s Liquor Store is a more laid-back option, slightly off the beaten path, with pool tables and karaoke nights.

Just as San Juan has a hip nightlife scene, its culinary offerings are just as mouthwatering. For a taste of the truly authentic, head to El Jibarito, a no-frills joint serving some of the island’s best mofongo, a dish made of fried plantains swimming in a garlicky broth and often topped with pork cracklings — easily Puerto Rico’s signature dish. And for a little nostalgia, seek out Barrachina (barrachina.com), whose claim to fame is having invented the piña colada — go see for yourself!

In Old San Juan, with its narrow, cobblestone streets, pastel Spanish Revival architecture and wrought iron balconies, discover Jose Enrique (joseenriquepr.com) inside an unassuming yellow stucco façade. With fresh, down-to-earth fare prepared by one of Food & Wine magazine’s best new chefs, it’s also favored by Spanish celebrity chef José Andrés. Expect fresh caught fish, lobster fritters in lime and avocado mousse and crispy tostones the size of your head.

Another popular LGBT destination in Puerto Rico is Vieques Island, as well as the mainland. With a variety of LGBT-friendly guesthouses, there’s also a sleek W Retreat & Spa (wvieques.com) on the island, as well as the stylish new El Blok Hotel (elblok.com) with a hip bar and restaurant by Jose Enrique. It’s the perfect destination for snorkeling or kayaking amid the Bioluminescent Bay by night and beach hopping by day.

Curaçao – Out & Proud in the Tropics

The Dutch island of Curaçao, just 35 miles north of Venezuela, is a simmering melting pot of cultures with four official languages — Dutch, Spanish, English and Papiamentu (an African-Creole dialect). It’s also the most outwardly gay-friendly of the Caribbean islands, hosting the week-long South Caribbean Pride Festival in May (southcaribbeanpride.com), a celebration that brings together neighboring islanders and global travelers. With 17 hotels and attractions holding membership in The International Gay & Lesbian Travel Association (IGLTA) — the most of any Caribbean island — it’s safe to say that Curaçao is a safe haven for the LGBT community.

The Floris Suite Hotel (florissuitehotel.com) in Willemstad is ground zero for gay travel as it serves as the official host to the island’s pride festivals (there’s a Curaçao Pride Festival in late September, as well). It’s adults only and home to the always happening Rainbow Lounge. Expect a sexy scene with pool parties galore, live DJs and entertainment around the clock.

House music is definitely hot in Curaçao, as the island plays host to headliners like Afrojack, Hardwell and Sidney Samson at music festivals and clubs. Late night party spots for the LGBT crowd include Café de Heeren, a café by day and hopping dance venue by night, and Bermuda Caribbean Discotheque (bermudacuracao.com), with three distinct areas featuring a variety of DJs and live musicians in an indoor/outdoor historic setting. For a weekend party, head to Mambo Beach Club (mambobeach.com) and enjoy the beach, the pool and full bar in a festive, anything goes atmosphere.

Curaçao is not without its natural beauty. A hotspot for diving and snorkeling, don’t miss the chance to commune with nature. On the island’s northern stretches, you’ll find the rugged Christoffel National Park and Shete Boka National Park, best explored by ATV.

St. Martin/St. Maarten – Island Hopping Getaway

An island divided by French and Dutch territories, St. Martin/St. Maarten has plenty of European charm in a classic Caribbean setting. It’s also an ideal point of departure for island hopping and day trips to ritzy St. Barths, luxurious Anguilla and idyllic Saba. Famous for the perilously close positioning of Maho Beach to the Princess Juliana International Airport runway, visitors clamor to the sand to snap seemingly death-defying pictures of planes coming in for landing.

Once you’ve arrived, check into either Belmond La Samanna (belmond.com/la-samanna-st-martin), a luxurious retreat situated on 55 oceanfront-acres on the French side or the all-inclusive, adults-only Sonesta Ocean Point (sonesta.com/oceanpoint) on the Dutch side, both IGLTA members. Rainbow Beach Club (rainbowbeachclub.com) is the only gay guesthouse on the island, which happens to be located near Cupecoy Beach, one of St. Maarten’s clothing optional gay beaches. Also nearby is the upscale Blue Mall for your luxury shopping fix.

Nightlife in St. Martin/St. Maarten might not be as plentiful as Puerto Rico and Curaçao, but there are definitely hotspots to hit up during your stay. Bliss is the island’s gay megaclub under the stars on Maho Beach and Eros (erosclub-saintmartin.com) in Marigot has been the heart of LGBT nightlife for more than 30 years — their Saturday night parties are legendary.

For the only drag show and cabaret, head to L’Escargot (lescargotrestaurant.com) in a funky Creole cottage. The place also dishes up delicious French cuisine. Le Cottage is another excellent French restaurant with lobster preparations in every imaginable way (think: doused in ginger, swimming in coconut milk or prepared in a bisque over puff pastry).

U.S. Virgin Islands – Retreat to the Resorts

Characterized by dramatic, lush green mountaintops and tranquil coves with deep blue water as far as the eye can see, the U.S. Virgin Islands consist of St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. John, each accessible to one another by ferry. Like Puerto Rico, this U.S. territory requires no passport or customs lines for U.S. citizens and U.S. anti-discrimination laws protect it.

Although USVI is widely considered gay-friendly, it’s still advisable to be discreet in certain instances, as some locals have deeply set religious beliefs that may cause raised eyebrows. While the cosmopolitan St. Thomas has a nightlife scene in Frenchtown and Charlotte Amalie with bars catering to the gay traveler, these areas can be dangerous after dark. That’s why indulging in the offerings at an all-encompassing resort is often the way to go for both gay and straight travelers in USVI.

Some of the most luxurious resorts include the legendary Caneel Bay (caneelbay.com) in St. John, The Ritz-Carlton, St. Thomas (ritzcartlon.com/stthomas) and The Buccaneer (thebuccaneer.com) in St. Croix. These properties boast incredible amenities like multiple restaurants, pools, golf courses and expert concierges to meet your needs.

Today, St. Croix is considered the mecca of gay tourism in USVI where gay guesthouses like Sand Castle on the Beach (sandcastleonthebeach.com) can arrange anything from a gay-friendly dive trip to a romantic honeymoon or wedding package. The Palms at Pelican Cove (palmspelicancove.com) is another welcoming, gay-friendly, family-owned resort in Christiansted.

Popular activities in St. Croix include day sails to Buck Island Reef National Monument for unspoiled snorkeling amidst 700 acres of protected water. You can also tour the Cruzan Rum Distillery (cruzanrum.com/visitus) to learn the process for making this spirit from the island’s sugar cane and taste its varieties.

So whether it’s culture, nightlife, relaxation or luxury, the Caribbean has a full rainbow of offerings for all travelers, just a short flight away.

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