Speyside: how to make city gays fall in love with the Scottish countryside


Most of us want to escape our small towns for lives in the big city.

For some it was watching Sex and the City growing up, for others it’s loading up Grindr and seeing so many men that you have to upgrade to premium to see beyond 500 meters. For most it’s to escape the close-minded homophobia of little communities.

Whatever the reason for moving, after a few years of pollution, towering buildings and angry, angry people, we eventually beg for a sweet escape to the countryside.

Not permanently, sure. But a short retreat, to de-blacken our lungs and widen our eyes to the majesty of nature. And no place is better for this than Speyside, in the Scottish highlands.

The area gains its beauty from its sheer strength, combining stunning, rolling hills, adorable cottages, and a well-known weapon of mass-jubilation: Scotch whisky.

Speyside is cute, cute, cute 

The ride from the airport to your hotel is often one of the more exciting parts of the trip. In the city, you can see the layers of culture and society unfold, like a giant onion. In Speyside, it’s nearly all countryside.

Rivers run alongside the roads, so smooth and pure they look like they’re made of glass. The hills are bold and emerald, thriving in the wet climate. Harsh winds batter against the cars, whistling through the glass almost in warning.

The villages are Midsomer Murders quaint; all stone buildings and gardens running into fields. The Craigellachie Hotel, the 125-year-old hotel where I stayed, mixed this homely comfort with a contemporary edge. Think romantic countryside guesthouse with decent wifi.

Spirit of Speyside festival whisky gay

Speyside is incredibly LGBTI-friendly – and Scotland’s world-class protections will bring piece of mind | Photo: Tom Capon

A burning fire greets you at reception. To the right is a drawing room, complete with taxidermy and sofas so sinkable you’ll fall into another dimension after a day of whisky touring.

However, the Craigellachie thrives in the bedroom. The design is cosy without feeling like you’re visiting your grandma. The four-poster bed sat proudly in the center and, when I first saw it, I spent a good few minutes being sad I’m single.

The stone bathroom does have a gorgeous bath-shower. But it’s not as insulated as the rest of the room, weirdly, so it felt like I’d accidentally stepped through the door into the River Spey just outside the hotel.

Beam me up, Scotch-y

I’ve always considered myself a fan of whisky – as in, I can appreciate the taste without crying about it being too strong like an alcoholic baby. After heading to Speyside, it turns out I know as much about whisky as an ant knows about algebra.

Nearly everyone in the area is involved in the industry – from the youngest daughter to the oldest man. And everyone talks about it like they are collectively raising a child, but the child is booze. The region is home to half of Scotland’s Scotch distilleries.

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The beauty of Speyside is dramatic | Photo: Tom Capon

Which makes it the perfect location for the Spirit of Speyside festival, held in the first week of May every year. Distilleries, bars, hotels and shops across the area host a whole celebration dedicated to the drink, with nearly 29,000 people visiting from 34 different countries.

Unlike most festivals, this isn’t localized to one place. Speyside sprawls across the countryside, meaning you’ll have to explore the area to truly experience it all. My pre-festival preview tour began at Strathisla Distillery in Keith, the best looking distillery of them all.

Welcoming us with the mastery of Scottish hospitality, their guides showed us through this historic spot – it is, after all, the oldest working distillery in the area. The tour takes you past whirring machinery, acidic smells so strong your nose hairs flinch into your body, and rooms where photography could ignite the alcohol in the air and explode everything (no joke).

The tour culminated in the opportunity to create our own Scotch blend using a series of malt whiskies (meaning I could live out my fantasies of being a drunk mad scientist), before settling into the bar for a few whisky cocktails.

ivanka trump scientist meme speyside scotland whisky

Windswept and whisky-filled | Photo: Tom Capon

The hills are thriving with all kinds of different distilleries, offering variations on the above. Glen Grant Distillery is bigger and more modern – and also comes with the carefully curated Victorian Gardens to boot.

It’s a pleasure to eat

A day of drinking whisky stripped my throat red-raw. Surrounded by expert whisky drinkers, I was tipsy enough to need to vet every one of my thoughts before they left my mouth with the skill of airport security. The only cure for this is food.

This is how I fell in love with the Dowans Hotel.

The property is a compact country estate. What Craigellaiche has in charm this place oozes in old-fashioned sophistication. Before food, we were treated to a few whisky cocktails in their modern bar, easing our palette before more straight Scotch.

Scottish scotland scotch gay whisky

Drinks come in all shapes and sizes | Photo: Tom Capon

The co-owner of the hotel shook these cocktails herself – not a rare sight in the whisky industry nowadays. More and more, women are taking up the cause and giving new life to an ancient industry. In particular, her cause was putting cocktails in the same spot as straight whisky. Sacrilege to some, but a way to make the art of tasting scotch more accessible to others.

However, after another drink I was more than ready for food. Sitting in the traditional dining room, Spé, and lit by the dim features above us, I was handed dish after dish of spectacular food. Every ingredient was as fresh as the air outside.

The scallops were divine, accompanied by pieces of rhubarb, lending a delightfully sweet sting and a cute aesthetic.

Ultimately, the meal and my day led up to the venison. Sourced from the local estate – from a stag, more specifically – it wasn’t as overpoweringly rich yet was ever-so-slightly tougher than your ‘standard’ venison. This texture melded perfectly with a rabbit game and haggis sausage accompanying it. It is the concept of salivation made flesh.

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I can’t stop thinking about this meal | Photo: Tom Capon

Yet culinary delights aren’t hard to find in these hills. The next day we hopped into a jeep and drove down winding country roads until we found a cottage – and Gillie Basan.

The renowned travel and food writer spent most of her adult years exploring the world in search of the best recipes, before finding her home in the hills of Speyside.

Now, she welcomes people into her house and teaches them how to cook. She created a gorgeous meal for us, with the goal of using spices to enhance the taste of whisky. Gillie herself is softly spoken and with a kindness that makes it impossible not to feel like you belong in her house.

Her home was as beautiful as the food. Belly full, I sat petting her two adorable Labradors as I looked out at the magnificent, endless hills surrounding it. It’s strange how we can find such treasures in the wilderness.

The great outdoors

All this trekking indoors, however pretty the gardens, wasn’t quite the country escape I was craving. I wanted to get into the hills of the highlands – the ones whisky smugglers used to hide their tracks during prohibition.

When the opportunity to board an argocat – an all-terrain four-wheel-drive vehicle – and explore the countryside around Glenlivet distillery arrived, I jumped at the chance. A group of us piled into the back of the argocat.

The road threw us around. We stopped a few times to open and close some gates. Then we reached the top.

Our drivers poured us all a dram of whisky and we stared out to highlands. The wind whipped around us and the chill started to creep into my bones, until I sipped the Scotch. Clouds of fog growled closer to our spot. The Scottish countryside is a harsh kind of beauty.

But when you take a minute to absorb it all, you can feel it reverberating in that primal part of your soul. The smog of city life just needs a few moments in the glens and the pollution, literal and metaphorical, evaporates.

And it really helps if you’re a bit drunk on whisky.

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Author: Tom Capon

The post Speyside: how to make city gays fall in love with the Scottish countryside appeared first on Gay Star News.

Inside The Dinah Shore, the wildest festival for lesbian and bi women

Every year thousands of lesbians, bisexuals, queers, trans women, nonbinary and allies converge on Palm Springs, California for the notorious five-day event known as The Dinah Shore.

The Dinah Shore has existed as a haven for lesbians and bisexual women since its inception in 1991. Women flock here for the euphoric sense of community and a non-stop party with music, dance acts, drinks and special acts.

However, Dinah Shore – hosted on 4 April until 8 April in 2019 – has slowly transformed into one of the best music festivals in the US, with powerhouse acts on their line up every year.

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The Dinah Shore-14

Enter Dinah

Thursday through Sunday, The Dinah is split up into two halves of the day. The first half is the world-famous pool party at the Hilton Hotel.

From 10am to sundown, DJs keep the crowd and the famous Dinah Dancers – a collection of dancers from all over the map who are as aesthetically pleasing as they are talented – moving. They keep the vibe fun, flirty, and upbeat.

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The stage hosts the likes of Rosa Garcia from The Real L Word and Kaycee Clark-the winner of Big Brother. They’ll keep the ladies entertained before stage acts like Kodie Shane, Bri Steves, Dorian Electra, and Kiana Lede take over. These powerful acts cement exactly why the Dinah Shore has become one of the best lesbian music festivals.

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The second part of the day takes us just down the road to The Palm Springs Convention Center, where they host the truly epic parties. This year, the Friday party kicked off with comedy acts Chaunte Wayans, and the hilarious Fortune Feimster. The Friday night’s theme was The Black and White Ball, followed by Saturday’s theme of The Hollywood Party.

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Everyone dressed to impress and once the main stage opened, we were led into a neon-soaked room. The Dinah Dancers, accompanied by the best DJs, ignited the evening with hard hitting beats and hypnotic hips. Leikeli47 stormed the stage Friday night to an absolutely ridiculous crowd of women ready to party and dance. With her signature ski-mask on and booming beats, she brought the house down.

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Saturday provided one of the true highlights, with Grammy award-winning artist, Daya, leading the audience on a pulse-pounding montage of all her hits. Don’t Let Me Down and Sit Still Look Pretty were the show stoppers. But her new single, Insomnia, was a great surprise that got the crowd jumping. Once the acts finished, the Dinah DJs and Dancers took us into the early hours of the morning each night.

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It’s the community

It’s hard to say what the best part of the weekend was. There were too many moments, too many incredible acts, too many great songs, too many wonderful people to pick just one.

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But there are a few takeaways from this weekend. Firstly, The Dinah Shore is one of the best weekends dedicated to the lesbian and bisexual community in the world. From the workers keeping everything running smoothly and safely, to the Dinah Dancers and DJ’s working their butts off all weekend to ensure everyone is having a good time.

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Also, the musical guests giving their a-game on stage. And The Dinah Shore attendees, who made the atmosphere so welcoming it felt like no one was a stranger.

Ultimately, the kindness, love, and inclusivity in Palm Springs was something I’ve never experienced. Strangers became acquaintances, acquaintances became friends, and friends became family, and I, for one, am excited to do it again next year!

All words and photos by Megan Williams.

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Author: GSN Contributor

The post Inside The Dinah Shore, the wildest festival for lesbian and bi women appeared first on Gay Star News.

A local’s guide to LGBTI and gay Budapest

The LGBTI locals will give you a sense of cautious optimism that Budapest is gay-friendly.

But caution is still key in the capital of Hungary, which has only had a democracy for 30 years. Hundreds of years of oppressive empire rule – where it was not easy to be openly gay – hangs over the current generation.

The Soviet Union most recently ruled until it collapsed in 1991. In 2019, the country has a conservative government pushing a religious ‘traditional family’ agenda. Young Budapest locals are ready to shake this image off, but Parliament is not.

Budapest does have a growing band of LGBTI bars, and night clubs though, as well as community hubs and cafes. The city’s pride festival is growing year on year – but the government has been restricting its size.

But some people are ready to let the rainbow shine over the city. Pink Budapest, who also run the city’s LGBT magazine Humen, want to bring in the global LGBTI community to help this scene thrive.

Because right now, it remains hidden just beyond the main drags. It has all the signs that with the right support, it could come bursting out of the alleys.

Budapest in Winter is beautiful, hit up the winter and Christmas markets | Photo: PinkBudapest.com / Olivér Sin.

Budapest in Winter is beautiful, hit up the winter and Christmas markets. | Photo: PinkBudapest.com / Olivér Sin.

I was told ‘there is no gay history’ – but that’s wrong

One way to get lost in the beautiful backstreets is with a guide.

We went around the historic Jewish district with Fungarian guide Miklos. It’s home to the first vision of Zionism, the concept of a Jewish state which Israel was formed to achieve.

The area is now home to Budapest’s famous ‘Ruin bars.’ They are now popular with western tourists seeking a boozy holiday. But they were formed by young Budapest locals who reclaimed derelict buildings. [‘Young Budapest locals looked to reclaim the derelict sections of their city, so rather than expensive renovations they simply made the dilapidation part of their aesthetic. The result is something cooler-than-cool – and a place boozy westerners have claimed as their own’ – something along those lines, makes the sentence active instead of recounting].

Miklos, an older gay man, becomes the first of many LGBT people on my trip to the city to point how gay people are ‘normal’ here; ‘not outrageous.’ However, he does insist there was ‘no gay history here [in Budapest].’

‘Being gay was not punished under communism,’ Miklos tells me. ‘It was discreetly tolerated.’

I push Miklos though, as he isn’t being completely forthright with the facts.

‘You’d never admit to being gay during this time. Not because it was illegal, but it would be used against you if you ever became a problem to the state.

‘Caught by the wrong Soviet officer in the cruising area between embankment and Elizabeth Bridge, and you could end up being arrested.’

He tells us this outside the Ritz hotel building, where he jokes that he was lucky enough to stay overnight once.

But that’s because it was once the Soviet Union police station – an architectural irony so many of the buildings in Budapest share. Miklos was held overnight after being arrested near the gay cruising area for not having his ID.

They released without charge in the morning, I can’t help but wonder if every gay or bi cruiser was as lucky.

The Soviet era tram stop just by the Ritz and former Soviet Union police HQ | Photo: @Jamie_Wareham / Gay Star News

The Soviet era tram stop just by the Ritz and former Soviet Union police HQ. | Photo: @Jamie_Wareham / Gay Star News

Actually, Budapest’s LGBTI history is rich

The fact the city had a cruising area is proof enough of a gay history to me. But, digging a little deeper, I uncovered so much more.

Budapest was home to Károly Kertbeny who first coined the terms homosexual and heterosexual. Kertbeny was also friends with Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, a pioneer of gay rights who came out in the 19th century, demanding an end to anti-sodomy laws in Hungary.

Indeed, Hungary’s rich language is arguably queer to its very core. It has no gender pronouns, : literal translations refer to everyone as they/them.

Similar to the reason Italy and Rome are full of Mussolini’s grandiose buildings, Budapest is a city that does not fail to remember its previous regimes.’

‘Momento Park’ is home to its communist history, to remind Hungarians of the importance of democracy – even if they are living in a country where the media is once again heavily controlled. It’s found just a short drive out of the city. I visited with the tour guides ‘Rainbowlink Budapest who took me in their communist era ‘Trabant’ car.

Visit Momento park with 'Rent-A-Trabant Budapest' or with 'Rainbowlink Budapest' – ask for Judit Holp | Photo: @Jamie_Wareham / Gay Star News

Visit Momento park with ‘Rent-A-Trabant Budapest’ or with ‘Rainbowlink Budapest.’ Ask for tour guide Judit Holp | Photo: @Jamie_Wareham / Gay Star News

The memories of communism are fresh here

Hungarian history is a story of oppression and liberation. Hungarians fought off the Turks, Austro Hungarians, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in its recent history, and the scars from these battles are reflected in the monuments across the city.

Budapest’s Liberty statue, that towers over the rolling hills that sit either side of the Danube, splitting the Buda and Pest side of this city.

Its most recent change was to remove the Soviet Red Star and replace it with a Palm Leaf to symbolize peace after the Soviet Union fell.

It’s from this statue, where you can see why the UNESCO World Heritage protected the view of this beautiful city. The heritage status protects the city’s skyline from having any new build towering higher than Budapest’s exquisite government building or the main cathedral, St Stephen’s Basilica.

Architectural rules also mean no building can have the same facade as another, so every surface is unique.

While it’s important to soak up the history on the ground, the most valuable piece of advice I received from the locals here was: spend your time in the city looking up as you wind through its cobbled streets.

The statue commemorating the filed 1956 revolution against communism. Hundreds were shot from the windows by Soviet police | Photo: @Jamie_Wareham / Gay Star News

The statue commemorating the filed 1956 revolution against communism. Hundreds were shot from the windows by Soviet police | Photo: @Jamie_Wareham / Gay Star News

The LGBTI and gay scene in Budapest

The gay nightlife might not be extensive, but hidden in this historic city are pockets of LGBTI queerness.

Dotted through the city are, what the locals call, ‘gay-friendly bars.’

But the true home of the local LGBTI night scene is Alter Ego. An all-singing, all-dancing explosion of drag queens and gayness.

If you want karaoke, relaxed vibes or some food with your queer vibes? My favorite LGBT community spot was the Why Not cafe and bar. I felt safe in here: The room was full of smiles, with older and younger generations mixing. A true community vibe lost in so many other cities.

Omoh – aka ‘homo’ spelled backward – is the gay techno party hosted once every two months which is very popular with the gay and bi male scene in the city. Garçons is another popular night.  You’ll also find the wider LGBT community hanging out at Vibe.

Obviously, if you’re going to Budapest, you’ll have to seek out some homo-eroticism in the city’s famous thermal baths and spas. Both Gellért inside the city, and Széchenyi Thermal Bath just a short tube or bus to the city park, which has huge outdoor pools.

But cruising is not necessarily something you’ll find acceptable here. Though the locals know it happens at all the baths. If you’re looking for male on male cruising, Szauna 69 is your spot.

Gay nightclub and bar in Budapest, Alterego | Photo: PinkBudapest.com / Olivér Sin.

Gay nightclub and bar in Budapest, Alterego. | Photo: PinkBudapest.com / Olivér Sin.

Don’t expect many rainbow flags in gay Budapest

You can also visit one of the many venues, restaurants, and bars owned by local gay entrepreneur Hubert Hlatky Schlichter. The philanthropist is a figure at the heart of the community, who organized the city’s vigil to the Orlando Massacre.

His Beef Bar and Kiosk restaurants are divine both in the food on offer and lavish decor. When we eat at Kisosk, the gay cult movie ‘Some Like It Hot’ was blasting out and projected on the huge wall in the restaurant. The vast space could easily, and often is, turned into a party space. But the way this queer aspect to his venue was just a backdrop was telling.

Hubert and his husband recently appeared, in a brave public move, on the front of the local LGBT Humen magazine.

So go to Hubert’s exquisite venues, knowing he believes the LGBTI community just wants and should be seen as ‘normal.’

Hubert (left) and his husband (right) a gay entrepreneur in Budapest and owner of 'gay-friendly' Tutu bar | Photo: @tutubudapest Instagram

Hubert (left) and his husband (right.) Hubert is a gay entrepreneur in Budapest and owner of ‘gay-friendly’ Tutu bar. | Photo: @tutubudapest Instagram

‘I don’t think we need gay bars because everyone should be equal.’

Hubert, as he’s known locally, recently opened Tutu. It even hosts a raunchier kink vibe too if their sexy Instagram account is anything to go by.

But know when I went, we struggled to gain entry as international members of the LGBTI press. Then when Hubert arrived and overturned his staff’s actions, we entered to what felt like a school disco.

Men hovered on the right and women lingered on the left.

The vast cavern between them was filled only one man commenting on ‘how many fags were in tonight.’

Speaking to Hubert inside, he defended the lack of usual LGBTI bar rainbow paraphernalia by saying:

‘I don’t think we need gay bars, because everyone should be equal.’

It’s a telling quote of where the community is right now. They hide in plain sight, with no plans to irritate or, to coin a recent UK politicians phrase, ‘expose’ themselves as different.

The locals crave the acceptance of being deemed ‘normal’.

But I left Budapest wondering if hiding is stopping LGBTI Hungarians from truly being accepted.

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Author: Jamie Wareham

The post A local’s guide to LGBTI and gay Budapest appeared first on Gay Star News.