Why the deserts of Arizona are surprisingly great for a gay USA road trip

What to see in Arizona gay

Arizona is a state of contradictions.

On the US political map, most of it is a deep shade of red, but it’s also home to some of the most diverse cities in America. Most of the place is a desert, but it’s lush enough to grow vineyards. It’s a modern state, but with a more than a touch of the Old West about it.

And I was ready for an old-fashioned American adventure. I landed in Phoenix, hired a car, and took a road trip through the southern part of the state.

Hitting the road

I visited three cities: Phoenix, Arizona’s largest city, and its capital; Bisbee, a tiny former mining town about 3.5 hours’ drive from Phoenix; and Tucson, about halfway between the others, the former state capital, and home to the University of Arizona. Thanks to the ease with which American interstates can be tackled, you can comfortably navigate this route in a week.

Arizona roadtrip gay

Arizona is pure road trip territory | Photo: Andrew Gonsalves

As mentioned earlier, Arizona is pretty darn lush. There were a couple of days of belting rain when I visited in December (it’s sunny about 85% of the year), but if the state got any more rain, it would lose desert status altogether. This makes the Sonoran Desert feel more alive that you’d ever expect.

A note about driving in the USA. This was my first time doing so and it was the easiest thing I ever did (and, driving along the Gate Pass Road towards the Desert Museum, of the most beautiful).

My only advice is to make sure you have a satnav and, if you can, consider getting a car that’s a step up from the economy model. The distances are vast – I traveled a little over 700 miles in a week – so you’ll want to know exactly where you’re going, and you’ll want to be sat in something comfortable.

The best way to experience the deserts is to get into them. By night, I made for the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix for Electric Desert. This is an immersive experience, where the desert is brought spectacularly to life using lights and music. Seeing a mountain (a small one, admittedly, but a mountain’s a mountain) illuminated while a Mexican band sang Christmas songs was a spine-tingling experience.

ARizona cactus

There’s more than a few wonders waiting for you | Photo: Andrew Gonsalves

Touring Tucson

I started my time in Tucson with a tour from Tucson Bike Tours. Spending just a couple of hours with my guide, Jim, brought the whole of the city to life. This included the huge, just-like-the-movies University of Arizona campus and an accompanying frat house, where I may’ve imagined I was in House Bunny.

It’s a fantastic way to get under the skin of Tucson’s history, see some super-pretty houses, and explore the city’s relationship with the desert. At two hours long, I thought I’d build up an appetite for dinner (or at least burn off breakfast) but, as we stopped midway for the very best empanada I’ve ever eaten, my calorie deficit remained non-existent.

Sufficiently biked-out, I headed to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, which is a veritable treasure chest of life in the desert. Reached through the Gateway Pass, probably the prettiest road I’ve ever driven along, it’s less a museum and more a zoo.

I got up close and personal with the surprisingly large number of critters that call the Sonoran home. My favorite was the mountain lion who was clearly used to tourists, and gave zero f***s about being on display. I was also very much there for the river otters (…not for that reason) and the hummingbird aviary was breathtaking. The museum also offers a selection of nicely thought-out trails, so you can lose yourself in the desert without actually getting lost.

Arizona airplanes desert see

Everything looks more dramatic in the desert | Photo: Andrew Gonsalves

Desert-based, but not desert-related, the PIMA Air & Space Museum, outside of Tuscon, is essentially a giant parking lot for old planes. I gaped at the Air Force One that ferried JFK around the world and stood in awe at the permanent exhibition on women in flight.

A particularly poignant moment came as I admired a B-52 that flew over Germany during WWII. The elderly guide, Richard, started telling me his story. He was based in Norfolk, UK, during the war, flying B-52s. An attack of food poisoning meant he couldn’t fly one morning, but the rest of his crew set off.

Their plane was shot down over Germany in 1942. There were no survivors. 

Eating through Arizona

Arizona was once a part of Mexico, (it didn’t become part of the US until the mid-1800s), and where you’re most likely to feel this Mexican history is in Arizona’s food.

Forget the usual Tex-Mex mush, you’ll find some truly delectable tacos at Contessa’s Cantina in Bisbee and Downtown Kitchen and Cocktails in Tucson. The latter has a mouthwatering locally and seasonally based menu. I also loved Tucson’s Barrio Bread. Its hand-crafted loaves are obscenely delicious; trust me when I say that you’ve not tasted bread until you’ve tasted a warm jalapeño-cheddar loaf.

churos where to eat in arizona

If I could marry these churros, I would | Photo: Andrew Gonsalves

The culinary highlight of my trip was Phoenix’s Barrio Café. Run by Silvana Esparza, who gave up everything at the age of 41, bought a backpack and set off on an adventure through Mexico. She visited every region, finding out what they cooked and how they cooked it, before opening Barrio (no relation to Barrio Bread) with her then-partner, Wendy, in 2002.

The food is magnificent; far, far removed from the nasty tacos and yellow cheese you associate with Tex-Mex. Everything I tasted at Barrio was an explosion for the senses. The colors and flavors left me longing for a stomach twice the size of my own. Whatever you do, leave space for the churros.

Scouting the scene

Given that you’re reading Gay Star News, there’s the chance that you’ll want to sample the scenes in some of the places you visit.

More importantly, you’ll want to know you’re safe doing so. Here I bring good tidings. All three of the destinations I sampled were liberal, welcoming and, in my opinion, very safe. (While we’re chatting about bigotry, it’s also worth noting that no one I spoke to in the Arizona thought Trump’s wall was anything other than a bad idea.)

Phoenix and Tucson have thriving LGBTI scenes; there’s a wealth of bars and restaurants, and a live and let live attitude that permeates both cities. Indeed, the LGBTI people I spoke to felt just as comfortable in ‘straight’ bars and restaurants as any space on the scene.

Visit Arizona

So. Many. Steps. | Photo: Andrew Gonsalves

The biggest surprise, however, was Bisbee. Officially the City of Bisbee, it’s really no more than a large village, with just over 5,500 full-time residents. You’d be forgiven for thinking that small-town, southern America would be just what you expect.

It isn’t. It’s like a desert version of Brighton. The very first thing I saw as I drove into the town was a rainbow crosswalk. This was followed, almost immediately, by a shop proudly flying the rainbow flag. The city’s probably the the smallest place I’ve ever visited that has its own pride – every June.

Beyond the queerness, it’s a wonderful, bizarre place; like someone’s mixed small-town America with a winding hill town in Italy. There are over 1,000 stairs in Bisbee, making exploration more of a hike. If, like Mariah and I, you don’t do stairs, you can book a jeep tour. They’re big, purple versions of the jeep Stuart Jones from Queer as Folk drove.

The tours take in the smallest bar in Arizona – the Silver King, an establishment with four seats – and the old town jail, which John Wayne converted into a home. I also headed to Erie street, just outside of the town. It’s been preserved as it was in the 50s: with an old-school diner and classic American motors littering the sidewalk, and was easily the most Instagrammable man-made stop on my trip.

Friends in the desert

I left Arizona on a high. It’s easily one of the prettiest and friendliest states I’ve visited so far. The food is divine, the landscape magnificent and the people warm. I don’t feel like I’ve begun to scratch the surface. I’ll be back for sure.

Plan your trip to Arizona at visitarizona.com.  

See also: 

St Louis is the Midwest’s hidden gay gem just waiting to be discovered

How this city-living gay guy found a love of the great outdoors in Scottsdale, Arizona

Is The Chase Park Plaza the perfect spot to rediscover historic St Louis?

Author: Andrew Gonsalves

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Capital of the Bahamas safe for LGBTI tourists, says local activist

A beach in Nassau

For many countries, 3,300 LGBTI tourists shopping and sightseeing in the capital is not a big deal.

But for one Bahmanian LGBTI rights activist, it is a highly encouraging sign for Nassau.

Alexus D’Marco hopes that this is symbolic of her country is making slow but steady progress in becoming more LGBTI-friendly.

D’Marco is optimistic that the revenue from LGBTI tourism will help combat homophobia throughout the country.

‘Some of the tourists we spoke to they said they felt comfortable,’ D’Marco told local newspaper, Tribune242.

‘They saw the police and they felt better when they saw us, people who they could identify with greeting them. So there was a better sense of security.’

‘Tourism is something that everybody understands’

D’Marco highlighted the importance of the tourism sector in building acceptance and combatting homophobia in the Caribbean island.

‘The thing about it is when it relates to tourism I think business is something that everybody understands and commerce is something that every country needs,’ D’Marco said.

‘If we understand the effects of tourism and what we have to offer such as hospitality, sun, sand and sea, we’re competing on a whole different market. Other countries offer sun, sand and sea and so our product has to be a little different,’ she added.

‘So if we can keep that up with all tourists and get away from being this country that don’t allow LGBT tourists, we are creating a shift in perception.’

The growing acceptance of LGBTI rights in countries around the world has fostered a booming LGBTI tourism industry.

Current estimates put the global market of LGBTI tourism at around $220 billion per annum.

Widespread homophobia

Despite the work of LGBTI rights groups, homophobia remains widespread in the Bahamas.

The Christian-majority country is home to highly influential conservative religious groups that teach that homosexuality is decadent and sinful.

In 2017, a gay American tourist was badly beaten in a homophobic attack at a carnival.

Two assailants attacked Adrian Brown unprovoked with a bottle and a rock. They also verbally abused him with homophobic slurs. He sustained lacerations to his head.

In late December 2018, the Canadian government issued a warning that LGBTI tourists should be wary of visiting the Bahamas where ‘homosexual­ity is not widely accepted’.

Author: Calum Stuart

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Berlin: How Europe’s rebirthed city showed me that ‘new’ really is better

‘New is always better.’

I used to violently argue over the above statement. Those of you who aren’t into one of the best problematic faves of recent years, How I Met Your Mother, will probably need some context.

That’s what Neil Patrick Harris’ character Barney used to say in Ted Mosby’s face, the latter being a fan of old and antique, starting from architecture.

I’ve always been on poor Ted’s side, nostalgically holding onto the past – whether in the form of that worn out scarf you don’t want to let go of or that person you categorically refuse to admit might no longer be right for you, after all.

And then Berlin came along, at a time when my bisexual beaten-up heart needed some solace.

The Pineapple Incident

The love for what’s new is palpable across the whole city. It’s more than just post-modernist buildings: it’s an attitude, a specific vibe you’ll only perceive here.

Throughout its history, Berlin has seen it all and each time it has risen again with resilience and grace. Not effortlessly, though. The capital has fought hard to reach the cool status it currently holds.

It only adds to the German capital’s casual charm that it hosts an incredibly accurate, fan-curated HIMYM-themed pub, the only one in Europe to the best of my fangirl knowledge.

Set foot in the MacLaren’s pub in Kreuzberg and you’ll be teleported to NYC in the early 2000s.

The walls are covered in blue French horns, yellow umbrellas, Lily’s paintings and every other possible prop from the show. The bathroom is next-level accuracy with its writings straight from The Time Travelers, the one where Robin creates her own signature cocktail.

Which, of course, I’m going to have.

Excessively sweet and with a slice of pineapple missing from the original recipe, I take a sip as a visibly drunk guy comes on to me.

After a few conversational efforts on his side, he finally asks whether I’m a bitch like his mom. Yep, you read that right.

I tell him to piss off. And that’s when he steals my pineapple. Rude!

Second chances

Ok, Berlin. Let’s do another take, shall we?

Berliners say their city is so open everyone here can give it a go at anything they want. Everyone can be themselves and embrace their truth knowing Berlin won’t judge according to social status or sexual orientation.

Provided you show your love the German way, that is no PDA, please, regardless of your sexuality.

When and if failure does occur, Berlin isn’t short of second chances either.

Therefore, after my very own Pineapple Incident (episode ten of the first HIMYM season, if you’re not as obsessed as I am), I decide to give the capital another possibility and explore further.

The city’s hidden gems

The well-known spots still require a mandatory visit if it’s your first time here.

The Brandenburg Gate, the East Side Gallery with its colorful murals, the Holocaust Memorial and, in the park across the street, the Memorial to Homosexuals Persecuted Under Nazism. A trip to the Schwules Museum, guarding the city’s LGBTI archive, is also in order.

You can easily move around with a practical Berlin Welcome Card, offering free public transport and discounts for more than 200 attractions across the capital, from Mitte to lesser-known areas.

It’s up to those less touristy districts to keep the capital’s best-hidden secrets.

Gentrification, a swear word on other cities’ mouths, takes on a whole new meaning here, suggesting endless possibilities.

Neukölln was part of the American sector during the Four-Power occupation of the city in the 1970s. And today is flourishing with multiculturalism and younger residents, foreseeing its hip near future.

This is the district where the Mercure Hotel Berlin Tempelhof is located.

This is one of the 63 in the pink pillow Berlin Collection, a network of LGBTI-friendly hotels welcoming guests from all over the world. At the Mercure, nobody will frown upon who you’re sharing your double room with. As it should be.

A food tour de force

Tempelhof is an area of cool art galleries in former breweries, such as the Centre for Contemporary Art KINDL.

New restaurants regularly pop up, serving delicacies from all over Europe and the Middle East, without forgetting local comfort food.

Try Palsta for natural wine and starters the Scandi way.

The word, meaning ‘garden plot’, is Finnish and so is the lovely owner, whose name I can’t remember due to one too many glasses of sour, nutty orange wine.

Expect the darkest rye bread you’ll ever see, smoked salmon with cucumber, mustard seed, and sour cream, pumpkin croquettes, and roasted cauliflower.

Then head to Tisk for Berlin’s classic roasted chicken with the thickest mushroom sauce to date. This is where my stomach begins to fill up, dreading the prospect of a third and final food stop.

Is there such a thing as too many desserts?

I can’t believe I’m about to say this, but yes, there might be such a thing as too many desserts.

Don’t make my mistake and make sure to save some room for a visit to CODA. This dessert-only restaurant is where all your stale beliefs on desserts come to die.

You’ll be treated to a menu of seven mind-blowing puddings paired with fine liquors that won’t taste like anything you’ve had before.

I’m talking about a truly original combination of flavors and textures. I’m talking about plums, walnuts and seaweeds having a threeway in your mouth, washed down with a Portuguese Madeira with a hint of Darjeeling tea. And this is just dessert number one.

To my own and the chef’s great disappointment, I can only make it to dessert two: cacao, banana and pear vinegar to match an Italian Moscato.

As I leave CODA with a food baby in my belly, not having been able to taste the other five on the €128 (about $147) menu goes straight on my list of regrets.

SchwuZ is the coolest LGBTI maze in Neukölln

If you can actually zombie your way to the dancefloor after that, Neukölln hosts one of the best LGBTI clubs in town.

SchwuZ has been around for forty decades and has moved to the area quite recently. Every vault and wall reminisces of the history of Berlin’s legendary 80s rave parties.

The location is strategically close to our hotel, to the benefit of my 4am drunken self, whose German and sense of orientation are possibly worse than those of my 11pm only-slightly-tipsy self.

Despite GSN Travel Editor’s empty promises, there are no girls in my group.

I’m with a bunch of lovely gay guys of all ages from the UK and Scandinavia. Half of them are in such committed, long-term relationships they’ve brought their partners with them.

Not that I’m not used to that. I’m one of the very few women in the office as well and it nearly feels I’ve never left London.

When at the club…

Our unlikely bunch heads to the club on a mission to find out what the LGBTI clubbing scene here looks like.

SchwuZ is so open to all that even I, the social anxiety poster girl, don’t feel uncomfortable while there.

You can find everyone in the vast LGBTI community in the smoky, underground maze it is. And the club proudly showcases all sorts of neon stilettos and kinky boots signed by various artists. One of my biggest crushes of all times, Blondie’s Debbie Harry, played the venue in 2017 and signed one of the shoes crammed in the glass case.

As we enter the club, a gorgeous Junoesque queen called, quite appropriately, Jurassica Parker welcomes us.

She is also one of the few people on the whole trip who explicitly says the word ‘bisexual’ when greeting the crowd during her performance, which is really comforting for my bitchy bi self.

My bi self, however, isn’t as comfortable when a pretty girl appears out of thin air and starts talking to me while I’m practicing my sulky pout.

Call it ‘awkwardness,’ call it ‘sorry, babe, my depressed soul can’t handle social interaction right now,’ I just escape to the toilet after the conventional small talk like the lame drama queen I am.

Photo: SchwuZ/Facebook

So no, nothing happened at SchwuZ. It might have, though.

And this thrill of future excitement, this anticipation of a new lover’s arrival, or multiple in fact, is the gift Berlin bestowed upon me. Bye old, welcome whatever 2019 holds.

To find out more about things to do in Berlin, head to the VisitBerlin website.

All photos by Stefania Sarrubba unless stated otherwise.

Read also:

This is why I don’t regret coming out as bisexual in my 20s

Is Stockholm really the gay utopia we’ve all been waiting for?

Welcome to Lubeck: the marzipan Mecca of the world

Author: Stefania Sarrubba

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