Our 2019 Fall Pride Guide, in collaboration with VA Pride, is out now! In this article from the magazine, Outwire 757 co-founder Eric Hause gives us a guide to planning your all-day, all-gay getaway with Virginia Tourism’s LGBT Travel Program!
Fifty years ago, a $100-a-week advertising copywriter named Robin McLaughlin at Richmond’s Martin & Woltz Inc. came up with a new travel advertising concept for a client. The client was the Commonwealth of Virginia, and the concept became the slogan “Virginia is for Lovers.” That slogan is now so iconic that it was voted one of the top ten tourism marketing campaigns of all time by Forbes Magazine.
That sort of heady success, however, hasn’t diminished the power of its message of love over those 50 years, and in 2016, our purple-ish state stepped into the modern age by adding a new component to that message: “Virginia is for LGBT Lovers.”
That year, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe’s LGBT Tourism Task Force and the Virginia Tourism Corporation publicly acknowledged the economic impact of LGBTQ travelers, and welcomed us to experience the Commonwealth.
There was some kind of kismet at work here. After all, in 1969 — the same year that Robin Mclaughlin came up with the Virginia slogan — the Stonewall Riots launched the Gay Rights movement. Back in those days, the LGBTQ community was still on the fringes of society. While Virginia’s queer population could gather safely at a smattering of bars and other gay-owned businesses, the Commonwealth, to say the least, was not known as a welcoming destination.
That’s all changed. Today’s queer road warriors can find hundreds of self-designated LGBTQ-friendly travel businesses and events in all corners of the Commonwealth. Virginia Tourism Corporation’s Director of Business Development, Wirt Confroy, is the man tasked with putting all the pieces together. He’s worked tirelessly with Tourism’s IT department, businesses, destinations, and event planners to catalogue and present them on the State’s tourism website.
When asked about what the program means to him, Confroy said, “It’s simple. LGBT visitors to Virginia now have access to queer-friendly places and experiences. They have a resource that helps them find the destinations, events, tractions and services that welcome them the most.”
So it is with the progressive efforts of many in mind that we present you with our Fall Queer Travel Guide to the Commonwealth. With Virginia Tourism’s help, we’ve carefully curated travel itineraries built around special events this autumn in three destinations: the Shenandoah Valley, the Eastern Shore, and Richmond. All you need do is gas up the automobile, get a few friends together, and hit the road for your big queer fall vacation in Virginia!
Head for the Hills: A Mountain Getaway
When you think of autumn travel in Virginia, one of the first destinations that comes to mind is Skyline Drive in the Shenandoah Valley. No doubt, leaf-peeping on a crystal clear brisk Blue Ridge day is a timeless exercise. As an extra bonus for queer folk, the Shenandoah is home to many friendly and exciting attractions, events, restaurants, and lodging.
Plan this year’s mountain getaway around the Page County Heritage Festival, the weekend of October 12- 13 in Luray. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Festival, and it’s a true slice of small-town farm life with a big-city progressive attitude. Highlights include live entertainment, Shenandoah Valley craftsmen and artisans, a delightful antique farm equipment show, and food. Oh, the food!
After the festival, head into the town of Luray for some exploring. Roadsnacks.com ranked the town as the 8th Gayest Place in Virginia for 2019 based on the percentage of same-sex households, so you’re bound to make some new friends.
The town itself is centered around a beautiful Historic District, but the famous Luray Caverns are the area’s top visitor attraction. This U.S. Natural Landmark holds the largest and most popular caverns in Eastern America. From well-lighted paved walkways, explore cathedral-sized rooms with ceilings 10 stories high, filled with towering stone columns and crystal-clear pools.
If you’re more of a car warrior, take a ride on the nearby Blue Ridge Whiskey Wine Loop, a compact wine-tasting route that winds through the Northern Shenandoah valley. Recommended by Wine Enthusiast Magazine, the Loop features seven wineries, a whiskey distillery, antiques, dining, and the gorgeous natural scenery of the Shenandoah National Park.
You can hop off the Loop and onto Skyline Drive at several spots, and it’s worth the detour. Mid-October is prime leaf season, and the parkway has many overlooks with as many eye-popping photo ops as you can stand along its 105-mile length.
Where to Stay: For LGBTQ-friendly lodging in Luray, check out Piney Hill Bed & Breakfast and Cottages. Comprised of two private cottages and three guest rooms in the main house (a renovated 1800s farm house), the B&B is gay-owned and operated since 2000. It is also consistently ranked as the top inn in Luray each year.
The nearby Shadow Mountain Escape is billed as a romantic couple’s escape, and features modern and authentic European timber cottages adjacent to the Shenandoah National Park. Shadow Mountain is recommended as a Best place To Stay by Wine Enthusiast Magazine, and both properties are located on the Blue Ridge Whiskey Wine Loop.
Where to Eat and Drink: While exploring Skyline Drive, satisfy your appetite at Skyland’s Pollock Dining Room. Located right off Skyline Drive near Luray, Pollock’s specializes in Blue Ridge specialties made with farm-to-fork ingredients and served with incredible views of the Shenandoah Valley.
In the mood for a true special-occasion dining experience? Make a reservation at the Inn at Little Washington. The 2019 Michelin Guide awarded The Inn three stars, the only restaurant in the Northern Virginia region to receive the honor.
Just a few miles away, you’ll find a completely different dining experience at The Edinburg Mill Restaurant. Located in an 1848 Virginia Historical Landmark, the establishment specializes in rustic American style cuisine. And if you’re lucky, you’ll catch them on a day when some kickass local live music is on the calendar.
Take a Shore Break: A Seaside Escape
If autumn by the sea is more your style, turn your attention east to Virginia’s Eastern Shore. It’s probably not the first destination that springs to mind when you think of LGBTQ-friendly travel, but Governor Northam’s home base is a surprisingly progressive place with a thriving queer population, and many LGBTQ-owned and allied businesses. Plus, you can drive the entire length of the Virginia Eastern Shore in about two hours. It’s perfect for a day trip or a weekend getaway with great dining, eclectic antiquing and shopping, and exhilarating activities.
For seafood (and all food) lovers, start your visit at Chincoteague’s 47th Annual Oyster Festival on October 12. Founded to mark the hallowed arrival of oyster season, the event draws visitors from all over the mid-Atlantic. You don’t have to be an oyster lover to find something good to eat! Come enjoy clam fritters, clam chowder, shrimp, hot dogs, hush puppies, Boardwalk fries, and a cold beer.
Get your hands dirty on a boat tour of the waters surrounding Chincoteague with Captain Barry’s Back Bay Cruises Expeditions. But be prepared to get wet. On this cruise, you’ll dig for clams, pull crab pots, and haul in a trawler net to see what delights King Neptune has to offer.
Run with the wild horses and take a tour with Assateague Explorer’s Pony Express nature tours. You’ll be assured at least a glimpse of the famous equestrian population — or choose to be the captain of your own ship, and drift away on one of Southeast Expeditions’ kayak tours.
If the ocean isn’t for you, you can also be the pilot of your own spacecraft with a visit to the NASA facility at Wallops Island. Check their website for a schedule of rocket launches, and time your visit for a truly unforgettable experience.
Shop ‘til you drop at the hundreds of unique retail opportunities on the Shore. You can spend an entire day exploring the small towns and antique stores, flea markets, farmer’s and fish markets, art galleries, and specialty boutiques located on or just off the main highway.
Where to Stay: The charming Garden and Sea Inn is just a few miles from Chincoteague. Transgender-owned and operated, the Inn is actually comprised of one modern home and two historic farmhouses that date back to the 1800s. The Inn is pet-friendly and sits on five gated acres of land, so there’s plenty of room to walk the dog.
If the sound of gentle waves luring you to sleep each night is your groove, Key West Cottages in Chincoteague is your spot. This charming row of modern pastel-hued cottages line the waterfront in the heart of downtown. Each cottage has a full kitchen and waterfront views, and all are within walking distance of the town’s restaurants, shopping, and attractions.
Where to Eat and Drink: When visiting the ocean, you want a taste of the ocean, and the Eastern Shore’s dining scene does not disappoint. The Island House Restaurant in Wachapreague has it all: fresh local seafood, award-winning Eastern Shore crab cakes, and a gorgeous view of Virginia’s barrier islands. Bring your boat! Slips and fuel are available.
Experience dockside dining a la the Keys at Mallards at the Wharf in Onancock. Johnny Mo, the musical chef, serves up his “all crab” crab cakes, famous jalapeño mussels, and mouthwatering filet mignon. You might even catch him strumming his guitar for guests!
Or head south to Cape Charles for a bayfront fine dining experience at Oyster Farm at Kings Creek, a casual oyster/raw bar and cocktail lounge. Flip flops and shorts allowed. Astounding sunsets are always on schedule.
Make it a Capital Affair: Fall Fun in Richmond
So the rural thing isn’t your cup of iced tea? Head to the Capital City for a totally urban experience. Richmond sometimes takes it on the chin for lacking in the diversity department, but we disagree. For example, in October 2019, two fantastic events celebrate the city’s distinct rainbow hue.
On October 5, come explore your inner Latin diva at the Viva RVA! Hispanic Music Festival. This exciting celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month honors Virginia’s Latinx LGBTQ community. Viva RVA! is a free family-friendly event at Diversity Richmond, and features authentic Hispanic music, food, dancing, and live music.
The Richmond Folk Festival on downtown Richmond’s waterfront is the following weekend, on October 11-13. The festival presents the very finest traditional musical artists from across the nation, with 25 performances ranging from bluegrass and Cajun to Indian and African music. Don’t forget to head over to the Festival Marketplace, and shop authentic crafts from over 20 international artisans.
Festivals aren’t the only way to taste the Richmond rainbow. The Virginia Museum of History & Culture does a great job of cataloguing America’s diverse past by interpreting the unparalleled story of Virginia. In fact, their signature exhibition The Story of Virginia recently added an LGBTQ chapter to the 16,000 years of Virginia history it covers.
While we’re on the museum tour, a visit to the nearby Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is a must. But be prepared: there’s a lot to see, and you’ll want to see it all. In fact, The Wall Street Journal recently declared the Museum a two-day affair. With over 5,000 years of art from around the world, take your time to explore exhibitions ranging from Fabergé and Russian Decorative Arts to their most recent addition, Edward Hopper and the American Hotel.
If you still have the strength, head over to Carytown for some of the most eclectic shopping and dining in RVA. The heart of Richmond’s gayborhood is only one street long, but you’ll be surprised at the variety of shops, boutiques, restaurants, and food stores in this nine-block shopping area. Don’t forget to check the schedule at the Byrd Theatre. In the past, the Byrd has presented LGBTQ programming with icons such as John Waters and their popular MonGays Movie Festival during Pride month.
Where To Stay: The Quirk Hotel in downtown Richmond lives up to its name. With its original artwork, eclectic design sensibility, and location in the middle of downtown Richmond’s Arts District, it is indeed out of the ordinary. Voted by US News and World Report as one of the country’s top hotels for 2019, Quirk is an experience that will please even the most jaded traveler.
For a more traditional Richmond experience, stay at the Linden Row Inn. This National Register hotel is comprised of seven row houses, built in the mid-1800s and meticulously restored. Guest rooms are furnished with antiques from the middle and late 1800s. Trivia alert: Edgar Allan Poe spent his childhood playing in the hotel’s garden courtyard.
Where To Eat and Drink: We have one word for you, and it’s French: L’Opossum. Chef David Shannon will tell you that his definition is “tongue-in-cheek faux French presented as delightful whimsy on the menu, but seriously delicious cuisine on the plate.” Gay-owned and operated, L’Opossum was named the Southern Living Magazine’s 2018 Best Restaurant. In the whole South.
If Southern home cooking makes your stomach growl, take a seat at Weezie’s Kitchen in Carytown. This is lip-smacking fare at its most fattening and delicious. Whether it’s breakfast, lunch, or dinner, a meal at Weezie’s is a culinary experience of its own.
Scott’s Addition Foodie and Arts District is the newest and hippest food and drink destination in town, and this National Historic District has become the brewing center of Richmond. Within walking distance, you’ll find breweries and cideries interspersed with hip lofts and eclectic restaurants.
If you’re looking for a superb drag brunch, Godfrey’s is the queen. It’s home to Richmond’s most famous drag brunch, with two seatings on Saturday and Sunday. Godfrey’s also doubles as a mixed bar in the evenings and hosts special events most nights.
And if you’re craving a little socializing with your people, Babes of Carytown and Barcode are two of the best queer nightlife spots in town.
Visit Virginia.org/lgbt for a comprehensive list of Virginia’s LGBT-friendly travel destinations, businesses, and events.
Top Photo Courtesy of Virginia Tourism Corporation