Our 2019 Summer Pride Guide, in collaboration with VA Pride, is out now! Here’s one of our articles from that magazine, in which Outwire 757’s Eric Hause gives us a guide to the perfect LGBTQ vacation in Hampton Roads.
When you think about LGBTQ-friendly vacation destinations, there’s no doubt that big cities come to mind: San Francisco and New York, Buenos Aires and Sydney. But if you can’t afford a day or two — let alone a week — on such a globetrotting trip, look no further than your backyard for a destination that’s welcoming, affordable, and full of exciting things to see and do.
I’m talking about Hampton Roads.
Sure, you’re not going to collect beads at the carnival in Rio, or march in the World Pride Parade. But as a 25-year resident and leader in the local LGBTQ community, I can tell you that Hampton Roads has plenty to offer. Whether you’re looking for an all-gay, all-day party vacation, a refined cultural experience, or a sea adrift on memory bliss beach vacation, we’ve got it in Hampton Roads — Virginia’s cul de sac.
Hampton Roads has come a long way in a short amount of time when it comes to affirming and welcoming LGBTQ visitors. The visitor bureaus in three of the major cities (Norfolk, Virginia Beach, and Hampton) have active LGBTQ travel marketing programs, and the local hospitality industry (which we all know would evaporate without queer employees) whole-heartedly supports those initiatives.
In addition, Hampton Roads Pride and HRBOR (the area’s LGBTQ Chamber of Commerce) work closely with LGBTQ-owned and allied businesses to develop inclusive activities and safe spaces.
Oh, and did I mention that you can’t swing a cat around here without hitting a festival, museum, or performing arts organization that offers LGBTQ programming?
But that’s enough of the travel brochure propaganda. Let’s get on with it. Here are a few queer-themed and affirmative vacation itineraries, whether you’re visiting for a day or a week.
Disclosure: I have personal experience with each of the businesses mentioned in this article. All are LGBTQ-friendly.
The Urban Experience
Downtown Norfolk has become the spiritual center of the Hampton Roads LGBTQ community. That’s a far cry from the days when it was a collection of rundown warehouses, tattoo parlors, and shady bars with a level of debauchery so depraved that The New York Voice deemed it “Hell’s Half Acre.”
The city’s contemporary version is a world-class destination that frequently ranks in Top Ten lists of mid-sized cities to visit. With waterfront festivals nearly every weekend from spring through autumn, world class arts organizations, museums, shopping, dining, and nightlife, it’s not your grandmother’s Norfolk any longer.
Accommodations are varied, and range from the five-star mega-hotels to luxurious bed-and-breakfasts and quaint historic inns.
The Hilton MAIN is the crown jewel of downtown Norfolk’s bustling scene. Plopped right in the center of it all, it’s definitely an upscale experience. With three excellent restaurants (including a rooftop bar with thrilling views of the harbor), immaculate overnight rooms with five-star amenities, and superior customer service, The MAIN competes with high-end hotels found mainly in large cities.
For those interested in a quieter accommodation, check out two nearby LGBTQ-friendly inns. The Page House Inn is in a historic (and reputedly haunted) 1899 house in the Hague. The décor harkens back the home’s Victorian origins, but the rooms are spacious and comfortable with modern amenities. Your hostess, Miss Deb, always gets rave reviews from her guests.
Option number two is Four Eleven York, a new boutique inn and restaurant concept located in the Freemason Historic District. Located in the former Freemason Inn Bed and Breakfast, the inn has been completely renovated, with amazing touches and a modernist feel. The owners also own the restaurant of the same name next door, which features an eclectic Modern American menu.
Both Page House and Four Eleven are just steps from the Chrysler Museum, and a short walk to downtown, Ghent (Norfolk’s Gayborhood), and the artsy NEON district.
After settling in, it’s time to explore, and all you’ll need is a comfortable pair of shoes. Downtown Norfolk is delightfully walkable. In the event you want to move more quickly, the Tide Light Rail traverses most of downtown with stops at nearly every street corner. If biking is more your speed, rent a PACE bike from one of the many rental stations throughout the area.
Start at the Waterside District, located on Norfolk’s waterfront. Waterside is open year-round, day and night to accommodate next-level dining and entertainment for all ages. Grab a bite, a drink, and a seat overlooking the harbor, and take in some live tunes. This is where your vacation begins.
From there, take a walk (or a bike) along Norfolk’s beautiful waterfront, which starts at Harbor Park (home of the Norfolk Tides baseball team), then proceeds to Town Point Park, the USS Wisconsin, and the Freemason District. This route is part of the Elizabeth River Trail, a 10.5-mile walking/biking trail that winds along the city’s harbor and riverfront.
Nightlife is never in short supply downtown. Between restaurants and bars, live entertainment, and special events, there’s always something happening. Your best bet is to take a stroll down Granby Street after dark; you’ll find something appealing.
If you’re in town between April and October, First Fridays are a must, with entertainment ranging from live music to June’s Stiletto Stomp drag race. A harbor cruise also brings a beautiful perspective on the city, with The American Rover offering sailing cruises departing daily from Waterside Marina. This summer, OutWire757 hosts two Rover LGBTQ charters: a Midnight Moonlight cruise in July, and a Farewell to Summer sail on Labor Day weekend.
The Spirit of Norfolk is also a great option for nightly dinner and dance cruises, as well as the occasional late-night drag show cruise.
Head over to FestEvents for a schedule of upcoming festivals in Town Point Park. There’s one going on almost every weekend between May and October — of course, the one you won’t want to miss is Hampton Roads Pride in June.
Finally, don’t forget to check out the performance schedules for Virginia Stage Company, Virginia Arts Festival, and SevenVenues. In the past, these organizations have brought top-notch LGBTQ favorites such as Kristin Chenoweth, Richard Alston Dance, Storm Large, and Wanda Sykes to town.
You can also find the local queer community at three hopping LGBTQ clubs. MJs Tavern is a popular neighborhood bar, with a mixed clientele that’s open for lunch, dinner, and brunch on the weekends. The Wave is a late-night dance club with decidedly younger vibe. 37th and Zen hosts a mixed crowd and some interesting entertainment offerings, from Goth to kink, as well as karaoke and drag shows.
Life’s A Beach
If a beach retreat is more to your liking, look no further than Norfolk’s sister city, Virginia Beach. The resort area is the heart of the region’s travel industry.
Comprised of a four-mile stretch of resorts, restaurants, nightlife, and activities along a paved oceanfront boardwalk, the resort area has seen its share of reputation-challenging events over the past couple of decades. However, Virginia Beach has turned that around with the advent of a development facelift and world-class events and festivals, such as the recent Something in the Water Festival, that are committed to creating an inclusive and diverse experience for all travelers.
The newly-remodeled Cavalier Hotel on the north end lends a luxurious touch to any vacation. Over the past 100 years, the Cavalier has welcomed ten U.S. Presidents, as well as countless celebrities and distinguished guests from around the world. Perched on a grassy hill overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, that history has earned the Cavalier a spot on the National Register of Historic Places.
Today, it offers a complete vacation experience and actively welcomes the LGBTQ community. With 85 jaw-dropping guest rooms, five-star dining in one of the resort’s three restaurants, a full-service spa, and an on-site whiskey and bourbon distillery, you might not want to leave the property.
One of our other favorite hotels is the delightfully modern Oceanaire Resort. The 18-story oceanfront tower is filled with contemporary touches, which garnered the distinguished Project of Excellence Award at the 2013 ARDA World Convention.
There’s so much to do here, too. Catch a breathtaking sunrise over the ocean from the tenth floor Skydeck. Spend the day basking on the beach. Take a dip in the adults-only Aqua 21 indoor pool. Head out for an evening of bar-hopping along the boardwalk, then be lulled to sleep to the sound of the surf in your ocean-view room. It’s worth mentioning that the Cavalier and the Oceanaire are two of many Virginia Beach resorts that host weddings, with a particular emphasis on LGBTQ nuptials.
Virginia Beach is also known for its thousands of vacation rental homes. Particularly suited for long, lazy family or group beach vacations, homes range from mansions to quaint cedar-shingle beach boxes.
For a get-away-from-it-all beach vacation, take a look at Sandbridge. Often compared to North Carolina’s Outer Banks, Sandbridge is only minutes from the resort area, but worlds away in terms of its relaxed pace and beach community vibe. Most of the homes are in a vacation rental program, and none are more than two blocks from the oceanfront. LGBTQ-friendly Siebert Realty carries hundreds of fully-furnished beach home and condo rentals.
So it’s Saturday night, and you’re asking yourself, where’s the queer nightlife in Virginia Beach?
First of all, you’re going to want to head over to the ViBe Creative District. Just a couple of blocks off the Oceanfront, ViBe is Virginia Beach’s cultural arts enclave, and a hub for artisans of all disciplines. Food and beverage options are plentiful, and range from pork all ways at Beach Bully Barbecue to organic, seasonal, and sustainable fare at Commune.
After dinner, take a stroll around the ViBe to admire the colorful original murals, pop in to Chesapeake Bay Distillery for a tasting of their signature Blue Ridge Vodka, or settle with a good cup of java at Bad Ass Coffee.
After dinner, head to Virginia Beach’s Town Center for a show at The Sandler Center for the Performing Arts, or something more cutting-edge at Zeiders American Dream Theater.
Sandler focuses on nationally-renowned artists, and has hosted LGBTQ performers such as Melissa Etheridge, David Sedaris, and Michael Feinstein. Just across the street, the new Zeiders American Dream Theater’s mission is to foster and introduce new artists, composers, and creative writers. Here you’ll find original comedy, story slams, live music of all genres, and an open and welcoming community.
After the show, stop in to The Rainbow Cactus, Virginia Beach’s only traditional LGBTQ bar. The Cactus welcomes all ages and identities, with everything from live music to drag shows to late-night dance parties.
Of course, a beach vacation wouldn’t be complete without exploring Virginia Beach’s natural wonders. We suggest you head out to sea with a Rudee Tours cruise. The company has operated local sightseeing tours out of Rudee Inlet for more than 35 years, including dolphin tours, whale-watching tours, sunset cruises, and the infamous Rudee Rocket (a must for high-speed thrill seekers).
For another view of the area’s oceangoing wildlife, spend a couple of hours at the Virginia Aquarium, where you’ll be wowed by 800,000 gallons of aquariums and animal habitats. The Aquarium also produces a number of learning boat tours, as well as a challenging Adventure Park ropes course for those who enjoy a more hands-on experience.
On the north end, First Landing State Park is a queer camping and outdoor recreation favorite. Sprawled across 3,000 acres of wetland and sandy beaches at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, it’s a quiet oasis adjacent to the fast pace of the resort area.
Visiting for the day? Grab a quiet spot on the beach, take a hike or a bike on 19 miles of trails, or spread out a picnic under the shade of ancient cypress and pine trees.
The park is a great overnight option for those inclined to commune closely with nature. It has 200 wooded or open campsites nestled behind the back dunes of the beach, and 20 modern cabins with central heat and air, running water, and kitchens.
Beyond The Metro
Queer Hampton Roads isn’t just Norfolk and Virginia Beach. Take a look beyond the well-worn path for other LGBTQ-owned and allied businesses in places like Hampton, Williamsburg and the Eastern Shore. For a self-reported list of those across the Commonwealth, visit Virginia Tourism at www.virginia.org/LGBT.
Top Photo by Eric Hause