In the 1960s, five men who defined cool took Las Vegas and Palm Springs by storm. The Rat Pack's Frankie, Sammy, Joey, Dean and Peter brought worldwide attention to these two desert cities.
Rooted in hospitality and entertainment, it is no surprise that these cities also caught the eyes of many gay people. Today, Las Vegas and Palm Springs both rank among the top U.S. destinations for LGBT travelers and are home to many residents of that same community.
In his book, A City Comes Out: How Celebrities Made Palm Springs a Gay and Lesbian Paradise, David Wallace describes the evolution Palm Springs made from a very conservative city to a desert oasis that celebrates one of the highest concentrations of gay residents in the U.S.
Wallace writes in the book's introduction: ''Since the film industry has always had a relatively high percentage of homosexual talent by its very nature it was inevitable that many of these new arrivals were gay or lesbian, and thus by their very presence, they created both a uniquely hip image for the place and, despite occasional efforts of reactionary politicians and moneyed interest, an environment of tolerance.''
The transition that Wallace describes for Palm Springs mirrors that of Las Vegas, which has also become more progressive as entertainment and other non-gambling attractions play a larger role in Sin City's success.
And winter is a wonderful time to visit both. This time of year, the harsh desert heat is tamed and the crowds from the busy fall and spring convention seasons are gone.
Palm Springs' Winter Prime
The key to a successful visit to Palm Springs is picking the right hotel (and maybe a look up the dress of the 26-foot-tall sculpture of Marilyn Monroe).
For an independent gay resort, The Hacienda has a standard for service and luxury that rivals any Ritz. Slightly more casual but no less committed to outstanding service is INNdulge. Both of these properties are in the Warm Sands neighborhood that is home to a large cluster of gay resorts and is walking distance to downtown Palm Springs.
While not exclusively gay, Ace Hotel and The Saguaro are very hip and welcoming boutique properties. And for travelers who like the comfort of a traditional full-service hotel, the Renaissance Palm Springs Hotel underwent a recent $30 million dollar renovation and has served regularly as the host hotel for the popular White Party, bringing thousands of gay circuit boys to the city every spring for more than two decades.
For entertainment, the Fabulous Palm Springs Follies will be in the middle of its 22nd season throughout the winter months. The Follies bills itself as having ''internationally-acclaimed guest stars, a classic variety act, and the music and dance of the 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s, all performed by a cast old enough to have lived it.''
Famous for its abundance of mid-century modern homes, the city will host its annual Modernism Week Feb. 14 to 24. In addition, the Palm Springs Art Museum's winter exhibitions include and uniquely designed furnishings by brothers Fernando and Humberto Campana and a collection of contemporary glass. For filmophiles, you cannot get much better than the Palm Springs International Film Festival, among the largest film festivals in North America. The festival will feature a stellar lineup of more than a hundred films hailing from more than 60 countries, running Jan. 3 to 14.
If a little outdoor adventuring is what gets your blood pumping, the cooler winter months are a great time to hike the beautiful Indian Canyons. Or let the cables do the work by riding the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway up the San Jacinto Mountains, where the temperature differential between the desert valley floor and the top of the mountains is usually about 30 degrees. Once at the top, if there is enough snow, you'll have the opportunity to rent cross-country ski equipment and snowshoes.
Las Vegas Doubles Down on Gay
Sin City opened its closet door when its first official gay bar opened in 1970. Today, Las Vegas has more than a dozen full-time gay bars, while many other venues regularly host gay nights.
Krave, which made headlines when it became the first gay club to open on Las Vegas' famed Strip, recently relocated to the Fremont Street area in downtown Vegas. It updated its name to Krave Massive, to reflect the club's expansion to 80,000-square-feet.
The new Krave is located adjacent to Drink & Drag, a bar and bowling alley in the Neonopolis complex that anchors the east end of Fremont. Having the two establishments is expected to help increase interest in the area among gay visitors.
While the city's casino gambling began downtown in the mid-20th century, by the 1990s nearly all the gambling market had moved to the Strip. To draw business back to downtown, the city launched the Fremont Street Experience, which turned most of Fremont Street into a pedestrian mall with a sophisticated overhead light display and free stage shows.
In addition, many of the downtown hotels such as Golden Nugget, The Plaza, Golden Gate and The D (formerly Fitzgeralds) have undergone major renovations. And the new Mob Museum, located just a few blocks from Fremont, has proved to be extremely popular.
While it is likely that more gay travelers will – and should – visit downtown Vegas, the Strip remains the center of tourism for Vegas. Notably, nearly all of the mega-resort casinos along the Strip are members of the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association (IGLTA). The Venetian and Palazzo resorts, owned by Las Vegas Sands Corp. and billionaire Sheldon Adelson, are unfortunate exceptions. Adelson has donated millions of dollars to conservative super PACs.
Exceptions aside, the Strip's resorts are not only great places to lay your head, but also offer phenomenal entertainment. New York-New York's Zumanity, one of many Cirque du Soleil shows in Vegas, will celebrate its 10th anniversary in 2013 and still thrills audiences with its erotic acrobatics. Many of the cast members are gay, including the very talented Edie, Mistress of Sensuality and drag persona of Christopher Kenney.
Another adults-only show, one of the newest to hit the Strip, is Absinthe at Caesars Palace. While often compared to Cirque du Soleil because of its mix of song, comedy and amazing acrobatics, Absinthe is its own unique blend of fun.
In a nod to Vegas as an entertainment giant, the LGBT Academy of Recording Arts signed a three year agreement with Caesars Entertainment to host its annual awards program in Vegas. The 8th Annual OutMusic Awards will be held at Caesars' Planet Hollywood Dec. 16.
The other selling point of the Strip is the large number of celebrity and homegrown chefs who are putting Vegas on the map as a top culinary destination. New York chefs Scott Conant and Bobby Flay have been singing Vegas' praises for many years. Conant has two Italian restaurants at The Cosmopolitan, the upscale Scarpetta and the more relaxed D.O.C.G., and Flay has his Mesa Grill at Caesars Palace. Two chefs that Vegas regulars have known for years, but who are now making their mark on the national scene are Devin Hashimoto and Christina Olivarez. After many years in a supporting role at various Vegas restaurants, chef Hashimoto is heading up Wynn's new Mizumi. And chef Olivarez, a winner on Food Network's Chopped, can be found at MGM Grand's Diego.
If you happen to be looking to get hitched this winter – or anytime – Vegas might be the spot for you. While same-sex marriage is not yet recognized in Nevada, you can still have a commitment ceremony. The gay-owned Viva Las Vegas Wedding Chapel offers traditional chapel ceremony as well as the opportunity to go hound dog with an Elvis themed ceremony. And The Flamingo recently became the first of the large resorts to offer an official package of commitment ceremonies.
For more about Las Vegas, visit lasvegas.com.