2 dogs sitting on pink chairsSan Francisco may be a gay vacation mecca, but there is plenty to do across the bay, too.

San Francisco is the place for lesbian liberation. It’s the city of refuge for queers from around the globe, a mythical, magical place where the food is sublime, the landscape divine and you can make out with your girlfriend anywhere you damn well, please. Even if you’re a queer girl who loves living in Louisville or Missoula or even New York City, chances are good that you’re going to make your way to San Francisco at least once in your lifetime. So, if you’ve scraped and saved for your dream vacation—and especially if you’re flying halfway across the country to get here—why not stay a bit longer and find out what else is at your fingertips in California? Here are a few day (or weekend, as is the case with Southern California) trips you’ll dream about long after you’ve headed home.

When you visit San Francisco there are so many things to do that you may be tempted to ignore the panoply of wonderful places beyond the city limits. But when you want to experience even more of (largely) gay-friendly California, the Bay Area is a mere jumping-off point.

Trip 1: Doggie Nirvana

Queer travellers have long held certain regions north of the city in special regard. If you want to live out a lesbian version of Sideways in person, you visit the tony Sonoma-Napa region known universally as wine country. If you’re a quirky environmentalist, you can head to Eureka to see fire dancers and hip rock bands in one of the country’s most environmentally-minded progressive rural towns. And, if you want to party all summer in San Francisco’s own Fire Island, you go to the Russian River town of Guerneville, which may be the gayest small town in the West as well.

But you have four-legged fur kids like me, you’re looking for the kind of family-friendly place that I discovered in Mendocino, California: The Inn at Schoolhouse Creek.

A collection of gorgeous dog-friendly cottages (once a Coast Guard station and earlier mill worker housing) spanning over nine acres of seaside garden and forest land, the Inn itself is a spectacular setting for a romantic weekend with all the erotic accoutrements you’ll need: ocean surf, in-room hot tubs, spa services, fireplaces, regional wines.

It’s the smile on our pooches’ faces, however, that made us believe we’d gone to doggie heaven. A giant pet basket awaited us in our cottage, and we immediately pulled out and sniffed everything before running to our private backyard to play Frisbee. The Inn’s meadow and forest trails are perfect for off-leash playtime and 150 yards from our cabin were Buckhorn Cove, a private beach where the dogs could play off-leash as well. (Our six-pound Chihuahua discovered a love of rock climbing there.) There’s was even a pet bath at the Inn, so Ginger and Skippy left that mollusk smell behind.

Back at our two-story cottage, we snacked on homemade cookies (the dogs, too) from the Inn’s in-house restaurant, had a massage and a scrub (spa treatments delivered to your door) and took a soak in our in-bath Jacuzzi tub. From our private deck we did some whale watching and later grilled fresh local fish on the backyard fire pit A midnight hike to see the stars was almost too much.

If you’re like us you’ll want to head (by car) into the quaint, coastal city of Mendocino while you’re at the Inn. You’ll pass numerous state parks and public beaches (all of which are dog-friendly) and find a lovely peninsula (that looks straight out of New England). There you’ll find several funky little boutiques and a handful of restaurants with outdoor seating so you and your fur kids can dine together. Our faves? Mendocino Bakery, Mendocino Cafe, Mendocino Burgers and Patterson’s Pub. The city is beautiful, uncrowded and almost undiscovered. The kind of place where lighthouses outnumber tall buildings and people don’t seem to be in a hurry to do anything. It’s gay-friendly and probably more working-class than many resort towns in the U.S. And with tails wagging everywhere you turn, it’s one of the most dog-friendly vacation spots you could pick.

We spent our last few hours having a gourmet breakfast in our room (the innkeepers deliver it to your door if you prefer), walking the private beach with our dogs, and driving up the coast to town. Along the way we pulled into a tiny inlet and watched boatloads of whale watchers cruise below a giant concrete bridge, after hours of sightseeing, drenched, salty and smiling. That’s a Mendocino afternoon.

Distance from San Francisco: 160 miles
Best For: Day or overnight trip
For more info: Schoolhousecreek.com

Trip 2: Sleep It Off

Sure, Sonoma’s always lovely, but if you’re looking for a wine-tasting extravaganza this month check out the Lodge at Tiburon’s Sip and Sleep Wine Festival Package. The alfresco Tiburon Wine Festival (on Saturday, May 19) will be held on Point Tiburon Plaza, adjacent to the Lodge and the waterfront. Connoisseurs can imbibe wine from over 65 of California’s hottest wineries including Bialla, MacRostie, Gloria Ferrer and Silver Oak, and down grub from 10 local eateries.

The Sip and Sleep package (for $300) gives you admission tickets, breakfast for two and that very important one-night stay, so you can stumble back to your lush abode and sleep off all that indulgence.

But where’s Tiburon, you ask? It’s a small town in Marin County, on the tip of the Tiburon Peninsula, just around the cove from the famed artist arena of Sausalito, and mostly surrounded by water. Once a railway station, today Tiburon is an affluent little New England-style coastal burg where high-end boutiques meet politically progressive ideology (Tiburon was the first city in the world to ban trans fats, for example). On Friday nights in the spring and summer, the town’s Main Street is closed to traffic and opened up to a giant walkway of al fresco diners.

One of the main methods of transportation to Tiburon is the Blue and Gold Fleet — a year-round ferry service that goes around the Bay, with stops in San Francisco. It’s one of the cheapest ways to see the San Francisco skyline and the Golden Gate Bridge without the distractions of driving, so if you’ve got time after the wine festival you may want to catch a ride and see the sights.

But once you get back to the Lodge you might never want to leave. The handsome Craftsman-style three-story building has just undergone a six million dollar facelift and boy, does it show. There are numerous indoor-outdoor social spaces including a heated pool, outdoor fireplaces, cozy wooden rocking chairs and private poolside cabanas, where you can have a romantic ta tête ta, complete with food and cocktail service.

Even if you prefer to stay inside, the Lodge is a warm, enveloping experience with Jacuzzi tubs and FeatherBorne Beds. But if the boss has you on a tether you can still make it work with their five-star business centre and free wireless everywhere, including the pool. The best part for us? Well, the DVD library and 24-hour availability of Peet’s coffee were quite exciting, but pet-friendliness was a big bonus. Few high-end properties love dogs as much as we do. That gives it, even more, stars in my book, and that’s before I’ve had a chance to taste 120 different types of wine.

Distance from San Francisco: 18 miles
Best For: Day or overnight trip
For more info: thelodgeattiburon.com

Trip 3: Go Green — And Blue

OK, maybe we should say “azure,” as that more aptly describes the deep rich colour of the famed waterway at Lake Tahoe. Or, as Mark Twain called it, “A noble sheet of blue water lifted six thousand three hundred feet above the level of the sea, and walled-in by a rim of snow cloud mountain peaks.” Twain was right. The third deepest lake in America, rumoured to have its own Loch Ness-like creature, is breathtaking, even to jaded Rocky Mountain natives like me.

These days, Tahoe — both the lake and the region which straddles the Nevada-California border — is queer San Franciscans’ favourite weekend escape. The drive back may be hell on a hot Sunday, but the trip is so worth it. If you’re mobile in any way there’s a trail for you here, from the wheelchair-accessible South Tahoe lakeshore greenbelt to the 165-mile Tahoe Rim Trail (which elevates you up to more than 10,000 feet). Outdoor recreation in Tahoe (divided into South, North, West and East shores) is year-round, too: skiing and boarding in the winter; parasailing and kiteboarding in the summer. The sternwheeler Dixie Queen runs the lake year-round as well.

These days with the revitalization of many of the casinos and restaurants, improved resorts, and amazing outdoor access, Tahoe is, as Ann Marie Brown, author of Moon Handbooks Tahoe (moon.com), says, “one of the few places on earth where, if you choose to, you can hike to a pristine wilderness area, shop for a dinner dress, dine at a trendy bistro and gamble the night away, all in a single day at the lake.” Plenty of skiers drive up from San Francisco for a starry evening of night skiing and make the trek back to work in the wee hours.
For those looking for a resort experience that feels a lot like Vegas, try MontBleu Resort Casino and Spa. The old Caesar’s Palace, MontBleu is 21st century cool with inside styling that makes you feel like you’re swilling martinis in an old rat pack movie. From the luxury rooms and spa suites (all complete with amenities from the in-house Aveda Salon) to the Onsen Spa (offering sexy couples treatments), MontBleu pampers guests. Better yet: the always open magnificent indoor heated lagoon pool with rock islands and a waterfall.

But one of the best parts of MontBleu is the many in-house restaurants, particularly Opal. A swank ultra foxy lounge, Opal is straight out of a (West) Hollywood television set. Think Bette Porter style elegance with outrageously good Eurasian fusion nosh. With tiny tapas (like crab medallions), fusion seafood (scallop ceviche) and some of the more innovative left coast sushi rolls I’ve experienced (their signature Opal is deep-fried with spicy tuna, avocado, asparagus and goat cheese), I could eat there for weeks without getting bored. The signature drinks are hot too. After dinner time the lounge kicks into high gear; the club passes out the bongos and hookah pipes and the girls who are chattering next to the floating benches look even sexier. And keeping in the ecologically sound spirit of Tahoe, MontBleu has banned fluorescent lights and switched to eco-friendly cleaners.

If you want to get really green, try a more rustic weekend at Holly’s Place, the lesbian-owned resort that offers real dykes the back to the land version of a Tahoe vacation. Though it’s nicely het and boy-friendly (a few gay men were there while I was), Holly’s is a lesbian paradise unto itself. Each cabin is private but visitors often come out to barbecue together or have late-night, starry-evening wine chats. We stayed at Holly’s Place — again with the pooches — and cooked all our meals on-site except one when we stopped for fajitas and Coyote Cosmopolitans at Coyote Grill (by the way, don’t mistake this place for Coyote Ugly; trust me, it’s easy to do after a few Vanilla Screwdrivers).

Almost any place in South Lake Tahoe (where both Holly’s and MontBleu are located) is accessible to the beaches for cheap kayak rentals, boat cruises, paddleboat antics and since this is still California, a bevy of beautiful blondes.

Distance from San Francisco: 187 miles
Best For: Weekend trip
For more info: bluelaketahoe.com, hollysplace.com and visitrenotahoe.com

Trip 4: Welcome to La La Land

The last time I was in West Hollywood, I was rubbing elbows with film and TV stars like Amanda Bearse, Daniela Sea, Honey Labrador and Jenny Shimizu within hours of my arrival. Sure, I was at POWER UP’s Annual Power Premier Awards (power-up.net), but that wasn’t the only reason. West Hollywood is the number one go-to place to see and be seen if you’re any kind of lesbian in entertainment. It’s the sort of place that’s sexy, cool, chic, where girls can wear jeans and stilettos and tank tops and not look like skanks. It may be something in the water because on my last trip I had dinner at the überhip O-Bar (probably my new favourite bar in California — in its last incarnation it’s where Tammy Lynn Michaels picked up Melissa Etheridge and, eventually, made an honest woman of her). I was sharing dinner with Amy, a drop-dead gorgeous local gal who told me all about the beauty myth (in this case, the myth that all people in West Hollywood are beautiful but they aren’t, they’re just like you and me). As she was talking, I thought to myself, “hell yeah, we’re all freakin’ hot.”

The next day when I couldn’t fit in a pair of jeans with single digits, I remembered the difference. But that wonderful buzz lasted throughout my visit to West Hollywood and convinced me — nay reminded me — that there’s a certain magic to Southern California and it has nothing to do with Disneyland. If you want to feel like you walked off the set of The L Word (even if, like me, you look more akin to walking off the set of Roseanne) you should try it sometime.

I started out with the best indulgence: a day at The Gendarmerie, the chi-chi spa salon founded by Topper Schroeder after his signature scent (called Gendarme) became a hot commodity. Now a spa aimed at making men comfortable doing what is typically considered girlie things (perms, pedicures), Gendarmerie is absolutely perfect for butches who equally are clueless about those things. To call this gay-owned spa a salon does both of those nouns a miscarriage of justice. The place is actually two attached cottages with a heated back patio, where they host sexy fashionista-type affairs and lesbian bachelorette parties. The entire place is a wi-fi hotspot, there’s an in-house designer (G. Macon, who’ll tailor your suit or make you a new one), free-flowing drinks and, at least on Saturday I was there, a free gourmet buffet.

My stylist, Raul Subia, is not just a stylist. First, he’s a pretty hunky Latino guy who is openly bisexual and wanted to talk feminist politics with me. He’s also an actor (perhaps you saw him a few years back on Family Law), a good listener and, well, with his shoulder-length hair, I probably could have gone there if I had let him massage my scalp and listen to my problems much longer. So, yeah, the guy is hot. But, so is everyone in West Hollywood. I’m willing to bet in the glow of the sun-kissed, rarified West Hollywood air, even Kevin Federline looks tastefully sexy.

I digress. It’s a WeHo thing. Back at the spa, I got an entirely new look, something that Raul tells me needs to happen every few years. I perused the menu for things that local dykes tell me they really love: the sports manicure (of course) and the signature treatment (scalp, neck and shoulder massage and a special oil treatment).

After a few hours of Raul, I needed some girlie action. My sexy new style helped me blend with the locals, so I headed first to O-Bar (obarrestaurant.com) for drinks and dinner with my sexy friend Amy. Everything at O was cool from the drinks (try a Corona mojito) to desert (the decadent “O” is actually a giant chocolate chip cookie baked to order, served in an iron skillet topped with ice cream, chocolate and caramel sauces; three of us couldn’t finish it). Best though was the Main Event: lobster macaroni and cheese.

After the O-Bar we toured West Hollywood’s hotspots. If you’re used to going to the same bar every time you go out, do know that West Hollywood is more of a grazing party. You start one place, like the superb gay-owned Abbey and then move around to a number of different spots throughout the night, depending on what night of the week it is. Hot spots for dykes are all listed on the West Hollywood visitors’ site, but I can tell you now that Thursday night’s Platinum (run by over-the-top hot Shannon Kampa) at East/West Lounge (eastwestlounge.com) is a must. Falcon is mostly a boy scene but the L Word cast apparently shows up frequently; another must-do is any party by the Fuse girls. Fuse at Here is a hot, sexy glam event and Truck Stop is a lesbian WeHo version of Coyote Ugly; for both the key is girls who like to throw it down and party it up.

A few more lesbian institutions of legendary status: the 30-year old Palms (thepalmsbar.com), West Hollywood’s oldest dyke bar, has attracted everyone from Jim Morrison to Ellen herself. It’s a beer-drinking, Monday night football kind of crowd, but they look damn good doing it. Girl Bar (girlbar.com), the original lipstick lesbians who seem to be taking over the country (with Girl Bar parties in Phoenix, Vegas, Palm Springs and Chicago now) are still partying it up in the Factory building. If you want to see Lucy Lawless (remember Xena?) singing “Down on your Knees” while, ahem, actually bent backwards down on her knees, this is the place for it.

And though it may not be in West Hollywood (the borders between Beverly Hills, Hollywood and West Hollywood are all a little hazy to outsiders), you can’t go to that area without visiting activist Jewel Thais-Williams’ Catch One (jewelscatchone.com). Extremely culturally diverse, this club was host to Madonna’s early release parties and backdrop to the lesbian episode of Fastlane and Julia Robert’s club scene in Pretty Woman. The fact that celebs and politics have come into a club started by a black working-class lesbian makes it herstorical landmark for sure.

Still can’t get enough? Check out the hotspots of the Sunset Strip — famous for celebrity parties and overdoses — like the rocking Viper Room, the Whiskey a Go Go, Roxy and Rainbow Bar. Anything with one name is guaranteed hot (e.g. the Ivy, the Abbey, the Pearl, the Skybar) here too, as are fusion restaurants like Asia de Cuba. But I wanted to shop the next day so I turned in early (by WeHo standards) to my hotel, the delightful and oh-so-insider-secret Le Montrose Suite Hotel (lemontrose.com). A sleek little urban boutique hotel set in a residential part of West Hollywood, it’s a convenient staggering distance from the Sunset Strip. Everywhere you turn there are sexy, low-slung sofas wrapped around walls aflame with orange and blue backlighting (the kind that makes everyone look sexy). The private (guests only) dining room and lounge have four huge plasma televisions displaying fashion imagery. Upon the roof: a pool, spa and a great view of the region. Le Montrose is tops among celebs (Queer as Folk star Thea Gill was waiting for her limo while I got my Ford from the valet) for luxurious comfort as well as privacy. I half expected Leisha Hailey to join me in the hot tub that night.

The next day I started, in Beverly Hills at what I now call “the worlds best doughnut shop.” Fratelli’s is a bit like Prada meets Krispy Kreme. From their cute doughnut-shaped business cards to their designer confections, everything here is cool thanks to doughnut designer and founder Alison Winston, whose staff brilliantly packages gourmet doughnuts in small blue Tiffany-style boxes. If you don’t care about Rodeo Drive or 90210 mansions, Fratelli’s is still reason enough to cross that invisible border into Beverly Hills. The Prada of the pastry world, Fratelli’s makes doughnuts with flavours like Chocolate Heath bar, English toffee chocolate cake, espresso maple, peanut butter and jelly, espresso latte, dolce de Leche and zucchini chocolate chip, plus tasty drinks (try the hazelnut vanilla café latté espresso).
Even if you can’t afford Rodeo Drive you can get some fine shopping in while you’re in West Hollywood. The vast showplace of interior and art design, the Pacific Design Center (dubbed “the blue whale” by locals) is a great start for interior art. Coco de Mer and the Pleasure Chest (thepleasurechest.com) are two naughty stores I would never leave California without seeing. The Scent Bar (luckyscent.com) is the only place in the country to find some perfumes (like Alessandro by Mazzorlari), and Tokyo-based Three Dots opened its first U.S. store on Melrose. Mall to the stars, the Beverly Center is where you’ll find the country’s first Hard Rock Café and possibly Lindsay Lohan doing some shopping.

If star-gazing is your thing, West Hollywood is really the place to go. Hollywood proper has more hookers than celebrities, though you may still want to check out the handprints of movie stars at the Hollywood Walk of Fame at Graumann’s Chinese Theatre. Or pop into the Hustler Store (where stars like Jennifer Love Hewitt buys knickers, apparently) or Johnny Depp’s Viper Room (so you can find out if Carmen Electra would really tell you no).

There’s plenty more to do than shop, sightsee and party. The famed Groundlings Theater is worthy of much love, and there are plenty of places to walk and reflect. Of course, I did neither. But I did spend a chunk of change at Le Bra Lingerie (lebralingerie.com) — don’t let the fact that Katie Holmes bought her honeymoon gear here dissuade you.

After shopping, I hit Sunset Boulevard’s House of Blues for their weekly Sunday gospel brunch. This rockin’ eatery and performance space looks like an extremely clean faux ramshackle shack in Louisiana. But any sense of poser-hood you get from the outside goes away when a jamming black chorus belts out an hour or more of deep, soulful, songs. The cast is huge, the crowds even bigger, so buy tickets ahead of time. And if you want to really enjoy the Southern buffet, get in line early — the first pick of the freshest food meant we could pile up five plates before we stopped to breathe.

That, of course, wasn’t very West Hollywood of us. But, it was our last hours in WeHo and we started to remember we were there but we weren’t there. Though the glow wore off eventually, I still believe a weekend of hanging with celebrities and partying like a rock star is essentially good for your soul.

Distance from San Francisco: 377 miles
Best For Three days or more
For more info: visitwesthollywood.com