by Heather Cassell

Looking for a great getaway that offers mega-variety entertainment options and fine dining with easy access to tranquility? Don’t overlook Reno and Lake Tahoe; the bordering vacation destinations just about four hours from San Francisco offer everything any vacationer could possibly want.

“The nice thing about the Reno-Tahoe area is that you can have both in the same day,” says David Paisley, senior research director of Community Marketing Inc., the parent company of the Gay and Lesbian Visitor and Convention Bureau.

Tourism officials in the area echoed David’s assessment.

“Depending on what the traveler’s interest is, there is something for everyone,” says Jill Stockton, communications manager of the Reno-Sparks Convention and Visitors Authority.

LGBT Renoites praised Reno and Lake Tahoe as hidden jewels.

“There are a lot of great things to be found if you take the time to explore and be open minded,” says Eddie Reynoso, a former resident of Reno. Eddie hopes that the gay community and the community in general continue to support local businesses. “You’ll discover just amazing, amazing things and amazing people.”

Reno experiences more than 300 days of sunshine a year and is surrounded by the High Sierra mountains on one side and the open desert on the other. The city attracts an estimated 4.6 million visitors annually, according to 2008 tourism figures, the most recent available.

“I have friends who live in Philly and Denver who are envious of all of the things that we have going on,” says Lynda Wiest, who hosts lesbian discussion groups and social events at Spectrum Northern Nevada, an LGBT community organization in Reno.

The modern Reno sign that lights up downtown Reno. (Photo: Super G)
The modern Reno sign that lights up downtown Reno. (Photo: Super G)


Reno, long known as the “Biggest Little City in the World,” is starting to capitalize on its variety of attractions and its close proximity to Lake Tahoe. The old mining town along the Truckee River, founded in 1859, has tossed its worn-out attempt at glam and glitz, leaving that to its younger sister, Las Vegas. Instead, Reno is embracing its natural beauty and talent after undergoing a multimillion-dollar makeover during the past two years.

Reno’s downtown area, known as the Riverwalk District, is now dressed up with trendy bars offering local brews and wines, cafes and gourmet restaurants, and performing and visual arts venues. All are within walking distance from the city’s core casino-hotels Circus CircusEldorado, and the Silver Legacy. Other casino-resorts include Cal-NevaAtlantis, and the Peppermill.

Throughout Reno a new wave of business owners are injecting the city with a burst of energy. Renoites who stayed close to their roots are painting their imaginations on their city. Locals who spent time away are returning bringing their experiences and tastes home. Then there are the California transplants, especially from the Sacramento and San Francisco Bay Area, who are bringing the Golden State style to the area.

Reno is “up and coming,” David points out.

High rolling

Reno has much to offer LGBT travelers and is an easy escape destination to get to by bus, car, plane, or train. The drive up Interstate 80 from the Bay Area through Donner Summit down to where Reno spreads out on the edge of the Great Basin is amazingly beautiful after passing Sacramento’s congestion.

If you don’t want to drive, the Fun Train and the Reno Snow Train are six-hour parties on the rails that roll into Reno’s train station located close to the cluster of well-known hotels. Or catch a flight (that takes just under an hour) to the Reno-Tahoe International Airport. Many of the hotels provide free shuttle service to and from the airport.

On a recent visit, I was more than ready to stretch my legs after the drive and hit the bars and clubs. My girlfriend and I quickly dropped our bags in our suite overlooking the famous Reno arch, courtesy of the Eldorado Hotel and Casino. The family-run and -operated hotel boasts not only of its multi-award-winning Brew Brothers micro-brewery, but its famous porcini mushroom ravioli served at La Strada.

The Eldorado is also linked by walkable overpasses to Circus Circus, fun for families, and the Silver Legacy.

Reno doesn’t have any queer-owned bed and breakfasts or hotels, but there are several LGBT-friendly lodging options (see online travel information list) to choose from after a long day of playing.

My girlfriend and I headed to Tronix Video Music Club, Reno’s number one queer dance club, on the other side of town.

Reno doesn’t have a “gayborhood.” Instead, its gay bars and clubs are spread out around the city, the main bars and clubs form a triangle. Only a few are within walking distance from each other. When going out, plan to drive – there’s usually plenty of parking – or take a cab.

Tronix was a bit livelier than a previous nightspot, but we learned that on Friday nights, Reno’s queer clubs aren’t hopping. While there are a variety of events going on nightly at various venues, queers looking to boogie to the latest dance hits in one of three of Reno’s gay dance clubs should plan to hit them on Thursday or Saturday nights, says  Yvonne “Vonnie” Allen, Tronix bar manager.

“There are a lot of options in Reno. There’s a bar for every niche, basically,” says Vonnie, the only female bartender at the club.

She points out that Tronix, like the former Ten99 Club, attracts a mixed younger crowd, while Neutron, the nightspot’s sister club directly across the street, attracts a Latin crowd. Reno has three gay bars: the historic and wildly popular Five Star Saloon, a short walk from the Eldorado, Carl’s Pub, and the Patio.

Yvonne "Vonnie" Allen, Tronix bar manager with one of her bartenders. (Photo: Super G)
Yvonne “Vonnie” Allen, Tronix bar manager with one of her bartenders. (Photo: Super G)

The only down side about hitting the clubs or going out anywhere in Reno is that smoking is still allowed indoors nearly everywhere. Travelers not keen on smoking might consider staying at the Peppermill or Silver Legacy, which are two of the few casino hotels that provides a non-smoking area on its gaming floor. For smoke-free dining and drinking, check out Washoe County’s Tobacco Prevention Coalition Clean Cuisine guide to non-smoking bars and restaurants. There is even a small listing for smoke-free outdoor event venues .
Reno also provides opportunities for travelers with disabilities.

Desert oasis

Reno’s growing LGBT community is loosening up Renoites’ frontier attitudes toward queers, in particular the bisexual community, which is huge according to locals.

“If you are bisexual it’s one of the places that you won’t get crap for that,” says Vonnie. “It’s a very understanding place.”

Lynda agreed with others that Reno’s LGBT community is coming of age.

“It really does feel like it’s booming,” says Lynda, a math education professor at the University of Nevada, Reno. “It seems that the gay community is thriving and growing in leaps and bounds.”

While Reno is “still rural, very frontier” with a residue of homophobia, it’s not as desolate and isolated as people imagine, says  Eddie. It has also become an empowering place for lesbians, who are a driving force revitalizing the mid-sized city.

“The lesbian community is really marching forward,” says Eddie. “The lesbian community has been an important staple of our community.”

Kelly Rae and Pamela Haberman, owners of Haberay Investments Inc., a development company that renovated the historic Firehouse 2, which is home of queer woman-owned A Salon 7 and the Daily Bagel, are a part of the growing LGBT community that is revolutionizing Reno.

Kelly and Pamela, who retired to the area after successful careers as a federal special agent and an accountant with the Economic Development Administration, respectively, have been instrumental in revitalizing the 4th Street corridor, separate from the Reno Redevelopment Agency’s $2 million redesign of the Riverwalk District.

But in spite of the queer boom, Reno lost its LGBT community center about two years ago. LGBT community leaders are embracing the setback as a way to revitalize the community. They organized the Build Your Community Center group that is raising money for a new center and they are taking back Reno’s Pride from outside organizers, according to Reynoso and Jennifer Oxier, co-owner of A Salon 7.

Paco Poli, editor and publisher of the Reno Gay Page, said that the center group will host a Pride Parade on August 14, the same day as a Pride festival. The event is being billed as a “green” parade, with no motorized vehicles.

Reno also hosts many activities and festivals throughout the summer and fall from July’s Reno is Artstown to Hot August Nights to September’s grand finale with the Best in the West Nugget Rib Cook-offReno Air Races, and the Great Reno Balloon Race.

Reno visitors definitely won’t want to miss the monthly Wine Walk, every third Saturday, or the Reno Beer Crawl every fourth Saturday of the month.

Dishing it up and getting outdoors

Reno is becoming a foodie and wine and beer aficionados’ delight as the Biggest Little City in the World is bustling with gourmet restaurants, wine bars, and breweries. Reno’s gay and lesbian community is pulling up a seat to the table.

Not into drinking and gambling? Reno offers sports enthusiasts many outdoor activities year-round, such as whitewater rafting down the Truckee River, hiking trails, rock climbing, and off-roading. There are 50 golf courses in the Reno-Tahoe area, not to mention snowboarding and skiing in the winter and water skiing in the summer, and more.

Plus, Lake Tahoe is only 45 minutes to an hour and a half drive away for travelers, depending on the destination at the lake. Many of Reno’s hotels provide complimentary shuttle service to some of the slopes during the winter, and resorts during the summer, so ask about this service.

Mountain fun

For the ultimate outdoor getaway, LGBT travelers might head to the mountains. Lake Tahoe is known for being a winter wonderland that plays host to Winterfest Gay Ski Week at Heavenly Ski Resort, which is in its 15th year and Tahoe Pride year-round. But the summer is possibly the lake’s most active time of the year, according to locals.

South Lake Tahoe is also home of the American Century Championship, now in its 21st year. Organizers tout it as the longest running celebrity golf tournament at Lake Tahoe. The charity tournament attracts up to 80 celebrities from film and sports. Within the past two decades it has raised more than $3 million for national and local charities, according to a June 1 news release. Lance Armstrong’s Livestrong organization, which seeks to improve the lives of cancer survivors, is the official tournament charity for the fifth consecutive year.

Tickets are available for the weeklong tournament event that takes place July 13-18. Prices range from $15 to $60, for more information, visit

The way to Tahoe

Getting to Tahoe is easy. The drive through the mountains from Reno on Interstate 395, cutting through 431 to Highway 50 takes 45 minutes to the North Shore. Travelers coming from the San Francisco Bay Area should take Interstate 80 to Highway 50 to reach South Lake Tahoe. Lake Tahoe is also accessible by plane, via Reno-Tahoe International Airport, or train, courtesy of Amtrak, from Emeryville to Truckee to a bus into South Lake Tahoe.

My girlfriend and I came over the mountain from Reno and stopped off at the Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe Resort, Spa and Casino in North Lake Tahoe. The gay-friendly resort is the only one directly on the lake and hosts Lake Tahoe’s only five star restaurant, the Lone Eagle Grille, where we enjoyed lunch.

Lake Tahoe offers a variety of dining pleasures, but mostly in South Lake Tahoe, which has options from French cuisine at Baxter’s Bistro at Northstar to Northern Italian at Cafe Fiore. For lighter fare check out Bite Restaurant and Lounge’s tapas and for brunch the place to be is at Beacon Bar and Grill, a lakeside hangout.

Like Reno, North Lake Tahoe doesn’t have any queer lodges, but Hyatt has rated a score of 100 on the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index for nearly a decade, according to the hotel’s corporate Web site. Hyatt also gives back to the local community, says Cory Baum, Hyatt’s associate director of sales, who gave us a tour.

Aside from the main lodge, the Hyatt offers cabins near the shore with communal fire pits, which are popular with guests, along with access to kayaks and other water sporting gear and of course, a world class spa.

The Hyatt is also close to a variety of hiking trails, golf courses, horseback riding, and other outdoor activities. Guests can also take an extended walk to the Incline Village for dining and shopping.
North Lake Tahoe also recently became home to the new Ritz-Carlton Highlands in Truckee, California, for those looking for a more high-end lodging experience, but there are many options around the lake.

There aren’t any gay specific events happening at the lake during the summer, but queer summer vacationers looking for outdoor adventure can check out Tahoe Adventure Company for all the fun in the sun they can handle. Gay men looking for private sunning options can check out the East Shore’s Secret Cove, which is home to Lake Tahoe’s unofficial gay beach.

Jerry Birdwell, left, and Kevin Chandler, right, owners of the Black Bear Inn in South Lake Tahoe have the right touch. (Photo: Super G)
Jerry Birdwell, left, and Kevin Chandler, right, owners of the Black Bear Inn in South Lake Tahoe have the right touch. (Photo: Super G)

Community comfort

Tahoe’s gay community is very small with no central place to socialize. Its only dance club, once located on the South Shore, closed four years ago and there is no bar or community center, says Sandy Myron, co-owner of Inn the Pines with her partner, Theresa “Terry” Valdez.

Instead of bars and clubs, Lake Tahoe’s LGBT community hosts a bevy of gay and lesbian-owned and -operated lodging including bed and breakfasts, guestrooms, rustic cabins, and condos for rent or to own, mostly in South Lake Tahoe.

Tahoe’s celebrity bed and breakfast is the Black Bear Inn. Owned by gay couple, Jerry Birdwell and Kevin Chandler, it has served as the set for popular shows such as the Bachelor, and HGTV’s Vacation Living. Jerry, 67, is a bit of a celebrity himself. The former Texas criminal defense attorney who was the first openly gay judge appointed by the late Governor Ann Richards to Dallas County’s 195th Judicial District Court in the 1990s hasn’t given up politics. Jerry was elected mayor of the city of South Lake Tahoe in 2008. His term expires this November, according to the city’s Web site.

Kevin, 48, is a former computer programmer.

The two men, who have been together for 20 years, retired from Texas to Lake Tahoe to build their dream bed and breakfast. They have created a cozy and plush eco-friendly lodge. The bed and breakfast is geared toward couples, but is kid-friendly. Unfortunately, pets aren’t allowed.

There’s something special about being welcomed and served by the mayor. Jerry and Kevin are classy hosts. Don’t miss the wine and cheese welcome every day at 5 p.m. or the gourmet breakfasts Jerry and Kevin cook and serve themselves for the up to 20 guests that stay either in the main lodge or the three cabins on the property.

“Everybody is happy when they come. Everyone is on vacation,” says Jerry as Kevin nods his head in agreement.

The latest lodging trend may be lesbian couple-owned and -operated guesthouses or rooms where locals dress up and rent out their spare rooms to guests. Inn the Pines is one of the latest examples that appears to be successful.

Sandy, a former real estate professional, and Terry, who works at Harrah’s Lake Tahoe, met soon after they each moved to Tahoe 30 years ago. They built their home with the boutique guest suite in mind as an expression of their traveling preferences.

“I would much rather come here versus going to a sterile cold hotel. It’s a much nicer setting,” says Sandy, who serves a wholesome breakfast to guests.

Sandy tells Girls That Roam that their one guest room, which is a suite with a wet bar and private balcony on the first floor of their home, has been filled since they opened a year and a half ago.

Holly Eimer, founder and owner of Holly's Place, a cozy kid- and pet-friendly cabin lodge in South Lake Tahoe. (Photo: Super G)
Holly Eimer, founder and owner of Holly’s Place, a cozy kid- and pet-friendly cabin lodge in South Lake Tahoe. (Photo: Super G)

For those who like cabin life, check out Holly’s Place, which is tucked away off the main drive through South Lake Tahoe on Rufus Allen Boulevard. This unmarked secluded lesbian-owned cluster of cabins encircled by a log wall has been a favorite for visitors since it opened two decades ago.

The once lesbian-only resting spot is now open to all guests, but memories of the lodge’s special place in lesbian history decorate the ceiling in owner Holly Eimer’s kitchen. For 20 years Holly has photographed every guest that has stayed at Holly’s Place and added them to the collage above the entryway. Holly, 60, an amateur lesbian historian, also likes to talk about her video collection of lesbians’ coming out stories that she’s gathered from guests over the years. Today, Holly runs Holly’s Place with her partner, Karen Elizabeth, a professional photographer for nearly 30 years.

Holly’s Place is kid- and pet-friendly with a recreation room filled with games, a flat screen TV with DVD player for movies, and space for socializing.

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