The Great American LGBTQ Roadtrip

HOW TO PLAN THE PERFECT ROAD TRIP

by Jimmy Im
Road Trip (Photo by 4 PM Production)

Americans today are driving state to state, and coast to coast, documenting their journeys on social media and crossing off bucket lists.

Road Trip (Photo by 4 PM Production)

While I spent plenty of hours exploring Baltimore’s institutions, such as Visionary Art Museum (800 Key Hwy, Tel: 410-244-1900. avam.org), where the building’s structure is just as captivating as the modern art inside, I spent an equal amount of time at my hotel, an attraction in itself. Perhaps the biggest testament to the magnetism of Four Seasons Baltimore was my experience in the full-service spa. Inside the steam room, which has a window for natural light, a young man entered. I rarely strike up a conversation in a steam room, but he treated me to a “hack.” He sprayed the ceiling vent with the shower head, which generated more steam. After 20 years of traveling, I couldn’t believe I didn’t know this trick. He proceeded to tell me he lives 45-minutes away, and he’d been visiting this spa for 10 years because there’s no other spa in the state that’s quite like it. At this time, another fellow entered the steam room, who exclaimed, “This hotel is ten years old? I thought it was brand new!”

BALTIMORE, MD TO RICHMOND, VA
Two hours from Baltimore, Richmond is the smallest city I visited (250,000 residents), yet it packs quite a punch and has a lot of heart. The last time I was in Richmond, Raven from RuPaul’s Drag Race was headlining the gay pride parade. I didn’t know who Raven was at the time (which, yes, is dating me, and showing how long ago the visit was) but the gay scene has come a long way since Drag Race Season 2. “In 2012 when the Pride festival was held in Kanawha Plaza, there were about 50 vendors compared to about 120 in 2019, the last year we had the festival,” says James Millner, Virginia Pride director. “I’d estimate the festival in 2012 drew around 5,000 attendees, compared to 40,000 in 2019.”

Richmond, Virginia and the James River (Photo by Sean Pavone)

Richmond, Virginia and the James River (Photo by Sean Pavone)

Richmond made up for lost pandemic years with “Endless Summer of Pride,” its annual gay pride festivities taking place not just the month of September but all summer long with over 20 events, including VA Pridefest (vapride.org). Businesses reopening post Covid-19 also allowed gay couple Mitch Dorsey and Ronald Rivera to open The Boulevard Inn (1. North Arthur Ashe Boulevard, Tel: 850-359-1211. boulevardinn.com), a cozy B&B initially slated to welcome guests in spring 2020 but delayed due to government closures. Opened June 8, 2022, the inn is intimate with only 5 guest rooms that preserve the old world charm of the landmark building that houses them, and offers European breakfast with pastries from local bakery Sugar & Twine, and wine and cheese in the evening. “While the gay scene in Richmond is not as robust as NYC,” says Mitch, who moved back home to Richmond after 12 years in NYC, “we found Richmond to be very accepting of the LGBTQ community. Our pride festival on Brown’s island Richmond (201 West Broad Street, Tel: 804-340-6040. quirkhotels.com), a colorful, art-centric boutique with an on-site gallery featuring local and regional artists, hand-painted murals in guest rooms (I loved the art in my spacious and light-drenched balcony suite) and art workshops in the hotel’s studio. The hotel is (wait for it) quirky. I mingled with locals in the lively, yet intimate, rooftop bar, and the thoughtfully curated boutique store rivals local museum gift shops. Quirk offers a “hip” factor younger travelers seek, and it shapes the direction I felt Richmond is striving for: refreshing, young, artsy, progressive and fun.

I also stayed a night at Omni Richmond Hotel (100 South 12th, Tel: 804-344-7000. omnihotels.com), right in the heart of the industrial Financial District. The hotel was much nicer than I had anticipated with an enthusiastic, young staff and my club level suite on the 18th floor flaunting expansive views. When I timed it right, I could see the train go by.

While I generally try to avoid hotel restaurants, Omni’s Westham is brand new, so I gave it a go. Westham made it clear I was in Virginia: less seafood (north), more fried food. I’m a Southern boy, so it brought comfort, and Virginia does fried well. I enjoyed my cheat day meal with buttermilk fried chicken, though the highlight was the fried Virginia oyster appetizer. The young chef takes pride in Virginia cuisine, so much so that he told me everything on the menu is local, down to the ingredients, from the Hanover tomatoes to Duke’s mayo in the aioli, oysters caught right in the bay, to the actual cornmeal they used for the batter.

For more elevated dining, L’ Opossum (626 China Street, Tel: 804-918-6028. lopossum.com) is a funky, artsy and eclectic French restaurant helmed by native gay chef and restaurateur David Shannon who offers every year is great for visitors!”

Founded in 1737, history is Richmond’s best side, and you don’t have to look for it; simply amble cobblestone streets lined with rows of brick buildings and Federal-style mansions. I found the James River Park Pipeline Walkway to be one of the best hidden gems. The walkway is loud and proud with street murals and immersive art within an industrial complex right on the James River. It’s a visual marriage of nature and contemporary art.

I stayed at Linden Row Inn (100 East Franklin Street, Tel: 804-783-7000. lindenrowinn.com). The 70-room boutique, comprising seven row houses built in the mid-1800s, is classical with old world charm, catering to an older clientele who love its history. In fact, the seven suites here have original floors from the 1800s and are furnished with centuries old antiques. Writer Edgar Allen Poe used to play in the hotel’s garden courtyard, where all the Garden Rooms open up to. Four blocks away, and the complete opposite vibe, is the new Quirk imaginative and clever menu items such as “vegan orgy on Texas Beach”: baked and crispy papadums; and “cocky yet classic and so very comfy cozy coq au vin”: tantalizing with flavors taken to outer-space levels. Less wild, but equally popular, Lillie Pearl 416 E Grace Street, Tel: 804-412-8724. lilliepearlrva.com) is so high in demand, there’s a 2-hour dining time limit. The cuisine is also quite unique to Richmond: Think South African cuisine meets Southern grace. Naturally, I went straight for the fried chicken (buttermilk battered, with pickled stems and charred corn mash and collard greens). The meals are on the heavier side (as in, don’t expect small portions or calories), but that’s exactly how I like my Southern fare. I appreciated the outdoor seating, which I found rare in Richmond.

RICHMOND, VA TO CHARLOTTE, NC
The drive from Richmond to Charlotte was a long stretch: 170 miles along 85 south. If your trip is leisurely, you can pull off many exits for myriad sightseeing, from historic landmarks like Peterburgs National Battlefield to casual, family-friendly attractions like North Carolina Zoo. I had never been to Charlotte, but it’s always been on my radar due to its food scene, which, like Richmond, is known to nail Southern cuisine. It’s also the first city I visited on my trip where iced tea doesn’t exist, a gentle reminder I’ve officially crossed into the heart of the South. As a Georgian, I grew up drinking sweet tea, but living up North for two decades converted me to iced tea. Ordering iced tea in Charlotte will leave waiters blank-faced. In fact, go into any convenient store or deli, and you’ll only find bottled sweet tea.

I stayed at Kimpton Tryon Park Hotel (303 South Church Street, Tel: 704-445-2626.tryonparkhotel.com), a relatively new boutique in the trendy Fourth Ward neighborhood of Uptown Charlotte. The views were a highlight for me. All rooms offer floor-to-ceiling windows, many with balconies, and most with city or stadium views, but the money shot is on the rooftop bar, Merchant & Trade, a must for sunsets and cocktails.

With limited time in Charlotte, I gladly visited Optimist Hall (1115 North Brevard Street, Tel: 980-701-0040. optimisthall.com) for lunch. The 147,000-square-foot modern food hall inside a former gingham mill, with plenty of indoor and outdoor seating, is sort of a “best of ” tasting lab for both emerging and well established regional chefs, featuring an eclectic mix of restaurants, like Charleston-famous Boxcar Betty’s (known for fried chicken sandwiches) or Papi Queso, a local “streatery” that offers elevated grilled cheese sandwiches.

Marshall Park in Charlotte, North Carolina (Photo by Digidreamgrafix)

Marshall Park in Charlotte, North Carolina (Photo by Digidreamgrafix)

CHARLOTTE, NC TO ATLANTA, GA
Once I started my journey to Peachtree Corners, a suburb outside Atlanta, I felt a surge of nostalgia with the bridges over lakes and rivers, the humidity in the air, and of course, the Chic-Fil-A billboards. When I arrived at my childhood home, my parents cooked elaborate Korean meals, and we shopped at the local HomeGoods. It was a pleasant, and not so unexpected, surprise to see that, upon my departure three days later, they filled my car with snacks, economy-sized toilet paper, garden equipment for my back patio, and kitchenware I don’t need.

ATLANTA, GA TO WILLIAMSBURG, VA
I had been warned earlier about state troopers along I-85, between Charlotte and Richmond, where the interstate was limited to two lanes. The cops are well hidden and abundant, and I was surprised how frequently my Wave alert went off (over a dozen times within an hour). There was a point where I was driving behind a state trooper for about four miles, and my Waze app didn’t pick up that alert, so it’s a good reminder that you can’t always rely on tech, and you should always be mindful of speed limits, no matter what highway you’re on.

Since I had been to Raleigh and Durham, North Carolina, several times, and they are both wonderful cities, I opted to check into the nearby resorts, which I highly recommend.

Fearrington Village (Photo by Krystal Kast Photography)

My brand loyalty to Relais & Chateaux, which offers many properties in off-the-beaten-path destinations, led me to the intimate, 32-room The Fearrington House Inn (230 Market Street, Tel: 919-542-2121. fearrington.com), 20 miles south of Durham and I-85. The rural setting is unmistakably “Southern”—think “Southern charm,” “Southern comfort” and “Southern hospitality”—and the property is as Relais & Chateaux as it gets (thank the owners RB and Jenny Fitch, who were inspired to open it after staying in several Relais & Chateaux properties themselves). Located within the English-inspired village of Piedmont, in the countryside of the North Carolina, the property offers a wonderful light-filled spa, high-end restaurant, beer garden (the wood-fired pizzas and local brews hit all the right spots for me) and, my favorite moment, an actual, real-life farm with animals including goats, chickens, and a cow. I loved the perfectly manicured gardens for ruminating strolls, especially after the long drive. My Grand Suite, which felt unmistakably residential, had its own garden, but most of my time was spent in the property’s dozens of gardens, which are the heart of the resort. In fact, there are 60 garden beds (including an herb garden) connected by brick pathways, some with fountains, some with ponds. I loved the quietness. Fearrington is like a spa treatment for your soul.

The Umstead Hotel & Spa (100 Woodland Pond Drive, Tel: 919-447-4000. theumstead.com), both a Forbes Five-Star and AAA Five Diamond hotel since 2008, has been on my radar since I saw it included in U.S News & World Report Best Hotels in the USA in 2012, and it’s made that list ever year, as well as Best Hotel in North Carolina in 2019. It’s located between Raleigh and Durham within its own beautiful oasis, making it popular for weddings, staycations, wellness retreats, family weekenders, and even destination dining, thanks to signature restaurant Herons, one of only 64 Forbes Five Star restaurants in the world, serving elevated and innovative American cuisine (think lamb with barbecue chicory, carrot, garlic pine nut puree, meyer lemon jus).

The Umstead lived up to its hype. The 12-acre, lake front property simply hummed with serenity, bringing my high-adrenaline road trip energy down ten notches. I loved how the resort effortlessly blended into the natural setting, and it was also embellished with compelling art. Just strolling the grounds, sometimes I felt I was inside a painting myself. Other times, I truly felt that I was at a wellness resort in a faraway land, and perhaps my dog Ruby did too with all the sprawling lawns (the resort is extremely pet friendly) where she seemed at her most Zen.

I recommend the one-bedroom lakeview balcony suite. There’s nothing “over the top” about the room design, and that’s what made me appreciate it. No matter how many accolades a resort racks up, simplicity offers the best comfort. Besides, the main attraction is the sprawling view of the bucolic landscape from the balcony.

As you would expect for a resort of this caliber, the dining experience is top-notch. The culinary team is spearheaded by Devereaux Greene, whose thoughtful creations are inspired by the area’s natural beauty, and you bet the resort has its own two-acre farm where chefs pull ingredients. I highly recommend ordering room service. I always say “in-room dining should be a national pastime.” After hours of driving, you’ll want to treat yourself (besides: Heron’s has a dress code, so this gives you a great excuse to experience a fivestar meal in your robe).

I had two nights to enjoy this area before heading to Washington D.C., and Kingsmill Resort (1010 Kingsmill Road, Tel: 800-832-5665. kingsmill.com) had always been on my radar. It’s the only AAA Four-Diamond condominium riverside resort in Williamsburg, Virginia, popular for weekend getaways, with golf, spa, outdoor pools, a full-service marina. The sprawling, 2,900 protected acres offers well manicured paths and breathtaking landscapes. I wouldn’t be surprised if painters come here for inspiration. If you’re going to visit, make sure to book one of the six cottages, the most premium accommodations are perched along the James River. You’ll feel worlds away, though all resort amenities are a short (and scenic) stroll. I love accommodations where you can pull your car up right to your front door, and travelers will appreciate this perk. My three-bedroom cottage, with three separate entrances, three bathrooms, and three balconies, exceeded my expectations. There was great artwork and a library of wonderful books, WiFi was faster than at some city hotels, and high-tech kitchen appliances were the type you’d find in a Bloomingdales rather than Sears.

I highly recommend Kingsmill for travelers with pets. I’d never seen Ruby’s tag wail so much. The pet-friendly resort is truly pet friendly, with trails and paths around lakes and through forests, by the marina, and along the river. Ducks and otters and rabbits and a lot of geese made it feel like the set of a Disney movie.

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