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EXCLUSIVE | Three Gay Days: Russian River

EXCLUSIVE | Three Gay Days: Russian River

Here's your must-have road map to 72 hours in one of the world's gayest destinations. Where to stay, eat, play and meet in relaxing and natural Russian River.

"The River," as San Franciscans call it, is a more rustic summer retreat than other more popular gay-resort destinations. The emphasis at the Russian River is on the great outdoors, with river beaches and towering redwoods as the primary attraction. But the area is close to the heart of California's urbane and stylish wine country, which increases its appeal for those who are less at ease with nature.

Just as life on Fire Island is defined by the New Yorkers who use it as a regular weekend escape, life on the river is defined by the San Franciscans, who overwhelmingly dominate the summer population here. Unlike most other summer destinations, San Franciscans come here to escape the foggy, chilly weather of the city and to bask in the warming Sonoma sun.

Although it's never fair to generalize, compared to other resorts the crowds at the Russian River tend to be more laid-back, relaxed and not as intent on impressing one another. It's an easy, comfortable retreat spot that offers just the right mix of country charm to travelers who have spent a few days in San Francisco's high-energy gay neighborhoods.

For maximum crowds the best time to visit the area is during the big summer holidays or during the numerous, well-attended festival weekends. Highlights include the Sonoma County Lesbian and Gay Pride Parade and Celebration and the Russian River Women's Weekend, a riotous weekend among the redwoods with pool parties, speed dating, Truth or Dare, a kissing booth, and kayaking. Women also have a slew of events to choose from courtesy of River Gals and men of the furry-friendly variety flock to the annual Lazy Bear Weekend.

The Russian River is an easy 90-minute drive north of San Francisco. The most direct route is to take Highway 101 North to the River Road exit and then go west for approximately 18 miles to the Russian River towns of Rio Nido, Guerneville and Monte Rio. If you choose to fly, the closest airports are Sonoma County, Oakland and San Francisco.

(All accommodations are in Guerneville unless noted) Russian River Resort or "Triple R" (16390 Fourth St; 707-869-0691 or 800-417-3767; from $65) is by far the most popular lodging option, with 24 rooms featuring private baths and color TV. The property, which received a major facelift in 2006, features a heated pool, hot tub and the Triple R Bar and Grill restaurant, as well as the Promenade Pool Bar and BBQ. The Triple R hosts special events during the big weekends and retreats throughout the summer. Live comedy on Saturdays, karaoke on Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, and a piano bar on weekends (in the upper dining room) liven up the otherwise casual and relaxed property. The clientele is mostly gay men.

Dawn Ranch Lodge (16467 River Rd; 707-869-0656 or 800-734-3371; from $149), offers 55 cottages and cabins on more than 15 acres of beautiful, wooded grounds. In addition to a heated pool, amenities include a bar, TV lounge, private beach, full-service gym, and an elegant restaurant, Roadhouse. It's gay-popular, but is also a hit with the straight crowd.

Applewood Inn & Restaurant (13555 Highway 116; 707-869-9093 or 800-555-8509; from $195) is an upscale bed and breakfast inn located on six lovely acres with landscaped gardens and redwoods. Located just one quarter of a mile from Guerneville, the 19-room inn consists of four buildings including a restaurant (see below), wine bar, and wine cellar. The grounds include a swimming pool and hot tub. Room d?cor tastefully blends contemporary furnishings with hand-picked antiques. The best (and priciest) rooms have fireplaces, private balconies and Jacuzzi tubs or two-person showers. Rates include full breakfast.

The pet-friendly 5 Seasons Resort & Spa (formerly River Village Resort & Spa, 14880 River Rd; 707-869-8139 or 888-342-2624; from $120) has 17 intimate, eco-friendly cottages and a full-service spa offering aromatherapy or wet salt massage, mud wrap and facials on a four-acre site that offers hiking and biking trails. Amenities include: a pool, Jacuzzi, sumptuous robes and towels, fireplace, cable TV, DVD, CD player, complimentary breakfast and kitchenette. The straight-owned but very gay-friendly compound is set in lush gardens.

The rustic and friendly Highlands Resort (14000 Woodland Drive; 707-869-0333; from $60) sits amid three acres of redwoods, and serves a predominately gay and lesbian clientele with 15 guest rooms, some cabins with fireplaces, and a clothing-optional pool and hot tub (day use $3-$10). Resort accommodations don't include TVs or telephones, and thus it caters to a quieter clientele seeking to "get away from it all." Continental breakfast is served daily. Pets are accepted in some cabins.

Your first stop has to be the River. Many resorts offer river access. If yours doesn't, you can pay a day-use fee at another resort, or use public or secluded beaches. The beach in Guerneville is mostly straight but gay-friendly, and it's popular with families with children. Take a break from sunning and splashing and saunter to Main Street Station Ristorante & Cabaret (16280 Main St; 707-869-0501; $8-20), for a sandwich or salad.

Once suitably satiated, it's time to get out on the water. Burke's Canoe Trips (8600 River Rd, Forestville; 707-887-1222) offers a full-day rental for $58/canoe, including paddles and life vests. Reservations during summer months are a must.

Reservations are also essential for dinner at Applewood Inn & Restaurant (see above; $20-32), where very good Wine Country and Italian cuisine star on an ? la carte menu that changes every three weeks. Gay-friendly, this restaurant attracts more straight clients than gay clients, in an approximate ratio of 80 percent to 20 percent.

While taking a moonlight stroll through the woods followed by a soothing hot tub under a starry sky is the primary nightlife round these parts, there are some other options. At the cruise bar Rainbow Cattle Company (16220 Main St; 707-869-0206) you'll find a mix of gay women and men enjoying pinball, pool, and music ranging from rock to country & western.

Part One | Part Two

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