I get it: Fire Island is historic and means so much (to some people) that it has its own new rom-com. I know some gay people who think its bucolic beaches and party atmosphere are paradise.
But I am not one of them. I have no interest in schlepping by train, bus and ferry to stand in the corner at a gay beach party that I feel I’m supposed to like because I’m gay and live in New York. Not interested. We exist.
That’s why earlier this month I headed in the opposite direction of Fire Island, geographically and experientially. My destination was New Hope, Pa., And Lambertville, NJ, waterside towns separated by a bridge and a state line, but joined by reputations as LGBTQ-friendly spots. In March, Time Out named New Hope one of the country “best LGBTQ + -friendly small towns.”
About a two-hour car ride from Manhattan (you can also get there by bus), New Hope has a rich history, dating to the early- to mid-20th century, as a welcoming place for visual artists, writers and theater people, including queer folks. In 2020, Bucks County, the home of New Hope, welcomed 6.36 million people, according to Paul Bencivengo, the president of Visit Bucks County, the county’s official tourism agency.
His organization does not keep track of the number of LGBTQ visitors. But he told me “the gay community has been part of the fabric of New Hope for a long time,” and that no matter where I went in town, I would be welcomed.
And, on an early June weekend, rainbow flags and Pride this-and-that drenched New Hope’s busy Main Street, from Dunkin ‘Donuts to the Pork Shack in the bustling Ferry Market food hall.
But the Pride ornamentation seemingly outnumbered actual queer people – it was like walking the streets of Provincetown when most of the gays decided to stay home. (To be fair, the weekend I visited, there were also Pride events in Philadelphia and Asbury Park, NJ) And there are no gay bars or clubs, and no more Raven, a popular gay bar-resort that went nevermore in 2019.
Yet during my visit – it was me, my partner and a friend – I found New Hope and Lambertville to be chill, culture-forward and vibrant towns for three gay men who wanted a weekend getaway.
If New Hope isn’t as gay “as the hem of Patti LuPone’s skirt,” as Philip Kain told me, that doesn’t mean it isn’t a gay jewel worth visiting. He should know: Under the pen name Philip William Stover, he wrote two steamy gay romance novels set in New Hope, near where he and his husband live when they’re not at home on the Upper East Side.
New Hope “is a place where, even though you may not be surrounded by gay people, there is a history and a foundation you’re walking on,” said Mr. Kain, as we shared shortbread cookies at Porches on the Towpath, a hidden-away bed-and-breakfast there. “It’s nice to be in places where there is a felt history of gay culture.”
As more of a cultural tourist than a surf-and-sand one, that suited me. Which is why we took a 20-minute drive from New Hope to the Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, Pa., To see “Keith Haring: A Radiant Legacy,” a career-spanning exhibition of over 100 pieces by the gay painter and street artist who died of AIDS in 1990 at just 31.
The show, which continues through July 31, will be a treat for disciples and newbies to the work of Haring, a Pennsylvania native. (Do not miss the display with some of his middle- and high-school yearbooks.) Among the highlights are pieces featuring the radiant baby, one of Haring’s most famous images and his main street tag.
Located on the site of a former grist mill, the Bucks County Playhouse has drawn theater fans since 1939 with names like Robert Redford, Liza Minnelli and Audra McDonald. I was too early for its production of the Tony Award-winning (and queer) musical “Kinky Boots,” which runs from June 24 through July 30.
But I was one of about 80 folks who gathered for the Playhouse’s LGBTQ + High Tea, held the first Sunday of every month on the theater’s deck, with its killer view of the Delaware River. The vibe was equal parts dance club and small-town happy hour, and the revelers were a mix of men and women of all colors.
It was there that I chatted with two friends, both gay: Matthew Robertson, 32, and Barry McAndrews, 25. They told me the typical gay visitor to the area was, like me, a Gen Xer, or older, which explains why the DJ was partial to CeCe Peniston remixes and classic disco.
“There’s a ton of money here, and a lot of younger people are effectively priced out of living in this entire region.” McAndrews said. Locals prefer private parties, he said, “but they are super over the top, with ice sculptures and servants, like crazy stuff.”
While neither New Hope nor Lambertville offers much in the way of a Fire Island-style youth culture – fine by me – they do have some Fire Island prices, at least when it comes to accommodations. The big splurge is the River House at Odette’s, a dramatic waterfront hotel in New Hope, where this summer nightly rates start at $ 279 and climb to $ 1,038 for a suite.
I chose New Hope’s Logan Inn, which reopened in 2021 after a stunning renovation and expansion that turned the building, part of which dates back to 1727, into a boutique hotel infused throughout with bold design that marries butch (Colonial-style wood paneling) and fabulous (my room came with a framed photo of Freddie Mercury with Elton John). Its outdoor terrace is made for people watching, and the location, minutes from the Playhouse and Farley’s, a bookstore with a well-curated Pride section, is primo. Rooms range from around $ 210 to $ 610 a night. (VisitBucksCounty.com has a list of more affordable accommodations.)
At Lambertville’s many vintage and antique shops, the past makes great presents. Standouts were A Touch of the Past, a huge antiques showroom, and the new Form + Matter Modern, where I had my eye on a NO Møller teak dining table.
We strolled across the steel-truss New Hope-Lambertville Bridge and into Love Saves the Day, a delightful vintage shop where I rummaged through old copies of Vogue and Playboy. (“Gay Stereotypes: Which One Are You?” Asked a 1988 copy of The Advocate that I came this close to buying.) The store’s popular East Village outpost, seen in the film “Desperately Seeking Susan,” closed in 2009, and much of the merchandise traveled to New Hope.
New Hope and Lambertville adjoin the Delaware Canal State Park, which has an almost 60-mile towpath that runs along the Delaware River. It provides a level trail for walking, jogging, biking and horseback riding, and there’s access for canoeing and kayaking.
Another outdoor option is the Washington Crossing Historic Park, which extends over 500 acres and preserves the site where George Washington famously crossed the Delaware River. Popular stops include Bowman’s Hill Tower, which rises 125 feet and offers a panoramic view, and the park’s visitor center, where you’ll find a replica of Emanuel Leutze’s famous painting of the crossing.
As for dining, the Salt House is an intimate, candlelit gastro pub inside an 18th-century stone building, where the four-salt deviled eggs were my appetizer of the weekend. In Lambertville, it’s hard to miss the rainbow-colored tulle that wraps Under the Moon, a Spanish-focused restaurant where I got a fat slice of quiche and a sweet watermelon gazpacho.
But I really fell for Union Coffee, a charming Lambertville cafe where rainbow-colored art in the window complemented the “Trans Rights Are Human Rights!” poster in the quirky little shop in the back. My Sunday got off to a splendid start when I paired a lavender oat milk latte with some ridiculously moist apple-pear bundt cake from Factory Girl Bake Shop in New Hope.
Before I left there, I struck up a conversation with Marian Gaestel and Mary Lloyd. The two friends, both in their 60s, had just come from mass at St. John the Evangelist, which Ms. Gaestel called “a much more open Catholic church” than the one in Flemington, the “more country, conservative” New Jersey town where she lives.
“Coming down here is a breath of fresh air,” Ms. Gaestel said. “Even if you live in Flemington, coming down to Lambertville and New Hope is like going away somewhere.”
They came looking for a place to feel comfortable with like-minded people and found it. I did, too – not on a packed beach or sweaty dance floor, but in a quiet coffee shop at the corner of Union and Coryell. The Pride colors made it easy to find.