If there’s one thing everyone likes, it’s a good travel recommendation. For those who have the interest, time, and money to do it (certainly the latter two are never in abundance), travel to new places is a thrilling and rewarding experience. Do you prefer seeing sites (castles, temples, museums) or having adventures (mountain biking, rappelling, snowboarding)? Do you want to relax on the beach, camp in the brush, or live it up in a glamorous hotel? I like history and sites, but my girlfriend likes the ocean, so we’ve learned to make it work. Below are four travel itineraries we’ve test driven for you that fit a variety of budgets and interests, if you’re looking for a ready-made adventure that’s not an Olivia cruise.
Best of the Best: A Safari in Tanzania, $$$
Once upon a time, fantastically wealthy Westerners used to travel to Africa to shoot big game. Nowadays, tourists from around the world and of all budgets head to countries such as Botswana, Namibia, Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda, Tanzania, and South Africa with cameras rather than guns to shoot photos of Africa’s amazing yet dwindling wildlife population. There is no way to describe a photo safari other than to say that it’s hands down the most exhilarating trip of my life. The feeling of spotting a pride of lions relaxing in the shade, a cheetah out hunting for her cubs, or a herd of elephants bathing is indescribable, and it is a sight we are quickly losing. 90% of Africa’s elephant population has been lost in the last 17 years, and at a loss rate of 500 lions a year, Africa’s remaining 5,000 lions could be gone in the next 10 years. Go now, or forever hold your peace.
There are no bad pictures of elephants.
Although going on safari can be prohibitively expensive, discount sites such as Groupon and LivingSocial run multiple safari deals every year that cut the cost in half. Using this discounted rate and going in the off-season (you’ll miss the Great Migration, in which more than 2 million wildebeest alone move from Tanzania to Kenya, but you’ll also miss the bazillion tourists there to see it) you can normally go on a nine-day safari in Kenya, Tanzania, or South Africa for between $2,000-3,000 per person, international airfare and all food, lodging, guides, and park admission fees included. Although this may seem at first like a steep price tag, accommodation even on discount safaris is always top notch and luxurious, with the safari operator handling all of the trip details for you. In short: safaris are expensive, but can be a great bargain, too. If you want to surprise your girlfriend with a truly memorable experience for an anniversary or birthday, this is the one.
The best safaris are in Tanzania. A third of Tanzania’s land has been designated national parks, including the famous Serengeti, Ngorongoro Crater, Selous, Ruaha (which has 10% of Africa’s lion population), and Tarangire. Prides of lions, herds of elephants, zebra, wildebeest, gazelles, Cape buffalow and rhinos range over the short green grasses, families of giraffes, warthogs, and cheetahs hide in the tall yellow stalks, and hippo eyes peer out from shallow lakes. And on safari, you’re almost in arm’s reach of all of them.
I watched this lion for at least 20 minutes while five feet from it. Sorry, other tourists who wanted a picture.
Not only does Tanzania offer the best chance of seeing the greatest diversity of land animals, but the capital of Tanzania, Dar es Salaam, is also a gateway to Tanzania’s islands once your safari is over. The biggest, Zanzibar, can be reached for $120 round-trip on any of Tanzania’s budget airlines. Zanzibar was my girlfriend’s all-time favorite travel destination until we went to Egypt this year, although I didn’t like Zanzibar that much (possibly because one of the pesky Masaai beach boys offered to marry my girlfriend while the Masaai guy talking to me just wanted a skeezy 2 am hookup). Things to do on Zanzibar include visiting Prison Island, populated by Aldabra giant tortoises, some of which are almost 200 years old, snorkeling, kite surfing, and scuba diving. Pods of dolphins are located on both the northeast and southeast ends of the island, and the chances of getting to swim next to them, even if only for a minute, as we did, is high. The whole island can be seen in three or four days, so no need to budget a long time there.
My girlfriend called this “returning to her people.”
An off the beaten path but must-see destination is Mafia Island, which can be also reached from Dar es Salaam for about $120 round-trip. The tiny island has a small scuba diving center and during the right season, divers can swim with whale sharks, which is our new couples bucket list dream. Pro tip: book a three day trip to Mafia or Zanzibar through Coastal Aviation’s Dar es Salaam travel office a few days in advance to get truly bargain basement prices for a fantastic hotel and flight.
Lesbian couple considerations: While on safari, your fellow tourists won’t particularly care what you do so long as you don’t make out in front of them. There was even another lesbian on safari, too. Zanzibar, however, is a conservative Muslim area, so put on your best “besties with no benefits” face when in public.
These tortoises are huge and like to be petted, BTW.
Adventure Travel: Costa Rica, $$
Costa Rica has it all: volcanoes, beaches, and a trip through the Land Before Time on the rapids-filled Pacuare River. We flew into the San Jose Airport and caught a shuttle out to Arenal, an active volcano around which is centered activities such as ziplining, canyoneering, four wheeling, horseback riding, paddleboarding, and hiking. Day trips are easy to arrange through the several tour outfitters in the area, and after a long day of activities, you can relax in any of Arenal’s many hot springs. While transitioning from Arenal to the beaches on the east coast, white water rafting on the Pacuare River (voted one of the “Top 10 Most Scenic Rivers in the World” by National Geographic Magazine) is an absolute must, even though we almost lost my girlfriend overboard. These Class 3 and 4 rapids take four hours to cross, all while surrounded by primary rainforest that looks as it did during the Stone Age.
This is canyoneering and it’s awesome except for when my girlfriend almost broke her foot.
If you want to relax on the beach, Puerto Viejo de Limon is a small town near to Panama. It offers broad expanses of beaches with paddleboarding and snorkeling, as well as dozens of yoga ashrams. Scuba diving is also available, as are day trips across the border. Puerto Viejo is home to the Jaguar Rescue Center, a rehabilitation facility that houses monkeys, sloths, birds, an ocelot, and other furry and feathered friends. If you’re a true sloth aficionado like my girlfriend, you won’t want to miss the Toucan Rescue Ranch on your way back to San Jose, too. Located half an hour or so outside the city, those who opt to stay the night in their “bed and breakfast” can wander the grounds freely to peer at the sloths and other wildlife being rehabilitated there. Although you can’t touch them, you can get up close and personal with the baby sloths during feeding time in the morning.
This sloth at the Toucan Rescue Ranch wants to love you, personally.
Rather than heading east to Puerto Viejo, travelers can also go to the Cloud Forest in Monteverde instead. My girlfriend and I didn’t go, but I hear it’s nice. Anyone flying from D.C. from 1-7 November this year can get a roundtrip ticket for $300, with the price of hotels varying based on the individual traveler’s budget. Cheap food prices keep costs down for the budget conscious. Overall, Costa is a good value for the money if you want a variety of experiences in a laid back environment. Pro tip: No travel agency needed here! All excursions, hotels, and transportation can easily be booked online or on site. Given the ease of using buses or taxis to travel between tourist sites, ditch the rental car, too.
Lesbian considerations: Central and South America are known to be generally hostile to homosexuality, so be careful with PDAs. That said, since 2015 Costa Rica has legally recognized same-sex relationships, and you’re unlikely to face a great deal of scrutiny if you only book a double bed.
Holistic Experience Travel: Southeast Asia, $
Okay, so I went alone on this right after my girlfriend and I started dating, but Southeast Asia is possibly the easiest place in the world I’ve ever traveled, in addition to being one of the cheapest, so it deserves mention. Cambodia, Vietnam (and Thailand, though I didn’t go) are extremely accessible to travelers, with cheap transportation, hotels and restaurants, and world-class guest services (although tickets to get there aren’t so cheap; the cheapest I found was in March for $530). Southeast Asia is also full of sights to see and day trip companies that will take you from your hotel doorstep and back again.
In Cambodia, fly into Siem Reap and spend the next three days exploring the temple complex at Angkor. Once a Hindu temple, Angkor Wat is the largest religious monument in the world, and each of the temples in its vicinity have their own highlights. I wouldn’t recommend fewer than 3 days to explore the site because there’s so much to see. From Siem Reap, flights to Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh can be as low as $18 on Angkor Air. In Phnom Penh, a must-do is the city food tour (I did Urban Forage). During my tour, we ate street food from roadside vendors before stopping at a restaurant to sample tarantulas, ants, grubs, and crickets (some tours also eat cobra). For those interested in the history of the Khmer Rouge, S21 (Tuol Sleng) and the Killing Fields (Choeung Ek) are a chilling experience reflecting the barbarism of mankind. For those preferring lighter sides of history, stop by the royal palace and walk the grounds or take a river cruise.
This is Ta Prohm, also seen in the movie “Tomb Raider.”
It’s easy to travel from Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as Saigon) in Vietnam by bus or by cheap flight. In Ho Chi Minh City, a growing city that feels like a baby Paris, it’s easy to find hotels and restaurants in the backpacker’s quarter. I found the War Remnants Museum challenged my conception of the history of the Vietnam War in a good way, as it presents the Vietnamese perspective on the war. It’s also worth taking a day trip to see the Cu Chi tunnels outside the city. Spanning 75 miles and serving as communications and supply conduits as well as hiding spots for the Viet Cong, these tunnels were a constant source of vexation to the US Army during the war. From Ho Chi Minh City, I went south to the Mekong, but I don’t recommend it because there’s little to see there. Instead, all the guide books say to head north to Hue, Vietnam’s capital in the 1800s, and Halong Bay, for whose gorgeous vista Vietnam is internationally famous. Pro tip: Although it’s cheaper to take buses for long distance travel in Southeast Asia, flights are so cheap that it’s better to just fly to save time. Also, day trips can easily be booked from hotels the day before and all hotels will have brochures at the front desk advertising tours.
Obligatory travel selfie.
Lesbian considerations: Cambodia’s king is unofficially known to be gay, and Cambodia’s culture is opening up to a more LGBT friendly approach. Vietnam is even more open. That said, neither culture wants to see either you or straight couples swallowing each other’s face in public, so be discreet.
Domestic Getaway: Washington, D.C., $$
Yes, I’m biased because I live here, but D.C. is honestly one of the best US cities for tourism. Its top selling point is that all of the Smithsonian Museums (and there are a LOT of them) are free, as are the Library of Congress, all the monuments (Lincoln, Jefferson, World War II, Vietnam War, Korean War, Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, Jr., etc.), the National Arboretum, the U.S. Holocaust Museum, and tours of Congress and the White House. When you’re history buffs like me and my girlfriend, these make for the best. dates. ever. Not free but equally interesting is the Newseum, which promotes freedom of expression and news history. Head into Georgetown for some famous Georgetown Cupcakes (based on a taste test, my friends and I prefer Sprinkles, which is on the same road, while my girlfriend prefers Baked and Wired) or open up Yelp to explore why D.C. is considered a foodie city (although my girlfriend and I like “Hot Spot,” a shabu shabu restaurant in Fairfax, VA, 45 minutes west of D.C.). For the really committed amateur historians, first President George Washington’s home, Mt. Vernon, is a short drive south of D.C., while the Manassas (aka Bull Run) battlefield is an hour drive west.
The iconic Washington Monument during the Cherry Blossom festival.
One notably absent part of D.C. life, however, is a strong lesbian scene. Phase One, which had previously been the U.S.’s longest continually operating lesbian bar, closed years ago and has yet to be replaced. Although occasional lesbian-centric events pop up, tourists are unlikely to stumble on lesbian-centric events or venues. Pro tip: To avoid massive crowds at all the tourist sites, come on a weekday during the school year.
Lesbian considerations: D.C. is a super liberal area, with Dupont Circle historically known as the gay hangout (although now, like all of D.C., it’s been claimed by hipsters). Anything goes in D.C., including drag brunch, drag bingo, and the epic D.C. High Heel Drag Race. Although lesbians have lost many of our spaces, we still turn out in droves, particularly for the Pride Parade, which is approximately the fourth biggest in the country.
So what do you think, readers? I’ve shown you mine, so show me yours: where else should lesbian couples travel?