My first gay holiday, like my first boyfriend, was something I will never forget. Both caught me by surprise: unexpectedly intense, hugely enjoyable, and better with each passing day.

Which is not to disparage either the holiday, or the boyfriend. It’s just that time has a wonderful way of rounding out the edges. You forget about the aching thighs and sore butt, and remember instead that delicious shortness of breath at the beginning of the affair, the simple ecstasy of arriving (j’arrive, some French are reputed to exclaim at point of fulfilment), and how heart-breakingly wonderful it was to finally hit the sack.

Bike riding through the south of France with a bunch of fellow gay men sounded like a perfect holiday at the time. And it was. I saw the trip advertised in the gay press, visited the website, paid my money and, before I knew it, had checked into our assigned meeting place, a small hotel in the backstreets of Avignon, and was ready to roll.

The next 10 days were variously hilarious, rewarding, frustrating and exhausting. We biked gaily through Provence, a trusty tour guide keeping an eye on us all, stopping for picnic lunches en route. Our luggage was bussed ahead to that night’s chosen hotel, which meant we hardly had a care in the world. Except, of course, when we had a visit to another fortified town or historic castle -“ invariably perched atop the highest hill in the neighbourhood.

The holiday was truly memorable because it was so gay. The organisers were gay, the tour leaders were gay, the clients were gay, the hotels were gay-friendly, hell, even the bikes were gay. Well, brightly painted Peugeots, anyway. And when you get a bunch of poofs together from Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, Montr?, Sydney, Paris and New Orleans, a good time is usually had by all. I don’t think I’d laughed so much for ages.

Which is one of the points about gay travel. It’s as much about the people you meet as it is about the destination. The Gay Games in Sydney last year showed exactly the kind of camaraderie that happens when gays and lesbians from around the world come together in celebration. Variations of the phenomenon happen around Pride marches and fair days, at dance parties or community events, at gay ski weekends, health conferences, queer film festivals, and dyke golf tournaments. It’s the glue, if you like, that holds the gay and lesbian community together.

Our choice of destinations nevertheless plays an important role in the gay holiday experience. The USA is chock-a-block with gay and lesbian destinations: Palm Springs, Key West, Fort Lauderdale, Provincetown, and San Francisco spring to mind. Elsewhere, Montr? is working hard on its gay and lesbian profile ahead of the 2006 Gay Games, as is Manchester ahead of 2003 Europride.

On the Continent, perennial favourites include Amsterdam, Vienna, Paris, London and Berlin, not to mention Mykonos and Lesbos, if only for sentimental value. Gay life booms throughout Asia, as well, with Bangkok, Tokyo and Hong Kong attracting large numbers of gay and lesbian travellers throughout the year.

Behind each of these destinations -“ and plenty of others not mentioned here -“ is a fascinating network of gay and lesbian travel agents, resorts, websites, hotel operators, tour guides, media, events organisers, and venue owners. Each of them contributes to and profits from a burgeoning gay and lesbian travel market.

But it’s a foolish operator who thinks waving the rainbow flag is enough to win the business. Gay and lesbian travellers -“ not surprisingly -“ respond well to the basics: genuine hospitality, competitive pricing, cultural sensitivity, local knowledge, and a sense of humour. It’s a pretty easy formula, and one that’s guaranteed to work -¦ irrespective of whether we’re talking camel safaris in Morocco or a luxury cruise in Hawaii.

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