“Try the AMF,” the lad next to me says while pushing to get a little closer to the bar.
“AMF,” he repeats, “it’s what everybody here drinks.”
“Right then,” I shout to the bartender behind the counter, “one AMF please. Whatever that is.”
Clearly I must have looked even more helpless than I felt to elicit such eager help from a stranger. Then again it isn’t the first time on this trip that a local’s interest levels suddenly perk up after he notices my English tones. For many Americans a foreign accent appears to be as irresistible as catnip.
Right now I am crammed against the counter of Pure, a Friday gay club night hosted at the otherwise straight Club Sound, and the place is filled to the gunwales. Unlike the tight-knit layout of European gay villages where different clubs and bars are usually within easy walking distance of each other, in Salt Lake, Utah (or SL, UT as I affectionately call it), venues are decidedly more spaced out. Only three of the dozen or so gay hotspots can easily be reached by foot from Pure. For anywhere else you have to get in your car and drive, or take a taxi. And considering Utah’s zero tolerance approach to drinking and driving it usually comes down to the latter. Forget about legal limits, driving in Utah after you’ve drunk anything with more kick than a Coke can land you in seriously hot water.
Back at Pure it didn’t take long for me to regret my own choice of drink. The pint-size glass that is being pushed in my direction now is filled to the brim with a concoction of toxic-coloured blue booze of seriously dubious origin.
“It’s called Adios Motherf**cker because after you drink it it’s bye-bye,” explains Shane. The two of us randomly met the previous night and Shane has kindly offered to act as my unofficial guide for the evening. “You’re gonna love it!”.
Had I known exactly what the club’s signature drink entailed, I might have been slightly more reluctant to follow the recommendation of a complete stranger earlier at the bar. Clearly there wasn’t going to be any more driving for yours truly tonight.
Oozing with queer cred
Salt Lake City, or simply Salt Lake as locals call it, is best known to many for its ties to the Mormon faith. After all, the city is the headquarters of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with its 14 million global members and is also home to the world’s largest Mormon temple. But as my visit to the Utah capital has been progressing I’ve found it a refreshingly liberal and open minded city. Probably because unlike small-town Utah, Salt Lake itself boasts a non-Mormon majority among its 1.12 million residents.
In fact, the Salt Lake gay scene has moved forward with such great strides in recent years, that the city was recently crowned by The Advocate as the gayest city in America (beyond the obvious megalopolises of New York City, San Francisco and the likes). According to The Advocate, who based their list on “per capita queerness”, the far-less-oppressive-than-it-used-to-be Salt Lake City has now earned its queer cred and deserves its spot at number 1 judged by their “totally accurate if decidedly subjective criteria”.
Getting here is also much easier than you might think. If you happen to live near any of the major airports in the UK you will have no shortage of flight options, most of them with just one stop-over in the US. I opted to fly with Lufthansa so as to include a shopping trip in New York. Although it might not be possible to shorten the time of the actual flight, Lufthansa has one nifty way to help the time pass more quickly – it is the only airline to provide high speed internet access on transatlantic flights with connection costs starting at just £9. So whether you want to update your Facebook status, line-up some Statesides meet-ups through Gaydar and Grindr, or stay abreast of business emails, you can do all that and more aboard Lufthansa flights while merrily cruising at 40,000ft. From New York, suitcase crammed full of New York bargains of course, it was only a short flight onboard JetBlue to Salt Lake City, jetting off from the airline’s exclusive and impressively modern Terminal 5 at JFK airport.
Shooting fish the Mormon way
According to Shane, who can’t believe how little progress I have made with my AMF (I’ve barely dented it), the inescapable presence of the LDS Church does have its advantages.
“Those repressed Mormon boys are so easy to bang it’s like shooting fish in a barrel,” he grins when I ask him what it is like to live a city with such strong religious links. “Mix that with the gorgeous mountains and perfect sunsets every night and little Salt Lake is a slice of heaven.”
And he does have a point. Salt Lake certainly has its appeal: A decent gay scene, impressive shopping and striking sights, including as many Mormon-related attractions as you could wish for in one lifetime. But it is the spectacular natural attractions right on its doorstep that appeal even more to many of its visitors.
Take Park City for instance. Located just 30 minutes from downtown Salt Lake it hosts the prestigious and star-studded Sundance film festival every year and is home to three world-class ski resorts and some of the finest slopes in North America. Blessed with nearly 150 inches of light powdery snow every year it isn’t hard to understand why this picturesque ski village with its historically preserved Main Street played a key part during the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. This month the village will host a decidedly more rainbow-coloured event when Elevation Utah rolls into town for its second annual gay ski week, starting on February 23rd.
Hitting the great gay outdoors
Fancy something a little more rugged? Then best head south towards Moab, some 230 miles from Salt Lake, and the heart of the American West. Billed as the adventure capital of Utah, Moab is located between two spectacular National Parks and one stunning State Park. The rugged terrain and expansive landscapes of the Desert Southwest stands in strong contrast to the Rocky Mountains, and begs to be biked, hiked and explored in a dozen other ways. Arches National Park is an unmissable destination here, with its wealth of over 2,000 natural red sandstone arches, including the iconic Delicate Arch which has graced the cover of many a travel guide.
Regardless if it is rock climbing and hot air ballooning you’re after, or if you lean more towards speed boating and off-roading, there is no shortage of adrenalin-filled activities for outdoor enthusiasts in Moab and its surrounds. Be sure to time your visit carefully though. Summer temperatures in these arid parts can hit scorching highs of 40°C and more while the mercury can plummet as low as -15°C during the winter months. Even in spring and autumn Utah mornings and evenings often have a bite to them because of the generally high elevation of the state, though midday temperatures are normally in the region of a very pleasant (and usually sunny) 25°C.
Two days after exploring the fruits of Salt Lake’s nightlife with Shane, it is time to jet home again. All too soon. Despite the relative brevity of my homebound Lufthansa flight (it takes less than eight hours to travel from JFK back to Europe), the quiet of the cabin gives me the perfect opportunity to reflect on my trip.
Like any major city Salt Lake isn’t without its own set of problems, many of it linked directly or indirectly to the Latter-day Saints Church. Despite Shane’s notion that the Mormon Church ensures a fertile hunting ground, its “love the sinner not the sin” rhetoric has been linked to some cases of homophobia in the Utah capital. But beyond these isolated instances and underneath that perfectly pristine Mormon image is a city that rewards you handsomely with a virtually unrivalled outdoors playground, buckets of charm and surprisingly open-minded locals.
Where to stay: Centrally located within walking distance from downtown Salt Lake and major attractions like historic Temple Square, the Red Lion Hotel Salt Lake is an excellent option with great value for money. It boasts 393 well-appointed rooms, a fitness studio and a pool for the hot summer months. Especially attractive is the Red Lion’s free shuttle service, which isn’t just handy for airport pick-ups and drop-offs but also when setting off to explore the city’s gay hotspots and shopping offerings. A worthy alternative is the Salt Lake Hilton, also located in the heart of downtown Salt Lake.
How to get there: While there are more direct options to get to Salt Lake, yours truly opted to fly with Lufthansa from Manchester to New York for a spot of Manhattan shopping before continuing the journey to Salt Lake. In 2011 New York became Lufthansa’s first A380 destination in North America, and the airline also debuted its brand new First Class cabin on this route.
Once in the US few airlines can rival the offering of JetBlue and their expansive route network. Despite being positioned as a low-cost airline, there is nothing cheap about the JetBlue experience other than the airline’s fares. Expect plush chairs, oodles of leg room, unlimited donuts and the friendliest cabin crew around for miles. Not surprisingly JetBlue boasts a long ream of awards including Top Low Cost Airline for Customer Satisfaction and Best US Budget Airline.
General: Utah’s dedicated UK website www.goutah.co.uk as well as their general www.visitutah.com website provide a wealth of information to help plan your trip and to make the most of your time in the Beehive State. For more information about Moab visit the official www.discovermoab.com tourism information website.