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The Snowbird Destinations series features six U.S. cities that Canadian retirees might enjoy as a winter retreat, whether travelling for a week or an entire season. Following our series preview, the first stop was Taos, N.M. Stories on the other destinations will follow in the coming weeks.

The much-revered Key West slogan of "One Human Family" floated through my mind during my recent kayak tour of the waters surrounding this tiny island at the southernmost point of the United States.

During the 21/2-hour guided tour – a short stop on a three-day cruise from Miami through Key West and Nassau, Bahamas – I was among a group of kayakers exploring the underwater wildlife and mangrove trees that support the ecosystem of Key West – a city-island about 200 kilometres southwest of Miami and 170 kilometres northeast of Havana.

Amid the serene beauty of the tour, which I took after strolling through Key West, I realized that our diverse group of tourists and locals came together as one human family, with the common love of what makes the area so unique – a tropical paradise that provides an endearing backdrop to joyful living.

Key West is one of the five islands that make up the Florida Keys – a coral cay archipelago lying along the Florida Straits that also includes Key Largo, Islamorada, Marathon, and Big Pine Key and the Lower Keys. Each island has its own unique offerings for nature and water sports lovers, plus some of the most prime real estate in Florida. But Key West stands out – because it has long been a haven for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) residents and tourists.

Promotional tourism videos, with titles such as Close to Perfect, Far from Normal and Out Before It Was In, urge everyone living in or visiting Key West to "come as you are," regardless of age, race or sexual orientation.

Today, Key West is building on its One Human Family declaration approved in 2000 by the local government. It remains one of the few winter-escape destinations – others include Palm Springs, Calif., and Fort Lauderdale, Fla. – with extensive LGBT-centric accommodations, tourist events and activities.

But the gay bars and clubs, mostly found within a few blocks of Duval Street in Old Towne, don't discriminate, as people of all orientations are welcomed.

The 'bohemian-ness' of Key West

It's exactly this mentality that drew Moncton-born entertainer Christopher Peterson to Key West, and kept him there.

"Key West is the same as it's been since the dawn of time – it will always have an appeal for its bohemian-ness – its openness," Mr. Peterson said in a recent phone interview while taking a break from shopping for the home he and his partner are building in Key West.

Now 52, he confesses he had never been to Key West until he heard the Village People's 1970s' song Key West, with lyrics such as: "Mama, I'm freezin' I wanna go to the su-un … I'm headin' for Key-ey-ey West, the key to happine-ess."

Mr. Peterson brought his female impersonation act to Key West some 16 years ago, after a long and award-winning career in Canadian cities including Edmonton, Vancouver and Toronto.

For the past 14 years, he has been headlining his Eyecons singing and comedy show – dressing up as celebrities from Judy Garland to Lady Gaga – on the Crystal Room stage at the La te da hotel and cabaret on Duval Street. The famous downtown, mile-long street, which connects the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico, is the main commercial drag of Key West and noted for its stunning architecture, including its Bahamian and Spanish-influenced Victorian mansions.

"It felt so much like home from the beginning," Mr. Peterson said about Key West. "People wanted to see the drag queen who could sing … and today 99 per cent of the people who come see my show know the history of Key West having a gay background, so they get their little taste of gay without having to be in a gay club. It's mainly people over 40 … because a 25-year-old is more likely to go to the raunchier shows at some of the gay clubs."

A gay haven for decades

Key West is the administrative centre of Monroe County, with about 25,000 residents – a third of the total population of the Keys.

Known by locals as the "Conch Republic," named after the Bahamas immigrants known as Conchs who settled here after 1830, Key West attracts the eccentric and creative (some of its famous former residents include Ernest Hemingway and Tennessee Williams), as well as the adventurous (with its fishing tournaments and water activities, from scuba diving and snorkelling to jet-skiing).

It's also credited with opening the world's first gay guesthouse in the early 1970s, and two-term mayor Richard Heyman became one of the first openly gay public officials in the United States before he died of pneumonia linked to AIDS in 1994.

Today, however, there's plenty of competition for LGBT dollars – with both straight and LGBT Canadians among the top home buyers and tourists.

Research by San Francisco-based Community Marketing and Insights (CMI) indicates gay and lesbian travellers account for 5 to 10 per cent of the travel industry. A 2013 study by the group, which specializes in LGBT market research, indicates the annual economic impact of LGBT travellers is more than $100-billion (U.S.) a year in the United States alone, with cruises more popular among men and LGBT individuals aged 45 to 64.

'Progressive with a small-town appeal'

But Key West, as well as Palm Springs, with a population of about 45,000, are holding their own because they're "progressive with a small-town appeal and have a lot going on in terms of good food, architecture and culture," says David Paisley, CMI's research director.

"What has happened is we've seen through the years other major urban destinations come on board and start to market to the LGBT community – it's really changing the demographics of visitors," says Mr. Paisley, who makes his home in Palm Springs.

As a gay-male tourism destination – and LGBT destination – Key West ranks somewhere around No. 15 in the United States, with New York City and San Francisco No. 1 and 2, respectively, he said. "But what's really interesting and remarkable to me is that Key West is competing with major cities like Miami, Boston and Fort Lauderdale, which have hotel rooms and budgets far exceeding Key West. … When you have these relatively small towns that have such a high influx of LGBT travellers, it means the LGBT community has become really important, so the percentage of hotel rooms they're filling is really quite high."

Over the years, Key West has boosted its LGBT marketing budget – to about $800,000 in 2014 from about $350,000 five years ago – to keep up with the competition, says Stephen Murray-Smith, 62, sales manager for the LGBT market for the Florida Keys and Key West tourist development council.

"We are still seeing a lot of people coming in, especially Canadians and Europeans, but they're more inclined now to come to Key West and then drive around – like do a theme park in Orlando eight hours away – when they're on a few weeks of holidays. But they'll come to Key West and say this is their relaxation time, and they'll stay and come back year after year, because they can get anywhere by foot."

Mr. Murray-Smith notes that Key West has had to overcome challenges such as the HIV/AIDS crisis and controversy over the state of Florida's ban on same-sex marriage – a ban that was lifted Jan. 5 after it was struck down by a court last August.

"We're still holding our own," said Mr. Murray-Smith. "We don't have as many gay guesthouses – at our heyday we had 25 to 30 – but now we have an openly gay police chief, city commissioners. … It's difficult to go anywhere on the island and not run into anyone who isn't gay or gay-friendly.

"… The seniors I run into, both who live here and visit, do water activities like sunset sailing, there are a lot of great restaurants, and [you can] visit galleries and museums – or you can be laid back and do nothing."

Home sales in Key West, Fla., soared 98 per cent from October of 2013 to the same month the following year. (Mike Hentz/The New York Times)

The cost of owning keys to a Florida Keys home

Properties on all five islands that make up the Florida Keys are among the most desirable in the state, where Canadians account for about a third of international buyers, according to the International Council of the Miami Association of Realtors.

Sales of “non-distressed” homes – those that aren’t foreclosures – have increased more dramatically, year over year, compared to most other Florida cities, according to RealtyTrac, a California-based real estate information company.

For instance, while Miami experienced a 52 per cent rise in sales in October of 2014 compared to the same month a year earlier, with the median price at $240,000 (U.S.), the percentages and prices in the Keys increased this way, with the accompanying median prices:

– Key West: 98 per cent, $488,000.

– Key Largo: 106.3 per cent, $382,000.

– Islamorada: 15.4 per cent, $488,300.

– Marathon: Nearly 26.7 per cent, $295,000.

– Big Pine Key and the Lower Keys: 46.2 per cent, $295,000.

With the lucrative nature of the property market in Key West and other cities that emphasize their LGBT-friendly nature, many real estate companies cater specifically to that segment of the population.

For instance, the Gay Realty Network, based in El Dorado Hills, Calif., is an online resource that lists hundreds of LGBT real estate agents across North America, including in Canadian cities such as Vancouver and Toronto.

Jeff Hammerberg, founding chief executive officer of Denver-based gayrealestate.com, says on his website that he created his database of LGBT and gay-friendly realtors to help LGBT couples and individuals avoid discrimination, and be comfortably represented by realtors who also recognize their clients’ rights under the law.

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