WomenFest Key West Sets Keys on Fire
Nearly everywhere we looked there was an abundance of women holding hands, kissing each other openly, hanging out with friends and pride was in the lightly balmy air in Key West.
It was WomenFest, the annual all-girl weekend filled with outdoor adventures, cruises on the Atlantic Ocean, comedy shows, music and an after party now in its 27th year, hosted at the southernmost point of the U.S. in the resort island. WomenFest traditionally is held the weekend after Labor Day. This year it was held Sept. 3-9.
It was an amazing time to be at WomenFest and Key West. It was days after out lesbian Diana Nyad stumbled out of the Gulf of Mexico onto the shores of Key West from her historic Cuba to Key West swim on Sept. 2.
Nyad wasn’t at WomenFest, she was flown out to appear on the Ellen DeGeneres Show, according to Pam Derdarian, a member of Nyad’s management team. She told Edge Media at a party at Pearl’s Key West, formerly Pearl’s Rainbow, on Sept. 5. Otherwise, she was expected to appear at some of the parties to celebrate her feat.
Women were excited about Nyad’s fifth and final attempt to swim shore to shore from Cuba to the U.S., Nyad was the talk among the town and women at WomenFest all weekend long. Comedian Christine O’Leary told the story over and over again how Nyad grabbed her hand during the parade that Key West officials threw in Nyad’s honor and made her repeat what she yelled out to Nyad.
"When you win, we all win," said O’Leary as Nyad guided her hand pointing to the crowd around them.
Talk about women empowerment! It definitely wasn’t the year to miss WomenFest.
Girls, Girls, Girls
This was my girlfriend’s and my first time in Key West and at WomenFest. We didn’t know what to expect beyond the Southern hospitality, tropical weather and lots and lots of women.
Women clearly filled the hotels and were out and about at the nine parties, the sold-out Suzanne Westenhoefer comedy show, and other activities throughout the week.
Even so, it didn’t quite feel like the estimated nearly 4,000 that our host Stephen "Steve" K. Smith-Murray, a sales manager of gay markets of the Florida Keys and Key West who also works with the Key West Business Guild, guesstimated as the attendance.
Veteran WomenFest attendees even wondered where all of the women were; some fellow travel writers commented that the streets weren’t packed like previous years. Still there were a lot of women in Key West splashing around in the pools, drinking, dancing and having a good time.
But my girlfriend and I were disappointed by the lack of diversity and initial not-so-Southern hospitality by some staff at two popular lesbian businesses.
The lack of diversity didn’t seem to bother the sprinkling of women of color that increasingly appeared throughout the weekend. They were out to have a good time.
Unieke Wilson, a 28-year-old lesbian Florida native, was excited about the weekend when we met her aboard the sunset cruise with the all-girl band Sister Funk. Her friends and she had just arrived at WomenFest and were joyfully embracing the happy atmosphere.
"I’m expecting a lot of excitement and happy drunk people, everyone enjoying themselves," said Wilson, sipping her first cocktail at WomenFest.
Akaiilah and Maria Staten, both in their early 30s, were also having a good time. The native New Yorkers were checking WomenFest off their pink list of girl adventures. The vacation was exactly what they expected, and the people were welcoming and friendly, they both say.
Older women dominated the attendance at WomenFest, but a new generation of women is discovering the all-girl getaway. This was the second year that Ashley McGurle and her partner, who declined to disclose her name, were attending WomenFest. McGurle, a 29-year-old physical therapist from Philadelphia, said that they had decided to make this weekend their annual trip after their first experience last year.
"It’s nice to feel comfortable and supported," said McGurle about being in an all-women environment. She points out that there are not that many all-queer girl spaces to go to anymore since the lesbian bars in Philadelphia closed down.
As a matter of fact, 44.6 percent of the Key West’s population is female, and 26.1 percent of its businesses are owned by women, according to the 2010 U.S. Census Bureau. Overall, the island’s LGBT population is 23,262 of the general population, which is 25,057, according to City-Data.com and the census, respectively.
Two of the island’s most well-known lesbian-owned businesses are Pearl’s, the mostly women resort, and Kelly’s Caribbean Bar, Grill and Brewery, owned by celesbian Kelly McGillis of "Top Gun" fame.
O’Leary, who was the emcee at Pearl’s, told our group during breakfast at the resort one day that the reason she loves Key West so much is that people are stripped down to who they really are at the edge of the U.S. It’s what keeps her coming back.
It’s true. Any conch -- what locals are called -- or visitor can count of having their airs or edges mellowed out by the tropical heat, rubbed off by the soft sand and detoxified by the natural beauty.
Many locals made up for our initial experience by displaying their warm island hospitality when we were out at bars and restaurants revealing a genuine joy in meeting visitors to Key West.
Fun, Fun, Fun... And More Fun
Key West is a natural water world filled with a bevy of water adventures that women enjoy during WomenFest. While my girlfriend and I opted to stay on dry land, the rest of our group had a blast on the Fury’s All Women Ultimate Adventure. The Fury captain and crew take women out for a day of sailing, snorkeling, jet skiing, parasailing, kayaking, rock climbing wall, water slide and more. There’s also the popular Barefoot Billy’s Jet Ski Tour.
The same team took the girls out on the Fury’s "Commotion on the Ocean" Live Music Sunset Sail. May be it was the hot Captain Jenna Moller and her all girl crew, but out of the two sunset cruises we took, my girlfriend and I loved Fury. They had it going on with an open-air boat and the rainbow flag raised high in the sky, decent food to snack on and average beer selections, included with the ticket. You couldn’t go wrong with the entertainment on either cruise with the popular Sister Funk and Jennifer Corday, but Fury had what women want.
Non-water sporty outings during WomenFest include a Girls Golfing at the Key West Golf Club on Stock Island, the island over from Key West, and a variety of yoga classes.
Then there are the pool parties, where your bikini or swimsuit simply becomes a question of, "Which one am I going to wear today?" In the evening, the nightclubs were packed with girls in tank tops and shorts and summer dresses along Duval Street for six days straight.
During the day nearly every hotel had its own poolside comedian getting the girls laughing and mixing with a variety of crazy games. Local comedian Postal Wendy, kept the women at the Lighthouse Court Hotel, where we stayed as their guests, laughing around the pool, while O’Leary entertained the girls at Pearl’s.
WomenFest is a girlfriend getaway that offers something for everyone. There was a fair share of proposals and honeymoons, singles and couples, comedy shows, outdoor adventures and parties and more parties proving girls do just wanna have fun.
To learn more about WomenFest, visit www.womenfest.com.