The Highlands Resort – A Gay and Gay-Friendly Playground

By David Currier -

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One of the nine individual cabins at The Highlands Resort.

I have history with The Highlands Resort.

 

I guess I’m a groupie of sorts. I’ve followed Ken and Lynette McLean and their development of the Highlands Resort since the year they purchased what was then a rundown gay-getaway.

Since I’m also a foodie and wine lover as well as one who appreciates hiking through striking redwood forests and canoeing the placid (in the summer) Russian River, the Russian River Valley grabbed my sensibilities over 20 years ago. And the Highlands Resort, in Guerneville, has always been my choice of pied à terre when I need my California wine country fix.

I’ve been a guest at the Highlands during all seasons of the year. What’s more, when possible, I’ve stayed at the Highlands several times in any one year – for long weekends and extended weeks. I’ve stayed in every cabin and room that’s offered. If the Highlands had a Redwood Sleeper Club, I’d be a Platinum Log member.

Lazy Bear Weekend can be festive in Guerneville.

Lazy Bear Weekend can be festive in Guerneville.

There seems to be a wine, food or music festival drawing me back to somewhere in “The River” area throughout the year. Locally, July’s Lazy Bear weekend is always a friendly get together – almost its own season as thousands of gay men descend on Guerneville for a party. And don’t miss the Russian River Jazz and Blues Festival in September.  Then there is the summer’s Rockin’ the River free concert series held in the Guerneville town square. The location of the Highlands is walking distance from Guerneville festivities, so it’s easy to escape the noise of ground zero of any community event.

I’ve even joked with Ken and Lynette about building my own tree-house in one of the Highlands’ towering redwoods that surround the resort’s grounds. The fresh air from the Pacific, as it gently filters through the needles of the 200-year-old giants, is soul-soothing. Yet the Highlands can often be a bit cosmopolitan – I frequently meet interesting guests from around the world – folks who are there to enjoy a place that peacefully exudes a touch of Americana.

But, enough about me loving the atmosphere of the Highlands.

 

The Highlands is not the Hôtel Georges V of Guerneville. It’s not to be compared with Madrona Manor or other beautiful yet highbrow establishments of the River area. If you are expecting towels that were just out of the box yesterday, or complete spa treatments, midnight room service and doors and windows that never squeak, the Highlands may not be you cup of tea (or glass of Russian River “Champagne”). BTW, massages can be schedules on site in either a massage room or, weather permitting, outdoors in a “family circle” of redwoods.

Highlands lodgeWhat the Highlands Resort is is a collection of comfortable 1930s cabins and lodges managed by enthusiastic innkeepers Ken and Lynette who really do want you to enjoy your stay. There are 16 units with nine individual cabins, one shared cabin (2 private rooms with shared lounge and bathroom), three suites and two standard rooms. Each unit is updated and well-appointed. (Only two cabins have not been completely renovated, but they are very comfortable, too.) Consider your room a simple, homey yet classy cabin. Walls are decorated with antique photographs of Guerneville (a.k.a. Stumptown) from days long passed. If your unit is one that has space, your dining table will typically be a cool set of retro-50s table and chairs. Ken, with the patience of Job, has created soothing, mosaic linoleum patterned floors in the kitchens and bathrooms.

Cabin mattresses are among the most comfortable I’ve ever slept on in any hotel around the world. The sheets and towels and other linens are better than “above average”, but they won’t have your initials embossed on them. And many of the units have been thoroughly renovated to include a propane fireplace and Jacuzzi tub! Talk about romance in the forest. Each cabin is provided two sets of towels – one for showering and the other to use at the pool or hot tub. You don’t need to stuff your suitcase with beach towels.

Many of the units feature a kitchenette with microwave and small fridge. Basic dishes, wine glasses and utensils are stocked, but if something you need to assemble your perfect picnic or evening party is missing, just ask at the front desk. The convenient kitchenettes where you can prepare a light meal help you spend more time at the (did I mention clothing optional?) pool and hot tub – or simply read and relax on your patio.

Visiting your choice of hundreds of world class wineries in "The River" is tasty way to pass the day in Russian River Valley.

Visiting your choice of hundreds of world class wineries in “The River” is tasty way to pass the day in Russian River Valley.

A large propane grill has recently been set up in the picnic area near the massage room and ice machine. “Sirloin-at-seven” with a bottle of Merry Edwards Pinot Noir is an easy way to impress the one you love. The Safeway in the center of Guerneville, about half-a-mile away, will have everything you need for your meal. Of course you may have picked up your favorite Russian River wines while touring the Wine Road during the day, but if you missed the Sonoma County cheese mongers, you’ll find tasty slices of locally made cheeses at Sophie’s Cellars. The grill is for individual guests to use, but may be in use if Ken and Lynette schedule an impromptu BBQ for the guests. I think I hear Sharon McKnight’s rendition of “Teddy Bears Picnic” wafting through the trees.

For travelers that enjoy roughing it in a tent, the Highlands Resort has several tent spots behind the cabins. I’ve seen tents there that seemed large enough for Barnum and Bailey, but most tents are the standard two- or four-person variety. Bivi tents would work well, too.

Tenting at The Highlands Resort.

Tenting at The Highlands Resort.

The main lodge, next to the registration desk, is a friendly place to congregate, and during cool seasons the fireplace will have a roaring fire. Perhaps someone among the guests will warm up the keys on the baby grand next to the fireplace.

The morning breakfast is more than just a selection of three of Lynette’s favorite homemade granolas. Enjoy fresh banana (or similar) bread and tasty muffins fresh from Lynette’s oven, and a selection of fresh fruit, coffee and teas. The breakfast-lobby area has recently been redesigned with tables – seating for two or four at a table. It’s become a great place for bears and wolves and little red riding hoods of all genders to start their day. Enthusiastic conversations about the exciting Russian River activities guests have been doing (kayaking, canoeing, horseback riding, balloon rides) fill the air. The laughter and excitement during breakfast conversations can be contagious.

As can new friendships. “♥”

What to expect: The Highlands’ clientele and the Resort rules.

 

Whether you are a 20-something college student, a 40-ish executive, or an active retiree, if you are really looking to get away from it all – yeah, right, does/can anybody really do that – the Highlands is one place where you might be able to make it happen. The Highlands’ philosophy is that the resort is basically a technology-free zone. Only two lodgings have televisions, though the public fireplace room does have a TV where you can watch a DVD from the in-house library. There’s your first “cold turkey” moment.

Free WiFi has been installed in the resort area, and a strong signal typically permits you to access the internet and email in your cabin or while enjoying a beverage among the trees. There is insufficient bandwidth for streaming your favorite flics.

Whoopie! (Pardon my editorial cheer!) There are no telephones in any room, and since AT&T/Verizon/whoever is pushing ubiquitous cell/mobile telephone service (though reception quality anywhere in Guerneville can be poor, particularly with some providers), the payphone has been removed by them. BUT, even if you do have a cell phone signal, house rules are that you use it in your cabin or in a remote area where there are no other guests. Yes, we guests really do not care about that million dollar Silicon Valley deal you are about to score! Or even the salacious details of tomorrow’s hot date for that matter. (We’ll see it all on YouTube soon anyway!)

Same for music. Stuff your buds in your ears, folks. And, even then, keep the volume of your music at a level where your neighbors at the pool, hot tub or patio are not forced to endure even the overflow of your choice of entertainment when they really do want to disconnect.

Typically the phone and music rules do not create a problem. Guests of the Highlands come here for the peace and quiet. (The “noise” is downtown – walkable.)  But feel free to ask another guest to be more thoughtful, or report incidents to Ken and Lynette. They WILL speak to the scofflaw.

Your friendly hosts at the Highlands:

 

Ken and Lynette go out of their way to ensure that your vacation time and money are well spent. And to ensure that a good time is had by (at least almost) all, there are some humorously written rules and regulations that are posted on their website. Check them out. The amusing tone of the rules provides insight into the welcoming personalities of your Highlands Resort hosts!

By the way, as romantic a getaway as the Highlands is, the resort’s design does not lend itself to weddings. However, if you are getting married elsewhere and are looking for a comfortable honeymoon location, the Highlands does offer a special package for honeymooners. (There are several other packages, too.)

As a gay man, I admit, like Obama and Hillary and even Susan Collins, I have evolved. While I typically select a gay resort when I travel (clothing optional where possible), I’ve always preferred a men-only, gay/lesbian facility. Yet, I’ve not felt imposed on or limited by the few gay-friendly straight guests that have more recently chosen the Highlands Resort as their destination. However, even well brought up children are not allowed.

Fort Ross is interesting to visit on a day-trip to the coast, This is where the Russians originally settled.

Fort Ross is interesting to visit on a day-trip to the coast, This is where the Russians originally settled.

There’s much to do to keep you busy in the Russian River Area if sitting around the pool is too sedate for you. I’ve provided links to several CVBs and business to help you out. The Highlands maintains several books with brochures of activities in the area. If you enjoy dining at a burger joint or want some high end, even Michelin Star, experiences, the Russian River and the Highlands will not disappoint.

If you are ready for a rustic excursion Into the Woods, and you’re ready to ditch the disco balls and go-go-boy dancers of the city that have become “so yesterday”, (though you may catch a glimpse of the Russian River Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence), pack your bags (mine are ready!) and reserve a cabin at the Highlands Resort for your next exciting and relaxing vacation.

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