Australia is big – really big. It’s more than 31 times the size of the UK and a trip from east to west coasts takes 66 hours by train, and at least five hours by plane. It’s far away from just about everywhere. Flights from the UK to Sydney add up to about a day of travel time. The upside to this of course, is that when you finally do Australia, you really do it. Travellers sweep across the country like a series of waves, either working their way from south to north, or vice versa, before heading into the outback. Don’t be surprised if most city dwellers you encounter have never been there.
Make a new year’s resolution.
Due to time zones, Australia is one of the first countries to celebrate new year, and few put on a fireworks display as spectacular as Sydney’s. It’s the perfect time to visit – you get to trade the English winter for the Australian summer.
One of the country’s best kept secrets is New Year’s Eve in Lismore. This quaint country town of about 30,000 people is nestled in the northern rivers district of NSW, just a short flight from Sydney. At first glance it looks like any other sleepy Aussie town, but on New Year’s Eve it’s transformed into a gay mecca byTropical Fruits. This dance party attracts literally thousands from all over the world, offering a friendly vibe, eye-popping costumes, three dance halls, world class DJs and a sexy men’s space. Afterwards revellers move to the local swimming pool, where it’s not unusual to see drag queens leaping from diving boards in full regalia – heels, wigs, dresses and all. Every hotel in town books out months in advance, but there’s plenty of camping on-site.
Lismore is virtually around the corner from Byron Bay, and its great surfing beaches, café culture and whale watching make it a real hub for travellers. It’s also a short drive from Nimbin, which is Australia’s answer to Amsterdam. This little village is famous for its hippies, who came to the area in the 70s. Despite the fact that marijuana is illegal in NSW it’s practically everywhere in Nimbin – there’s even a museum devoted to it, and an annual marijuana “pride festival” held in May, called Mardi Grass.
If skinny dipping is your thing, head to Kings Beach, located halfway between Byron Bay and Lismore. It’s an absolute paradise – clear water, crashing waves, soft sand, set against a backdrop of lush tropical rainforest. Last time I went I saw a man sunbathing in nothing but a cock-ring. It’s a similar story in Sydney too with Obelisk, Lady Jane and Little Currawong beaches. Alexander Bay on the Sunshine Coast is another popular choice. Don’t forget your sunscreen!
Australian wines are really making their mark internationally, and where they come from is just as impressive. The Hunter Valley is 2 hours north of Sydney, and Pokolbin is where you’ll find the upscale wineries and restaurants. Make sure you spend a night at Cedar Creek Cottages. These log cabins are nestled amongst the vines and are so authentic, it feels like an episode of Little House On The Prairie. Keep an eye out for A Day On The Green, which is an outdoor concert series that tours Australia’s vineyards annually. There’s nothing like sitting amongst grapevines under the stars, watching performances from the likes of B-52s, Jewel or Shirley Bassey.
For many, visiting Uluru (Ayers Rock) will be the defining moment of their trip. Tours start from Alice Springs, which feels like the end of the world. Visitors can watch the sun rise and set over the 348m high rock, and walk the almost 6 mile trek around it, but the indigenous people ask you not to climb it out of respect for their traditions.
Nearby is Kata Tjuta (The Olgas) which consists of 36 steep sided monoliths that, like Uluru, inspire lots of ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ at sunrise and sunset. There’s a hotel complex about 30 miles from Uluru, but many choose to sleep under the stars in a ‘swag’ – not as cosy, but infinitely more memorable.
Take a walk on the wild side.
Cairns is up towards the pointy end of Queensland, where there are only two seasons – the wet (November to April) and the dry (May to October). The animals are definitely in charge in this part of the world, so pay attention to the warning signs! There’s plenty of things to do – from going crocodile spotting in the mangroves, to visiting the world heritage listed Daintree Rainforest, or heading out to Green Island on the Great Barrier Reef to go diving, snorkeling or parasailing.
Every gay man should pay a pilgrimage to Melbourne – birthplace of the Minogues and Australia’s cultural capital. The city is split in half by the Yarra River – in the north you’ll find the manly men, the leather, the sleaze and the alternative crowd. The south side is home to more mainstream clubs, and a few drag bars too. The central business district is full of trendy bars and restaurants.
A stroll through the beachside suburb of St Kilda is a must, particularly on Sundays, where you’ll find markets on the esplanade. For lunch, pop in to Lentil As Anything (41 Blessington St, St Kilda), an amazing vegetarian restaurant, where you’ll only pay what you think your meal is worth. For dessert, grab an ice cream at Trampoline Gelato (85 Acland St, St Kilda).
As far as parties go, John and Trough are not to be missed for edgy, artsy types. If you’re looking for leather, head to the Laird Hotel, (149 Gipps Street, Abbotsford). Sircuit Bar (103 Smith St, Collingwood) is a one stop shop – a mix of bar, club, and backroom, with a great crowd, and a bucking bronco some nights too.
Saddle Up in Sydney.
As a gay destination, this is one city that has unfortunately lost its mojo. Don’t come expecting Sydney’s gay village to be intact – it’s now teeming with convenience stores, kebab shops, bargain bins and the occasional unsavoury straight bar. Thanks to inspiration from Melbourne, small bars are now ‘the done thing’ in Sydney and there are plenty of them to explore now.
What Sydney lacks in gay venues it makes up for with gay parties, which happen all over town, from the Sydney Opera House to bowling clubs in residential suburbs. Fag Tag is one of the most popular, taking over a different venue once a month, attracting the city’s most glamorous gays for cocktails and conversation. Bad Dog is probably one of the last interesting, subversive gay parties left in Sydney. Check it out – and be sure to wear a costume!
On a sunny day, breakfast in Bondi Beach is a must. The views from Bondi Icebergs (1 Notts Ave, Bondi Beach) are so divine you’ll want to stay there all day. But then you’d miss out on the Bondi to Coogee coastal walk, which takes about 2 hours to complete, snaking its way along the water’s edge, taking you past secluded beaches, cafés and Waverley Cemetery, which looks like it’s about to slip off the cliff into the ocean. If you’re into scuba or snorkeling then stop off at Gordons Bay along the way.
At the end of the day, head down to the Sydney Opera House for sunset drinks at Opera Bar, where you can sit by the water and soak up the view – in your shorts and flip-flops if you want. These days, there’s a lot more going on beneath the sails than just opera – there’s theatre, comedy and plenty of contemporary music. Check out their Studio space – the shows are shorter, kookier, and often cheaper.
Show your pride!
Australia’s gay pride calendar kicks off with Melbourne’s Midsumma Festival in January, Sydney’s Mardi Gras in Feb/March, followed closely by Brisbane’s Big Gay Day. Mardi Gras is by far the biggest, and the most famous of these, mainly due to its glory days in the 80s and 90s, when it was a creative, politically-driven force for change. These days, it’s a far more commercial affair and the party is often plagued by police and sniffer dogs, but it still manages to rope in the big names, like George Michael, Kelly Rowland and DJ David Guetta.
Yes, while many claim to be ‘versatile’, in Australia’s case it’s actually true. There really is something for everybody in this great southern land.