Adventure Awaits Gays Down Under
Larger than life, gay and lesbian Australians offer a warm "G'day, mate," to their LGBT American counterparts as well as a variety of adventures and experiences for queer travelers.
Australia is the size of the United States, barring the outlying Alaska, Hawaii, and commonwealth islands. Australia has equivalent diverse climates from deserts to snowcapped mountains to tropical beaches much like the U.S. Most of the 22.8 million Australians live on the eastern coast in Sydney; Melbourne; Canberra, the capital; Brisbane; and other cities.
The mildest times of the year to travel in Australia are April through September, with peak tourism being from June through August. November through March it heats up Down Under to its hottest and most humid temperatures, hovering in the high 90s and reaching over 100 degrees. This is also the time, January-February, when many of Australia's famed gay festivals take place - Mardi Gras (there's been tensions since the committee dropped gay and lesbian from the organization's name recently) and Midsumma Festival in Melbourne.
Christmas through January is the summer holiday season and also the same time many of the popular festivals happen, so if you are planning on going to Australia during this time period be prepared to make reservations in advance and plan for the sticker shock. Prices are at their highest during this time of year.
Discovered by Captain James Cook in 1770, who claimed Australia for Britain - in spite of its original discoverers, the aboriginal people, who populated the island continent an estimated 50,000 years ago - it was quickly designated as a penal colony. Australia welcomed its first ships full of prisoners nearly two decades after Cook's arrival. Shipping convicts off to Australia ended in 1868. Australia won its independence from the crown in 1901, but the country has retained the British feel it acquired during colonization and remains loyal as a commonwealth of the U.K.
Today, Australia is governed by Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who took office in 2010. From what we could tell while watching a morning show interview with Gillard during our group's trip, she is charismatic, spunky, and smart.
Australia is moving forward on LGBT rights. At the end of 2011, Queensland passed civil unions and the debate on same-sex marriage is on the forefront of Australians' minds. Melbourne, the artistic center of Australia, also was the first to elect an openly intersex mayor, Tony Briffa, at the end of last year. Celebrity athletes are getting into the game and coming out of the locker room. Australia's rugby league referee Matt Cecchin came out publicly earlier this month.
Aussie urban experience
It was hot when I finally touched down in Australia. Summer was upon the Oceania continent and my girlfriend, who already spent a week trekking through the Australian Outback from Perth to Sydney with her travel companion, was waiting for me in Sydney with the rest of our group.
The plan was to tie a bow, traveling between Eastern Australia's most well-known cities by jetting up to Brisbane in Queensland for two days, circle back to Sydney for an overnight train to Melbourne for a day, and back to Sydney. We spent our final two days exploring Sydney and touring its famed opera house.
Experiencing Australia's great outdoors - the Great Barrier Reef or Uluru, formerly known as Ayers Rock; or any of the country's rainforests - wasn't on our agenda. The closest we got to Australian nature was in controlled environments. My girlfriend watched the barren landscape of the Outback pass by her from the window of her luxury car on the India Pacific Railway during a four-day cross-country trip between Perth and Sydney, with a stop in Adelaide. Our group visited metropolitan animal sanctuaries.
It was a tease, only a sampling of what Australia has to offer in natural wonders, watching camels running wild through the stark desert and kangaroos darting for the cool shade under trees in the plusher parts of the Outback. On a smaller scale in the zoos, some parts are open where kangaroos and other animals roam freely, greeting visitors.
The highlight of our urban wildlife adventures was the Koala Sanctuary in Brisbane where we watched a joey (baby kangaroo) hop over to his mother and jump into her pouch, held koala bears, and fed birds and petted other animals indigenous to Australia.
Australia's natural wonders are destinations in themselves, as it is a journey to get to them. If heading to the Great Barrier Reef, rainforests, or Uluru plan to take extra days to travel.
The closest LGBT life in the Outback near Uluru is about a six and a half hour drive. There aren't any LGBT-owned lodging or businesses closer to Uluru, according to experts. The largest gay resort destination that is close to the great outdoors, but still has a bit of civilization, is the Great Barrier Reef. There are a variety of LGBT accommodations - including a gay male-only resort - that make up Queensland's resort life in the towns on the edge of the Great Barrier Reef and rainforests.
Brisbane, the third largest city in Australia, was the highlight of our urban adventures. The river city is charming, with the Brisbane River snaking through it. Restaurants and shops line the RiverWalk that runs a little more than 12 miles on both the north and south banks, laced together by bridges. At one end of the south bank stood the Brisbane Ferris wheel, a gigantic 196-feet tall attraction that can carry up to 336 people, and the other end Kangaroo Point, where the Koala Sanctuary resides. The north side starts at the University of Queensland Campus at St. Lucia and ends at Teneriffe.
We were sad to learn soon after we left Brisbane that the River Walk was washed out by fierce flooding. Not to worry, the city council was already shaping up plans to reconstruct a bigger and better River Walk announced in November 2011, according to media reports.
Brisbane has an active LGBT nightlife with a variety of queer bars and parties happening on any given night in the Spring Hill and the Valley neighborhoods. The most recent lesbian offering is Mascara, run by lesbian couple Sarah Booker and Tara Rae, who launched the monthly party six months ago. It became an instant hit alongside some of the other queer women parties, such as Vu Du (Vu-Du) promoted by DJ D'Lux.
The ladies aren't outdoing the boys. Nightlife for the guys is thriving, with a plethora of parties of their own and mixed clubs. Gay men head out to Brisbane's popular clubs Fluffy and Klub Kruise: Men's Cruise Club, to name two.
Brisbane's gayborhood was an easy 20-minute stroll from our hotel. We walked over and stopped off for a drink at the Wickham Hotel, a popular gay bar, after a day of sightseeing and shopping, and my girlfriend hit the casino. She was excited to find out that Australia has casino stands, called "pokies," all over the place, as well as casinos in Brisbane and Melbourne.
We were pleased to learn that all venues, casinos and bars included, were nonsmoking.
As pleasant as Brisbane was, from what our group could tell tourists have barely discovered its charms. Sydney and Melbourne continue to capture non-Australian travelers' imaginations.
Like Brisbane, Melbourne is also divided by a river, the Yarras, which is lined with restaurants and shops, but it wasn't as charming. The river was dirty. What the city lacked in a clean water view it made up for in its exquisite botanical and Victorian gardens and some of its religious architecture freely available to the public to enjoy.
The center of Melbourne is quite compact, in many ways reminding our group of New Orleans' French Quarter, with a free train that circles the square. Melbourne is often touted as Australia's art center, but it's also just as much a sporty town as it is creative. Melbourne has more than 50 professional and recreational athletic venues throughout the city. Perhaps the athletic nature of the city was amped up due to the hubbub around international cricket matches and the Australian Open, but it definitely had a healthy, sweaty vibe during our visit.
Unfortunately, we didn't have time to venture out to explore Melbourne's LGBT scene, which is spread out throughout the gay-friendly city at a number of hot spots including Chapel Street, Fitzroy, and South Yara, to name a few.
Upon our return from Melbourne we finally toured the interior and exterior of the Sydney Opera House. Australia's most recognizable and celebrated architectural feat with its distinct curved structure symbolizing a lotus blossom took 17 years and $101 million to build. The opera house is made up of three distinct buildings that is home to Sydney's opera and symphony as well as host to many concerts and theater productions.
We took a separate boat tour in Sydney Harbor to circle around the iconic building.
Our hotel at the Darling Harbor was once again within walking distance to the Darlinghurst neighborhood, Sydney's gayborhood. On our last night in Australia, we barhopped from the Stonewall Hotel to the Beauchamp (pronounced beacham). We attempted one final nightcap at the Ruby Rabbit, but got there as it was closing.
Getting to and around Australia
Australia's best-known airline is Qantas, but many others also fly to the country. I flew New Zealand Air, stopping over in Auckland, New Zealand before heading to Sydney. The 13-hour flight from San Francisco to Auckland and three and a half hours to Sydney was comfortable and pleasant. I only wish Virgin Australia was as comfortable and clean. Virgin Australia was disappointingly dirty and expensive. Everything, including water, was only available for purchase.
It is advised to skip the economy class for a sleeper car when crossing Australia by train for overnight trips. We made the mistake of going economy on our overnight return trip to Sydney from Melbourne. We arrived in Sydney exhausted and sleepless.
It was a completely different experience traveling platinum class across the Outback, according to my girlfriend, who shared her sleeper car room with her travel companion. The chairs converted into beds and passengers were catered to by a personal attendant throughout the journey.
No matter how luxurious transportation was or where we went cellular and Internet access was difficult to find and expensive.
Every city we visited was walkable and public transportation was plentiful and easy to use. We rarely took cabs; only when it was pouring rain did we opt for a quick ride back to our hotel.
Where we slept
We stayed at Hiltons for most of the trip, but we were pleasantly surprised by Swiss Hotel in Sydney, which we booked on a whim for one of our nights in the city. Swiss Hotel was swanky. It was a great experience from the atmosphere to the customer service to the spacious rooms.
One thing to be aware of and try not to get confused about when visiting Australia is that bars also have "hotel" in their names due to licensing laws. Another slight difference to get used to when checking in at accommodations in Australia is that the bell desk is usually on the first floor and guests have to travel up to the fourth or sixth floors to get to the registration lobby. An added bonus was that hotels allowed us to check in to our rooms no matter what time we arrived.
All of the hotels we stayed at were first rate, with comfortable, modern rooms. Internet access wasn't included and was expensive at all of the hotels, except for the Four Point Sheraton at Darling Harbor, where Internet was free for guests' use in the lobby. We liked the Sheraton's unpretentious atmosphere that was very American, making us feel instantaneously right at home. The accessibility of the hotel to everything in Sydney and excellent customer service only added value to our experience.
Geena Dabadghav contributed to this article.