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For most gay American travelers, Down Under's Pink Zone ends firmly on the outskirts of glorious Sydney or artsy Melbourne. The rest of the country appears as a vague kind of no-go, desolate, Mad Max post-apocalyptic Outback, where beyond the rare Hugh Jackman lookalike, there's little of interest to gay travelers. But on a recent trip to the great land of Oz, I found healthy pockets of gay life flourishing in the most unlikely of places ?
Brisbane and The Gold Coast
Little-known to most Americans, tropical Brisbane is Australia's third largest city and the capital of the state of Queensland. Despite its past podunk image, it's a surprisingly sophisticated and happening city and booming, with more and more Aussies moving to the region. Its cutting-edge arts scene is on display at the new and ultra-chic Queensland Gallery of Modern Art, weekends burst with music and tipsy people along the pedestrian mall on Brunswick Street, gay bars and saunas overflow in the Fortitude Valley area, and a busy pride celebration and Queen's Birthday Ball, the latter claiming to be the longest running GLBT event in the world, keep things pumping in June. Moreover, a hip hotel scene is developing with the uber-chic Emporium Hotel and its surrounding complex, including the excellent Three Bistro Caf?. You can even go kayaking and rock climbing right in downtown.
The Gold Coast is about an hour's drive south of Brisbane, and feels like a smaller, Aussie-style version of Miami, with tall shiny skyscrapers lining a coastline of huge beaches. The center of the Gold Coast is Surfer's Paradise, an achingly straight area of beautifully tanned specimens, but even here, you'll find a gay bar (appropriately called The Meeting Place), a homo sex club (appropriately called The Den), and even a gay strip of sand (appropriately called Main Beach).
On the Gold Coast, the ocean is the centerpiece, with everything from surfer lessons by a hunky pro to kayak tours with Aboriginal guides. But whatever you do, make sure to set up base camp at the Palazzo Versace. This lavish hotel was opened by Donatella in memory of her gay brother and is filled with prerequisite chandeliers, Medusa heads, and Italian marble, but all surprisingly tasteful and understated. And yes, both Paris Hilton and Elton John have stayed here.
Darwin and Kakadu National Park
Darwin in the Northern Territories is much closer to Indonesia than to Sydney, and feels like the far flung outpost it is. There's a strong Aboriginal presence in the town's art galleries; remnants of its Japanese attacks during World War II; and wild crocodiles on display everywhere. Tropical Darwin has revamped itself tremendously with stylish restaurants and hip hotels like the Mantra Pandanas and Mantra on the Esplanade. And yes, even in this small town there is a gay bar, the large cabaret-style Throb Nightclub. There's even a gay nude beach right outside of town, Casuarina Beach. Just watch out for crocs!
Most travelers head to Darwin not for the town itself, but for the nearby and stunning Kakadu National Park, a half-day drive from Darwin. This enormous wilderness area is where Crocodile Dundee was filmed, and Kakadu is home to some of the oldest and most dramatic Aboriginal rock paintings in the world. Be sure to get the full experience by staying at the top-notch Kakadu Culture Camp, a comfy outdoor camp with an emphasis on authentic indigenous tours, folklore, and spirituality.
Adelaide and the Wine Country
Elegant and very British, Adelaide in South Australia is the polar opposite of sticky Darwin. The park-like city is laid out like a Swiss timepiece, with graceful Victorian architecture and rose gardens everywhere. Check into the Medina Grand Adelaide Treasury, housed in an historic former Treasury building, to bask in the city's stately atmosphere. Foodies will find a delicious paradise in Adelaide, since the fertile surrounding region acts as the breadbasket of Australia. Some of the freshest and most gourmet fare Down Under is on display for your taste buds at the buzzing, mall-like Central Market. Just down the street from the market is the most popular gay bar in South Australia, the hot and pumping Mars Bar. And not far from that is the biggest and most sophisticated gay sauna in the region, called Pulteney 431. And Adelaide wouldn't be complete without its own gay nude beach called Maslin.
Just 20 minutes from Adelaide are the scenic Adelaide Hills, part of a prime wine growing region where nearly 60% of Australia's wines come from. Join a professional food and wine expert on an insider tour of the area with A Taste of South Australia and peruse historic towns, up-and-coming wineries, and world-class eateries and shops. And of course, gay-owned vineyards are at the top of the heap, namely the stylish micro-boutique Hahndorf Hill Winery near the 1800s German town of Hahndorf.