"My favorite hotel is any one where a lovely American tourist would like to take me for a romantic night," sighs Cleopatra Coupé, drag persona and Priscilla: The Musical cast member (playing now at the Lyric Theatre on an open-ended run), thus encapsulating the Sydney spirit: welcoming, friendly, laid-back, though sometimes a little too ready to hop into bed with the promise of a little passion. Welcome to the vibrant, dazzling harbor metropolis of Sydney--home to beaches, bronzed surfers, leggy sirens, and more poofs than you can poke a wand at. It's at ease with its sexuality, and while many of the best places in town aren't wholly gay, they're almost all gay-friendly.
This is a big town, so focus. Sydney's fashion and design crowd hang mostly in the eastern suburbs, from world-famous Bondi Beach to Darlinghurst and neighboring Surry Hills, with its concentration of cool restaurants, bars, and village-like atmosphere. The inner western suburbs, such as Newtown and Erskineville, are more alternative and diverse, with a greater lesbian and student presence. Either way, it's one big homo corridor, so much so that Oxford Street in Darlinghurst is no longer the undisputed epicenter of queer Sydney.
MARDI GRAS 101
Sydney's Mardi Gras is huge--so remember to pace yourself or you'll wear out before the "recoveries" after the party. And for many, recovery is the best part of Mardi Gras; recovery parties are held at myriad venues after the official Mardi Gras party is over, continuing well into the next day and night; they're a must if you have the stamina. Just ask a fellow partygoer about which venue or party will suit you. Some of my favorite events include the Azure Party, a small and intimate dance party under the stars on the banks of the harbor with the Opera House in the background--held the weekend before the Mardi Gras party, this is independent of Mardi Gras. The Great Debate is a mixture of celebrity and community debaters tackling the latest topic to have taken hold of our community. Velvet is a great night of cabaret and cocktails for the girls, and Fair Day is a great time for the community to socialize in daylight (a rare thing). The big tip for Fair Day is to get around and see all the stalls early before it gets too hot, picnic in front of the stage with friends, then hang out in AIDS Council of NSW's chill-out tent in the afternoon, listening to DJs spinning smooth lounge and cocktail music. For film buffs, Queer Screen's Mardi Gras Film Festival will meet your every need. For the Parade, the best thing is to be in it. If you don't have friends in Sydney organizing an entry, ring or e-mail one of the larger community groups a couple of weeks before--they're bound to have space. If you prefer to watch it in comfort with drink in hand, then buy a ticket to the BGF (Bobby Goldsmith Foundation) stands, where the money goes to HIV services. And finally, the Party. The Party is always a giant community love-in, where you are nice to even the people you've been fighting with all year and the atmosphere is pregnant with air kisses and exclamations of "Happy Mardi Gras." There are shows in most pavilions, but racing from one to the next becomes a tyranny. See the midnight show in the Royal Hall of Industries, better known as RHI (make sure to get in before they lock the doors to prevent crowding), then check out each of the halls, settle on the one that best suits your mood, and just stay there until you have to move. Visit New Mardi Gras for more information.
Be more discerning than Cleopatra about where to rest your head. Cashed-up queens should book into the Park Hyatt (7 Hickson Rd., the Rocks, 011-61-2-9241-1234) for staggering harbor and Opera House views. Closer to the action, Blue (6 Cowper Wharf Rd., Woolloomooloo, 011-61-2-9331-9000), is a hip hotel on a restored wharf, while Regents Court (18 Springfield Ave., Potts Point, 011-61-2-9358-1533), says communications manager Adrian Kerr, is "popular with movie star wannabes, has a fantastic rooftop garden," and is bang in the thick of things.
From September to May this town is all about the beach. The buff boys jostle for space in North Bondi, right outside the surf club, or down in Tamarama, also known as Glamorama. If you want to show off your pecs, social researcher Kane Race advises to "get nude, or seminude, at one of Sydney's beautiful nature beaches"--Lady Jane, in Watsons Bay; and Obelisk, north of the Harbour Bridge near Mosman. For girls, Wylie's Baths at Coogee has "swags of lezzos," as does Clovelly Beach. If you don't want sand up your crack, Andrew "Boy" Charlton pool in the Domain is "the most sophisticated spot to watch sexy guys in Speedos," according to local DJ Shigeki Ito.
There are spectacular coastal walks: Bondi to Bronte; South Head, which starts at Camp Cove and takes you past Lady Jane; and the Spit to Manly, which requires several hours. For iconic sightseeing, you can't beat theBridgeClimb (011-61-2-8274-7777), a hike to the top of the Harbour Bridge. "The best time is at sunset...magical," says Christine Manfield, chef and food consultant. Book well ahead if you want to mount its pylons as the sun goes down.
But don't think that Sydney is simply a philistine's convention. The Art Gallery of New South Wales (the Domain, 011-61-2-9225-1744) has an unbeatable collection of indigenous Australian and Asian art; and the Museum of Contemporary Art (140 George St., the Rocks, 011-61-2-9241-5892) has rotating exhibitions of top international and local contemporary artists. For less mainstream, 2 Danks Street (there is no central telephone number; call individual galleries) in Waterloo is 10 contemporary galleries in one center, featuring up-and-coming local and aboriginal artists. Those wanting more drama in their lives should check out the Sydney Theatre Company (various venues; 011-61-2-9250-1777), where Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, Toni Collette, and Geoffrey Rush cut their teeth.
SHOP AND SPA
If retail is your vice, or your wardrobe is as fashionable as a certain North Korean dictator's, that's easily fixed. While it ain't New York, there's plenty of hot Aussie talent to pick up. Gould Street in Bondi Beach, in addition to Oxford Street and its offshoots, are great for fashion. Look out for Calibre (416 Oxford St., 011-61-2-9380-5993) for smart, sharply tailored menswear, and Tsubi (82 Gould St., Bondi Beach, 011-61-2-9300-8233) for surfer-boy jeans and tees. Queen Street in Woollahra has loads of antiques, while Crown Street in Surry Hills has contemporary furniture and decor. "Look for Chee Soon & Fitzgerald [387 Crown St., 011-61-2-9360-1031] and Planet Furniture [419 Crown St., 011-61-2-9698-0680]," says caterer and events organizer John Wilson.
Spa-wise, the gay and lesbian choice is the Ginseng Bathhouse (111 Darlinghurst Rd., Kings Cross, 011-61-2-9356-6680). It's sex-segregated and a tad cruisy, so you can get naked with other girls [and boys], and frolic with the "muffy" on display. For pure indulgence,Spa Chakra (6 Cowper Wharf Rd., Woolloomooloo, 011-61-2-9368-0888) is the go.
What sensible gay man or lesbian wouldn't give up their dog for a drink by now--so where to go? "They're all pretty diabolical at the moment, and the most popular with the gay boys are the not-really-gay venues," says Andrew Creagh, publisher of Sydney's leading gay mag, DNA.Lotus (22 Challis Ave., Potts Point, 011-61-2-9326-9000) is a concealed golden treasure box and "is the very best bar in Sydney," according to Brent Mackie, who runs public-health campaigns for the state of New South Wales. Gazebo Wine Garden (2 Elizabeth Bay Rd., Elizabeth Bay, 011-61-2-9357-5333) is "stylish and eclectic, with sexy straight waiters and a mixed crowd," says Kane. The Kirketon (229 Darlinghurst Rd., Darlinghurst, 011-61-2-8354-5400) is a "mix between a gentlemen's lounge and a high-flying cocktail bar," says Adrian. Bennelong Bar (Sydney Opera House, Bennelong Point, 011-61-2-9241-1999) is right under the sails of the architectural wonder, with views of the harbor. Icebergs Dining Room and Bar (1 Notts Ave., Bondi Beach, 011-61-2-9365-9000) "must surely have one of the best views of any bar in the world," says Daniel Eames, board member of New Mardi Gras, the folks responsible for putting on the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras.
For a more gay and casual atmosphere, get thee to a pub. The eastern suburbs has the Beauchamp (267 Oxford St., Darlinghurst, 011-61-2-9331-2575), which is the favorite low-key gay and lesbian pub of Clare Rogers, a senior government bureaucrat; Green Park Hotel(360 Victoria St., Darlinghurst, 011-61-2-9380 5311); and the Tilbury (12–18 Nicholson St., Woolloomooloo, 011-61-2-9368-1955). The latter two heave with boys on Sunday evenings, especially on the terrace when the weather is fine. Sol's Deck Bar (191 Oxford St., Darlinghurst, 011-61-2-9360-8868) pulls in the lesbians on Fridays, but if you really want girl-on-girl fun, go west, young woman, and dive into the Newtown Hotel(174 King St., 011-61-2-9517-1728), which is a friendly local, though "watch out for scary baby butches brawling around the pool table," warns Clare. Otherwise, @ Newtown (52 Enmore Rd., 011-61-2-9557-5044) is more clublike and has regular gay and lesbian nights; the Marlborough (145 King St., 011-61-2-9519-1222) has a popular cocktail bar upstairs; and ZanziBar (323 King St., 011-61-2-9519-1511) has a fab rooftop cocktail bar. As Clare declares, "Newtown is absolutely lezzo central, with the whole range of dykes on show." Fags are in abundance too.
"Sydney is jam-packed full of world-class restaurants to suit every budget," says Marcus Bourget, chair of New Mardi Gras, so book a table at one of the best restaurants in the world, Tetsuya's (529 Kent St., Sydney, 011-61-2-9267-2900). For a little less haute, China Doll's pan-Asian flavors reflect the makeup of modern Sydney (6 Cowper Wharf Rd., Woolloomooloo, 011-61-2-9380-6744); Sean's Panaroma (270 Campbell Parade, Bondi Beach, 011-61-2-9365-4924), says arts professional Peter Lin, is "the master of deliciousness," serving modern Oz comfort food. Bentley Restaurant & Bar(320 Crown St., Surry Hills, 011-61-2-9332-2344) took Daniel's taste buds "on the journey of their life" with its 10-course degustation menu--"Jerusalem artichoke custard, anyone?" La Sala (23 Foster St., Surry Hills, 011-61-2-9281-3352) "has perfect [Italian] food, a great bar, and oh, what cute service," says Brent. Spice I Am (90 Wentworth Ave., Surry Hills, 011-61-2-9280-0928) serves some of the "best Thai outside of Bangkok" at bargain prices, offers Stevie Clayton, president of the AIDS Council of New South Wales. Trust Christine, though, when she tells you, "Don't eat anywhere on Oxford Street--crap food, tourist rip-off, even the coffee is bad." If you happen to be in Newtown, your best bet is to try one of the numerous Thai joints lining King Street, or for terrific Vietnamese, go to Thanh Binh (111 King St., 011-61-2-9557-1175).
The swankiest club is Tank (3 Bridge Lane, Sydney, 011-61-2-9240-3094), "a beautifully designed venue with a fairly regular gay night," says Daniel. Slide (41 Oxford St., Darlinghurst, 011-61-2-8915-1899) is perfect for lounge divas, and "for a gay Sydney experience, you can't go past the Mother Ship…er, Midnight Shift [85 Oxford St., Darlinghurst, 011-61-2-9360-4319]," says Kane. It's been around forever, as have some of the punters. Arq (16 Flinders St., Darlinghurst, 011-61-2-9380-8700) is all high-tech lights and thumping sound; Manacle (1 Patterson Lane, Taylor Square, Darlinghurst, 011-61-2-9331-2950) is "down and dirty" and has "cold beers and hot men," according to Brent; while Stonewall (175 Oxford St., Darlinghurst, 011-61-2-9360-1963) is "full of young boys wearing makeup with a ghetto punk look," says Benn Anderson, a junior government bureaucrat. It's also "where you too can find a boy who won't remember your name or his own in the morning," adds Cleopatra. Occasional Fag Tag (www.fagtag.com.au) and Bad Dog (www.baddog.net.au) parties, which take over a different straight venue for a night, attract a slightly more offbeat gay and lesbian crowd, and are "not to be missed," says Marcus. For drag, Cleopatra says, "don't leave Sydney without seeing the best in the biz" at the Imperial Hotel (35 Erskineville Rd., Erskineville, 011-61-2-9519-9899), immortalized in Priscilla the movie.
If you're not too fragile the next day, Café Sopra (7 Danks St., Waterloo, 011-61-2-9699-3174) is a must. "No bookings, fantastic fresh produce Italian-style," says Christine, and worth a detour, but be prepared to queue. Her other tip is Zinc (77 Macleay St., Potts Point, 011-61-2-9358-6777), "run by gay boys, where all the locals hang out." Peter and John say Ten Buck Alley (185A Bourke St., East Sydney, 011-61-2-9356-3000) has the best coffee and best breakfast. For Marcus, he likes the cafes in the beach suburb of Bronte. "Lots of choice, lots of coffee, and lots of surfers to keep the eyes as well as the taste buds satisfied."
To conclude, Brent suggests that visitors come during the summer (winter in the Northern Hemisphere): "Charm, a smile, and being a little forward will get you a long way. You'll get even further with an accent and a tan. Try everything, and be prepared to party all weekend!"