Australia’s East Coast is a virtual wonderland of beach towns. From small, sleepy little hamlets to glitzy, designer promenades, the Coast is rife with a beach community for even the toughest of customers.
I stopped in Byron Bay (in the northern part of New South Wales, Byron is the easternmost point on Australia's coastline) with Simon for a quick overnight, most of which I slept through. However, on the return, I found Byron to be a funky little town, full of bohemian ideals and hippie culture against an absolutely breathtaking beach backdrop. A backpackers wet dream, 100% surfer's haven with lessons being given by leather-faced pros on every stretch of beach imaginable, Byron Bay was a great few days. To start, the whole place runs on the anti-philosophy of No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service. Here, in Byron, it’s all about barefoot, shirtless service. Flip-flops were a practical luxury item. In Byron, everyone shed all conventions and I went along with the craze, tucking my Haviannas into my day bag for the duration. In addition, as I made my way through the maze of streets lined with bazaar-like stores filled with trinkets from dark corners of Asia, stores sporting frangipani incenses, tuberose oils, Thai fisherman pants, Indian tunics,Vietnamese silk skirts, golden Buddha heads and silver ankle bracelets, I was hard pressed to find a store actually open on a sunny afternoon. Signs hung gently in the windows, swaying from the recent posting that read: “Be back in 10 minutes.” Most of the shopkeepers were “sneaking a wave” when the surf provided. And, 10 minutes usually meant an hour plus. When I did find an open store, sunny day or otherwise, the shopkeepers usually had a beer or a glass of Shiraz in hand, as they threw a “How you going, mate? Can I help?” my way. Laid back is an understatement. But, it worked here.
The folks in Byron embraced the charm of the place, preferring and asserting individuality in all fashions, starting with dress -- polka dot top hats, Raggedy Ann knee socks, layered tulle skirts, koolats for men, floral patterned daisy dukes, and wrist warmers (in 90 degree weather, mind you…). The only cohesive body decorations seemed to be dredlocks, tattoos, and of course, piercings. But, the bent toward being unique extended far beyond frock. The creative arts were alive and well in Byron. Art galleries peppered the place; my own hotel room had the work of three different artists’ for sale. Entrepreneurs sat in closed doorways after hours, selling beaded necklaces, handmade wind chimes and homemade soaps. Street performers were everywhere: mock cover bands plugged into street outlets – 4 guys, no rhythm – belting everything from Billie Jean, the jazz version, to Will She Be Loved by Maroon 5 to Motown. Lone guitar players sat idly at every corner, top hat at the ready for an extra dollar. All had weird little voices, but crowds were large, generous and boisterously involved. (This has happened everywhere – these horrible Aussie bands of 1-5 guys. I think it occurs, and endures, because Aussies have too many drinks to realize how horrible it all really is by the time the singing urchins come out to play. Hence, it turns out to be a bonafide blast. So, really…what’s the harm, eh?) Add to the singers, contortionists, magicians, kids riding unicycles while juggling, and one over-40-year-old-man dressed in a yellow leotard with red wings. A human chicken, he clucked and pecked until you gave him a tip. At which point, he looked up to the heavens and let out a whopping “Cock-a-doodle-doo!” Welcome to Byron Bay.
Farther up, closer to Brisbaine on Queensland’s Gold Coast, there is an actual place called Surfers Paradise. I know, right? A marketing strategy from inception. It’s Australia’s answer to Florida, almost frozen in time circa 1975 when the plastic slatted loungers at dodgy looking tiled pools of pastel-colored high-rise communities and hotels were in Floridian vogue. Makeshift carnivals line the boardwalk and casinos lurk behind every doorway; Surfer’s Paradise, to me, was stuck in that Jersey Shore-esque, early Miami Beach time warp. Restaurants with names like Pancakes in Paradise and Surfer’s Seafood Lovers were plentiful. I noticed many a Red Lobster, McDonalds, Hungry Jacks (Australian Burger King), and Subways, along the Strip. The only addition that I found that brought the place current was the influx of designer boutiques to cater to an upper echelon of visitor (though most I met in Sydney that would fit the demographic advised me AGAINST coming to Surfers Paradise in the first place): Ralph Lauren, Hermes, Louis Vuitton, Gucci. But, overall, Surfers Paradise, I felt, could use one big face-lift. A little north of Surfers was a smaller town called Southport that might be considered the South Beach of the Gold Coast, housing some ritzier hotels, restaurants and shops. Here is where Donatella Versace has decided to try her hand at being a hotelier. Why HERE? I’m not sure. But, it didn’t seemingly stop me from booking a room for the night. Unremarkable, except I remember A LOT of gold. A lot of overdone, cluttered ugly-ass patterns on china, throw pillows, lobby lounge chair fabric, and tablecloths. And a lot of those Versace/Medusa-hair inspired heads embossed on everything from towels to sheets to the room pencils. BUT, the saving grace of Surfers, Southport and the Gold Coast is the beaches. If for no other reason, the Gold Coast should be a stop on everyone’s tour circuit around Australia. They’re absolutely amazing, expansive and pristine perfect beaches that weren’t crowded, eroded, or polluted. But…a quick stop only. I hightailed it back to Byron the next morning, removing my own gold necklace if but for just the afternoon.
I’m on my way north to Cairns, Port Douglas, Cape Tribulation and the Great Barrier Reef. More soon…