Sunday, July 15, 2012


My top travel buddies – Cade, Michael, and Vince – and I decided to head out for the weekend to explore some new territory.  Our destination:  Newcastle!

Situated 160km north of Sydney, Newcastle is the second largest city in New South Wales.  With a metropolitan area population of approximately 540,000, it is the seventh largest city in all of Australia.  I had received many mixed reviews on Newcastle, so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.  First settled in 1797, Newcastle’s discovery was somewhat accidental – a ship searching for some escaped convicts wandered up the Hunter River where they stumbled upon a deep port and an abundance of coal.  They set up shop and called for the vilest of criminals from Sydney to help mine the resources.  Those most dangerous of criminals gave Newcastle a rough image.  With the coal industry still going strong (Newcastle currently reigns as the largest coal export port in the world), that rough image remains.

On the flip side, Newcastle is balanced out by a large university with 30,000+ students and all the perks that come with having a large, young, educated population in the city.  Lonely Planet named Newcastle one of the top 10 cities (in the world) for 2011 due to its great surf beaches, subtropical climate, diverse dining, nightlife, and the arts.  Indeed, we found all of these things in Newcastle, though I’m not entirely convinced that Newcastle should be ahead of Sydney in any list.

We started our Newcastle weekend off with a walk down Darby Street – Newcastle’s main drag for funky cafes, restaurants, galleries, and boutiques:

The Archibald Prize – an annual portrait contest sponsored by the Art Galley of New South Wales in Sydney – was on tour at the Newcastle Art Gallery.  Seeing as all four of us had missed it in Sydney this year, we decided to pop in and check it out.

Along the riverfront, the city has been redeveloping to include apartments, offices, and a plethora of restaurants and bars.  There are also a smattering of museums and a few pieces of public art.

The next day, we drove the five minutes over to Newcastle’s famous beaches for brunch and a walk along the coast.

Newcastle’s famous Ocean Baths are massive saltwater pools built along the shore over 100 years ago.

Nobby’s Head sits at the mouth of the Hunter River with its lighthouse on top. 

Originally an island, the small channel between Nobby’s Head and the mainland was perilous for ships.  After a few shipwrecks, and after the realization that the height of Nobby’s Head was obstructing wind for ships’ sails, the government decided to connect the island to the mainland and lower its height by about half.  The result:  a much safer passage for ships going around the other side of the island and views of the city that still look good despite its lower stature.

At the former tip of the mainland where Nobby’s Head is now connected sits Fort Scratchley – opened in 1882 to protect Newcastle from a potential Russian invasion around the time of the Crimean War.

Giant, rotating cannons were aimed at both the sea and the river to protect the city from intruder ships.  Some of these cannons were able to shoot up to 13km away.

The only time that the fort was put to the test was during World War II, when a Japanese submarine started firing on Newcastle.  The fort shot back, missing the submarine (ooops!)  Luckily, nobody in the Australian mainland was injured.

The best part of Newcastle, however, was our Saturday night.  We headed over to trendy Beaumont Street for dinner, drinks, and dancing.  Home to Newcastle’s first arrivals of Italian and Greek immigrants, the neighbourhood largely maintains its strong Mediterranean culinary traditions but throws in some cheapo Thai, Indian, and other options as well.  It’s also home to a lively pub scene and Newcastle’s two gay bars.

Oh yes.  Newcastle has gay bars.  And two of them at that!

After our dismal yet hilarious experience at Flamingo’s in Hobart a few months ago, we were expecting the worst for our night out on the town in this small city.  We started off at “The G” – the Gateway Hotel.  We entered to what I can only describe as something along the lines of the Island of Misfit Toys.  But we kept it classy…

It was karaoke night, so we ponied up to a table and started throwing back a few beers and mixed drinks to cope with the awful singing, the awful hair, the awful clothes, and the awful old (60-something maybe?) straight guy on the dance floor who was very obviously putting his hands under this old woman’s sweater to feel her saggy breasts.   God save us.

We decided that shots were in order, but the semi-cute bartender (surprise!) very politely told us that shots are not available in Newcastle as it is against city ordinance.

Oh my god where are we???

Despite the awfulness around us, everyone seemed to be having a really good time, so we couldn’t help but actually enjoy the atmosphere and sing along to some of the better songs (or sing along loudly to drown out a few of the singers).  It was also awesome because it confirmed for me that, while I may be 99% tone deaf, I am far better than the average person at The G.

After that, we headed over to Unity, Newcastle’s other gay bar.  We entered hesitantly to find thumping music, a crowded dance floor, people actually dressed up nicely, and a drag queen and shirtless dancers on stage (imported from Sydney!)  This actually was… a good gay club.  They even had disco balls, laser lights, and smoke machines!  No scary bogans trying to sing power ballads off key.  No “Body Heat Men” dancing to Grease Lightning like we encountered in Hobart.  And most importantly, no old straight couples getting frisky on the floor. 

Thank god.

After a few more rounds of drinks and a good run of dancing, we decided to retire to our hotel (after a 3am stop for some greasy food to prevent a hangover).  Is it actually possible that I – the one who is always the first to leave and always in bed by midnight – stayed out later in Newcastle than I have over the past few months in happening Sydney?  

Bravo, Newcastle.  Bravo.

All Newcastle needs now is about 2 – 4 million more people and I might consider moving there.  Until that happens, I actually wouldn’t mind going back for another weekend away.

Who knew?

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