Our ship slowly inched its way into the Port of Muscat, a tableau of stark contrasts. Arid, parched mountains flanked ancient forts. Gleaming, white buildings produced brilliantine sparkles and multi-million dollar pleasure cruisers languished in the harbour. Beyond the sanctuary of the port gates eager taxi drivers proffered services at inflated prices. We ventured independently towards the small horseshoe harbour and within ten minutes had discovered the heart of the city, the Mutrah Souq. This traditional old Arab souq or bazaar attracts mainly international tourists but we were securely anchored in the Middle East by the evocative aromas of burning frankincense, sweet cinnamon and spicy cardamom. Turban clad store traders haggled gold, carpets, head scarves, colourful cloth and burnished souvenirs. Kohl-eyed and dressed in ‘thawb’ (full length, white, traditional Arab garb) they more resembled spirits than shopkeepers.
Our driver arrived to pick us up around 4.30am at the Jaypee Palace hotel in Agra. We were about to make the highly anticipated journey for sunrise at one of the most iconic buildings in the world. As we made the short drive through the deserted streets, the dark chill of the early morning mist hung drowsily over the city. Once the car was parked we were led down a dusty street, lined with early morning hawkers, to the main tourist gate of our destination. The Taj Mahal was described by the famous Indian artist Rabindranath Tagore as “a teardrop on the cheek of time”, and is one of the world’s greatest legacies, created by one lover as a memorial and eternal gift to another. Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan constructed the magnificent white marble mausoleum to express his undying love to his second and favourite wife Mumtaz. The Taj Mahal is nothing less than the crown of India, lavishly created, extraordinarily unique, awe-striking, an irresistible beauty, luring millions of visitors every year, thousands daily.
When the stunning Ms Christy McNicol took to the stage at the Eltham Hotel on Saturday night to present her unique version of Heather Small’s iconic gay anthem, Proud, our collective goosebumps stood erect. Most of us attending the Tropical Fruit’s Party have celebrated at a few pride events over the years but this one definitely made us ‘step out of the ordinary’. Eltham is a short drive from Lismore, or a slightly longer drive from Byron Bay, depending on your persuasion. The local, family owned hotel has a quaint, country-pub appeal, a large, outdoor beer garden and a generous dancefloor. Usually the centre of the rural, neighbourhood social scene, on this Saturday evening it was inundated with gaiety. The staff couldn’t have made us feel more welcome and once the drinks were flowing and the music started, the night turned from winter chill to tropical toasty.
When our cruise ship docked in Auckland we still had five days of exploring to do before we headed to our next destination. What a fabulous playground we discovered in this beautiful, friendly corner of paradise. We stayed at the Langham Hotel which is a very comfortable 5 star hotel close to Karangahape Road, the heart of the friendly and lively gay scene in Auckland. Just a short walk down the road you will find the fabulous Caluzzi Bar and Cabaret and you need to put it on your ‘must do’ list. OK, so Picton is on the South Island but you can jump a ferry from Wellington and be there in about 2 hours. The waterfront of this stunning and extremely popular little town is a photographer’s delight. On the day we visited bagpipers played to welcome guests and the local restaurants and tourist offices were full.
While visiting the ‘gayborhood’ of Fort Lauderdale we decided to try out a day pass at one of the gay guest houses and Pineapple Point came highly recommended. Rated number one by TripAdvisor for gay accommodation in Fort Lauderdale, this luxury resort was certainly a relaxing and unique day out during our vacation and the staff couldn’t have made us feel more welcome. As a day visitor you don’t feel like the poor cousin, you are treated just like an honoured house guest and have full access to all facilities. Massage therapists are on site but day visitors need to book in advance to guarantee an appointment. Unfortunately your day pass does expire at 5pm, just before the happy hour happens for the regular guests at 6pm.
We certainly felt like novices arriving for our first visit to Fort Lauderdale in Florida. Unfortunately, we did not stay in one of the many gay guest houses in the area, but we did strike it lucky arriving in Beach Pride Week, the third week of February. The weather was dry and comfortable, at around 24 degrees and the sea temperature was warm and inviting, though some of the locals didn’t agree. Many don’t swim until the water temperature reaches a distinct ‘summer simmer’. Our first few days were very relaxed, lazing and gazing on golden Sebastian Beach, Fort Lauderdale’s best known gay beach and recently voted (2019) the best gay beach in the world. Our friends who live in this fabulous area, kindly accompanied us on our first foray into the venues of Wilton Drive, the ‘happening’ strip of Wilton Manors, the gayest precinct we have ever seen.