It is a truth universally acknowledged that Wollongong is an ugly city in a beautiful location. But, hey, we can’t all be perfect and things are most definitely improving in the place locals call The Gong. Once synonymous with the grunge and grime of heavy industry, this city of 185,000 has been re-discovered by travellers attracted to its fine beaches and the pristine beauty of the Illawarra escarpment. Proud of its working class roots, Wonderful Wollongong claims the title of Australia’s most multicultural city and is also gaining a reputation for being an increasingly gay- and lesbian-friendly place to visit.

Wol-long-gong (the sound of the sea) hugs the coast 80 kilometres south of Sydney and is easily reached by the New South Wales equivalent of The Great Ocean Road -“ the curvaceous Lawrence Hargrave Drive. The same skinny coastal strip is shared with an electrified train line that makes the city a brisk 90-minute ride from Sydney’s Central Station. To the south, the waters of Lake Illawarra terminate the sprawl of Wollongong and entice visitors into the green hinterland of Jamberoo and Berry.

Wollongong’s city centre is surprisingly compact -“ more country town than big city -“ and it’s possible to walk from the Crown Street Mall to the yellow sand of South Beach in 10 minutes. Crossing the Mall at either end lie Wollongong’s two other important commercial streets, Keira and Kembla Streets, named for the two peaks overlooking the city.

Located in an old council chambers building built -“ in a fit of imperialistic fervour -“ in the shape of a jewelled crown, Wollongong City Gallery (cnr Kembla and Burelli St, phone 4228 7500) features an impressive collection of local scenes ranging from colonial artists such as Von Guerard to more contemporary works by Arthur Boyd and Fred Williams.

If you get a chance, go and see a movie at the wonderful Regent Theatre at 197 Keira Street. It’s a classic 50s picture palace with a serious mid-70s makeover.

Wollongongians are spoilt for choice when it comes to beaches. Both the imaginatively named North and South Beaches are broad and sandy, but South (City) Beach is better if you want to take a dip while gazing at the industrial-age beauty of the Port Kembla steelworks. Another popular seaside area is the convict-built safe harbour, Belmore Basin -“ home to Wollongong’s fishing fleet and numerous seafood restaurants.

North of the City and adjacent to the University, the under-used Wollongong Botanical Gardens are a reminder of the lush rainforests that used to adorn this part of the coast. Further north and clinging to the narrow strip of land between the escarpment and the sea, Wollongong’s northern suburbs blend seamlessly into a series of small coastal communities like Austinmer and Scarborough. Originally established as coal mining villages, Australia’s Cornwall later attracted artists like D.H. Lawrence, who wrote the novel Kangaroo while in Thirroul in the early 20s.

Bald Hill at Stanwell Tops is a popular spot for hang-gliding and for sweeping views down the Illawarra coast. Helensburgh, the last stop before hitting the suburbs of Sydney, boasts the amazing Sri Venkate-shwara Hindu temple complex (Temple Rd, Helensburgh, phone 4294 3224).

Eight kilometres south of the city centre, Port Kembla steelworks are a must-see. Tourist drive No. 10 becomes a journey skirting Hell, with fire, smoke and steam belching from this temple of industry. Slightly inland from this mini-city is the Nan Thien temple -“ the largest Buddhist temple complex in the Southern Hemisphere and a major tourist attraction with over 150,000 visitors annually -“ take the Five Islands Road exit from the F6 Freeway (phone 42720600).

Organised gay and lesbian life in Wollongong has shut up shop following the recent closure of the city’s only gay venue. However, there are many opportunities for fans of the great outdoors.

Good bushwalking opportunities exist for Lesbian Park Rangers -“ particularly along the Jurassic-like Illawarra escarpment. For gay men, the art deco changing sheds in front of the Novotel at North Beach offer opportunities to meet the locals.

Werrong Beach, just inside the southern boundaries of the Royal National Park, is a clothes optional beach with a gay bent. Sandwiched between steep, rainforest-clad hills and ocean, the beach offers safe swimming and a cruisy atmosphere at weekends. From Sydney, get there by turning off the F6 Freeway at Helensburgh and following Lawrence Hargrave Drive to Bald Hill lookout at Stanwell Tops. From there, keep heading north along Lady Wakehurst Drive until Otford Lookout. Park your car and walk north along the cliff track until you see the Werrong sign. It’s a steep one-kilometre walk from the car park or a two-kilometre walk from Otford Railway Station.

If you’re looking for cheap accommodation, the queen of Wollongong’s budget establishments is the gracious Keiraleagh House (60 Kembla St, phone 4228 6765). Closer to the train station is Sky Accommodation (5 Parkinson St, phone 4228 9320) with 40 reasonably priced, nondescript rooms to choose from.

Right in the city centre, the City Pacific Boutique Hotel (112 Burelli St, phone 4229 7444) has a range of rooms from budget to deluxe. Closer to South Beach is the Surfside 22 Motel (cnr Crown and Harbour St, phone 4229 7288). North Wollongong is the priciest area on the coast to stay, but if you’re in the mood to splurge, try the Novotel Northbeach (Cliff Rd, phone 4226 3555). Although it’s five-star territory, they often have attractive weekend packages.

For something completely different, try the Pilgrim Lodge in the Nan Thien temple (Berkeley Rd, Berkeley, phone 4272 0500), where weekend meditation retreats are held throughout the year.

The staff at the Tourism Wollongong Centre (cnr Crown and Kembla St, Freecall 1800 240 737) will book visitor accommodation and they also manage an excellent web-site (www.tourismwollongong.com).

As for food, the first thing that needs to be said about the Wollongong dining scene is that it can be much cheaper than Sydney.

On the Crown Street Mall, The Caf?n the Mall and Barnies are two good-value eateries. At the beach end of Crown Street, the Tuscan caf?ffers anything Mediterranean, from pizzette to paella. For Middle-Eastern food, try Litanis in Corrimal Street. Open till late it serves excellent mezze platters and calorific Lebanese sweets.

Keira Street has a string of Asian restaurants such as Zen’s Asian Caf? Pho Saigon and Food World Gourmet Caf?roviding excellent value for money. This strip also has some reasonable caf?including Exit and is also home to the swish modern Australian-Italian Ristorante Due Mezzi.

On the seafood front, the Harbourfront restaurant above the fish cooperative at Belmore Basin is a good choice. In gay- and lesbian-friendly North Wollongong, Stingray is the place to go for an Italian-influenced seafood menu.

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