With CoastOut now little more than a fortnight away, organiser Todd Buttery is putting the final touches to the inaugural gay and lesbian surf-themed festival.

Sydney Star Observer visited Buttery for a weekend jaunt in Coffs Harbour to see how progress was coming along, and to find out what festivalgoers could expect from their time at the groundbreaking festival (it’ll host Australia’s first gay surf competition) and the region as a whole.

“I’ve been in Coffs Harbour for the best part of 30 years, and it’s going through a growth phase. The town is growing up, and CoastOut is a part of that,” Buttery enthused.

“It’s halfway between Sydney and Brisbane, it’s got some of the most amazing beaches, rainforests and nature walks around — it’s just the perfect platform for this festival.”

Attending a cocktail party at a funky little gallery on the main street while we were there — with a DJ playing in the corner, it was an entirely more cosmopolitan side of the area than the Big Banana postcards would have you believe — we got talking to councillors Denise Knight and Kerry Hines, straightforward Coffs women who confided that they decided to run for office after a few wines one afternoon. Both were instrumental in gaining council support for the festival.

“We’ve had letters from families who’ve struggled with having gay children, thanking us for bringing something like this into the area,” Knight said with a smile.

As reported in SSO earlier in the year, Buttery’s initial announcement of his plans to launch a gay and lesbian-themed festival ruffled a few feathers.

But he was quick to point out that out of a population of around 60,000, council only received 30-odd letters of complaint.

“Those numbers are pretty interesting. CoastOut in essence is an arts, music and sports festival, it’s just aimed at a particular demographic. It’s about having fun, getting out of the city, putting your toes in the sand, relaxing and meeting new people.”

With those initial hecklers now forgotten, the focus is on making sure CoastOut arrives with a bang. And Buttery has a stellar line-up of talent organised for the three-day festival, including Bob Downe, Tania Doko, Dolly Diamond and Luke Gallagher, Joyce Maynge, Kaye Sera and more.

The weekend kicks off on Friday night with a Downe-hosted cocktail party, continues on Saturday with a beach carnival, fair day and tea dance, then draws to a close on Sunday with barefoot bowling, drag shows at the Pet Porpoise Pool and a closing beach party.

As for services and attractions in the area, there’s more than enough to keep you wined, dined and entertained for a long weekend.

Restaurants in Coffs run from the relaxed (the Surf Club restaurant and bar has a big beachside deck perfect for a Sunday sesh — so perfect, in fact, it’s being used as the venue for the closing beach party on Sunday evening) to the mid-range (Mangrove Restaurant, built over mangroves and sand flats, with fish swimming in clear waters underneath), to the high-end (the Rendezvous, a fine dining establishment rather incongruously situated above the local RSL — you wouldn’t know it from the cocktails, seafood and sumptuous desserts on offer).

Given it’s the venue for the opening night cocktail party, the Pacific Bay Novotel is an ideal spot to base yourself for the weekend. After the hijinks of CoastOut, you could even stay an extra day and treat yourself to a hot stone massage or iso tank session at the on-site tranquillity retreat.

And with many different landscapes and landmarks within easy reach of Coffs — the harbour, mountains, forests, and even whales — a scenic helicopter ride is the perfect way to take it all in. We went with Precision Helicopters — www.precisionhelicopters.com.au — and enjoyed the scenery without losing our lunch.

Buttery said the key to CoastOut’s lasting success would lie in not only luring visitors from the big cities, but also in engaging the locals, whether they be gay or straight. He’d spoken to many local straight people excited to participate in the festival.

That’s not to say Coffs doesn’t have a noticeable gay population. The weekend SSO visited, we bumped into a gaggle of gays at the local pub and held an impromptu drinking session, with none of the straight local clientele seeming to care or indeed notice.

There are regular queer-friendly nights and hangouts, including the Trouble In Paradise parties, held semi-regularly and attracting a diverse mix of gay, lesbian and queer-friendly straight people. The next instalment will naturally be held during CoastOut, on October 30 at Hooey Mooey and featuring DJ Feisty.

“There is a gay and lesbian community in Coffs Harbour. Why shouldn’t they be able to invite their friends and family to this part of the world for a festival? A lot of people are excited about it,” Buttery said.

He hoped this year’s festival would be the first of many.

“Like any event, it’s got to start off somewhere. The first year is about ensuring that anybody in Australia who wants to surf in the surf carnival feels that they can, whether they’re gay or gay-friendly.

“CoastOut is all about participation and inclusion.”

info: CoastOut, October 29-31, Coffs Harbour. Visit www.coastout.com.au

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