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The International Writers Magazine
Australian Travel

If you can’t stand the heat, don’t go looking for it.
Ed Freeman

Travel can be tiring. Whether lugging around a backpack or sitting in first class, a long journey can take its toll on even the most seasoned globetrotter. Time permitting, I like nothing more than a good blow out in a sauna to speed up my recovery, but as I was recently reminded, it pays to be prepared when visiting new places.
Last month I stayed at the very accommodating but sauna-less beach front YHA in Newcastle, NSW. After an airport delay in Melbourne and a cabin choir of screaming children, a therapeutic sweat was top of my agenda. Blank looks all round as I asked for directions to the nearest sauna, but undeterred I stumbled upon Steamworx Spa & Sauna on Newcastle’s main drag. Up two flights of stairs and into a softly lit atrium, I allowed my mind to wander, conjuring images of grandiose marble steam rooms, splendid splash pools and soft embroidered bath robes. And at $23 a pop I should think so too. I managed to blag a backpacker discount, but even with a concession I half expected toga draped women on call for massages and manicures. I paid my money through a faceless slot in the tinted glass from which a receptionist informed me that I could come and go as I wished, closing time being 2am. A touch eccentric I thought, but perhaps this was some new form of all day sanctuary that in an increasingly stress warped and anxiety fuelled world would grip the masses in times to come. I was intrigued to say the least.

So, through the entrance and into a darkened room. No massages, no manicures. As it turns out it was far more hands on than I was prepared for, but it wasn’t until I reached the rose lit locker room that I realized the gravity of the situation. Although dark, I could see the room was partitioned into small furnished cubicles. Okaaay. A few toweled gentlemen wandered around, clearly having bunked off work early, but something a little more mischievous was going on here. Huge plasma screens offering the only real light played movies of men celebrating each other in a manner that my relative naivety has never dared imagine. Oh dear. Suddenly I felt like today’s special as I nervously caught the eye of a curious pot bellied onlooker. No sign of a sauna as of yet, but I began to sweat buckets. I bolted through some double doors, nearly flattening another chap and found myself in a bar. More porn. More men. I could see, which was of momentary relief, but an unlocked display cabinet of bondage gear and sex toys is hardly a sight for sore eyes (or any other part of my anatomy, thank you).

This is what’s known as a cruise bar. This is where inquisitive men come to meet other like-minded fellas and as far as I could work out just about anything goes. Quite how the advertising standards council would feel about them trading a spa and sauna is a matter for the courts, but I wasn’t hanging around for the verdict and bailed, managing to get a full refund thanks to my little boy lost story. They do actually have a sauna on the premises, and free internet should you wish to check your email (or any other males for that matter), but be warned; contrary to their name these establishments are anything but plain sailing.

Although only a stones throw from the main high street I suspect the majority of passerbys are blissfully ignorant about what goes on here, whilst those in the know are fluent in the rules of engagement. But for the unsuspecting visitor looking to unwind, I’m afraid this is not the place to let your guard down. The language barrier alone, which appears to be more body than the spoken word, is enough to leave even the most cunning linguist running for the door. But then again I suppose that’s the great thing about travel; it doesn’t matter where you are, who you’re with or what you’re doing, it’s all about embracing new experiences. Well, almost.
© Ed Freeman July 2007

*and if inclined to go to Australia where it's a man's world

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