Kahlua and Milk

In Goondiwindi, in the Gunsynd Lounge, my cousin Nadine orders a Kahlua and milk.

“I’ll have what she’s having,” I tell the barman.

“Hah! You’re a bad woman at heart,” says my cousin.

Nadine and I are on a family history road trip: ten days, from the Darling Downs to the Central West. We’re eating – and drinking – at the Vic. The Victoria Hotel is double storied, with black and white timbers and a slightly crooked corner tower. It’s an outstanding feature of Goondiwindi’s main street. On one trip, Con and I spent the night at the Vic. I loved it, but Con hated it because he had to walk down the hall to go to the bathroom.

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Country hotels with their wide, hardwood verandahs, grand staircases and ornate fretwork are Australia’s most spectacular buildings. Built in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, they had to be big. Travelling for work was common, and bush people would come to town for race meetings and agricultural shows. Hotels provided the accommodation.

People travel for work and pleasure more than ever now, but most of them, like Con, want ensuite bathrooms and comfortable beds. They want air-conditioning and a car park out front. They don’t want stairs or noisy bar rooms.

I like climbing the stairs that take you up to the long hallways, the verandahs and a view over the street. I’m not so keen on the noisy bar underneath. Con and I spent one Thursday night in the magnificent old George Hotel in Ballarat, Victoria, with a cozy fireplace in the lounge, an ensuite bedroom and breakfast on the wide verandah overlooking the heritage buildings of the main street; but in the bedside table there were complimentary earplugs. We didn’t stay on to hear the Friday night disco in the bar.

One year we went to Esk for the races and spent the night in the Grand Hotel. The party in the Beer Garden went on for most of the night, and we tried to sleep to the sound, much repeated, of “Living next door to Alice,” followed by the shouted chorus of “Alice? Who the fuck is Alice?”

The hotel bars are often empty in these days of random breath checks, and many hotels have closed. During the day there might be one or two drinkers, nursing a beer and waiting for someone to come in so they can tell them about how things were in the old days or show off for tourists.

The poker machine room always has customers. At the Purple Pub in Normanton, it’s the only room with air-conditioning.

Overnight guests have the run of these fine old buildings. As a guest you are allowed up the grand staircase, past the “House Guests Only” sign, to the upstairs lounge, with its television and sagging couches. You can pad down the hallway in your night attire to a huge, tiled bathroom, or clean your teeth in the washbasin in the corner of your room. You can have breakfast on the verandah and lean over the railing to watch the affairs of the street below.

The enormous, heritage listed State Hotel at Babinda was erected in 1917 by the Queensland government. Constructed from local timbers, it has an entrance and staircase of golden silky oak, many bedrooms, and verandahs with a view up the main street to the rain-forested hills behind the town.

State Hotel Babinda ca. 1924

I’d like to stay there sometime. If I suggest it to Con, I know what he’ll say.

“Does it have ensuites?”

The pub is still the heart of many a tiny town. A few years ago, we spent a comfortable night in the hotel at Laura, now named the Quinkan Hotel – the only accommodation in town apart from the caravan park. It’s a plain, single storey pub – no grand staircase or sprawling verandahs – but the owners have found it worth their while to provide comfortable beds, modern air-conditioning and flat-screen televisions. The mining engineers and geologists who stay here like to be comfortable.

It was November when we visited Laura, and the many mango trees shading the front of the pub and lining the street were laden with ripe fruit. I’ll always associate the Laura Hotel with the smell of mangoes and the thud, thud, thud of the fruit hitting the ground.

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Country pubs. Every one of them is memorable.

At the Vic in Goondiwindi, last time we were there together, Con ordered a glass of beer. The glass was sponsored by Saint Mary’s, the local Catholic Parish: What? I asked for a glass of water. It’s a miracle!

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You wouldn’t find that at the Brisbane Hilton.

Images: Victoria Hotel, Goondiwindi; State Hotel Babinda c. 1924 (State Library of Qld, “Picture Queensland”); the Laura Hotel; beer glass from the Vic, Goondiwindi.

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