Category: Travel

Hipster holidays – Austin

University towns rarely let me down. Put enough bright young things with scope to procrastinate in one place and you will inevitably produce an enthusiastic social scene focused on having the most fun for the cheapest price. Which is easy in the US where beers and burgers are bargains.

With one of the biggest universities in America, Austin certainly has the numbers to produce a scene – and what a scene it is. It’s a big call, but I’ll make it: South Congress in Austin is more hipster than Williamsburg, NY. Although perhaps they have an unfair advantage – no doubt it’s easier to track down pre-loved plaid shirts in a State full of farmers.

Boldly claiming the title “live music capital of the world”, Austin sets expectations high. But clears the bar with ease. We’re there on a Tuesday and live bands are playing in all of the multitude of bars and beer gardens dotted along SoCo. It’s not hard to imagine how crazy it must get during the week long South by Southwest festival when dozens of temporary stages pop up across town – in Churches, laneways and drive-in movie yards – to complement an extraordinary number of regular music venues (well extraordinary for an Australian who is more used to music venues closing down than booking out). The festival is firmly on my bucket list together with Eeyore’s Birthday Party – a 50 year old Austin fundraising festival where attenders might, say, swing giant hoola hoops while enjoying live music in the shadow of the Statue of Eeyore – a Winnie the Pooh version of the Statue of Liberty.

Tonight, we skip the busy bars for the more relaxed food trailer park. Primed with veggie sliders packed with avocado and black beans, we kick back and join the locals listening to a veteran busker plucking out some old bluegrass tunes. A young girl nervously asks to join him and suddenly we’re watching the Austin school of busking as the old man coaches her on voice projection and the other skills required for acoustic open-air performance. By the time we retire to our eco-bungalow (when in hipsterville…), they are belting out southern duets which sound surprisingly good for two strangers from different millenniums.

SoCo can at times feel almost like a parody of hipster culture – what with its retro rollerskates, vintage vinyl, fair-trade food and moustached men. But it’s hard to resent it, even a little. Because Austin is one of those places that just make you feel great. The city is so full of life – students riding bikes through the streets, kids dangling from the many tire-swings scattered in residential gardens, toddlers climbing through pumpkin patches as their parents hunt for the perfect jack-o-lantern, middle-aged couples enjoying local beers and local bands under the stars. In an era where so much of our social interaction is done on our Apple device of choice, Austin is a vibrant outdoors community that oozes a welcoming warmth.

As we farewell this glorious student town, I feel refreshed and healthy – full of vitamin D, fresh Mexican food and deep sleep after exhausting days of cycling. If it wasn’t for the size of the utes it would almost be hard to believe we just spent a few days in the Lone Star State. That is, until I spot a man crossing the highway with a dog by his side and a Texas Rat Snake in his arms. Suddenly our “Don’t mess with Texas” souveneirs seem rather apt.


Hipster holidays – Introduction

I’m about to begin an ongoing series of posts about cities that emanate with creativity and soul. Places that are, or will be, remembered for their influence on pop culture and for capturing the zeitgeist of a generation. Cities to visit because they have spawned an array of talented musicians and become the launching pad of a new subculture.

Hipster habitats if you will.

But before I start, I should clarify that I’m no hipster. I’m friends with hipsters, sure. I live near a certain hipster haven. But I’m no hipster. Throwing together the perfect vintage finds and some designer offcuts would never come naturally to me and even if it did I would never convince myself that the getup worked – and hipster culture is about nothing if not confidence. Plus the wasted hours thinking about clothes when I could have donned the clothes on the floor and been out the door half an hour ago would never work for my time poor lifestyle.

We do, however, often end up at the same places – me and the hipsters.

For me, travelling is generally about making a pilgrimage to a place that has stirred my soul. Usually a place that has been home to artists who have created a style of music in which I have lost myself for years on end. Or a place where a diverse array of musical styles emanate from the city walls. The kind of places where the locals must have such an unconditional love of music that the artists amongst them feel completely comfortable trying something new and crazy.

These places also generate the kind of freedom needed for new subcultures to thrive. Or sometimes people flock to the areas looking for that freedom and force a new subculture into the city. Either way, great music changes cities and brings the people who want to be in a place that is breathing creativity. People who want the chance to check out cutting edge bands and perhaps spot a favourite drummer at a local record store. Who want to see the design ideas that may never make it out of the city but which are quirky and brilliant – just not marketable.

Hipsters. Me.

Happily, the places that have given us great music are often near some really beautiful landscapes. The epic soundscapes created by Björk and Sigur Rós make complete sense when travelling through the dramatic Icelandic countryside. Hipster habitats often make stunning holiday destinations.

So, there you go, caveat provided. Let the holiday files begin. 

Brand USA

Sadly, my post on the US was not sponsored by Brand USA – the US’s first coordinated international tourism marketing campaign (but do let them know I’ll write some posts on my favourite US towns if there’s a free airfare in it!). It seems that the impressions that my Gen Y peers have of the US: too familiar, middle aged, brash, are shared by a pretty large proportion of the world at the moment and this has contributed to the US losing almost 7% of the total travel market over the last decade.

Brand USA, which has just been launched, is the US’ attempt to lure that lucrative tourist dollar. Funded by the ESTA fees paid by international visitors and by private donations, this marketing campaign will be trying to remind us to associate the States with freedom, possibilities and pop culture.

I think they have done a pretty decent job of capturing the American spirit in words. An excerpt:

“America is more than a destination.

It’s a land where everything is possible, so anything is possible.

Where imagination becomes reality, and nothing is too new, too big or too far away to actually happen.

a collective culture that is only as robust as the stories and personalities that contribute to it...

We want to remind the world that this country is filled with boundless possibilities that open up even more possibilities within ourselves.”

With stats showing that 35 overseas tourists create 1 American job, the Government must have been hoping that these words would be turned into a masterpiece that will seduce the masses – in time for a November election.

Unfortunately, the commercial they have created under the moniker Discover America really doesn’t bring this language to life. Frankly, it’s pathetic.

Rather than reaching for the stars and inspiring us – the American Way – the ad tries to show how the US can be something for everyone – whether it be wineries, forests, beaches, cities, the US can meet every holiday need.

For most of the ad you could be excused for not knowing what country they are talking about. A montage of great scenic shots interspersed with shots of great food and friends laughing together set to a downbeat feelgood song? Well that could be any number of countries – NZ, Australia, Canada…

And what do they do to convince us that the US really is the “land of dreams”?  Give the ad an irritating soundtrack which repeats this phrase again and again. Because repetition is the key…

Overall, the ad takes a safe path which achieves the same kind of mediocrity of most tourism ads.


If you want great scenery, go to NZ, go to Iceland, go to Switzerland (if you have a trust fund). There’s no doubt that there’s beauty in America, but it’s spread much further apart than those countries where there’s breathtaking sights around every corner. And if you want to laugh with friends against a pretty backdrop, go to Asia where you can do it over a few 10c beers.

The US is special because it can inspire you to pick yourself up, stretch yourself out to be the most you can be and throw caution to the wind as your determination to carve out a future that excites you projects you to carry on with your life in a whole new way, believing that no-one will stop you now.

The song that Brand USA should have used? The awesome all American anthem, “Carry on,” by New York band, Fun. And perhaps for Britain – one of the first targets of the campaign, go cheeky with Planet Funk’s “Who Said”: “I’ve never been to the USA. I’m a slave for the minimum wage. Detroit, New York and LA. But I’m stuck in the UK.”


And the footage? Break the beautiful scenic- and city-scapes up with shots of great US moments. Footage of Woodstock, of Hollywood during the golden era of cinema, of Billie Holiday live in Chicago, of the civil rights protests, of an early Elvis performance, of Sesame Street (which is set in Manhattan), of Haight-Ashbury in its hey day, of a Nirvana concert in Seattle, of Joni Mitchell and Frank Zappa and Joan Baez in the heady Laurel Canyon days, of Kerouac and Ginsburg and all those cats at Citylights Bookstore in San Fran, of the Declaration of Independence plaque in Rockefeller Square. Plus some shots of pop-cultural-history-in-the-making moments that tourists have a window of opportunity to participate in: hipsters in Williamsburg, Lady Gaga playing Times Square, an indie gig outside a microbrewery in Portland, a roller derby in Austin.

America is the backdrop of nearly every pop cultural touchstone of recent decades and, although their economy is in tatters, the music, TV and film that we discuss at the water cooler at morning tea and seek solace in at the end of the day will continue to come from America. That stuff’s important – it shapes how we see the world and creates an unspoken bond between us, our peers and millions of strangers around the world. These cultural touchstones are locked so deep within us that we’re unaware of their hold on us, often shrugging the US off as passé until a simple comment about Greenwich Village or Dollywood stirs an odd feeling of nostalgia for a country that is home – even if we’ve never been there.

Brand USA didn’t need to convince us that the US is great.  It just needed to remind us that it’s intrinsically part of who we are.

America: The antidote to Australia

I love the US.

It’s not very cool to say this amongst my Gen Y peers. We are a generation who travel regularly and widely and so countries become passé to us quickly. Mentioning you are visiting the US will generally earn you a raised eyebrow and perhaps an inquiry as to whether it will be a stopover on the way to Cuba or South America. Because that’s where hipsters travel. Add a dash of Asia, eastern Europe and perhaps an African safari or a visit to the Middle East and you have the Gen Y to-visit list.

Expressing pro-US sentiment is particularly perilous in this era of the tea party. Immediately, young people assume you’re an anti-choice conservative visiting America because you never quite got past Friends and the OC.

It’s a shame because in many ways, Gen Y and the US are a match made in heaven. Both truly believe that individuals should follow their dreams. Both are convinced that they are unique and have something special to offer the world. The main difference between the two seems to be that Americans are generally full of genuine encouragement for each other. They want to know your story, heck they want to pray for you as you go on your way! Gen Y-ers tend to be far less effusive with their peer support.

I wasn’t expecting to embrace the American enthusiasm quite so quickly. I mean, I find earnest Australians jarring and I avoid their company at all costs. Self-promotion drives me insane. And I’m the poster girl for cynicism. But in the US, it’s different. In the US, talking about what you could offer the world isn’t self-promotion, and stepping out and trying something new isn’t a lame attempt to be someone you’re not. Instead, they’re both about finding and fulfilling your dream – and there’s nothing closer to the heart of the nation than that.

Don’t get me wrong – there are a lot of places in the States where dreams and people have been crushed through bad laws and bad attitudes. Where the “you can achieve your dreams” attitude has been hijacked and turned into “we can do anything we want – even if it’s at your expense.” But there are a lot of places where the original attitude has allowed the world to change for the better.

For all the towns where racism and homophobia are rife, there are vibrant college towns and progressive cities where diversity is celebrated in a way unlike anywhere else in the world. For all the states where environmental ideas are rubbished, there’s California – the most populous state in America and the most energy-efficient. And music and the arts seem to be embraced almost everywhere.

But enough of the back-peddling – I’m not declaring that America is the greatest country on Earth and I’m not encouraging people to apply for citizenship (although I’m all for more couches to crash on).

I think that America has something important to offer Australians. It’s the perfect ying to the yang that is the tall poppy syndrome nature of Australian society. I love the Australian culture of keeping each other grounded, but there are times when you need an injection of self-belief. And the US is perfect for this. Need some time out to ponder a new career direction? To kick off a creative venture without wallowing in self-doubt? Or maybe time to reflect on how to break out of the humdrum routine you’ve fallen into? Some time with the enthusiastic Americans will inevitably energise you.

From afar the movies seem schmalzy, but up close you realise that Americans live like that – with all their enthusiasm and friendliness and self-belief. And as nauseating as that sounds, it’s infectious. I always come back from the States with really clear ideas as to how to live better – whether it be how to up the ante at work or connect more with my local community. And above all, I come back with energy to be extraordinarily friendly – which can lead to some really unexpected but wonderful connections with people. What’s particularly amazing is how long that energy lasts – my experiences haven’t been those quick hits of holiday enthusiasm that diminish a few weeks after I’m back at work. Instead, that buzz from some of the great US towns seems to linger about for ages – nagging at me when I get lazy or dour.

So that’s why I love the US. There are pockets of the country where the unique snowflakes gather in such a warm and inclusive way that you can’t help but count yourself amongst them – a unique snowflake searching for that bit extra out of life.