Thursday, 18 August 2011

The Unpublished 10: Flashpacker Central

I wrote this review of the new and impressive Sydney Harbour YHA hostel in March 2010, but as the publication later decided it wanted equal coverage of hostels across several states, it was shelved. 

Here it is now (with updated price details at the end) for your enjoyment...

It’s 5pm on a humid summer day in Sydney, the sort of day that has me dripping with sweat after even a gentle walk.

So I’m content to sit in the lounge of the new Sydney Harbour YHA hostel in The Rocks, high up above the harbour and not far from a certain famous bridge.

At this time of day there’s a relaxed vibe in the lounge, which receives lots of natural light from the large windows arrayed along each side. People are lazing about, either reading or dozing.

At a bank of computers at the far end, people are checking email, Facebooking or doing whatever one does online when on holiday far from home. Behind me, in a sizeable open plan kitchen, there are people preparing either a very late lunch or an early dinner.

It’s partly to do with the time of day - that curious pause between afternoon and evening - but this big open space is filled with the sort of relaxed sociability that you only find in a good hostel.

The place has been slowly filling for an hour or so now, and as people drift in I sense they’re feeling tired but satisfied after a big day of sightseeing, taking the opportunity to chill a little before tackling the night.

As I’ve often noticed in places like this, the clientele isn’t limited to youths. There are travellers of all ages here, from twentysomethings to people in their sixties. There is one thing they all have in common, however, despite their diverse ages and nationalities: they’re all flashpackers.

Flashpacking explained

Let me explain. “Flashpacking” popped into the travel lexicon a few years ago, neatly bridging a previous gap in the accommodation market that was then rapidly filled by a savvy new generation of hostel owners.

Basically, the flashpacker is someone who enjoys the sociability, informality and budget rates of a backpackers’ hostel, but is affluent enough to afford the comforts of a hotel room.

The result is a hostel that offers private rooms with neatly made beds and ensuite bathrooms, but retains the backpacker staples of communal lounges and kitchens. Such hostels still offer the traditional dorm accommodation, but it’s in smaller rooms of six or so beds, with a bathroom for each room.

It’s the best of both worlds, especially for travellers who are out all day and don’t care much about their rooms as long as they’re clean and comfortable. And there’s the option of a ready-made social life via interaction with other guests and the regular social events hosted by the hostel.  

Hostel above the harbour

A fine example of the flashpacker hostel is this new YHA facility in The Rocks, opened in November 2009. The location itself is remarkable, with the purpose-built hostel buildings suspended on pillars above an extensive archaeological dig.

The so-called “Big Dig” cleared away a century of change to reveal The Rocks as it was in the early 1900s - a crowded slum with tiny houses crammed into narrow laneways. Beneath the hostel are the clearly visible foundation stones of the tenement houses which once stood on the site.

To its credit, the hostel makes a major feature of the exposed dig, opening its fascinating patterns to view wherever possible. Even within the accommodation area, the central void drops away to ground level, revealing the remnants of the past.

I’ve been booked into a family room, a light, airy space with high ceilings, housing a double bed adorned with a striped duvet, a grey-brown carpet, two bunk beds, a table and two chairs.

The ensuite bathroom is neat, clean and contemporary. It could be a room in a modern budget hotel anywhere, though there’s a hint of hostel about the steel-framed beds and the lockers which can be secured with padlocks.

Environmental positives

What’s particularly impressive are the hostel’s environmentally-friendly innovations.

This is the first room I’ve ever stayed in (in hotel or hostel) that has a separate recycling bin, and attached to the window frame is a kind of fixed louvre that deflects the heat from direct sunshine while still allowing indirect natural light. On the table is a note explaining that the building’s air-conditioning only kicks in above a certain temperature, thus reducing carbon emissions.

There’s plenty to like about this place, including its outdoor areas. Off the lounge is a pleasant balcony with red chairs and great views of old buildings and the glass towers of Sydney's central business district beyond. To the east I can make out the outline of a giant passenger ship at berth near Circular Quay, and from the hostel’s rooftop you can see the Opera House.

That’s yet another attraction of the flashpacking life... it’s social, it’s affordable, and it often takes place in scenic locations that would otherwise cost an arm and a leg to stay in. What’s not to like?

The Sydney Harbour YHA is located at 110 Cumberland St, The Rocks. Dorm beds from $39 per person per night, double rooms from $133 per night, four-person family rooms from $165 per night. More details and bookings via +61 2 8272 0900 or www.yha.com.au.

Disclosure time... on this trip I travelled courtesy of the YHA and Northern Rivers Tourism. 

The Unpublished is a random series comprising my never-published travel articles. For previous instalments, click on the The Unpublished Topic tag below, then scroll down.