Finding Australia's best outback pubs

The Australian outback is dotted with one-pub towns. But the local watering hole is more than a place to get a beer – it’s relief from the isolation of the cattle and sheep stations, many of them hundreds of square kilometres in size.

The town pub is a place to meet other locals, as well as passers-by, to catch up on news and, historically, a place to do business, receive mail and pick up essential goods. These days, you can usually get a good hearty meal and a decent room to spend the night for not much more than A$100 all up.

Many of these old pubs proudly display signs recounting their place in local history and folklore, and it’s easy to strike up a conversation with the publican or a fellow drinker – the locals are hospitable and glad to share their stories.

And in the state of Queensland, you can forget about ordering any boutique brews – try a schooner of XXXX instead.

The Prairie Hotel

More than 200km southwest of Townsville, Prairie’s hotel is about the only thing still open in a tiny outback town that’s lost its post office, train station and cafe – a common story for many rural towns throughout Australia. This old pub first got its licence in 1884, and commemorates its past with worn-out old saddles slung over the hitching posts outside.

Inside, the décor is eye-catching to say the least. A huge stuffed buffalo head oversees the bar, and a general taxidermy theme sees the glassy-eyed remains of various beasts supervising the goings-on in the hotel. From the ceiling, studded with old farmers’ hats, hangs an old tricycle and a rusted scooter. Out the back on a cold night you can relax on the sofa and enjoy a fireside ale.

Prairie Hotel. Image by Sarah Gilbert
Prairie Hotel. Image by Sarah Gilbert.

North Gregory Hotel

Winton, some 340km down the Landsborough Highway from Cloncurry, has two big drawcards: its surrounding plains, rich in dinosaur fossils, and its proximity to the spot where AB 'Banjo' Patterson wrote Australia’s most beloved song, Waltzing Matilda.

Winton’s North Gregory Hotel claims to be the first place the song was publicly performed, on 6 April 1895. The original hotel burned down, and the current model is an elegant late art deco brick building, unusual in these parts, and inside you’ll find exquisite 1950s etched-glass doors commemorating the song.

North Gregory Hotel. Image by Sarah Gilbert
North Gregory Hotel. Image by Sarah Gilbert.

Across the street is the more typical Tattersalls (built in 1885), where the chef serves up classic country food like roast chicken and grilled lamb chops, enjoyed on the pavement under the shade of the hotel’s balcony.

Tattersalls Hotel. Image by Sarah Gilbert
Tattersalls Hotel. Image by Sarah Gilbert.

The Shakespeare

Barcaldine, another 300km down the road, boasts four historic hotels, all on its main street. One of the prettiest towns in the outback, Barcaldine is filled with typical Queensland architecture – tin-roofed wooden houses on small stilts (which makes them flood-proof) with timber fretwork shading their wide verandahs. This peaceful town is celebrated as the birthplace of the Australian labour movement, kicked off by a late 19th century shearers’ strike. The Shakespeare, across the road from a monument to the shearers, is a lovely place to stop for a beer, and the friendly owner will give you a little furry clip-on koala if you’re from overseas.

Shakespeare Hotel. Image by Sarah Gilbert
 Shakespeare Hotel. Image by Sarah Gilbert.

Lonely Planet author Sarah Gilbert is researching the Queensland and Australia guidebooks.