The Gold Coast is a sun-kissed slice of paradise

 
Kasmira Jefford
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Queensland’s Gold and Sunshine coasts boast scenery to die for and surfing that’s the envy of the world. It no longer comes cheap but the memories will last you a lifetime

WITHIN hours of flying half way across the world, still jetlagged, I find myself strapped inside a full-body harness and sporting an all-in-one flight suit – the kind you see worn by astronauts on missions to the moon.

Images of Tom Hanks striding towards his space shuttle in Apollo 13 spring to mind, but instead of blasting into space, I teeter up a flight of metal steps that scale the outside of Australia’s tallest residential skyscraper, the 270-metre Q1 tower.

Here, in my action-woman boiler suit, I nervously lean over the edge. I am surrounded by spectacular views of the 35 miles of coastland that make up Queensland’s Gold Coast – Australia’s sixth largest city and one of its most popular holiday destinations.

With its eclectic mix of mega-theme parks, shopping malls and glittering high-rise buildings that fringe its beaches, the Gold Coast has more in common with the hedonistic antics of Las Vegas and the easy cool of Miami than the rest of Australia.

Surfers Paradise, its commercial hub, epitomises this lifestyle. The beach town had a massive growth spurt in the 50s and residential apartment blocks sprung up in the following decades as tourists flocked to its long boulevards of shops, nightclubs and white sand beaches.

Metre Maids dressed in gold lame bikinis stroll the streets feeding coins into expired parking metres, leaving calling cards under the windscreen wipers. The concept of Metre Maids was invented in 1965 to help beat the negative image created by the installation of parking metres on the tourist strip. The scheme, sponsored by local companies, encourages drivers to make a donation or buy one of their calendars or CDs.

British teenagers go to Newquay or further afield to Ayia Napa or Magaluf for their first holiday. Australians go to Surfers Paradise. In the autumn, kids barely over 18 come to surf and party here after their exams. But for all its brashness, the region has a certain rugged charm.

Beyond the high-rises and the criss-crossed labyrinth of waterways, away from the canals of Surfers Paradise and its environs, stands the Gold Coast Hinterland. The Hinterland is a mountainous forested region that’s home to two of Queensland’s world heritage listed national parks: Lamington and Springbrook, home to rainforest reserves, glow worm caves and a host of animals.

The Gold Coast’s tourism board describes itself as Australia’s “endless playground of entertainment and adventure” and it certainly fits the bill. The day after scaling the Q1 tower, I am startled out of my sleep by a 3am wake-up call and we set off to go hot air ballooning. Sadly it is too windy and, after driving for a couple of hours trying to find a suitable spot, we eventually return to the hotel before hitting the beach at midday for a surfing lesson.

The instructor exactly meets the criteria of what an Australian surfer should look like. Tall, blond and handsome – the men in my group look equally enamored as the girls. Hamish flips his board onto the sand, flashes us a smile and shows us how to jump onto our boards from the water. He makes it look easy – but after an hour of being relentlessly hit in the face by my board and tugged underwater by huge unforgiving waves – I return bedraggled and defeated back to the shore.

Not far from Surfer’s Paradise lies Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary, established in the 1940s when a local beekeeper and flower grower started feeding the region’s wild multi-coloured lorikeets to prevent them from eating his prized blooms. The feeding soon turned from a local curiosity to a tourist attraction and in the 1970s the beekeeper Alex Griffiths bestowed the sanctuary to Queensland’s National Trust.

In the afternoon, there are performances of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders – Australia’s two indigenous peoples – dancing and you have the chance to feed kangaroos, cuddle a koala (ours is the sleepy patriarch called Wilbur) or drape a snake in your arms. This is certainly not the Australian outback but it makes a change from London Zoo.

On the third day, I leave the Gold Coast behind and enter Sunshine Coast territory. While Australia’s wine regions are mainly in the Southern, cooler parts of the country, Queensland has been quietly expanding its wine industry since the first grapes were cultivated in the 1860s. One of these is Flame Hill, a vineyard close to the quaint town of Montville, where we stop for lunch on our way to the town of Noosa. The outdoor terrace looks out onto stunning views of the vines where guinea fowl strut, and on to the rolling hills of the Sunshine Hinterland beyond. The food is locally produced or grown here on the 350 acre working cattle farm. I have pork tenderloin wrapped in prosciutto and sage, washed down with some Reserves Shiraz, which is delicious. If you are here in February you can also lend your feet to some grape stomping.

In the afternoon, we arrive at Noosa, a relaxed beach-town surrounded by rainforest and woodland. Bustling restaurants, bars, trendy surf shops and fashion boutiques line Hastings Street, which lies parallel to a long stretch of coastland. Children frolic with buckets and spades on the beach, while not far away a bride and her entourage make their way to a restaurant to celebrate.

I arrive in Noosa in an Orange VW camper van decorated with Nepalese prayer flags for a morning stroll in the stunning National Park. Joggers overtake us on the sandy path that overlooks the ocean, which is already dotted with surfers waiting to catch an early wave. Koalas perch in the Eucalyptus trees above, while in the undergrowth we spot a giant carpet python, curled up taking a morning nap.

From Noosa we drive 120 miles north to Hervey Bay, the famous backpacking destination and main stepping-off point for the world’s biggest sand island and one of Australia’s greatest wonders – Fraser Island.

Each year at least 1,200 humpbacks make mammoth journeys to the eastern coast of Australia on their way to summer feeding grounds in Antarctica, stopping off in the warm waters of Hervey Bay for a few days. The best time to see them is from Mid-July to early November. The first to arrive there are groups of older juveniles – or teenagers – followed by the older males and then mothers and calves.

About a half hour from the bay we catch our first glimpse of a whale. Our captain tells us to start making some noise and waving at it. “They are as curious about you as you are about them,” she tells us. It feels strange at first to wave at a the empty expanse of the sea but soon the whole boat is hollering and waving frantically. Two shadows suddenly appear underneath the boat before one of them breaks the surface of the water and sprays us as it expels air through its two massive blowholes.

The pair become more excited – we seem to make good company with all our yelling – and a good half hour later they pop their noses out of the water in unison, their white bellies like paint-striped floors, in a position the captain tells us is called “spyhopping”. They soon become bored and wander off but before we return to the bay we see a whale in the distance flick its tale and dive deep under the water. The boat is quiet and we wait with suspense. A minute later it propels itself clean out of the water before twisting to land on its back in a big splash.

From Hervey Bay it is about an hour’s ferry ride to Fraser Island. The local Aboriginal people who lived there for hundreds of years call Fraser Island “K’Gari”, which roughly translates as paradise. It couldn’t be a better description. On an organized tour of the island, we make our way along the sandy tracks in a giant 4x4 bus with towering wheels. It jerks and jolts from side to side as it makes its way over tree roots and vertiginous banks of sand. Our driver and tour guide, an ex-army truck driver who giggles at every bump we take, points out different trees and birds. Dingos – once the companion dogs of the aborigines (driven away when the timber trade was established) roam free and in the trees Kookaburras chatter.

Fraser is the only place on Earth where rainforest grows in sand. Kauri pine, which was logged on the island for over a century until the 1990s, and scribbly gum trees (given that name because of the patterns on their bark) are found there.

I took a flight from Fraser’s 75-mile-long beach in a tiny tin can of a plane, soaking up the beautiful birds-eye view of the island’s dense green rainforest and forest, surrounded by a halo of white sand and a kaleidoscope of different blues, from turquoise to topaz, where man-eating sharks, turtles, whales and dolphins lurk.

Queensland’s coast is a paradise to be discovered but it doesn’t come cheap. The strong Australian dollar and the recession of the last four years has meant the number of holiday makers travelling to Fraser Island and Australia’s other attractions has decreased significantly. One tour guide at Hervey Bay tells us the number of backpackers has waned, impacting the local tourism industry. But despite this, visiting Australia’s countless wonders is a trip worth living at least once – it will fuel dreams for the rest of your life.

NEED TO KNOW: QUEENSLAND
Getting there:
Austravel (0800 988 4834, www.austravel.com), offers a week long trip taking in some of the best of Queensland from £1,359 per person. The price includes return flights from London Heathrow with Qantas to Brisbane, a night’s accommodation at the QT Hotel in Surfers Paradise, one night’s accommodation at the Outrigger Little Hastings Street in Noosa, a night at the Mantra Hervey Bay before heading to Fraser Island for a night at the Kingfisher Bay Resort and finally a night in Brisbane at the newly opened Traders Hotel. Car hire is included for eight days. Based on departures March 2013.

Austravel can also book these excursions:
Hot Air Ballooning on the Gold Coast from £136 per person; Surf Lessons from £116; One day Whale Watching trip off of Fraser Island from £78pp (runs Aug-Nov); Beauty Spots Tour, Fraser Island from £116pp; Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary from £57pp.

Where to stay:
In Surfers Paradise, I stayed at the brand new QT development, a kitsch but stylish boutique hotel that exploits the Gold Coast’s surfer chic image and exudes coolness. The lobby is decked in 1960s-style Smartie-coloured furniture. Madmen’s Don Draper would come here with a girl draped on his arm for a weekend break. The staff are dressed in blue uniforms – like Pan Am air hostesses – with letterbox red lips. In the evening, QT’s Sting Ray bar fills up quickly and a DJ blasts out tunes as Gold Coast residents of all ages come here to unwind after work.