There’s a moment before you land in the Gold Coast when you can survey the full stretch of beach in all its glory. There’s the iconic skyline — towering apartments and hotels full of hens’ nights perching an improbably short distance from flocks of tourists sun-baking on the sand. But beyond that, there’s a seemingly endless web of waterways which run deep through the land like arteries. They weave through the dense bush and hidden life of the hinterlands, as far as your eye can see.
The first and only time I saw this was during a Year Nine school trip that’s practically part of the curriculum for most young Australians. Despite my pasty skin and motion sickness, I was corralled through busy theme parks and beaches in the hot sun and assured it’d all be worth it.
Eleven years later, I took a grown-up three-day excursion beyond the infamous beach and tourist stretch, and finally proved them right. This other version of the Gold Coast was wholeheartedly worth it.
Tracing the coastline
Though the Gold Coast is classified as a city (Queensland’s second-largest with a population of about 500,000) it feels a lot more like a collection of coastal country towns. Traversing the main line of the Gold Coast Highway, you’ll see the high-rises and parties of Surfers Paradise peter off into a less intense world of fine dining and bars at Broadbeach. Miami and Burleigh Heads then offer an alternative warren of cafes, markets and boutiques. Then, after a few forest-filled turns, you find yourself in the small yet endearing suburbs of Currumbin and Coolangatta (Coolie to the locals).
Each little centre is just just a five- or ten-minute drive from the next, stacked upon one another like friendly families at a beachside camping ground. It’s a love of the outdoors that ultimately unites them.
As each of these little stops are connected by a pristine beachside, a good deal of time you spend at the Gold Coast will be spent in the water. Surfers will be happy at either Burleigh Heads or Coolangatta’s Snapper Rocks – the latter of which is home to the Quiksilver Pro World Surfing League competition – and there are plenty of classes to get newbies up to speed. If you’d rather start off on something easier, stand-up paddle boarding is your best bet. Every day, dozens of locals and tourists alike descend on Currumbin Creek to propel themselves peacefully across the water.[related_articles]4015[/related_articles]
Despite being convinced I’d immediately stack it, I managed to glide myself out there with the help of Leo from Boatshed Bait and Tackle – a man whose life looks so supremely relaxing and rewarding it made me want to move states immediately. The trick: plant your feet wide on the board, keep your eyes up ahead of you, and pull your paddling power from your stomach rather than your arms. One of the young workers told me that once you get the hang of that, it’s “easier than walking”, but it’s reassuring to remember that’s coming from someone who wears board shorts to work every day.
If you’d like all the meditative and tummy-tightening benefits of the SUP experience without the threat of public humiliation, you might like to start the day with some yoga instead. BSKT Café runs classes in its upstairs studio, which overlooks the picturesque Mermaid Beach through floor-to-ceiling windows. The 8am Saturday slot with instructor Greg Harper is stacked with happy locals saluting the sun, but you should know this is definitely not their first time. Jumping in the ocean straight after class will help masquerade the fact you’re soaked head-to-toe in sweat.
Those who would rather bliss out completely should head to Currumbin Rock Pools. This (not-so-) secret swimming hole is perfect for lounging around in on a sunny day, with plenty of shade from surrounding trees, and is just a 15-minute drive from the beach. That drive, by the by, is stunning in itself. Tracing the natural route of Currumbin Creek inland, you’ll find lush forest spilling from either side of the gravel and grand mountains arising through each surprise clearing.
This is just one of the reasons you should at some point hire yourself a car. Yes, the Gold Coast is largely flat which means bike riding is a dream; La Costa Motel in Bilinga even give you free vintage wheels with your room. Yes, most of these major centres are connected by buses, trains and trams (which you can access with a rechargeable Go card). But you haven’t quite done this place right until you’ve wound down the windows, turned the radio up, and let the salt air spill through your wet hair.
Health and indulgence
People will tell you that this active lifestyle brings its own rewards: finding peace on the ocean, endorphins, vitamin D… that can be true. But in many cases, the best is what comes after: the food. With café menus packed with seasonal fruits and new pressed juice stores dotting each street corner, the Gold Coast has mastered the art of health-conscious snacking.
BSKT Café, the sprawling beach shack beneath the yoga studio at Mermaid Beach, has a menu sorted with “health keys” letting you know what’s gluten-free, what’s full of antioxidants and what’s your best bet for protein. They’re also the country’s flagship site for Cocowhip – the “vegan, dairy-free, bio-fermented coconut soft serve” popping up all over Australia which claims to be better for you than both frozen yoghurt and açai bowls.
If you’re travelling south on the Gold Coast Highway, Elephant Rock Café and Café D’Bar both offer similar menus with stunning views of the beach. The Salt Mill is a unique hole-in-the-wall with Melbourne-grade coffee, house-made cacao balls and delicious bagels overlooking the Currumbin surf.
And if you pass by any sign that reads ‘Burleigh’, it’s in your best interest to duck into the hideaway arcades of James Street. Not only is the street packed with affordable local designer wares (and extra-summery outfits to make up for your inevitable packing errors before entering the Sunshine State), it’s foodie heaven. I spent more than an hour exploring a 100 metre laneway of raw cakes and pressed juices before landing out the other side in Park Avenue’s Canteen Kitchen – a sophisticated open-kitchen cafe offering smart Middle Eastern dishes supplemented by a dedicated coffee bar on the side.
Though the day-to-day of a Gold Coast diet may be about this kind of healthy eating – the fuel you need to get through a busy day – it’d be nothing without the occasional indulgence. The real reward.
The most theatrical pig skin you will ever see in your life. A photo posted by Meg Watson (@megelizabethgrace) on
Directly across the road from the SUP hotspot on Currumbin Creek is Allure – a small world-class French restaurant serving up ocean scallops, confit pork belly and lobster-stuffed chicken breast so good you could weep. It’s not hard to see why it’s consistently voted one of the best spots in the country.[related_articles]20349[/related_articles]
If you’re a little further down the coast and coming back from a surf, your power-binge will come courtesy of JR’s Smokehouse. This building began its life as Coolie’s first KFC, was reclaimed as a surfshop, and has now been split down the middle to house a Texan BBQ joint whose wares (try the brisket!) have been a long-time favourite at the local Miami Marketta. The place is buzzing with energy and houses a live band each Sunday night next to stacks of surfwax and locals swigging beers and tequila in the garden.
This sense of rejuvenation is catching on. About a 20-minute drive away, local food lovers have recently staked their claim upon an empty industrial block and transformed it into a night market and performance space. Each Friday and Saturday, Night Quarter unleashes 120 stalls on its locals including cronuts, candy and cakes, occasionally delivered to you via dance.
Culture and community
In many ways, the Gold Coast has suffered in the shadow of its big brother, Brisbane. It doesn’t get as many gigs when international artists announce Australian tours. It doesn’t have the same reputation for art or theatre; the beauty of its beaches can obscure that of its community. This means you have to search a little harder for its cultural offerings, but it doesn’t make them any less appealing. In fact, they can be all the more satisfying when they’re found.
A walk down most main streets on a Friday or Saturday night will perk your ears to musicians playing at pubs, clubs and – in the case of JR’s Smokehouse – restaurants. Likewise, Night Quarter is soundtracked by a rotating schedule of local musos both on the main stage and throughout the stalls. It’s not unusual for those in these small crowds to get mid-song birthday shoutouts. Many know each other by name. It’s easy to have a chat after the show.
Throughout April, this creative hub is also a satellite of the Gold Coast Film Festival – with dozens of films airing each year, having previously welcomed guests such as Gracie Otto, David Stratton, Deborah Mailman and Claudia Karvan.
If you’re chasing an art fix, the hunt may be a little stranger. First, you’ll find yourself venturing into the backstreets of Broadbeach to find 19 Karen: an independently-owned gallery dedicated to showcasing emerging artists and tempting you with affordable works and hand-crafted jewellery. Then, among the industrial offices of Currumbin, you’ll discover Dust Temple. This large and eclectic space essentially functions as whatever local creatives need it for. It houses exhibitions, comedy, music and even slam poetry. It’s as lived-in and welcoming as your old high school art and drama rooms.
Exploring the quieter side of any popular tourist destination is always a little more difficult than the usual route. There are fewer brochures and guidebooks. You need more time – to seek out all those gems that are hidden in plain sight, relax, and ultimately, adjust to the local pace.
Of course, there are always a few things worth making the clichéd tourist effort for.
A photo posted by Meg Watson (@megelizabethgrace) on
The writer was a guest of Gold Coast Tourism.
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