From the passenger seat in a small helicopter lifting off from Sea World’s heliport, sunlight reflects off the startlingly vivid Pacific. From my bird’s-eye view next to the pilot and as the small craft hovers against a cerulean sky, I can see all that glitters actually is gold on Australia’s Gold Coast, from the exquisitely clear water with its surface shimmering like scads of diamonds, to splashes of sun mirroring off windows of the towering hotels, and to the greenery of the faraway mountains and bush.
The ambiance of the iconic, warm Gold Coast, in the far southeastern corner of Queensland about an hour’s drive from Brisbane, is welcoming, relaxing, bright, and for a beach destination, sophisticated. The spectacular beaches, harmonized by bursts of kaleidoscopic aquamarine, emerald and turquoise hues of the ocean, are the star attractions of Gold Coast and lined with a tumble of those glitzy sky-high hotels.
The coastline of Queensland’s Gold Coast, wedged on the Pacific between the Coral and Tasman seas, meanders for some 40 miles through the Northern, Central, Southern and Hinterland regions and through dozens of suburbs strung like a cluster of pearls against the shore, among them Northcliffe, Mermaid Beach, Broadbeach, Burleigh Beach, Surfers Paradise, Coombabah, Coolangatta, Springbrook and Wongawollan.
Besides those swanky hotels and condominiums that add that certain sense of urbanity and those endless chances to test swimming, snorkeling, diving and surfing skills, Gold Coast is buoyed by a treasure trove of things to do, places to sample authentic Australian cuisine and opportunities to absorb the local culture. It’s an idyllic destination for a honeymoon or romantic getaway, family trip, nature and adventure escape or a simple beach retreat. Plus, Gold Coast boasts some 250 miles of serpentine canals, more than Venice, with plenty of hop-on, hop-off ferries and water taxis to traverse the waterways from one place to another.
Must see and do in Gold Coast
Our group, a small band of American ladies traveling together, wants to experience Australia’s bush, the green behind the gold, so to speak, so we take off on a half-day van tour with Southern Cross Tours to Natural Bridge and Springbrook National Park, passing by high cliffs, the most verdant of pastures and rain forests, ancient trees, lookouts with incredible views and even a 23 million-year-old volcano.
Along the way, we try in vain to spot koalas and kangaroos but, most of all, the elusive platypus, the little creature that looks as if it’s made from zoological spare parts, including a duck-like bill, a beaver-like tail and otter-like paws. Our guide, Trent, explains that he has seen only one in the wild in his lifetime, in a creek near his home, but still that didn’t curb our enthusiasm to actually find one.
Despite our best efforts, we find no platypus, but we do get a glimpse of a padymelon, pronounced “patty-melon,” a diminutive marsupial that’s a cousin to kangaroos and wallabies, plenty of beautiful and graceful magpies with the black and white plumage, and a lyrebird, with its harp-like tail and expressive high voice that naturalist Sir David Attenborough calls the “most elaborate and most complex” birdsong in the world.
We also absorbed the culture of Australia by osmosis at Home of the Arts, a busy arts precinct and set of regional galleries that is among the first in Australia to have an AAA star rating. The quick summary of HOTA, pronounced hot-a, is that it seamlessly melds together visual and performing arts in six levels that hold more than 35,000 pieces of art ranging from regional to international. Toss in theaters, cinemas, a lawn bar, dance showcases, live music, museum shops and artists’ studios, so in essence HOTA is a destination unto itself.
Plan to spend at least a day in this complex that is painted on the outside as brightly colored as a butterfly’s wings. Sample local cocktails and gastronomy (think: lobster and beef) at HOTA’s very own Palette Restaurant, HOTA Café or rooftop Exhibitionist Bar.
Our other must-do is the Jellurgal Cultural Center’s “walkabout tour” at Burleigh Headland National Park. The tour, which traipses along the water of the renowned Burleigh Headland, is the perfect opportunity to learn about aboriginal history and culture in a dazzlingly vivid boardwalk display.
Culturally significant sites and sacred lands are found all up and down the Gold Coast, and Jellurgal, also known as Dreaming Mountain, highlights the Yugambeha Aboriginal people, significantly one of the oldest living cultures not only in Australia, but also in the world. During the walkabout, a knowledgeable guide uncovers facets of traditional life, ways of fishing and hunting, and important ecological practices and connections to the land.
Paddleboarding yoga is a thing in Gold Coast, and for the first time in my life, I want to try it. Off I go with Pure Aloha out into Tallebudgera Creek, one of the Gold Coast’s many small creeks leading out into the ocean. The day is windy and cool, so I have no desire teeter off and end up in a cold dunk. What do I do? Chicken out. But my instructor merely laughs and tells me to climb aboard, that she would pull me behind her paddleboard. Picture it. A slightly overweight Southern-speaking big blonde being pulled around in the calm, shallow water by a svelte, gorgeous yoga instructor. A hundred 12- and 13-year-olds on a nature outing are nearby, and I’m not sure who laughs the most, the kids or me.
While there are tons of opportunities of activities — theme parks, breweries and wineries, arts and crafts and farmers markets, shopping, scenic helicoptering and hot air ballooning — don’t miss the chance to see the wildlife. Look for capybaras, koalas and lorikeets at Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary in Currumbin, humpback whales on a cruise along the Humpback Highway from Antarctica to Queensland, bilbies and platypuses at David Fleay Wildlife Park in Burleigh Heads or, especially for the kids, the glow worm caves at North Tamborine or Natural Bridge.
Where to eat
Fresh seafood coupled with fabulous surf, sand and sunsets are the order of the day along the Gold Coast. A place our group enjoys for a combination of it all is the Tropic Café in Burleigh Heads. As we dine on buttery, garlicky prawns paired with spice bread and a very nice Chablis, we marvel as much at the view of the water as the food. Local beef, chicken and lamb are also on the menu.
For a fancier meal, we also dine at Yamagen at QT Gold Coast in Surfers Paradise, our hotel for the journey. Most of the group chooses a tasting menu, starting with salted edamame, highlighted with piquant crab, truffle wagyu tartare, spicy popcorn prawns, and local haloumi cheese. I select crispy pork belly with nashi pear, wasabi, watermelon radish and smoked vinegar, flavors that send my tastebuds into gastronomical orbit.
I can also recommend Hyde Paradiso in Surfers Paradise for breakfast, lunch or dinner, with the must-tries of spice glazed chicken, kingfish tacos or crisp eggplant wafers with smoked tomato. Also check out Coast Beach Bar and Kitchen that’s known for its premium steaks of t-bone and filets seared in a charcoal oven. Another is Three Little Pigs in North Tamborine with local meats and cheeses, but try the Oink and Surf, pork belly with prawns or calamari.
Where to sleep
At the QT Gold Coast, the views end only with the curvature of the earth. The rooms, so comfortable and appealing, are colorfully decorated and elegant, but the grand touch is the Dyson hairdryers and accessories in the oversize bathrooms. Breakfast at QT’s restaurant Bazaar is somewhat fancy, and we love the allure of Yamagen.
One of the newest offerings in Surfers Paradise is the lavish Langham, where we sample the high tea with pastries that are almost too pretty to eat. The Langham, which also has residences, is three towers of shimmering glass rising against the backdrop of the ocean. It is a beautiful hotel with a lobby of lights, white furnishings and glass. The swim-up bar, also overlooking the ocean, is a special treat.
If you’re a fan of resort hotels with a U.S. connection, the Sheraton Grand Mirage Resort is on Main Beach, with the JW Marriott Gold Coast Resort and Spa at Surfers Paradise. Charming smaller boutique hotels dot the Gold Coast, too, including the flamingo-hued Pink Hotel in Coolangatta and the LaCosta Motel in Bilinga for a beach shack vibe.
The last word
Don’t think of Gold Coast as the Australian version of Palm Springs, Miami Beach or Costa del Sol, because it definitely is not. Despite its bright lights and big city atmosphere, the soul of Gold Coast is its deep-down serenity and unhurried pace. There are no worries here, so unroll the beach towel, walk the soft sands and completely relax in this down under wonder.