You tend to get a feel for a place long before you go anywhere near it. Its reputation precedes it, or you read the guide book, or certain kinds of people talk about it in a certain kind of way, and you just know that it is probably, or almost definitely is not, your kind of place.
So it was with the Sunshine and Gold coasts of Queensland. The Gold Coast has always said to me lively seniors and active, sun-kissed retirement; purpose-built 'residential resorts' and 'harbourside villages'; high-rise blocks; busy, samey, lowest-common-denominator main drags; flashy bling and glitzy glam; great beaches but Torremolinos-type development at their backs; surfer dudes and schoolies*; lots of sun but lots of people; fast-food chains and brash, loud watering holes; theme parks; somewhere you pass by on the way to better things, namely Byron Bay.
The Sunshine Coast, on the other hand, is synonymous with classier, simpler seaside pleasures; families whiling away school holidays; smaller, leafier settlements; smart restaurants and stylish boutique shopping and 'caffe-latte chic', whatever that is; coastal national park walks and near-perfect beaches; council restrictions on high-rise development and Maccy D's; somewhere on the way to fabulous Far North Queensland.
So, until recently, I've gravitated towards Sunshine and sped past Gold. I have, however, talked to people who claim there are nice bits of the GC... as well as explaining that 'It's hot in Brisbane but it's Coolangatta'**. I decided it was time to get a grip on the Gold Coast.
We were headed for Byron but turned off the Pacific Motorway for Southport and followed the coastal Gold Coast Highway as far as Tweed Heads. I think, however, we might have missed the nicest, northernmost reaches of the GC: across The Broadwater estuary from Southport is the 3km Spit. The ocean side of this – access via Main Beach, complete with customary high-rises – I think may consist of unspoilt beach, backed by bush and pounded by surf. We'll have to go back another time.
Our first foray on to the shore held no surprises – where sand meets concrete – except that it all looked a bit surreal after the superb forest-backed beaches we've got used to discovering since we've been here.
As it was, I hardly noticed where Southport became Surfers Paradise (on-the-nail Aussie place-naming once again). There were 'improvements' being carried out loudly along the Esplanade, and our search for a decent coffee in a pleasant location proved a bit of a challenge. We were in Surfers to look down on the Gold Coast from on high – the observation deck of the Q1 'resort and spa' (below), which is in fact a 500+ apartment block.
Opened in 2005, after three years' construction, Q1 is 322.5 metres high and claims to be the 25th tallest building in the world (and the tallest apartment block). The spire is almost 98 metres tall and there are 18,926 panes of glass. The observation deck, on level 77 – via a 42.7-second lift ride during which you can see where you're headed through the ceiling – offers a 360-degree view of coast and hinterland – and it is impressive, even if you have to photograph through glass.
You have to pay for the privilege, of course: $21 for an adult; $12.50 for a child. OK, I suppose someone has to make money out of me while I view, but what I really objected to was having to wait to be shepherded into the lift by a sickly-smiley person and have the button pressed for me, and the inevitable photographer shoving his equipment in my face as SkyPoint tried to make even more money out of us.
The surprise from up there was that Surfers' high-rise overdevelopment is limited to such a narrow strip immediately behind the beach, beyond which are waterways and low-rises in green surroundings stretching into the hinterland.
For something a little more upmarket, and green betwixt beach and concrete, drop south a few kilometres to Broadbeach. We had to press on further, to Corrumbin, a relatively quiet little place that had been recommended for its beach. We nearly detoured via Burleigh Heads, and probably should have (here there is actually national park by the sea, on Burleigh Head itself), but you can't do it all, so there are another couple of names on the to-do list for the next trip. This was, after all, merely a whistle-stop taster. Corrumbin does indeed have lovely fine golden sand but... nothing is ever far from built-up-world on this stretch of coast, and I prefer far-from-the-madding. From Corrumbin we could look back to the blue Surfers skyline... which was striking in its own way.
And then on to Coolangatta, another sleepy-compared-to-Surfers southeastern resort that is a conjoined twin of Tweed Heads, each sitting either side of the Queensland/New South Wales border. The state line extends to Point Danger, the wonderfully named but rather less than dramatically conspicuous headland identified by Captain Cook, who came close in 1770 to anticipating the calamitous reef experience he had a month later off Cape Tribulation.
The large concrete pillars standing guard on the headland support what is in fact Point Danger Lighthouse, and they enclose a memorial to Captain Cook chronicling his voyages as well as the state line. We did what tourists do and stood with a foot in each state, and I will break with tradition in order to show you how much fun this can be (below), and to prove that there are no gun-toting border guards here to prevent people with bananas escaping from Queensland – as an Aussie friend of mine had one of her more gullible guests believe. You can see in the New Year twice here, of course, since New South Wales has daylight saving time while Queensland does not.
The memorial includes a detailed discussion about whether or not today's Point Danger is the Point Danger to which Cook referred in his log. Did he really mean what is now Fingal Head, south of the border: and will we ever know? I have noticed this phenomenon before in Australian historical accounts. In Brisbane there is a granite obelisk at North Quay in the CBD commemorating where John Oxley stepped ashore in 1824 and proclaimed a settlement on the banks of the Brisbane River. But the historical accuracy of this spot is hotly disputed.
Surfers love the southern end of the Gold Coast, too. To the south, Point Danger Lighthouse overlooks Duranbah Beach –
D-bah to the locals and very popular with surfies – and the Tweed River mouth.
With a final look back and déja vu (below), we headed off south of the border.
If you are after Gold Coast action, then I probably haven't been much help. I can't tell you about Sea World, Dreamworld, Whitewater World, Movie World, Wet 'n' Wild, Adrenalin Park or the Australian Outback Spectacular; or mud-crab cruising, canal cruising, kayaking to South Stradbroke Island or extreme speedboating; or ballooning, helicopter flights, skydiving or bungee jumping; or surf coaching, kite-boarding, wake-boarding, water-skiing or diving; or entertainment and nightlife, or gambling in the casino. All of which you can experience if you had longer on the Gold Coast than I did and you have the inclination... and the money.
I didn't even go to Corrumbin Wildlife Sanctuary, which is much more my cup of tea, I think. But I had got the flavour of the Gold Coast... and I will be back.
* high-school graduates taking a celebratory break after final exams
** 1950s song that I believe is along the same lines as 'What did Delaware, boys?'