It’s fair to say the Gold Coast gets a bad rap. When I told my friends and family I was going to travel to the Gold Coast, the most common response was ‘…but why?’
The problem is that for most people the Gold Coast and Surfer’s Paradise are the same thing. It’s written off as Australia’s vodka-soaked, glow-stick waving Schoolie town. But drive even 15 minutes out of Surfers and the coast really opens up, or head away from the sea and explore the hinterland. As any Currumbin or Springbrook local will tell you, there’s more to the Gold Coast than binge drinking and Meter Maids (although Meter Maids are pretty great).
1. Burleigh Heads
I may retire here, seriously. It’s only about twenty minutes from Surfer’s Paradise, but feels more like a couple of decades away. Like coastal Queensland must have been in the 80s and 90s (although with more hipster cafes). Burleigh’s main beach is classic Gold Coast: big and broad, with squeaky soft sand and an obligatory swell of surfers paddling near the headland.
Grab some fish and chips from the surf club and laze the afternoon away, then hit up trendy James Street (pro tip: the best cafes are tucked inside the little arcade, halfway down on the left). Burleigh Heads must hold the record for the smallest National Park in the world, but it still makes a great early morning walk. There’s a coastal track that hugs the rocks near the surf, and then loops up into a steamy tropical rainforest. Think of it as Daintree-light.
2. South Stradbroke Island
Most people have heard of South Stradbroke, but most don’t know where it is (apart from, you know, just underneath North Stradbroke…wherever that is). So I was surprised to find that South Stradbroke is within striking distance of Surfer’s Paradise, in fact it’s part of Gold Coat proper.
There’s plenty of good accommodation options, including campsites and some sweet AirBnBs, and the island itself is stunning. One side is all calm waterways and mangrove forests, the inland is dense native bush, and on the other side are some of the Gold Coast’s best beaches. You’ll need to catch a ferry from the Hope Island Marina on the mainland. From there you can either hire a 4WD or get a transfer to the islands main resorts. My favourite swimming spot was South Gorge at Point Lookout, near Main Beach.
3. The Village Markets
I feel like Melbourne and Sydney are running out of ideas when it comes to craft and fashion markets. There’s only so many wooden broaches in the shape of stags and geometric prints one person can browse while drinking an overpriced ironic malt milkshake.
But Burleigh Heads’ Village Market is actually awesome. It’s all local designers, watchmakers, artists, food trucks and jewellers, the difference is they have talent. And originality. And reasonable mark-ups. If you’re staying in central Burleigh, the markets are only a five-minute walk away, north of James Street on the State School oval (just follow the crowd; the whole town seems to turn out).
It runs on the first and third Sundays of each month, from 8:30am – 1:30pm. Save some space in your luggage: I promise you will be something.
4. Springbrook National Park
Even people who think the Gold Coast is one big, sticky theme park will probably have heard of the Hinterland. It’s a series of table mountains, low ranges, national parks and plateaus, about 30 – 50 minutes’ drive inland from the coast. Springbrook National Park is my favourite part of the hinterland. It’s actually part of a UNESCO World Heritage area. You can hire a car on Surfer’s and do the Park as a day trip, but it’s worth dedicating a little more time and staying the night.
There’s The Settlement (the Park’s only dedicated camp ground), or you can shell out a little more cash and stay in one of the cute forest cottages, like Dancing Waters. For exploring, there’s Purling Brook Falls, Wunburra Lookout and the Twin Falls Circuit (locals call it ‘the best short walk in South Queensland’ – I feel that name could have had more oomph).
5. Kirra Beach
Picking the best beach on the Gold Coast is like picking which you prefer more: fun or happiness. The worst is easy so we’ll get it out of the way now: it’s Surfers. Kirra on the other hand is all class. It’s at Coolangatta, about a half hour’s drive south of the main GC drag.
Kirra is still regarded by the locals as a great surf spot, although there’s been a bit of beach erosion in recent years that have changed the swells a little. A few apartments have colonised the shore, but mostly it’s classic Old School Gold Coast: weatherboard shacks, old surf shops and cute little cafes.
The recipe for the perfect GC afternoon might go something like this: four hours tanning and ogling hot locals on Kirra Beach, followed by a seafood dinner and cold beer at the iconic Kirra Hotel. It’s been a local landmark for over 50 years, and there’s even accommodation upstairs if you decide you love the place too much to leave.