GOLD COAST, Australia — Australia has an affinity for nicknames, and Gold Coast — the country’s sixth-largest city — has many of them. In fact, “the gold coast” was once a nickname for the stretch of beach enclaves along Queensland’s southernmost coastline. It wasn’t until the 1950s that the name became official, and the area became a city. These days, people sometimes call it the Glitter Strip.
What glitters? The beaches. The aquamarine water. The shiny high-rise condos and hotels that continue to proliferate at an incredible rate.
When the Commonwealth Games start on Wednesday, they will bring massive crowds, but the Gold Coast is built for visitors. Tourism is the region’s biggest industry, and the city’s infrastructure, from its easy-to-access international airport to its convenient light rail system, caters to that industry. There is no shortage of bland but familiar luxury. If you dig a little, though, there is a lot more to the city than its glittery facade.
The Gold Coast is famous for its 43 miles of coastline, along which are some of the country’s most popular surfing beaches. If a crowded beach full of beautiful people is your scene, you cannot do better than Surfers Paradise.
For a slightly more nature-focused experience, the tiny Burleigh Head National Park offers an easy hike with stunning views. It ends at the mouth of Tallebudgera Creek, where you can swim in the calm shallow water. This area is the traditional land of the Yugambeh people, and the basalt rock formations in the park are said to be the fingers of Jabreen, a giant who was captured by the mountain.
Snaking throughout the city are more than 250 miles of canals, lined with houses, which you can explore via canal cruise or boat charter.
For the visitor who cannot leave Australia without cuddling a koala, that experience is (usually) available at the Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary, where you can also feed a crocodile and play with an echidna.
Australia’s stellar cafe culture is well represented on the Gold Coast, avocado toast and all. The Paddock Bakery, located in one of the precious few remaining old Queenslander houses, is a great place to start your day.
For later, upscale seafood options abound, and it can be hard to parse the tourist traps from the quality establishments.
The Fish House in Burleigh Heads (just a short walk from the Burleigh Head National Park) could bank on its view alone — its wide open front windows look out over the arching sweep of the coastline. It is also one of the best places in the country to sample Australia’s incredible seafood bounty, cooked simply and elegantly with a fantastic wine list to match.
At Hellenika in Nobby Beach, large pop art portraits of John Stamos and George Michael oversee the dining room, where Greek food gets the fine dining treatment. The restaurant has one of the smartest collections of Greek wine you’ll find anywhere, and slightly updated classic dishes such as dolmades made with veal and wrapped in chard, served with thick, creamy tzatziki.
For a less flashy, more intimate meal, it is worth seeking out Lupo, a relative newcomer in the corner of a Mermaid Beach strip mall. Soul music blares, overhead fans stir the air, and the burnished walls and horseshoe bar give it the feel of a vintage expat dive on some tropical island.
The food mainly comes from a wood-fired oven but there’s not a pizza in sight — instead you’ll find modern Australian combinations with rustic European underpinnings. Kingfish ceviche comes with a pea puree rather than the citrus brine it gets everywhere else, and steak tartare is reimagined as a raw steak sandwich, doused in smoky Spanish paprika.
There are some charming small towns within easy driving range, and many of them have seen an influx of wealth in recent years as affluence spills out from the Gold Coast and also Byron Bay to the south. Brunswick Heads, about an hour’s drive into New South Wales, has great vintage stores, boutiques and a riverfront park where kids, dogs and families splash in the tidal Brunswick River.
It is also home to one of the country’s most lauded new restaurants, Fleet. Reservations at Fleet are basically impossible to secure; for a far more accessible dining experience, the sprawling patio at the historic Hotel Brunswick is one of the region’s great pub experiences.
The area’s history as a hippie haven offers some unique sightseeing, such as the Crystal Castle Shambhala Gardens in the breathtakingly beautiful hinterlands above Byron Bay. The gardens are home to some of the biggest crystals in the world, and aura readings (and aura photographs) are available. On your way back down the hill, stop by Federal Doma Cafe in Federal for fantastic Japanese/Australian cafe food.
There’s plenty for adventure-seekers nearby, including a ropes course and zip line parks, the largest of which is in Mount Tamborine, a little less than an hour northwest of the Gold Coast. Tree Top Challenge also has a smaller course inside the Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary, but the original Mount Tamborine park has six courses spread over nine acres of forest, with about 100 challenges and 11 zip lines.
The surrounding area offers multiple natural attractions, including Springbrook National Park’s Natural Bridge waterfall, which at night is lit by glow worms, fireflies and luminous fungi.
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