Road Trips: Top things to see and do in Gold Coast, Australia
As my sons skipped through the surf, playing tag with the waves at Currumbin Beach, I sighed. This was the Australia I had been searching for.
I spent just about two weeks down under in June and July with my wife and two sons to run the Gold Coast Marathon with Team Diabetes Canada. After a few days in Sydney, we popped up to Gold Coast, about an hour south of Brisbane, to get ready for the race and to explore some more. We hunted platypus, tried our hand at flying, ate kangaroo, threw boomerangs, kissed koalas, and ran on the beach.
Goldie, as a friend who grew up in the area calls it, grabbed my heart on our last day as I watched my sons laugh and race. I reflected back on our two weeks of adventures and vowed to come back.
Gold Coast is to Australia as California is to North America. The weather is warm year round, there’s an ocean playground and your feet, and much infrastructure has been built up to entertain families at numerous theme parks (like Movie World, Dreamworld, Sea World, and White Water World).
There’s a convention centre, a huge shopping mall, a casino, easy-to-use transit, and much development as Gold Coast gets ready to host the Commonwealth Games in 2018.
Top of the Gold Coast
Your first stop once you get settled in, should be to head to the top of the town. The stretch of towers in Gold Coast gives it a Gotham-esque skyline. Q1 is the tallest of them all with 78 floors stretching 323 metres. It’s only tallest for now – 85, 89, and 104 floor towers are in the planning stages or currently under construction.
After grabbing your tickets, the elevator whisks you to the top of Skypoint, where, if you have extra courage, you can wander outside to a height of 270 metres on the Skypoint Climb, Australia’s highest outdoor climb.
We chose to stay inside on our visit and order some drinks and snacks from the Seventy7 Cafe + Bar. Time your visit for late afternoon, and it’s the perfect place to have tiers of sandwiches and desserts for a truly ‘high’ tea. As you look north from the observation deck, you’ll be staring at Peppers, the very tall tower just a few blocks away.
The penthouse there goes for over $1,300 a night and is where Taylor Swift and boyfriend(?) Tom Hiddleston stayed on a July 2016 visit.
Once back down at sea level, we crossed the street from Q1 to go for a flying lesson at iFLY Down Under.
It’s called indoor skydiving, but really, this is flying. A massive, windowed fan sits in the middle of a large lounge with people relaxed on pillows and couches. Every 30 minutes or so, another group of eight people in flight suits take turns jumping on the fan and flying.
The instructors are amazingly acrobatic as they take turns rising and falling on the wind, performing flips and then catching their fall, arms spread out. It’s a gravity defying feat that had our adrenaline pumping.
A word of warning: pay attention to the waiver questions. The pressure the wind puts on your shoulders is immense and, since I had dislocated my shoulder as a high school wrestler, I was at risk of re-injury. I told the flying instructors of my condition, and they were prepared to pull me out just 10 seconds into my flight time when my left arm buckled.
After all the stunting at Skypoint and iFLY, it’s time to keep your feet on the ground and wander over to the centre of Surfers Paradise. Here, a pedestrian mall stretches the blocks between the Surfers Paradise beach and the meandering Narang River.
Where to wander and what to eat
This is a tourist-y destination with lots of shopping, a movie theatre, many restaurants, and street performers. If you wander on a Wednesday, Friday, or Sunday evening, you’ll also get a chance to see the Beachfront Night Market with stalls selling local crafts, trinkets, and baked goods. Don’t forget to pose for a photo with the Surfers Paradise sign!
Your best bet for something to eat in this area is Seascape. You can choose from a casual bar atmosphere, or head upstairs to their finer dining side. Both restaurants offer great beach views.
If a long list of local beer and a kangaroo burger (you read that correctly) is on your bucket list, go around the corner to House of Brews. Just as ski resorts in Canada seem to teem with Australians, you can find pockets of Canadians down under – one of them is House of Brews. You might feel guilty stiffing your countrymen after the meal, but tipping isn’t customary in Australia. You likely won’t have much spare change anyway as menu prices are nearly double what you’re used to.
The menu item you need to seek out in Gold Coast is Moreton Bay bugs. Formally known as bay lobster, these crustaceans have a fanned out appearance, like a SCUBA flipper. Moreton Bay is just off Brisbane and these delicate little ‘bugs’ are just as delicious as they are ugly.
A more casual place to get a seafood fix is at Peters Fish Market between Marina Mirage and Seaworld. Located just steps from the Gold Coast Fishermen’s Co-Op (where you can buy off the boat), Peters has a dozen bins filled with ice and fresh catches lying on top. From crab to cod, bugs to barramundi, each item has a take away, and eat right away price.
You can bag it up to bring home, or pick want you want and have it prepared right there.
I quickly filled a bag with bugs, ordered a fish and chips for my son, and he teased the pelicans out back while I enjoyed my favourite meal in Gold Coast.
The Marina Mirage area has a number of restaurants on the water and is where you’re most likely to grab a boat if you wanted to head out whale watching. You’ll also find the kiosk for Duffy Down Under here.
The other side of the Gold Coast, on the river
Duffy electric boats are easy to operate, you don’t need a license, and can be hired to self-drive around you and a dozen friends, or come complete with a captain to take you on a tour to point out the sights (that’s Jackie Chan’s house in the bottom right) while you relax with snacks and bubbly.
The area behind Surfers Paradise is the Nerang River. It has been carved into dozens of lagoons and canals to accommodate gorgeous waterfront homes and restaurant patios. Our evening cruise with Duffy Down Under owner Nitsa (above bottom left) was wonderful. The next morning we came back and did it again, under our own power.
Stand-up paddle boarding off of Budd’s Beach is a great way to start any day on your vacation. The water is calm, the river is quiet, and Go Vertical‘s lessons got our entire family of rookies on boards without falling in the water!
After the paddle, be sure to grab a snack from Bumbles Cafe right across the street. This old house (that was once a brothel) is now home to a wonderfully quaint cafe famous for their cakes.
Spend a day away from the water
After taking a couple of days to explore the water side of Surfers area, we were ready to hit the mountains. Mount Tamborine and Lamington National Park are just an hour west of Gold Coast and offer an entirely different Australian landscape – lush rain forests.
Southern Cross Day Tours picked us up at our hotel early one morning in an 18 seat Mercedes touring van, not the sort of vehicle you’d expect to be taking on a 4×4 ride up the side of a mountain, but it was.
After picking up all our crew from assorted hotels, this big van went up steep climbs, gutted roads, and huge rocks. The 20 minute ascent was a rough and tumble roller coaster ride. We kept our eyes peeled for wallabies, koalas, and kangaroos, but none were spied on our wet Wednesday ride.
Once at the top, we pulled in to Eagle Heights to stretch our legs for a wander of this small tourist with restaurants, distilleries, winemakers, and a bizarrely fascinating cuckoo clock shop. You can use this spot as a launching point to glow worm caves or a treetop skywalk. Our excursion headed for Curtis Falls.
It was a wet, but easy walk through the rainforest for our group. A walk, not a hike, but learning about the local flora and fauna from our guide was interesting as we were sure to keep our hands close tight lest we touch the wrong plant or run into the bite of a spider.
Back into the van we headed out to a genuine working Australian ranch for a barbecue lunch. If you haven’t yet sampled kangaroo on your Australian adventure, now’s your chance as a tray of kanga bangas (kangaroo sausages) sat waiting at the buffet.
Yes, kangaroos are cute, but they are also tasty. Roos run wild in Australia the same way we’d find deer in North America. Throughout our adventure up Tamborine we saw wallabies (a smaller marsupial I often confused with kangaroos) and kangaroos hopping through the forests and farms.
After a while the enthusiasm of seeing a troop of roos waned, and with it my appetite to try the spicy, lean sausage.
Also at lunch we had time for some boomerang lessons. A number of Southern Cross 4×4 vans gather at the ranch at the same time, so the guides take turns throwing the boomerangs and teaching everyone how to toss it.
This was my son’s #1 bucket list item. He saved his spending money for the second to last day of our trip just so he could buy a boomerang. He’s still not quite an extra thrower, but he loved getting his outback on.
After lunch we headed up the very windy road through Lamington National Park to O’Reilly’s. It is a very, very, very, very winding road.
O’Reilly’s Rainforest Retreat is an interesting anomaly in Australian history. It is a nearly perfect square piece of property that is completed surrounded by Lamington National Park. The story of the how this came to be spans nearly a century long long fascinating tale of family ingenuity, government missteps, plane crashes, rescues, and ultimate fortune. The drive up the twists and turns takes nearly an hour leaving plenty of time for the story.
Once you get to the top you can wander the treetops of the rainforest in the National Park, and cross the road to feed some parrots. You need to cross the road to do this. Feeding the birds isn’t allowed in the park, but O’Reilly’s doesn’t mind. King parrots, lorikeets, and more will readily climb all over you to get at a tray of seed.
The views from Lamington and Tamborine are usually epic – except on cloudy days. The above left shows our view at one of the many pullouts our guide stopped at trying, in vain, to get us a peek at the vastness of the region.
No such luck for us.
Koalas, kangaroos, and emus! Oh my!
No trip to Australia is complete without cuddling a koala, watching wombats, feeding kangaroos, or petting a platypus. Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary can make almost all of that happen.
When you first enter the park, you’re greeted by a koala. Here you can hold one and get your photo taken checking off the bucket list before you even get started. Inside Currumbin, you can visit the animal hospital to see how they rehab injured animals, learn about aboriginal culture, and get very, very close to many marsupials.
You can hold an alligator, feed lorikeets, stare at emus, and wander among the wallabies.
The large field in the middle of Currumbin where the wallabies and kangaroos lounge by a creek is spectacular. Drop some coins to get some pellet feed, and then get as close as you want. The animals relax in the sun, maybe come over for a sniff, and just mill about casually. It was magical.
The one thing you can’t do at Currumbin is see a platypus. Along with throwing a boomerang, seeing a platypus was a must for our family’s trip. The only place on Gold Coast with platypus is David Fleay Wildlife Park a few kilometres north of Currumbin.
In 1943 Dr David Fleay was the first to breed platypus in captivity and his research into the curious duck-billed, beaver-tailed, egg-laying mammal is renowned. So its fitting his wildlife park (which also has koala, dingoes, kangaroos, and more) would be the place to find platypus.
All the boxes checked on our adventure, we made our way back to Currumbin Beach for a meal at the Currumbin Beach Surf Club. My wife and I soaked up the sun and view while my boys begged for one last run in the ocean before going home.
We picked our way through the rocks down to the beach, and let them loose.
My sons were just getting their ankles wet in the ocean, July in Australia is winter after all, so they wouldn’t dive completely in. And that was the metaphor for our trip. We dipped a toe in, next time we’re going in head first.
What you need to know
When to go: You’re traveling to the southern hemisphere, so remember the seasons are opposite. Summers in Queensland (December to February) can get roasting hot, while winter (June to August) has more comfortable temperatures in around around 20 degrees. Think the kind of weather you’d find in California and you’ve got an idea of what it’s like.
How to get there: Non-stop flights to Brisbane out of Vancouver on Air Canada were launched this year. Once you land in Brisbane, you can take a 90-minute train south to Gold Coast. New train line extensions will be coming on in the next year to better connect the 2018 Commonwealth Games host with the BNE airport. If you’re coming via other destinations, look for flights directly into Gold Coast’s International Airport.
Where to stay: Gold Coast is a popular destination for Australian travelers to escape for some domestic sunshine in the winter. The entire strip is filled with hotels, resorts, and vacation rentals. Paradise Resort has a kids’ club and an ice rink on their property. The Surfers Paradise Marriott Resort and Spa offers higher end accommodations with a manufactured beach and lagoon (complete with fish to spy while snorkeling). You could also choose a an apartment to rent near the beach, like at Capricorn One, so you can cook your own meals and still have easy access to all amenities.
Trip planning resources: Gold Coast includes areas of beaches, mountains, amusement parks, and more. Visit Gold Coast offers great ideas, itineraries, and more tips to get the most of your vacation down under.
If you’re thinking about adding on a visit to the Great Barrier Reef, you’ll need to head north of Brisbane to get access. Tourism Queensland can help you plan that part of your vacation.
If a visit to Uluru (Ayers Rock) is on your bucket list, it is a three hour flight from Brisbane to Alice Springs, and then a six hour bus ride to Uluru in the Northern Territory.
Disclaimer: Some of the author’s excursions were done in partnership with Visit Gold Coast.