When I think about holidays on the Gold Coast, it’s Wet ’n’ Wild, Sea World and Dreamworld that spring to mind. I don’t think of organic farms, night markets, world-class dining, eco tourism and pampering.
But the Gold Coast as a tourism destination – it hosts 11m visitors each year – is changing. The theme parks, the beaches, the sun ’n’ surf and the tacky souvenir shops are all still there but an explosion of hip cafes, top restaurants and farmers’ markets has added a new cool element to the old GC.
The Gold Coast is accessible from either the Brisbane (one hour by car or train) or the Gold Coast airports. Gold Coast airport is a one hour flight away from Sydney, a less-than-two hour flight from Melbourne and Canberra and two-and-a-half hours from Adelaid Thursday
1pm: chef’s selection
Our first stop is The Fish House in Burleigh Heads, a seafood restaurant that was named the second-best fine dining restaurant in Australia, according to TripAvisor
as named the second-best fine dining restaurant in Australia, according to TripAdviso.
We are seated at the front of the restaurant under the expansive open windows, which look out over a relatively empty Burleigh beach. It’s a typically relaxed beachside location but the dining experience in this top-end venue is serious business. The waiters explain in great detail how the seafood is flown in not once but twice a day to ensure freshness and they give us the rundown on the precise sourceof each scallop and oyster we are about to consume.
Restaurateur Simon Gloftis insists we have the chef’s selection ($90 per person), which includes but is not confined to Sydney rock oysters from Pambula, Pacific oysters from Blackman Bay, simple lemony fish soup, flash-fried calamari (my favourite), crustacean risotto and Patagonian toothfish with caramelised spring onion (the house speciality).
By the time we get to the very rich signature dish of toothfish, we are struggling to enjoy its strong flavour. Holidaymakers on a budget will likely give this place a miss but, if you fancy a spectacular fine dining experience with exceptional food, wine and service, this would be the place to choose.
4pm: check in at 19th Avenue on the Beach
Our two-bedroom apartment at 19th Avenue on the Beach, Palm Beach, has a large balcony, stunning views of the beach and is fully self-contained with a well-equipped kitchen, laundry and two bathrooms. The tower block is designed so every room has a view of Palm Beach and no one is facing the ugly highway at the back.
The other great thing is you really are right on the beach. We got out of the lift, walked through the gardens past the swimming pool and tennis courts right on to the beach through a private security gate. The bedrooms have enormous sliding windows so you can sleep with a sea breeze and the sound of the rolling waves. Heaven.
5pm: relaxing at the Endota spa
Endota spa in Broadbeach is located in the appropriately-named Oasis shopping centre, which is home to dozens of cool restaurants and across the road from the beach.
We are booked in for a mother and daughter organic facial. We climb a spiral staircase to a relaxation room, are asked a series of lifestyle questions by our therapists and ordered to disrobe and lie down under the big fluffy towels.
The time goes by way too fast and soon we are sitting up and being shown a customised list of all the Endota spa products we could buy if money was no option. We decide to splurge and buy one product each: an exfoliant and a mask. For $105 each for the 45-minute facial, the experience is pricey but we float out of the spa into the warm evening air feeling invigorated and determined to cleanse and moisturise every day.
7pm: traditional Japanese dinner at Etsu
Etsu restaurant, on the nondescript Gold Coast Highway at Mermaid Beach, is the next stop. It truly is a hidden gem: the wooden barn-like doorway carries no sign and is identified only by a pink paper lantern.
We cautiously slide the door open to reveal a warm, bustling izakaya bar with a giant tree branch built into a round table in the centre of the room. The walls are curved and covered in street art, and there is a long bar running down the left-hand side of the space.
Our waiter explains that Etsu Izakaya is a traditional Japanese izakaya-style of dining and the small dishes are designed to be shared. We order miso soup, tempura, agedashi tofu, sake teriyaki salmon and “omakase” sushi roll, sashimi and nigiri mix plate. For dessert we share a green tea brûlée and green tea ice cream. The dishes range between $12 and $30 and the wide variety allows you to design your own menu and price range. It’s a unique experience for a Japanese restaurant and the friendly service makes for a very pleasant evening.
9am: breakfast amid the bikes
After an early morning visit to the beach, we walk down to Espresso Moto Cafeand Bikeworks not far from the apartment. This stylish little eatery wedged between the highway and the beach is a combination of motorcycle repair shop and cafe. The walls are covered in biker memorabilia and vintage oil and petrol tins are displayed on the higher shelves.
The food is simple but delicious and fresh. Everything is house-made including the tomato sauce, aioli, preserves, relishes and chutney, onion jam and mayonnaise. The kitchen and the workshop are both open so diners can watch everything that goes on behind the scenes. Espresso Moto is famous for its Eggs Benedict so we order two of same and declare them to indeed be the best eggs benny we’ve ever had.
10am: visiting James Street
After breakfast, we head for the Gold Coast hinterland and into the Springbrook national park, which is less than an hour’s drive from Burleigh Heads.
We stop along the way to pick up a pre-ordered picnic hamper from Golosi food emporium on James Street in Burleigh Heads. James Street is a great shopping strip with a mix of upmarket boutiques and typically tourist shops. Golosi, a gourmet food and fresh flower shop, is a highlight of the strip. Shopkeepers tell us that before Golosi opened its doors it was impossible to get high-quality, imported small goods on the Gold Coast. The chef has packed a selection of specialities for our picnic: house-made dips, cheeses, olives, sun-dried tomatoes and crackers, along glasses, linen napkins and a picnic blanket.
11am: a picnic with a view
We drive out of Burleigh Heads and head for the Springbrook national park, stopping off at the “Best of All” lookout, which has been highly recommended by locals. We park alongside several other tourists who all have the same idea and set off on a 15-minute walk through ancient Antarctic beech rainforest to a platform which provides a breathtaking view across New South Wales to Mount Warning and beyond to Byron Bay.
Later we read that the rainforest we walked through is very rare and is one of our only remaining links to the ancient forests of Gondwana. It’s pretty chilly and wet in the undergrowth so take a jumper and even a raincoat to make the 30-minute round trip more comfortable.
After that we stop for a picnic at the Goomoolahra Falls picnic grounds, a delightful spot surrounded by a creek and a waterfall. The Gold Coast hinterland offers over 260km of bush walking tracks through world heritage-listed rainforest, many lined with rock pools, waterfalls and glow worms.
3pm: the sweet seclusion of the Mouses House
We check in at the Mouses House Rainforest Retreat and Wayne, the owner, hands us an iPad pre-loaded with information about the retreat and tips for bushwalking tracks nearby. Our chalet’s name is Sleepy, one of the rainforest spa and stream chalets ($295 per night), which means you have your own stream outside, just under the front porch. As you sit in the lounge room, you can hear it gently bubbling.
All of the 13 chalets are very homely and are furnished with Queensland hardwood timber furniture. You could stay a week and never see another soul because each chalet is tucked away in its own little part of rainforest and has a fully equipped kitchen, wood fireplace, barbecue and Wi-Fi. We prepare dinner from the generous food hamper which is left in the fridge and enjoy the sounds of nature all around us.
After dinner we indulge in a spa in our own tub, which looks out on to the rainforest through ceiling-to-floor windows. Only the bush turkeys can see in, we hope. A couple of the more luxurious chalets feature an outdoor spa for the more adventurous.
10am: organic products and fine dining
After an early morning bush walk, we check out of the Mouses House reluctantly and drive back to town via the Currumbin Valley. We stop in at Freeman’s Organic Farm for a coffee and some fresh produce. The family-owned farm has been going for 100 years and was once the largest commercial banana farm in Australia. Today the family grows top-shelf organic tropical fruits, bananas, vegetables and herbs.
We continue along Currumbin Creek Road for our lunch destination: the award-winning restaurant Allure on Currumbin. It’s a quiet day and there are only three other tables, all enjoying a birthday or other celebratory lunch. This is a special occasion restaurant and a favourite spot for romantic dinners. It’s situated in a shopping strip across the road from Palm Beach but inside it’s stylishly decorated and the service is charming.
We order potato gnocchi with asparagus, mushrooms and wild rocket on a beurre noisette ($34) and pan-seared crispy skin atlantic salmon with horseradish mash, sweet potato crisps and lemon beurre blanc ($39). We share a huge dessert: bittersweet Belgian chocolate marquise with cherry compote and 23-carat gold ($18). The food lives up to its reputation.
4pm: night markets at Miami
After a final trip to the beach, we stroll down to the night markets for an early dinner. Miami Marketta is a bustling street food market where you can listen to live music and try food from one of the dozens of food trucks which turn up on the weekends. On any night you may find vendors including The Hungry Belly, Cycho’s Wings, Easy Peasy Japan’easy, Good Food Catering Co, Kransky Brothers and Monkey Magic Dumplings. Started by local artists in 2011, this is a very cool addition to the Gold Coast night life and is helping to dispel the image of the Gold Coast as a boozing haven for bogans and schoolies.
8am: hotcakes and healthy food
For breakfast, we drive to the Barefoot Barista on Palm Beach Avenue, another one of the excellent local cafes with great coffee. We have ricotta hotcakes with fresh fruitand mascarpone ($16) and organic sourdough, avocado, Meredith goat cheese, organic truss tomatoes and leaves ($14). Of all the beautiful food this weekend, the hotcakes were the prettiest.
After checking out of the beach apartment, we drive north on the Gold Coast highway to Miami for a visit to the weekly organic farmers’ market. We browse the stalls, buying handmade soaps for our cat-sitter.
Our final stop is at a healthy food cafe called BSKT Cafe just off Mermaid Beach and jumping with enthusiasm. It is run by Selasi Berdie, whose philosophy is to use the best available food to fuel our bodies. But this place offers far more than brown rice and tofu. We order a protein falafel plate: falafels with chickpea and lupin served on hummus and tzatziki, rocket and harissa ($15) and Special K Salad: fresh kale, baby spinach, gluten-free croutons, soft boiled egg, topped with warm smoked trout ($18). The food is incredibly tasty and the coffee is excellent.
Forget your expectations about the Gold Coast. It is possible to enjoy the beautiful beaches and the surf lifestyle but also indulge in gourmet food,the local cafe culture and take in some of the most pristine and breathtaking natural sights in the country.