Endless sandy beaches, off-beat culture, tropical rainforests and a Wonder of the World...Queensland has it all, says Richard McComb.
It may be the best Antipodean antidote for intercontinental jet-lag.
The cure includes blazing sunshine (pretty much guaranteed around here), ice-cool stubbies (ditto), a yacht – and WAGS.
We touched down in Brisbane, Queensland, just a few hours before, grabbed a couple of hours’ kip and then made our way groggily to the coast, pitching up at the sedate, suburban playground of Manly. We were warmly welcomed by the sea dogs of the Royal Queensland Yacht Squadron for the aforementioned WAGS, which mercifully has nothing to do with footballers’ wives and girlfriends. Here, WAGS means “Wednesday Afternoon Go Sailing” and, by golly, a blast on the Pacific Ocean blows away the time-zone cobwebs.
WAGS was started by the squadron in 1978 with a simple aim: to have fun instead of working. It’s a great life philosophy. Why varnish your yacht when you can race round Green Island with a bunch of mates and “frenemies” and then sink a few beers? Up to 40 vessels, including 60-footers, line up for the weekly bluewater races and visitors are welcome to hop on board. If you’ve got crewing experience, you can help out; if you’re a Pommie land-lubber or one of the many backpackers drawn here, you can just sit back and enjoy the two-hour white-knuckle ride.
I joined a local surgeon, who has circumnavigated the globe. We didn’t win the race but it was a thrilling experience and a great introduction to Queensland’s trademark hospitality, especially the cool drinks we sank along with crackers dunked in beetroot dip (they love beetroot here).
Manly, on the edge of beautiful Moreton Bay, is a suburb of Brisbane, the capital of Queensland. Brisbane is by far the biggest conurbation in Australia’s Sunshine State. Queensland may be the second largest state in Australia, about seven times the size of Britain, but it has a population of only 4.5 million. Just under half of those live in Brisbane.
WAGS, it needs saying, is free to attend and there is no charge to use Brisbane Greeters, one of the best city guide schemes in either hemisphere. Lone travellers, families or groups get a personalised tour of the city’s many attractions from a passionate local guide. We were taken under the wing of cheery Teena Royle, who claimed she was in her 70s but stepped out like a teenager.
The great thing about the greeters programme is that newcomers get a terrific insight in just a few hours. Teena ran our morning tour with Germanic efficiency and a warm Aussie smile, whisking us around Brisbane on the fabulous Citycat water bus network and highlighting points of cultural and historic interest. Our tour took in New Farm Park, the Powerhouse (a lively arts centre at a former art deco-style industrial plant), the Botanic Gardens, the authentic beach on the river and the marvellous Gallery of Modern Art, the largest of its type in Australia, where we got a sneak preview of a new indigenous art exhibition.
Once you’ve done the cultural side of Brisbane (the dining, too, is fabulous – see the link below), you’d be missing out if you didn’t do brash Queensland. And it doesn’t come much brasher than the Gold Coast, to the south of the city.
Surfers Paradise, as its name suggests, is home to some of the world’s best surfing beaches, its endless ribbon of wave-pounded white sand backed by glitzy high-rise buildings and low-slung bars that create the atmosphere of a cocktail-fuelled Party Central. To some it’s trashy; to others it’s, well, paradise. Meter Maids, clad in gold Lycra bikinis, patrol the streets. Their job description specifies “good attitude, pleasant manner and a hot body.”
For an unbeatable view of the strip, we were whizzed to the top of SkyPoint atop the neck-craning Q1 Building, taking 43 seconds to climb 230 metres in one of the world’s quickest lifts. From the 77th floor, we watched sunset, sipping a cocktail, obviously.
For hedonistic overkill, the Palazzo Versace is the only game in town for a super-bling designer stopover. The hotel is 100 metres from the Pacific Ocean, a mile or so north of Surfers Paradise, and is best-known for its starring role in ITV’s I’m A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! It’s where the “stars” stay before heading into the rainforest and it’s not difficult to see why most contestants aren’t that bothered by an early ejection from the jungle. I kicked back in a deluxe lagoon room of the type frequented by John (Johnny Rotten) Lydon.
The bedrooms are very comfortable, with wonderfully OTT bathing areas including pampering Versace grooming products. For a payment, the hotel will draw your bath, drizzle it with Versace oil and bring you a flute of Versace Champagne. Versace is everywhere, from the statement designs, rich, sometimes blinding, colours, opulent interiors and the pervasive scent. But that’s kind of the point. This place is, after all, known as the Gold Coast.
To escape the paparazzi, I flaked out by the hotel’s elegant pool, where beauty therapies are offered in tented areas on white padded loungers. There are three restaurants, as well as dining in the lobby lounge. We took dinner in Vie Bar and Restaurant and I had to have the jumbo-sized king prawns from the trawler C-Titan that draws up in the marina overlooking from the terrace. Add grilled lime, tartare sauce and soy lime dressing for one happy boy.
It’s not all in-your-face bling on the Gold Coast, though, and Black Coffee Lyrics, a cool bar and cafe, provides an insight into the alternative indie culture that lurks just off Surfers Paradise Boulevard. The coffee martinis here are outstanding. Elsewhere, Rabbit + Cocoon, a creative industries hub in the Miami district, plays host to a number of artists, photographers and a rock music studio. For a great “bare all” overview of the area’s thriving sub-culture check out the Naked City Guide.
The third base for our stay in Queensland was way up in the tropical north. For me, this was the most stunning part of the trip, featuring the ancient Daintree Rainforest, the lush, temperate Atherton Tablelands, the Outback and the Great Barrier Reef. It’s overwhelming to think there is all of this, plus everything we had visited up to this point, in Queensland alone. And there is so much more we didn’t have time for, like the Whitsundays.
Just outside Port Douglas, north of Cairns, an indigenous guide from Kuku Yalanji took us on a walk through pristine rainforests at the beautiful Mossman Gorge. The tour, which highlights natural history, wildlife and indigenous lifestyles, ended with mugs of strong tea, brewed over a smoky fire, and slices of jam and damper, a traditional bread made without yeast.
The natural world is in rich abundance around Port Douglas. After the hills, we headed to the beach for a tour of the mangroves with the Kubirri Warra brothers. Linc and Brandon arm visitors with spears and provide a quick demo in catching crabs and fish. We saw armies of tiny blue crabs moving en masse like a luminous, shifting carpet. There were millions of them.