At the start of our tour on Queensland’s Great Sunshine Way I woke early to the gentle lapping of the waves and the sun rising over the water near our beachside accommodation at the Kirra Beach Tourist Park.
Nestling with a coffee, my deck chair right amongst the sand dunes, I watched the sweeping views of the coastline as the sun turned the horizon into a canvas of brilliant orange hues – perfection! This really is the ‘Gold’ Coast, as rich in natural beauty as in the golden memories it implants.
It’s also the start of more than 600km of unbeatable Queensland surf beaches and a stunning coastline that stretches from Coolangatta to the final surfing Town of 1770, an hour’s drive north of Bundaberg. On this trip, I was to discover that the world’s best beaches are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to experiencing Queensland’s Great Sunshine Way.
A thrilling way to get a quick snapshot of the Gold Coast in its full glory is from the sky in a private scenic helicopter flight. I had never been in a helicopter before our aerial tour but our jovial Gold Coast Helicopter pilot ‘Stretch’ soon put us at ease.
The day was so clear that we could see holiday-makers sunning themselves on the balconies of the skyscraping towers, beachgoers splashing about in the surf and all the way to hills of the hinterland. We were snapped out of our sightseeing revelry when Stretch told us he was going to turn and follow a pod of dolphins he had just spotted. As our stomachs dropped we hurtled through the air! I counted at least a dozen dolphins frolicking in the crystal-clear ocean below.
Leaving the coastline and the chopper behind, we set off for the hills into the heart of the Gold Coast hinterland and to O’Reilly’s Rainforest Guesthouse. Surrounded by the World Heritage-listed Lamington National Park, O’Reilly’s is a family-run business and guesthouse that has been welcoming visitors for more than 80 years. It must be suitably idyllic, given third generation O’Reilly’s still work there today.
The key attraction, aside from feeding the wild birds and polishing off a scrumptious Devonshire tea, is the Treetops walk, the first of its kind in the world. Get a bird’s eye view of the rainforest’s canopy on this 180m walk which includes nine bridges suspended mid-air, up to 15m high in some parts.
Putting the ‘Goldie’ – as it’s affectionately called – in the rear view mirror, we headed north for the Sunshine Coast, zipping past the amazing Glass House Mountains. These 20 million-year-old volcanic plugs are a magnet to abseilers and rock climbers, but equally, the beauty of the region attracts those happy to sit back under the shade of the van’s awning and soak up the serenity.
Covering the family-friendly areas of Caloundra in the south (little over an hour’s drive from Brisbane CBD), Maroochydore and Mooloolaba, through to Coolum, Noosa and up to Gympie and the Cooloola Coast, the Sunshine Coast also takes in the hinterland areas of the Glass House Mountains, the Blackall Range, Noosa Hinterland and Eumundi and the Mary Valley.
At Caloundra, the ‘big three’ beaches – Kings, Bulcock and Golden – are all family favourites; patrolled and usually very safe, Kings Beach in particular is equipped with a 25m seawater lap pool and kids swimming and wading area. It’s also the closest point to the Pumicestone Passage, where water sports and fishing don’t come any better.
Cruises are an easy way to esplore the Passage and depart from Golden Beach for Bribie Island, where guests are enticed to relax in deck chairs under beach umbrellas and enjoy a seafood lunch. You can also work up an appetite on the guided island nature walk, boom netting or on the motorised aqua scooter.
Further north, Mooloolaba is a vibrant beachfront resort town and the four-level interactive Underwater World a aquatic attraction. You can just look – through the transparent Oceanaruim tunnel – or get up close and personal with the marine life in a dive (that’s a dive with the sharks, by the way)
Continuing up the coast the surf-lined David Low Way to Noosa is one of the most under-rated scenic drives in the land, passing the village of Peregian, with its array of fabulous cafes and bakeries, the dog friendly Marcus Beach, Castaways, Sunrise and Sunshine – all great surfing beaches, but not all of them patrolled. The end goal is Noosa, with its postcard perfect Main Beach on the doorstep of restaurants and cafes along Hastings Street and box-office views of the surf.
Hervey Bay, to the north of the Sunshine Coast, is still one of the Sunshine State’s hidden gems.
While it’s a popular area for whale watching from July to October, that’s not the only reason to visit.Surrounded by well-known natural attractions – Fraser Island, Mon Repos Beach, Lady Elliot Island – Hervey Bay is partly designated as a marine park and is home to a surprising variety of marine wildlife from the five varieties of sea turtles (the green, loggerheads and hawksbill being the most common) through to the shy and vulnerable dugongs.
A little less than two hours drive from Hervey Bay and 375km from Brisbane, the city of Bundaberg lies on the mighty Burnett River. It’s boulevard-style streets, dotted with sometimes charming and more often grand historical buildings, is testament to the halcyon days of sugar cane farming which made this region’s fortunes.
Just 15 minutes east of the town, the turtle sanctuary at Mon Repos is one of nature’s most fascinating spectacles, on show from November to March with the onshore pilgrimage of sea turtles. The mighty flappers come ashore to lay their eggs, a sight in itself, but it is the hatching of young sea turtles and their return to the sea that is brilliant to watch. Each evening during the hatching season, hundreds of these cute little critters shoot off in all their newborn glory, dashing frantically for the ocean to start their tough journey to maturity.
Bundaberg’s favourite son is Bert Hinkler, one of the world’s great pioneer aviators who launched his first aircraft off the beach at Mon Repos in 1912. The architecturally designed facility is located in Bundaberg’s Botanic Gardens and is one of the most captivating museums I’ve ever seen.
After all this activity, it’s time to chill at the Town of 1770, the site of Lieutenant James Cook’s second landing in Australia in May 1770. Today it is ore likely know for its beautiful beaches, excellent fishing and crystal clear waters. It is also the jump off point for day trips to Lady Musgrave Island, an unspoiled coral cay that offers diving and snorkelling experiences straight from the crunchy white sand.
Not much has changed around here since the day Cook landed in May 1770. And after a spectacular journey along Queensland’s surfing coast, that’s just what we want.