Growing up in Australia I had been to Surfers a number of times, first as a young child with my parents on a beach holiday, and then again much later as a man (of soughts) in his late teens, where the bright lights and the all-night watering holes bought happy, if somewhat rum-soaked, memories of nights and dollars ill spent but much enjoyed.
What a lot of people forget is that the Gold Coast is more than just the neon strip of Surfers Paradise, it is more than blue glass monoliths stretching to the sky, and it isn’t all meter maids and strip joints.
Further south, near (sometimes even straddling) the border between Queensland and New South Wales, a number of once sleepy surfing towns have come into their own as outstanding holiday destinations in their own right and nowhere is that more the case than Coolangatta.
Only half an hour from Surfers Paradise, Coolangatta and its twin-town across the border, Tweed Heads, have emerged from out of the shadows and established themselves as a unique destination, with its own highlights and culture.
If nothing else, Coolangatta is a regional surfing powerhouse, with some of Australia’s best and most iconic breaks like Snapper Rocks, Kirra and Greenmount, to name just a few, right on the resident’s door step. People live, breathe and eat surfing in this part of the world.
Coolangatta and its near surrounds are a world away from Surfers Paradise. Don’t under any circumstances confuse the two. If you want all of the beautiful beaches and the weather with none of the towering eyesores, or drunken backpackers vomiting everywhere, than Coolangatta is definitely the place for you.
Into the wild
Hello hangover, my old friend. The 8am Virgin flight 509 to Coolangatta is booked solid and due to an unforeseen drinking session the night before I am running a tiny bit late.
As a result I had been forced to muscle my unnecessarily large bag through security and on to the plane, where it took up a whole overhead locker and upset everybody around me, including a flight attendant.
In other words, when I landed at Coolangatta and met my guide, I was feeling a little sore and sorry for myself.
No time for wallowing though as we headed for Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary, to undertake the Green Challenge, a brand new ropes course set high in the beautiful foliage around the Sanctuary’s grounds.
Between you and me, I absolutely loathe heights, and in truth even after a bracing cup of coffee and a sandwich I don’t complete a huge amount of the course (if any), but I do get the feel of it.
With 65 challenges, across four different courses graded on difficulty the Green Challenge is a nature-based adventure experience like no other. Being suspended amongst the colossal tree canopy with the call of birds in your ears is as beautiful as it is unique.
Back on to terra firma, I am introduced to John, one of the Sanctuary’s Managing Directors, who, along with one of the staff members, takes us on a guided safari of the whole site… On a Segway!
Let me just start by saying, that I love the fact that a Segway Safari even exists. Segways are, quite probably, one of the greatest inventions of all time! I’m not sure how they work (some kind of gyroscope thing) but they are huge amounts of fun, and they beat the hell out of walking.
We whiz around the Sanctuary, stopping off to cuddle a koala, hold a snake, feed some grey kangaroos and joeys roaming their enormous enclosure and even herd an errant emu out of a part of the park where he shouldn’t have been in the first place.
The final part of our Sanctuary experience takes us to the most important part of the whole organisation, Currumbin’s state of the art wildlife hospital.
While not only looking after the health and happiness of the animals on site, the hospital also takes in hundreds of different animals ranging from wombats, kangaroos and koalas to native birdlife and even the odd crocodile who get brought in by the locals with various injuries and maladies.
The behind the scenes look at the hospital is amazing, the way the veterinarians and staff on site care for their animal charges so deeply and with such skill. The fact that none of it is backed in any way financially by the state government boggles the mind, considering the great work they do for the wellbeing of so many of the regions native wildlife, in many cases keeping them from near extinction.
Life’s a beach
Now, I like to think that I know a thing or two about surfing. I grew up on the pristine, if somewhat swell shy, beaches of Sydney’s eastern suburbs and currently call North Bondi home. I own a board or two and have always thought that salt water ran in my blood as much as corpuscles.
That was until I chat with a few of the locals on the Coolangatta beachfront.
Surfing isn’t so much a pastime in these parts as it is a religion and it has produced some of Australia’s (and the world’s) best professional surfers including Joel Parkinson, Mick Fanning and Stephanie Gilmore.
Heightening the surfing obsession to almost fever pitch is the fact that the Quiksilver and Roxy Pro are both being held over the weekend, the first events on the ASP world tour.
Before I get down to the Quiky though, I have a surf lesson of my very own lined up, with one of the Gold Coast’s most enigmatic of characters and one of his stand up paddle boards.
I have been lead to believe by my hosts that I would find Brad Holmes to be quite a character, and they weren’t wrong.
Linguist, artist, cartoonist, raconteur and Tai Chi guru, Brad Holmes is also a fully licensed surf instructor with over 50 years worth of experience. My first SUP lesson with Brad is one that I will certainly never forget.
By the scenic banks of Tallebudgerra Creek, we meet Brad, who takes us through a few Tai Chi warm up exercises, designed to loosen the muscles and focus the mind.
Then after a short introduction to the board itself, the correct way of holding the paddle and the best way to stand (start on your knees, build up a head of steam before going for it) Brad has us out on the water.
While SUP on flat water perhaps doesn’t quite bring the exhilarating rush of catching a wave on a short board, it’s certainly an interesting sensation.
Brad tells me that once you’ve mastered the flat water on a paddleboard you can take it to the surf and get the best of both worlds, something I am keen to do but unfortunately don’t have the time for.
Brad is also at the forefront of Tai Chi SUP, a blend of the ancient martial art and the discipline of balancing on a SUP, much more challenging than it sounds, believe me.
I bid Brad farewell with something of a heavy heart, and managed to scoot back to Snapper Rocks in time to catch some of the professionals at work.
One of the highlights of the day is seeing perennial men’s champion Kelly Slater catch a long right-hander from the point at Snapper Rocks across the beach to the other point at Greenmount during an expression session.
The 11-time world champion is something of a crowd favourite, and those along the beach and the Greenmount walkway go nuts when he finally bails out. The announcer gives him a perfect score and awards him the wave of the day.
In celebration of all things surfing the Gold Coast is holding its second annual Bleach Festival concurrently with the Pro events, showing off not just the competition but also the art and music that have gone hand-in-hand with surf culture over the years.
Photography exhibitions, guided coastal walks, sculpture installations and a film festival all take centre stage across the weekend.
The night is ours
Part of the Bleach Festival is the Sway on Sunset night, a party held at the excellent Komune club.
Komune is probably the closest thing you’ll find on the whole Gold Coast to a small, inner-city sort of bar. It also doubles as a trendy nightclub full of beautiful women and ultra-hip surf dudes and has a pretty solid pop-up Mexican eatery. There’s even a hostel on the floors above.
The place is heaving by the time I’ve showered some of the salt water off, and squeezed into my tightest pair of jeans. Canapés are being passed around, along with glasses of free bubbly, whilst photographers go from group to group, taking photos of all the tall, handsome guys and their statuesque girlfriends… Needless to say I wasn’t approached.
I grab a burrito at the Mexican place and make a valiant, if somewhat doomed attempt to eat it while still looking cool.
A DJ is spinning some chilled deep house in the corner and one of the guys behind the bar is wearing a Slayer singlet and an eye patch – very punk.
Outside, there’s a pool, which has been given over to a runway, which stretches out languidly into the water, around which everybody seems to be congregating, so I elbow my way in and take up a good vantage point.
I don’t really get fashion shows, but I clap along with everyone, guzzle champagne and chat. It’s all very pleasant.
All of a sudden it’s time to move on and I’m whisked down the road, back into Coolangatta proper.
Ah, the Coolangatta Hotel. A veritable one-stop shop for all things when the sun goes down.
Right across the road from main beach, the Cooly is big, much bigger than I had expected. Downstairs has two bars, a front bar with a stage that has a classic rock covers band playing when I walk in, a couple of pool tables and a hip-hop themed back bar, where the lights are dark and the beats are out of control.
The actual Bleach Festival gig is on upstairs though, so we climb the steps two at a time, as the sound of live rock’n’roll and milling people gets louder and louder.
Emerging in the upstairs room I’m shocked by its size. The stage is big, the noise is even bigger, ripping guitars and the shouts of a few hundred people drown out any chance of conversation, so we make for the bar.
A couple of dark and stormys later and I’m on the dance floor, enjoying the music and (oddly enough) the crush of the people around me. I could quite happily have stayed all night, but there were other things to do, other places to be. Besides, I was in the mood for dancing.
Never Land is the closest thing in Coolangatta to the sort of places you’ll find in Surfers Paradise. I don’t remember a huge amount about it, but they have a rainbow lit dance floor, à la Saturday Night Fever, and carpets sticky enough to bog down a charging rhino.
Steps were danced, drinks drunk and dreams dreamt. All in a good night’s work really.
What to do: Stand Up Paddle Boarding with the legendary Brad Holmes. $90 for 90 minute lesson.
Cute and cuddly wildlife, bird shows, Segway Safaris and The Green Challenge at Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary. From $49 pp
Stay: Close to the beach, the Coolangatta Sands Hostel has great pub right downstairs that also serves quality and affordable meals. . Beds from $29/night
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To see more photos from the writer’s trip, click here.