15 October 2009 by Pete Mathers
Simon Walsh is no stranger to travelling Down Under. His love affair with all things Antipodean began over a decade ago while backpacking through Australia for an unforgettable three months. So when his parents retired to Noosa on the Sunshine Coast six years ago, he had the perfect excuse to go back ...again, and again, and again. But his latest trip left little time for family reunions. The ten-day itinerary began in Brisbane, a city, says Simon, too often overlooked. “It’s fair to say that when I first came to Brisbane it was seen as something of a poor cousin to Sydney and Melbourne; a sleepy coastal town struggling to get to grips with a surge of new residents and foreign investment. Today, it’s one of Australia’s most desirable places to live.” And it’s easy to see why. Despite its transformation into a sleek multicultural city, complete with world-class art galleries, a fabulous café culture and a booming live music scene, it’s retained its laidback, small town atmosphere. “The locals are some of the friendliest you’ll meet in Australia,” says Simon. “The climate is subtropical, the food is amazing and there are plenty of places that feel pleasantly removed from busy city life.
Take a stroll along the Mangrove Boardwalk in the City Botanic Gardens and you’ll see what I mean.” From Brisbane it’s an hour’s drive south to the Gold Coast and the Palazzo Versace, one of The Leading Hotels of the World. “The Palazzo Versace is truly a stunning hotel; the embodiment of the glitz and glamour you associate with the Gold Coast, and in every way an extension of the Versace brand, from the cushions in the rooms to the Versace Boutique.” The hotel offers 205 classically elegant rooms, 72 neighbouring apartments, three award-winning restaurants and a private marina, all within reach of the Gold Coast’s white sandy beaches and family attractions. “If you’re looking for family fun,” says Simon when I bring up the subject, “a great value tip is to buy a theme-park pass from myfun.com.au. Passes allow discounted entry into popular attractions such as Warner Bros. Movie World, Sea World and Wet ‘n’ Wild Water World. Another must is the Australian Outback Spectacular, an evening dinner show filled with music, drama and heart-stopping action.” For more peaceful surroundings, Simon recommends heading into the hinterland, midway between the coast and the mountains. “Ruffles Lodge is the ultimate hinterland hotel,” says Simon without needing to think. “It’s an absolutely beautiful 5-star retreat, offering wonderful views across the gardens and forest towards the cities on the coast. The dining is superb, watched over by Liverpudlian executive chef Steve Houghton, the cellar is bursting with great Aussie wines and there’s a string of golf courses, national parks and vineyards to explore near by.”
From the hinterland, Simon returned to Brisbane to catch a flight to Cairns in tropical north Queensland, but he couldn’t move on without mentioning the highlights of nearby Noosa, north of Brisbane on the Sunshine Coast. “I could go on forever about Noosa’s attractions, its blend of natural beauty and sophistication, its relaxed beaches -great for surfing or swimming -the back-to-nature walking trails of Noosa Everglades National Park, and the knowledge that -it being the Sunshine Coast -you’re all but guaranteed to see the sun every day.” “If pushed to pick one unmissable though, it would have to be the Eumundi Markets, begun in 1979. Eumundi is about a 15-minute drive from Noosa, and the market is held every Wednesday and Saturday. The 500- plus stalls sell everything from artworks and sculptures to home-made lemonade and freshly baked breads. You can have your face painted or your palm read, get your feet massaged or pull up a plate of Australian tucker. Get there early to avoid the crowds and the worst of the day’s heat.” Bringing him back to the trip in question, I ask Simon about Cairns. “It’s a perfectly good place to base yourself, if a bit backpacker orientated, but if given the choice, I’d head down the coast to Port Douglas instead. The drive between the two is amazing, especially if you catch it at sunset. The road hugs the coastline, passing secluded bays and rocky outcrops on one side, beautiful green forest on the other.” Port Douglas is an attractive resort town full of boutique style shops and hotels to match. Its greatest asset is Four Mile Beach, a huge ribbon of sand backed by rainforest and bound by two headlands to the north and south.
“When the tide is out it’s about 100 m wide and the powdery white sand is almost silky when dry.” It’s also a great base from which to explore the Great Barrier Reef. “Whichever way you want to see the reef, whether it’s diving, snorkelling or in a glass bottom boat, you can do it from Port Douglas. All major dive companies operate from here and the dive sites o shore are among the best in the world.” The Daintree Cape Tribulation coast, where the world’s oldest rainforest meets the Great Barrier Reef, can also be visited on a day tour. “The guides were amazing,” says Simon of his recent tour. “They’ve so much energy and passion, not to mention an encyclopaedic knowledge of everything that lives in the forest. You can go in with a guidebook but it’s really not the same as hearing from a guy who’s been running around the rainforest since the day he could walk.” “It’s the real deal too -proper tropical jungle. It’s just easier to reach here than elsewhere in the world, which means anyone can see it, from hardcore hikers to softer adventurers. The highlight for me was drifting along the Daintree, watching jagged-tooth crocodiles lazing on the riverbank.”