Katie Trotter finds both glitz and tranquility in Queensland, Australia's second-largest state.
Australia's queen of sea and sand
Australia has always been given a bit of a rough ride. Comments about the country never seem far from cliché or condescension; as a travel destination, it's seen its fair share of eye-rolling from the "been there, done that" brigade. It all seems a little unfair for a region that is home to the only living object visible from space (the Great Barrier Reef). Certainly, a large portion of Australia's tourism industry still revolves around a heaving flock of beer-swilling, board-shorted and Haviana-clad backpackers who are just a little too angst-ridden to "do Thailand" at the moment. Queensland, in particular, has become known for its popularity with budget-conscious, hostelling travellers and (on the Gold Coast) package tourists. Even within Australia, Queenslanders are often referred to with derision. Yet if you can shake off a bit of snobbery, this vast eastern state offers an impressive line-up: beach, desert, coral cays, rainforest and outback. I resolved to see for myself.
Our first stop was Noosa, a huddled beach resort some 160km up the Sunshine Coast north of Brisbane. Managing to retain a genuine level of charm, it has struck an unusual chord - hovering somewhere between a decade of urban development and environmental preservation. It could have emulated the Gold Coast, a charmless jigsaw puzzle of casinos, highways and casinos on highways blotting out what must have once been a coastline of spectacular beauty. But much more laid-back, if not a little yuppie, Noosa hasn't followed suit and on first impressions isn't far removed from a semi-tropical version of the Hamptons. I took one of the many boat trips on offer that leave from Woods Jetty, which is a perfect way to view the rugged coastline dotted with desolate beaches and jutting caves that taper into a spectacular view of the Noosa National Park.
A short car journey away in the heart of the Sunshine Coast just south of Noosa is the Buderim Ginger Factory, which is worth a visit if you have a free afternoon or want to take a break from the sun. Avoid the tour of the factory, unless you are truly fascinated by crystallised and pickled ginger, and head straight for the cookery school for a two-hour lesson with the wonderfully named chef Erik Van Alphen, who has two Michelin-starred restaurants under his belt - Sydney Street in London and The Lido in Amsterdam. It won't disappoint.
Like Vegas, the aptly named Gold Coast is the kind of place that can make one feel slightly uncomfortable, like a semi-awkward hanger-on (unless of course you have a few yachts to your name). Elitism and style go together here like size zero and cigarette breakfasts - in short, they need each other. Located in the heart of the Gold Coast, a three-kilometre drive from Surfers Paradise, you will find the place recently voted Australia's most luxurious hotel - the Palazzo Versace. I wanted to hate it, with its pillow menus and faux Baroque gilded corridors, not to mention the blinding chandelier weighing 750 kilos (the same as a fully grown buffalo) that threatens to take over the lobby. You see, there is a fine line between opulent and vulgar and, as with most of the Gold Coast, I am not quite sure where it lies - but taken with a pinch of salt and tons of cash, it can be a lot of fun.
If, like me, you prefer to remain an observer, head to Q Deck, Australia's only beachside observation platform, situated a short walk from Surfers Paradise. Situated 230 metres above sea level, on the 77th and 78th floors of the 322.5-metre-high Q1 Tower, Q Deck offers 360-degree views of the entire Gold Coast, giving a better appreciation of the crowded landscape than you get from ground level. Strangely enough, it also boasts one of the fastest elevators in the world that will get you from ground level to the 77th floor in 42.7 seconds. Or, like a few of the Japanese tourists did when I was there, you can climb the 1,331 steps.
Within a 30-minute drive from the Gold Coast, or an hour from Brisbane, you can reach Mount Tamborine, a rainforest oasis which looks down on the surrounding lowlands across the Nerang and Coomera River valleys toward the Gold Coast and Pacific Ocean. There is an elevated walkway through the upper and middle levels of the rainforest which leads to a 40-metre-long cantilever towering 30 metres over the valley. It is a spectacular way to view the surrounding natural landscapes, but forget it if you are wary of heights as the floor is almost transparent. Keep your eyes peeled as you may be lucky enough to spot the yellow and black Regent Bowerbird, a favourite of the British naturalist Sir Richard Attenborough.
Travel north past Brisbane to reach the Whitsunday Islands, a scattering of 74 tropical islands which lie midway along Queensland's coast. They are bordered by the Great Barrier Reef and the crystal clear waters of the Coral Sea - an ideal location if you want a boating holiday, romance, or simply to get away from the crowds. Hamilton Island and Proserpine are the airports that service the region. All of the islands are surrounded by the Great Barrier Reef, although only eight are inhabited, and are jealously protected from development.
Despite being well known, this still feels like Robinson Crusoe territory. Each year humpback whales migrate north from their feeding grounds in Antarctica and give birth here in the warmer waters before making their journey home. The surrounding reefs also provide a safe habitat for marine turtles - six of the world's seven species can be found here. The Whitsundays' commercial centre, Hamilton Island, is the most developed and populated, boasting its own airport, post office and bank. Privately owned by the Oatley family, who founded Rosemount Wines in Australia, it recently grabbed worldwide media attention with the "Best Job in the World" campaign advertised online - which received more than 34,000 applications from over 200 countries for the job of sole caretaker on the island. By the campaign's end, it had generated more than A$200 million (Dh628m) worth of global publicity and had won three awards at the Cannes International Advertising Festival. Ben Southall, 34, a charity fundraiser and ostrich-rider from the UK, was eventually given the title. Don't expect tranquility though - the place heaves with Australian tourists during peak times (September/October right through until January.)
I was after complete peace and quiet and found it on Hayman Island, a relatively small island just 4km long and 3km wide. The most northerly of the Whitsunday group, Hayman is mainly covered with eucalyptus and hoop pine and is as close to paradise as I have seen. Take a seaplane from the resort's private airstrip for the most spectacular aerial view of the island before heading over the Coral Sea where you can view Hook, Hardy and Heart Reefs from above.
We landed off Whitehaven Beach, just along Whitsunday Island - a 6km stretch of crystal clear water in a colour of turquoise so bright it threatens to blind. The beach is a huge sweeping arc with an inlet at one end which makes for great snorkelling. The first thing you notice when you set your feet on land is the odd texture of the sand, which I can only compare to the texture of wet salt. I am later told it is 98 per cent pure silica and that Nasa used it to make lenses for none other than the Hubble Telescope. Forget taking any home - fines can reach up to A$5,000.
Stacked behind the back seats of the seaplane was the shipment of snacks provided. I would have been fine with a sandwich until lobster, cakes, some award-winning cheeses and rather well-dressed salads popped out on a white tablecloth. If such a thing as perfection existed, that moment would be a fine contender. The snorkelling is superb, and if you have your diving licence the diversity of fish and corals are staggering. The Outer Reef, which can be reached by boat from most of the resorts, is situated some 38 kilometres from the Whitsunday mainland. Although I probably saw larger shoals of fish in Belize, the diversity of the marine life is off the radar. Extraordinary brain corals, and table corals two metres wide cannot fail to impress. I had gone to Australia for a break, but while I was hoping for something new and unexpected, I secretly hadn't expected much. Yet Queensland is just that - a contemplative place that is enveloped by the kind of serenity that enables us to risk new ways of being in the world. firstname.lastname@example.org
The flight Return flights from Dubai to Brisbane on Cathay Pacific (www.cathaypacific.com) start from US$1,330 (Dh4,885) including taxes. The stay Rooms at the Surfers Paradise Marriott Resort and Spa (www.marriott.com.au) start from A$189 (Dh597), excluding breakfast and including taxes. Rooms at the Hayman resort (www.hayman.com.au) start at A$595 (1,878) including breakfast and taxes.