Australia’s sunniest city has long had a reputation as the country’s capital of crass. But with the Commonwealth Games on the horizon and a slew of new developments underway, could this be the Gold Coast’s time to shine?
Photographs by Kara Rosenlund
There was a time, not too long ago, when I went to great lengths to avoid Queensland’s Gold Coast. This was a disappointment for my father, who, as many Melburnians do, had migrated to the seaside city in search of a Florida-esque lifestyle. He couldn’t stop raving about his new home: the 300 days of sunshine a year, the 57-kilometer strip of coastline on his doorstep, the canal views from his waterside mansion (which he could afford given how reasonable property prices were). He offered to pay for my airfare if I visited. “But I won’t be able to get anything decent to eat, Dad. And I just can’t drink coffee that’s not single origin. And isn’t Surfers Paradise unsafe?” I’d plead my case for staying in Sydney.
I caved just once, shortly after he moved there 10 years ago, and regretted it immediately. My timing, admittedly, was bad. It was “Schoolies,” a rite of passage for Australian high school grads who flock to the Gold Coast after their final exams for a week of out-of-control partying. Between the crowds of raucous 18-year-olds and a bevy of bikini-clad “Meter Maids” (nubile young ladies who top up parking meters to help visiting motorists avoid fines), the streets of Surfers Paradise resembled a 1980s frat movie.
Dad ignored my complaints and instead took me on a tour of the vineyards and boutique distilleries, the wellness retreats and spas of the hinterland. We left the gleaming high-rises of the Glitter Strip behind and within minutes were in a world of ancient subtropical rain forest. On the way home, we explored some of the city’s 80 or so suburbs, alternating between banging surf beaches and mangrove-covered islands. Like many Australians, I’d wrongly assumed that the dingy dive bars and cheap souvenir shops of Surfers were the Gold Coast.
I didn’t concede that I liked the place, but I did concede I could see its appeal to the 13 million tourists who visit annually, not to mention the 12,500 people who move to the coast every year. Because of these figures, the Goldie, as it’s affectionately known, is one of Australia’s fastest growing cities today. Over the past 50 years it has flourished from being a small beachside holiday destination, around 100 kilometers southeast of Brisbane in southern Queensland, to the country’s sixth largest city.
The rapid development and less-than-subtle marketing campaigns orbiting around sun, sand, surf, and sex had a major impact on the city’s early culture and personality. It was geared for pleasure, and whatever tackiness that brought with it. But then the global financial crisis hit, and as travelers stopped coming, the Goldie was forced to take stock of its offerings.
“In many ways, that crisis was the best thing that ever happened to the Gold Coast,” says Adam Thring, the venue manager at Surfers institution The Island hotel. I’m back in the city after a near decade hiatus, and there’s not much that looks the same. “The tourists dried up, and we had to refocus on locals,” Thring continues. “People wanted better bars, better cocktails, and wouldn’t put up with bad food,” something he admits The Island (previously known as the Islander) served for a long time. “You wouldn’t have wanted to step in here five years ago.” Indeed, the sticky-carpeted establishment became so tired that its owner began proceedings to knock the building down. But at the last minute, plans were drawn up to transform it into a multi-venue establishment oozing Sydney street cred. The hotel reopened last June with a downstairs dining room draped in greenery, a bowling alley for kids, a rooftop bar that hosts Thursday night jazz sessions, and 98 seriously stylish rooms.
Another factor behind the changing face of the city is, of course, the 21st Commonwealth Games. To be held over 11 days in April, Queensland’s biggest-ever sporting spectacular is expected to draw more than 670,000 visitors and set a few records of its own, including the most extensive para-sports program in the quadrennial event’s history. It will also award an equal number of medals for men and women, something that’s being hailed as a first for an international multi-sport competition. Organizers are also promising to showcase indigenous culture with intiatives such as Festival 2018, a diverse program of (mostly free) entertainment and art that will run in conjuction with the sports events.
When the Gold Coast won the bid to host the Games, “it changed everything,” says Dean Gould, the Kombi-driving executive director of corporate affairs and strategy for Gold Coast Tourism. “Over the last five years, the whole city has come alive again. The momentum feels urgent, and the changes are a lot more substantial.”
Hugely substantial, in fact, thanks to a US$1.6 billion budget allocated to citywide works in the lead-up to the event. Although according to Mark Peters, CEO of the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games Corporation (GOLDOC), his organization is trying to do as little building as possible. “It’s a big public cost, so we don’t want facilities that won’t be used afterward,” he says. “They all have to have a purpose for the city post-Games.”
Of the two dozen venues being utilized across the city (as well as in Brisbane, Townsville, and Cairns, which will host some of the events), only three are new-builds. Among them is the athletes’ village, which come April will house 6,600 athletes and officials from 70 participating countries. After the Games, the buildings will be sold off as apartments, with the surrounding area destined to become a health and knowledge hub thanks to its proximity to the Gold Coast University Hospital and Griffith University. Nearby at Village Roadshow Studios, the largest soundstage in the Southern Hemisphere has been constructed. It will be converted into squash courts for the duration of the Games before returning to its role as a film production studio.
But while GOLDOC has been keen to keep construction to a minimum, property developers clearly have a different agenda. Between Surfers Paradise and the neighboring suburb of Broadbeach to the south, cranes are busily erecting new hotels and residences, some destined to open before the Games, others part of a longer-term vision for the city. There’s the US$712 million Jewel, whose three towers are set to become Australia’s largest beachfront mixed-use development and the first absolute-beachfront properties built on the Gold Coast in more than three decades. Ground has also been broken on the US$870 million, 89-story Spirit tower, just shy of the recently announced 103-story Orion and 108-story Azzura developments in the same neighborhood. Not to be outdone, there’s the Ruby: four towers that will include a mix of residential apartments, shops, and a hotel. It occupies the site of the original Surfers Paradise Hotel, the place that many credit for launching the Gold Coast’s appeal as a holiday destination.
The Star (formerly Jupiters Casino) has equally ambitious plans for expansion. When the Gold Coast was announced as the host city of the 2018 Commonwealth Games, the iconic if aging property pledged US$275 million to upgrading existing facilities, including revamping rooms and dining venues. Six new restaurants were added, and there are five more under development. I visit upscale Japanese eatery Kiyomi for a look at its luminescent, lotus-inspired wall mural by Tokyo street artist Que Houxo, before sitting down to lunch at the aptly named Garden Kitchen & Bar, which spills onto a grassy alfresco patio where people play boules and sip champagne cocktails. It’s as far from the dingy gaming floors and all-you-can-eat buffets of the 1980s as you can get.
A few weeks into the makeover in 2015, The Star group announced it would invest another US$400 million to build neigh-boring towers of luxury residences and two more hotels, including the acquisition and makeover of the nearby Sheraton Grand Mirage Resort and ground-up construction of an exclusive 50-suite property that everyone I talk to calls “the city’s first six-star hotel.” Not that such a thing exists, but the gist is that it will take the local concept of luxury to new heights with extravagant flourishes, including a cantilevered rooftop swimming pool and rooms fitted with private theaters and karaoke parlors.
“The Games has fast-tracked a lot of construction projects,” Gould admits. “But we realized early on that success is not just a high-rise. It’s about making things accessible, usable, and available.”
One way the city has been made more usable is with the devel-opment of a light rail system called G:link, which runs down the coast from Griffith University to Pacific Fair mall in Broadbeach Waters. When complete, the tracks will continue on to the airport and also to Helensvale, where a train service connects to Brisbane. There’s also talk of building a new cruise terminal at Broadwater, and extending the current airport runway to handle more—and larger—planes.
At the end of the current rail line, Pacific Fair a year ago was a landmark for all the wrong reasons—painted an eye-popping shade of pink and ringed by a miniature train, the largest mall in Queensland was known as “the lobster.” Today, after a US$530 million makeover, the complex feels like the sort of shopping arcade you’d expect to find at a tropical five-star resort, only on a much larger scale. There are plenty of boutiques, including a precinct dedicated to Australian designers, but there are also reasons to linger beyond the stores. You can order a panini or baked tart from one of the dozens of restaurants and cafés, and then relax on a sun lounger amid tropical gardens with water features and ferns. There are also oversized chess boards and ping-pong tables, a station for charging electronic cars, and works by local artists.
Art is also the focus of a new multi-phase cultural precinct under development on a 17-hectare riverside site in Evandale. When complete, the carbon-neutral building will house a 5,000-person theater and multimedia rooms, and will be linked to Surfers Paradise via Chevron Island along an art-filled “green bridge.” The area is still a construction site when I visit, but it’s within easy reach of Nude Sisters, a new health-food café where I meet the heavily bearded, heavily tattooed Simon Baccino for a smoothie so thick it’s served in a bowl.
A personal trainer, Baccino moved from the U.K. to Sydney and then to the Gold Coast to manage a vegan “ice-cream” van that regularly sells out of its cool coconut-based treats. A vegan himself, Baccino tells me that while there are things he misses about Sydney, it’s not the food. On just about every Gold Coast block there’s a fair- trade café selling coffee beans that you select based on their notes of chocolate, earth, and orange peel, or a plant-based restaurant dishing up raw cakes and natural wines.
Baccino swears by the jackfruit enchiladas at Miami’s Greenhouse Canteen, which is also home to Lovechild Laneway, an ethical fashion outlet selling vegan apparel and accessories. The canteen’s thirtysomething owners, sisters Natalie and Charlie Evans, recently launched The Bath House spa in nearby Burleigh Heads, creating a tin shed–inspired space—all corrugated iron and cacti with pops of peach and green—where I sit in a hot tub infused with magnesium before moving on to the red-cedar sauna and a lomi lomi massage. Later, on the spa’s sunny patio, I’m handed a young coconut and a raw-food feast of zucchini pasta topped with cashew pesto.
Baccino also frequents The Cardamom Pod, where you can order an LSD (soy-dandelion latte) to accompany your cornmeal waffles; and Blendlove, a raw and wholefoods café specializing in vegan cheesecakes. “I think the Gold Coast is now attracting people who love the outdoors and want to look after themselves,” he says. Naturally.
Of course, there are also plenty of places making the most of the coast’s bountiful seafood, which encompasses everything from sustainably harvested spanner crabs to some of the sweetest scallops you’ll ever taste. I explore the bijou boutiques and achingly cool cafés along James Street in Burleigh Heads before strolling across the sand to Rick Shores, sister to hip Brisbane Thai joint Long Time. There’s nothing closer to the water than this—sitting at a window-side table I can feel the salty spray of the surf. Head chef Jake Pregnell left his role at Melbourne’s prestigious Golden Fields for a sea change on the coast, and now serves up pan-Asian fare that is bright and bold. The toasted brioche rolls stuffed with Moreton Bay bug (flathead lobster) are a symphony of flavors, and pair perfectly with a crisp hinterland rosé.
Later, I contemplate visiting the secretive Lockwood Bar—the only way to get in is using a code sent to you via text message—or, over in Broadbeach, freshly minted speakeasy Soho Place, whose bright red door resembles a London telephone box, and whose claim to fame is as the city’s first official small bar (i.e. no food is served). But in the end, I opt for Miami Marketta, a creative hub for art, music, design, and food. Fairy lights dance overhead as I wander between stalls selling LoKoa handmade leather bags and jewels from Sea+Stone, before poking my head in at Rabbit Radio, the Gold Coast’s first independent online radio station. Every Friday there’s a street-food lineup where you can sample bites as diverse as hotdogs and Hungarian cuisine, Turkish gözleme and Texan smoked meats, all served with a backdrop of poetry slams and live music.
It’s a smaller version of NightQuarter, a weekend night market comprised of shipping containers that are home to restaurants, bars, and boutiques, all leading to a paddock where bands play until 10 p.m. every Friday and Saturday. Baccino is a regular here with his Whips & Co van, parked alongside other food trucks selling arepas from Venezuela and Portuguese piri-piri chicken burgers, among other tasty bites. The hub concept also extends to The Collective, a new establishment at Palm Beach where you’ll find five restaurants and a rooftop bar; and The Kitchens, perhaps the fanciest food court in the country. Don’t come here expecting bains-marie and soggy chips—there are more than 40 restaurants, bars, and providores celebrating local produce, with a cooking school and culinary demonstrations should you feel inspired. It’s also a great place to sample some local craft beer.
Less than a decade ago, the only beers available on the Gold Coast were XXXX, Victoria Bitter, and other mass-produced versions of the same. Today, there’s a booming microbrew scene, with close to 20 independent operators in addition to specialty bars and pubs such as Bine, whose rotating taps might feature Burleigh Brewing Twisted Palm pale ale, Stone & Wood lager, or an aromatic XPA from Balter.
The latter is the brainchild of local surfing legends Mick Fanning, Joel Parkinson, Bede Durbidge, and Josh Kerr, and you can stop by their brewery in the industrial area of Currumbin to taste their latest concoctions straight from the tank.
Balter beers are also on the menu at Yamagen, the recently relaunched Japanese restaurant at the QT Gold Coast hotel in Surfers Paradise. Gould, my companion for the evening, debates whether to order the brewery’s pilsner or dark ale. I go straight for the gin-based Sake It To Me cocktail. Like the hotel it calls home, Yamagen comes with personality to spare, from its moodily lit interiors to its impeccably plated food and clever drinks list. There’s even a dress code, rare in this part of Surfers, although the rest of the property has a laid-back beachside vibe that perfectly captures the sunny, playful spirit of the Goldie, right down to the retro Kombi van at the front door.
“You can see there’s a confidence back in the city now,” Gould says as we order sashimi tacos loaded with ocean-fresh salmon.
Okay, Dad, I concede.
There are direct flights to the Gold Coast from Hong Kong, Singapore, and Kuala Lumpur. For those arriving via Brisbane Airport, the Airtrain (airtrain.com.au) rail service will get you there in less than 90 minutes.
Showcasing 18 sports and an expanded para-sports program, the 2018 Commonwealth Games (gc2018.com) runs April 4–15; tickets to most events were still available online at time of print, though they were selling quickly.
Where to Eat & Drink
Bine Bar & Dining
Nobbys Beach, Miami; 61-7/5527-7412.
The Cardamom Pod
Palm Beach; 61-7/5618-8229.
Nude Sisters Whole Food Kitchen
Mermaid Waters; 61-7/5526-0891.
Burleigh Heads; 61-7/5630-6611.
QT Gold Coast, Surfers Paradise; 61-7/5584-1200.
Where to Shop
Where to Sleep
Surfers Paradise; 61-7/5538-8000; doubles from US$126.
Main Beach; 61-7/5509-8000; doubles from US$307.
QT Gold Coast
Surfers Paradise; 61-7/5584-1200; doubles from US$205.
This article originally appeared in the February/March 2018 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“The Gold Coast Grows Up”).