Australian families flock to the Gold Coast for its beautiful beaches and attractions. North American visitors are less familiar with this popular area...
Most international travellers -- having winged so many miles to get there-- stay several weeks in Australia and visit more than one region. Distances are vast in a country as big as the continental US (yet with a mere 22M people.) There's much to be said for landing in the middle of Australia's east coast, in the Gold Coast and Brisbane area in the state of Queensland.
Here families can combine beach and surfing on the Gold Coast with a foray north to an island on the Great Barrier Reef and a side-trip to the hinterland rainforest, and throw in some theme park fun as well. Brisbane, meanwhile, offers urban interest, is a great launching point for whale-watching, and also offers an opportunity to get close with koalas and surprisingly tame kangaroos.
Enjoy the Beach
The Gold Coast stretches 70 km and includes several towns, the most famous being Surfer's Paradise. The Gold Coast is Australia’s 6th largest city, with a population of over 550,000; its many highrises may recall Miami (and in fact there is a town called Miami there.) The sun shines 287 days a year.
The Gold Coast is just 69 km (42 miles) south of Brisbane, and an easy way to get there is to fly into Brisbane Airport and take the Airtrain. Visitors can even use an AirtrainConnect service that combines the train ride with chauffeured transport to the door of their Gold Coast hotel.
Family-friendly lodging is plentiful, as many Australian families head north to the Gold Coast during winter (which starts June 1st.) Pepper's Broadbeach, for example, offers large suites and a great location just a two-minute walk from a beautiful beach (above). Very few hotels are right on the beach, which means that much of the shore is wide open for walkers, swimmers and surfers.
North American families looking for beachside eats need to learn that the various "clubs" along the shore are open to anyone, and are good places to find casual meals. For a more upscale but still casual spot with great views, try Oskars at Burleigh Heads.
Definitely recommended when visiting the Gold Coast! The area has great spots for beginners to learn to surf.
Go Ride a Wave has a convenient location right in the heart of Surfer's Paradise just steps from the beach. A minimum age of 8 years is recommended, but "we do also get some younger kids who have a go." Lessons have a minimum of one instructor to 8 participants, and an extra instructor will be added if conditions warrant or if there's a wide spread of ages.*
Meanwhile, Surf in Paradise takes learners to a beginner-friendly location 10 minutes from Surfer's Paradise, and offers a maximum of six people per coach.* Kids age eight and up can take a group lesson, and younger kids can try a private lesson.
Wetsuits are provided during surfing lessons, but even with wetsuits the water may be chilly in winter months (starting June 1st.)
For a birds-eye view head to the SkyPoint Observation Deck. An elevator whisks visitors up to Level 77 and 78 of the Q1 Building which is topped with a distinctive oval shaped spire. Family passes for admission are available.
Guests get stunning 360 degree views of the coast, and can also enjoy a family-friendly yet sophisticated lounge where meals and drinks are served. A bonus during our visit was a retro display of photos and information about the Gold Coast's surfing history in the '50s and '60s.
Visit Lady Elliot Island on the Great Barrier Reef
The Gold Coast also offers an easy way to sample the Great Barrier Reef, which is off the coast of northeast Australia. Visitors can take a two-hour plane jaunt to the Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort, at the southern tip of the Great Barrier Reef.
Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort is a laid-back place with a superlative setting for exploring the reef. This resort offers an opportunity to snorkel right off-shore. (In most areas, the Great Barrier Reef can only be reached by a boat excursion.) Lady Elliot Island has two "channels" where guests can simply walk offshore without damaging the coral and start snorkeling over the reef. The resort also offers glass-bottom boat trips with a stop for snorkeling (wetsuits provided), and "reef walks" -- fascinating walks, or rather wades, alongside the coral at low tide, accompanied by a naturalist who points out details about the reef life. Lady Elliot Island is also a destination for scuba divers, and would-be divers can get certified here.
The Lady Elliot Island Resort has no tv and only limited internet access, which can be a plus with kids of a certain age, who might at first resist being cut off from their media fixes but then happily slip into enjoying the real life around them.
Day Trip (Or Longer) to Lady Elliot Island on the Great Barrier Reef
The two-hour ride in a small plane is part of the experience of visiting Lady Elliot Island.
Visitors can come and go on a day trip, but overnight stays are a much better idea, and also offer better value considering the price of the plane ride to and from the island.
Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort is one of only three island resorts on Australia's Great Barrier Reef, and is the only one with convenient fly-in access.
The island is located within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and sea life is abundant. Reportedly the reef here tends to be very healthy because the temperatures are cooler than in the more tropical north, so that the coral is less prone to "coral bleaching." Snorkelers and divers particularly hope to see one of the resident manta rays. Sea turtles are plentiful (in the right season) and kids taking the glass-bottom boat ride will be thrilled to get a look at them.
Families inclined to splurge while in Australia can take the opportunity to visit the only—at time of writing—Versace brand hotel. (A second Palazzo Versace is under construction in Dubai.)
The five-star Palazzo Versace on the Gold Coast is truly lovely. The lobby is opulent, the pool area elegant, the guestroom's bubble bath divine, and the breakfast spread is above and beyond any notion you may have of "lavish breakfast". This is the kind of buffet that displays a giant honeycomb in a tasteful —pun intended—glass and wood exhibit case.
While the Palazzo Versace doesn't have a kids club, kids are welcome in this lap of luxury. Families can even spread out in fully equipped 2 and 3-bedroom condos, some with a plunge pool or a rooftop jacuzzi. Kids will like the large pool with sandy zero-entry. (Reportedly an indoor pool is adults-only.)
Versace fans will find plenty of sightings of the signature Medusa head, appearing on all sorts of goods, including a bathrobe that can be yours for a mere $160. Fans will also like the prints of famous fashion photo shoots that decorate the halls leading to the guestrooms.
Gold Coast Things to Do: Jet Boating, Theme Parks, Attractions
Many Australian families head north to the Gold Coast during winter (starting June 1st) so it's no surprise that the area has some high-adrenalin fun.
Paradise Jet Boating (above) is a full-on thrill ride: the pilot pushes the boat at top speed, heading right to a collision with a pole or pier -- and then turns at the last second. Be ready for 360 degree spins, beach buzzing, and many high-speed twists and turns. Riders are provided with hooded raingear and would get soaked with it!
The 55-minute ride also includes slower passages past stunningly high-priced real estate. Family passes and kids' prices are available, as is free transport from area hotels. The ride departs from Mariners Cove Marina, in the Main Beach area, with outdoor restaurants and an indoor mall just steps away.
Theme Parks and Other Attractions
Meanwhile, the Gold Coast is especially known for its man-made attractions. Several places offer theme park fun: Dream World, Movie World, and more -- see Gold Coast Attractions, and also a guest article about Funparks on the Gold Coast.
Wet'n'Wild Water World, meanwhile, has water rides plus giant wave pool, Surfrider and FlowRider. And for a dinner show, Australian Outback Spectacular serves up food and entertainment near Movie World.
Side Trip to the Hinterland: O'Reilly's Rainforest Retreat
A wonderful side trip from Australia's Gold Coast is to head for the "hinterland", the hills and rainforest inland from the coast. An excellent choice for families is O'Reilly's Rainforest Retreat an ecotourism resort with a history that dates back to 1911. O'Reilly's is about 1-1/2 hours drive from the Gold Coast, and two hours drive from Brisbane, and is located within the Lamington National Park, which is part of the Gondwana Rainforests of Australia World Heritage Area.
On the way to the Rainforest Retreat, families can stop at the Canungra Valley Vineyards, also owned by O'Reilly's, for a creek-side picnic lunch (that must be pre-booked.)
More about Staying at O'Reilly's Rainforest Retreat
Visitors at O'Reilly's Rainforest Retreat can choose from guestrooms -- with great views from the balconies-- and also from 2 and 3 bedroom villas near the Lost World Spa. A dining room, wildlife information room, kids activity club room (for ages 5 to 12 during weekends and school holidays), and a comfortable library with huge fireplace are all located in the Guesthouse. Dining is excellent and kids will like the dining room as it has windows onto an enclosed area with colorful birds.
Kids will also love to see pademelons, small marsupials that are especially active when they forage at dusk. Pademelons are similar to wallabies and kangaroos, but smaller in size. It's lovely to sit on a guestroom balcony, or soak in a hot pool, and watch the sunset, the abundant birdlife, and cute pademelons.
A big draw at O'Reilly's is the chance to see birds and other wildlife, and several tours take guests on hikes into the rainforest. A highlight of the bird tour is the colorful "bower" of the bowerbird, where the male places bright-colored scraps -- such as blue-colored straws or bottle-tops-- to attract a mate.
Not to be missed at night is the Glow worm Tour: after a short bus ride, a ten-minute walk brings guests to an amazing display of glowworms shining like tiny constellations of stars in the dark - a great experience for families.
Guests can also take in a wildlife show, featuring birds of prey and other Australian animals. Above is a quoll, a native cat that is also a marsupial -- an amazing creature that, sadly, is dwindling in numbers today. Kids love the wildlife show, which includes some up-close moments with a rescued owl and two small squirrel glider possums.*
O'Reilly's Rainforest Retreat: Tree Top Walk
Every guest at O'Reilly's -- and especially kids-- should be sure to do this Tree top Walk, which is just a few hundred meters from the Guesthouse. This Tree Top Walk was the first of its kind in Australia. Nine suspension bridges take visitors into the canopy of the rainforest, 15 meters from the ground; guests can also climb a ladder to two higher observation decks for terrific views. The highest deck is 30 meters (approximately 110 feet) above the ground.
A great stop on the way back to the coast from Lamington Park and O'Reilly's Rainforest Retreat is Tamborine Mountain, which is actually a plateau 25 Kms from Surfers Paradise and 75 km from Bisbrane. This is a popular weekend destination, and depending on the ages of your kids, and the group tolerance for nosing around in places that tend to please adults more than kids, families can enjoy browsing in quaint and quirky shops-- including ice cream and fudge shops on Gallery Walk-- and sampling some fine local gastronomy (- try the Witches Chase Cheese Shop.)
Quirkier still -- in a wonderful way -- is the utterly unique and award-winning Tamborine Mountain Distillery. Kids will love the shop which, improbably, is stocked to the rafters with trinkets, tchotchkes, and even a tutu. There's a toy box for young kids, and a chess set for older ones... Meanwhile parents can admire the hand-painted bottles and creative spirits (pun intended) at this family-run business. If you've ever had the fantasy of saying, oh heck why don't we just start a completely new business -- head here for inspiration.
Brisbane -- affectionately known as Brissy-- is a bustling metropolis, Australia's third largest city and its fastest-growing one. Buildings from colonial times are scattered amid gleaming highrises, and the city brims with sidewalk restaurants (even in winter), wonderful riverside walkways and parks -- About.com's Guide for Australia Travel has an overview of Brisbane and the many great things to do in this booming city. A walking tour is a fine way to explore and learn some history.
Families should be sure to visit the Southbank area, which has a man-made beach-style aquatic play area that's a great success.
Brisbane Whale Watching
Brisbane is also a prime launching spot for a whale-watching trip, and only two companies are permitted to operate whale-watching tours in the area. This writer has been on whalewatching excursions that feel like hunting trips, with multiple boats pursuing the animals; the experience here was entirely different. Probably because there are so few ships pursuing them, the giant humpback whales seemed to be curious about of ship, and drew close to it -- something I've never experienced on a whale-watching excursion. These huge creatures, on their own, approached our boat and passed underneath it, and apparently this is common on these outings.
Whales are abundant in the area: they number literally in the thousands, and we enjoyed multiple sightings on our trip. Brisbane Whalewatching is one of the companies who run tours in this area. Visitors depart on a large catamaran with multiple viewing decks and two indoor areas; a buffet lunch is served; and on our trip the captain gave guests an informative commentary and shared her evident love of these giant wild creatures.
Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary
The Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary is a popular attraction in Brisbane, due largely to the opportunity to "cuddle a koala". Warm and fuzzy as this sounds, koala cuddling is illegal in other states in Australia as koalas easily get stressed by handling, and the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary states: "In Queensland, koalas can only be cuddled for less than 30 minutes per day. They must also get every third day off. This ensures that they get plenty of time to eat and sleep. At Lone Pine, we "clock on" and "clock off" our koalas when they go to the koala cuddling area."
Enchanting as it is to cuddle a koala and to see koalas on their perches throughout the Sanctuary, this visitor (in 2011) would've appreciated more indications about the animals' lives in the wild and at the Sanctuary. Guests can take two-hour tours -- including a koala cuddle-- which would surely provide insights about the animals. A day-long Keeper For A Day program is also offered, for participants age 18 and up. Check the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary for updates about programs.
The Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary has other animals as well, including wombats, a platypus, and more of the fabled Australian wildlife that fascinates North American school kids. Visitors can also see daily shows include Lorikeet feeding, Sheep Dog show, and a Bird of Prey show. Most notable are the kangaroos: it's thoroughly enjoyable to pet and feed these domesticated and comical-looking animals.
Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary: Koala Photo
It simply isn't possible to overstate the cuteness factor of koalas. Kids or adults, visitors to the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary will oooh and ahh and snap cameras at dozens of great photo shots. Koalas are very slow-moving which makes them easy to photograph.
Despite the adorableness of koalas and their iconic stature as Australian animal ambassadors, koalas are dwindling in number and the Australian Koala Foundation is asking the government to list the koala as "vulnerable" and to legislate protection of habitat. Habitat loss is crucial, as koalas only eat leaves from certain species of eucalyptus trees; the slogan of the Australian Koala Foundation is "No Tree No Me."
Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary: Kangaroos
The Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary is also a great place to get up close and personal with kangaroos. Don't try this in the wild! Kangaroos are normally not at all like the dozens of tame animals hopping and bounding, resting and flopping on their backs, and generally delighting visitors at the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary.
Kangaroos, it turns out, have a tendency to look debonair when lounging. Even better, these comical-looking characters allow themselves to be petted and fed by visitors.
Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary: Petting a Kangaroo
For our final shot: an experience kids (and grownups) can only have in Australia. These kangaroos have grown very relaxed and used to humans at the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary.