Tuesday 17 October 2017

Living the dream down under

AUSSIE IDYLL: Queensland's sun-kissed state capital Brisbane is a city of just over two million people with plenty of hip and happening restaurants, verdant parks and riverside walkways
AUSSIE IDYLL: Queensland's sun-kissed state capital Brisbane is a city of just over two million people with plenty of hip and happening restaurants, verdant parks and riverside walkways
HEAD FIRST: Padraic tries out sandboarding on the huge dunes that are a feature of Tangalooma island

PADRAIC McKIERNAN

I'd been told that the long haul flight to Australia might play havoc with my sleep patterns, but this was ridiculous –nobody had told me about the hallucinations. It was 2am on the night of my arrival on Queensland's spectacular Gold Coast and going by the high-pitched shriek emanating from my sky-scraping hotel balcony, it sounded like either the ghost of a mournful Maria Callas or a banshee had taken up residence outside. The fact that the window hadn't shattered ruled out the opera singer so in my drowsy, sleep-disturbed state, I resigned myself for a probable rendezvous with the Grim Reaper on the morrow.

Waking the next morning to blue skies and eye-popping sea-swept vistas didn't exactly ease apprehension levels around having arrived in a heavenly paradise, but a quick word over breakfast with Greg Floyd, our host for the week, and all-round monument to Aussie affability, soon set me straight.

"That was a currawong, mate," he assured me. I nodded, secretly hoping that currawong wasn't Aussie for banshee, but it turns out that my nocturnal nemesis was in fact a tiny singing bird, local to the Queensland area, that has a reputation for punching way above its tiny weight when it comes to hitting the high notes.

It was further confirmation that I had arrived in an exotic wonderland, light years removed from the cloud-encased Dublin I'd left behind about two days earlier. The flight had been long, but this was my first time seeing Australia and initial impressions suggested it had been well worth going the extra air-mile. We stayed in the towering pamper palace that is Peppers Broadbeach. Situated beachside, and within constant ear-shot of the thunderous Pacific, it proved to be the perfect first port of cool for exploring this tropical idyll.

Located about an hour's drive south of Brisbane, Queensland's Gold Coast is known as Australia's No 1 tourist destination and it's easy to see why. Take a trip to evocatively titled locations such as Surfers Paradise or sun-kissed Coolangatta (Rainbow Bay) where you can marvel at the sight of migrating humpback whales in the distance, and the sense of being up close and personal with paradise is palpable. A visit to the bustling James Street in the seaside village of Burleigh comes recommended for those who want an opportunity to soak up the essential Aussie essence. Coffee shops and chic restaurants abound and it's the perfect place to pull up a seat, order a "long black" (Aussie for coffee) and savour the laid-back vibe.

As you might expect, Queensland cuisine is to sigh for, with spectacular seafood, arguably its most celebrated calling card. Any visit to this part of the world isn't complete without sampling the area's Moreton Bay "bugs". Don't be put off by the "bug" bit as they're really super-sized prawn-like shellfish of the type that dream dishes are made of. The al-fresco delights of the Helm Bar+Bistro in Surfers Paradise is guaranteed to hit all the right spots in this regard, while those looking for the ultimate "Breakfast in Australia" experience are urged to check out the Providore Marina Mirage at the Marina Mirage Shopping Centre. Talk about the quintessential breakfast buzz.

It's situated beside Duffy Down Under, an enterprise that offers electric boat tours of the Gold Coast Waterways, a network of picture-perfect canals and waterways that stretches as far north as Brisbane and is reputed to be larger in scale than those of Venice and Amsterdam combined. It's the perfect way to get a closer view of the many Gatsby-esque mansions that are a feature of this playground for Australia's well-heeled big buckerati, as it were.

Our stay coincided with the annual Brisbane Arts festival, so reluctantly it was time to depart this sun-kissed coastal haven for the state capital. A city of just over two million people, Brisbane, traditionally, had a reputation with Australians for being a bit of a backwater, but that's all changed recently. It's said that the World Expo of 1988 was the event that kick-started its development, and first impressions today are of a thriving, classy metropolis perched along the banks of the meandering Brisbane River.

We stayed at the plush Punthill Apartments and they proved to be an ideal base from which to explore the surrounding cityscape. Arriving during the festival probably meant that there was an extra buzz on the streets, but the intoxicating effect of the tropical vegetation such as the purple jacaranda and the blooming bougainvillea accentuates Brisbane's exotic cachet and helps ensure it remains a year-round delight.

As is often the case, a guided bike tour is a brilliant way of familiarising yourself with the hidden heartbeat of a city and Steve at Brisbane Bicycle Tours didn't let us down in that regard. A native of California, he'd intended retiring in Hawaii until a holiday in Brisbane prompted a change of plan. It's easy to see why.

I suspect I'm understating the situation to suggest that Hawaii has its charms but biking through Brisbane's network of tranquil parks and riverside paths, the combination of a balmy breeze on your face together with the exercise induced endorphin-overload renders the impulse to make this place your home almost an irresistible one. Pardon the black humour, but I certainly saw enough to make me wonder whether the convicts of yesteryear sent here as a punishment might have had the last laugh. If it had been me, it would have been a case of, "two years in Brisbane for robbing a chicken m'lud? Any chance of making it three?"

Brisbane is also home to a number of hip and happening districts and an area known locally as The Valley is a must-visit for those looking to indulge their boho-chic side. The Valley was Australia's first dedicated entertainment precinct and it teems with funky outlets aimed at championing the cause of some of the nation's coolest artists and designers. Those hoping to make some night moves might also want to check out the ultra-sophisticated Cloudland nightclub in the same area. Kylie apparently is a regular patron when she's in this neck of the woods. Those with kids in tow won't want to miss the opportunity to cuddle a koala and get within touching distance of a kangaroo at the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary on the outskirts of Brisbane.

We spent our last day down under exploring the off-shore delights of the Tangalooma Island Resort. Situated about a hour's ferry ride down the Brisbane River and out across the azure expanse that is Moreton Bay, its clear blue waters, combined with the sight of pelicans and dolphins feeding on the shore as we approached, served as a further reminder that I was in trip-of-a-lifetime territory.

It's reckoned to be the third largest sand island in the world and boasts some of the highest coastal sand dunes in the Southern Hemisphere. An overnight trip is probably the ideal way to experience this family-friendly resort but our day trip was not without its thrills. As the accompanying picture confirms, a rush of blood to the head resulted in me ascending one of these mountainous sand dunes to indulge in an activity known as sandboarding. Big mistake. The picture may suggest I had my death-defying 30mph descent under control but, trust me, on the inside; I was getting mentally prepared to meet my maker. Thankfully, I lived to tell the tale. It seemed Geoff was right about the currawong.

GETTING THERE

Brisbane & the Gold Coast – 8 night holiday from €1,669 with Trailfinders. Includes return flights from Dublin to Brisbane with Qantas Airways, 4 nights at the centrally located 4-star Rendezvous Hotel Brisbane Anzac Square, 4 nights at the 3-star Hotel Grand Chancellor Surfers Paradise and 4 days' car hire. Valid for selected May/June 2014 departures, must book by November 30, 2013. To book, call Trailfinders reservations on 01 677 7888 or visit trailfinders.ie. For more information on holidays in Queensland, visit: www.experiencequeensland.com/

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