THE Australian state of Queensland was once the backpacking Mecca for the legions of British graduates who made the pilgrimage down under during the golden age of the gap year.
Months of hard graft in Melbourne, Perth and Sydney would be rewarded with adventure, late nights and sun-filled days in locations straight from the pages of glossy travel magazines. Today Queensland, like the many backpackers who passed through in the 1990s, has grown up. Although there is still a sizeable number of British backpackers making their way up the east coast, it is estimated to be down by a third from a decade ago.
The decrease, is said to be down to the strong dollar and the attraction of taking that strong dollar on a cheap flight to Bali. Queensland however, particularly the Gold Coast, is very much on the up. Buoyed by the state’s mineral wealth, its cities are expanding at an exponential rate, as are the number of top-rate hotels and fine restaurants.
Anyone who has previously visited will testify that the 20-hour plus flight is a tough nut to crack and while Qantas’ business class does succeed in zapping the sensitivity out of the hours, it is still a long haul. Upon arriving, there are two ways to deal with the jet lag. One is to head straight to bed in denial about having changed time zones, while the alternative is to throw yourself with gusto into the new daytime rhythm. I opted for the second and within an hour of arriving at Surfers Paradise following a two-hour drive from Brisbane Airport, I was waist-deep in warm Pacific water, armed with a surf board and waiting for the perfect wave.
I waited, then waited a few more seconds before the swell lifted me and my board up and away. Perfectly balanced in the middle, both hands tight to the side and with my right foot in trigger-like poise, I was all set to do what many talk of but never achieve – ride upright on a surf board.
I picked my moment then pushed up and for a few glorious seconds stood upwards surveying the metropolis ahead and the miles of golden sandy beaches on either side. A few seconds later I plunged head-first into the salty water before being skelped by my board and smacked by a wave.
Surfers Paradise is the east coast party town and bears more than a passing resemblance to Miami in both appearance and vibe. For an awe-inspiring view, the SkyPoint climb will take you to the pinnacle of the Gold Coast’s highest residential building. You’ll be strapped head-to-toe in climbing gear and buckled to a railing so there’s no chance of falling, and if high octane fun is your thing, lean back over the edge 260m above sea level and let go of the rail. If it’s not, you can marvel at the waterways carving out the island mosaic of this urban metropolis by the sea. Be warned though, ‘Surfers’ is where young Australians come to party and the town centre rivals Sauchiehall Street for raucousness on a Saturday night.
It does have some world class dining though, with the Versace Hotel, and some equally impressive accommodation that wasn’t on your backpacking itinerary. An ideal bolthole away from the main strip is the QT Gold Coast Hotel where guests are greeted by staff dressed in Thunderbirds outfits, laid back beats playing in the background and vintage cars out front. The decor is 1970s, with room ornaments that include pineapple ashtrays and parrot-shaped lamps.
After a few too many cocktails in the hotel’s bar, next day I was whisked up the coast in a bright orange campervan by my Tourism Queensland representative and, while the ocean is pretty impressive at Surfers Paradise, a short drive up to Noosa National Park gives you a true taste of its natural beauty. A wander along the coastal pathway in the crisp morning air with the gentle sun on your back, sand walkways surrounded by lush vegetation contrasting with the blue turquoise sea and bright yellow sands below, is uplifting and inspirational.
It’s not just humans that appreciate this fine coastline. and Hervey Bay, a two-and-a-half hour drive from Noosa, is rated one of the best spots in the world for humpback whale spotting as they get some sun before heading to the Antarctic.
The aptly named That’s Awesome whale tours fired us out to sea on the hunt for pods and our guide studied the waters for floating circular flats of water – evidence that these lumbering yet magnificent creatures have surfaced. We didn’t have to wait long before a young, friendly and curious pair with time to burn put on a show. After sounding us out with a few cursory glances and deep groans, they were soon in full synchronised pomp. One of the duo signed off by diving deep into the water before executing an explosive, Free Willy style jump into the warm, ocean air.
If you backpacked up the east of Australia a decade ago in a 4x4 jeep packed with boxed wine, Fraser Island would have been on your itinerary. The largest sand island in the world, it sits in a bowl of water larger than Sydney Harbour and is cushioned by a shelf made up of thousands of years of vegetation. It is also home to a plethora of wildlife, including countless free-roaming dingos and six of the world’s most deadly snakes.
Hire a 4x4, or, if you’re short on time, try a guided tour. The best attraction is the island itself. Nothing clears the mind like watching champagne waves crash into endless miles of golden sandy shore. There is also the rusting curiosity of the Dumbarton-built Maheno wreck which has been slowly sinking into the sand since it landed on the island in 1935 en route for scrapping in Japan. The one-time luxury liner that served as a hospital ship during the First World War was used as target practice during the Second.
Like Barra, Fraser Island is one of the few spots in the world where you can take off and land on a beach and taking a flight over it gives you an idea of its remoteness and how it is stitched together. Dense rainforest is punctuated by great sand valleys, lakes and miles of dunes held together by spider plants and tree roots.
Australia and, in particular, Queensland holds a host of memories for a generation of Scots who made the journey down under over a decade ago. Now with a bit more money in your pocket, it could be time to rediscover this magical part of the world.
• Austravel (0800 988 4834, www.austravel.com) has a week taking in some of the best of Queensland from £1,359 per person. The price includes return flights from London Heathrow with Qantas to Brisbane, plus accommodation and car hire, based on departures March 2013. In addition, Austravel can book the following excursions at time of booking: surf lessons from £116; a day’s whale watching off Fraser Island from £78 per person (Aug-Nov); Beauty Spots Tour on Fraser Island from £116 per person. For further information on holidays in Queensland, visit www.experiencequeensland.com.