Queensland is in the grip of gold fever – not the prospecting of the outback pioneers, nor the gambling of the inter-state travellers – it’s medal fever.
In 72 days athletes from across the world will be stretching every sinew of their highly trained bodies to win Commonwealth Games gold. Taking the baton from Glasgow, the Gold Coast will welcome the athletes in April.
As well as being Australia’s sixth largest urban area, Gold Coast is where Australians go for their holidays. Here they sample a mix of never-ending beaches and high-rise hospitality.
And here I am, 890 feet above the beach, the wind flattening a jumpsuit to my body. The 20-storey buildings of Surfers Paradise below are a toy town beside the sweep of sand, surf and Pacific Ocean.
The heart-pumping roped climb to the viewing platform of Q1 – the tallest building in Australia – is 290 steps up the outdoor staircase from the 76th floor observation deck, so the view is vast.
I can see many of the venues where the athletes will compete – the beach-front outdoor Aquatics Centre at Southport, the Convention Centre at Broadbeach and the 40,000-seat stadium at Carrara are easy to pick out.
Far along the beach to the south is Currumbin, which will host some of the cyclists, and further on, Coolangatta, where the beach volleyball will take place.
There is a rainbow arcing over Point Danger on the far horizon. It’s ironic as two hours ago I was having lunch there – feet firmly on terra firma. It is as far south as you can go in Gold Coast – in Queensland in fact – as this is the border with New South Wales.
The coast is more rugged here, the surf more challenging and would-be surfers are advised to learn in more sheltered places, like Currumbin Creek.
Marvelling at the resilience of those who brave the waves in today’s stiff breeze, I retreat to Café Dbar, where I enjoy one of its hallmark “sensational” salads, with tender coconut-smoked chicken and Vietnamese sticky pork.
After a few days in the buzz of Surfers Paradise – the tourists’ heart of the Gold Coast conurbation – this popular restaurant gives me space to reflect on the Commonwealth Games’ next destination. It is very different from Glasgow: its history is much shorter, its buildings taller.
A century ago this arc of coast was a wannabe tourist resort limited by its geography. The small settlement, called Elston, where Jim Cavill opened a hotel called Surfers Paradise in 1925, developed steadily through the 20th century. It adopted the hotel’s name in 1933, introducing bikini-clad parking meter maids in 1958 and high rise blocks started shooting up in the 1960s.
Since the 1970s theme parks have boosted Gold Coast’s popularity, making it one of the top destinations for Australian families.
The opening of Jupiters casino in 1985 added gambling and glamorous Vegas-style entertainment to its adult attractions.
The Commonwealth Games have prompted the area to refresh its image and many hotels and restaurants have been refurbished already.
Most notably, Jupiters was reborn as the Star Gold Coast in March 2017 after an A$840 million refit, and by the Games it will have added a six star hotel tower to its 600 existing bedrooms, theatre and six signature restaurants.
Close by, Pacific Fair is celebrating its 40th anniversary. The massive shopping mall completed an A$670m transformation last year and is now a magnet for the style-conscious with plenty of high-end names alongside a sweep of more down-to-earth brands.
“Gold Coast is evolving hugely as a tourism destination: it has so much more to offer than just the beaches,” says Mark Howell of City of Gold Coast.
“The dining and food scene is gaining momentum; eco-tourism is huge; there’s the hinterland and spa resorts. So people are discovering there’s a lot more to it than historically has been the case.”
I’ve spent my morning away from the beach at the Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary, one of those special places where conservation is the driving force. It’s here I encounter my first Australian kangaroos and koalas, but I am rather underwhelmed as they lounge around in the daytime heat.
However, the koalas redeem themselves when one descends from its precarious tree-top perch, crosses to another tree, climbs it and promptly relieves itself before tucking into more eucalyptus leaves.
Though slightly nervous as a koala is placed in my arms for a photo, the surprisingly heavy creature proves utterly adorable and behaves impeccably. I’m delighted to have had this real-life encounter as I have already spent a lot of time with Borobi, the koala-inspired blue mascot who will have a starring role in the Games.
Currumbin’s taste of Australian wildlife encourages me to head to the hinterland where life is decidedly different from the coast. My destination is Tambourine Mountain – a volcanic plateau about 30km north of Surfers Paradise. The town at its heart has numerous wineries and craft shops that attract weekend visitors.
The approach is through a pretty landscape of horse properties, polo fields, woods and market gardens. Since 1908, national park status has protected the plateau and makes it prime hiking country.
As time is limited, I don’t go hiking but opt for another gravity defying experience. The Rainforest Skywalk lets you get right into the canopy with a beautifully engineered tree-top walkway. En route the trail takes you up through the forest, signs gently educating you, before a 40m cantilever bridge soars out over the trees and creek below.
It’s less nerve-jangling than climbing SkyPoint, and the skywalk’s climax is a chance to get another perspective on this golden land where our athletes will be put to the test.
SkyPoint Climb tickets from A$74 (A$54 for children, 12 to 15 years), www.skypoint.com.au.
Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary tickets from A$49.95 (A$35.95 for children 4 to 14 years) www.cws.org.au
Southern Cross 4WD Tours runs trips to Tambourine Mountain, wwwsc4wd.com.au
Pacific Fair, Broadbeach, www.pacificfair.com.au
The Star Gold Coast, Broadbeach, www.star.com.au/goldcoast
Fiona stayed at Crowne Plaza Surfers Paradise www.surfersparadise.crowneplaza.com and Peppers Broadbeach www.peppers.com.au/broadbeach
Brisbane international airport is about an hour’s drive from Gold Coast. Transfers with Limoso limousine service (www.limoso.com.au) cost from A$165 for up to four people.
Tourist information at www.destinationgoldcoast.com