Often overlooked by time-pressured tourists, Australia’s Sunshine Coast has some hidden highlights worth slowing down for. By Bronwyn Griffiths
It’s strange to call 60 miles of endless beaches and lush hinterland a “small wonder” but we’re talking on an Australian scale here. Starting an hour outside of Brisbane and stretching up to Fraser Island, the Sunshine Coast’s laid-back beach cities and pristine national parks aren’t featured on most tourist hotspot lists. But if you have the time to explore Queensland beyond the Great Barrier Reef there are some great adventures to be had in this part of the country, as I discovered on a recent trip home. Whilst I grew up in a comparatively chilly part of regional New South Wales, my family have since swapped it for the Australian dream of rainforests and beaches on your doorstep; a lifestyle the Sunshine Coast specialises in.
The Glasshouse Mountains rise so abruptly out of the surrounding flat pineapple farms that they look misplaced from an actual mountain range. In fact, each one is a volcanic plug that was forced to the surface about 25 million years ago. An unusually beautiful site to behold, they’re best viewed from one of their own peaks — according to my mother who climbs Mount Ngungun a couple of times a week. At 830ft high, it’s more than your average stroll around the block but there are some well-planned trails that guide you upwards through the dense eucalyptus trees and shrubbery; a little too steeply in parts for my liking but my 65-year-old mom bounds up them easily with the family dog. At the summit, there’s plenty of space to sit down, both to catch your breath and drink in the view of nearby Mount Tibrogargan, Coonowrin and Beerwah that rise like a series of skyscrapers against the horizon.
A 15-minute drive brings you to Australia Zoo, the 100-acre wildlife park run by the family of the late TV personality, Steve Irwin. It’s an impressively spacious animal sanctuary and one that provides my first up-close experience of koalas. A platform surrounds a ring of eucalyptus trees, which brings this ground-dweller eye-level with the backside of what looks like a plump, felt-covered child, clinging sleepily to the branches. For $30 you can cuddle one but I’m unsure about those claws or waking something that prefers a near constant state of slumber. I’m about to leave when the koala finally stirs and shifts in the tree: it throws me a quizzical look, pushes a leaf into its mouth and then drifts off again. In a grassy field, I tentatively lie down next to some more lazing animals: red kangaroos who are wholly unbothered by my presence or my attempt to take a selfie with them, my heart pounding at my proximity to their huge, powerful legs. Whilst lunchtime in the high-fenced crocodile pavilion is pretty terrifying, I have my biggest fright with a bird of prey. A bug-eyed Barking Owl rears up and spreads its wings as its handler approaches me and I don’t hang around to find why.
Life’s a beach
Further up the coast, glamorous Noosa Heads doesn’t allow any buildings higher than its trees but the streets of this sub-tropical town are still lined with boutiques, spas and nightclubs. The beaches are equally busy with sunbathers but it’s easy to escape the crowds and find an empty stretch of sand. The Tanglewood Track through neighbouring Noosa National Park is quite aptly named: it winds through the mass of scribbly gum trees and ferns and a 45-minute walk is the only way of reaching isolated beaches like Alexandria Bay.
Emerging out of the scrubland onto a sparkling beach feels like a movie moment, like I’m on a deserted island rather than just down the coast from a bustling town. My only company for most of the day are the tiny, translucent fish swimming only metres from the shore, and when some other humans do finally turn up I quickly realise this is a popular spot for naturists. I’m not that surprised, as this does feel like paradise.