Last May I had the great privilege of visiting Queensland in Australia. I use the word privilege, because truly that’s what visiting this stunning part of the world is. For many of us, the state encapsulates almost everything that we perceive Australia to be. Gregarious and affable people, gorgeous tropical beaches, vast rainforests with strange flora and fauna and even the dusty Outback. From the wet tropical north, to the farms further south, Queensland is a great example of Australia in miniature. I’ve also written a lot about my experiences there, far more than I ever thought I would. After nearly six years of running this blog I realize that the more I love a destination, the more I write about it. It’s just human nature really, and as a writer I am always more interested writing about places I enjoy than places which don’t make much of an impact on me. I’m nearing the end of that coverage, although I’m sure some posts and other snippets will come up over time as I remember activities and details I had forgotten. Today though I want to offer a few random tidbits of information, some are about fun experiences and others are just my thoughts on Queensland and what visiting there is really like.
Gold Coast and Brisbane Don’t Get Enough Respect
About a third of my time in Queensland was spent along the Gold Coast and nearby Brisbane. For the non-Australians out there, the Gold Coast has a reputation not unlike Ft. Lauderdale or Myrtle Beach. It’s a sunny, beach destination that many Australians see as being overhyped and definitely over-touristed. I went into the experience though as an outsider with no preconceived notions, which is why I think I enjoyed my experience so much. First though, I want to talk about Brisbane; an Australian city that I don’t think gets nearly as much attention as it should. I love Australia and while I’ve never had a bad experience in an Australian city, I’ve also learned that they’re not all made the same. Some enjoy a distinct personality and vibe whereas others are a little more humdrum. Not bad, just a little boring. I honestly expected Brisbane to fall into the boring category, but after visiting for the first time a few months ago I soon realized how very wrong I was. Aside from the pedestrian zones and the museums, the one over-arching thought I had leaving Brisbane is just how incredibly livable it is. That’s saying a lot for a country like Australia, whose cities routinely rank in the top tier when it comes to judging the happiness of residents. I first noticed it when, after a couple of hours of walking with a guide, we hadn’t actually crossed a street. We ambled from one pedestrian-zone to the next, from park to promenade, enjoying the sights of the city without dealing with the typical city problems like cars and crosswalks. The city’s main pedestrian zone, Queen Street Mall, is a delightful circus of sights and sounds, restaurants, shops, cafes and people. It was the middle of the week and yet it was packed with folks out enjoying the wonderfully warm temperatures of a mild Queensland winter. But it was crossing the Kurilpa Bridge, and seeing the city from the Southbank that truly drove home just how nice Brisbane is to be in. The lengthy promenade was dotted with joggers and families and nearly every bench was occupied with folks enjoying the day. Brisbane is blessed with a lot of great weather, and everything about the city encourages residents and visitors alike to get out and enjoy that natural gift. At the risk of sounding infantile, Brisbane is just a fun city to be in and sometimes that’s enough.
Then there’s the nearby Gold Coast. While this area of coastline about an hour from Brisbane has been a popular getaway for decades, it was in the 1980s and ‘90s that much of the infrastructure suddenly emerged from the previously rural area. Theme parks, lots of them, waterparks, casinos and crappy hotels are what many Australians consider to be the entirety of the Gold Coast experience and you know what? You can find all of that and more in the tiny towns and hamlets that make up this, one of the most populous areas of Australia. But that’s certainly not all you’ll find, as I almost immediately discovered. The fact is that the Gold Coast, from Surfer’s Paradise to Burleigh Heads, is a lot like many other beach communities around the world. They draw all types of people from all walks of life and do their best to cater to all of these divergent tastes. Do I enjoy hanging out in the trashy areas of South Carolina or Florida? No, not really, but that’s not to say those same areas don’t have nicer places to visit; things to do that don’t necessarily involve mini-golf and foot-tall steins of beer. Misconceptions like these occur everywhere. The Costa Brava in Spain is still trying to correct outdated impressions as are a whole host of other destinations around the world. So, ignore the Australians, ignore many of the guidebooks and instead DO plan a visit to the Gold Coast.
A Responsible Crocodile Safari
While it may terrify outsiders, the reality is that the world’s foremost predator does indeed call Australia home – the saltwater crocodile, or salties as locals call them. There are many ways to see these impressive holdovers from the Jurassic, but in this case you do need to be careful which experience you decide to join. Stay away from farms and other captive ways to see these mighty animals and instead join a tour like the one I did just outside of Airlie Beach in the Whitsundays, the Crocodile Safari. It’s hard to believe that just a few miles from the turquoise blue waters that make the Whitsundays so famous is an entirely different kind of ecosystem, muddy rivers and marshes that are just as important as the reefs offshore. It’s in these waters where the crocodiles have lived for millennia and it’s also where the Crocodile Safari first started business back in 2000. From the very beginning, the owners wanted to offer a quality ecotourism experience and after my day on the water with them, I’d say that they’ve succeeded. Joining an expert guide, the group boarded a special boat and set down the river, waiting for our first sighting of the famous, and slightly scary, crocodiles. Apex predators in every sense of the word, they’re not an animal you’d want to meet while swimming. From the safety of the boat though we caught our first glimpse, but of baby crocodiles – hatchlings – as they learned to explore the world around them. The advantage in using a company like Crocodile Safari to discover the crocs in their natural element is that the guides typically have more than a decade of experience and understand the habits of the crocs, where to find them and what to share with guests. Over the course of a few hours we did indeed see many adult crocodiles, swimming along lazily or just sunning themselves on shore. It was a great experience to see what are fundamentally beautiful animals not in a zoo, but out in the wild, living their lives without interference from anything else. It’s also a quintessentially Queensland experience that far too many tourists forget to include in their travels around the state.
Unsure About Hamilton Island
The Whitsundays region along the coast of Queensland is one of the most visually stunning places I have ever been. This is one of the few examples of pure and unadulterated tropical perfection I have found anywhere in the world. Small inlets, quiet beaches and one of the best access points for the Great Barrier Reef, the Whitsundays has it all. A popular way to visit the Whitsundays, especially for Australians, is by staying on Hamilton Island. Easily accessed by direct flights from Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne, it makes for a great long weekend or longer getaway, which is how I found myself there. At first I loved it. It’s what you perceive a tranquil island to be like. Instead of cars, golf carts are the preferred mode of transportation and the views from the many beaches are stunning. But after a day or so, that initial awe began to wear off as I got to know Hamilton Island a little better. What most people don’t realize is that the entire island is essentially owned by one company, and everything on the island, from restaurants and shops to hotels, is all owned by that single company. I admit, it does make life convenient when an entire island is controlled by the same corporation, but it has a lot of negative effects as well. It didn’t feel like a real and authentic experience, instead it felt like a giant resort or theme park. Everything was too well packaged, too homogenized and just too convenient for my liking. It was also far too family friendly. Unless you stay at Qualia, one of the best resort hotels in the world and the ideal place to stay on Hamilton, then you are relegated to patronizing one of the other hotels. These are large complexes that don’t feel like a nice hotel stay, but instead machines processing new guests and treating everyone more like a number than a valued customer. They are also havens for families, which is fine if you have kids but if you don’t, then you’re left walking through lobbies dodging strollers and fighting with 5 year olds at breakfast for that last piece of bacon. It’s not a pleasant experience and towards the end of my time on Hamilton Island, I was more than ready to leave. When I finally did leave, I did so disappointed – the only time that happened during my month long tour around Queensland. It failed to live up to the promises of a relaxing vacation in paradise and instead seemed like a convenient family getaway for stressed out parents. And that’s fine, unless you’re like me and you’re not actually a stressed out parent. I can recommend Hamilton Island ONLY if you stay at Qualia, which is a secluded and private bastion of peace and quiet, otherwise skip Hamilton and find another spot along the Whitsundays to call home for a few days.
It Really Does Live Up To The Hype
I was initially most interested in visiting Queensland so I could finally visit the Great Barrier Reef; an experience high on my travel bucket list. The more I researched the state before the trip though, the more I started to fall in love, albeit cautiously. Almost every destination looks great on paper. Tourism web sites show happy people in amazing places and hotels go to great lengths to entice new guests. Many times the hype of a new destination fails to match reality, leaving us slightly disappointed afterwards. Queensland is different though. With the exception of Hamilton Island, every preconceived notion I had about the state not only matched my expectations, but far exceeded them. Those photos of the Whitsundays are all accurate. The Gold Coast really is always sunny. The Tropical North is as wild, wet and wonderful as the posters make it seem. It’s all true and in an age of overly edited photos and disingenuous travel articles, it’s a sad rarity to find a destination that really does live up to the incredible hype created around it.
Queensland is a special place and my time there was amongst the best I enjoyed in 2015. I hope to return, but even if I don’t I have some amazing memories that aren’t just nice, but which I know will stay with me as important life experiences until the end of my days.