I left my fantastic job in Longreach on October 6th to get back to the holiday part of my working holiday, with the intention of traveling up the east coast of Oz from Gold Coast to Cairns for about 3 weeks. I flew to Brisbane and hopped directly onto the train to Gold Coast at the airport, with my new and improved packing skills paying off every step of the way, and took another bus and a tram to my hostel in Surfer’s Paradise.
Now, maybe it was a combination of the rainy weather and my emotions being all over the place about leaving my job and friends, but I was pretty underwhelmed by Gold Coast. It’s not that the Gold Coast doesn’t have a lot to offer. It has everything from theme parks to wax museums, true sky scrapers, long white sand beaches, casinos and booming nightlife. But what turned me off was that it’s the kind of place that exudes inauthenticity. I had drinks with three people who actually live there, and when I asked them about what they liked/disliked about Gold Coast, one of them said, “Everyone’s fake on the Gold Coast.” To be fair, he was pretty fake himself, so take that however you want. My impression was that it’s a place where wealthy people live to show off how rich they are, and visitors go to party and live out a fantasy for a weekend before going back to reality (it’s actually Australia’s version of Panama City Beach for high school kids on holiday). There’s nothing wrong with a little glamour of course, but it’s kind of like Vegas… a weekend there is enough, and you’ll leave with the hangover to prove you went.
While I couldn’t see myself living in Gold Coast long term, I can definitely say it’s the kind of place you can go for a great time! I wouldn’t put it on your cultural enlightenment bucket list, but if you’ve got the time and money while you’re in Australia, you should spend a few days there taking in the sun and bustle, and here’s what you need to know to make the most of your trip –
I’d suggest staying in Surfer’s Paradise where you’ll be right in the heart of all the action. Surfer’s beach is one of the busiest beaches on the coast, but it’s still clean and beautiful, and just steps from the shopping, dining, and nightlife. It’s maintained its popularity through years of development at the surrounding beaches, so it has plenty of accommodation options to choose from for all price ranges. However, even if you stay somewhere else, the public transportation is excellent and it’s fast and easy to get between beaches.
Gold Coast, like a lot of Australian cities, has a combination of trams and busses that take the same transportation card. Like most places, you can buy a card and load it with your desired amount of credit, or you can buy single trip tickets, but Gold Coast has one special option specifically for visitors called the Go Explore card. With it you pay $10/day for unlimited travel, which is a great deal if you’re going to make even one round trip from one beach to another. You can pick this up at the train station or airport when you arrive, or from an information kiosk or 7-Eleven stores.
The tram runs directly parallel to the beaches on Gold Coast Highway from Main Beach at the north end of the coast to Broadbeach South, and from there you can hop on bus 200 to all of the southern beaches. Like I said, it’s super easy to get around in Gold Coast, and it’s honestly probably the only place I haven’t had a major public transportation mishap and meltdown. As long as you pay attention to which side of the road you need to be on to get on the right tram, you’ll be just fine. You can keep track of the timetable online, or just put your destination into Google maps on your smart phone and it will tell you when and where to hop on the bus or tram to get where you’re going.
Gold Coast is more tourist-oriented than any other place I’ve been in Australia. What you do honestly depends entirely on your interests and your budget, but I found that most of what it has to offer are experiences that you can do in at least 100 other cities around the world. You can book all kinds of experiences from motorcycle and 4 wheeler tours to surf lessons and jetpacks. It’s definitely the kind of place built for tourists to spend money and have a good time, and you can pretty much design whatever kind of vacation you want around your budget. I thought about going to Movie World and Whitewater world, but I decided to save myself for Disney World and Universal Studios instead (and it’s only half because I’m team Marvel over DC every day). I skipped the wax museum because I’ve been in Vegas, and I didn’t bother with Ripley’s Believe It or Not because I know they’re all over. However, if you do want to see the parks and attractions, you can find joint ticket deals online, at tour booking companies around Surfer’s, or even on Groupon.
If you’d rather see what’s unique to Gold Coast, I’d stick to the beaches and nature attractions, and of course dabble in the food and nightlife. You can easily do this in a weekend, or stretch it out over a few more days if you get caught up in the touristy excitement. Whatever you decide, I have just a few must see suggestions –
- Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary
I’ve skipped every other animal related attraction in Australia because I don’t like the idea of animals in captivity. Sure, I go back and forth with the positives and negatives of zoos and aquariums and their roles in preserving endangered species (possibly just because of the creative advertising they use to overcome negative publicity and global scandals) but ultimately I can’t bring myself to pay to see animals in cages and tanks. However, Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary has one of the busiest wildlife hospitals in the world, which receives no government funding, but provides free veterinary care to thousands of animals before releasing them back into the wild. I felt like it would be a pretty decent place to spend my money, and I wasn’t disappointed at all!
The park has tons of opportunities for animal interactions, GREAT shows, a high ropes course, the option to do a Segway tour, and you might even get to see an animal surgery on your visit. They open at 8am, and while tickets are advertised at $49.95 for adults, you can easily find them cheaper online or from a tour desk. Bus 200 also stops right outside the sanctuary, so you can get there on your $10 day pass, AND you can save money by taking your own food and drinks into the park, making it an even more affordable day trip.
I’d definitely suggest spending at least half a day at the sanctuary, and seeing as many of the free shows as possible, but make sure you wear your walking shoes! As a bonus, the sanctuary is only a 5 minute walk the from the beach, the surf club, and Elephant Rock, so if you aren’t completely worn out after your crocodile and koala encounters you can grab dinner on the beach or even do a little sunbathing.
- Burleigh Heads
Burleigh is one of the most popular beaches on the Gold Coast, offering calm waters, great swimming and surfing areas, and a national park with walking trails just off the beach. While all of the beaches on the coast are beautiful and you won’t be disappointed by sunbathing on any of them, Burleigh’s combination of coastline and forestry makes it unique. There’s also ocean front dining and cafes and even frequent craft markets. Burleigh is perfect for another cheap day trip from wherever you stay on the coast, as it’s right on the 200 bus line and of course the beach and walking trails are free.
- Surfer’s Paradise
If you don’t decide to stay in Surfer’s, make sure you at least get there for a day. It may be party and tourist central, but if you make it to Gold Coast you might as well go big or go home. There’s tons of shopping and food just next to the beach, and you’ll want to spend at least one night out exploring the bars and night clubs. One important thing to keep in mind is that it’s the kind of place that CAN easily make you feel under-dressed. There are tons of bars to choose from, everything from underground to rooftop and sultry lounges, but if you’re attracted to the more upscale places, you’ll want to dress the part. The trams also run for 24 hours on weekends, and there’s plenty of late night food available, so don’t be afraid to go out, let your hair down, and have a great time!
- The Australian Outback Spectacular
If you’ve been following along, you know I worked for a small tour operator in central Queensland for 6 months that highlights the history of rural Australia. One of our partners in town was the Australian Stockman’s Hall of Fame, which featured an outback show that gave people real insight into the life of an Australian stockman. It was a great experience for me to see how farming and agriculture has developed and progressed in rural Australia, and the Outback Spectacular in Gold Coast gives people a broader and even more exciting look at important pieces of Australian history. If you want to do something truly unique, educational and fun while you’re in Oz, the show is definitely a must see. It runs Tuesdays through Saturdays, and of course you can find ticket deals online or through tour desks if you’re willing to do a little digging.
A visit to Gold Coast could easily be overwhelming, with hundreds of tour and attraction options to book, and of course the desire to see “enough.” However, don’t pressure yourself into trying to visit every beach. They’re all beautiful, but that doesn’t mean you have to see them all. Pace yourself, enjoy your time, take in plenty of sun and make your vacation what you want it to be instead of worrying about what it should be. As always, I hope this information helps make your travels as easy and enjoyable as possible, and takes some of the stress out of planning your trip.