Gold Class - Gold Coast

It began with the opening of the world’s first Versace Hotel, and continues with new infrastructure and lavish developments. The Gold Coast, once famed for its theme parks and breathtaking beaches, is evolving into a high-end, luxury destination.

It began with the opening of the world’s first Versace Hotel, and continues with new infrastructure and lavish developments. The Gold Coast, once famed for its theme parks and breathtaking beaches, is evolving into a high-end, luxury destination.

To some, Australia’s sixth most populous city is all about tacky souvenir shops, unruly schoolies and, more recently, bikie gangs and crime. There is, however, another side to the Gold Coast, and it’s time we talked it up.

It was here that Queensland’s surf culture began in the ’50s and designer Paula Stafford introduced Australians to the bikini (despite the model wearing the offensive outfit being ordered to leave the beach).

But it wasn’t until the Swinging Sixties that the glitz kicked in. Those bikinis worked a treat, and the Meter Maids who dared to strut their gold swimsuits along the streets and esplanades did exactly as hoped - attract eyes and dollars to the area. Surfers Paradise Meter Maids celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.

‘Surfers’ - as it’s known by the locals (and interlopers from the state’s capital, Brisbane) - is no longer a sleepy seaside village but a thriving economic hub and tourist magnet that draws the lion’s share of the coast’s 12 million annual visitors.

From the very first high-rise - a whopping 11 storeys - that opened in Surfers Paradise in 1960, there are now more hotels on the Gold Coast than grains of sand on the beach. Well, not exactly, but let’s just say there are myriad options for all tastes and budgets.

Newcomer QT Gold Coast redefined accommodation when it opened in 2013, ditching convention for quirky surfer cool. Think vintage surfboards, a soda stand offering free lemonade, complimentary bike hire and buffet breakfast with a twist. Even if you’re not staying here, it’s worth having a cocktail (perhaps made from one of the 50 in-house tequilas) in the cool ground-floor bar.

For five-star luxury, the leader of the pack has to be Palazzo Versace. It made the grandest of entrances 15 years ago, after Queensland developer Soheil Abedian of Sunland Group flew to Milan to talk over his big idea for the world’s first Versace hotel (a second has now opened in Dubai).

We’re talking a pebble mosaic driveway hand-laid by five artisans flown in from Italy, $11.5 million worth of Italian Carrara marble, a massive 750-kilogram chandelier that once hung in the State Library of Milan and the fashion empire’s signature Medusa heads absolutely everywhere. Earlier this year the hotel even bought two bespoke Rolls-Royce Phantoms for its guests to be transported in style.

When Palazzo Versace opened back in 2000, many questioned whether the ‘Goldie’ could sustain such opulence. But it has survived and thrived, garnering more awards every year, including most recently the title of Australasia’s Leading Hotel at the esteemed World Travel Awards. Celebrities such as Beyoncé, Jennifer Lopez and Rod Stewart love the place too, so don’t miss it - even if it’s just to take high tea (from $48 per person) in the pastel-pretty Le Jardin bar overlooking the pool and palms.

Versace has undoubtedly enhanced the area’s luxe status, but a new $200-million six-star hotel slated for the Gold Coast’s Jupiters Hotel & Casino will raise it further. Part of a dramatic $345 million overhaul, the hotel is tipped for completion at the end of 2017 to coincide with the hosting of the Commonwealth Games the following year. The flash new digs will include a 300-square- metre penthouse complete with vast balconies to take in the skyline views. Even the standard rooms are huge at 80 square metres.

The cash injection the region received for the 2018 Commonwealth Games has provided a major boost. A significant part of that money has been earmarked for a light rail system, which received a further $95 million in federal funding in October.

The first leg of the rail system was completed in 2014, a single 13-kilometre line between the Gold Coast University Hospital and Broadbeach. Another seven kilometres linking the hospital with the train station/bus interchange at Helensvale is planned for completion in time for the Games. “Gold Coast Light Rail is a transformative piece of infrastructure,” said Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, “and stage two will continue to change the way people move and get around the Gold Coast.” Aside from the long-term benefits for the region, it will link five competition venues and nine events to public transport hubs as well as accommodation during the games, a 12-day event that is expected to draw some 690,000 visitors.  

The Gold Coast has long been home to major sporting events. Golf enthusiasts have been converging on the RACV Royal Pines Resort for the Australian PGA Championship (3–6 December) for years. If golf’s not your thing, other coastal calendar highlights include the Burleigh Pro surfing competition (29–31 January 2016), the burgeoning Bleach* arts and cultural festival (4–20 March 2016) and the nationally acclaimed Somerset Celebration of Literature (9–11 March 2016) in nearby Mudgeeraba.

But for sheer glamour, the Jeep Magic Millions Race Day is hard to beat. On 9 January 2016 it celebrates its 30th anniversary and becomes the nation’s richest race day, with $10 million in prize money over nine races. Hats off to owners Katie Page-Harvey and Gerry Harvey for transforming what began in 1986 as a sale of fine yearlings into a week-long celebration that attracts royalty and  international celebrities. “We are so proud to call the Gold Coast our Magic Millions home,” says Page. “Imagine coming to Magic Millions for the first time if you live in Europe. You leave sub-zero temperatures and short days, to arrive to our hot summer, where your day can begin and end with a surf.”

If you’re lucky and pick a winner, there are plenty of places to spend your winnings - and there’s more to Goldie fashion than boardies, rashies and thongs. Surf brand Billabong might have got its start here in 1973 (when former surfer Gordon Merchant and his then partner Rena started making boardshorts in Burleigh Heads), but today’s fashionistas are spoilt for choice.

Main Beach boutiques on swanky Tedder Avenue carry Dolce & Gabbana, Givenchy and Chloé, while Hermès, Carla Zampatti and Tommy Hilfiger are among the big names in the Marina Mirage complex, beside Palazzo Versace.

The Australian designers who draw inspiration from their coastal base include Lisa Brown, Sinead James, Jamie Allen (Jaymes) and Becky Jack (Peony), while emerging designers flock to The Village Markets on the first and third Sunday of each month at Burleigh Heads, and on the fourth Sunday at Paradise Point Park.

Retail therapy is big business in this part of Queensland. Biggera Waters’ Harbour Town, billed as Australia’s largest outlet shopping centre, has almost finished the first stage of a $20 million expansion, while Pacific Fair Shopping Centre at Broadbeach is in the throes of a $670 million redevelopment and Robina Town Centre is undergoing a $160 million facelift.

The increasing sophistication of the region has brought a serve of top-notch restaurants, food markets and cafes that focus on sustainable, seasonal produce.

Favourites include Burleigh Heads’ The Fish House (for fresh seafood overlooking the surf), its sister restaurant Hellenika at Nobby Beach for shared-table Greek fare, Salt Grill by chef Luke Mangan inside the Hilton Surfers Paradise (try the tempura prawns) and, at Broadbeach, there’s top  vegetarian food at The Cardamom Pod as well as the inspired degustation menu at Sofitel’s Room 81.

Takeaway fish and chips are terrific from Charis Seafoods at Labrador. Or, if you fancy your foodie haunts under one roof, head to Ferry Rd Market in the Brickworks Centre at Southport or to The 4217, a new lifestyle precinct in Surfers Paradise that’s home to several artisan providores. If it’s a sense of community you’re after, Ursula and Ben Watts of the region’s much-loved Paddock Bakery have opened Bam Bam Bakehouse. They continue to serve the sophisticated pastry goods they are known for, but their new place offers diners a bistro-style menu in a relaxed family-friendly environment.

Round this all out with breathtaking beaches and the stunning hinterland nearby - particularly Lamington National Park (part of the World Heritage listed Gondwana Rainforests) - and it’s clear that the Gold Coast of today is gold class.  

Quick Facts 
Population 591,000
Area 1,402 km2 (Gold Coast area)
Time Zone GMT +10
Languages English (official)
Currency Australian dollar (AUD)
Electricity 220 – 240v 50Hz
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