Sunburnt and exhausted after partying it up on Australia's Gold Coast? That’s not surprising. This sprawling city stretching along the Pacific coast south of Brisbane is Australia’s answer to both Las Vegas and Miami, combining gambling, nightclubs and dining with perfect swimming beaches.
Luckily, the Gold Coast has a calm, refreshing twin to its party-town hedonism: the Gold Coast Hinterland. Inland to the west, this region, which is centred on the heights of the McPherson Range, is a lofty repository of nature, and an easy drive from the urban outskirts.
The prodigious growth of the city below has left the Hinterland happily unaffected. If anything, it’s enhanced its natural appeal, stocked as it is with national parks, scenic wonders, and attractive small towns offering quality food and drink. It’s the ideal place to recharge after partying on the plains.
Start with nature. Springbrook National Park is scattered across several areas, each with its own nature highlights. In the Natural Bridge section, you’re likely to pass water dragon lizards, green catbirds and curious plant life, such as the parasitic strangler fig or slender wait-a-while palm, among the dense forest that the walking trail cuts through. At the bottom is the Natural Bridge, a long broad cavern of rhyolite and basalt, which arches above visitors as they admire the creek that tumbles down through a gap in the stone.
A short drive away is the humbly named Best of All Lookout, a vantage point that allows a sweeping view to the ocean and into northern New South Wales. Perched on what was the crater wall of a long-eroded prehistoric shield volcano, the lookout is an ideal spot to sit and reflect on nature’s grandeur.
Other attractions within the park include the Purling Brook Falls, where a path gives access to a remarkable view of a waterfall dropping from a craggy cliff face. To turn your gaze upward, visit the Springbrook Research Observatory, which opens for star-gazing sessions when the skies are clear.
Further west, experience lush rainforest at Lamington National Park. To the north, Tamborine National Park offers natural attractions and impressive views of the coast. The nearby Tamborine Rainforest Skywalk offers a spectacular treetop walk along a network of elegant steel walkways high above the ground. At intervals along the way, signs explain the native greenery, including the raspy root orchid, the ebony myrtle, and the remarkable hoop pine which is a survivor from the Jurassic era. It grows fruit at its very top, a prehistoric evolutionary trick to evade thieving by dinosaurs.
There’s more to the natural attractions of the Hinterland, particularly its locally produced food and drink. An excellent place to sample this is at the premises of Witches Chase Cheese Company (www.witcheschasecheese.com.au), in the small town of Eagle Heights. Its Misty Mountain Blue cheese and LI Washed Rind are highlights. The cheese makers share the same attractive airy building as local beer makers MT Brewery (mtbeer.com), so visitors can order a platter of cheese to share alongside a 'flight' bearing five small glasses of beer, ranging from the popular Rainforest Lager to the dense, Belgian-style St Bridget Dubell.
The most memorable cellar door experience in the area is to be had at Tamborine Mountain Distillery. This award-winning operation, situated in an oddly European setting of cottage-like facades and a statue-bedecked fountain, is owned by Michael and Alla Ward. Michael is an ever-lively figure in Hawaiian shirt and Santa-white beard, as colourful as the company’s products: macadamia nut liqueur, wattle toffee liqueur, and absinthe bearing a reclining kangaroo on the label (cheekily called 'Moulin Rooz').
Restaurants and cafes are dotted throughout the Hinterland, and many offer stunning views. Near Purling Brook Falls, Dancing Waters Cafe (dancingwaterscafe.com) is a popular place for a light lunch on its outdoor forest-side deck. Other great dining choices are St Bernards Hotel at Mt Tamborine and the Old Church Restaurant (www.theoldchurch.net/Restaurant.html) in North Tamborine.
The best meal, though, is likely to be the lunch you help cook at Tamborine Cooking School (www.tamborinecookingschool.com.au) in Mt Tamborine. Located within a large, light-filled house with views down the mountainside, the school hosts up to a dozen students at a time. They’re instructed by professional chef Terri Taylor, who utilises many local ingredients such as Moreton Bay bugs (a popular shellfish), wattle seed and lemon myrtle.
Although the Gold Coast Hinterland can be visited as a day trip from the coast, it’s more satisfying and relaxing to spend a few days in the region. There are some excellent upmarket accommodation options, including Peppers Ruffles Lodge and Spa (www.peppers.com.au/ruffles-lodge), with large luxurious rooms, a good restaurant and a pool with a view.
Comfortable mid-range lodgings include O'Reilly's Rainforest Retreat, a 90-year-old guesthouse with a lot of charm; and the self-contained accommodation of the Kidd Street Cottages. For budget accommodation in an attractive leafy setting, there’s Tamborine Mountain Caravan and Camping.
At the end of your jaunt to the Gold Coast Hinterland, after sating your appetite for food and nature, you might feel ready to return to the coast and start partying again. Or you might just feel like staying here and settling down. Serenity can be addictive.