In 1933 the little town of Elston was a nothingball seaside hamlet straddling a gorgeous stretch of beach along Australia’s Gold Coast. Jim Cavill, a well-to-do hotelier from Brisbane, an hour’s drive north, opened a small hotel in Elston that year. He quickly realized that tourists were unlikely to flock to “Elston” and started pushing the city council to change the town’s name.
Cavill suggested, rather firmly, “Surfer’s Paradise,” which just happened to be the name of his little hotel, and the city council agreed (surely not because of pressure from a wealthy businessman.) The rest, as they say, is history.
This once quaint, sleepy little town is now a sprawling glitzopolis, street after street of shimmering glass and steel condominium high-rises reaching to the heavens. Business is booming in Surfer’s Paradise, and as those in other parts of Australia will tell you, it’s “perfectly horrid.”
At least those from my generation will tell you that. The hordes of bleach-blonde twenty-somethings pumped full of silicone, all trying, often successfully, to out-slut each other, seem to find it perfect.
Surfer’s Paradise is the antithesis of so much of what I love about Australia. There’s nothing authentic, nothing uniquely Australian. It’s Miami, without the Cuban accents.
Which would be alright, except, you see, we already have a Miami, and it’s doing just fine. Australia’s version has replaced charming little beach cottages with night clubs, gentleman’s clubs, casinos and streets lined with Ferraris, Maseratis and Hummers. It’s gaudy, expensive and, again in very un-Australian fashion, unsafe.
I hated it immediately.
To be fair, the beaches in Surfer’s Paradise, and all along the Gold Coast, remain beautiful, but nearby towns like Broadbeach, Currumbin and Bilinga are far less gaudy. In those small places, you can see more beaches than buildings, more koalas than condos. I prefer beaches and koalas.
I came to be in Surfer’s Paradise because my business brought me to Brisbane, capital of Queensland and a city I prefer ever so much. Brisbane is what you’d expect from Australia: beautiful, informal, friendly and inviting.
And Queensland as a whole is a spectacularly beautiful state, “The Best of Australia all rolled into one,” as their official website proudly proclaims.
This may not be an idle boast; only in Queensland can you hike mountains and rainforests, brave the Outback and explore The Great Barrier Reef. The website may speak truly. (Of course, the selfsame website also boasts of 300 sunny days a year, but as I write this they’re suffering through historic rains and flooding. When I visited this time last year, they were suffering through historic rains and flooding. So maybe the website exaggerates just a smidge.)
Surfers Paradise aside, Queensland radiates typical Australian laid-back charm, even in its biggest city.
One need look no farther for evidence of this than the taxi drivers and local newspapers. One charming woman, who drove my colleague Kara and me to an appointment across town, was amiably chatting about how she was usually far more drunk than the people she picked up from pubs in the evenings. She saw nothing wrong with this, noting “I couldn’t rightly walk. I’m always too drunk.” (Actually, she said, “I’m always too pissed.” In Australia, “pissed” means “drunk.” Not to be confused with “pissed off,” which actually means “pissed off,” i.e., angry.)
She’s been driving a cab for 28 years. And somehow I felt more comfortable in her car than I have in so many of those I’ve braved around the world.
The headline on today’s paper shouted “Cod almighty, he’s just such a big mouth!” Being in Australia I naturally assumed this was referring to some local politician. It wasn’t (it was, instead, about some massive cod local divers discovered near the reef), but I loved being in a country in which you have every reason to believe it might have been talking about a local politician! And I love the fact that some oversized local fish warranted a front page mention. Things are different here.
We stayed in the Sheraton Mirage on the Gold Coast, and it’s a splendid resort. This time of year is slow season, so while the always bustling Surfer’s Paradise remained packed, our little area just to the north was calm and quiet. The broad, beautiful beach was largely devoid of people, and the only real excitement came from the sporadically placed lifeguards (called “Life Savers” in Australia), who would occasionally stir to life, barking something unintelligible thorough their megaphones. We could never tell quite what they were saying to us, everything coming out as a very loud “grmmpgh guggha wurvs merlee RIP TIDE MATE!,” though we’d all dutifully hang our heads and stomp back towards shore, assuming we must surely have been doing something wrong.
(Australians get terribly excitable about drownings. They report them with the same breathless excitement American newspapers cover Lindsey Lohan arrests. Losing addlebrained tourists to splashy and gurgling watery graves is bad for business, but seems to give the locals a bizarre chuckle.)
Work finished and done with the beach, we met Kurt, a friend from Brisbane who shares our disdain for the glitz of Surfer’s Paradise, for dinner at the Surf Club. The Surf Clubs dotting hundreds of miles of Queenstown beaches are far from glamorous, and utterly delightful. Ours, the Southport Surf Life Saving Club, was jam-packed, though thankfully everyone was wearing t-shirts and flippies (flip-flops to an Aussie) instead of Armani suits and shiny snake-skin boots.
The whole Surf Life Saving culture thing in Australia is pretty much unfathomable to Americans. To us, a lifeguard is a lifeguard, end of story. In Australia, being a lifeguard (Surf Life Saver) involves club membership, uniforms (composed mainly of accessorized Speedos), drills, practices, national competitions, and not just a little bit of tossing back Fosters at the club bar. It’s all done with limitless Australian bravado and bonhomie, and probably makes being a lifeguard a whole lot more fun than it is in the States. Or Canada. Or Bulgaria, for that matter.
The next morning we hopped in our rental car for the drive back up the Pacific Highway to Brisbane. Kurt has suggested we check out Yatala Pies along the way for what he promised would be the best meat pies I’ve ever had.
(Meat pies are common fare in Australia and New Zealand. They’re small, hand-held pastries filled with meat, cheese, onions and other goodies. When I was a kid growing up in New Zealand my favorite fast-food restaurant was Georgie Pie, where you could eat your fill of mince and cheese pies. My parents tried, often unsuccessfully, to limit me to no more than ten pies per week. They’re that good.)
Georgie Pie is sadly out of business now, probably because I left the country, but I still seek scrumptious meat pies out any time I’m in this part of the world.
Kurt, unfortunately, wasn’t the only person who believed these to be the world’s best pies. The line stretched out the door and half way ’round the building.
Because I’m generally inept when it comes to operating a GPS nav system, I’d gotten hopelessly lost on the way, so couldn’t spare the time to wait. I was torn. Would a perfect pie be worth missing my flight?
Salavating, I gave into good sense and merged back into the northbound lanes of the Pacific Motorway, pie-less and hungry.
It was the right decision. The flight I almost blew off for a mince pie would take me to Port Douglas, a town where the tallest building reaches just four stories, and where the Great Barrier Reef is but a short boat ride away. In short, heaven. I couldn’t wait