I had many pre-conceived ideas about the Gold Coast when I visited for the first time recently, but finding a place besotted with everything retro was not one of them. Checking in at the trendy QT hotel, I was assisted by concierges donning 1950s jumpsuits and suspenders, the welcome drink was homemade lemonade served in mock recycled milk bottles and in the elevator I was greeted by a 1950s bosomy bombshell, albeit a fake one. The hotel proudly celebrates nostalgic surfer chic meets Miami catwalk cool, right down to the old fashioned lolly stall in the lobby. Exploring the esplanade on a retro pushbike courtesy of the QT hotel, I spotted billboards depicting a Surfers Paradise before skyscrapers, when fibro shacks lined the shoreline and bikinis were still a novelty.
The fact that Australia’s brash party coast is having a make-over, shouldn’t have come as a surprise, but the Goldie’s backward looking nostalgia for the golden age of Australian beach culture of the 1950s and 60s certainly did. As a friend of mine put it: It’s as if nobody wants to let go of a time and place that remains firmly anchored in the national psyche and culture – think Tim Winton – but that stands little chance in the face of modern development.
Having grown up in landlocked central Germany in the 1960s, I am not content with replica nostalgia. I want to find the real thing, a place where the quintessential Australian beach holiday survives. I don’t expect to find it on Stradbroke Island, Australia’s second largest sand island, a pleasant 45 minute ferry ride from Cleveland, a bay-side suburb of Brisbane, less than an hour north of the Gold Coast.
Straddie, as it’s affectionately known, has long been a popular weekend destination and many Brisbanites have a holiday pad here, including a friend of a friend, who kindly offers it to us for two nights. I expect a built-up place with sterile condos and lavish mansions. What a pleasant surprise then, to find a place of authentic charm, battered Landcruisers, rusty utes, fibro shacks and empty, endless surf beaches.
Amity Point, historically the first of three settlements on Straddie and for many years the landing place of the ferry from Brisbane, feels like a step back in time. Old sea shanties and restored fibro cottages glisten proudly in the sun like monuments to a time past. The old butcher, the school and the post office may all be closed now, but the quiet fishing village with a permanent population of around 400 still has a strong community feeling about it. There’s even a public library, open three times a week, housed inside the original Amity Point Public Hall which was built in 1950.
Since 1964 the ferry lands at the port of Dunwich, which served at various times as a pilot station, an aboriginal mission, a convict settlement, a government-run quarantine station, a ‘benign asylum’ for the infirm and old. The town is registered with the National Trust of Queensland and those interested in its colourful history can follow a self-guided Heritage Trail.
We decide to leave the trail and the award winning history museum for the next visit and instead indulge our empty bellies at the welcoming Island Fruit Barn, a gourmet grocery and laid-back quirky cafe that serves excellent coffees, tasty sandwiches, smoothies and healthy salads.
After lunch, we browse through the The Most Amazing shop next door. The name is no exaggeration, as the place truly has the most amazing collection of wares, most of which we definitely do not need, from giant man’s jocks, to ceramic cassowaries, rhinos, to pink tutus and vintage clothing.
Our base is at Point Lookout, where I spot the inevitable resorts and up-market houses, all discreetly nestled amongst plenty of buttlebrush, gumtrees and golden canes. It may be the island’s most developed township, complete with cafes and boutiques, but it’s still a world away from the Gold Coast’s glitz and glamour. The place was named by Captain Cook in 1770 as he sailed past Queensland’s most easterly point. There is crystal clear blue Pacific Ocean as far as the eye can see. When the swell is up, we are told, the headland around Point Lookout is the spot from where to watch Australia’s best surfers ride spectacular breakers. On the day we visit, the star attraction are humpback whales. We only notice them when two elderly women armed with binoculars suddenly erupt in screams of delight as whales splash and dance through the waves way off shore. Even without binoculars it’s still a spectacle to watch.
We follow the North Gorge Headlands Walk around the point to Main Beach and I can’t click the trigger of my camera fast enough to keep up with the spectacular vistas. The rocky shore is lined by She-Oaks and Pandanus, below us opens up a deep ravine, like a chunk of sandstone bitten off by a giant shark. On the other side of the horseshoe shaped trail, we find a quintessential Australian surf beach of pristine powder white sand, empty and wide. As a new Aussie, I still get excited by these beaches like a little kid on her first beach holiday. And I continue to be fascinated and disturbed to see these beaches transformed into giant highways.
We end our first day on Straddie as every day in paradise should end, with a beer and a picture perfect sunset. We imbibe both the beverage and nature’s spectacle at the Stradbroke pub, an unpretentious modern version of the original hotel, which sits atop natural bushland at Cylinder Beach.
The next morning we pack a picnic lunch and head back to Dunwich and onwards to explore the island’s two lakes. My friend finds Brown Lake too brown to be attractive for swimming. I on the other hand, wade into the balmy waters to give my skin a tea tree treatment. The tannin that leaches from the tea trees colouring the lake brown, is said to be good for the skin and indeed, my skin feels soft like a toddler’s.
En route to Blue Lake National Park we spot a sand dune as high as a ski slope and I am tempted to run up in order to glide down on a piece of plywood like I did as a kid back in Germany in the snow. Only, it’s sunny and boiling hot and I abandon the idea as soon as it forms.
We reach Blue Lake after an easy 2.5 km hike through bushland so pretty it looks like a painting. Grass trees and gumtrees pose for hundreds of photos until my travel companion gets tired and moves us on to the refreshing waters of Blue Lake, where she too decides to take a dip.
The only problem is, she’s forgotten her swimmers. But the place is deserted and nobody takes offence as we splash in the water wearing nothing but our birthday suits.
Thank you Straddie for preserving some of that original Australian beach culture. You’ve given me the kind of beach holiday I missed out on as a kid, growing up on the other side of the world.
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