Surf's up Down Under

SURFERS PARADISE, Australia - With a glitzy name like Surfers Paradise, it's hard to expect more from this Gold Coast town than beachy souvenir shops and all-you-can-eat pancakes.


So you won't be disappointed when you arrive; the moniker is preparation for the onslaught of surfboard memorabilia and shoulder-to-shoulder visitors, jostling one another as they rush to the sand and wait to make bookings at the tourist information center.

Something about this place evokes a feeling of guilty pleasure - whether it be the faultless beaches a block from the chaos, the countless day tours to everywhere or the simple ability to party all night and lounge all day, free from the need for a single intelligent thought.

Sometimes, that tried-and-true tourism is exactly what you need - if only for a few days.

Surfers is a default vacation spot for Australians themselves, attracting everyone from young families to posh urbanites to students who descend upon the city for a raucous period known as Schoolies Week every year in late November (think spring break Down Under). Peak beach season is December-February - summer in the Southern Hemisphere. Multiple 80-minute flights on Qantas, Virgin Blue and Jetstar scoot up to the Surfers Paradise airport from Sydney every day (though the airport in Brisbane, an hour away by train, is the nearest international gateway), and hotels sport "No Vacancy" signs even in winter.

They come to Surfers not only for the hopping nightlife, waves and beaches - which can be found in a multitude of locations along Australia's coast - but also because of the avalanche of excursion options. Day trips abound to satisfy every taste: SeaWorld and a theme park called Dreamworld for families, whale-watching trips for marine enthusiasts and nearby Brisbane tours for steadfast urbanites.

The outings are admittedly touristy, but the area's natural beauty and the carefree fun of the parks make that forgivable, especially if you've already resigned yourself to an indulgence in kitsch.

A day trip to the Green Mountains, for example, showcases lovely little high-altitude towns, exotic animals and an unexpected rainforest. Various operators offer day tours.

The full-day O'Reilly's Green Mountains tour, which offers complimentary tea and scones at Gallery Walk craft village and tastings at a local winery, drives passengers up Mount Tamborine past the tough terrain of Canungra and its Jungle Warfare Training Centre, which serves as a training post for national and international troops.

The tour spends the most time around O'Reilly's Guesthouse, a familial enterprise started by famed bushman Bernard O'Reilly. Walking paths depart from land near the guesthouse to guide visitors through tangled trees and rainforest terrain, and the trails lead to suspended bridges amidst the canopy of trees. Tourists wandering along the rickety wooden slats get an actual birds-eye view of the terrain and can climb a special ladder to an even higher viewpoint.

Quieter paths yield glimpses of local wildlife, and visitors to the mountain get the chance to see a half-dozen wallabies hopping by just feet away - or a platypus swimming in his small residential pond.

The guesthouse and a tour bus video also detail a heroic rescue executed by O'Reilly, who discovered two plane crash survivors in 1937 more than 10 days after their aircraft went down. Authorities focused the search near the plane's destination in Sydney, but O'Reilly was convinced the crash occurred closer to Brisbane and his land. He hiked 20 miles and proved his theory right, finding two surviving passengers.

Such stories add to the already fantastic aura of the region, which lies sleepily near the coast, peaceful yet vaguely threatening for its hard-to-navigate forests. It is a drastic change from the crashing waves about an hour away, and when visitors return to the coast, they're ready for a drink and a relaxed night out.

That's not a problem in Surfers Paradise.

Bars, clubs and restaurants line the streets, and they're all hopping nightly. Live music is omnipresent .

For great atmosphere and company, try Shooters Saloon Bar, the Rose & Crown Nightclub or Melba's, which features a trendy restaurant and a club. The clientele in every venue ranges from Brisbane weekenders to European backpackers to dreadlocked international surfers who've relocated to live year-round in the Gold Coast town.

For the under-35 set, Surf n Sun Beachside Backpackers and several other hostels organize a pub crawl every Saturday and Wednesday, charging guests and their friends $25 for a coach bus trip to local hotspots, where they're given free entry and drink vouchers. The outing is a great way to meet other travelers and scope out the Surfers party scene.

Surfers Paradise, of course, offers great waves and eager enthusiasts, with countless locations to rent or buy boards. But for optimum waves, residents say it's not necessarily the best location on the Gold Coast - suggesting nearby Burleigh Heads as an alternative, where the locals surf.

Burleigh Heads is among a string of quieter, picturesque beach towns within minutes of Surfers. Others include Main Beach and Broadbeach, which is just barely walkable, if you're up for a hike. The locations still have great shops, eateries and drinking establishments, but they're filled with locals seeking an escape from the furious pace of Surfers.


SURFERS PARADISE: Located in Queensland, Australia, on the Gold Coast, about an hour by train or car from Brisbane, the major international gateway; or or (800) 965-6252.

WHEN TO GO: The Gold Coast has good weather year-round but best beach weather is December-February. Cooler weather means fewer crowds May-September. GCBazaar, a series of fashion events, take place in June, along with related festivals, markets and special offers on shopping; Schoolies Festival, mid-November, is similar to spring break, with many young visitors.

O'REILLY'S GREEN MOUNTAIN TOUR: or 011-61-7-4125-2343.



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