The Gold Coast: Finding life outside the theme parks

The Gold Coast: Finding life outside the theme parks

Don’t judge a book by its cover? I have to be honest, I judge a destination by its advertising.

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Don’t judge a book by its cover? I have to be honest, I judge a destination by its advertising. So when a friend called up and asked if we wanted to go to the Gold Coast, one of Australia's most well-known domestic travel destinations, I wasn’t keen. From the ads that I’d seen for the Gold Coast, all it seemed to offer were theme parks and beaches - I’m not a big theme park person, and we’ve got beaches in Sydney anyway. But as the winter’s chill set in, the promise of warmer weather became too much to resist…

And so I find myself on the plane in the July school holidays, ignorantly bracing myself for a five day theme park onslaught, trying to entertain my fidgety three year old “Koali” (as he likes to call himself), and attempting to explain to eight year old “Firrel” (as Koali likes to call his sister – a mispronunciation of “Squirrel”) why, even though she finds Koali “sooooo” annoying, we couldn’t leave him at home…and “Daddyken” (aka daddy) is happily oblivious across the aisle.

By Sydney standards, Saturday traffic on the Gold Coast is an absolute breeze - just drive down the Gold Coast Highway (strewn with massage and tattoo parlours) from Coolangatta and turn off when you’ve reached your destination. We discard our fleece jackets and wear thin tops and pants, with a light jacket in the evenings for the rest of our stay – happiness indeed!


Our room at Xanadu Main Beach Resort faces the beach, and is clean and spacious.

The only complaint from Koali and Firrel is that their bedroom has no TV in it, unlike ours – but being the enterprising kids that they are, they make do with the big screen TV in the lounge room.

The promised games room downstairs is so small, it can hardly fit the air hockey, table tennis and table top soccer tables.


The indoor pool and spa are a nice size, however we found the pool water a little too chilly for a comfortable swim.

To my delight, a quick look at the resort reception brochures reveals that there are actually non theme park attractions! We loosely plan our days according to what each of us enjoy and funnily enough, only one theme park is on the agenda.


The next day we head off to Burleigh Heads, where Daddyken has apparently always wanted to visit because of its great surfing beach, which confused me because he doesn’t surf…but anyway, it turns out to be a beautiful beach with soft sand and gentle, protected clear waters.

Koali has always been a little afraid of the waves, but here, without any coaxing, he jumps in and out, and willingly joins Firrel for the very first time in the water. 


We then head to Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary. The kids are in raptures the moment they enter - koalas are sitting in trees eating, sleeping, and there’s even a “mummy and baby koala having a cuddle!” shouts Koali. The kids get to pat and feed the kangaroos and joeys and there are ducklings, lizards, snakes, turtles, crocodiles and birds to occupy everyone.

The sanctuary is set in a large area of natural bush land and rainforest, and unlike some other wildlife parks we’ve been to, is spread out and well maintained. There is a little train to take you around the park, but walking is just as easy. Bigger kids would enjoy the Adventure Parc High Ropes section, with 65 different challenges including a flying fox across the park, and there are segways (two-wheeled, self-balancing, battery-powered electric vehicle) for those who don’t care to walk.

Twice a day, for a gold coin donation, you can get a metal plate containing milky honey scented water to feed the wild lorikeets.

We stand around with about 50 others patiently holding the plates up as high as we can, willing the lorikeets to come down from the trees.

Twenty minutes goes by, no lorikeets for us and the crowd drops to less than half. But Firrell is determined. 


Finally, after half an hour and a lot of shuffling to ‘better spots’, a whole flock of them dive towards us, feed frantically and then swoop away just as suddenly as they came. Firrel’s jacket has lorikeet “souvenirs” on it.

We drive past Movie World and Dreamworld on our way to Mount Tambourine the next day, and take the MacDonald trail. It’s an easy 45 minute, 1.4km well marked walk through peaceful lush rainforest, there are towering strangler figs, palm trees and tall straight trees which Firrel says are perfect for ‘’being telegraph poles”.

The walk isn’t suitable for prams, so Koali gets lots of snacks as encouragement for walking and a little piggy back and cuddle for part of the way.

We have a truly forgettable lunch at Café Bravo along the Gallery Walk at the mountain, although they must be commended for being able to deep fry frozen crumbed packet fish to perfection.

The Gallery Walk has 70 art, craft and knick knack stores with a great village atmosphere. It’s like the main street of Kangaroo Valley on the NSW South Coast, only bigger, fresher and with more bustle.

And the next day, as promised - a theme park! For the restless kids now totally out of their normal routine, we have a breezy, fight-free five minute drive to Seaworld.


It’s pricey to get in ($320 for the 4 of us) but is clean and orderly, like a mini version of Disneyworld, but without all the Disney-ness. Due to the winter season, the water fun park is closed, but there are still plenty of things to do and even though it is busy with 5000 visitors, apparently not as busy as the summer season where they get 12 000 visitors a day!

There are polar bears swimming, penguins strutting, and hungry rays to be fed (at $9 for a cup of limp fish and prawns, we decide to spend a bit longer here). We laughed at the sea lion show, were mesmerized by the shark filled aquarium, delighted at the touch ponds filled with star fish, rays and sea cucumbers, rested on the mono-rail ride around the park and were captivated by the dolphin show. 

The only gripe we have is lunch. We were told by friends that you couldn’t bring food in, but once inside, we notice people carrying around bags with food that they’ve obviously brought from outside.

I make a mental note to personally check the food rules beforehand next time. There were promises in the brochures of fresh sandwiches and wraps, but we opted for the higher turn-over items of burgers and chips.

Average tasting. Expensive. And the longest I had to queue (10 mins) all day.


 After we watch the jet ski show, we then realize that we haven’t gone on any of the rides and the park was closing in half an hour – the kids don’t seem to have realized this, so with that narrow escape, we race off back to the hotel and turn on the TV.

Last day at the Gold Coast! What to do? Back to Burleigh Heads for my treat – the Burleigh Heads Saturday Farmers Market.

Laid back, busy, and cheaper than back home. Apart from the usual fresh fruit and vegetables, there are also hand-made gifts and sustainable and environmentally friendly products.

I make another mental note to time our arrival next time so that we can get all our food here for our stay.


Unforgettable was the lunch of dumplings and souvlaki. Yummy, cheap and more-ish. And then back to the beach for the kids, while I discover the main street of Burleigh to make a few purchases to occupy the kids on the flight back.

And thank goodness for my purchases - Koali is upset that he doesn’t get the window seat (he got it on the way up) and annoys Firrel endlessly about it until the plane is up in the air and I bring out modelling clay (one set each) and colouring-in books. I then get an uninterrupted snooze back to Sydney, while Daddyken sits across the aisle, again in happy ignorance.

Back in the chill of Sydney, “Ëverything, mummy, I yuv everything!” is Koali’s response when we ask if he enjoyed himself, while Firrel’s particular favourites were Seaworld, and surprisingly for one who is never keen to walk, our bush walk up in the mountains.

Daddyken and I agree we would definitely go back, and maybe even brave the theme park rides…last mental note: next time, don’t just judge a destination by the loudness of a few of its biggest advertisers - look past them, you’ll probably find something to suit everyone’s taste!

Note: The writer travelled at her own expense.

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