How Australia’s Gold Coast reinvented itself

CNN  — 

Sophisticated is not usually the first word that springs to mind when describing Australia’s Gold Coast, a seaside community located 62 miles (about 100 kilometers) southeast of Brisbane.

Brash, yes. Tacky, perhaps. But rarely sophisticated – until now.

Among the country’s fastest growing cities, the Goldie (as it’s affectionately known) has undergone a massive transformation ahead of April’s 2018 Commonwealth Games, Queensland’s biggest sporting event.

A new recipe of sleek hotels and restaurants, combined with 300 days of sunshine, is luring the travel crowd from all over the world to Australia’s holiday playground.

In the year ending June 2017, the Gold Coast welcomed a record 1 million international travelers, up 7.2% year-on-year.

“[The Games] changed everything,” Dean Gould, executive director of corporate affairs and strategy for Gold Coast Tourism, tells CNN Travel. “Over the last five years, the city has come alive again.”

From ambitious new towers to swanky speakeasies, here’s a look at how good old Goldie is quickly morphing into a dynamic destination.

Total transformation

Most people equate the Gold Coast with one suburb: Surfers Paradise, the most popular beach and where most bars, restaurants and hotels are located.

But Goldie is actually Australia’s sixth-largest city, home to almost 600,000 people and more than 50 suburbs.

Its waterfront sprawl is sunny almost all year round, with 35 miles (57km) of coastline, waterside mansions and roughly 250 miles (400km) of canals – nearly 10 times more than Venice.

On paper, it might sound like an idyllic coastal retreat, but the Gold Coast hasn’t always been alluring.

Until recently, Goldie had a less-than-salubrious reputation garnered by high crime rates, out-of-control “schoolies” (an annual migration of high-school-leaving teenagers looking to party), gambling at Jupiters (Queensland’s first casino) and “Metre Maids.”

These bikini-clad women were known for putting money into parking meters to help drivers avoid fines along the Glitter Strip, the name locals gave to Surfers Paradise.

Things began to change when the global financial crisis hit in 2008. As tourism arrivals slowed, the Goldie was forced to take stock of its offerings.

A zero-tolerance police policy for public drunkenness during the annual migration of fresh high-school graduates has certainly helped shift the tone, as has an influx of sophisticated bars, restaurants and hotels.

But the real game-changer was the 2010 announcement that the Gold Coast would host the 2018 Commonwealth Games (April 4-15).

Basically the Olympics for Commonwealth nations, the Games is a major international sporting event that occurs every four years.

Build it and they will come

The technicolored Athletes' Village for the 2018 Commonwealth Games.

With a budget of $1.6 billion in the lead-up to the event, the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games Corporation has planned 24 Games venues across the city, including three new builds.

The games are driving the momentum, but the city’s multi-billion-dollar makeover extends beyond the colorful Athletes’ Village and upgraded Carrara Stadium, which will host the opening and closing ceremonies.

“The Games has fast-tracked a lot of construction projects,” says Gould. “But we realized early on that success is not just a highrise. It’s about making things accessible, usable and available.”

One way to make the city more usable was by installing a light rail system.

Running parallel to the area’s main beach, it connects most of the major Games venues, as well as Goldie’s main attractions.

Travelers can jump on and off as they please, strolling down to the sand in just a few minutes. By April, the line will link to a train station with direct access to Brisbane and, in coming years, an extension will connect the Glitter Strip with the airport.

And then there’s the cultural precinct, under development on the council’s former headquarters in the suburb of Evandale.

Opening in phases, beginning this year, the carbon-neutral building will house a 5,000-person theater. For easy access, it will also be linked to Surfers Paradise via an art-filled “green bridge” lined with plants.

Brand new beds

The QT hotel is light-filled and full of surfer whimsy.

Between the suburbs of Surfers Paradise and neighboring Broadbeach to the south, cranes are busily erecting new hotels and cloud-scraping towers.

Coming up quickly is the $712 million Jewel – a three-tower mammoth that’s set to become Australia’s largest beachfront mixed-use development. Also in the works are the 89-story Spirit tower, 103-story Orion and 108-story Azzura.

Meanwhile, the Avani brand debuted its first Australia property last December, with the opening of Avani Broadbeach and its 219 apartment-style hotel rooms.

And not to be outdone, The Star – formerly Jupiters Casino – has equally ambitious expansion plans. The hotel has spent $275 million to revamp rooms and introduce new dining facilities before the Games.

The company has also pledged another $400 million to remodel the city’s Sheraton Mirage Resort and construct a 50-suite hotel with a pool cantilevered 16 feet above the street.

But if you prefer more low-key accommodations, there’s always the design-oriented Peppers group, with two fully equipped apartment-style properties on the Coast.

Peppers Soul Surfers Paradise has one- to four-bedroom accommodations with private balconies, while Peppers Broadbeach stretches across two towers opposite the beach in a precinct packed with restaurants and cafes.

A fresh face nearby, the QT hotel is light-filled and full of surfer whimsy. The 297-room property features sleek bathrooms and pops of color that channel the waterside location in Surfers Paradise.

Also in the neighborhood is The Island. After a multi-million-dollar makeover, the hotel re-opened mid-2017 with a downstairs dining room draped in greenery and seriously stylish rooms kitted out with paneled blonde-wood walls, designer lighting and open-plan bathrooms.

Jewel, 34 Old Burleigh Road, Surfers Paradise; 1800 799 899

Avani Broadbeach, 2663 Gold Coast Highway, Broadbeach; +61 7 5634 8600

The Star, 1 Casino Drive, Broadbeach Island, Broadbeach; +61 7 5592 8100

Sheraton Mirage Resort, 71 Sea World Drive, Main Beach, Gold Coast; +61 5577 0000

Peppers Soul Surfers Paradise, 8 The Esplanade, Surfers Paradise; +61 7 5665 4426

Peppers Broadbeach, 21 Elizabeth Ave, Broadbeach; +61 7 5665 4426

QT hotel, 7 Staghorn Avenue, Surfers Paradise; +61 7 5584 1200

The Island, 3128 Surfers Paradise Blvd., Surfers Paradise; +61 7 5538 8000

New grub hubs

Seafood lovers flock to Rick Shores.

New hotel rooms aren’t the only reason to visit the Gold Coast. These days, Goldie’s attracting hordes of gourmands too.

Right on the sand in Burleigh, a suburb south of Broadbeach, the glass-fronted Rick Shores is a favorite for fresh seafood and craft cocktails.

Designed by chef Jake Pregnell, who left his role at Melbourne’s Golden Fields for a sea change, the pan-Asian menu features one of the best Moreton Bay bug rolls (made with a type of slipper lobster) you’ll try.

Seafood also stars at newly remodeled izakaya-style bar Yamagen, inside the achingly cool QT hotel.

Yet another new face, Hideaway Kitchen & Bar recently touched down on the outskirts of Broadbeach.

The buzzy space includes a huge alfresco p