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 patio shaded by umbrellas, while the menu includes bug rolls and Fremantle octopus with a yuzu-soy sauce.

Around the corner is Social Eating House + Bar, whose chef is a genius when it comes to flavor combinations – think soft-shell crab with chili caramel or tuna sashimi with soy pearls.

As the Gold Coast attracts more health-conscious travelers, the area has also welcomed a proliferation of vegetarian and vegan restaurants.

There’s freshly minted Nude Sisters, where you can order smoothies so thick they’re served in a bowl, and Greenhouse Canteen in Miami – a suburb around four miles south of Surfers Paradise.

The brand also recently opened The Bath House, a spa and raw restaurant in the same suburb.

At The Cardamom Pod in Broadbeach there are soy-dandelion lattes dubbed LSDs to accompany cornmeal waffles, while vegan cheesecakes are on the menu at raw restaurant Blendlove.

But if you prefer brunch with a side of bacon, it’s hard to look past The Paddock Bakery, in Miami, set in a 1970s Queenslander (stilted wooden house) surrounded by leafy gardens.

Rick Shores, Shop 3, 43 Goodwin Terrace, Burleigh Heads; +61 7 5630 6611; opens Tuesday-Sunday, noon until late

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

Hideaway Kitchen & Bar, 2657 Gold Coast Highway, Broadbeach; +61 7 5679 0369; opens Monday-Friday, 5 p.m.- late, Saturday and Sunday, noon- late

Social Eating House + Bar, 3 Oracle Boulevard, Oracle Precinct, Broadbeach; +61 7 5504 5210; opens Monday-Thursday, noon- 4 p.m., 6 p.m.- late, Friday-Sunday, noon-5 p.m., 6 p.m.- late

Nude Sisters, Shop 3/90 Markeri Street, Mermaid Waters; +61 7 5526 0891; opens 1 a.m.-3 p.m. daily

Greenhouse Canteen, 1916 Gold Coast Highway, Miami; +61 7 5520 7722; Tuesday-Sunday, 5 p.m.- late

The Cardamom Pod, Shop 1, 2685 Gold Coast Highway, Broadbeach; +61 4 5221 8108; opens 11:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m. daily

Blendlove, Shop 1 / 253 Ferry Road, Southport; Monday-Saturday 7 a.m.-3 p.m., Sunday 8 a.m.-3 p.m.

The Paddock Bakery, 20 Hibiscus Haven, Miami; opens 6:30 a.m.-3 p.m. daily

Glitter Strip 2.0

A night out on the Glitter Strip once meant knocking elbows with gamblers and high-school revelers.

But just like the hotel and restaurant scene, Gold Coast nightlife has diversified to include a mix of night markets, craft beer bars and upscale watering holes.

For starters, the Goldie has a booming micro-brewing scene, with around 20 independent operators including Burleigh Brewing, Stone & Wood, and Balter Brewing – the last courtesy of local surfing legend Mick Fanning (who famously escaped a shark attack during a competition in 2015).

A little more luxe is Lockwood Bar – the only way to get in is using a pin number sent to you via text message – and recently opened speakeasy Soho Place at Broadbeach, where the entrance resembles a London telephone booth.

Perfect for creative types, Miami Marketta is a hub of art, music, design, food and cocktails.

Fairy lights dance overhead while you wander between food stalls and local boutiques selling Lokoa handmade leather bags and jewels from Sea + Stone, and every Friday there’s a street-food line up.

It’s a smaller version of NightQuarter, a village made out of shipping containers that house restaurants, bars and boutiques.

Burleigh Brewing, 2 Ern Harley Drive, Burleigh Heads; +61 7 5593 6000; Wednesday-Thursday, 3-6 p.m., Friday 3-8:30 p.m., Sunday 2-8 p.m. (summer) and noon-6 p.m. (winter)

Stone & Wood, 4 Boronia Place, Byron Bay; +61 2 6685 9220

Balter Brewing, 14 Traders Way, Currumbin; Friday, 3-9 p.m., Saturday and Sunday 1-8 p.m.

Lockwood Bar, 7B Justin Lane, Burleigh Heads; +61 4 8811 1030 (text upon arrival); opens 5 p.m.- late daily

Soho Place, 4/2713 Gold Coast Highway, 4218 Broadbeach; +61 7 5592 5520; opens 5 p.m.- late daily

Miami Marketta, 23 Hillcrest Parade, Miami; +61 4 8859 0599; opens Wednesday 5-9 p.m., Friday 5-11 p.m. and Saturday 4-11 p.m.

NightQuarter, 1 Town Centre Drive, Helensvale; opens Friday and Saturday 4-10 p.m.

Around town

Palm Beach as seen from Burleigh Heads -- one of Australia's best.

An unforgettable way to get your bearings – and a bird’s-eye view of the Coast’s transformation – is on a Sea World Helicopters chopper ride.

You’ll swoop over the Games pool and gymnasium, and jettison past skyscrapers along the Glitter Strip. The experience can last anywhere from five to 60 minutes, depending which package you book.

Or take in the city from its biggest asset: the water.

Given the city’s lengthy coastline and expanse of canals, you are constantly surrounded by water. As such, you can generally be on the beach within minutes.

That’s a boon to travelers, seeing as the Gold Coast is home to some of Australia’s best surf beaches: Snapper Rocks, Burleigh Heads and Kirra are particularly popular.

These local favorites have consistently good surf and are easy to access, yet rarely fill up with crowds.

If you’re looking to follow in the footsteps of Fanning but need a little coaching, you can sign up for a two-hour group class with Go Ride a Wave.

Classes take place in multiple locations, including Surfers Paradise and Broadbeach.

Not much for swimming? Luxury super yacht Crystal Blue is the ultimate way to explore the canals of the coast, with space for up to 60 people on charters.

Jellurgal Walkabout Tours celebrates Australia's indigenous communities.

The incredible thing about the Gold Coast is that 30 minutes after leaving your board behind on the sand you can be standing amid ancient subtropical rainforest.

Just west of the city, the hinterland is home to 247,105 acres (100,000 hectares) of World Heritage-listed Gondwana rainforest, studded with attractions ranging from vineyards to boutique distilleries and wellness retreats.

Another adventure on dry land, Jellurgal Walkabout Tours offer fascinating insights into local indigenous communities.

The 2.5-hour experience begins at Burleigh Cove before ascending the Dreaming Mountain, with a smoking ceremony and ochre anointment to show a connection to the earth along the way.

Or simply lace up your hiking boots and trek one of the routes through Lamington or Springbrook National Parks – both easy day trips from the city.