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Escape to queensland

Lynne Coates takes a trip down under and experiences the best of Queensland’s Sunshine Coast.

“Dangerous Dan”, suggested one of our group as we tried to guess the name of our pilot, while waiting nervously outside the “terminal” (actually Grinders Coffee Bar) to board the single-engined, six-seat Cessna for our flight to Fraser Island. The pilot must have wondered why hysterical laughter broke out when he introduced himself as Dan. We needn’t have worried, Dan was an excellent pilot, landing the little aircraft gently on the endless pure-white stretch of beach that acts as a landing strip on Fraser Island – just one of the extraordinary experiences organised for us by Tourism Queensland.    

Brisbane

I was one of fifteen UK journalists invited on a special media trip, to discover Queensland and experience all that it has to offer. Our seemingly never-ending Air Singapore flight from Heathrow landed in Brisbane in the early evening. Warmly welcomed by our designated driver, we were quickly transported to the W Brisbane, one of the city’s brand new five star hotels, which are popping up all over the evolving skyline. I practically fell into the sumptuous bed in my fabulous, ultra-contemporary suite, sleeping soundly until awakened by the staggeringly bright, 5am dawn light. Despite jet lag, I leapt out of bed to take in the magnificent panoramic views of North Quay, the river, and the city beyond.  After enjoying a wonderfully healthy Australian breakfast, we were packed and ready to leave the W, to begin the first day of our crammed itinerary.   

The Queensland Hinterland

We were split into three groups, each sampling different Queensland experiences. Our group headed into the hinterland for our first stop. A ninety minute drive from Brisbane, Mary Cairncross Scenic Reserve is a subtropical rainforest overlooking the spectacular Glasshouse Mountains. We enjoyed a guided walk with a brief introduction to rainforest evolution and the diversity of plant and animal species that live within it.

We were warned to watch out for snakes, but no one mentioned the leeches, one of which attached itself to my ankle, earning me some rainforest cred with the rest of the group, and making me empathise with the celebs in ‘I’m a Celebrity’ being filmed further up the coast.

Moving on, we headed for Maleny Botanic Gardens and Bird World. Over an area of some sixteen acres, thousands of varieties of plants are uniquely landscaped in layers, interspersed with waterfalls and ponds. After a buggy tour of the gardens we entered the aviaries, where a host of colourful parrots and other species, mostly rescued, were happy to interact with visitors. Some perched on heads, with inevitable consequences, providing great photo-ops! A gourmet picnic lunch had been laid out for us in one of the gardens’ most scenic spots, with breathtaking views of the mountains. After a full morning of activities, and a superb lunch in idyllic surroundings, it began to feel slightly surreal – possibly jet lag kicking in!   

That night we stayed at Spicers Tamarind Retreat, situated in a secluded rainforest oasis, near the village of Maleny. Fourteen luxurious villas are set in beautiful natural surroundings, each with hot tubs and terraces – a sanctuary of peace and calm. The excellent on-site restaurant serves Modern Asian cuisine and also runs a cookery school. We were given a cookery lesson and the results of our efforts were our dinner that night. It was a lot of fun, though I am sure our food didn’t quite match the standards in the restaurant – not that we cared, as we downed glasses of wine as fast as we chopped the vegetables! Only two members of our group attended the dawn Yoga session, next morning! A healthy breakfast with generous bowls of thick yoghurt, homemade granola and fresh fruit, followed by freshly made banana bread, was divine. Then it was off for a guided bushwalk in Kondalilla National Park leading to Mapleton Falls, where the brave could swim in the icy cold lake beneath the falls. Our guide was Steve Grainger, a passionate and dedicated naturalist who runs Tropical Treks. As we walked, Steve explained the history of the area, from the Aboriginal Australians, the first bush walkers, through to the trails of the pioneers and timber-getters, explaining why the rainforest exists and how it is interconnected with our lives today. He pointed out various unique forest and plant species and wildlife such as, the female ‘trap door’ spider – who traps a mate, has her way with him, then eats him – nice! We rested for a while beside the cascading waterfall, a popular spot with visitors. It was an easy trek of around two hours and gave a real taste of what the Hinterland has to offer visitors. Lunch was an Asian banquet in ‘The Spirit House’, – an award-winning restaurant and cookery school. Our hostess explained that the climate on the Sunshine Coast allows them to grow all the same ingredients as in Asia, influencing many of the top chefs in Queensland’s restaurants.

Noosa

Leaving the rainforests, we headed back to the coast, and the luxurious beach resorts of Noosa. We checked into the Seahaven luxury apartments, overlooking Laguna Bay, a glorious stretch of white sandy beach and rolling waves, popular with surfers.   Seahaven is perfectly located, with direct access to both the beach and Noosa’s famed Hasting Street shopping area. With free time, some of us chilled on the beach while others checked out the boutiques. Dinner was in the stylishly chic Noosa Beach House, run by Australian celebrity chef, Peter Kuruvita. His food, inspired by his global travels, is sensational.

The following day was fun-filled from beginning to end. In a classic, bright orange VW campervan we took to the highway, sun-roof open, Beach Boys playing – does life get any better! We were headed to the Eumundi Markets, popular with both locals and tourists, over two hundred stalls of handicrafts, artworks, clothes, jewellery and local produce. The VW attracted quite a crowd and we felt pretty cool as it dropped us off. After some serious souvenir and gift shopping, it was time to head back to Noosa for our next excursion, a speedboat ride out to Richard Branson’s private home, Makepeace Island, a tiny heart shaped oasis in the middle of the Noosa River. Warmly greeted by the island’s hostess and with glasses of champagne in hand, we were shown around his luxurious Balinese style villa, which can accommodate up to twenty guests. With a lagoon size swimming pool, fifteen person hot-tub, exquisite gardens, and lots of watersport activities on offer, this exclusive paradise getaway is available to rent at an equally exclusive price.

Noosa does have a celebrated lifestyle and we rounded off our evening at Ricky’s River Bar & Restaurant with some excellent seafood, in a romantic riverside setting – a perfect end to a perfect day. I was definitely falling in love with the Sunshine Coast.

Fraser Island

It was a dawn start the next day for our flight to World Heritage-listed Fraser Island, the world’s largest sand island. Taking off from Hervey Bay, the forty five minute flight, in the Fraser Air Cessna, was a little bumpy, but flying over Great Sandy Strait, Rainbow Beach and the turquoise blue waters of the South Pacific Ocean, was simply spectacular. Landing on the beach was an extraordinary experience, requiring special skill by Dan, the pilot. We were met by our two guides for the day, driving Hummers, the usual mode of transport for Fraser Island, as they can cope with driving on the beach and the rough inland tracks. The seventy five mile stretch of beach acts as both a landing strip and a highway for 4 x 4 vehicles, which streak past each other at unlikely speeds. As we bumped our way along, our guide explained about the indigenous forests on the island and regaled us with some Aboriginal folklore stories. Dingos thrive on Fraser Island. We did spot a couple, though signs warn not to feed them, reminding that they are wild and unpredictable. It was a wonderful day, with stops to see some of the island’s most famous sites including the Maheno shipwreck and the coloured sands of the Pinnacles, and to swim in the incredibly blue Lake Mckenzie. We travelled back to Hervey Bay by car ferry, where we checked into the Oaks Resort and Spa, an apartment style hotel, with two inviting lagoon pools and waterfront views. After our bone-shaking drive I couldn’t wait to sink into the welcoming spa-bath in my suite.

Hervey Bay

Next morning we took a relaxing cruise around the bay on the catamaran Blue Dolphin, the captain lowering a rope net from the stern which we could clamber onto to experience ‘boom netting’ – being pulled through the water at speed. This was great fun, though bearing in mind that the effect of the searing Australian sun is amplified by the water, much factor 50 was needed – there were some red faces that night!

Lunch was on board the Tasman Venture, the boat that ferried Harry and Meghan to Fraser Island during their recent Australia tour. We sailed past the more remote areas of Fraser Island, where you can go bush walking, snorkelling and kayaking and ride on the amphibious crafts that are carried on board. Hervey Bay is the whale-watching capital of Australia and, during the season, Tasman Venture offers whale watch encounters where you can get up close to, and sometimes swim with, magnificent Humpbacks.

Back to Brisbane

We flew back to Brisbane, a forty minute flight, and checked into The Calile on James Street, a new ultra-contemporary hotel in a regenerated area of downtown Brisbane. Known as the design and fashion precinct, the area is the epitome of urban chic with exclusive boutiques, designer shops and trendy restaurants. We had some free time to explore, but shopping in this area is ludicrously expensive.

Visiting wineries is always enjoyable, and, as I love Australian wines, I was looking forward to our lunch in Lurleen’s restaurant at the Sirromet Winery, a short drive out of Brisbane. In a spectacular setting overlooking Moreton Bay, lunch did not disappoint. The food was exceptional and the award-winning wine was superb. Also a popular concert and wedding venue, Sirromet offers luxurious lodges for guests, who may find a wallaby or two visiting their porch!

Now, who doesn’t love koalas? The Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary is the first and largest in the world, and I was looking forward to having the opportunity to cuddle one. “Stand still like a tree”, I was told by the keeper, while I had the obligatory photo with Connery, the koala. I must say I felt unexpectedly emotional as this special creature gave me a hug – I will treasure the photo forever! The sanctuary is full of protected and endangered Australian species and has a world-class research facility. We also had the opportunity to mingle with the roos, which hopped around us. As they are bred at the sanctuary we were able to feed and stroke them, something that is not possible in their natural habitat. You do see wallabies and kangaroos roaming freely in Queensland but the sanctuary is a great opportunity to get up close and it is a major tourist attraction.    

Moving to the final hotel on our Queensland tour, the Westin is yet another brand new five star hotel in central Brisbane. Opened just two weeks before our visit, with panoramic skyscraper city views, the Westin is symbolic of the dramatic transformations sweeping through this dynamic new-world city. We met up with the other groups on our trip to take a cruise on the Brisbane River, from where we could clearly view the evolving urban landscape of Brisbane’s city areas, the amazing new road networks sweeping in and out of the city, and the contemporary-style bridges crossing over the river.  We stopped off at the newly regenerated old port area, known as Howard Smith Wharves, where abandoned storage sheds and office buildings have been converted into contemporary bars and restaurants. Clearly one of Brisbane’s most exciting new projects, the area has a real buzz, attracting the city’s young, hip crowd. We lunched at the recently opened and super-trendy Felons Brewery restaurant, located under the famous Story Bridge and overlooking the river. Serving traditional food with a new twist, and with a great choice of beers, it is set to be very successful. 

All too soon our trip was coming to an end and we joined our Queensland hosts in the fabulous sky bar of the W for a farewell party. It had been the most amazing journey, staying in exciting new five star hotels, eating in outstanding restaurants, sharing thrilling experiences, and making great new friends along the way. As we clinked our champagne glasses and took the inevitable group photographs, there was no doubt we were captivated by the natural wonders of the Sunshine Coast – its biodiversity, endless coastlines,  lush rainforests, sub-tropical climate, and  an enviable lifestyle. For sure it’s a heck of a long journey, but it’s a wonderful country and I hope to return to Australia very soon – there is so much more to discover.

Details:

Flights

Standard fares to Brisbane from London start from £770pp and from Manchester from £745pp, book by March 31st. Singapore Airlines operates four flights daily from London Heathrow to Singapore and five weekly flights from Manchester to Singapore to connect onward to flights to Brisbane

Singapore Airlines customers can benefit from a range of Stopover options should they wish, ranging from free city tours, to stopovers including hotels and attractions, to just attractions passes –
singaporeair.com/en_UK/ie/plan-travel/packages/singapore-stopover-holiday/      

All bookings and terms and conditions available via
singaporeair.com

Tourism Information:

Tourism and Events Queensland: queensland.com 

Visit Brisbane: visitbrisbane.com.au

Sunshine Coast: visitsunshinecoast.com

Fraser Coast: visitfrasercoast.com

Hotels:

W Hotel: whotels.com
Spicers Tamarind Retreat: spicersretreats.com

Seahaven Resort: seahavenoosa.com.au 

Oaks Resort and Spa: oceansherveybay.com.au   

The Calile Hotel: thecalilehotel.com 
The Westin Brisbane: westinbrisbane.com 

Tours:

Air Fraser Island: airfraserisland.com.au

Fraser Experience Tours: fraserexperience.com.au

Tropical Treks: tropicaltreks.com.au

Tasman Venture: tasmanventure.com.au

Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary: koala.net

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