Why the Sunshine Coast’s laidback charms attract all types

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Earlier this year, the Sunshine Coast received an unlikely PR boost from Justin Bieber. The pop star, who has 84.5 million Instagram followers, had bunkered down on Makepeace Island – Sir Richard Branson and Virgin Australia co-founder Brett Godfrey’s heart-shaped hideaway on the Noosa River. It didn’t take long before news cameras were in pursuit, trying to catch a glimpse of the Canadian superstar.

With rates starting at $5500 a night, Makepeace is priced just right for a celebrity hideaway. Still, you’d think Bieber would be a Gold Coast kind of guy. That he chose to chill out at a place where the charms are more laidback must mean he’s growing up.

The Sunshine Coast was my childhood backyard. My grandparents lived in the hinterland – Mum grew up on a dairy farm near Cooroy and Dad on a hill in Eumundi. I took its beauty for granted, never dreaming that so many others would flock here in the coming decades. Real estate salesmen are partly to blame. 

They lobbied to change the area’s name from the Near North Coast to the much sexier Sunshine Coast (this year marks the 50th anniversary of the official name change). During the campaign, one Nambour real estate agent said: “We are not setting out to compete with Surfers Paradise and we don’t want to be a second Gold Coast. We hope to attract a different type of visitor, particularly families and retired business couples.” 

Today’s Sunshine Coast pulls all types. The glitziest spot is Noosa Heads, which fronts one of Australia’s prettiest surf beaches. Surfers congregate around Main Beach’s famed point break but there’s still plenty of room for paddlers, swimmers and body-boarders to splash around in the azure water, which is swimmable year-round.

A block back from the strip of golden sand is Hastings Street, home to hotels, a hip motel, boutiques and a thriving food scene. One of the busiest eateries is Noosa Beach House, at Sofitel Noosa Pacific Resort. This is where the likable TV chef Peter Kuruvita champions local seafood (in dishes such as Mooloolaba prawn hopper) along with his own heritage (the Sri Lankan snapper curry).

It might seem incongruous but glamorous Noosa Heads sits smack-bang up against the natural beauty of Noosa National Park. There’s nothing like working up an appetite for breakfast by pounding the park’s coastal paths, feeling the sun warm your skin while admiring the pandanus palms and the views north to Double Island Point from Hell’s Gates’ high bluff. There’s also every chance of spotting a Noosa icon – the native brush turkey.

More birdlife is on show when you paddle into the Noosa Everglades. Pick up a canoe or kayak from Kanu Kapers at Boreen Point, on the shore of Lake Cootharaba, to explore the Upper Noosa River (known as the River of Mirrors) or make it a multi-day adventure and head into the wilds of Cooloola Recreation Area, part of the Great Sandy National Park that’s home to fairy wrens, quails and ground parrots.

Bird sightings are guaranteed at Maleny Botanic Gardens and Bird World. Once a rough cattle farm, the 44-hectare garden clings to the side of the Blackall Range in the hinterland and offers astonishing front-row views of the Glass House Mountains. These 11 ancient volcanic plugs loom large over a patchwork of pine plantations, rugged bushland and open fields.

The gardens are the handiwork of former engineer Frank Shipp, who describes his rearranging of the landscape – he’s carved terraces into the steep hillside and fashioned waterfalls, lakes, lawns, hedges and pathways – as “a hobby that got out of hand”. He opened his whimsical wonderland to the public in 2012, adding a walk-through aviary the next year. Meander through the 1000m2 pen and there’s every chance a curious macaw will perch on your head or shoulder and nibble on your ear.

Maleny was a timber and dairy town before the New Age set arrived (I can’t even imagine what my grandparents would have made of the vegan condoms in the supermarket). The dairy farmers would have been happy, though, to hang out at Maleny Cheese on the outskirts of town where you can see the cheeses being made. Next door to the factory, the café showcases the cheese in classic dishes such as fondue and raclette, but the prize for the most Queensland dish of all goes to the ham, banana and cheddar open grill sandwich.

My pick of hinterland lunch spots, though, is the Mapleton Tavern. From Maleny, wind north along the range through Montville to Mapleton. From here, you can see all the way to the coast and you just might think the world is your oyster.

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