Gold Coast: Up, up and away

By Wendy Dunlop

Wendy Dunlop waves goodbye to the Gold Coast's beaches and takes to the hills and skies for unique sights, tastes and pampering.

Queensland's World Heritage Rainforest is a magical world of tumbling waterfalls, secretive caves, shady creeks and extraordinary plants and wildlife.
Queensland's World Heritage Rainforest is a magical world of tumbling waterfalls, secretive caves, shady creeks and extraordinary plants and wildlife.

With soft sifty sand between your toes, an arc of ocean as far as the eye can see and urban amenities almost on the water's edge, the Gold Coast has a front yard to be reckoned with. But when you need a break from sea, sand and hot sun, the back yard is pretty spectacular too.

Green hills ripple westwards to become the unspoiled folds of Lamington National Park, where a rainforest retreat began almost 100 years ago. In between are the neat farms of Beaudesert and ideal conditions for hot-air ballooning.

The orange balloon slowly inflates and coaxes a spectacular sunrise that's worth a 4.30am start. Jauntily described by the pilot as "a giant laundry basket with a gas cooker overhead," passengers find the balloon's liftoff is surprisingly gentle.

A hint of breeze drifts it over horse studs, old Queenslander farmhouses, rambling modern homesteads and the rolling hills of a million-year-old caldera. Birds call through the pearly morning mist; the balloon's silhouette becomes an icon on the patchwork fields below.

Our actual destination is as delightfully uncertain as the wind direction, but wherever you land, there's the anticipation of a hearty breakfast. First, thousands of cubic inches of warm fusty air must be pressed from the balloon's orange folds. The ritual of packing up invites the instant camaraderie of a shared experience.

O'Reilly's Vineyard in the Canunga Valley has become a popular venue for post-ballooning champagne, breakfasts, lunches, tastings and private functions.

The charming colonial homestead was transported to the site more than a decade ago and the adjoining vineyard established by a sixth-generation descendant of the O'Reilly brothers who settled in the area in 1911. Mesmerised by the beauty of the land they were farming, they pioneered tourism by building a remote lodge in 1926 and the family has been hosting visitors ever since.

Reaching the lodge from Brisbane once involved two days' tortuous travel by train, coach and packhorse, but like the founders of Las Vegas, the O'Reillys also believed "if you build it they will come".

When the national park was created, the family became joint custodians of the World Heritage Rainforest and remain committed to preserving the natural environment for guests to enjoy.

Well-marked trails and the wonderful treetop walkway allow visitors to discover tumbling waterfalls, secretive caves, shady creeks and the extraordinary plants and wildlife. You can also get around on almost silent, eco-friendly Segways and be introduced to Australia's falcons, owls, peregrines and eagles in a Bird of Prey demonstration.

Modern transport means O'Reilly's Rainforest Retreat can be a day trip from the Gold Coast, but the unsurpassable views and wonderful bush clad surroundings have never changed. The original guesthouse envelops you with old-fashioned hospitality, fine meals are served in the cosy dining room and a genteel library contains an extraordinary archive of the family's history. Outside, flocks of vivid rosella parrots still greet you and a sculpture of the O'Reilly brothers reminds that adventure tourism is not a new phenomenon.

Modern developments at the retreat include new accommodation, conference facilities, swimming pool, hot tubs and the aptly named Lost World Day Spa, where nature-inspired treatments are designed to refresh, revitalise and relax.

On arrival the air is filled with gentle fragrant aromas while a nectar-like drink is served for your inner cleansing. The tranquil sounds of water mingle with the whisper of mood-setting music, blue-hazed views are framed in the picture windows and the turquoise pool appears suspended above the hills and hollows.

Smoothed by anti-ageing Vinotherapy or soothed by a mind-melting massage, limbs become fluid and eyes beg not to open. Whether you choose a spa to energise, harmonise or de-pressurise, it will be close to an out-of-body experience and should be undertaken without guilt.

There's an understandable reluctance to return to civilisation, but you'll soon be sampling food and wine delights on Tamborine Mountain. On the mountaintop, Eagle Heights Village has become a mouth-watering gourmet mile interspersed with galleries, gift shops, colour and crafts.

You can be whisked along on a hop-on hop-off trolley tour, or explore as randomly as the gastronomic mood takes you. Between Eagle Heights Brewery at one end of the village and Witches Chase Cheese at the other, there's a smorgasbord of local fudge, preserves, sauces, nuts, chocolate, baking and organic produce to tempt.

Mt Tambourine has its own coffee plantation, so you can't get a fresher or better cup than that. Kees Van Rijsen bought the small rundown property, nurtured it to produce three times more beans than any other Queensland producer and now "roasts and posts" to customers all over the world. The aroma and fine flavour is best appreciated on the plantation's sunny porch.

Select a deli-made hamper or shop for a picnic of local sourdough bread, fat glossy avocados that are now a major crop and tempting cheeses with quirky names like "Tamembert". With their own herd of Jersey cows grazing nearby, Witches Chase produces more than 20 varieties of cheese as well as dreamy ice-cream and yoghurt that is simply irresistible.

Songbirds Rainforest Retreat is in a class of its own. Consistent innovation and gastronomic perfection has been recognised and rewarded with a raft of "best restaurant" awards every year since 2005. Cocooned in a private rainforest, you'll discover unforgettable food, home grown produce and biodynamic wines. It's sustenance for body and soul and there's luxury villa accommodation if you choose to stay.

With several vineyards on the mountain slopes, there's plenty of scope for tastings and cellar door sales. Among them you'll find award winning red and white wines at Witches Falls Winery whose decade of success helped establish Queensland as a serious wine producer.

Cedar Creek Winery was named for the cedar forests that covered the mountain before being cleared for farming. Be sure to sample the winery's popular verdelho and rose, swirl a mellow tawny port or treat yourself to an elegant lunch overlooking exquisite formal gardens.

The Queensland Wine Centre is also located at Cedar Creek. Offering the most extensive range of the region's specialist wines under one roof, it's your most convenient chance to savour the best sips, nips and tips from Queensland vintners.

If whisky is more to your taste, Tamborine Mountain boasts its own distillery. For a not-so-wee dram of Michael and Alla Ward's range of flavoured whiskies, you'll think yourself inside a Scottish castle. With boundless enthusiasm for the product he exports all over the world, Michael will convince that whisky is a drink for all reasons.

At Eagle Height Brewery, line up a sampler tray of craft beers with bizarre names to test your nerve and distinctive flavours to test your palate: Nine Bullets Ale, Frank's Braggot or Wonglepong Wit. Bitter, light, sweet or white, whatever you choose, don't forget to raise your glass to the hilltop view.

From here you can see all the way to Surfers and in 40 minutes you'll be back where you began, swimming between the flags with soft sifty sand between your toes.

Top ten

1. Tamborine RainForest Skywalk: Your adventure begins in the Rainforest Eco Gallery which has a comprehensive array of rainforest fauna and flora information and displays. These include interpretive panels with descriptions and photos of sub-tropical rainforest wildlife, static displays and an aquarium with a variety of Australian freshwater fish.

2. Gold Coast Hinterland Great Walk: Stroll a short section or join guided longer walks, and discover beauty, mystery and history along the 54 kilometre Gold Coast Hinterland Great Walk linking the species-rich, Gondwana Rainforests of Australia World Heritage Area of Lamington and Springbrook plateaus via the scenic Numinbah Valley.

3. Tamborine Mountain Distillery: Hidden away in the Gold Coast hinterland lies Australia's most awarded distillery and liquor brand in the new millennium, Tamborine Mountain Distillery. With the combination of rich red volcanic soil and fresh spring water, the abundant fruit of the mountain is fermented and distilled. This family owned and operated boutique distillery manufactures fine liqueurs, schnapps, vodka, eaux de vie and liqueur chocolates.

4. Burleigh Brewing Company: Burleigh Brewing Company is Queensland's premium brewer and the Gold Coast's only craft brewery. You can buy takeaway beers from the Brewhouse Bar, Monday to Friday. The Brewouse Bar is open every Friday night.

5. Escarpment Day Spa: This award-winning rainforest Day Spa offers a range of rejuvenating treatments including aromatherapy, hot stone, salt glow, deep tissue massage, indulgent and relaxing facial, massage package and couples massages. Relieve stress and feel renewed with their skilful combination of Relaxation, Remedial and Deep Tissue techniques tailored just for you.

6. Songbirds Rainforest Retreat: Nestled among 52 acres of privately owned rainforest, Songbirds Rainforest Retreat is truly a hidden secret. Dine in the Award Winning restaurant where meals are fresh, innovative and served in a beautiful environment, the perfect setting for a lazy lunch or intimate dinner.

7. Tamborine Cooking School: Located in the beautiful Gold Coast Hinterland in South East Queensland - 30 minutes from the Gold Coast offering cooking lessons using the best and freshest produce in the region. A multi course themed lunch menu is prepared (French, Italian, Moroccan, Asian, Spanish, Greek), guests can be hands on as they want to be or sit and watch the demonstration.

8. Gallery Walk: With its unusual and vibrantly coloured shops, art galleries, wineries, restaurants and cafes, Gallery Walk shopping precinct is definitely one of Tamborine Mountain's most well-known and popular visitor attractions. There is so much to see and do on Gallery Walk, with exciting shops full to the brim with original artworks, paintings and sculptures, glass works, pottery, ceramics, antiques, jewelry and clothing, to name but a few.

9. Gold Coast Airport Marathon: The 36th annual Gold Coast Airport Marathon will be held in July . . Regarded as one of Australia's premier sporting events, the Gold Coast Airport Marathon is set to attract more than 28,000 participants of all ages and abilities. Come for the run and then head to the Hinterland to rest and relax !
10O'Reilly's Forest Weekend - October: Join visiting experts for an insight into the complex world of the Rainforest. Learn about Lamington's part in the 'Gondwana Rainforests of Australia' World Heritage site and the fascinating features that warrant its inclusion.

IF YOU GO

Getting there: There are direct flights from Auckland to the Gold Coast or it's a one-hour drive from Brisbane. Mt Tamborine is a 1 hour drive from the Gold Coast.

Further information: See escapewinter.co.nz.

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