Carol Smith takes a tumble and has a (rather large) ball, all in the name of adventure
Relaxing? Not a minute of it. On an action-packed family holiday with my teenage son Blair, I was bounced down a hill in a water-filled plastic bubble, screamed my lungs out on rides at the big theme parks and went face-to-face with a tiger and a baby crocodile.
The Gold Coast is renowned for its classic family attractions and we explored and enjoyed the rides of Dreamworld and WhiteWater World, but away from the theme parks, Blair and I found a heap of activity for families to dive into. On South Stradbroke Island, where the Tallship Island Adventures cruise travels to, we were whipped around on the water in an exciting jetboat ride. We patted the dolphins at Sea World, fed tigers and held a snake and a baby crocodile at Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary.
Our adventure took us away from the developed areas. When we arrived at McLaren's Landing - 17km from the centre of Surfers - Bruce Nicholls, owner of the family-run business, had a delicious barbie on the go. Tourists can parasail, jetski, sand toboggan, ride a Segway and go on eco tours at Stradbroke.
"This form of nature-based tourism you can't guarantee, but it's a chance to see the natural environment," Bruce explained as we travelled in a 4WD down one of the island's three firetracks to Eastern Pacific Ocean beach.
It looked magnificent in all its wild glory, the surf crashing on the windy beach, and Blair had a lot of fun sand-tobogganing down the dunes.
Bruce's family keeps the island in as natural a state as possible. There is no electricity, sewerage system or water - the island has generators and the water is purified. There are no predators to bother the monitor lizards and rare wallabies.
"It's a real Aussie bush experience," Bruce said as a wallaby with a little joey in her pouch approached us for a curious look.
Next up, we went zorbing. On the Gold Coast, they've taken to it with relish and call it Oz Ball - after the stoush over Phar Lap and pavlova, bouncing down hills in plastic balls could be grounds for the latest transtasman scrap.
"I wouldn't go in this one," said the assistant, who would later launch me from the top of the hill. "What? Why not?" I asked as I was diving through the hole in the middle and had belts being secured around my ankles, around my waist and over my shoulders. He assured me I'd be fine, but that I needed to be strapped in as this ride would go fast and I'd be going backwards, forwards, side to side.
His favourite was the hydro zorb - you are not strapped in and slosh around with water inside the ball - so I wondered why I was having to try the harness one. But I was told I would not be a true "zorbette"if I didn't brave the bumpy, twisty, dizzy ride that the harness zorb offered.
As I experienced a hair-raising run down the hill, I shut my eyes tight. I was too shocked to scream. When I reached the bottom and was helped out, my legs were like jelly. My only thought was, "Why the hell did I do this so soon after eating lunch".
By then I felt I had earned a little relaxation.
A MUST-DO LIST FOR FAMILIES
Take a spin in a seaplane, pat dolphins or saddle up for a show. Carol Smith finds heaps to keep her entertained on the Gold Coast.
Flying on a seaplane: "Are you comfortable?" asked Peter Murray, owner of Cloud9 Seaplanes. I barely got the word "yes" out before the plane was on its side and we were looking at luxury homes near Surfers Paradise from an unusual angle. Then Peter, who flies many unsuspecting women to secluded islands where their boyfriends are waiting to provide a romantic dinner and pop the question, said he wanted to surprise a fella he knew who was driving a jetboat below us. If the driver gave us the finger, he said, he had done a good job. We dive-bombed the jetboat. I was too surprised to notice what the driver did, but enjoyed every moment of Peter's antics. The seaplane is a fun, fast way to travel and see scenery up close and from a different view.
Oz Ball: The harness zorb is not for the faint-hearted, but all the family can enjoy the hydro zorb, which doesn't leave you feeling as dizzy. I was a bit apprehensive about swishing around inside the ball, along with 40 litres of water, as I rolled down the hill. The challenge was to stand up, start running as fast as I could when I was pushed off the platform and stay upright while the ball was speeding down the hill. Yeah, right. But it was fun. You can plan a party here and choose to replace the water in the zorb with champagne, chocolate syrup or bubble bath. One group filled the zorb with tomatoes, which provided a challenge for staff to clean up afterwards.
Feeding a tiger at Dreamworld: "There is no way I'm doing that," declared my son Blair when I told him we were going to feed the tigers. We had just watched one of Tiger Island's magnificent young Sumatran tigers casually wrap his paws around a handler holding a milk carton for him to drink from. Blair calmed down a little when I said we wouldn't be roaming around the island enclosure - we would be feeding tigers from behind a wire fence, poking their meat through on the end of a pair of tongs. Still, it was scary when the handler had the tiger run at the fence and the photographer asked me to smile and look at him while the tiger was grabbing the piece of meat off my tongs. These beautiful animals are hypnotising and it's worth seeing them demonstrate their agility.
Pat the dolphins at Sea World: I've always wanted to cuddle a dolphin so the chance to pat one at the Dolphin Discovery Presentation at Sea World seemed as close as I was likely to get. I'm sure these intelligent creatures, which learn to perform amazing tricks, wonder why they can't train us. But they humour us by striking a pose so we can get our souvenir shot. Bottlenose dolphins establish a pecking order like humans do - they maintain dominance by biting, chasing, jaw-clapping, and smacking their tails on the water. When they get aggressive they scratch one another with their teeth (I use my nails, but the principle is the same). They also show aggression by emitting bubble clouds from their blowholes, so stay clear of these when patting them. The trainer told us they enjoyed being stroked on their backs so I obliged. A dolphin's skin is amazing to touch - it's rubbery, but incredibly smooth.
Australian Outback Spectacular: Saddle up for an entertaining show that celebrates the outback and the legend of Phar Lap in Spirit of the Horse. Before the show started, we whet our whistles at the outback bar, were given a stockman's hat each and had the opportunity to get a photo with the horses. Then we settled into our seats to watch the talented stunt riders and animals put on a show built around the competitive spirit of Australians, with the story based on two rival cattle stations. Stockman Bluey split the audience into two groups to barrack for each station and we were encouraged to cheer loudly as each team tried to be top dog. In between scenes featuring wild horses, stampeding cattle, bush vehicles, high-speed quad bikes and a mustering helicopter, which arrived in the arena, we were fed Aussie bush tucker (except for the pavlova - when will they give up our Kiwi treat?). As well as trick riding, the special strobe lighting effects all added to the enjoyment of the production.
Pandamonium: Before it starts, it looks like a nice ride you could take granny on, but this is one kick-arse Kung Fu Panda experience. Pandamonium is the latest Dreamworld Big 8 thrill ride and it's far from gentle. You choose which queue to be in - there's a "not so crazy" line where you will enjoy a rickshaw chase adventure, spinning round and side to side. And there's a "seriously crazy" line. We chose the latter and this swinging rickshaw delivered, going at up to 3.8 G-force with 360-degree spinning. If you like being tipped and turned and totally disorientated then you've come to the right ride. If you don't, you've been warned.
Carol Smith keeps an eye out for bargains on a family holiday.
Sea World Refill: Buy a refill drink for $12.50 and refresh as many times as you like with soft drinks or frozen soft drinks. You get incredibly thirsty in the heat and from screaming on the rides so this deal is a no-brainer.
Currumbin Green Challenge: When you enter the Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary, pay $6.25 to add the Green Challenge to your entry ticket. This gives you up to two hours of fun on a treetops ropes course, which includes 65 challenges over four separate courses. You're provided with overalls and safety equipment before you begin your Tarzan-and-Jane adventure through the rainforest canopy. If you think you're a supreme athlete, you can try the Extreme Green Challenge advanced course once you've done the slightly less challenging ones. It's hot and sweaty work but is a great way to work off lunch.
Paradise Resort: This is the perfect place for families to stay. It's reasonably priced and has enough facilities to keep the little ones amused. There's a good swimming pool, waterpark and play area, spa pool and games room and they've just added a permanent ice-skating rink. The entertainment programme gives parents a nice break and the resort is handily located near the centre of Surfers Paradise. It has its own mini-mart, which is wonderful when you need panadol and a refreshing ice-block after a long day out in the sun.
Firefly Churrascaria Chargrill & Bar: If you have an appetite for good food and are a card-carrying carnivore, you have to eat here. For $43 a person you can eat your way through succulent meat cuts and sizzling seafood - my favourite was the beef with oregano, black pepper, cumin and garlic - which keeps on being offered until you say stop. Save some room for a dessert. You won't be disappointed if you choose the vanilla creme brulee. The silky custard was topped with a crunchy, teeth-sticking caramel that was a little taste of heaven. If you're not a team player, this restaurant also has a great a la carte menu.
Accommodation: If your family enjoys space, a two-bedroom, ocean-view apartment at Mantra Sierra Grand, Broadbeach is great. The location is ideal and the facilities, which include an excellent gym, spa/sauna/indoor pool area, outdoor pool and tennis courts, are superb. From $310 per night.
A stay at Sea World Resort comes with unlimited entry to the fun park.
Carol Smith was a guest of Gold Coast Tourism Corporation.