Wendy Dunlop goes to Mooloolaba and discovers a whole new world above and under water, in the bush – and in the shops.
Sunrise. It warms the miles of golden sand, warms the water sliding up the ribbon of beaches from Caloundra to Noosa, exciting the holidaymakers lured to an early jog or a leisurely breakfast while contemplating the biggest decision of the day - how to make the most of another cruisy 24 hours on the Sunshine Coast.
There are the active options: surfing, diving, or kayaking on the Maroochy River. Then there are less strenuous opportunities: the fascination of Underwater World, the thrill of whale-watching, entering another universe with a river cruise that will introduce scenery, wildlife and a civilisation that time almost forgot.
Surfing is alive and well at Mooloolaba. At the first hint of a swell, buddies and their boards gather like seagulls round a sandwich. It's never too late to give it a try: the consistent waves and soft sand beneath the shallows make it a popular place to learn and a safe place for the inevitable splash-down or wipeout.
XL Surfing Academy aims to have you up on your feet in no time, whether you're a raw recruit or your skills are just rusty. Step by step, a drill on the sand is designed to convert to an attempt in the water - "position, push up, step through and stand".
It's deceptively simple, but practice makes perfect and those who persevere are rewarded with the satisfaction of riding a wave - if only for a moment.
If diving floats your boat, the waters off Mooloolaba boast a coral reef and a wreck dive. With spacious boats, experienced guides and the latest equipment, Sunreef Scuba Dives can take you there. They also offer PADI and nitrox deep-dive courses.
For divers, the bonus is good visibility and the variety of marine life just 10 minutes offshore. Provided you've enough diving experience, you can be guided to the wreck of HMAS Brisbane, scuttled in 2005. Around it, the marine conservation area is home to shrimp, groper, snapper, yellow tail kingfish, stingrays and even the occasional unhurried turtle.
You enter the wreck to explore the funnel, corridors and engine room. Resting 4-28m below the surface, the warship is the most accessible wreck dive in Australia.
Back on the wharf, Underwater World gives a view of Down Under's down under. Compelling, fanciful, magical and sometimes downright sinister, the inhabitants of the deep invite you to share their environment.
You can touch and feel baby stingrays that flap around their miniature reef like shiny autumn leaves. Playful otters prove to be natural performers and expert swimmers, while the "Seals Behaving Badly" show provides an insight into their intelligence and endearing character. Joining an encounter to swim and play with the seals is especially memorable.
Go eye-to-eye with the world's only captive giant squid, creep past a billabong where a freshwater crocodile floats, its eyes scanning the surface for prey, or peer into "A Fish Called Honda" - a funky tropical fishtank built inside a car.
As you walk through an underwater tunnel, vividly coloured fish and massive stingrays staring malevolently back at you through the glass. If that doesn't spook you, dive with the sharks alongside Scuba World's instructors.
Nearby, whales cruise an underwater highway just 20 minutes from Mooloolaba's jetty. From August to November numerous sightings of pilot, minke and humpback whales on their southern migration prompted the launch of Australia Zoo's whalewatching venture in 2007.
Since then hundreds of visitors have boarded Whale1 and been mesmerised by an extraordinary and uplifting experience. Sightings in the season are almost guaranteed, but only luck will catch a breeching whale or a tail fluke that heralds a deep dive. The excitement begins with the first "blow". While the whale may simply be taking a breath, for the humans it's simply breathtaking.
Just south of Mooloolaba, a sheltered location that is well protected from predators has become a whale kindergarten. Here young whales are educated, socialised and put on the necessary weight to survive.
Whale 1 skipper Allan Short has found over the years that the mother whales have developed sufficient trust to introduce their calves to the boat.
"That's when passengers know they are truly privileged."
North of Mooloolaba, the Maroochy River completes its meander to the sea after tumbling off the hinterland's Blackball Range. Challenge yourself or chill out on the Maroochy River Canoe Trail, which can take a full day from Lake Dunethin to the coast or invest a couple of leisurely hours paddling the lower reaches of the river. Flat and serene, it's a delight to canoe along wetland waterways and hope to see spoonbills, oystercatchers, cormorants and yellow-tailed cockatoo.
For a deeper experience, enjoy a cultural voyage with Cruise Maroochy. This absorbing two-hour trip incorporates the scenery, wildife, food and the culture of the indigenous Gubbi Gubbi people.
Along the way you can see sacred bunya trees and ancient bora rings where tribal meetings were held; listen to the sounds of a didgeridoo and tapping sticks as the boat glides silently along the river and watch dreamtime dances of the eagle and oyster by Gubbi Gubbi descendants.
Modern cuisine trades on the flavours of indigenous bush tucker: aniseed myrtle dip, emu, crocodile hot dogs, bunya nuts, bush herbs, wattle seed ice cream and delicious lillipilli jam on damper scones.
Back on land you'll find more culinary delights and shopping adventures within sight and sound of Mooloolaba Beach. The town prides itself on leisurely shopping every day of the week. If you can tear yourself away from sea and sand, discover shops on the Wharf, designer boutiques along First Ave and local shops on Brisbane Rd. Best buys include fashion and accessories, Australian gifts and souvenirs and must-have swimwear.
And as the sun goes down, it's time for one more decision: barbecue, bistro or banquet? Drop into to the fish market for Moreton Bay bugs and the daily catch to cook yourself; dine al fresco along the Esplanade on a variety of international cuisines; or tuck into Australian dishes with subtropical flavours and farm-to-fork freshness at a tempting smorgasbord of restaurants.
Then kick back and decide what to do tomorrow, when the sun comes up on the Sunshine Coast.
1. Beaches: Sunshine Coast is renowned for its beautiful beaches, but head to some of the less known such as Alexandria Bay, Point Cartwright, Shelly or Mudjimba or Moffat beaches.
2. Australia Zoo: Don't miss a visit to the Australia Wildlife Hospital at the Zoo, where you can do a guided tour and see the life saving work of the vets on site.
3. Eumundi Markets: Australia's biggest and best art, craft and produce market, held every Saturday and Wednesday (rain, hail or shine) in the heart of the charming historic hinterland town of Eumundi. Established back in 1979, the world-renowned Eumundi Markets is like an outdoor gallery, with towering heritage listed fig trees rising above the 500-plus stalls.
4. Ginger Factory: The Ginger Factory is packed with fun and discovery for everyone. Enjoy a world of taste, living history, and of course the largest range of The World's Finest Ginger products.
5. Noosa International Food and Wine Festival: Over 200 invited chefs, producers, winemakers and media will descend on the village of Noosa and its iconic surroundings to join foodies from all over the world to celebrate and enjoy the good things in life.Food trails to the Hinterland and river, the beach, the Noosa National Park and of course the Festival Village will all be part of the action again.
6. Noosa Everglades: Escape to Noosa River, and enjoy a cruise along the everglades, swim in the pristine waters, explore the region with a guided boardwalk.
7. Golf: Twin Waters, Pelican Waters, Peregian Beach, Noosa Springs and Palmer Coolum Resort, to name but a few ! The Sunshine Coast offers the ideal golfing holiday with a wide range of world class course to choose from.
8. Cooking Schools: The natural beauty, healthy lifestyle and wonderful produce available on the Sunshine Coast attracts many top chefs, so it's no surprise there are brilliant cooking schools and classes. Learn the tricks of the trade from the best and book a class at one of the highly-acclaimed cooking schools. Learning new skills means you'll take more home than just a great tan.
9. National Parks: Discover one of the lesser known national parks. In Cooloola, Great Sandy National Park you can experience the majesty of nature's sculpture in sand. Massive dunes, towering cliffs of coloured sands and wide ocean beaches have been etched by wind and water. Tall forests, fragrant wildflower heaths and paperbark swamps decorate the sands. Water features abound, including surf, freshwater lakes and the undisturbed upper Noosa River.
10. Hinterland: With so much to explore in the Hinterland, make sure you don't miss the Glass House mountains - 16 volcanic crags that rise up dramatically from the surrounding landscape of eucalypts and pineapple plantations, their aura of mystique making them one of Australia's most fascinating landmarks.
IF YOU GO
Getting there: There are seasonal direct flights from Auckland to Sunshine Coast airport (June - October); or fly to Brisbane and drive approx 1.5 hours.
Details: The world famous Mooloolaba Beach offers perfect views over the picturesque waters of the Pacific Ocean, as well as having some of the Sunshine Coast's best dining, shopping and scenic tours, and having a great range of golf courses. Mooloolaba Beach is a northerly facing beach providing protection from the prevailing southerlies and south easterlies, ensuring near perfect conditions all year round.
Further information: See escapewinter.co.nz.