The holiday coast's hinterland is a different world, as Ewan McDonald discovers.
Water dragons skitter from pools to join diners on the veranda, perhaps looking for scraps — though their favoured entree is insects. Dragons, pools, boardwalks, artfully placed trees and rocks: an Asian vibe, though we're high above the rainforest and waterfalls in the Sunshine Coast hinterland.
The tastes, too, are Asian; creations of Daniel Jarrett (pictured right), the French-trained, fusion-inclined, much-awarded chef at Spicers Tamarind Retreat. And about to become even more exotic: in August, the kitchen hosts Zaiyu Hasegawa from Den, two Michelin stars and high in the planet's top 20 on the more contemporary San Pellegrino charts.
What draws one of the world's most exciting and creative chefs from Tokyo to Maleny, an undeniably pretty and generally untouristed mountain village 80km inland from Noosa, better known for galleries, country markets and healing crystals than haute cuisine?
The Curated Plate. It's a new festival being served around the Sunshine Coast from August 8-11 that digs rather deeper than the celeb chef overpriced degustation menu tiny tasting glass of most food and wine bunfights.
Though big names and bigger hats are heading north, the weekend will concentrate on the coast's produce and producers, sustainable practices, artisan culture, health and wellness.
You don't need to visit on four days in August to appreciate the other face of the region. Its tourism authority has appointed a first food ambassador: Alejandro Cancino grew up on a farm near Buenos Aires, was the UK's 2008 Young Chef of the Year, has worked in the world's best kitchens (Mugaritz, Spain; Bulgari, Tokyo), and helmed Brisbane's leading Urbane.
A year ago, Alejandro, wife Paolo and baby daughter Lola left town.
In the mecca of barbies, this cheerful, passionately spoken chef has become an evangelist for plant-based cuisine with his Fenn Foods brand and Lola's Pantry cafe and catering business in a suburban shopping centre just minutes from the beach in Maroochydore.
"It's about how we can make it easier for people to eat plant-based food. It makes you healthier, you have less impact on the world, it's really positive. Rather than removing things from the plate, I prefer to add through flavour. It's much harder but I like it," he says.
Cancino admits his vegan venture is a work in progress. "With plant-based food, if you go to a cafe now, it's okay and you will eat it, but we need years and decades to get it to the highest level. I want to accelerate that and be able to say I've done my bit to get animal produce off the plate."
But he's not about dissing the region's traditional delicacies. Cancino would just like visitors to realise that there's much more on the Sunshine Coast platter than bikinis and Speedos, pizzas and prawns.
Back up the hill, Josh Donohue concentrates on more traditional Aussie flavours.
The self-confessed beer obsessive moved from the Big Smoke a couple of years ago, bought an air-conditioned minibus and runs craft beer tours.
Well, he calls them craft beer tours, but as the afternoon unwinds, it becomes apparent that the artisans of the hinterland are united in a "you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours" symbiosis.
Through the once-farming, now near-hipster communities of Maleny, Mapleton and Montville (spot the theme there?), brewers, cheesemakers, coffee roasters, chefs, beef and dairy farmers, organic fruit and vegetable growers, beekeepers and B&B hosts have created a highly sustainable lifestyle — in all senses of the words.
It's an ethos exemplified by Brouhaha, the highly awarded brewery and kitchen crafted from the unpromising surrounds of a small-town medical centre in Maleny. (Fortunately, rather like Titirangi's celebrated Long Drop, on the other side of the place there's a panorama of the rainforest from the sprawling deck.)
In the industrially chic microbrewery, all stainless vats and black-and-timber decor, head brewer Matt Jankauskas creates sours and saisons, pale ales, stouts and seasonal beers.
When he's done with the mash (used grain), it's trucked down the road to Maleny Wagyu, which repurposes it to fatten their beasts.
Later, at Brouhaha, chef James Ostridge has the pick of the cattle for his kitchen and uses virtually every cut in nose-to-tail dishes. Unwanted scraps become pet food, sold from the brewery.
The signature dish: Maleny wagyu ragu, beef braised in milk stout and blonde beer, slow-cooked for five hours and served with pappardelle pasta, parmesan and rocket.
The house rule is to use local producers wherever possible, recognised with a Snail of Approval from Slow Food Noosa for commitment to sustainable, fresh and locally sourced produce.
But it goes beyond tomatoes, berries, yoghurt and honey: like many enterprises in these revived and reviving communities, the team plays the same game with just about everything bought, sold or used on the premises.
Much of this may not feel like the long-held image of the Sunny Coast.
But as Tamarind GM Ryan Dillon points out, "The Sunshine Coast isn't just about beaches and sun.
"There's a completely different world in the hinterland."
GETTING THERE: Air New Zealand flies direct from Auckland to the Sunshine Coast from July until October with one-way seat fares from $289.