Crocs and awe

Bindi Irwin stars in a cast of attractions on a family trip to Caloundra, writes Debbie Neilson-Hunter.

THE excitement of two little girls can hardly be contained when I announce a holiday to the Sunshine Coast featuring a visit to Australia Zoo. But it isn't a relic of the dinosaur age, a chance to hand-feed Asian elephants or witness a tiger paint a picture that has them itching to pack their bags. What they want to see most is a miniature wildlife warrior live in action.

Bindi, the Jungle Girl, is as idolised as Barbie in our house.

This added a little bit of anxiety in my planning. There was no guarantee that the late Croc Hunter Steve Irwin's daughter would be there as the giant billboards that line the highway north from Brisbane to Beerwah promised.

Happily for all, their optimism was rewarded. Bindi stood centre stage alongside mum Terri and little brother Robert in the zoo's 5000-seat Crocoseum, taking on the role that made her father an international celebrity.

"Isn't he gorgeous," she drawled as she dangled fresh meat above the reptile's jaws.

It quickly became clear the charismatic teenager (and budding actress) has inherited not just her dad's roguish personality and passion for animals but his ability to charm the pants off an audience and sell the conservation message.

While the 41-year-old reptile park-turned-conservation zoo has 14 wildlife shows daily, last month Irwin's dream to build an African safari park became a reality when the first stage of the new 10-hectare exhibit opened. In a first for Queensland, visitors can see giraffes, zebras and rhinos roaming free on the African Safari Shuttle.

A few pats of the kangaroos, a pony ride, a giant inflatable crocodile slide and an ice-cream was all it took to top off the perfect first day of the holiday for my two, judging by their contented snores barely a minute into the 15-minute drive back to our Caloundra base.

Hot summers and mild winters, plus an abundance of water-based activities and themed attractions such as Australia Zoo, Aussie World, the Queensland Air Museum and the Big Kart Track close by, have made Caloundra a year-round family favourite.

Our home for five nights (and the first to bring five-star luxury to the Caloundra) was the Rumba Beach Resort. While the resort's spacious one-, two- and three-bedroom self-contained apartments offer inclusions such as espresso machines, king beds and spa baths to lure loved-up couples, the on-demand movies, iPod docking stations and USB imports for personal games consoles also had our family's emergency wet-weather needs covered. Fortunately, there was no need.

Guests enjoy views across the Pumicestone Passage (a haven for marine life including dugongs and dolphins) to Bribie Island and the Glass House Mountains beyond.

The resort also overlooks Bulcock Beach, one of Caloundra's seven most popular beaches. Each is conveniently linked by a scenic coastal boardwalk that's both pedestrian and cyclist friendly.

Just minutes into our two-wheel adventure we discovered Happy Valley Park, where the girls played on swings and a playground pirate ship. A short ride further north we hit local favourite Kings Beach to watch tides of surfers ride the breaks. For those who don't like getting sand between their toes (and elsewhere), at the rocky northern end of Kings is a 25-metre seawater pool (and fountain park area for children). Live music events are also regularly staged in the Kings Beach amphitheatre. With picnic tables and barbecues, cafes and takeaway fish and chip shops on hand, we extended our second morning's outing into lunch.

Back at the resort, the family-sized spa and heated lap pool (the main pool isn't heated) also proved a hit with my two. Miss Five especially enjoyed watching the surprised faces of diners tucking into thick-cut steaks and curly fries below as she waved through the glass portholes in the pool floor.

For parents who want a night off from cooking, the restaurant plaza hitched to the resort is a major plus. For breakfast, lunch or dinner we were just a stroll away from an affordable array of eateries including a Coffee Club, Hog's Breath Cafe, a pub and Italian restaurant, which thoughtfully served up colouring-in pencils before our pizzas arrived.

Over five days and nights the word "bored" wasn't uttered once.

The writer travelled with assistance from Sunshine Coast Destination Ltd.

Trip notes

Getting there

Caloundra is an hour's drive from Brisbane Airport or 35 minutes south of the Sunshine Coast Airport at Marcoola.

Staying there

Rumba Beach Resort offers special packages throughout the year. A stay four nights and pay for three Spring Fling package

starts from $585 all-inclusive. This offer is valid until the end of November (not valid on Saturday nights or school holidays). Bikes are available for hire at the resort. (07) 5492 0555,

More information,

Three other things to do

1 UnderWater World, Mooloolaba Watching a seal balance a ball on his nose and give an audience member a fishy kiss before stealing his shorts had my girls in a fit of giggles. Educational and fun with an array of saltwater and freshwater exhibits. Older children and adults can also enjoy close encounters with a host of marine creatures. Families can sleep over at select times.

2 The Ginger Factory, Yandina Ride an old sugar-cane train, learn how bees make honey, take a cooking class and chase a stowaway gingerbread man around the world. New attraction Pannys Chocolate Shop serves up 70 varieties of handcrafted chocolates. Try the specialty — choc-dipped frozen bananas.

3 Queensland Air Museum The Queensland Air Museum was created in 1973 and has a range of flying machines that all ages will appreciate. On select weekends visitors are also invited to sit in the cockpits of a number of aircraft. The museum is open daily from 10am to 4pm (except Christmas Day).