It's flashy, it's trashy and unashamedly touristy but there's always something new to love about the Gold Coast, writes Angie Kelly.
Yes, the meter maids in heels and gold skimpy shorts are there. And the cheeky touts luring young ones into nightclubs. The bogans, buskers and off-colour slogan T-shirts still mix it up with bikies and busty postcards.
'Twas always a strange mix of dirt-cheap souvenirs and high-end designer flash; of kebab takeaways and pricey hotels; statement sunnies and designer prams - tribes of every description have holidayed here, all drawn to the magic of boogie boards, bare feet and beach hair, all the while embracing the rough edges of Australia's favourite holiday town.
But things are changing: in the past year, big money has been spent on new hotels, shopping precincts, tourist attractions, restaurants and updated public facilities. The style files will improve even more when the Gold Coast City Council's $6.9 million cash injection into Cavill Mall transforms the town centre from the scruffy, screaming-for-a-facelift plaza it has become into a shiny new modern space due to open in October.
With so much to see and do - plus 70 kilometres of uninterrupted sand stretching from Beenleigh to Coolangatta - it's no wonder holidaymakers can't stay away.
Once you cross over the main seaside drag and hit the sensational new beachfront boardwalk, the flash and trash of nearby streets is behind you. This months-old, three-kilometre-long foreshore walk has wow factor (we loved the ultra-mod day-bed-style chairs) and, at 20 metres wide, is big enough for scooters, bikes, joggers and strollers going in both directions.
Arts-and-crafts markets every Wednesday and Friday evening bring added energy, while a series of huge vintage photographs showing back-in-the-day bikinis, Holdens and holiday street life punctuate the length of the walk and make amusing conversation starters. New barbecues, beach shelters and picnic areas top off the area's $25 million update.
The allure of the "worlds" is hard to beat, with reviews of various new attractions a daily topic of conversation among the under- 12s chatting to each other around our hotel pool. This year's SpongeBob invasion of Sea World was the big drawcard for our seven-year-old fan of the popular cartoon character, informing us that the new parade and panto-style show was "awesome". A new Dora the Explorer show is on offer for younger ones. Be prepared for the pestering onslaught after the show - strategically placed gift shops bulge with a dizzying array of expensive plastic trinkets that kids seem to find irresistible.
A new on-water stunt show where indestructible-looking blokes perform aerial tricks on jet-skis is an enjoyable, thrill-packed spectacle. The riders, apparently famous in the world of freestyle extreme jet-skiing, provide entertaining commentary when they're not pushing their luck flinging themselves into the air.
Last Sunday, Dreamworld unveiled its new DreamWorks experience whereby fans of the Madagascar and Shrek movies will be in Hollywood heaven with a host of new themed rides and attractions.
The terrifying new Green Lantern roller-coaster ride at Movie World proved too much for our normally game teen, who decided not to give it a whirl. Plenty of others did, though, with long queues outside it all day, proving we're not a nation of wimps. Taunting riders to take on what is supposedly the steepest drop in the southern hemisphere, it has multiple hairpin bends and plenty of upside-down action at speeds of 66km/h.
You'll also have to be the game type to step out on to Australia's highest external building climb, a three-month-old experience at the top of the Q1 tower on Surfers Paradise Boulevard. The SkyPoint Climb takes you 270 metres above the ground and provides a spectacular - if dizzying - perspective on the coastal strip and hinterland. The 90-minute, full body-harnessed guided climb involves going up 298 stairs to get to the summit, so this is not one for couch potatoes.
One guide told us that in good weather some groups have been able to see so far they spotted the Byron Bay lighthouse, 74 kilometres away (we were also told extreme thrill seekers like to scare their fellow climbers by leaning back over the edge of the building for extra adrenalin).
Chickens can still get the idea while safely inside on the level-77 circular observation deck (where there is also a bar and cafe), which is chock-full of touchscreen technology and opportunities to learn the history of the area as well as interesting facts and figures on the landmarks of the strip below. skypoint.com.au.
With the space and amenities of an apartment and the service and facilities of a hotel, the new Hilton residences in Orchid Avenue are a great option for families who want to self-cater at times but call room service at others. Offering one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments, the hotel also has a Food Store deli and cafe on the ground floor, making self-catering easy with a range of no-fuss yet sophisticated dinner options available to buy.
Providing the coast's only beach valet service, the hotel will also set up your own fancy, sandy playground with a hire-pack containing sunshade, deckchairs, beach toys and an esky full of your choice of drinks, fruit or snacks. (This needs to be booked at least 24 hours ahead).
And with smooth tunes being piped across a 1500-square-metre four-pool space, The Deck makes for a funky place to catch rays. With its array of hot-right-now wicker, pool pods and sun loungers, cocktails and chill music, this space seems to work as a destination for couples and the under-25s as well as families.
A toddler-friendly pool keeps the teeny tots separate and an adults-only pool does the same for grown-ups. Just be quick, as the inevitable competition for day beds and pods starts early.
The Sheraton Mirage Resort & Spa - a name that has long been associated with '80s excess and pink marble - has recently had a $20 million makeover, transforming it into a space where a palette of modern neutral colours allows the deep, magical blue of the ocean to do the talking.
The project has involved all 293 rooms and suites being updated (all have new beds, TVs and wireless comms), while 20 per cent of accommodation has so-close-you-could-almost-feel-the-sea-spray views. Art for sale in common spaces is an attractive touch but best new feature by far is the huge sliding windows, in all rooms, which not only open wide for air but also let that irresistible Queensland sunshine pour in.
As the only luxury accommodation option on the coast where you can walk straight on to the beach from the property (don't miss walking the seaside path all the way into Surfers), the low-rise hotel is also conveniently located opposite the Marina Mirage shopping and restaurant precinct.
Other new and refurbished hotels include the upmarket Sea Temple resort in the new skyscraper Soul building (which must be in the running for funkiest pool design awards) and the done-up Marriott Resort & Spa (famed for its lagoon pool containing real fish), which has updated all its rooms.
Serious fashionistas in the mood to spend won't have any trouble picking somewhere to do it these days.
Seriously moving on from the once-dominant, chain-laden Pacific Fair, shopping here has grown up big time. Alongside upmarket Australian designers Tim O'Connor, Camilla, Collette Dinnigan and Carla Zampatti, the 80-boutique Marina Mirage complex has international brands such as Hermes, Max & Co., Dolce & Gabbana and Calvin Klein.
The new boutique precinct attached to the Hilton hotel includes such high-end outlets as Versace Collection, Versace Jeans, Mimco and Paragon Jewellery.
The just-opened Soul building complex, though yet to be filled completely, has the quality high street covered, while the Oracle Avenue, Broadbeach, boutiques include Italian shoes, objets d'art, a day spa and up-scale evening wear.
The writer was a guest of the Hilton Surfers Paradise, Sheraton Mirage and Sea World.
Virgin Australia, Qantas and Jetstar all fly Sydney-Gold Coast.
Hilton Surfers Paradise, 6 Orchid Avenue, Surfers Paradise. Standard hotel room from $224 a night, two-bedroom apartment from $304 a night. (07) 5680 8000, hiltonsurfersparadise.com.au.
Sheraton Mirage, 71 Seaworld Drive, Main Beach. Standard room from $250 a night. (07) 5577 0000, sheraton.com/goldcoast.
Sea Temple. Two- bedroom apartments start from $408 a night, three-bedroom apartments start from $603 a night. (07) 5635 5700, mirvachotels.com/sea-temple-surfers-paradise.
Surfers Paradise Marriott Resort & Spa, 158 Ferny Avenue, Surfers Paradise. Standard rooms are from $249 a night, including breakfast.
Three other things to do
1 A Brisbane institution, Jan Power's Farmers Market has come to the coast and is held on Oracle Boulevard, Broadbeach, on the second Sunday of each month from 7am to 1pm. Find an array of fresh produce from local farms and gourmet producers. janpowersfarmersmarkets.com.au.
2 Take a mountain-bike tour with a conservation and environmental bent with Bunyip Bike Tours' Beach Safari, covering easy terrain along the sand dunes of the coast. bunyipbiketours.com.au.
3 Catch a free outdoor movie at Sanctuary Cove Village Green on the second and fourth Fridays of the month. sanctuarycove.com/events.