If you, like most of us, think the Gold Coast is all about theme parks and beaches, it might be time to pay another visit. The cultural side of what's on offer is becoming as important as any hoop-jumping dolphin at Sea World ever was.
I recently moved back here after decades away, and I barely recognise the place. For all its natural beauty, there was always something a little vacuous about the region. But now there's a boho vibe emerging that feels more than a little Melbournesque – led by well-travelled locals and new arrivals fleeing the property prices of Melbourne and Sydney.
The Gold Coast is really just a strip of suburbs built without any cohesive planning. There is no central business district, so it takes some digging to find this emerging culture. But go beyond the beach and the busy four-lane highway that runs through the region and you'll find new cafes, fashion labels, art galleries and precincts that are not within cooee of a roller-coaster or a meter maid in a gold bikini.
You can walk from Surfers Paradise to the fancy new cultural precinct, Home Of The Arts (HOTA), set on 17 hectares and part of a $365 million investment into art and music on the Coast. There's a $37 million outdoor stage (opened in 2018) that has hosted the likes of Neil Finn, and early next year a six-level art gallery will open, with more than 2000 square metres of exhibition space, making it the country's largest regional gallery.
There are arts and crafts markets, too, and fashion boutiques with their own unique Gold Coast style (unlike Byron, it's not all calico and linen). The Village Markets, in the centrally located suburb of Burleigh Heads, is where you'll find emerging designers selling everything from hand-crafted wooden skateboards to the next new must-have, while at the Green Marquee's Twilight Markets, held in an eco village in Currumbin Valley, vendors peddle art, fashion and food as local bands play under the stars.
However, for all the new arts and creative offerings, this cultural revolution is led by our stomachs. A gourmet meal on the Gold Coast used to be chicken schnitzel with fries or salad at a surf club; now the Coast is home to some of Queensland's most innovative restaurants, and Burleigh Heads is at its epicentre.
Asian fusion restaurant Rick Shores, in particular, is leading the way. There's an effortless chic about the place, without the matching pretence: waiters wear trainers and shorts.
Next door, hoteliers Robert Magid (Manly Wharf) and Ben May (Manly Wharf Hotel, Mrs Sippy Double Bay) have spent $10 million on the Coast's first beach club, Burleigh Pavilion, which has a menu by celebrated Sydney chef Guillaume Zika.
Mind you, you'll be just as taken by the restaurants you have to look for as those on the beach. And there's a labyrinth of bars and restaurants worth searching out.
Iku Yakitori Bar is so self-effacing you could miss the entrance: it's in a laneway out the back. Meanwhile, on a street further back from the beach, celebrated Sydney chef Alex Munoz (former head chef of Sydney restaurants Cirrus Dining and Monopole) has a new eatery. You'll have to know where to find him; the subtlety of Restaurant Labart's European fit-out doesn't allow for much signage.
"There are more high level culinary dining experiences to be had on the Gold Coast than Byron Bay and Noosa combined," Munoz says. "We've had lots of Melbourne and Sydney diners tell us they used to fly to Noosa or Byron Bay for 'foodie holidays', but now that they've experienced 'the new Gold Coast', they'll be coming here from now on."