The Sunshine Coast is one of Australia’s most popular playgrounds with sun, surf and a whole lot more, but most people, Aussies included, would be unaware that it previously had another name. Who would have thought that this glorious stretch of Pacific Ocean coastline north of Brisbane was once known as the Near North Coast? It doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.
The local authorities thought so too when, 50 years ago this year, they marked out an area of about 60 kilometres from Pelican Waters to Tewantin, along with its picturesque hinterland, and gave it a much more evocative name, the Sunshine Coast. It was clever marketing but it also reflects the region’s greatest attribute – a healthy dose of sunshine and one of the most agreeable climates in Australia, if not the world.
In this friendly and relaxed sub-tropical region of Queensland, there are action-packed attractions for those who want them, sandy beaches and wide open spaces for those who don’t, sophisticated shopping and dining for those who like their creature comforts, and quaint rural villages for those who prefer rustic. Accommodations are equally diverse, from 5-star apartments and luxury guesthouses to camping, caravan parks, and bush retreats.
It would be wrong to think of the Sunshine Coast as just another strip of beach resorts for there is so much more to the region than that, as beautiful as its beaches are. The most visited attraction without a doubt is Australia Zoo, home of the ‘Crocodile Hunter’, the late Steve Irwin. His family still runs the impressive wildlife conservation facility with its more than 1000 animals, entertaining wildlife shows and interactive experiences where, crikey, you can get up close and personal with kangaroos, wallabies and other native Australian animals.
Another popular family attraction is the Yandina Ginger Factory with its motley assortment of shops, a train ride and a cool boat ride, Overboard. At the heart of this multi-faceted tourist experience is a flourishing co-op that processes locally grown ginger into a wide range of products. It has a cooking school and holds an annual Ginger Flower & Food Festival that puts the spotlight on one of the world’s most versatile plants.
A few minutes from the Ginger Factory is one of my favourite restaurants, The Spirit House, which I always think of as a little slice of Thailand in Queensland. I love the tranquil setting with lush tropical gardens around the pond, the alfresco dining against a backdrop of nature sounds and tinkling wind chimes, and the fragrance of deliciously spicy dishes coming out of the kitchen.
Founder Helen Brierty and chef Annette Fear recently released a lavish new book, Spirit House The Cookbook. Spirit House has a small shop selling very desirable kitchenware and decorative items, and it also has a cooking school with hands-on classes in Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese and other Asian cuisines.
The restaurant is one of the region’s key food attractions and features on the Sunshine Coast food trail website, along with more than 400 other businesses, including restaurants, cooking schools, food producers, markets and events, wineries and breweries. The mobile-friendly website allows visitors to build their own personalised food trail and highlights just what a fabulous bounty of local produce the region is blessed with.
The region has been a rich agricultural destination for well over a century, based originally on sugar cane, pineapples and dairy, but now covering everything from feijoas and snails to ginger, macadamias and seafood. Chefs, like Cameron Matthews at the elegant Spicers Clovelly Estate in Montville, make good use of this local produce in exciting and creative menus.
On the main dining strip in Noosa, you’ll find the casual but stylish Noosa Beach House run by Peter Kuruvita, a Sydney chef and television presenter, who fell in love with the Sunshine Coast and moved there a few years ago. In his latest TV series, Coastal Kitchen, he spelt out all that is good about this beautiful part of the world. Inspired by the food producers he met on the show, the menu at Noosa Beach House features spanner crabs, Mooloolaba prawns, macadamia nuts, tropical fruits, heirloom vegetables, native herbs and spices.
Sophisticated Noosa is one of the top places in Australia for regional dining, with restaurants such as Wasabi consistently winning major awards. Not surprisingly, a lot of the region’s festivals revolve around food. The Noosa Food & Wine Festival, from May 18 to 21 this year, will feature 70 events, 45 visiting chefs, 50 wineries and 100 food producers. The long-table lunch on Hastings Street and dinners on Noosa Beach as the sun sets are always a highlight.
One festival going from strength to strength is the Real Food Festival, which started in 2011 and has quickly grown to become a great showcase for artisan food producers. The driving force behind the festival, Julie Shelton, went to Slow Food’s Terra Madre Day in Italy in 2008, a pivotal moment for her as she realised how little people knew about the Sunshine Coast’s produce. Thousands flock to the two-day paddock-to-plate event in September in Maleny, where the focus is on food produced with passion and integrity.
Maleny is a real hub for foodies, with the excellent Maple Street Co-op supplying local, organic, wholesome and ethical products; a cheese producer, Maleny Cheese, using local milk in a small-scale revival of the region’s once flourishing dairy industry; a superb gelati producer, Colin James; and even the fudge shop, Sweets on Maple, using local nuts, fruits and cream to produce their delicious sweets. Its cocktail-inspired Frangelico and lime fudge is to die for.
Maleny is one of the must stops as you meander through the Blackall Ranges, with other hinterland villages such as Montville and Mapleton also boasting charming streetscapes and interesting shops and galleries. The surrounding bush offers some great walks, and when it’s time to relax and unwind, I can highly recommend a session at Sound Spa. This innovative, therapeutic experience sees a musician playing the harp in response to your feelings, mood and energy.
Further proof of the entrepreneurial spirit that is alive and well in the region, Frank Shipp took what was essentially a blank canvas and turned it into the impressive Maleny Botanic Gardens. In doing so, South African-raised Shipp was fulfilling a childhood dream. “I bought (the property) because it’s on a similar latitude to Durban. I’ve loved gardens since I was a child. I planted my first plant at the age of seven.”
It was at about the same age that he also discovered a love of birds, and so he has further indulged his childhood fantasies by establishing one of the biggest aviaries in Australia with 310 birds (55 varieties). Shipp cleared acres of lantana to create ponds and waterfalls and establish the gardens, which are surrounded by pristine rainforest and have magnificent views of the Glasshouse Mountains. On a clear day, it’s possible to see as far away as Brisbane, 100 kilometres to the south.
There are views at every turn along the Blackall Ranges escarpment, but the view from the deck at Flamehill Vineyard in Montville ranks high in the ‘wow’ stakes. Flame Trees with vibrant red bell-shaped flowers surround the historic Queenslander homestead that houses the cellar door and restaurant. Owners, the Thompson family, are also involved in beef cattle production and their own meat is served in the restaurant.
They grow Verdelho, Shiraz, Cabernet and Chardonnay on site, with about 40 percent of the fruit for their wine coming from the property and the rest sourced from other vineyards in southeast Queensland that have microclimates more suited to particular varieties. They’ve been dabbling remarkably successfully in Italian varieties such as Fiano and Barbera, and hold a grape stomp annually in February that is a lot of fun.
The Sunshine Coast plays host to a huge array of entertainment, sporting and music events including the Caloundra Music Festival in October, which always attracts a strong line-up of artists. Markets are also a key attraction, with the Eumundi markets drawing crowds for more than 30 years with their live music, food and crafts. It had an ethos of “make it, bake it, grow it, sew it” long before it was de rigueur, and has grown to become Australia’s biggest art and craft market with 550 stalls and more than 1.6 million visitors annually.
On a smaller scale is the Noosa Farmers Market held every Sunday. This is one of my favourite Aussie markets as much for its lovely location amongst the trees as for its excellent produce including macadamia oil, seafood, lime salt and lime cordial, sauces, skin care products, nuts and seeds, olives and tapenades, freshly baked bread, cheese and herbs.
Nature lovers can choose from a huge range of scenic walks including the Caloundra Coastal Path, Glass House Mountains and Mary Cairncross Scenic Reserve. You can feed the dolphins at Tin Can Bay, spot a koala in Noosa National Park, or go whale watching. Paddle a canoe or go horse-riding on the beach. Cruise the waterways and catch a fish.
Or you might just chill at the beach, dig your toes into the sand and enjoy the sunshine that gave the region its name.
If You Go To The Sunshine Coast
Regular flights to Sunshine Coast Airport from Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Auckland (New Zealand)
You could also fly into Brisbane Airport and rent a car from there. It’s just over an hour’s drive from Brisbane Airport to Caloundra and about 1 hour 40 minutes from Brisbane Airport to Noosa.
As with anywhere in Australia, distances are big and you’ll need a car to get the most out of the region.
Where to stay:
Spicers Clovelly Estate, Montville: Luxurious French Provincial style accommodation in a gorgeous garden with a much-awarded restaurant.
Ninderry Manor, near Yandina: Ensuite rooms in a comfortable home set in two hectares of bush with expansive gardens, great views and swimming pool. You are likely to see kangaroos grazing on the lawn.
Rumba Beach Resort, Caloundra: Excellently appointed apartment-style accommodation with ocean views. Perfect for families.
Peppers Noosa Resort and Villas: Spacious apartments with direct access to Noosa National Park.