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Australian Gold - Australia's Gold Coast
Richard Simmons

Seven years ago my father emigrated to Australia. He had talked about it on and off since the early '80s, when he had spent a year working on Queensland's Gold Coast. Back then he lived in Southport, near the beaches that comprise Surfer's Paradise. From there he delighted in sending irritating postcards, telling me all about shrimps on the barbie, the cold beer and the warm surf. This time it was to be a more permanent departure - to Kenmore, in the suburbs of Brisbane.

A list of the pros and cons he encountered in making surely one of life's toughest decisions in the end turned out to be fairly one-sided. For comfortably under a hundred grand he found a spacious home - with obligatory deck and palm-fringed pool - just 20 minutes from the city centre and an hour from the coast. The exchange rate (currently pushing Aus$2.60 to the pound) swells his pension handsomely. Yearly dues at the nearby Gailes Golf Club (one of Brisbane's leading clubs which is twinned, incidentally, with Glasgow Gailes) are Aus$800. At around 90 cents a litre, petrol is even cheaper here than it is in America, let alone the UK. And the sun nearly always shines.

Setting aside the obvious inconvenience a distance of precisely 10,266 miles can put between family and friends, the one positive upshot of dad's disappearance Down Under is that I have been duty-bound to make the effort to get out there myself. Overcoming the prospect of flying halfway round the world is the first and biggest hurdle for anyone contemplating a whiz to Oz - there's no getting away from that. To say it's a long haul is a bit like saying your typical Aussie enjoys the odd beer. But if you can escape for (at least) a couple of weeks you can plan a holiday that will take you to one of the most beautiful stretches of coastline in the world, with truly spectacular golf to match. Better still, at current rates, what may be regarded as the trip-of-a-lifetime can actually cost no more than ten days in America.

Fed up of the hype surrounding the Millennium last December, a last-minute booking with BA more than solved the problem: 13 hours to Singapore (where duty-free shopping defines the concept), followed by a mere seven-hour hop into Brisbane, and I was ready to spend my first Christmas in shorts and sunglasses. The only thing better than leaving behind a British winter is waking up to a Queensland summer, and after a day by the pool I was ready to hit the road.

My strategy from Brisbane HQ was to make several two- and three-day excursions to both the Gold and the Sunshine Coast, occasionally staying at a resort (notably at Sanctuary Cove, Hope Island and the quite extraordinary Kooralbyn Valley), other times beetling about the many pay-and-play courses and staying at a beach side apartment or motel (the Australian way - cheap and cheerful) as and when a particular spot took my fancy. Which happened frequently.

An hour south of Brisbane, via the Pacific Highway, the Gold Coast is officially recognised as a 32-kilometre stretch from Southport to Coolangatta, which straddles the New South Wales border. It really is no mystery that the pristine reef beaches and world-class surf that stretch as far as the eye can see have combined to make this one of the most popular tourist destinations in the southern hemisphere. With a shore break of high-rise apartments, bars, casinos and restaurants, the place is a fusion of energy, sound and colour: this is Florida meets Waikiki; Miami Beach and Las Vegas rolled into one. On the doorstep, discreetly located ten minutes' or so from Downtown Surfer's, Sanctuary Cove makes for an ideal first base.

One of Australia's first fully planned resorts, Hyatt Sanctuary Cove, to give it the full corporate bit, may be familiar to you as the home club of the 1991 Open champion, Ian Baker-Finch, who has been attached here since it opened in 1987. The resort itself is arranged around four man-made harbours, although Sanctuary Cove is in fact situated on a natural waterway - the Coomera River - which runs to the game-fishing waters of the Pacific. In true Hyatt fashion the mansion style hotel and its accompanying suites are stylishly decked out and the service is impeccable. At the hub of it all is a unique marina village, crammed full of art galleries, shops and restaurants. There's even a micro-brewery - so no shortage of the amber nectar, then.

Whether you fancy the Palms or the Pines, the quality extends to the golf. The Palms is described as a 'resort' course, which is a polite way of saying it's a little shorter and generally more hospitable than its neighbour. More a jelly-fish than a Great White. Having said that, it's still a handful. Pretty, too, meandering through exotic palms and other colourful flora and fauna. And all this for around Aus$60 (a snip at £25!). Designed by Arnold Palmer, The Pines is another matter altogether. This is a course serious players will be eager to get to grips with, though I might add the odds of beating the King are not in your favour. According to the slope index (76 against a par of 72), this is one of the toughest courses Australia has to offer, and after a relatively gentle opener you quickly begin to appreciate why. Running through an established pine forest, with 14 holes tip-toeing over and around man-made lakes, you need to be straight off the tee and striping your iron shots to hold firm and fast greens. The Pines is private (open to members and resort guests only), and when you consider that the green fee of around Aus$125 (about £50) is regarded as 'top-end', you get some idea of the attraction for turning those pounds into Aussie dollars.

Just down the road from Sanctuary Cove is the Hope Island Resort, where The Links has been ranked as "Australia's No.1 Resort Course". Designed by five-time Open champion Peter Thomson, glossy brochures describe this as the only "links" style venue on the Gold Coast. Hope Island is certainly an impressive facility. To rave reviews it hosted the 1997 Johnnie Walker Classic, and the layout is a gem, though claims that it plays in the style of a "traditional links", and that "you'll feel as though you're playing a course as old as the game itself" might be stretching things a bit. There's simply too much in the way of exotic vegetation and general 'manicure' for this to be considered a true links, as compared to the rough and natural dunescape the term links brings to mind. Design-wise, the layout actually reminded me of Thomson's work on the Duke's Course at St Andrews, with rippling mounds and raised bunker-clusters providing both imaginative definition and effective protection from start to finish.

Stay-and-play packages in the luxury two- and three-bedroom apartments and villas surrounding the course are popular year-round at Hope Island, and guests enjoy not only the privacy of a secluded community resort but also the run of the Mediterranean-style clubhouse. To give you some idea of the tariff, a group of four golfers staying for two or more nights, and sharing a three-bedroom apartment, would pay around Aus$118 (£50) per person per night, a price that includes breakfast and unlimited golf. Better than that, choose to base yourself here, or at Sanctuary Cove, and you are within striking distance of all that glitters down at Surfer's Paradise. There are plenty of daily fee-paying courses in this area, too. Coolangatta & Tweed Heads has 36 holes of golf overlooking the Tweed River, and Robina Woods is considered one of the prettiest woodland courses in Queensland. Jack Nicklaus' first signature course in Australia, Lakelands, has become a local favourite for its championship 'build', and is furnished with all Nicklaus's usual trademarks: huge waste bunkers, expansive greens, yards to spare and everything in pristine order. But for something quite out of this world, you need to trek inland.

It's a commonly known fact that Australia is home to more things that can kill you than any other place on earth. Less well-known is that the world's ten most poisonous snakes are native to Australia, and for all I know a good number of them live in and around the bush surrounding The Kooralbyn Valley Resort, nestling at the foot of the Macpherson Ranges, about an hour inland. On the wild side? Put it this way, it really wouldn't surprise you if Mick Dundee himself turned out to be the general manager with Steve Irwin (aka the Crocodile Hunter) the dutiful greenkeeper. Notwithstanding the remote possibility of getting bitten, stung or squashed by a passing kangaroo, this utterly magical place in the hills will provide you with some of your most colourful memories of Australia.

Before you get too squeamish, and yearn to get back to the beach and the relative safety of sharks and jelly-fish, I'm kidding about the snakes. They exist alright, but you rarely see them and there's never been an incident of a guest being bitten. None that's been reported, anyway. The 'roos are for real, though. Play late in the afternoon and you are likely to be sharing the fairways with Skippy & Co in the bounding rush-hour traffic.

This is what makes the Kooralbyn so unique: a natural 'bush' feel and the quite unpredictable
adventure the course itself presents. The layout was designed by the Scotsman, Desmond Muirhead, who lists Muirfield Village (in association with Nicklaus) among his better-known work. But there is nothing remotely contemporary about his legacy here. The outward nine snakes (sic) its way through trees and valleys, skirting and climbing the foothills, whilst the inward nine is a contrast as it unfolds in the basin of the valley, where the occasional skirmish with water does nothing to ease your journey back to the clubhouse.

Seldom are such breathtaking views and great holes wrapped up in one inspired location, the silence broken only occasionally by the sound of skydivers screaming down to earth from 20,000 feet. I told you the place is crazy. As bizarre as it may seem, Kooralbyn is the centre for this sport in these parts. So if the golf fails to provide the necessary rush, all is not lost. At $80 a pop, you can go and jump out of a plane.

Golfers' packages have been pioneered at Kooralbyn since the days when the legendary Australian golfer, Norman Von Nida, was the club's professional. Special rates apply to a six-night 'Swing 'n' Drive' stay which combines as many laps of the course as you can handle, plus daily lessons with the pro. But real masochists should aim to be around on a Thursday, for what's become infamously known as the 'Copperhead Challenge'. The name derives from "Kooralbyn", being the Aboriginal legend for "land of the Copperhead snake", the "Challenge" being the way the course is tuned to absolute championship voltage. Any player returning a net score better than the 72 par automatically wins a dozen balls and the winner is invited back to compete in the annual 36-hole Championship in February. Since 1984, some 60,000 golfers have taken on the Copperhead Challenge; only 920 have won a dozen golf balls.

Back towards the coast and the relative normality of Surfer's (and that's saying something), the glistening white tower of the Royal Pines Resort dominates the skyline. Nestling beside the Nerang River, this renowned complex over 500 acres of manicured gardens offers the complete package: in cosseted luxury, you can stay here, play here, eat here and generally be pampered here. You can even get married here in the tiny chapel beside the wildlife sanctuary which, though hardly in Kooralbyn's league, houses some cuddly koalas and wallabies. As for the golf, the more undulating West is regarded as the tougher of the two tests, but both courses are dotted with all sorts of exotic plant life, and the 36 holes weave a lattice of ribbon in and around the fresh and salt-water lakes. It's for the five-star conditioning, as much as anything else, that you remember Royal Pines, as you might expect of a course that each February hosts the Australian Ladies' Masters.

Having travelled halfway around the world to get here, you need a pretty good reason to interrupt your stay and leave the pleasures of the Gold Coast behind. For me, that reason is the promise of a couple of days busily doing nothing much at all in Noosa, a couple of hours' north on the sunshine Coast. It's an easy enough drive, though you'd be in trouble if you had to spell your way there: reflecting the deep aboriginal history of these parts, this coastal jaunt takes you via such wonderful tongue-twisters as the beach resort of Maroochydore and the fishing port of Mooloolaba. More straight-forward is the turn-off to the Twin Waters Resort, which occupies 600 acres of prime oceanfront. With a salt-water lagoon bordering both the Maroochy River and Mudjimba Beach, a stay here promises just about every water-sport going (with the possible exception of synchronised swimming), while the golf course itself, designed again by Peter Thomson, is an absolute cracker. Twin Waters was in 1998 ranked Queensland's No.1 Resort, and is regarded as being more family-orientated than the

nearby Hyatt Regency Coolum, which is rated as one of the finest health-spa resorts in Australia. Of infinitely more interest is a golf course that plays in the shadow of Mount Coolum, a Robert Trent Jones Jnr design that features several linksland holes bordering the Pacific, while others cut through groves of native melaleauca and eucalyptus.

Noosa itself was originally discovered by surfers, and as long as the waves continue to peel off the headland, it will remain the jewel of the Sunshine Coast, which is basically an extension of the Gold Coast but without the hysteria. Noosa is Australia's answer to St Tropez; an enclave of beach and cafe society, where boutiques and galleries provide the afternoon interest along the tree-lined avenue which parallels Laguna Beach. Follow the road past Baskin Robbins and a footpath leads you into the sub-tropical forest of Noosa National Park. The opportunity of spying a koala snoozing in the fork of a eucalyptus tree leads you on to crescent bays where the scent of tee trees mingles with the salty breeze.

But be careful. Should you stop for a dip and soak all of this goodness in, you'll wish you could stay forever. I certainly did. Some do

 

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