Sunday, August 1, 2010

Surfers' Paradox

I've just come back from sunny Queensland; in the heart of winter, you can wander around happily in a t-shirt up there. We flew up for my brother's wedding at the weekend, and stayed in Surfers' Paradise.

When I was ten years old my Mum and I went to Surfers for a holiday - my first ever holiday that took me more than an hours' drive from Sydney. I was thrilled and delighted and carried the memories of that seaside holiday in a town that was kitsch but fun with me for years after I grew out of the souvenir t-shirt.

That was a looong time again. I've been back to the Gold Coast three or four times since as I have family living there (but thankfully not in the heart of Surfers). I've seen it go from a seaside resort brimming with two-storey motels and a handful of high-rise holiday apartments and residential apartments to Las Vegas by the Sea. 

The Gold Coast is a party destination particularly for the under 30s who like to drink themselves stupid. There are stands and booths selling tickets to parties, or bar-hopping nights. Even in my 20s this kind of outing is something I would have run a hundred miles from. This sign encompasses all there is to know about Surfers Paradise circa 2010:

This part of the Gold Coast is a Mecca for school leavers at the end of the year. In November and early December wise people leave the district. There are shops that cater for the party crowd all year round, like this one:

What you see is what you get. The shoes were amazing - insane heels and platforms. People-watching late at night we saw girls clomping in their six-inch platforms to the nightclubs. There was a sign in "Trashy Shoes" which stated they offered a shoe minding service. If you wanted to wear your shiny, hot-pink and leopard-print stilettoes out of the shop and straight into the clubs, they will mind your existing shoes for you until the next day. Here I am showing off the merchandise, unable to keep a straight face.

Of course there is still the family-friendly side of the place. Theme parks just up the road (not for me thanks) and lots and lots of bicycles about. Plenty of bike hire places too but we were a bit short of time as it was literally a flying visit. Next time I'm riding around the Coast though - it's flat and cyclists careen about confidently, especially this time of year as it's out of holiday season. 

While I saw literally dozens of bikes, either chained outside a shop waiting for someone to hire them, or tethered to bike stands faithfully waiting for their owners, I didn't take photos. Don't know why. Maybe it's a case of 'see one 3 speed cruiser, see them all'. Tons of cruisers. This is cruiser city. 

One of the nicer bits about Cavill Mall in the main part of town is a lovely mosaic with scenes of local life - surfing, enjoying the outdoors and cycling. 

Surfers Paradise is famous for its Meter Maids, curvy girls in gold bikinis who are employed to feed the parking meters so hapless motorists aren't fined by the local Council when their parking runs out. On winter nights, these delicate, stilettoed creatures wear gold leggings. I never knew anyone made gold leggings. Let's just hope they don't take off as a fashion item, eh?

Cavill Mall is the main shopping part of town, full of tacky touristy shops, and plenty of cheap cafes serving half decent coffee and breakfast. It's an assault on the senses though. Blaring out over the constant noise of construction as more high-rise buildings take shape is the music which every shop and cafe insists on playing. All different. All annoying. You can hardly hear yourself think as you sip your coffee. It was a real relief to turn a corner and hear, for a moment, relative silence. I think we get used to a lot of white noise in our life, but sometimes you can become really aware of it. Sitting in a jumbo jet is quiet compared to Cavill Mall.

And finally, the architecture. As I said, it's changed a lot. It's all high-rise now. Any advantages the first tall buildings in the 60s and 70s had have long been eclipsed. Building after building has ensured that only the extremely wealthy get a decent sea view, and everyone else sees into the windows of the apartment building opposite. We counted no less than four buildings under construction in the same block as our hotel. And the bloody construction workers start work before 7am, too- just what you want after a late night out at a wedding!

Here's some of  the view from our hotel:

That curved building in the right really is curved - it's not just the wide angle lens, but admittedly the curvature has been a bit exaggerated.

And finally, the beach. The reason Surfers has been a seaside legend since the 1920s. Well, because of the high rise, the beach has almost disappeared. It's had to be topped up at regular intervals by sand imported from up or down the coast. High rise developments like this lot affect the way the wind moves with the sea and the dunes. Oh, and because the beach faces east/west, after lunch you don't get any sun on the beach because of the high-rise apartments.

This is before breakfast - you can see the tyre tracks where the beach is groomed and smoothed out on a nightly basis. It looks pretty wide here but imagine this picture was an inch wider on the right - you'd see the water.

Here's looking in the other direction - always swim between the red and yellow flags, as that's the area monitored by the lifeguards. And swim people did. We didn't pack our bathers - didn't think we'd have time to use them, but did paddle in the water, getting our rolled-up jeans soaked to the knees. Mmm, a luxury to walk on a beach in winter and not shriek at the temperature of the water!

Overall though I wonder what's going to win out in Surfers Paradise. Is it going to be just a party town, full of rowdy drunks? Apart from the theme parks, is it no longer a family place? And what of the high rise buildings, growing determinedly in spite of a financial crisis and with apartment price tags starting at $600K+ for a one-bedroom apartment? Who's buying them? There are a lot of brand new apartments still to be had 'off the plan'. Locals don't go to Surfers these days; they shop elsewhere, they swim elsewhere. 

What I ponder on is the impression any overseas traveller gets of Australia if Surfers is one of the few places they visit. It's long been a holiday of choice for Japanese people, and now Muslim travellers flock there in winter (and complain the meter maids are too scantily clad. This blog isn't a vehicle for cultural differences, but really, if you visit a place you should read up first and know what to expect. If I visited a Muslim country I'm sure I'd be made cover up; my culture wouldn't be given any quarter). It's a shame if a key impression they get of this brilliant country is one of drunks staggering out of nightclubs and throwing up in the streets. 

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