Boasting balmy waters and unspoiled green expanses, including Noosa National Park, where koalas laze in towering gum trees and native bush turkeys scuttle across the boardwalk, this stretch of Queensland’s Sunshine Coast is lauded as one of Australia’s most outstanding areas of natural beauty. I’ve been coming here for 22 years and, while I still love it, I’ve seen it change from laid-back surfer’s secret to international jetsetter’s playground.
This once-sleepy seaside haven, 90 minutes’ drive from Brisbane, has seen a spate of luxury resorts, trendy boutiques and hip eateries, not to mention glossy editorials in the likes of Vogue and Condé Nast Traveler. As a result, the area has acquired a very different image. Noosa is now being heralded as Australia’s answer to the Hamptons. I’m here to explore just how appropriate – and welcome – the new tag is.
“It’s definitely evolved,” says Tim Crabtree, who runs surf business Noosa Longboards and opened Noosa’s first boutique brewery, Land and Sea, in January. Five years ago, we’d have really big highs through summer and really big slumps in winter. In the last two or three years, those lows have filled in. It’s never quiet any more.”
Crabtree, 38, has lived in Noosa for 10 years. He thinks its natural beauty coupled with the allure of Hastings Street – the town’s chic shopping and dining zone – makes comparisons with the Hamptons inevitable. “Noosa has always had an influx of affluent people from the cities because it’s an off-the-beaten-track paradise,” he says. “It’s an incredible part of the world.”
Noosa first became du jour when the 1980s development of Hastings Street – which runs parallel to Main Beach – brought fine-dining, five-star resorts and posh boutiques to the town, beginning the transformation. The aim, first, was to attract well-heeled weekend visitors from Sydney, but in recent times, a more international celebrity crowd has clocked it as a hotspot too; guests have included everyone from Mick Jagger to Prince Harry.
You might think this sounds like a classic story of an unspoilt location ruined by the arrival of mass tourism, but Noosa is different. As the tourists descended, Noosa’s small, eco-friendly mentality persisted, and its radical anti-development efforts, population caps and relentless environmental activism have made it what it is today: both a glamorous seaside village and a vast, ecological wonderland. “In other words,” says Noosa’s Mayor Tony Wellington with a chuckle, “modern Noosa has been fought for, repeatedly.”
Since the early 1960s, the community has weathered attempts to turn Noosa into a version of Queensland’s Gold Coast, known for its glitzy nightclubs, theme parks and sprawl of skyscrapers. In 1962, local doctor Arthur Harrold rallied a group of concerned residents and formed the Noosa Parks Association. They lobbied tirelessly against the development of Noosa Headland – now Noosa National Park – which was at risk of being razed to make way for a main road. With its serene coastal walking tracks and sweeping vistas, Noosa National Park is now one of the most visited in Australia. The battles continued through the 80s and 90s, when the local council routinely rejected what they deemed “inappropriate development”. Building heights were restricted to four storeys, public signage was kept to a minimum and roundabouts were installed in lieu of traffic lights. Today, close to half the shire is protected from any human development. “The aim was always to retain a village feel,” says Wellington.
At its heart, Noosa is still a typical Aussie surf village, albeit one with growing international appeal. Until my late twenties, when I moved from Brisbane to the Northern Hemisphere, I spent great chunks of every summer in Noosa, and was always beguiled by its easy, sand-in-your-hair lifestyle. However, by the early 2000s, Hastings Street had begun to feel stale: the restaurants, shops and hotels seemed tired and out of touch with younger generations. But massive visitor slumps after the financial crisis in 2008 and relentless rain through the high seasons of 2011 and 2012 seemed to rouse Noosa’s fighting spirit and kickstart a rebirth.
Leading the way was Makepeace Island, which opened in July 2011. The luxurious private hideaway, built on a tiny, heart-shaped island just upstream on the Noosa River, came complete with its own koala sanctuary and rekindled international interest in the region. In 2013, the five-star Sheraton Resort, which rebranded as the Noosa Sofitel in 2016, swapped 80s kitsch for contemporary beach chic with an AU$10m (US$7.8m) makeover, and Seahaven Resort on Main Beach followed suit, reopening in late 2013 after an AU$16m (US$12.6m) renovation. 10 Hastings, a buzzy boutique hotel and cafe, opened the same year, and new retailers, boutiques and eateries moved in, bringing a fresh creative spirit and innovative energy.
Now, when I go back every year, I’m struck by Noosa’s evolution. Fine-dining establishments sit alongside casual, eat-in-your-bathers options. Hastings Street is dotted with hip fashion, design and interiors boutiques. The hotel scene has ushered in a new kind of beach chic, and trendy boutique hotels and home-away-from-home options have mushroomed.
“The strip has really changed,” says Graeme Connor, director of Hastings Street’s luxurious Tingirana Resort. It recently closed for a four-month refurbishment, reopening in September 2017 with elegant interiors and the tagline, “A touch of the Hamptons in laid-back, Noosa style”. “It’s still got high-end options in terms of food and accommodation,” says Connor, “but now it’s catering for everyone.”
Noosa has a high-end culture, but you’ve also got beautiful beaches, amazing scenery and a laid-back lifestyle
The Lodge Noosa Heads – a three-bedroom house purchased and renovated by stylist Sjan Johansen in 2016 – has also brought Hamptons-esque interiors to the holiday rental landscape, while nearby haunts such as Ivory Palms Resort have tapped the family market. Luxury hideaway retreats, like Makepeace Island and Peppers Noosa Resort & Villas, which is tucked away in the national park, cater for couples and those wanting to immerse themselves in nature. “The international market has picked up big time,” explains Connor. “Noosa’s appeal,” he says, “has become so much broader.”
When I arrive in Noosa, I always make a beeline for breakfast at 10 Hastings before my next, crucial stop. Coffee is a draw for most Australians, and there’s stiff competition for Noosa’s top drop. Along Hastings Street, Aromas and Cafe Le Monde are among the best, while newcomer Providore on Hastings, below the iconic Netanya Resort, has also got the goods, and uses locally roasted Little Cove beans. When breakfast and coffee have been ticked off the to-dos, most folks hit the water. As well as easy, year-round swimming – water temperatures range from 19ºC in winter to 25ºC in summer – Noosa offers spectacular surfing.
“The waves are some of the best longboard waves in the world when it’s doing its thing,” says Thomas Bexon, a lifelong local whose eponymous surfboard company custom-makes boards for clients around the globe. “There’s not many places in the world with five sand-bottom point breaks in a row running around a headland. The geography makes it really unique.”
Non-surfers needn’t fret, there’s plenty to do that doesn’t involve a longboard. Accessible from Main Beach, the Noosa National Park walk is one of the most beautiful coastal trails in the world. Follow it past Little Cove along to Tea Tree Bay, Dolphin Point and Granite Bay. The full coastal walk, which is 10.8km there and back, winds down through Alexandria Bay all the way to Sunshine Beach. The park also boasts a vast network of forest tracks, home to native koalas, wallabies and kookaburras. Keep your eyes peeled for dolphins, turtles and stingrays in the azure water below.
For a freshwater adventure, board the MV Catalina. The 20-year-old boat, stationed on the Noosa River, was luxuriously refurbished in late 2015 and hosts floating Friday night socials, Saturday lunches and Sunday breakfasts. Further afield, Eumundi Markets – a 20-minute drive away – is a lively Sunshine Coast institution, open every Wednesday and Saturday. Whether I’ve surfed, shopped or flopped, I always have lunch at Betty’s Burgers. Opened in 2013 on a Hastings Street plot that was vacant for years, it’s one of Noosa’s favourite haunts. Queues down the street are commonplace, a phenomenon 38-year-old owner David Hales attributes to the restaurant’s relaxed, alfresco setting, anything-goes dress code and top-secret sauce recipes.
But it’s at night that the place really comes to life. If I’m in the mood for an aperitif, I pop into Miss Moneypenny’s, a chichi cocktail bar which was also part of Noosa’s new wave, before heading to Bistro C for dinner. At this long-time favourite, perched on Main Beach since 1991, head chef Dayle Merlo’s passion for local produce is evident in dishes such as his calamari served with chilli, lime and coriander dipping sauce. For dessert, an oversized scoop of gelato from Massimo’s is a Noosa rite of passage (don’t let the queue deter you, it moves fast). Rare rainy days are an opportunity to indulge in some of Noosa’s new luxuries: browse the gorgeous wares in Signature on Hastings, an interior design shop stocked with everything for the contemporary beach house, get a fashion fix at designer boutique Bowery 475, or book a treatment at Sensaura Day Spa.
While Noosa’s overhaul has cemented its status as a must-visit destination for the international jet set, locals insist it’s still a place for slowing down and embracing simple pleasures. “A perfect day in Noosa is getting up early and making the most of the coastal lifestyle, whether it’s surfing, swimming or watching the sunrise,” says Tim Crabtree. “Noosa certainly has a high-end, sophisticated culture, but there’s so much more to it. It’s not just Hastings Street, you’ve got beautiful beaches, amazing scenery, an extraordinary river and lake system and a laid-back lifestyle.”
Local surfer and author Mike Davis has the perfect phrase to sum up Noosa: “the place where God kissed the planet”. In other words: Paradise.