Noosa was the perfect antidote to Sydney.
The somewhat sleepy beach town is located about 140 km north of Brisbane and 1,000 km north of Sydney, along the Sunshine Coast.
I wasn’t sure what to expect with Noosa, but I did know that every time we mentioned we were going the reaction was similar, “Oh…yes, well you will love it there”. Melissa said it, the guy who cut my hair said it, the stranger in the grocery store who overheard a conversation said it. Everyone that discovered we were going reacted with genuine enthusiasm. Needless to say, I was excited to give it a go.
Despite everyone’s excitement, Noosa is a place that isn’t an obvious destination for foreigners (unless you are a surfer, then you’d certainly be in the know). And it positively isn’t the obvious choice during the month of March. But it should be. If you are from New York, it is similar to (but not the same as) expecting someone from Australia to come visit New York City in early September and then head east to Montauk for the last few weeks of the month. It is off the beaten path, but one of the most charming places imaginable.
We flew into the Sunshine Coast from Sydney and greeted the ocean-based humidity and warmth with open arms. The change in temperature, surroundings and pace were immediately obvious. The hustle and bustle of Sydney, along with its sophistication and glamour had been replaced with a small-town feel, aesthetic and charm. To underscore this point, we unknowingly left our nearly new Canon on the floor of the airport in baggage claim. Thank goodness it had a mid-February receipt from Abel Tasman Lodge because the gentleman who found the camera tracked us down and emailed Armon to let him know we had left this precious object behind. We collected it a few days later when we swung by his house and exchanged it for a bottle of champagne. Not a bad trade in my book.
It was raining when we landed – an ironic juxtaposition given the area’s name. It continued to rain a lot while we were there (though we missed cyclone Hamish by a week – damn).
Regardless, we were in for a delicious (albeit soggy) few days.
Now I say Noosa is similar to the Montauk, but not the same. Here’s why. First, similar to Montauk, it is a tourist and second-home destination. Second, the summer months are magical here. Third, it offers world-class surfing. Fourth, it boasts a kitschy, mid-century beach feel that grows on you like a good ol’ familial Fourth of July picnic. You know the one I am talking about. The one you dread to attend because it’ll be sticky, full of screaming kids and long-lost aunts that still pinch your cheeks. But once you show up, the long-lost cousins of similar age, scrumptious ribs and cold beer trump the minor annoyances. That’s about where the similarities end. Unlike Montauk which to this day keeps its all out rustic charm (despite the addition of fashionista-oriented Calypso over the last few years), Noosa’s got the layout of a Ft. Lauderdale. Meaning it is a series of canal estates and thus physically spread over a much extended and complicated labyrinth of man-made canals. Call me a purest, but having a waterfront house on a canal doesn’t cut it. It is to honest ocean beach houses what fat-free frozen yogurt is to ice cream, Korbel is to champagne. Sure you can call the Big Mac a hamburger, but I’ll take a home-grilled 1/2 pounder with fresh herbs, spices and the requisite accoutrements any day over one of those tummy bombs.
It probably goes without saying that Noosa’s canals were built to extend the amount of waterfront property available in the area. And to this end, the canal structure is technically sufficient. But to really get the feel and charm of the area, you have to head to the town center of Noosa Heads and its epicenter, Hastings Street. Here, you could be in Montauk. Or any one of the Hampton towns for that matter. There is commerce galore, an ice-cream shop (serving the real stuff) on every other corner and restaurants nestled in between. The only obvious difference between one of the Hampton main streets and Hastings Street is that Hastings is directly on the ocean and central beach of the area. You can, if you are so inclined, shop, surf and slurp without batting an eye or needing to hop in your car. In that regard, Noosa is perfect.
I realize I was just critical of the canal estate network – but I will say it is great it you are renting and not buying. We were able to find a fabulous piece of real estate that was perfect for us and our week. All told, we were about 3 km away from the city center of Noosa Heads. This house came equipped with all we needed as a family. A warm pool (that even I would swim in), a great kitchen (that I would cook in) and a vast openness and warmth that allowed us each to just relax and be ourselves. I could write and cook, Armon could work and kite, the kids could stretch out and play. It was Heaven. Melissa was the first to tell us we had to visit Noosa and like so many of her other recommendations she was spot on.
Now as I said, the weather didn’t exactly cooperate during our stay. But it frankly didn’t matter. The kids still swam in the pool despite pouring rain. Armon still went kite-surfing. We still grilled. And we still explored. There is so much to do in Noosa that we were able to adapt the day to the weather regardless.
On one of our first mornings in Noosa I ventured out to fit in a morning run. I had a map in the house and knew that it was a relatively simple shot from our front door to Hastings Street and thought that it would be a great way for me to learn the area. So iPod charged, running shoes on – I kissed Armon and the kids good-bye and off I went. Only problem was I turned right instead of left at the second corner and unwittingly went off in about as wrong a direction as possible.
For the first 3 km or so, I was contentedly ignorant of my predicament. The path was hillier than I expected given our house agent’s comments from the afternoon before (“straight-shot, nice and flat”), but the signs kept pointing me to Hastings Street so I followed them as any good runner would. By about 5km, I knew something was wrong – but a mixture of stubbornness and fear of getting lost kept me on my forward trajectory. By 7 km or so, I was finally finding my way into Noosa Heads. I was tired, frustrated and without money or cell phone. Yes, I know what you are thinking – brilliant. This was to be the first of two times (thus far) that I’ve gotten myself profoundly lost during a run in unfamiliar trip territory. At the time, I still didn’t understand where I had made my critical error – all I wanted to do was try to find the proper way home. I could handle another 3-4 km, but wasn’t ready to run much more than 12 km. Embarrassed and sweaty, I bee-lined it to the town’s Information Center when I finally did reach ice cream shop central. I grabbed a map with my sweaty fingers and then reluctantly listened to the grey-haired volunteer chastise me for venturing forth without knowing where I was going. Classic mom-style lecture.
I read the map, folded it and stuffed it into my running bra. Better wet and blurred than no map at all.
Armed with my own map and her rebuke, I left the Information Center and re-upped my mission to make it home. I will spare you the details of the fact that when I exited the I-Center I went left and then right and then left and then right – crossing in front of the center numerous times in an attempt to find the correct path home. I didn’t want a second chiding. So I opted just to imagine the chagrin of my snitty local as she watched me traverse her storefront countless times. I finally did find the well-hidden, but proper road and headed home. I came into our house about 2 hours after my initial departure, tired and laughing at my foolish mistake.
Lesson number XX of our trip, always run with a map, money and ID.
Lesson number XX+1 of our trip is to always find the local gourmet shops that are bound to exist in any touristy destination before hitting the local grocery store. There will always be good gourmet shops in these areas and the quality of these stores will be immeasurably more consistent than what you will get from the local supermarket. We learned this lesson in Noosa. We found the local Wolworths without issue, but the shopping there left something to be desired. I had come to Noosa with the latest edition of Dish (a New Zealand food periodical) and was set to cook up a storm. I’d used the previous month’s mag to bake, barbeque and braise my way through New Zealand and was psyched to give it another go. Unfortunately, Wolworths typically failed to carry all of the ingredients on my shopping list. I, of course, improvised. But a Thai dish without coriander is like a Big Mac without the secret sauce…and you know how I feel about those burgers to begin with…
Noosa, despite its sleepy beach-town status, offers loads to do. In the few days we were there we visited the Australia Zoo (part safari camp, part zoo) once , the Eumundi markets (a massive locals’ market with everything from inflatable moon rides to clothing to locally grown foods) twice and Main Beach (at least 3 times).
The Australia Zoo is impressive any way you measure it. Fan of Steve Irwin or not – you have to give the guy props for his vision and ability to create an enterprise that carries on his legacy. We saw, pet and fed kangaroo. Saw and pet koala. Fed elephants. Saw tons of Australian wildlife. Enjoyed an (at times) corny show that featured everything from crocs to several kinds of bird life. Walked sheep. And watched several crocodiles being hand fed their mid-afternoon chicken snacks by young men (trained, dumb or ignorant enough to get in the same small space as a 14 foot reptile). You couldn’t pay me enough to do what these young blokes were willing to do, but it was fun to watch.
The Eumundi markets are located just outside of Noosa and are held 2x per week. We went both times they were open during our stay. The first time we went it began to rain as we arrived. Yes, The Soggy Coast. The kids spent 45 minutes jumping in an inflatable ride until they were fully saturated and required new clothes. We then bought the new clothes, roamed some more and finally found a tasty lunch spot. We ate on the restaurant’s porch as the rain poured down like walls of glass. The second time we went it was sunny and hot and humid. Armon and I walked the stalls with the kids until we were drenched (and should have purchased some new clothes). We then found a different place for lunch. As we finished our repast the skies once again opened. We decided we’d wait it out and as we did, a granola-eating, hash-smoking throwback masquerading as a retired businessman sequestered us for a wine tasting of his bio-dynamically grown and organically fermented grape juice. Despite its many attributes, there is a reason why Noosa is not known for its vineyards.
I took a stand-up paddle board lesson one day and loved it. We rented a board for the rest of the week and Armon and I both took it out for a spin in the canal located off our backyard. One afternoon, Armon took Talia too. With her seated on the front they paddled through several bridges and finally reached a playground where they disembarked for a quick romp before returning home. Norman Rockwell eat your heart out. On the way home, Talia took a turn with the paddle too – and was surprisingly good. She also took a few surf lessons which remain one of the highlights of her time in Noosa.
Instructor Tim is a local who grew up surfing and was willing to teach Judah and Talia on the board. Judah lasted about 20 minutes before he decided it was more fun to stand on the board in the sand and sing Backyardigan songs or hang out on the board in the water with Tim pushing him than actually trying to surf. Talia took to the challenge like she was made for it and was standing on the board within the first 30 minutes. I hate her. She loved it and can’t wait to surf with her friend Tilda. Armon got out kiting a few times as well, though on his first go he unwittingly arranged a lesson in Sydney. The morning came and he was on the phone arranging pick-up when he figured out that his ride was hundreds of miles away. Oops. No worries, he persevered and was on the water with a new instructor in no time. Amazing the results one gets when singleness-of-purpose rules.
We ate well too. Bistro C off Hastings Street and a quaint little restaurant called Fratellini just down the road were our two favorites. Beyond that, the best cooking was at home. All fresh, local ingredients. Terrific NZ sourced recipes. I typically cooked one meal for the kids and then Armon and I ate on the deck overlooking the water while they watched a movie in the living room just inside. Perfection.