Big Question Marks

Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Death of Surfers?

For the past few weeks, I've been doing a bit of work for an organization in Surfers Paradise that works with city council to organize events and marketing for the suburb. It's been one of the most interesting jobs I've had, mostly because what I've learned in this short time about our town is astounding.

Surfers Paradise is a beautiful place on the beach, built on tourism and living perpetually in holiday mode. It's full of restaurants, hotels, shopping, and attractions like mini golf and wax museums, and the weather is pretty great year-round. For decades, it's been the place Aussies would holiday to with their families, it's the place where high school kids celebrate the end of their school years (Schoolies Week) and it's where international backpackers come to party, enroll in English courses, and soak up the sun. People come to have fun here, and then they come back again because it's such a great place to be. This has been going on for years and years, and so construction companies just kept building, and people keep opening more businesses up here. But realistically, this kind of success couldn't really go on forever.

These days Surfers is full of "For Lease" signs on storefronts and "Vacancy" broadcasted from hotel signs. It seems more and more shops are disappearing all the time, and the sidewalks are sometimes empty enough to envision a tumbleweed blowing through. There's even a totally vacant shopping mall on the main street, hidden behind a few shops that are still open (for now at least). We've been noticing this more and more the longer we stay, but what truly hammered in this point was taking on a work assignment where I ended up chatting up local business owners and managers about the state of Surfers.

Contest at Sin City nightclub
No one is entirely sure of the real reason why Surfers has lost so many visitors, but the consensus is, business began getting slower in the last three years or so and is now at an all-time low. And something's gotta give! Is it the global economy keeping international visitors away? Is the high Aussie dollar simply making it a better deal for Australians to holiday in Bali instead? Or has Surfers simply lost its former lustre/sense of fun/wholesomeness? Some say that Surfers has become too much of a party town, gotten a really bad reputation, and now families are staying away or heading to other suburbs on the Gold Coast (well, with a bar strip full of drunken hooligans roaming the street nearly every night, and some nightclubs offering a contest to win a boob job, it's no wonder). Others say that town planners and restaurants are trying to get too fancy/expensive and it's forcing families to eat at KFC when they holiday — we'd have to agree with this argument too, as we've been unable to rationalize spending a small fortune ($20 a plate AT LEAST) on a Thai or an Italian dinner. Some are saying that we need to encourage locals from other suburbs to visit, but the city keeps raising the cost of street parking ($2 an hour now I'm told) in Surfers but not in other suburbs, which is working against promoting local business as well. And it's not just Surfers that is suffering: newspapers are reporting Gold Coast with the highest unemployment rate in Australia (government reports are saying it's around 7%, though some are saying it's probably closer to 13% unemployment — some timing for our arrival!), thanks to both the lull in tourism and the collapse of some of the biggest construction companies/investors.

It's not happy days for Surfers Paradise, but underneath all of that, what I encountered most in longtime locals was a real nostalgia for what the place once was (it was the most exciting place in Australia to spend a week, or simply a laid-back beach town, etc.) and a strong belief that it'll make a comeback, with some careful resuscitation. Some people think some twinkly lights along the streets might liven up the atmosphere. Some say we need a better arts culture (me included) and perhaps some quality entertainment, beyond buskers (ugh)— like a music festival to get people coming back. Agreed! I've actually just signed on to work with the same organization for the next few months (I start my new job this week!), to help run the upcoming Surfers Paradise Festival in June/July and a bunch more events following that, so I'm extra excited now to find out what will happen to this place. And I'm not quite sure when it happened, but I think somewhere along the way, perhaps while I was meeting so many lovely locals, and discovering all the hidden gems of this weird and wonderful place, I think I'm starting to lose a little piece of my heart in this town, too. -D.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Update time!

Whew! Where has the time gone? It's hard to believe it's been a month since we were chasing Snoop Dogg around town, and a month since we last updated the blog. Since then, Surfers (and the Gold Coast in general) has really emptied out — the tourists have all gone home to work, Adrian's been buckling down to schoolwork, and Dayle's been getting to know the hidden corners of the Gold Coast via some temp jobs. Temperatures have plummeted (a cold snap blew cold air in from Antarctica last week, sending nighttime temperatures down to as low as 9 degrees — eek!) and though we've given up our ocean swims and surfing for now, we're still bundling up and BBQing as much as we can — with scarves on, that is (OK, OK, you got us, it's not exactly as bad as the photo you see here...). We've also began to broaden our personal boundaries and have started to explore beyond Surfers. We've summed up some of our adventures below, so do scroll down in our blog and do a little backtracking with us! And while you're at it, loyal readers, tell us what you're up to as well — feel free to leave us comments below our posts, or email us at our personal emails or at thebigquestionmark[at]gmail[dot]com. Hope you're all doing fine and dandy!

Monday, May 9, 2011

Weekend Exploring: Burleigh Heads

This past weekend we thought we'd do something a little different and check out a Gold Coast suburb we'd been hearing good things about: Burleigh Heads. We're actually still trying to figure out what the name "Gold Coast" encompasses — from what we gather, it's a 'city' made up of a whole bunch of suburbs sprawling along the Pacific coast, and also a whole bunch of inland suburbs, too. We're not totally sure how far north or south the Gold Coast stretches — perhaps to New South Wales on the south end, and nearly to Brisbane in the north? If anyone knows, please tell us! (Check out these maps here, or click on the map, right, to enlarge) But we do know that there's a lot more to Gold Coast than just Surfers Paradise, where we live. People around here tend to have many great things to say about Burleigh Heads (as opposed to lots of bad things about Surfers, but we'll get to that in another blog), so on Sunday, we hopped on a city bus and made the 30-minute trip south.

Burleigh is indeed a totally different world from Surfers. When the bus drops you off in the centre of town, instead of concrete skyscraper hotels, tall coniferous trees line the beach. There are a couple of streets full of laid-back cafes, takeaway restaurants (including an Indonesian one, which we're going to have to return to try!), and lots of little shops. We did a wander and counted maybe five butchers on as many streets. And hippies — plenty of hippie types roaming about. A few weeks ago, Dayle had asked a co-worker at her temp job where the best breakfast was to be found on the coast, and Danelle rhymed off a few spots, and they were all in Burleigh. So step one was to fill our bellies with delicious breakfast. We settled on the Pantry Cafe, the second place we checked out, finding a giant and inventive breakfast menu (Adrian had some sort of eggs and yummy spiced "mince" and Dayle had something like Eggs Florentine but with Turkish bread and asparagus rather than spinach- amazing!) And there's nothing like eating your breakfast outdoors under blue skies in perfect 25 degree weather! While people-watching, of course.

After our breakfast out, we wandered Burleigh's streets a bit — finding 3 or 4 more amazing-looking breakfast spots, cool independent clothing shops, vegetarian eateries, and a vintage theatre that had been converted into a tiny mall with restaurants and shops inside — and we continued our walk in search of Burleigh Heads' other great attraction: a seaside national park encompassing the headland right in the middle of town! It wasn't too hard to find, being the giant green hump by the ocean, and Burleigh Head National Park ended up being as lovely as we'd heard, too. Perhaps especially so, after being in the concrete jungle of Surfers for two months already. But either way, it sure is nice to hop on a trail and wander through the rainforest for an afternoon.

Being Mother's Day, a lot of families were out and about, so we probably didn't see as much wildlife as we could have on a weekday, but we came across some decent-sized spiders, a brush turkey kicking around in the dead leaves, plenty of butterflies, and a lot of interesting flowers. We were definitely happy to have Dayle's awesome camera back and ready for snapping (after a long hunt for a new battery charger). There are two trails in the park: an ocean rim track (1.2km one way) with great views all the way around the headland (where in winter and spring you can see humpback whales!) to the mouth of a river on the other side , and a rainforest loop (2.3km) that winds up and down through the awesome forest. We pretty much walked them all before heading down to a grassy north-facing hill overlooking the ocean and the town, where groups of people were sprawled out on the grass, soaking up the late-afternoon sun, watching the surfers below and drinking sparkling wine out of plastic flutes. It was a gorgeous scene. We had come prepared with some brie and a baguette, just in case we came across a good picnic spot, and I'm pretty sure we found one of the best picnic spots on earth! And to think that this was all waiting for us, a $3 bus ride (or $1.50 for students like Adrian), just five suburbs away. Needless to say, it was a little hard to leave, but we're sure we'll be heading back to Burleigh Heads again someday soon.