Exploring The Gold Coast and Byron Bay
On my birthday back in February, I decided I wanted to go on an adventure. A 20-day international adventure. More specifically, I wanted to go to Australia. The reason? I love warmth, sun, and surf. I also heard all about it as a kid, as my parents nearly moved us there when I was a child. In fact, my parents have always loved it, which is why they named me Sydney. Ironically, the city of Sydney was not part of my itinerary.
Instead, I decided to jet off to the Gold Coast, where I booked into the famous Q1 Resort for nearly three weeks. Owning the title of the tallest building in Australia, the Q1 is located in Surfers Paradise. After looking at brochures, it seemed like the perfect “base” for my adventures, being a midpoint between Brisbane (where I was definitely planning to visit) and Coolangatta (where I landed).
On the way over, I flew Air New Zealand with a connection in Auckland before I eventually arrived in Australia. At that time, no one needed a transit visa to get through the Auckland airport, but that’s actually changing as of October 2019. To visit Australia, I needed an Electronic Travel Authority (ETA), which automatically attached to my passport.
Applying for the ETA was quick and painless. Booking flights was easy, too. Being the novice traveler that I was, I went through Expedia and paid no mind to how many miles I could have earned with a loyalty program. Instead, I booked a roundtrip ticket that mixed fares (Air New Zealand on the way over and Qantas on the way back). I left on April 30 and was set to return on May 21.
The Air New Zealand SkyCouch
Hoping to minimize jet lag for the long, overnight flight, I paid extra to upgrade to the SkyCouch on the way over. This option was available online in advance. Interestingly, Air New Zealand first gives you the option to “bid” on a SkyCouch. Deciding against it for the time being, I closed the window. However, upon reopening it later, I found that it was no longer asking for a blind bid. Instead, Air New Zealand gave me the option to pay for the SkyCouch upgrade outright.
I opted in since I wanted to arrive well-rested. Basically, the SkyCouch gives you an entire row of economy seats all to yourself. The footrests come up to create a bed-like surface and the seat back reclines a little bit. Being just 5′ 2″, I was able to stretch out completely and it was pretty comfortable. They give you a big comforter to lay across the seats for padding and a blanket to cover up with. You also get lots of pillows.
In addition to the little pillows that they put on everyone’s seat for an overnight flight, I also got three plush pillows (one for each seat) thanks to the SkyCouch upgrade. I also got two extra blankets, two extra pairs of headphones, and pretty much three of everything else–except meals, obviously.
Following my long layover in San Francisco’s international terminal, I got the SkyCouch setup in no time at all. As soon as we were off the ground, I folded up the footrests and figured out the seatbelt, which allows you to be buckled and laying down at the same time. For meals, I just sat in the aisle seat with the tray table and footrest down, and then could instantly go to laying back down again even before they came to pick up what was left of our surprisingly delicious food.
With all the extra pillows strewn about my “couch,” I had placed a few at my feet as I went to go to sleep that night. Funnily enough, I felt someone steal one as I was still half-awake. I think I know who did it, too, because as we were disembarking the next morning, the four people who had sat in the center row shot me some jealous looks. It wasn’t my imagination, either, one of them asked if I slept well and then straight up said, “I hate you,” (while laughing, of course).
If you can sleep well under the pressure of envious gazes, you’ll adore the SkyCouch. Just guard your pillows carefully, but you won’t run short if you’re flying alone. As far as the price goes, you could probably get one for less if you used the bid feature. Still, it’s cheaper than buying a lay-flat bed in business or first class, but when it dawns on you just how much you’re spending for a few hours sleep, you might reconsider spending anything extra on it at all.
I landed in the Gold Coast Airport (OOL) in Coolangatta. A speedy 40-minute Uber drive took me to my accommodations, which were supposed to be 4-star. I’ll go ahead and say it now: Uber is all over Australia. A few Uber drivers even asked me: “Is Uber this big in America?”
As far as Uber goes, I can attest that all of the drivers I had were extremely friendly. In fact, everyone I met was extremely friendly. The first driver talked the entire trip to my hotel, which I was so grateful for. She told me everything I should do and see, and pointed out places along the way where I should visit or perhaps consider staying.
She also suggested that I get out of Surfers Paradise. In fact, pretty much everyone did. I’m still not sure how I missed that memo in my weeks of research leading up to the trip, but I remained excited for the adventures ahead and refused to be discouraged.
The Q1 Resort in Surfers Paradise
When I arrived at the Q1, they offered to stow my luggage since I was a couple of hours early for check-in. She put me on a waitlist and said she’d call as soon as my room was ready. Meanwhile, I received a card that gave me access to the resort’s pool, gym, and spa.
I walked around for a bit waiting for my room to be ready and I eventually headed up to see my view. I don’t recall which floor I stayed on, but the ocean view was beautiful. I took it all in from my “balcony,” which was nothing more than a dining area with windows that opened. It was more of an excuse not to air condition the area, but I won’t nit-pick.
The first night, I took a shower and got into my pajamas before climbing into bed and calling up room service. I was jet lagged and really wanted a burger from the restaurant downstairs. So, I phoned in and asked. The girl was super polite, but rather than putting in my order, she warned me of the outrageous room service fee (which I was entirely willing to pay).
She informed me that I’d pay just as much for the burger as I would to have it brought to my room, and that I’d better just head down to the restaurant and get it myself. I thanked her and hung up. I could hear when she picked up the phone that there was a party going on down at the restaurant (which doubled as a poolside bar, with the Q1 pool being one of the best around), and I didn’t feel like getting up, getting dressed, and pushing through a crowd of people to go get dinner after a 22-hour long journey.
If it happened to me today, I probably wouldn’t think twice about it. I’d either insist on paying the fee since they advertise room service or maybe I would go downstairs and get my food after all. But, my first night alone in a new country and in a city, I was simply too uncomfortable to go through the hassle. After all, within a few hours of my arrival, I had already been told to get out of Surfers as soon as I could. Needless to say, I was a bit weary.
Fortunately, I was soon informed by everyone I met that there was no real danger around. Locals simply told me to get away to experience more of Australia. Surfers Paradise is a party town and not much more. However, I needed to stick around for at least a few days because I had planned an Australia Zoo Platinum Tour and Croc Tours would be picking me directly up from the hotel. So, I found other things to do in the meantime.
Unfortunately, the Q1 was probably the worst part of my trip. Hotel housekeeping typically showed up every day or every other day. They did their jobs well, but there was no “Do Not Disturb” sign to hang on the apartment door. There wasn’t a deadbolt, either, just the standard card entry. Since I had nothing planned for the first few days of my stay and I was trying to recover from the earache that had welcomed me upon arrival, I soon became aware of housekeeping’s habit to knock twice before hastily letting themselves in. I was already prepared for the day anytime they entered, but if you were trying to enjoy a relaxing soak in the jet tub or a quiet day in, good luck to you.
A couple other problems also popped up during my stay that I have since seen documented in other guests’ reviews. For instance, the glass shower door had major gaps around it and didn’t have a latch to keep it closed. Even if you held it shut, the gaps always led to a soaking wet floor. My shower head also refused to stay upright and continued to fall towards the wall whenever I turned it on. I will note that someone eventually fixed it (without me asking), but it quickly loosened itself again.
Needless to say, I ended up leaving the hotel with about two weeks left on my reservation. I wanted to go explore other areas, but I didn’t necessarily want to forfeit those nights in case I decided to come back, so I asked the front desk for their input. The first lady I spoke to was very rude and quick to dismiss me. She said, “You can leave whenever you want,” and took no time to understand my question. She was also quick to state their “No Refund” policy, although I made no mention of a refund and didn’t intend to get one.
Luckily, things ended on a good note because the nice girl who had initially checked me in came over and helped instead. She suggested leaving my hotel keys in my room in case I didn’t return. In the event that I did, she said I could simply bring my ID to the front desk and they’d reassign my keys, but I never went back.
The Good Things About Surfers
If you find yourself in Surfers, there are some things I would recommend. First off, I made an appointment at the Q1 Salon for the day of my arrival. The stylist, Sophia, gave me advice about my trip while she put in some very natural looking highlights and gave me complimentary curls. I typically don’t go to fancy salons, so it was a fun experience.
During my stay at the Q1, I also visited the on-site spa. As far as this place goes, I have nothing but wonderful things to say about the staff and service. I had never gotten a massage before I wandered into the spa that day, but I’ll certainly be signing up for more in the future. I walked in without an appointment and they fit me in as the next client.
I also visited Timezone, which is a great way to pass the time if you like arcades. I’ll also note that Surfers was hosting free public concerts on the beach the weekend of my arrival, which I’m sure is pretty common given the party vibes the whole city puts off.
One thing to avoid? The restaurant at the top of the Q1 tower. They share the same hands-off service as the resort’s front desk, although the 360-degree viewing area is immense. The “Tower Climb,” which takes you to the top of the building’s spire, would probably be fun. However, I took a helicopter tour of the coast later in my trip, which I feel negated a visit to Q1 altogether (but I admit I’m a bit biased given my experience).
Australia’s Sea World
When I was originally looking for things to do around Surfers Paradise, Sea World was one place that kept coming up. They have rides, they have fish, and they have all sorts of “experiences” to enjoy. I was hesitant at first, given the reputation of our SeaWorld over here in the United States, but I soon learned that Australia’s “Sea World” (with a space) is actually an entirely separate company. When it was founded, the name was not trademarked, so they used it.
This Sea World does fantastic education and rehabilitation work. So, I fulfilled my dream of swimming with dolphins (well, one dolphin named Lulu) and I also did the tropical reef snorkel, which allows you to swim with the likes of tropical fish and rays along with Black Tip and White Tip reef sharks.
While snorkeling the large outdoor pool, you can also see through the underwater gate that looks into Shark Lagoon where they keep Bull Whaler sharks and other large species.
When I initially decided to go to SeaWorld, I got the four-day, four-park pass, which gives you access to SeaWorld and three other theme parks in the area. I went to SeaWorld my second day in Australia for the snorkel and returned my third day in Australia for the dolphin dive. I then decided to signup for a helicopter tour, too, because it seemed exciting.
I only paid for a 30-minute tour, but the girl who worked there upgraded me to the 60-minute tour for free because a small group came in who wanted to go up right away. I got to sit in the cockpit next to the pilot and experienced a tour that took us far down the coast past the Q1.
The pilot pointed out plenty of sights and even showed us the most easterly point of mainland Australia (Cape Byron). He remarked that the sky was incredibly clear and said he typically couldn’t see so far out. It was my first helicopter tour, but I think it’s a great way to get your bearings when you land in a new place.
Gold Coast Skydive
I find that anticipation is the best/worst part of anything. So, although I once told myself I’d never go skydiving, that’s exactly what I decided to do! Looking for something to pass the time just a couple of days before my Australia Zoo tour, I booked a last-minute skydive and then headed out to buy some closed-toe shoes for the jump. If you like to shop, you’d definitely like the sheer number of stores found around Surfers.
While I managed to avoid anticipation as much as possible by booking mere hours before I was set to jump, I did get some butterflies as I stepped out of the car and walked up to the small office. It was my Uber driver’s hype that made me realize, “Oh wait, I’m actually doing this!” as I went in to sign the waiver.
I arrived early, though, so I had a while to wait before I even went in to get suited up. The girl who would be jumping at the same time as me was also a little late. And, as crazy as I was beginning to feel, she took the cake that day. Returning home from a trip, she thought it’d be fun to get picked up directly from the local airport and climb into another plane just to jump out of it. Needless to say, her whimsy inspired me.
Since we were jumping over the beach, we had to wear a life jacket in a pouch in case we accidentally landed in the ocean. Then, my tandem dive master put me in a harness and gave me a 60-second rundown of what I needed to do. He told me to “be a banana” as we jumped out, keep my arms crossed until he tapped on my shoulder, and pick my legs upon landing.
After the long wait, I wasn’t feeling so nervous anymore, but as we took the slow plane ride up, the butterflies did begin to build again. The nerves were strongest the seconds before we jumped, when my legs were dangling out the door and the guy who was diving to film me was perched on the wing ready to record the flips and turns we took as we exited the plane.
The cold air was surprisingly shocking in May (which is the start of Australia’s “winter”), but you quickly embrace it. Free fall was the exciting part, and I might just enjoy it more the second time knowing what to expect.
Of course, once they pulled the parachute, it wasn’t cold any longer. It was actually amazingly peaceful as we gradually drifted down to the sandy beach below. I got to steer for a little bit and my dive master did some cool trick where you get the sensation of zero gravity as we continued gently floating to the ground. While I might not consider it life’s greatest thrill, I do not regret the experience one bit. It also made for a really cool video.
I will note that, upon leaving the office after my sky dive that day, I didn’t have phone signal. That meant I couldn’t call an Uber, so I ended up walking into town and spending some time in Coolangatta (which I highly recommend doing). But, I still didn’t have signal later, so I went back to the skydive office and they called me a cab.
My driver was a 70-something-year-old great grandmother and she perfectly sums up the hospitality of all the people I met on my trip. When I told her I was traveling alone, she was quick to give me her phone number. Having lived in the area her entire life with her kids and grandkids and great grandkids spread all over Australia, she said I had nothing to worry about, but told me to give her a call if I was ever wandering around and felt uncomfortable or simply got bored.
My tandem dive master had told me about Byron, and so had many people before him. It sounded like a quiet town to wind down in, and that’s what I felt I needed in hopes of finally recovering from the earache that had been plaguing me.
Ditching the Q1, I booked into the most gorgeous hotel that I have ever stayed at. Victoria’s at Wategos is set in the hills overlooking the famous Wategos beach (and just a minute walk from the same). It was the perfect place to rest and recover as I enjoyed the beauty of my surroundings.
Victoria’s at Wategos
I arrived at Victoria’s a little while before checkin and the girl gave me a tour of the grounds. There was a shared kitchen in the other portion of the hotel with my room being just above the pool. I had no ocean view, but I could watch the giant wild lizards on the ground below and look out over the tree tops at all of the gorgeous homes perched along the coast.
Before my room was ready, she offered me tea or coffee and I politely accepted the former due to my throat hurting. I expected a cup of tea, but was instead met with a full tea service. I enjoyed it as my room was quickly prepared. As soon as I had the key, I collapsed onto the insanely comfortable bed and was quickly met with new friends.
In Byron, I grew accustomed to small lizards welcoming themselves into any hotel, home, or place of business I found myself in. I would turn and see one hanging out on the wall a foot from my head where it would briefly startle me before scurrying up to the ceiling (or behind my mattress, as one particularly large one chose to do). They were harmless, but I can’t say I ever got used to them.
Of course, there were far too many positives about the area and Victoria’s itself. In my room, the mini bar had the most delicious macadamias I have ever tasted. Turns out, the area is known for growing them fresh, and that’s something I’d like to go back and purchase by the crate.
Obviously, the greatest thing about Victoria’s is that it’s 60 seconds from Wategos Beach. You can just spend hours sitting at the beach, like I did, or you can climb up to the famous lighthouse, which I actually didn’t do. I did walk one of the trails, though. It leads out to Cape Byron, which is the most easterly part of mainland Australia, which my helicopter pilot had identified earlier in the trip. The views are phenomenal and the beach was surprisingly quiet. If I went back to Byron, I might try the hang gliding tour that allows you to circle the light house, but I was committed to taking at least a few days off to get rid of my earache.
Being a solo traveler who values experience over anything, that stay at Victoria’s was priceless. I woke up each morning and descended the spiral staircase to the common area where I sat down to a champagne breakfast by the pool and listened to the fountains as I ate cheeses (and some fruits) I couldn’t identify. I felt like I had stepped into a storybook and I relished every moment since I had only booked into Victoria’s for a few nights. I would definitely go back–lizards, spiders, and all.
Oh, and if you’re wondering how I got to Byron, I took an Uber. At that time, I was unaware that Uber drivers apparently can’t see where you’re going until after they accept the job. Knowing that now, I feel bad that the guy wasn’t expecting to go so far out. It was a 1-hour and 15-minute minute drive for me and a 3-hour round trip for him.
On another note, although tipping is not custom in Australia, I tipped every driver I had. That was a point of confusion for me because every one I tried to tip in person politely refused and said I didn’t have to in Australia. Yet, the Uber app always gives you the option to tip after a ride is completed so I tipped anyway to be safe. I still don’t know if that’s “proper” or not.
After a few days at Victoria’s, I said a bittersweet goodbye to the hotel and checked into an Airbnb instead. I was nearing the end of my trip and I couldn’t find another town to visit that was within polite Uber distance from Byron. So, I decided to just stick around. I accepted the fact that the end of my trip might just be calm and relaxing, and I set out to find some things to do in Byron. That ended up being the right choice because, as it turns out, my trip wasn’t over after all.
The Airbnb I chose was just a short walk from the beach. Actually, it was an extremely short walk from the beach–the beach just on the other side of the light house. Except, while Wategos was super calm and famous for surfing, this beach was wild and powerful with signs warning of its strong undertow. Of course, that didn’t stop people from surfing, fishing, or even wind surfing, but it was interesting to see the difference between the two.
I spent many more hours on this beach, sitting in the sand and watching the hang gliders circle the lighthouse–now to my left–with what appeared to be an endless stretch of sand to my right.
However, my time here was limited, too. Having already extended my trip once in hopes of squeezing something more in, I was counting the hours until I had to catch a ride back up to Coolangatta and board my flight home. So, I hung out on the beach most of the day, braved the frigid pool in the afternoon, and received grocery deliveries so I could make some real food before chilling on the sofa at night.
I ended up re-watching That 70s Shows for the upteenth time. In fact, I heard many complaints while I was there that they don’t have many original shows in Australia, unless you’re counting Bondi Beach, which I did watch once. Netflix felt like ours back home, just with fewer options. That was really the first time during my trip that I watched television, but just as my ear was starting to clear up, it seemed like I had run out of things to do. So, I began preparing to return home, but one last opportunity for adventure came up!
At the very last minute, I ended up extending my trip one final time to fly up the coast where I sailed the famous Whitsundays and snorkeled the Great Barrier Reef on a trip I’ll never forget. Read about my trip to Airlie Beach, the Great Barrier Reef, and the Whitsunday Islands.
Being a professional writer and editor means I can work from anywhere there’s WiFi, and that freedom has enabled me to go to some incredible places. When I’m not writing for clients, I’m generally writing posts for my blog–like the one you just read. You can learn more about my work and adventures here.