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The Australian Gold Coast tourism slogan, “Famous for Fun”, is a truth in two halves. Located 94km south of Brisbane, the Gold Coast is famous – for the lowbrow glamour of Surfers Paradise, an over-the-top beach area packed with high-rise buildings and a cluster of theme parks. But there is also plenty of fun to be had without climbing onto a rollercoaster or booking a stay at the gaudy Palazzo Versace hotel.

Start your exploration of the underrated region at the southern end, 25km south of Surfers Paradise. As you drive north from the Gold Coast Airport, you will hit three smaller beachfront towns, each with a slow-paced village feel behind its stunning and very surfable beaches.

Coolangatta: Home to that surfing competition
The first stop is Coolangatta, Queensland’s most southerly coastal town, located on the border with New South Wales. Each February, Coolangatta (or “Cooly” to the locals) is awash with activity when the famous Quiksilver/Roxy Pro surfing competition storms into town. Throughout the 10-day event, men and women surf for pro-tour points and more than $500,000 in prize money.

Coinciding with the Quiksilver/Roxy Pro competition, the excellent Bleach Festival showcases art, photography, music, film and theatre. The inaugural event in 2012 had events ranging from surf film premiers to pop-up art galleries in shipping containers to beach parties and street theatre.

Even if you do not make it in February, there is plenty of water-based action to be had year round. Sign up for surf lessons and join the tanned and toned beach bodies carving up the waves; two-hour group lessons with Walkin’ on Water and Coolangatta Learn to Surf start at 40 Australian dollars and private lessons start at 120 Australian dollars per hour (prices include wetsuit and board hire). If paddling out into the surf is too hairy for your liking, opt for paddleboard lessons instead, where you will be taken out to a creek and taught to stand up on an oversized surfboard, paddle in hand. It does not usually take long for most newbies to stand up and paddle themselves across the water. Try a lesson with JM Stand Up Paddle from 80 Australian dollars per hour (prices include board hire).

For something more sedate, the Comb Artspace puts on quality, contemporary exhibitions that belie its compact space. Staff are friendly and can organise to have the reasonably priced paintings/photographs/craftwork shipped to you at cost. Forthcoming exhibitions include a group show featuring sticker art.

You could also spend hours trawling through all the quality vintage wares at the massive Antiques and Collectibles Market (33 Mclean Street; 07-553-688-4833), which is filled with vintage crockery, furniture, books and even such oddities as Masters of the Universe toys from the 1980s. International shipping can be arranged if that 1960s pencil-leg sideboard really catches your fancy.

And come night time, head up the stairs beside the Comb Artspace into Neverland Bar, where local indie bands jam to a young, too-cool-for-school crowd. Skinny jeans are essential, and leave those flip-flops for the beach.

Currumbin: A shrine to surfing
It is easy to wile away many an hour in Currumbin, 7km north of Coolangatta. Just off the white sandy beach, lunch or a beer is available at one of the many breezy oceanfront restaurants on Pacific Parade. Try Allure, with its mesh of French and Australian cuisine, including chicken breast filled with lobster, and tiger prawns served with kipfler potatoes, snow peas and truffled carrots.

Take a postprandial walk to the very low-key Surfworld Gold Coast museum, a shrine to surfing legends both international (Kelly Slater) and local (Layne Beachley). Boards dating as far back as 1915 sit alongside videos installations, clothing and other memorabilia.

If you want to check out Australia’s famed marsupials, continue next door to the Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary, where you will likely find out that koalas are not as sedate as they look in photos, as they spring from eucalyptus tree to eucalyptus tree and engage in loud screeching and fighting.

Burleigh Heads: The place for food and fashion
Although not much at first glance, this compact town 8km north of Currumbin is known for its bustling beachfront and excellent surf. However, drag yourself away from the sand and you will find several great options worth visiting for. The town has an inordinate number of thrift stores, perfect for fossicking for vintage clothing and bric-a-brac. For retro styles, indie fashion labels and handmade jewellery and crafts, check out the Village Market, held on the first and third Sunday of each month at the Burleigh Heads State School.

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