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The ocean lined with monster high rises in Surfers Paradise. (Photograph by Warren Keelan, My Shot)

What Makes Australia’s Gold Coast Golden?

I flew into Sydney just as autumn was settling across Australia’s idyllic landscape. But I wasn’t staying.

I couldn’t help but wonder if the long flight, and skipping the appealing cities of Sydney and Melbourne to fly straight to the Gold Coast in Queensland, would be worth it. But the answer turned out to be a resounding yes. As a New Yorker, I knew nothing about the Gold Coast except that it had an enticing name. Turns out it’s the No. 1 vacation destination for gorgeous, gregarious Aussies. And now I can see why.

The world’s eyes were cast here in 2000, when Palazzo Versace, the world’s first fashion hotel, opened up next to the yacht-filled harbor and the Marina Mirage shopping center. Since then, commercial and residential development has boomed, fallen, and boomed again.

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Witches Chase Cheese Company.

But the Gold Coast’s real allure lies in its pristine tropical rainforest, where bright crimson rosella birds fly and alien-like booyang trees grow (rumor has it that a visit here inspired James Cameron to create the lush world of Pandora in Avatar).

I was happy to cozy up here for a few days, focusing my attention on the outdoors, health and wellness, and a buoyant market for local, wine, beer, and cheese.

Here are my recommendations on what not to miss if you follow my lead and take a chance on the Gold Coast: 

I would make the long flight back to Australia just for another taste of the simple yet sophisticated cheese (and beer) I had at Witches Chase on artsy Mount Tamborine. Owners Andre and Meredith Morris brought Lush cosmetics to North America and sailed the world on a yacht before settling on the Gold Coast and opening this award-winning operation. With their business brains, I wouldn’t be surprised if their signature triple cream brie and inventive libations gained global recognition soon.

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O’Reilly’s has been operating for more than 100 years.

The reward for braving the twisty road to this family-run retreat? Incredible views over Lamington National Park, which essentially guarantees family-run O’Reilly’s will remain in beautiful isolation.

This is a place I want to bring my future kids, so I can take them on rainforest walks and enjoy the wildlife (then hire a babysitter so I can go to the Lost World Spa). The family also owns nearby Canungra Valley Vineyards, a perfect stop for a tasting on your way down.

Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary
You can’t leave the Gold Coast without holding a blissed-out, cuddly koala bear, which is illegal in most of Australia. My first thought when I saw the koalas sleeping: there’s a stick up their butt! Koalas do curl up into funny positions that only look uncomfortable to us, but getting your picture taken holding one is well worth it. You’ll also see kangaroos, lorikeets, and other native species at this world-class preserve.

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Don’t miss your chance to nuzzle with a koala.

Surfers Paradise
Beyond the recovering real estate market, I was happy to discover an emerging hub of culture and creativity–with a bevy of new art galleries, shows, international events, and restaurants (even if one of the best ones is named Lauxes–“sexual” spelled backward) popping up all over Surfers Paradise.

Water babies will want to go surfing and swimming, but there is also great bike riding to be had along the coast. Soul Surfers Paradise is one of the newest hotels to the area, and with rooms equipped with full kitchens and washer-dryers, you’re sure to make yourself at home. The tricky part is leaving.

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Get away from it all at Gwinganna.

Gwinganna Lifestyle Retreat
The fact that Hugh Jackman is part-owner and a regular visitor is surely a draw. So are Gwinganna’s spa (the largest in the Southern hemisphere) and panoramic views of the coast and surrounding valleys.

But to me, the true star is resident gardener Shelley Pryor, who has a melange of fruits, vegetables, and herbs for almost any ailment. She doesn’t have a computer or email, and has the healthiest, kindest glow.

I guarantee you’ll leave inspired to live a healthier life.

Annie Fitzsimmons is National Geographic Travel’s Urban Insider. Follow her adventures on Twitter at @anniefitz.