The art of relaxation: Noosa

Flat out in Noosa, Qld

When we'd talked about a girls' weekend away, the plans were laid for lovely spas, lazy brekkies and dips in Noosa's warm waters. I hadn't factored in toads or fisticuffs but, hey, I'm flexible. 

Girlfriend Mel and I pile way too much luggage for three days into a lipstick-red Kingswood V6 hire car at Maroochydore airport and hit the road, ready for beaches, art classes and too much eating. 

The roads are slick with rain, and you know you're in Queensland when you feel that special sensation beneath the wheels: the popping of cane toads. It's deeply satisfying to know we're doing our bit for the environment.

The deadly sins of greed and sloth are not the only thing egging us on down the road. What is it about the locals? Are they taught hairpin-bend-tailgating at school? I take a leaf out of my grandmother's book of driving and wind down my window to shake my fist at a woman who glues herself to the Kingswood's backside as we wind uphill through dark, damp rainforests into the Sunshine Coast hinterland, for a day of art and spa at the Natural Beauty Retreat.

Eating at XO
The hamlet of Dulong is where Tina Rossiter has set up a series of art-meets-spa days. It sounds delicious: a small group meets to paint and, in between, each artist is whisked off for a facial.

It's been years since most of us wielded a brush, but Sabine, a willowy blonde Austrian and a successful artist in her own right, has photocopied photographs of nudes that we will draw freehand with charcoal, then transfer on to the canvas to paint with acrylics.

At Tina's sprawling house, our easels are set up on the deck overlooking a pool and Balinese hut lined with absurdly green palms and bamboo, which kookaburras flit between. Occasionally, rain drums on the corrugated iron roof, and Sabine sets about coaxing out our inner berets. 

As we work away, Tina steals us away, one by one. Each lucky girl emerges smiling and fresh-faced, smelling of Tina's luxurious, organic, handmade cosmetics following a relaxing facial, with hand and feet massages for good measure.

By the end of the day, I've painted what obviously is a masterpiece, my take on a photograph reminiscent of Max Dupain's Sunbaker, while Mel's saucy girl should be snapped up by Sotheby's soon.

The drive back down to Noosa is spent window shopping: we could buy local honey, bags of avocados for $2, get a psychic reading or purchase a pure-bred droughtmaster bull from $1100. Funds permitting, we could buy an entire hobby farm, such is the diversity of the handmade signs. Roadside commerce is thriving in this neck of the woods, even though the Sunshine Coast has more roundabouts than Canberra.
Noosa Main Beach

Our bed for the night is the Outrigger in Noosa, which recently opened new villas and penthouses. It's not to be confused with an older property in the Noosa area that snagged the Outrigger name some years ago. This is the real deal of the Hawaiian resort group: a five-star, $300 million resort with 197 suites, villas and penthouses, three pools and all the trimmings, from gym to sauna, conference facilities and, of course, the Brisbane institution Stephanies Spa, which has hung its plaque here.

Stephanies Ocean Spa is one of those places you wish you could transplant into your bathroom - coastal scents and zen music that doesn't sound corny. Despite the name, there are no coastal views but the flotation tank looks out on to a wall of rainforest, so Mel and I strip to bikinis and spend an hour letting go, as the salt water buoys us in the closest approximation to an Aussie Dead Sea. It is deeply weird, as we keep bumping into each other, like ships in the night, in the long pool. A therapist later tells me that when you are truly relaxed, you stop sailing about, and one hour equates to a night's deep sleep.

The Outrigger is set in the rainforest just above Noosa's happening Hastings Street, with its Italian fine-dining restaurant Berardo's, but Noosaville's where it's at for new food, and we head there for dinner the next two nights. The old River House, former home of Sunshine Coast chef David Rayner, has been revived as the River Cottage Restaurant, where the spanner crab risotto is legendary and degustations are on the menu.

David himself has moved around the corner to Thomas Corner Eatery. A hot tip: skip the meaty mains and order up big on the entrees to share - charcoal-grilled octopus, Moreton Bay bugs, clams and pork and rabbit rillettes, which our French waiter says are "better than the French ones". Oh, and ask for table No. 20, the garden table set apart from the masses, which backs onto a wall of ferns, with great street and kitchen views. Sitting at the high bar tables or the shared timber tables, we spot plenty of thongs and shorts on show in the open-air restaurant, which is flat-chat doling out Bowen mango daiquiris and limoncello cocktails.
Outrigger Litle Hastings St Resort, Noosa

If I'd had the time and ability, I'd have eaten yet more spanner crab at Pitchfork in the jam-packed Peregian Beach shops, and followed with lycheetinis at Embassy XO's secretive, glam little upstairs bar in nearby Sunshine Beach after a good rummage through the chic shops. Then I would have sampled the Franco-Thai bistro menu at Gaston (50 Hastings Street) or headed down to Q Place, a new food precinct led by Noosa staple Rickys and Japanese eatery Wasabi, formerly of Sunshine Beach, now with a fabulous water view and wearing a hat, thanks to the new Queensland Good Food Guide.

The last we can manage is a pre-flight morning coffee at Aromas cafe on Hastings Street. "Soooooo Noosa, darling," says the friend who tips me off about the cafe, with its menus designed by beloved Brisbane chef Philip Johnson. "We all sit in the European-style tables on the footpath and see who's in town."

Let me tell you who's in town: massive brush turkeys, who perch on the backs of the seats, preening themselves 'til the staff chase them away with fluttering dishcloths. They're a bit wild, a bit vain, very cheeky and they know the best table in town - that's Noosa in a nutshell.

Five more outdoor things to do
1 Amble along the Sunshine Coast nature trail. The classic Noosa walk is the Noosa Heads coastal walk. There are five tracks — ranging from one kilometre to eight kilometres — which will take you through rainforests, up to lookouts and along the beaches. You can do an hour-long circuit, spotting koalas on the way, or a one-way walk down to the spectacular surf beach, Sunshine Beach, for a swim and a brew at the excellent Costa Noosa Espresso cafe.

2 Wander through the bushland setting of the fabulously massive Eumundi Markets to admire clever street performers, buy up local cheeses and produce, fondle cheesecloth and snack on street food every Wednesday, 8am-1.30pm, and Saturday, 7am-2pm. For a fashion hit, local designers gather on the beach at sleek Peregian Beach's market on the first and third Sunday of the month, 7am-12.30pm. Stick around afterwards as local bands provide the soundtrack for lunch.

3 Take a cruise down the Noosa River for afternoon tea amid the pristine wilderness. Snappers take note: it's estimated that nearly half of all Australia's birds hang here at some point during the year, more than in Kakadu. To experience the wetlands' impossible stillness, extend the day by taking a canoe through the waterways before cruising back to busy Noosa. Costs $75 adults cruise only, $119 canoe and cruise. (07) 5449 0393,

4 "Nature is your playground," says fitness goddess Nikki Fogden-Moore, who knows all the best local spots for bushwalks, road biking or, hey, even a triathlon following Noosa's famed course. Fear not, those looking for a little light exercise are just as welcome. Join a sunrise yoga session at Little Cove, just beside Noosa's Main beach, or up at the Boiling Pot lookout in the Noosa National Park, from $25. Or go all out with your girlfriends and hire a personal trainer for an ocean swim and run through the bushland or whatever exercise your body desires. Costs $75. 0428 198 911,

Learn to surf in the warm waters of the Sunshine Coast. Beginners, try Tropicsurf for 1½-hour private lessons, costs $180 a person, or $360 a family, or book a full-day trip to Double Island Point for a family day of surf lessons, sandboarding and barbecuing with the local roos. Costs $720. (07) 5455 4129, Otherwise, focus on your core and find your abs with stand-up paddleboarding queen Donalee Halkett. 0423 869 962.

Trip notes
Getting there Virgin Australia and Jetstar fly Sydney-Sunshine Coast daily. Otherwise, fly to Brisbane and drive 90 minutes to Noosa.
Staying there Outrigger Noosa starts at $279 in a one-bedroom apartment including breakfast, Little Hastings Street, Noosa. 1800 726 591,
Painting there Art Spa parties at the Natural Beauty Retreat cost $220 a person.
Relaxing there Mineral flotation colour therapy costs $89, Stephanies Ocean Spa, Outrigger Noosa.
Eating there River Cottage Restaurant, Thomas Corner Eatery,
Aromas, 32 Hastings Street, Noosa.

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