The Sunshine Coast resort town of Mooloolaba is a little slice of Australian paradise. With its long, long crescent beach, its pretty harbor and labyrinth of canals which are in reality off-shoots of the river, this coastal resort is definitely one for water-lovers.
While gorgeous water views of one kind or another are practically ever-present in this tranquil place perfect for lazy beach days, the ocean plays another part in this town’s story. Bobbing around in the harbor waters can be found a fleet of fishing craft which ensure a steady fresh supply of ocean bounty for the local restaurants. For a town of its size Mooloolaba’s diversity of restaurants is astounding. Seafood feasts, Latin American street-food, a sophisticated Asian fusion choice and a pizzeria which has been awarded the ‘best pizza in the world’ title many times over are just some of the possibilities.
Mooloolaba’s real focus is its beautiful beach but if you want to do more than surf, swim and top up the tan the town is home to an award-winning aquarium, a fantastic art gallery and a wharf area which has recently undergone a sleek regeneration and is now filled with tempting cafes, shops and bars.
While Mooloolaba itself has plenty to keep you occupied it is also the gateway to some true natural Australian magnificence. Short drives will bring you to rain forests, gorgeous mountain villages, cascading waterfalls, mangroves where dolphins and dugongs reside and otherwise a menu of national parks more plentiful than anywhere else in the country, all filled to bursting with unique flora and fauna.
A Morning in Mooloolaba
Your Mooloolaba morning begins with a visit to its aquarium where you can marvel at a rainbow-colored collection of marine creatures –from tiny seahorses which look like floating seaweed to majestically cruising sharks. After a break for coffee the watery theme continues with a cruise along the town’s canals and if you have time be sure to at least poke your head inside the lovely Gallery Beneath.
Underwater World Sea Life Aquarium
Rainbow-colored, mesmerizing and thought-provoking, the much-awarded Sea Life aquarium offers its visitors a window onto a world normally hidden beneath the waves. Australia’s coastal waters are teeming with marine life, all of it fascinating and some of it rare and visually sensational. At this ethically-driven aquarium you have the special opportunity of meeting those species in extreme close up.
The aquarium is separated into several zones which together give a mix of habitats and the species which live in them for you to explore such as the ‘Coastal Wreck’ with its lion fish, eels, octopus and schools of reef fish and the ‘Freshwater Streams’ where you can watch the resident crocodile, frogs and giant-sized barramundi.
The principal feature of the aquarium is an 80 m-long glass tunnel where ocean creatures such as sharks, rays, turtles and a multitude of multi-colored fish swim over and around you. Other aquarium highlights include the ‘Jellyfish Kingdom’ where you can watch the mesmerizing balletic movements of these almost alien and ghost-like creatures with their truly ancient lineage and the ‘Seahorse Sanctuary’. Here you will be enchanted by intricate courtship dances and marvel at delicately marked species like the stunningly beautiful weedy sea dragon which looks rather more plant than anything else.
A hands-on experience can be had at the ‘Tidal Touchpool’ which has been constructed to recreate the tide pools found on the Australian coast. This feature was originally aimed at younger visitors but has proved just as popular with adults who want a chance to get up close and personal with the vividly blue sea-stars, the odd-looking sea cucumbers and a host of other creatures. Aquarium staff are continuously on hand to give you some fascinating facts and figures relating to the life and habitats of these sea-dwellers.
For those who are not simply content to look the aquarium even offers the incredible opportunity of swimming with its seals. These marine mammals are extremely playful in the water and seem very curious of any human sharing their space.
Should you be one of those who typically has moral issues regarding captive creatures you might like to know that Underwater World has stringent conservation and ethical values which should put any doubts you have to rest. In 2015 it was the first of any Australian aquarium to be awarded Zoo and Aquarium Association status; something only granted to set-ups which can demonstrate the highest standards of animal welfare along with conservation and community education objectives. Sea Life champions the ‘breed, rescue and protect’ ethos and to that end have been rescuing and rehabilitating injured and sick marine creatures for almost three decades. All of this means you can explore this wonderful place with a clear conscience.
Morning Coffee in Mooloolaba
Although many are unaware of the fact before visiting Australia, this country has a global reputation for serving up some of the highest standard coffee on the planet. Nor is this top-notch and highly thriving coffee culture a new arrival; the beginnings of the Aussies’ love affair with the bean goes back to the influx of Italian Immigrants who arrived in the post World War II years. In short that means high quality coffee is something of a given no matter where you go in Australia and Mooloolaba is no exception.
Most of the town’s cafes and restaurants are waterfront, stretched along the Esplanade butthere is one gem which is tucked away amid the residential streets. Such a location means you are unlikely to simply pass by but instead have to actively go looking for it. This aspect means once you do arrive at the wonderful Velo Project you will typically only be sharing it with locals.
The Velo Project –a converted garage -is a quirky and atmospheric place filled with communal benches, mismatched chairs and sofas and whose walls, shelves and ceiling are packed with interesting things to gaze upon as you enjoy your morning coffee break. Retro-era globes, vintage bikes, old spice cabinets, teapots serving as plant pots, battered travel cases and much much more is all here.
The Velo Project offers coffee, teas, juices and smoothies and has a established reputation for great food if you happen to be feeling in need of a little energy boost before lunch. Great service and a super friendly vibe are also features of this cafe that prides itself on its sustainability ethics which include using only locally sourced products wherever possible.
If you’d rather enjoy the sunshine –and after all this is the Sunshine Coast –Velo offers a scattering of umbrella-shaded outdoor tables on its deck.
For those who would prefer ocean views Mooloolaba has several choices. With a name such as the Bavarian Beach Bar and Cafe it probably comes as no great surprise to learn this option is right on the beach. From the outdoor tables you have views of sparkling ocean beyond the nodding coconut palms which you can gaze upon as you enjoy coffee and a range of cakes.
While quite which set up in town offers the best coffee is a subject open to fierce debate one of the contenders is the Black Market Espresso Bar. With state-of-the-art equipment and an obviously passionate attitude to coffee, this cozy cafe also offers outdoor seating if you can’t bear to confine yourself inside.
The coffee accompaniment choices here feature a fabulous range of locally-sourced baked goods which include pastries and cakes, just to add to the cafe’s appeal.
The Gallery Beneath
Depending on how much time you spend relaxing over coffee you might have time to take a look inside the lovely Gallery Beneath before you embark for the canal cruise which will round up your morning.
Also located on the Esplanade where most of the cafes are located, this bright light-flooded fine art space is lovely to browse even if you aren’t looking to acquire one of its creations for yourself. The gallery features an eclectic range of styles and mediums from both emerging and famous names ranging from contemporary and whimsical ceramics to atmospheric beach paintings. Also in the mix are sculpture, blown glass and hand-made jewelry. Be sure to check out the highly colorful and wonderfully original pieces by Anthony Breslin. If you look closely you will see all kinds of everyday but unexpected objects incorporated onto his canvasses such as jigsaw pieces and toothpaste tubes.
Cruising the Mooloolaba Canal
If you look on a map of Mooloolaba you will see its eastern corner is made up of a labyrinth of waterways and canals branching off from the Mooloolah River, itself the focus of the Mooloolah River National Park.
Canal cruises are a popular way to get amid the lower stretches of this reserve and for the hour’s duration you can enjoy a live commentary from your knowledgeable skipper. Along the way you will learn of the area’s local history and its transformation from swamp to somewhere which has sprouted a large number of mansions of the rich and famous. You will pass many of these along with their millionaire lifestyle yachts as you cruise the waterways as well as the more humble craft belonging to the commercial fishermen. One of the boats you pass was formerly owned by the TV celebrity and zoo owner Steve Irwin who was affectionately known before his tragic death as the ‘crocodile hunter’.
One of the highlights of the trip for many is the hand-feeding of the pelicans which is offered on some cruises or the spotting of bottle-nose dolphins which are resident and often seen in parts of the canal.
Lunch in Mooloolaba
For a town of its size Mooloolaba has an exceptional variety of cafes and restaurants and a surprising diversity of cuisine types. Additionally, already with plenty going for it, the Mooloolaba dining scene is also an ever-evolving one so new options are popping up all the time adding color and variety to the whole. Almost all of your options are located along the Esplanade, the Wharf or on the Spit with a handful of exceptions a little more removed from the waterfronts.
The Spit is where arguably you’ll find the best seafood and is home to both Pier 33 and Fish on Parkyn which is the most upscale of the Mooloolaba seafood venues. The succulent and flavorful Mooloolaba prawns which are sent to restaurants throughout the region are at their freshest here, Typically having been brought from the boats just hours before. The venues on the Spit also typically come with palm-dotted ocean views of the especially lovely kind and where the fishing craft which have delivered the very food you are eating bob about in the breeze.
One especially lovely lunch spot is modern Australian cuisine-focused Three Little Stones which comes complete with a typical Mooloolaba beach view. One of Mooloolaba’s newer restaurants, this relaxed spot is known for its generous portions and has a menu which includes seafood, beef and chicken. Seating is more than ample so you can linger over a long lunch without feeling rushed.
As already mentioned the cuisine diversity in Mooloolaba is quite something with Australian, Thai, Italian, Asian fusion, Mexican, the flavors of the US Deep South and much more. Within the ethnic food choice category is the Wharf Precinct-located El Bigoton–the perfect place for a casual lunch for Latin street food lovers. This Mooloolaba icon which is always busy with lunching locals and is raved about by all and sundry is technically a take-away. However,if you don’t want to grab and go it has some outside tables to tuck into your tortillas, are pas, tacos, quesadillas or other specialty dishes taken from Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Venezuela and just about everywhere else in Central and South America.
Flavors and preparation methods are authentic, dishes made from scratch and prices incredibly pocket-friendly.
An Afternoon in Mooloolaba and Its Surrounds
While Mooloolaba itself is relatively small its near surrounds are packed with a further menu of things to see and do. These range from getting up close to migrating whales to exploring the sensational surrounds of magnificent national parks packed with wildlife and from watching opals being polished to exploring lovely mountain towns and villages.
You won’t have enough hours to fit it all in but once you know the major options you can decide which feels most worthy of your time.
Not surprisingly seeing whales in the wild features high up on many an individual bucket list and right here in Mooloolaba you can get set to tick it off. While some species of whale are resident in the Australian coastal waters year round something extra special takes place along the east coast from May to September. These are the months when mass numbers of humpback whale migrate thousands of kilometers, first north from the Antarctic to mate and give birth in warm waters before heading back south with their new babies in tow.
As the 16 m long whales pass close to land, many vantage points along the coast allow you to see these incredible creatures from dry land, blowing their spouts high into the air or even launching themselves completely out of the water before crashing back down with an almighty splash. However, for a more intimate experience you can head out with one of the many operators whose sole purpose is to see the whales although dolphins and turtles are often an added bonus. The size of these ocean giants is really only something which you can fully appreciate from being within meters of them. Watching their spy-hops, breaches, tail slaps and full body throws right out of the water from close quarters is not something you are likely to ever forget.
For the truly adventurous there are even some outfits which offer the opportunity of donning flippers and snorkel to swim alongside these majestic creatures which previous takers have often described as ‘life changing’.
Opals Down Under
Just a 15 km ride from Mooloolaba at Glenview can be found Opals Down Under where you can marvel at a dazzling collection of opals and have the opportunity to learn about how these exceptionally beautiful stones are mined.
All but 3% of all opals anywhere in the world have been sourced from Australia so it is little wonder this stunning gem is the country’s national stone. Opals are one of nature’s most exquisite and highly variable gemstones, with multiple colors which change as the stone catches the light and there are even some which appear to display every shade you could imagine simultaneously.
Opals Down Under is generally considered to be home to one of the country’s finest collections of these unbelievably beautiful gems and each of their opals has been cut right here. If you are interested to see something which looks like a normal and unexceptional lump of rock transformed into a dazzling rainbow-rich gem you can watch opal cutting demonstrations and also view short film screenings which explain the mining and evaluation processes.
While not all who come here end up buying something there are, in reality, few who visit and don’t fall in love with the indescribable beauty of the opal and so decide to take home a jewelry piece, souvenir or gemstone as a result.
The Hinterland and the National Parks
The Sunshine Coast has more national parks than any other region of Australia, each of them full of natural magnificence and crammed with unique and fascinating flora and fauna which you can’t see anywhere else in the world. These national parks incorporate what is known as the hinterland of the Sunshine Coast, a region which begins less than a half hour drive from Mooloolaba.
Many who visit the Sunshine Coast never stray far from the spectacular white sand beaches and so never know that just behind all that beautiful coast are vast unspoiled swathes of Mother Nature at her finest. Here you can find lush rain forest, mangroves teeming with life, ages-old peaks created by volcanic activity, cascading waterfalls, eucalyptus forests, natural swimming holes straight from a fairy tale scene and otherwise what is in every way a breath-taking landscape.
Quite what kind of experience you can have in this wonderful area is really up to you. Wildlife lovers might like to explore the Pumice stone Passage with its collection of mangroves and sea-grass meadows which are home to shy dugongs, playful dolphins, turtles and hundreds of bird species. The chances of seeing the native wildlife here is especially enhanced as the majority of the region’s waters are less than 2 m deep. Another option for animal lovers is the Noosa Everglades where either cruising or kayaking will put you right in among a wildlife-rich habitat which is home to 50% of all bird species found in the entire country.
Those who like to make their discoveries on foot have a wealth of possibilities which range from walks led by Aboriginal guides to self-guided hikes that can be anything from easy strolls surrounded by natural magnificence to more challenging options.
For those who want to immerse themselves in the stunning landscape but don’t want to exert too much effort there is the Mary Valley Rattler.This historic steam train ride aboard a genuine restored locomotive almost 100 years old covers a 46 km loop, passing over bridges and rounding hills before turning around on an historic turntable at Amamoor Station to head back to its starting point of Gympie Station. If you would prefer to visit some hinterland villages you have plenty of choice. Mapleton, Monteville and Maleny are considered three of the best, all of them in the Blackall Range but each offering something different and each having their own unique character.
Rain forest-bordered Mapleton offers views which stretch all the way to the ocean and has the lovely Mapleton Falls within easy reach. Monteville is home to yet more stunning vistas, picturesque buildings and a collection of boutique shopping choices which include art, crafts, antiques and one-of-a-kind clothing. Maleny is the epitome of charm, with its Glass House Mountains backdrop, its creek which weaves around the village in which you can occasionally spot platypus and a series of pretty lakes and waterfalls close by. The small Maleny population is especially rich in artists and artisans so here you will find art galleries and boutique food producers as well as enchanting book stores, wonderful cafes and a range of healing treatments on offer for mind, body and soul.
Pre-Dinner Drinks and Dinner in Mooloolaba
Beach-front venues are plentiful in Mooloolaba so sundowners and feasting on seafood fresh from the boat typically come with ocean views as standard.Venues range from casual and beach-life vibed to the higher ends of sophisticated drinking and fine dining.
To truly put the cocktail in your cocktail hour head to Lot 104 on the Esplanade. Pick your spot on the lovely open-sided alfresco patio of this cocktail and wine bar and enjoy either the soothing sound of the ocean close by or that of live music performances which the venue regularly host. The surroundings and décor are perfect for relaxing sundowners and the cocktail menu is huge offering both classics and some adventurous mixes. Additionally Lot 104 serves tapas if you need something to keep you going until the main event of dinner.
Those who would rather have a craft beer in hand than a cocktail are also catered for in the town. Taps Mooloolaba has a serve-yourself concept –borrowed from Europe -which is sure to appeal to draft beer fans. The setting is earthy but characterful and the atmosphere all-inclusive and welcoming while the beers, which perhaps it goes without saying, are of the kind that will satisfy even the most discerning beer aficionado. The serve-yourself concept means you can sample all of the beers to decide which to make your favorite for the evening. If you drinking partner prefers cocktails Taps also offers those too.
While ocean views are plentiful you can also enjoy pre-dinner drinks with a river setting. The River Bar which is the principle bar at the Wharf Tavern has a lovely alfresco deck right on the Mooloolaba River. The River Bar has a vast choice of wines, beers both draught and bottled, cocktails and a well-stocked array of spirits so no matter what your preferred tipple to relax with before dinner, you’re likely to find something to suit here.
If you are such a water lover that nothing but being out on the ocean itself will suffice you are in luck as Mooloolaba offers cocktail hour cruises. Boats which cruise the river also head out at this hour although in either case the views are lovely and the atmosphere effortlessly romantic as only sunsets on a boat can be.
If you have got especially comfortable in your pre-dinner drink spot you can in each case dine there once your appetite tells you it is time. Lot 104 has a small but diverse selection of seafood and meat dishes, Taps offers a pub fare menu of the wings and burgers variety with enormous helpings while the Wharf Bistro is seafood-and steak-focused.
For an elegant evening meal the wonderful Spice Bar crafts delicious Asian fusion dishes at what many consider to be the best of the Mooloola bar restaurant choices. The ocean view location is lovely, the beautiful presentation of the food nothing short of art and the flavor sensations of the innovative fusions a true treat for the taste buds. A real foodie’s choice, the Spice Bar offers shared plates of all kinds of delicious options while the multi-course degustation experience complete with prawns, scallops, chicken and beef presented in a multitude of delightful ways is ideal for those who simply can’t choose from all the wonderful possibilities on offer.
If you happen to be an Italian food fan Augello’s Ristorante and Pizzeria is a must. Part of the Mooloolaba dining scene for more than 20 years, this well-loved beach-front spot has a crammed trophy cabinet. Among these are not just awards for the best pizza in Australia but also the best on the planet. The menu is packed with antipasti choices, pastas, gourmet pizzas, risottos and salads in such numbers it will take you quite some time to read through them all. Pizza lovers are going to find themselves with choices never before tried such as duck a l’orange with fig dough or Thai calamari and prawn with a sweet chili base and Japanese breadcrumbs. There are two seating options –one in the lower level alfresco area and the other upstairs in a balconied dining room complete with gorgeous elevated views of the ocean.
An Evening in Mooloolaba
Many of the Mooloolaba restaurants offer such lovely ocean or river views that diners tend to linger over after dinner drinks to make the most of the location. If you’re not content to just sit and gaze however you can still keep drinking in the lovely vistas with an evening meander. The stretch known as the Esplanade is all beach-front and made for strolling so you can go as far as your energy levels allow or until you find a bar which looks too tempting to pass by. A longer walk will take you out to the calm waters and stunning views of the Spit where the fishing craft moor and the entire length of the lovely beach is greenery backed.
Another area to wander aimlessly but happily is the Wharf which overlooks the river. A collection of bars, restaurants and shops, this areahas been the focus of a multi-million dollar revitalization program but still retains elements of old seaside charm in its boardwalk, wooden structures and feel. There are also remnants from the Wharf’s 1980s construction such as the quirky seal statue perched on his bench and just behind this is a blue tower which you can climb by way of internal staircase. From the top you can take in a little of the Mooloolaba panoramas from the wrap-around railed verandah.
For most, Mooloolaba nights are simply about finding a spot which ticks all the boxes for their own personal definition of perfect and relaxing with a drink. Some of the possibilities here include Pier 33 on the Spit for cocktails with an ocean backdrop, the balcony of Rice Boi at the Wharf for lovely river views or any of the Esplanade’s offerings for palm-lined beach vistas.
If you want to take in a little live music while you see out your evening with a favorite drink in hand there are several places in town which offer just that. Venues such as the craft-beer lover’s Taps, O’Malley’s Irish Bar and the Wharf’s wonderful Boston Shakerall host regular music nights. This latter Art Deco-inspired spot which is modeled after a speak-easy of yesteryear has a wonderful choice for after-dinner cocktails. Its music falls mainly into the funk, jazz and soul genres which are ideal for enjoying the bygone atmosphere.
During the summer months Mooloolaba also hosts open-air cinema nights where the venues might be beach, park or poolside at some hotel. Before the movies start you will often be entertained by live music or buskers to add to the summer-vibe feel.