Surfers Paradise looks, feels and tastes how it sounds. Fronted by a pane of liquescent teal, swept with sea breeze and veiled in sunlight, the country’s largest tourism capital gives the impression of having erupted from the sand in a summer dream.
And while it’s now known for its stately skyscrapers and glitzy social scene, from its vibe, to its fashion, to its nightlife, it’s clear Surfers Paradise has a sun-kissed history.
So, how did the city come to be?
Its recent history not only unravels the Surfers Paradise beach bum identity, but also proves that with a clear vision – and a little cheek – paradise can emerge on a humble horizon.
EARLY DAYS OF ELSTON
As with the rest of Australia, the first inhabitants of the Gold Coast region were Indigenous, and this tribe was known as the Kombumerri – or saltwater – people.
The first land management activity begun in 1840 when a government surveyor charted the region, naming landmarks after senior naval officers, which was customary. Surveyor General Sir Thomas Mitchell later changed these to Aboriginal names.
Then an unnamed locality, Surfers Paradise became a cotton-growing region in 1865 before being sold 12 years later to Johann Meyer, a sugarcane grower who operated a ferry service across the Nerang River to the end of Cavill Ave, formerly Ferry Road.
Meyer, deterred from his unsuccessful crops, built the Main Beach Hotel, around which a subdivision was formed, called Elston.
In 1917, entrepreneurial Brisbane real estate agent Arthur Blackwood sold sections of Elston as the ‘Surfers Paradise Estate’. Though sales fell through because of little access, Elston began drawing more tourists when, in 1925, the Jubilee Bridge connected it to Southport – Elston was now hot property.
And when Brisbane hotelier and Gold Coast pioneer Jim Cavill built his Surfers Paradise Hotel in the same year, leveraging off Blackwood’s initial vision, he sparked the beginning of a decades-long development boom and a brand new paradise.
Following persistent lobbying from Cavill, Elston was finally named Surfers Paradise in 1933, which spurred the region’s rename from the South Coast to the Gold Coast 25 years later.
Here we enter Surfers Paradise’s 1950s and 60s ‘Golden Era’, when classic accommodation and palm fronded party venues began dotting the coastline with a pace and abundance that drew thousands more ‘bronzed Aussies’.
AUSTRALIA’S SANDY PARADISE
The alchemy of saltwater, warm weather and an overtly sexy beach culture quickly turned Surfers Paradise into Australia’s prominent coastal getaway. While the 1950s and 60s saw beach culture flourish nationwide, Surfers Paradise, with the help of some forward-thinking characters, exemplified premium beachside tourism, fashion and nightlife.
Bernie Elsey, an eccentric salesman turned property developer responsible for the Surfers Paradise Beachcomber and Tiki Village, had a profound effect on local tourism and nightlife. During his time as the Surfer Paradise Chamber of Commerce chairman, his ‘sex sells’ approach to marketing even led to more relaxed liquor laws in the precinct.
Elsey was also known for his grown-up pyjama parties and Hawaiian nights, which often lasted three days in the Surfers Paradise Beachcomber and were regularly raided by police. Ironically, while Elsey was responsible for liquor leniency in Surfers Paradise, his parties led to a temporary ban on the sale of alcohol wherever dancing took place.
The Meter Maids are perhaps Elsey’s boldest legacy. First strutting their shiny gold bikinis up Cavill Ave in 1965, Elsey introduced the Meter Maids to keep beachgoers in the precinct by paying their parking meters. As today, the Meter Maids symbolised Surfers Paradise’s role as an innovative coastal playground.
One can’t discuss beachwear, however, without backtracking to the zenith of renowned fashion designer Paula Stafford. Arriving to the Gold Coast from Victoria in the late 1940s, Stafford – inspired by French bikini pioneer Louis Réard – introduced her bikini design to a slightly more audacious market.
Creating her own swimsuits from the age of 10, Stafford’s ‘less is more’ designs were quickly noticed by Surfers Paradise beachgoers, who began requesting custom made bikinis. From 1949, her bikini and fashion making business exploded with a shop front on Cavill Avenue.
Stafford had an eye for detail, and business. Her first publicity stunt took place in 1952 when Sydney model Ann Ferguson was ask to leave Surfers Paradise Beach because her Paula Stafford bikini was too revealing. Stafford responded the next day by sending five bikini-clad girls to the beach – touché!
For her contribution to the Gold Coast’s fashion scene, and indeed its beach-centric identity, Stafford has been awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia, inducted into the Queensland Business Leaders Hall of Fame and awarded a Gold Coast City Council ‘Legend Award’.
WHERE THEY STAYED & PLAYED
Between the 1950s and 70s, the country’s capacity to pursue leisure was growing, especially for women. Society’s newfound liberty not only moulded Surfers Paradise’s structural landscape, but also shaped its menu for entertainment.
The Chevron Hotel, which is now the Chevron Renaissance, was one of the first symbols of progress. Developed by Polish entrepreneur Stanley Korman in 1957, the Chevron Hotel became a global standard for accommodation, including a bar, restaurant, bowling alley, functions rooms and cabaret shows by the end of the 1960s.
On a smaller scale, the El Dorado, a 12-room American-style motel with a tropical pool and sunbathing area dappled with Hibiscus flowers, embodied international design trends with a quintessential Queensland holiday charm.
Today, visiting the heritage-listed Kinkabool apartment block on Hanlan Street is to behold a fragment of local history. Also developed by Korman in 1959-1960, this ten-story home-unit building was the first high-rise on the Gold Coast – then considered a giant – and provides a glimpse of accommodation styles of that era.
As well as the array of pubs, bars and dance club, Surfers Paradise was also host to some prominent pageants and fashion events, including boutique owner Peg Kirkwood’s annual ‘Spring in Paradise’ fashion parades and Miss Gold Coast held at the Chevron Hotel.
During the city’s social evolution, Elsey even managed to book a gig for popular Brisbane family band The Gibb Brothers, now known as The Bee Gees, for whom he cancelled a show by The Beatles.
From Margot Kelly’s fine dining Hibiscus Room Restaurant, to Elsey’s pyjama parties, to the locals’ beach bonfires, Surfers Paradise thrived with a plethora of dining and dancing options. And given the festivity still pulsing through its streets, it’s clear the party never ended.
So, next time you’re rocking a bikini or clinking schooners in Surfers Paradise, enjoy the feeling of being part of history, of being part of a summer dream.