Bouncing across the waves, I let out a little squeal - which I'd been trying to avoid so I didn't embarrass myself in front of some kids who seem much braver. But it's hard not to scream with exhilaration as you race along at 80km/h in a rubber speedboat that's intentionally going head-first into the swell. That's the point of a thrill ride on the Ocean Rider, here in Noosa on Queensland's Sunshine Coast.
Bouncing on the cushioned seat, hanging onto the rail in front, the salty spray splashes on my face and I quickly wipe it off just as someone shouts, "Over there, dolphins!" And we all look where he's pointing and, indeed, there is a pod of dolphins gliding gracefully through the water, taking the roll of the waves better than I have been.
I knew there were dolphins out here, but it's still a special surprise to spot them. Just like coming to Noosa and looking for activities beyond the obvious. As the Ocean Rider cruises back into town, we skirt along the coast of the Noosa National Park, a beautiful headland of bush with a network of walking trails that glow at sunrise and sunset, but with a car park where finding a spot during the day can be a challenge. And passing Main Beach, with its golden sand, I can't help but think of Hastings Street just beyond it, famous for its shopping, restaurants, and bars, a drawcard for many visitors to Noosa Heads but, again, so busy on a summer day.
What I'm looking for are the experiences that highlight the best of the northern stretch of the Sunshine Coast - but without the struggle to park the car. And I find it first along the shoreline, with local company EcoTekk, which rents electric bikes and also runs tours with them. I join Stuart Whitney for a ride along the coastal path, letting the bike's motor do the hard work, while Stuart tells me about the region, pointing out environmental landmarks amongst the blend of nature and urban development, his background as a marine biologist feeding into his view of what we're seeing.
"The idea is to educate people on the environment and to give them an opportunity to ride electric bikes, as an alternative to cars, for sustainability - and to show them that every choice we make in life has an impact," Stuart says.
One of the most striking natural icons along this stretch of coast is Mount Coolum, the 208-metre-high peak that was formed about 25 million years ago. A rocky path to the top takes about 45 minutes each way, and I would recommend it for the stunning views of the whole region.
If you were to look to the north-west from the top of the mountain, you might be able to spot Eumundi, an inland village surrounded by lush foliage that feels like a city on Wednesdays and Saturdays when the markets are on (about 1.2 million people visit them every year!). Hundreds of stalls fill the market areas, serving fresh food, selling handmade products, representing local designers. When I try to explore it, I quickly lose my sense of direction but don't mind wandering aimlessly, letting my other senses enjoy the experience, listening to musicians, smelling the cooking, and even patting a few dogs.
The Eumundi Markets are a great way to discover a wide range of local products, yet they're only on twice a week - and still have the parking chaos I've been trying to avoid. Not far away I find something more relaxed: Pomona (population 3000), where the Pomona Distilling Co has become a destination in itself. It opened only a year ago and has a large outdoor dining and drinking area with a fun atmosphere amongst the recycled sleepers and old bricks that define the décor.
Owner Robin Yates is also the master distiller - something he'll tell you goes back 40 years to his days studying industrial chemistry. He experiments with the botanicals, trying local berries from his farm or other native ingredients. And as well as an extensive cocktail menu, there are fresh meals and snacks, with Asian fusion and interesting takes on classic pub food. It's all the flavours and style of Noosa Heads, 30 minutes' drive into the hinterland.
"Having been part of this village here for over 20 years, I've seen the change," Robin tells me. "This place was a fairly rough old town 20 years ago, but it seems to be attracting creative people now."
A little bit further north is Kin Kin (population 764), with a large weatherboard pub with a wide colonial verandah dominating one end of the small historic town founded in 1902. On the main street, you'll find the original general store that's been renovated into an excellent café-style restaurant called Black Ant Gourmet, run by Jodie Williams, a fifth-generation local. As I eat an enormous omelette, made from local ingredients from her garden and nearby producers, she tells me about growing up in the Noosa region.
"I've got to see the developmental side of things, the changes, and Noosa has handled it extremely well. We still have a lot of beautiful open nature-loving areas in very high traffic areas and it hasn't developed at the rate of some other places."
I find no better example of this than my accommodation at Habitat Noosa, an ecocamp in the Noosa Everglades. Down an unsealed road, tall trees on either side create a dramatic tunnel that opens up to a large 25-hectare tourist park with glamping tents, cabins and powered campsites. It can comfortably hold hundreds of guests (the 'tents' are actually very comfortable and feel just like rooms) while having a minimal impact on the environment. The main development here is the central bar and bistro, which not only does delicious meals but has its very own microbrewery, called Eco Brewing Co - something I certainly didn't expect to find here.
The highlight, though, is the long beach and the access it gives to the Everglades, a network of narrow waterways with smooth tannin-stained surfaces that reflect like mirrors the paperbark trees lining the banks. I borrow a kayak from the ecocamp and set off just after sunrise to paddle through the tranquil waters, the peace broken only occasionally when pelicans splash as they jump off a log.
It's not quite the thrill ride of the Ocean Rider. In fact, it couldn't be more different. But kayaking in the wetlands does remind me of the speedboat because it's just as surprising. I thought I knew Noosa but I realise now there's more than just Hastings Street and it's all so close. Habitat Noosa is just 30 minutes' drive away - and there's plenty of parking.
WHAT TO DO
WHERE TO EAT
WHERE TO STAY
- With easy access to the Noosa Everglades, Habitat Noosa is a fantastic ecocamp that even has its own brewery.
- For a bit of heritage, you can stay in the weatherboard Country Life Hotel in Kin Kin.
- If you would like to stay in the centre of the action, Tingirana has some of the nicest accommodation in Noosa Heads.