The sequined sea sparkles in the distance, drawing the eye along the horizon to the north, where Mount Coolum punctuates the landscape with its curvaceous silhouette.

The eye tracks in towards the glistening Maroochy River, gently lapping the sand where barefoot children dig holes and build sandcastles. Behind the riverbank, the playground is animated with laughter and squeals, as children swing, climb and spin. The flat footpath that winds along the riverfront is perfect for anything on wheels and is bustling with people skating, scootering, strolling, riding, walking dogs, chatting and taking in the idyllic scene of Cotton Tree on a Sunday afternoon.

Wandering south along the riverfront brings you to the popular Boat Shed Restaurant, a stylish yet relaxed venue that attracts locals and visitors alike. Its views of the river and ocean are superb and people relax at outdoor tables situated beside the water, enjoying a glass of wine and the idyllic views. Others set up their own picnics on the nearby hill, eating fish and chips on the grass. Children climb the most climbable tree ever while kite surfers and SUP riders take advantage of the calm water.

Every day is delightful in the charming little pocket of Cotton Tree, but weekend afternoons contain an extra element of magic. Sunday mornings bring visitors to the area for the markets, held in King Street from 7am to 12pm. King Street is closed to traffic and stallholders take over the street, with live music adding to the festive ambience.

It always feels like you’re on holidays in Cotton Tree. This peaceful enclave has been attracting holidaymakers since the 1800s, when residents of Nambour, Buderim and the Blackall Range would visit to swim in the ‘Cotton Tree Lagoon’ and camp on the riverbank where the Cotton Tree Holiday Park now stands. In 2009 it was heritage listed for its status as the oldest campground in Queensland.

Few caravan parks offer a river on one side, a surf beach on the other side and a major commercial centre within walking distance. When you stay there, you feel suitably separated from civilisation, with kids ruling the roads on their bikes and skateboards and expansive waterfront views. You have to be quick to book a site here, as it’s popular with families who return year after year to holiday in the same spot.

Cotton Tree takes its name from the cottonwood or coastal cotton tree (Hibiscus tiliaceus) and you can see plenty of these around the caravan park and along the foreshore. While there’s no official boundary separating Cotton Tree from the surrounding areas, it’s generally accepted as being bounded by the Maroochy River and Cornmeal Creek to the north and by Aerodrome Road to the south and west.

The Maroochy River was a popular route for travel as there was limited road access in the region and until the 1910s, Cotton Tree was accessible only by water. The ferry system and series of jetties along the river provided a means of transport for daily commuters, holidaymakers and cargo. The first European holidaymaker to arrive was convict John Graham in 1827 who escaped from Moreton Bay and spent six years living with local Indigenous tribes belonging to the Gubbi Gubbi language group, the original inhabitants of the area.

Now, Cotton Tree is a much-loved destination for local, interstate and international holidaymakers alike. It offers a unique combination of natural and cultural assets, all within walking distance, that make it virtually unbeatable, particularly for family holidays.

The river offers calm swimming for kids – although you do need to watch the current – while the surf beach has great waves and a small wave for beginner surfers at the sandbags near the river mouth. But your swimming options aren’t limited to just the river and beach. The Cotton Tree Aquatic Centre is one of the Coast’s best, with a selection of indoor and outdoor heated pools, a kids’ splash park and outdoor exercise equipment.

Opposite the aquatic centre is a free outdoor sports area with two basketball courts, netball courts and ping pong tables. This is a fantastic facility for people holidaying in the area and also attracts locals for a friendly game of basketball in the sunshine while they play music on portable stereos and passers-by watch on.

Continue wandering past the basketball courts and you’ll arrive at King Street, the main shopping precinct of Cotton Tree. This quaint village centre has everything you need in a small radius – a supermarket, newsagent, post office, butcher, two fish and chips shops, a chemist, a bottle shop, an ice-creamery, cigar shop, shoe store, beauty clinics, a yoga studio, florist, hair salons, medical centre, dentist, natural health centre, library, bowls club and plenty of cafes and fashion boutiques.

It wouldn’t be a seaside village without a swimwear boutique, and Sundaze is a Cotton Tree icon. A family-owned business that has been operating on the Sunshine Coast for more than 30 years, it’s the place to go to find the perfect swimsuit and be fitted by an expert.

A few stores up from Sundaze, Leann Lamb’s store Lamb & Lamb is a Cotton Tree institution, with regular clients travelling from as far afield as Toowoomba and Cunnamulla to shop here. Leann is one of a handful of Australian designers who create and produce all of their garments locally. The designs are screen printed on the Sunshine Coast and every piece can be made to order in just about any size and with changes to sleeves and necklines.
“People want Australian-made things,” Leann says.

“I make my own clothing and not many people offer that. They say it’s designed in Australia and in very small print on the label it says ‘made in China’ – it drives me crazy! I do my own prints, make my own fabrics and cater for extra small to 8XL. I will make a garment to suit a client – not many places will actually do that.”

With stores in Noosa and Melbourne, Leann started out at Eumundi and has had her Cotton Tree store for seven years. While she lives at Twin Waters, she has formed relationships with many long-time Cotton Tree locals.

“I’ve made so many beautiful friends, especially the old people. They tell me stories of what Cotton Tree used to be like. My store used to be an old garage where they used to hoist all the cars. There was also a Rollerdrome at Cotton Tree.

“I think people like Cotton Tree because it offers something for a broader demographic,” she says. “Cotton Tree offers a lot for families and at the same time, it has bespoke restaurants. The markets on a Sunday offer something unique; just to have the street cut off on a Sunday morning. It offers a bit of quirkiness – the music and the stalls.

“My favourite restaurant is The Boat Shed. You can have a beautiful cocktail there at sunset, watch the boats, the food is nice and the kids can play around. You’ve got the caravan park as well as expensive apartments. Cotton Tree just ticks a lot of boxes for
a lot of people.”

Leann also enjoys a visit to the award-winning tea and coffee emporium The Silva Spoon and says her clientele often has tea there first, before strolling around the corner to visit her store. Situated on Cotton Tree Parade, The Silva Spoon has been voted best tea house in Queensland four times and is a treasure trove of exotic teas and tea accoutrement, with a cafe serving bespoke cakes. The day salt visited, some of the teas on offer included spiced African orange latte, golden milk latte, French mint hot chocolate, salted caramel latte, pumpkin latte and ginger
spice latte.

A few doors down, also on Cotton Tree Parade, is popular locals’ hangout Cafe Envy. Blink and you’ll miss it, as it’s hidden away behind a thick hedge. But walk up the stairs and you’ll find yourself in a homely space with old couches, murals and artworks on the walls and birdcages hanging from the ceiling.

Owned by Nicole Hoffman for 17 years, it recently changed hands. New owner Marie Klasen is originally from the Hunter Valley and fell in love with the cafe – and Cotton Tree – while visiting for her sister-in-law’s birthday. “I’d never owned a cafe before and never heard of Cotton Tree before, but I’d always wanted to live on the Sunshine Coast.

“I was really scared when I bought it because I thought, nobody will know it’s here. But it’s so busy! I love the quaintness and the vibe. The locals love it the way it is and I want them to be happy. For an outsider, I can’t believe how friendly Cotton Tree is. I think it’s really special how everyone says hello to you and wants to know about you. They’re really genuine people.

“What helped Nicole survive through COVID was that the locals were still coming in, even though travel was off. If I can just keep Nicole’s legacy going, that would be great.”

A few doors down from Cafe Envy is Sweet Charlotte Studio, another Cotton Tree boutique that offers beautiful garments designed and made on the Sunshine Coast, and another local stalwart – OV Boutique – which has been operating for 17 years. Owner Shelly Kellow has an eye for beautiful labels and specialises in top-to-toe styling. A second OV Boutique opened last December, offering pre-loved fashion labels and samples from suppliers. For women who love to pick up a high-end label for half the price, this store is a must.

Offering pre-loved clothing of another kind, Fabulous Darling is one of the Sunshine Coast’s best-kept secrets. Hidden away down an alleyway in King Street, it’s jam-packed with quality, one-off vintage pieces, from Great Gatsby-style flapper dresses to big-shouldered silver taffeta ’80s numbers. It’s not an op shop so don’t expect bargain basement prices, but if you have an appreciation for true retro collectables, you’ll lose yourself for hours in here. In the same cluster of shops as Fabulous Darling, Wynd Espresso is a newcomer on the Cotton Tree coffee scene. Eudlo couple Elliot Gwynne and Daniela May opened in the October before COVID hit and did it hard for a while, but were supported by locals.

“We saw a strong sense of community carry us through that time,” says Elliot, who learnt the coffee roasting trade with Sunshine Coast coffee king Tim Adams.

“We would always come here and there’s something about the river mouth and this area – we saw there was a bit of an opportunity for specialty coffee here. We wanted to roast our own coffee and be the local coffee roaster for the area. I roast the coffee and Daniela bakes all our cakes and makes our ceramic cups by hand.

“The response has been really positive and it’s exactly the kind of community quality that drove us here in the first place. In an area where development is taking place, we saw Cotton Tree as something still centred around community.”