Brisbane is booming, outpacing its southern counterparts as our most exciting capital. Do go visit!
I. Am. Overwhelmed. Brisbane as a leisure destination 2019-2020 and beyond is enchanting, breathtaking, simply outstanding. The Queensland capital’s buzzing with alluring new “urban resort” hotels, magnetic new city precincts and public spaces, terrific new topline restaurants and cocktail culture, relaxing new riverside boardwalks, enthralling new art and architecture and a captivating outdoorsy ultra-alive vibe of countless head-spinning, can’t-get-enough-of sights and experiences.
In just a few days I’ve: lain in a king bed beneath the northern pylon of majestic Story Bridge, its lacy span and all-night multicolour lights sparkling high above my hotel picture windows, sleeping in fairyland. Ridden a 21-storey lift, all six of its surfaces screening vibrant, pulsing immersive VR videos, a hammerhead shark seemingly snapping at my toes and the simultaneous sensation of traversing San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. Frolicked in indulgent open-air sun-drenched infinity edge pools. Dined at eclectic locations among tall trees, at waterside venues near-tumbling into ever-humming Brisbane River, at rooftop bars with striking skyline views. From menus featuring the State’s superb seafood and farm produce; fresh, uncomplicated, presented to perfection. I’ve been dazzled by enticing arrays of cocktails of infinite concoction, shapes and colours, garnished with micro herbs, flowers and fruits, lavish foams, tangy dried citrus discs. Been enthralled by the remarkable juxtaposition of majestic, respectfully-preserved historical buildings set against a manifest affection for ultra-modern design, admirable high-rise restraint, and endearingly quirky abundant street art and performers. A city that maximises assets of its river location and agreeable climate, a “walking” city via uncrowded avenues, malls, intriguing laneways, intimate hole-in-the-wall cafes, wide riverside boardwalks and eight long, lean pedestrian-friendly bridges: on one, a coffee spot suspended over the water. It’s for getting around fast, too, if you will, via free jump on-jump off CityHoppers, charming little red ferries buzzing between the dozen distinct waterside precincts naturally created courtesy of the serpentine river’s numerous banks as it snakes its way through the CBD heart. And by free Loop bus, rental cycle, or irresistible fluoro-bright electric scooters docked strategically about; rent by tapping on with your credit card, stop where fancy takes you.
PAST, PRESENT, FUTURE Holidays in Queensland have been largely synonymous with two extremes: Gold Coast beaches and theme parks, and the tropical north’s Great Barrier Reef marine activities, winding southwards to the Whitsundays. Forget traditional destinations; now a supernova’s exploded onto the scene: the State’s capital, the “River City”, has built to a magnificent 21st-century climax, slated to climb even further in the next few years with at least ten major central development projects happening. Since 2017 no fewer than 15 new hotels have opened in Brisbane. In the past five years, the total’s 32. A remarkable five more will be added within three years or so once the city’s $3.6b Queen’s Wharf resort, now in full-on development, opens in 2022. Brisbane Airport (a mere 15 minutes or so via express tunnel; also serviced by Airtrain) has just been awarded 2019’s Best in Australasia-Pacific. Alliance’s daily flights, the nation’s friendliest I think, from our smart new airport land us in the Queensland capital after just 45 minutes in the air (with scenic views of sand and surf coastline), perfect for weekend jaunts and longer. The four-lane Pacific Highway’s due for completion next year, shaving 2.5 hours off the trip (overall, from Hexham) to the northern border, ideal for “Are we there yet?” families, many new overnight diversions on the reinvigorated route. Brisbane’s chutzpah sees it set to cater increasingly as a port for mega cruise liners when its new International Cruise Terminal opens next year, already some 200 vessels confirmed for season 2020-21. Mooted, among much: a major revamp of sports icon The Gabba and hosting the 2032 Olympic Games. Meanwhile, Brisbane is very much NOW with a Manhattan-like vibe that’s throbbing, thriving, thrilling at every turn.
FREE THINGS Opportunities abound. Brisbane Greeters, red-shirted volunteers, offer free guided walking tours; they, and commercial counterparts, exhibit a friendly welcome and a love of their hometown with knowledgeable, fascinating commentaries: tiny laneways pop up, surprising wanderers with an intimate arty cafe in a secret cavern; inspiring installations by the Blue Art Ninja, an anonymous street-art phantom creating electric-blue sculptures – say, dog with top hat and briefcase, tail flying as it dashes to work, or gladiator mouse with sword and shield – placing them randomly high and low on bare city walls under cover of night. Kids will love spotting fairy doors in unexpected spots. Glittering fairy lights are a Brisbane thing, coming alive in the evenings, lacing tree trunks and festooning outdoor structures, a vivid always-on party atmosphere. Street art and performers, too: find yourself sharing kerbside street furniture with a lounging metallic kangaroo or waiting at a pedestrian crossing beside a 2m-tall canine on hind legs, cast in shimmering silver metal. A la the Louvre, massive modern silver balls sculpted from aluminium kitchen implements contrast in the adjacent square with the sandstone columns, intricate carved tympanum and 88m clock tower (based on St Mark’s bell tower in Venice’s San Marco Piazza) of iconic century-old Brisbane City Hall. Its imposing Italian Renaissance presence stretches along three street frontages amid a cluster of similar colonnaded buildings leading to Parliament House, Old Government House and the cool green respite of the Botanical Gardens. Brisbane offers free entry opportunities at many of its astonishing array of museums and galleries: every exhibit lovingly, carefully curated and displayed, as if a personal treasure. Something for everyone: colonial and Aboriginal history; arresting modern art appealing to multiple tastes and fascinations; conventional exhibitions; inventive installations; an intriguing Women in Brisbane Art collection runs to March 2020; be mesmerised by High Rotation (to April 2020), an upbeat display of Brisbane’s pop/rock musicians with guitars, costumes, film/audio clips, souvenirs and ephemera of Sheppard, the Bee Gees, Keith Urban, Kate Miller-Heidke, Dami Im, Powderfinger, Savage Garden, The Veronicas, The Grates and more. Visitors can “re-master” tracks via a special digital facility, taking hands-on control of drums and instrument inputs, altering pitch and tempo of tracks to create their own original compositions. At the city uni, QUT, kids adore The Cube, two storeys high and one of the world’s biggest interactive digital displays, with underwater coral reefs and fish, lifelike dinosaurs and more. Thanks to a City incentive the verticals-horizontals of many buildings and plazas never languish as mere banks of windows, awning hoardings or bland roofs but notably feature exterior veils or canopies of decorative architectural screens (say, in the shape of 80m-wide hosts of butterflies, or lightning-like geometric zigzags atop a skyscraper) – imaginative eye-catchers. Year-round there’s a calendar of free-entry festivals and events galore and street markets, or budget-value foodie events such as the Bug & Oyster Trail, a progressive alfresco feast.
THE HIGH LIFE Brisbane’s central building boom sees multiple lofty cranes at Queen’s Wharf thrusting against the sky, interlacing strikingly with each other, yet these and the CBD’s taller edifices contrast nicely with and highlight, in what’s a relatively low-rise city, so many well-preserved iron-lace balconied and other modest-height heritage establishments. The comparative lack of a monstrous high-rise “forest” offers grand, expansive views from so many rooftop bars and infinity-edge swimming pools edging the river, reminiscent of Singapore’s Marina Bay Sands yet nevertheless now entrenched as a motif belonging to Brisbane. Among them: a massive terrace atop South Bank’s 5-star Emporium Hotel, a mere translucent screen preventing a plunge into the gardens and river way below. Must not miss: truly sensational dishes and drinks at lofty Eleven Rooftop Bar, Fortitude Valley, on the CBD’s extended Ann Street arm.
THE PRECINCTS Among the many, the newest, Howard Smith Wharves, stretching forever across 3.5ha under Story Bridge north pylon, is a fabulous string of drink-dine venues: Felon’s Brewing (onsite micro-brewery and gastro-pub: beers, ciders, 1kg ribeye, beer/wood-fired pizza); Mr Percival’s overwater perch and amazing octagonal tower bar, topped by a DJ; Arc Dining (Qld’s No 1 restaurant, all Australia’s No 2) and Greek, Italian, Japanese (about to open), juicy Betty’s Burgers and more – definitely Brisbane’s “It” destination. Next-door Fortitude Valley, its former seedy reputation (e.g., the Kinky Klosett) now gentrifying with tremendous new venues, a grand, refurbished 19th-century shopping arcade and, ditto, art deco Fortitude Music Hall live music venue. Casual eateries draw diners to long-time financial-district favourite Eagle Street Pier, best of all Matt Moran’s relaxing Riverbar & KItchen, with its gay yellow-stripe brollies, offering knockout fish and chips, crab, steaks, pizza, burgers and drinks. Leafy James Street in The Valley is the city’s chicest shopping/lifestyle centre, a Cape Cod-Hamptons appeal of design-forward homewares showrooms, indie fashion and shoe boutiques, galleries, restaurants and cafes.
FOOD, GLORIOUS FOOD Thanks to the State’s abundant seafood harvest, fine farm produce and top-notch chefs, Brisbane cuisine’s signature is uncomplicated dishes showcasing quality ingredients prepared to perfection. I dined at the State’s No 2-rated Hellenika at The Calile, a cuisine and service delight. Order 600g/1.2kg baked Junee lamb, lobster, Greek banquet selections. Joy, No 3 of the State’s “best”, is a new chef’s table for just 10 guests nightly, tucked in bijou Bakery Lane in The Valley. Nearby Baja, also new, is a cosy whitewashed stucco Mexican restaurant and tequila extravaganza. Parisian-style Stanton Restaurant & Bar, among the trees extending over Queen Street Plaza, offers an enormous daytime menu of perfectly-executed top-notch classics. A special experience for wine lovers and fine cuisine aficionados is new City Winery; it’s converted The Valley warehouse home to an artisan micro-brewery, barrel room and cellar door, a gourmet heaven where macho tomahawk steaks prepared on an ironbark-fed brick firepit vie for thrills with the delicacy of owners Dave and Chrissie Cush’s delicious
tenderly hand-blended wines.
BOUTIQUE HOTELS Brisbane’s newest five-star low-rises: The Fantauzzo, opened February, and The Calile, one-year-old, idiosyncratic impressive luxury among a catalogue of many new beauties: forget traditional stuffy corporate hotel design. But … space dictates they wait till next month. If travelling to Brisbane: book them!