September 17, 2005

Brisbane comes of age

Brisbane, the adolescent city, is no more. In its place is a dynamic, sophisticated city, now actively competing with its southern sisters Melbourne and Sydney to pull in tourists. Jacqui Lang explores.

Just a 90-minute flight from Sydney, it’s then less than half an hour to drive to the heart of Brisbane.

My home for three nights was the luxury Marriot Hotel, perched on the Brisbane River (one of the world’s oldest waterways, 1000 times older than the Nile.) The hotel’s prime location meant I could start each day with a stroll along the picturesque walkway to the Botanical Gardens.

My room (which would have cost substantially more at an equivalent hotel in Sydney) had a great view of the iconic Story Bridge, built in 1940. Come October 1, the bridge will be clambered on by thrillseekers participating in the brand new Story Bridge Adventure Climb

Along with some other travel writers, I got to climb the bridge ahead of the official opening date.

“Nothing to be afraid of,” beamed our guide as we tentatively began our elevation.

He was right, of course, and our efforts were swiftly rewarded with terrific views of Brisbane.

Later, we tucked into barramundi and mash at the nearby Story Bridge Hotel. There the head of SBAC, Kevin Graetz, told us of his four-year quest to establish the venture.

That afternoon, it was time for more exercise; at nearby Riverlife Adventure Centre (Kangaroo Point). It offers a choice of outdoor activities, from rock climbing to boating, to rollerblading.

I decided to kayak for an hour – and soon found myself back under the Story Bridge.

Enough of all that exercise. Most of the rest of my visit was devoted to eating, shopping, and being pampered.

One morning, I got to chopper to nearby Stradbroke Island, an unspoiled oasis just 15 minutes fight from the airport. On the way it was a treat to examine Brisbane from yet another angle; this time marvelling at the amount of new high-rise constructions flanking the river. Here were met by a guide from Kingfisher Tours who whisked us through dunes in his 4WD, chatting about his island’s abundant wildlife. On the way back, we swooped into Sirromet Winery to sample a Queensland drop or two. Surprisingly easy on the pre-lunch palette!

Then it was time to dine at Brett’s Wharf Restaurant. Flanked by friendly pelicans just metres away from diners, Brett’s (449 Kingsfordsmith Drive, Hamilton) has stunning views over the Brisbane River but the food was so good, I would have eaten there even if it had been in a used car yard.

Another top restaurant is Gianni Vintage Cellar Bar Restaurant (12 Edward St), in the heart of Brisbane. A little more formal, it also offers terrific food; a mix of contemporary dining and fine cuisine. After a tasty risotto there, I headed to Emporium, renowned for its amazing desserts. I had planned to just look, but soon found myself pythoning down an incredible white macadamia fudge and ice cream concoction. Yum!

For a much more groovy dining environment, head to Watt Modern Dining, (Riverside, Brisbane Powerhouse, 119 Lamington St, New Farm) a hit with Brisbane’s “in” crowd as well as conservative, older folk. Fetching owner, Matt Kesby can take the credit for that, having transformed an ugly old warehouse into a funky eatery. The contemporary bar he personally designed would look right at home in New York’s trendiest clubland (specializing in cocktails whipped up by an award-winning bartender).

Next day, nursing a mild hangover, (“thanks Matt,”) I enjoyed browsing through popular new luxury shopping centre, Queens Plaza. I even caught a glimpse of supermodel Megan Gale wafting out of DJS where she’d been parading as I armed myself with a new kaftan and summer top (telling myself it was my contribution to the Brisbane economy!) Retail staff everywhere are more friendly and chatty than their Sydney counterparts – one woman started telling me about her love life within seconds of my enquiry about a frock.

Next door, at makeup store Mecca Cosmetica, an affable chap called Bruce showed me how to properly make up my face – a handy skill to have finally mastered!

Back at my hotel, I had a soothing facial at its day spa, The Dome Retreat, on the fourth floor. At the hotel gym on the same floor; I got chatting to John, the personal trainer, who kindly showed me how to box for half an hour.

My three days were up. I headed for Virgin Domestic, marvelling at what an alluring city Brisbane has become.

No longer “Hicksville,” it has everything its bigger sisters have to offer, along with a natural warmth (climate as well as people) which only adds to its allure.

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