There can be few cities anywhere in the western world that have undergone such a dramatic transformation over the past three decades as Brisbane.
When I first visited in 1982 – the year of the Commonwealth Games – Brisbane was little more than a big country town with a few basic hotels and a couple of places where the food was better than pub grub. But the capital city of a state where dissent was not tolerated had big ambitions and the Games, then World Expo in 1988 and the final Goodwill Games in 2001, put it firmly on the international map.
Today, humid, sub-tropical Brisbane is a vibrant, bustling city with a range of international hotels, several dining precincts with eateries headed by extremely talented chefs and a thriving arts community.
Star restaurants include Esquire, the Brisbane outpost of Matt Moran’s Aria, Stokehouse, Urbane and Prive 249 at the Brisbane Sofitel. Long-time favourites include e’cco Bistro and Il Centro, while Alchemy and Pony are also extremely popular.
The hotels, too, are glitzy with names like the Sofitel, Hilton, Pullman and Diamant among the best options. The Limes and The Emporium are other funky options.
Today metropolitan Brisbane, with the CBD based around a bend in the Brisbane River, has a population of 2.2 million and has been ranked among the top 20 most liveable cities in the world.
Visit Riverside, the South Bank or the revived Fortitude Valley (not so long ago a poor imitation of the worst of Kings Cross) and there is a remarkable choice of nightlife options – and the city’s residents are known for being sports-mad; hosting the Broncos rugby league team, the Roar in the A-League, the Queensland Reds rugby union team and the Brisbane Lions in the AFL.
The Queensland Performing Arts Centre (QPAC), located at South Bank, consists of the Lyric Theatre, the Concert Hall, Cremorne Theatre and the Playhouse Theatre and is home to the Queensland Ballet, Opera Queensland, Queensland Theatre Company, and the Queensland Symphony Orchestra. The Queensland Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA), opened in December 2006, is also part of the South Bank precinct.
Major tourism attractions include the South Bank Parklands, the City Botanic Gardens, the Story Bridge Climb, Brisbane Forest Park and Portside Wharf, while Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary opened in 1927 and was the world’s first koala sanctuary.
Brisbane, known ironically as BrisVegas, is a business city that knows how to have fun and is surrounded by several regional attractions – all within an hour or two – that make for great weekend breaks. Most readers will be familiar with the Gold Coast glitter strip an hour south and the Sunshine Coast, centred on shiny Noosa, to the north. Montville and Maleny, too, as well as the Gold Coast Hinterland, are increasingly popular getaways.
On my most recent visit, however, I took to roads less travelled by tourists – to the Bayside suburb of Redcliffe.
Taking in the suburbs of Woody Point, Redcliffe, Sandgate, Scarborough and Margate, the Redcliffe Peninsula is a slower-paced area around a 30-minute drive north-east of the city that’s home to authentic pubs, seafood restaurants – and even a tribute to the Bee Gees, who grew up around here.
Make sure to visit Pelican Park, near the Redcliffe Visitor Centre at Clontarf, where pelicans glide in for their daily feed. It’s also the venue for the annual Kitefest – a riot of colour and movement. The Full Moon Hotel in Sandgate, meanwhile, has some pretty amazing views of Bramble Bay from its waterfront deck – and serves excellent and waist-threatening high teas as well as other meals.
In downtown Redcliffe, an archetypal sleepy Australian beach suburb, visit Bee Gees Way, an open-air museum that pays tribute to the band – who got their start at the nearby Palace Hotel. In February this year, the last-surviving member, Barry Gibb, returned to Redcliffe to open the al fresco museum which features lots of fascinating photos and a Bee Gees statue.
For a very Australian lunch, Morgan’s is not just a fresh seafood shop and restaurant, it’s a Scarborough institution. There are two elements to this business, the fish market (Queensland’s largest) and takeaway, and the restaurant itself. Enjoy fresh seafood from trawlers that are berthed just 20 metres away. It’s not nouvelle cuisine, but it is a lot of fun – make sure you get a table on the veranda overlooking the Scarborough Boat Harbour.
For dinner check out the Caribbee restaurant and Mon Komo Lounge Bar at the new Mon Komo Hotel, which really rocks on weekends with a huge turnout of locals enjoying a cold beer and a feed. The restaurant has a Caribbean theme (think dishes like steaks with Cuban, Bahamas or Grand Cayman rubs, or Jamaican-spiced tiger prawns).
The modern, well-equipped apartment-style rooms are extremely comfortable. Ask for one overlooking the sea.