November 4, 2007
Once Just a Stopover, an Australian City Grows Up
Returning recently to the city where I grew up and left 15 years ago for fast-paced Sydney, I found Brisbane to be almost unrecognizable. No longer a large country town, the capital of Queensland is now Australia's fastest growing city, and a plethora of new cafes, bars and shops, not to mention a beautiful new modern art gallery, add up to the kind of place that you could easily spend several days exploring.
Once known as BrisVegas (thanks to a casino and glitzy night life in the 1980s), the city is bisected by the Brisbane River, which winds its way to Moreton Bay, past former wool stores that have morphed into luxury apartments, and historic Queenslander houses built on stilts to catch the breeze. A former power plant sitting on the water's edge is now a performance center. Catamaran ferries ply the river, taking locals to work and to weekend farmer's markets.
The city's newest attractions are the Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA) and the just-renovated Queensland Art Gallery, which sit next to each other on the last bend of the river on Stanley Place in South Bank Parklands. GoMA is Australia's largest modern-art gallery, with works by Australian and international artists including the Indian-born British sculptor Anish Kapoor and the German artist Katharina Grosse. Enormous windows frame spectacular city views, and the gallery, which adjoins a brand-new State Library, has its own cinema complex and children's art center. The Queensland Gallery's new additions include a sweeping glass entry and the Historical Asian Gallery.
The museums (www.qag.qld.gov.au) can be reached by strolling down the River Walk, a floating walkway that links the New Farm area to the central business district and runs past South Bank Parklands, an expansive beach and swimming lagoon right on the river overlooking the city.
The museum scene in Brisbane doesn't ignore history. For perspective on Brisbane's role as Pacific headquarters for the allied forces in World War II, visit the MacArthur Museum Brisbane, at 201 Edward Street, dedicated to General Douglas MacArthur, who made Brisbane his base for two years. In those years, millions of Americans passed through the quiet Australian backwater that many thought would change after the war. Instead, central Brisbane almost closed down as a dwindling population moved to the suburbs.
Now, areas like Fortitude Valley, a formerly gritty area known as “sin city,” have transformed themselves. The Emporium Hotel just opened on the site of a former bus depot with its own upscale shops and restaurants. Guests can take a dip in the 50-foot saltwater rooftop pool with views of the city and Story Bridge, and recline on loungers, separated by billowing bronze-colored silk drapes. Don't be surprised to see brilliantly hued rainbow lorikeets in frangipani trees outside the hotel, or hear a kookaburra laughing its head off.
Just a few blocks away is trendy James Street, a former industrial zone, now home to designer stores like Sass & Bide, at 46 James Street, where you'll find jeans and pretty dresses by the internationally renowned designers Sarah-Jane Clarke and Heidi Middleton, who grew up in Brisbane. The nearby, T. C. Beirne building on the Brunswick Street Mall features Queensland designers including Gail Sorronda, whose monochromatic dresses are favored by Gwyneth Paltrow.
At Salvage, 12 Byres Street, Newstead (www.salvage.com.au), you can shop for everything from chandeliers to gorgeous French glass jewelry boxes and pearl necklaces.
Back at the Emporium complex, check out Depot, an open-air cafe that caters to a fashionable crowd. An extensive, mostly Australian wine list offers wine by the glass at the mosaic-tiled bar. At Cru Wine Bar & Cellar, guests sit near the street in a chic open-air restaurant. An antique crystal chandelier hangs over a solid onyx bar that serves up Pacific oysters.
The outdoors is also close at hand at Watt Modern Dining in the arts-theater complex known as the Brisbane Powerhouse, which once generated electricity for the city's now defunct tram system. Order the chili, salt and pepper squid or fresh whiting and big, fat chips (fries) and dine overlooking the river, its golden cliffs and mansions.
“It used to be unheard of in Brisbane for anything to be open past 10:30 p.m., but not anymore,” said Paolo Biscaro, an owner of Beccofino at 10 Vernon Terrace, in the Teneriffe district. “The city has grown up,” said Mr. Biscaro, who moved to the city from Melbourne three years ago. On a recent Friday night, his restaurant was packed with young couples, champagne glasses in hand, waiting to be seated. Diners sat on orange chairs and devoured thin crust pizzas with generous servings of thinly sliced prosciutto, mozzarella and oregano.
Another dining concept — communal dining — is making an appearance in Brisbane, at places like Cirque Cafe, which offers intriguing interpretations of ethnic fare, like Moroccan lamb burgers with mint yogurt or pearl barley salad with roasted pumpkin and feta, dill, spinach and pepitas. Communal dining wasn't immediately embraced by locals, according to Vaughan Kelly, co-owner of Cirque Cafe in New Farm, and another Melbournite who came north. “Some would see it and turn on their heels. Now there is a line to get in.”
At night, Fortitude Valley heats up. While bands in Sydney and Melbourne complain of fewer venues, Brisbane roars ahead. At Bowery Bar on Ann Street, for instance, staff in preppy white linen shirts and thin black ties serve cocktails to an over-25 crowd listening to live jazz.
Live bands also play at the Breakfast Creek Hotel, famous for its steaks. Years ago, this was where I shared farewell drinks with friends, before my departure to Sydney. It was seedier then, with the smell of stale beer wafting up from the floor. Now, after a $4 million makeover, a completely new bar called Substation No. 41 has opened, attracting a stylish crowd, the kind of new Brisbane denizens who look as if they are here to stay.
Flights from New York to Brisbane often require two stops. From Los Angeles, nonstop flights are available on Qantas Airlines (www.qantas.com) five days a week; daily service will begin on March 30, 2008. Round-trip fares for travel in November start at $1,325.
Public transport is excellent. CityCat ferries (www.brisbane.qld.gov.au) run from the University of Queensland in the southwest to Brett's Wharf in the northeast from 5:50 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. Daily tickets, which cover unlimited ferries, trains and buses, start at 4.60 Australian dollars, or about $4 at 1.14 Australian dollars to the U.S. dollar.
WHERE TO STAY
The Emporium Hotel (61-73-253-6999; 1000 Ann Street, Fortitude Valley, www.emporiumhotel.com.au) has doubles from 295 Australian dollars.
The recently opened Saville South Bank hotel (61-73-305-2500, 161 Grey Street, South Bank; www.savillehotelgroup.com) is a short walk to the Queensland Performing Arts Complex, the State Art Gallery and museums. Studio apartments with kitchenettes from 398 Australian dollars.
WINING AND DINING
Open-air venues include Depot, (61-73-666-0188; 31/1000 Ann Street; www.thedepot.com.au), which offers a variety of Australian wines, from 7.50 Australian dollars a glass. At Cru Wine Bar & Cellar (61-73-252-2400, 22 James Street, Fortitude Valley; www.crubar.com), dinner for two is 80 dollars.
At Belle Epoque (61-73-852-1500; 1000 Ann Street, Fortitude Valley; www.labelleepoque.com.au) the atmosphere is eerily like New York's Balthazar — even down to the floor tiles, banquets and mirrors. Sample a delicious “flat white,” Australia's version of a latte, for 3 Australian dollars.
The Lark, a new cocktail bar in a colonial-style Queensland cottage in Paddington, has cocktails like the Songbird, a delicious mix of citron vodka, honey, grapes and prosecco for 12 dollars (61-73-369-1299, 1/267 Given Terrace, www.thelark.com.au).
At Cirque Cafe in New Farm (61-73-254-0479; 618 Brunswick Street), lunch for two is 40 Australian dollars. At Beccofino (61-73-666-0207, 10 Vernon Terrace, Teneriffe), dinner for two is 80 Australian dollars.