Often overlooked in the past by overseas visitors, there’s lots to discover in the thriving cosmopolitan city of Brisbane, with memorable experiences awaiting those who take time out to explore the New World City by the river, as Keith Lyons finds.
Up until recently, if you planned to visit Australia, top choices were Sydney with its iconic bridge and opera house, and cultural capital Melbourne with its art and lattes. According to conventional tourist wisdom, the continent’s third-largest city – Brisbane – might only warrant a short visit, perhaps on the way to better things, such as the Great Barrier Reef off Cairns further up the east coast. That was the old perception – but that thinking is definitely out-of-date.
Brisbane is more than matching its southern neighbours, with indications it is leading the hospitality and tourism industry Down Under into a new age of hip, edgy and upbeat.
The city of 2.5 million is striving to be a New World City (formerly known as a Smart City), and with its mild climate, parks, events, and festivals, there is a lot to do – and much of it is about priceless experiences more than pricey activities. Among the surprises are a winery in the CBD, a beach in the middle of the city (Streets Beach), as well as selected free bus and ferry services for tourists.
The rise of Brisbane and its vibrant spirit is best illustrated at the Howard Smith Wharves, the city’s newest entertainment and lifestyle destination, situated underneath an iconic bridge, the city’s equivalent of the Sydney Harbour Bridge (you can also legally do a climbing trip on it).
One sunny winters afternoon, as we marvel at the steel cantilever Story Bridge spanning the Brisbane River, Dean Romeo tells me how Felons Brewing Company has brought beer back to the river to honour the city’s founding legacy. ‘For us, it is all about adventure and discovery, something we bring to how we brew beer.’
It all adds up to a very Australian experience. Dean says the brewery represents some of the best things about being in Brisbane, which encompasses sunshine, food, friends, and relaxing with a drink, celebrating the place, its origins and the present moment. It is not just beer buffs who call in to sample the range of beers (and cider), as visitors from overseas are among those trying the crisp lagers, lively hoppy ales, pale ales and IPAs. There are even limited release and seasonal brews, with a tour of the large micro-brewery (2pm, book in advance, $20) including generous tastings.
The 1930s heritage-listed wharves, connected by walkways and cycleways along the broad Brisbane river, also host a dining establishment showcasing cuisine from one of the main European ethnic groups to migrate to Australia after the Second World War. Taking advantage of the river location, there’s an introduction to the food of Greece with a modern Australian twist at Greca.
Inside Greca, the white-rendered interior gives the nostalgic feel of a Greek taverna. The menu is designed for sharing, and the knowledgable staff can give recommendations if the menu is all Greek to you. Greca offers Greek staples such as spanakopita and dolmades, with a leaning towards grilled produce from farms and the ocean, as well as some unique dishes, taken from the family of chef Jonathan Barthelmess, which include caramelised cheese saganaki, served hot with honey and oregano, and the filo-custard dessert katoumari, which if you can’t fit in, you should definitely take away.
At arguably Brisbane’s hippest new hotel, Ovolo The Valley, there are lots of takeaways. You can clear out the minibar without anyone minding (plus free drinks by the rooftop pool at Happy Hour), there’s a loot snack bag, and guests are even encouraged to take the slippers. The off-beat hotel has artworks on the walls, lots of high-tech innovations in the rooms, including Alexa and Chromecast, and its location in Fortitude Valley means it is close to music venues, entertainment, and boutique shops. A French-style cafe next door, along with the hotel’s new Middle Eastern-inspired Za Za Ta restaurant, make it easy to use the hotel as a base as well as for an unforgettable, quirky holiday.
Among Australia’s claims to fame, it can probably be credited with turning breakfast into a meal, big time. Brisbane is in on the deal, with the city’s best-kept breakfast/brunch secret found off the main street, via a side entrance, in the inner-city suburb of Newstead. In keeping with the theme of re-purposing and transforming, a basement clothing factory has been turned into a cafe at Six Feet Under
Along with ‘eggs your way’ and smashed avo toast, the menu goes beyond the standard offerings, with some inventive dishes and unusual takes on familiar items, such delights as coconut oats (with caramelised banana, pumpkin custard and sesame crunch) or its breakfast burger (on toasted brioche with pickles, three kinds of cheese, egg and béarnaise). For the sweet tooth, there’s tiramisu french toast (chocolate mousse, vanilla mascarpone on brioche with cherry compote), while the Kim Chi Fritter with fried chicken and buffalo curd is likely to satisfy the most discerning of tastes. The menu changes each season.
Coming into season is the latest craze to hit Australia, a fun sport that is more engaging that 10-pin bowling and more inclusive than darts – axe throwing. You don’t need to be a lumberjack or have any Viking ancestry to try to the weirdly therapeutic sport, with Maniax giving safety briefings and lessons to newcomers before allowing throwers to chuck axes at a wooden target. We leave the premises, like the last group, with smiles on our faces.
One of the wonders of Brisbane can only be experienced in the middle of the year between June and November, and it involves getting out of the city and into the waters off the coast. Each winter and spring around 25,000 humpback whales stop on their annual migration between the South Pacific and Antarctica to give birth to their young in Queensland’s warm waters.
You can observe these majestic creatures feeding and frolicking with long-established Brisbane Whale Watching. The purpose-built Eye Spy catamaran, has six viewing decks, with premium seating by the floor-to-ceiling windows and in the VIP lounge. At the wheel is Captain Kerry Lopez, the only female captain and owner of a whale watch boat in the South Pacific, who provides expert commentary and points out the ocean mammals, which include bottlenose dolphins, hammerhead sharks, and loggerhead turtles. Sightings are guaranteed. If no whales are seen, they take guests out the next day.
Less than an hour into the trip, the first whales are spotted, and before long, visitors realise there are many humpback whales in the vicinity, letting out sprays from breathing, splashes from surfacing and diving, and slapping their fins and tails on the water. The most spectacular move, known as breaching, is when they acrobatically jump out of the water, twisting as they arch and slap back down into the water – this is quite a feat for a creature which can grow up to 16 metres long. With no teeth, these whales filter feed food, eating hundreds of kilograms of fish a day. Passengers aboard the Eye Spy can also fatten up, with a sumptuous fresh buffet of tiger prawns, cold meats, and salads, as Kerry points out mother humpbacks swimming with their calves close by.
The salty sea air or an active day in Brisbane will give you an appetite, so you may need to seek out the remedy in an old motorcycle workshop in the light industrial Newstead neighbourhood. One of Brisbane’s best culinary secrets is the innovative pan-Asian food available at Golden Pig Founded by Katrina Ryan, former head chef at Sydney’s Rockpool, the space also hosts cooking schools, but to enjoy the end of the food process, you should book a table for dinner (Tuesday to Saturday) or lunch (Friday and Saturday) to sample the new flavours and Asian fusion cuisine which has Thai, Chinese, Vietnamese and Japanese influences. Highlights include tea-smoked salmon, Sichuan-spiced duck and the tasty Ma Hor – sticky fried peanuts and coconut with pineapple. It is worth making some space for Golden Pig’s signature dessert, mandarin curd doughnuts with mandarin ice cream.
With most visitors to Brisbane arriving or departing by plane, one of the surprising finds is a fine airport hotel which is perfect for late arrivals or early departures into or out of BNE, or as a conveniently-connected base to explore the city and surrounds. Recently awarded the top airport hotel in the Australia/Pacific region, ranked by Skytrax as the fifth best airport hotel in the whole wide world, there are lots going for the new Pullman Brisbane Airport Hotel. Located next to the domestic terminal and a short ride from the international terminal, the hotel offers a quiet, calm luxurious 5-star oasis, with the Airtrain service connecting terminals and continuing onto central Brisbane and onto the Gold Coast.
Pullman Brisbane Airport is sleek and stylish, with a seamless check-in, multi-lingual staff, and every need of the leisure traveller catered for. The spacious, well-appointed rooms and suites, with muted tones, an understated elegance, and packed with amenities, provide everything required for a good night’s sleep, much appreciated after a long haul flight or in preparation of an onward journey. There’s even a pillow menu to tailor the experience for the pickiest of guests, and in-room massage and room service are available 24/7, as well as an outdoor swimming pool. The hotel has a swanky bar and its Apron restaurant which is proving to be a drawcard not just for passengers from the airport terminals, but also locals who live in North Brisbane, always a good sign.
Tell Me More About Brisbane’s Top New Secrets And Experiences
Felons Brewing Company, Howard Smith Wharves Brisbane, open every day 11am-midnight, T 07-31889090
Ovolo The Valley, Emporium BNE, 1000 Ann St, Fortitude Valley, Brisbane, T: +61 7 32536999, rooms from £94
Maniax 9am-10pm every day, 52a Doggett Street, Newstead, Brisbane $20 for a half-hour session, T: 1300986480
Brisbane Whale Watching 10am departures from Redcliffe every day from June to November, from AU$135 to $165 (VIP), 133-137 Redcliffe Parade, Brisbane T: 07-3880477
Greca, Howard Smith Wharf Brisbane, everyday noon-11pm, T: 07-38391203
Golden Pig, 38 Ross Street, Newstead, Brisbane T:07-36660884, Tues-Thurs 5-9 pm; Fri-Sat 5-10 pm,
Six Feet Under 2 Masters St, Newstead, 5.45 am-2 pm weekdays/ 7am-2 pm weekends, T: 07-32574523
Pullman Brisbane Airport Hotel 2B Dryandra Rd, Brisbane T: +61 731887300, from £112
Brisbane International Airport (BNE) is connected to dozens of destinations around the globe, and while there are not any direct non-stop flights from the UK or Europe (yet), there are good connecting flights (from 22 hours) with a range of airlines, including British Airways (via Hong Kong or Singapore, with partner airlines), Singapore Airlines, and Cathay Pacific, with fares from London starting at around £700 return for economy class and £2,000 for premium economy.