NOT so long ago, Brisbane was little more than the country cousin to Sydney and Melbourne, and the gateway to Surfers Paradise and Noosa.
However, this city, the third largest in Australia, and the capital of Queensland, is transforming into a fast-paced modern metropolis.
Brisvegas, as it is affectionately known, is making a name for itself as a vibrant, affluent, place-to-be on the banks of the Brisbane River.
The city was, of course, hit hard by the floods that raged through the region at the start of the year; the worst in Australia for a decade.
Dubbed a disaster “of biblical proportions,” the floods swamped Brisbane, along with several other major towns such as Bundaberg and Rockhampton, displacing thousands of people, and causing the state to lose vast sums of income from farming, mining and tourism.
But once the waters subsided, the Queenslanders, with their characteristic resilience, bounced back, leaving no doubt in anyone’s mind that Brisbane is firmly back in business.
BRISBANE AND THE SUNSHINE STATE
Brisbane has a lot to offer with its subtropical climate, thriving music and restaurant scene, great shopping streets, grand civic buildings, and laid-back vibe.
This is a very active city, with jogging paths, bike paths and dedicated walking paths criss-crossing the river.
You can pick up a bike, or a kayak, from the Riverlife Adventure Centre (www.riverlife.com.au) to explore the river more fully, while adrenaline-junkies can go abseiling or rock-climbing on Kangaroo Point Cliffs.
If you’re more of a spectator than a participant when it comes to sport, catch a rugby match at the Suncorp stadium, or pick up tickets for a cricket match at the Gabba, the ground that played host to the opening test of the Ashes last November, when England drew with Australia before going on to win the series.
The South Bank is an upmarket arts and leisure district where you can wander through the parklands, or kick back on the family-friendly artificial beach.
If you’re looking for culture, there’s the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art, State Library of Queensland, Performing Arts Centre and the Queensland Museum.
And, as Queensland is the only state in Australia where koala-hugging is permitted, make sure you don’t miss out on the chance to cuddle one of these cute little marsupials at the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary (www.koala.net), a private zoo on the south-west fringes of the city.
THE GREAT SUNSHINE WAY
Heading further afield, the Bruce Highway takes you out of the city along the northern loop of the Great Sunshine Way, which stretches between Brisbane and Hervey Bay.
After two hours of driving, you reach the chic little Australian holiday town of Noosa.
This coastal idyll offers a quieter scene (both for celebrities looking for some privacy, and for retirees looking to leave the rat-race behind), but if you’re searching for sea, sand and sunshine, Noosa ticks all the boxes.
Cruise the Noosa River aboard your own boat equipped with BBQ and beverages; decently priced boats and kayaks can be h-ired from Pelican Boat Hire (www.pelicanboathire.com.au).
If you want to indulge in a little shopping, head to stylish Hastings Street for a plethora of smart boutiques; this is also the place to go if you’re looking for gourmet restaurants and cafes.
On departure from Noosa, take a detour via Bundaberg to join one of the interactive rum distillery tours – followed, of course, by a tasting; (www.bundabergrum.com.au/distillery.htm).
If you’ve got the time, stop over for a night or two in the Town of 1770 at the southern-most tip of the Great Barrier Reef; the town is a little off the beaten track, but well worth the diversion.
Named after Captain James Cook who landed here in the Endeavour in 1770 during his exploration of the east coast of Australia, the town was, more recently, the starting point for Ben Southall’s 1,600km kayak trip to Cooktown across the Great Barrier Reef.
This latest adventure, dubbed the “Best expedition in the world” followed Ben’s much-coveted stint as reef caretaker after seeing off tough competition to secure the “Best job in the world.”
While you’re in 1770, don helmet, leathers and compulsory (temporary) tattoo, and spend a white-knuckle afternoon riding a 50cc chopper around the town on one of the 60km Scooter Roo tours (www.scooterrootours.com).
Or, for something a little more sedate, take a sunset tour on the amphibious half-bus, half-boat vehicle known as the Larc (www.1770larctours.com.au), soaking up the magic of Round Hill Creek and Eurimbula National Park, as you go, while also keeping an eye out for “roos” feeding along the shoreline.
Around four hours north of the Town of 1770 is Hervey Bay; the stopping off place for Fraser Island.
From June to October, this is Australia’s whale-watching capital, with these majestic beasts breaching out of the water just off the shore.
From River Heads on the outskirts of Hervey Bay, it takes around 40 minutes to get to Fraser Island by ferry.
Fraser is the world’s largest sand island, and is brimming with rainforests, freshwater lakes and sand dunes; the wildlife is also prolific here, making this a nature-lover’s paradise.
You can spy dolphins, sharks and whales in the water, while back on land, there’s turtles, echidna, and wallabies – not forgetting the pure-breed dingoes that roam wild across the island.
The best way to see the ancient rainforest and mind-blowing coastline of this World Heritage Site, is by hiring a guide with a 4WD.
You can cruise the length of 75-mile beach with the looming sand dunes on one side of you, and crashing surf on the other, hopping out to take a snap of the giant dunes of red and yellow, known as the Coloured Sands, and to wander around the remains of the Maheno shipwreck.
Swim in Eli Creek and take a dip in clear blue Lake Mckenzie, or splash out on a trip in one of the four-seater planes that take off from the beach for a bird’s eye view of the island.
However, you choose to explore the Sunshine State, this place is sure to take your breath away.
WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK
Once considered a culinary backwater, Brisbane now has a wide array of restaurants, bistros and bars. For well-cooked simple fare such as burgers, steak and wood-fired oven pizzas, head to Groove Train (www.groovetrain.com.au) in Eagle Wharf. Or, for classy dim sum, pad thai or butter chicken curry, book a table at nearby Asian specialist, Siana (www.siana.com.au).
Brisbane is also a party place, crammed full of cocktail bars and late-night hangouts, with the Story Bridge Hotel on Kangaroo Point an enduring favourite, and the venues of Fortitude Valley now the place to be seen.
In Noosa, head to Berado’s Bistro on the Beach (www.berados.com.au) and feast on local cuttlefish and linguine of Noosa Spanner Crab.
In the Town of 1770, The Tree Restaurant (www.1770beachhotel.com), on Captain Cook Drive, enjoys a stunning waterfront location.
On Fraser Island, feast on bush-tucker delights such as bunya nut, macadamia nut, kangaroo, emu, calamari, at Seabelle (www.kingfisherbay.com/fraser-island-restaurants/seabelle-restaurant.html) Kingfisher Bay Resort’s signature restaurant.
WHERE TO STAY
As with everything else in Brisbane, accommodation has improved dramatically over the years, and top-end options now include the stylish Stamford Plaza (www.stamford.com.au). This hotel offers 252 opulent rooms with plush décor, deep baths and expansive views over the river. Facilities include a gym and outdoor swimming pool, and prices start from AU $245 per person, for a twin share.
For something a little more down-to-earth (and a little less pricey), try the studio apartments in Oaks Charlotte Towers (www.oakshotelsresorts.com/oaks-charlotte-towers) in the central business district; prices start from AU $209 for a one-bedroom apartment and AU $289 for a two-bedroom apartment, based on a two night stay.
In Noosa, check-in to the luxurious Sebel Resort (www.sebelnoosa.com), located just a few steps from Hastings Street; prices start from AU $164.50 per night.
In Agnes Water, in the Town of 1770, you’ll be made to feel very welcome at Sandcastles Motel & Retreat (www.sandcastles1770.com.au); prices start from AU $200 per night, based on a three-night stay.
On Fraser Island, you can just about make out the shape of the uber eco-friendly Kingfisher Bay Resort (www.kingfisherbay.com) as the ferry draws near to the jetty, its arched roof peeping out above the canopy. Prices start from AU $399 per person for a twin share including two nights of accommodation, return transfers, daily buffet breakfast, and one full-day tour of the island.
FAST FACTS | FLIGHTS AND HOTELS
Esther travelled to Brisbane via Singapore with Qantas (www.qantasholidays.co.uk). Qantas flies four times a week to Brisbane, with fares starting from £764 return. The price will be higher over the Christmas period.
For more information go to www.queenslandholidays.com.au.