Australia: Brisbane Beckons

  • The Brisbane Powerhouse building.

    The Brisbane Powerhouse building.

  • Chelsea de Luca in her boutique.

    Chelsea de Luca in her boutique.

  • Looking over the Brisbane River to the business district.

    Looking over the Brisbane River to the business district.

  • Belle Époque café.

    Belle Époque café.

  • Shopping in Fortitude Valley.

    Shopping in Fortitude Valley.

  • Goat’s-curd salad, on the menu at Bar Alto.

    Goat’s-curd salad, on the menu at Bar Alto.

  • A table for two in the industrial-chic dining room at Bar Alto.

    A table for two in the industrial-chic dining room at Bar Alto.

  • Fortitude Valley’s James Street.

    Fortitude Valley’s James Street.

  • The Emporium Hotel’s plush Cocktail Bar.

    The Emporium Hotel’s plush Cocktail Bar.

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It’s hard not to, really. While it doesn’t have Sydney’s yacht-studded harbor or Melbourne’s arching bay, Brisbane’s snaking river has its own allure, made all the more attractive by a growing number of waterside gentrification projects. South Bank, 17 hectares of subtropical parkland in the heart of the city, kick-started the trend in 1992. While borderline cheesy when it first opened, the area has seen its themed bars and clubs replaced with breezy alfresco cafés and restaurants alongside a host of manicured picnic spots. Walking along the promenade, flanked by blindingly pink ougainvilleas and an artificial beach, I pass the Queensland Art Gallery and Performing Arts Centre and a fabulous weekend farmers’ market where I pick up a bottle of Chardonnay from a local winery—yes, Brisbane even has a couple of those now.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Above, from left: The light-filled Gallery of Modern Art; Matt Moran in his Aria restaurant; scampi tails with and harissa à la Moran.

Farther west, Portside Wharf has seen similar improvements, thanks to a US$700 million investment that has transformed it into the state’s first international cruise terminal. Ocean liners, super yachts, and cruise ships can all dock on the Brisbane River now, and when passengers alight, they’re welcomed into an enclave of upscale shops and restaurants and fresh-food markets.

Away from the water, but in a similar vein to the Powerhouse precinct, the Petrie Barracks reopened in 2009 having been left derelict for nearly 20 years. Here, three restored heritage-listed buildings—police stables, barracks, and a radio communications center built between 1912 and 1941—provide the backdrop for über-trendy restaurants like the Libertine, with bordello-inspired decor and a menu of French-Vietnamese cuisine. The service here, I’m told, is already as snooty as at its sister establishment in Sydney.

In 1993, when I was 17, I “borrowed” my cousin’s ID and snuck into Brissy’s Metropolis bar to watch Powderfinger belt out their chart-topping hit “Reap What You Sow.” The beer was warm and flat and served in chipped glasses, and the carpet was so sticky that it was impossible to dance. Still, the crowd of flannel-clad rock fans bumped-and-ground as well as they could around the stage, head banging in appreciation of what would go on to become one of Australia’s most profitable bands of all time.

Other homegrown acts have followed them into the charts: Savage Garden, Pete Murray, The Veronicas. It’s an impressive lineup—and let us not forget that the Brothers Gibb began their musical career here. Still, like many Australians I was surprised when Billboard magazine in the U.S. crowned Brisbane an international music hot spot set to “threaten Melbourne’s traditional role as Australia’s main music city.” Brisbane has, after all, always hovered below the radar—clearly a good thing when it comes to nurturing underground talent.

“I do see changes, of course, but I think that there was always strength here,” says Amber Long, the owner and élan vital behind high-end boutique Jean Brown. Long opened the airy Fortitude Valley store in mid-2007, stocking it with fashionable accessories that you won’t find anywhere else in Australia, from Manolo Blahnik pumps to Devi Kroell clutches. “I don’t think Brisbane’s just suddenly become a hot spot overnight. And I don’t think the new attention will change our fundamental values,” she says. But it’s changing those of other Australians. Long tells me that many of her customers are once-cynical Sydney and Melbourne shoppers, who drop by whenever they are in town or phone in orders from home. Not so long ago, it was the other way around: my Brissy cousins regularly made the pilgrimage down south to stock up on fashion necessities that were notably absent in their hometown. “Brisbane has definitely come a long way in terms of fashion and culture,” reiterates Long. “If you go to the Valley, it’s pumping.”

For all its appeal, Fortitude Valley most certainly is not pumping on the day I visit. There are young hipsters sipping craft beers like Beez Neez, Barking Duck, and Blue Tongue (not a XXXX in sight). Yummy mummies are out power walking in Prada pumps. And lining the streets are trendy homewares stores and boutiques from cool local designers like Sass & Bide, Juli Grbac, Gail Sorronds, and Paul Hund. But there’s no commotion, and definitely no “pumping.” There is, however, a buzz—a quiet pulse that was notably absent from the city when I last visited.

One of the newest shops in the Valley comes courtesy of Chelsea De Luca, a nymph-like thirtysomething who is making waves around the world for her gorgeous line of vintage-inspired jewelry. De Luca floats around her store, pointing out glittery chokers and brooches that have been featured in global editions of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. The road here was not smooth, however. “Even five years ago, setting up a shop in Brisbane was really hard,” De Luca recalls. “Melbourne and Sydney wanted to support local designers … It’s only recently that we’ve seen this here. I don’t find it a problem being based here anymore.”

Designer Juli Grbac, the first-season winner of the Australian version of Project Runway, agrees. She may have dressed megastars (most recently singer Kelly Rowland) and had her girly frocks picked up by Harrods in London, but the petite designer still operates her business from the basement of her parents’ Queenslander in suburban Brisbane. “After I won Project Runway, everyone asked me if I would be moving to Sydney. Why on earth would I do that? I have everything I need here.

I think Brissy will always be relaxed, but I think the recent changes are definitely improving the city. Bring it on!”

To be honest, I was a little reluctant to write a story about Brisbane’s “coming of age.” At first I thought it was because I was skeptical that the city had shed its backwater image. But when I began my research, I realized it was because I didn’t really want Brissy to lose its happy-go-lucky vibe. As much as I’d never be caught dead in a fluorescent-pink tank top or flip-flops, I love the laid-back lifestyle that they imply. To have this replaced by the oh-so-cool airs of Melbourne or Sydney would, well, be like having a sunny piece of my childhood erased. De Luca laughs when I tell her this.

“Brisbane will never become Melbourne or Sydney. It may become more gentrified, but it’s got a very different culture and vibe,” she says. “We Brisbanites all think we’re the luckiest people in the world. We’ll grow up, but we’ll never change what’s important.”

She may be right. Despite the city’s shiny new hotels and flashy gourmet restaurants, the Imperial Dragon still serves the same generic Chinese food that it did 30 years ago; XXXX will never be taken off the tap at the local pub; and if you scrounge around in the depths of my grandpa’s closet, you might just find his old candy jar, too.

THE DETAILS:
Brisbane

Getting there

Qantas (qantas.com.au)  operates direct daily flights to Brisbane from both Hong Kong and Singapore. Cathay Pacific (cathaypacific.com) flies the same routes, four times a week from Hong Kong and daily from Singapore.

When to Go

Brisbane’s subtropical climate makes it a year-round tourist destination, but summer months (December through February) can be unbearably hot and humid. Visit in fall or winter, when temperatures hover around 20?C.

Where to Stay

Brisbane has a growing number of boutique hotels, including Fortitude Valley’s Emporium Hotel (1,000 Ann St., Fortitude Valley; 61-7/3253-6999; emporiumhotel.com.au; doubles from US$199), which features 102 sleekly designed rooms. (Look out for two upcoming Emporium hotels set to open soon at Southpoint and Howard Smith Wharf.) There are plenty of restaurants and pubs in the area, but be sure to stop past the hotel’s own Cocktail Bar lounge, one of Brisbane’s hippest hangouts. Just around the corner, the Limes Hotel (142 Constance St., Fortitude Valley; 61-7/3852-9000; limeshotel.com.au; doubles from US$195) has just 21 rooms, each with a private patio or courtyard garden (the hammocks are a nice touch). The rooftop bar is a great place for sundowners, and doubles as an open-air cinema in the fall and winter.

On a slightly larger scale in the CBD, the Sofitel Brisbane Central (249 Turbot St.; 61-7/ 3835-4444; sofitelbrisbane.com.au; doubles from US$238) has 429 newly renovated rooms decked out in a palette of charcoal and chocolate; the suites offer great city views.

Where to Eat & Drink

In the Powerhouse precinct overlooking the Brisbane River, Bar Alto (119 Lamington St., New Farm; 61-7/3358-1063) pairs delightful mod-Oz cuisine with an exceptional list of wines; catch a show at the adjacent Powerhouse theater before or after your meal. Also on the water, Matt Moran’s newly opened Aria (1?Eagle St., Eagle Street Pier; 61-7/3233-2555) restaurant has become the talk of the town for its fresh take on antipodean dining. The views here are almost as memorable as the food.

In Fortitude Valley, the menu at Cloudland (641 Ann St., Fortitude Valley; 61-7/3872-6600) is strong on local produce like Gold Coast tiger prawns and wild freshwater barramundi, dished up in a dramatic, design-driven space. Also in the neighborhood, opulent lounge Zuri (1-367 Brunswick St., Fortitude Valley; 61-7/3257-4999) is a great place to end the night with creative cocktails accompanied by live music.

What to Do

Catch the CityCat ferry along the Brisbane River to South Bank, from where it’s a leisurely stroll to the Gallery of Modern Art (qag.qld.gov.au). From December 5, 2009 until April 5, 2010, the gallery (and much of the Queensland Art Gallery) will host the Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art, with artworks from Tokyo to Turkey. –ND

Originally appeared in the December 2009/January 2010 print issue of DestinAsian magazine ( “Brisbane Beckons”)

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