Australia’s buzzing new metropolis: Brisbane

The Sunshine State’s capital has come of age. Now seen as Australia’s new hip getaway city, here are 15 of Mike Dolan’s favourite ways to spend a great long weekend in Brisbane.

Brisbane’s Airtrain allows you arrive in style without breaking the bank. On arrival at the domestic terminal, follow the signs to the front of the building, go up the travelator to the station, where the trains leave every 20-30 minutes. It takes just 15 minutes to central stations, such as Fortitude Valley and Roma St Station, and costs $15.50 at the station and $13.95 online, rather than $45 by taxi. Beats Sydney and Melbourne equivalents hands-down.
On this two-and-half-hour climb, there are 1138 steps to the Story Bridge’s viewing platform, 80-metres above the Brisbane River. Famous for its long-slung arches, the bridge, circa 1940, is 74 metres lower than Sydney’s 154-metre span, but the view is just as spectacular. In the east, you can see the Gold Coast and, inland, the Glasshouse Mountains. At dusk, as the sun sets and the bridge lights come on, the city across the river twinkles like a fun fair. It’s a more intimate view than the one in Sydney, where you could be an eagle soaring above the city far, far below. In Brisbane, you feel you can reach out and almost touch the CBD. The same man: engineer Dr J.J. Bradfield built both bridges and when the two spans of the Brisbane bridge met above the river, they were one-tenth of a millimetre out of line. Needless to say they didn’t decide to start all over again! Tickets, from $84.
Exclusive to Brisbane, this British Museum exploration of an ancient Egyptian priest’s life and death has been extended due to popular demand. It tells the story of Nesperennub, aged about 30, who served in the great temple complex of Karnak, Luxor, 3000 years ago. Using the latest forensic space-age technology, it explores inside the priest’s mummified body without even moving the bandages and delivers an extraordinary 3D film, plus more 100 funerary objects. Very little gold, but rivetting.
A grand art coup, Portrait of Spain: Masterpieces from The Prado brings more than 100 paintings and drawings to the banks of the Brisbane River and allows punters to take a long hard look at the richest and poorest people in the world during the 16th and 17th centuries. Spain was the super power and on show are all the royals in their splendid gowns, attended by courtiers, dwarfs et al. Queensland Art Gallery director, Dr Tony Ellwood, says, “The Prado has come to Brisbane.” In truth, it’s a tiny selection of what's on offer at one of the world’s greatest galleries. It does, however, include masterpieces by Goya, Velazquez, Ribera, Murillo, Tiepolo, Titian, Rubens and Pereda. The characters painted range from the pompous to the bizarre. Spot the facial deformities of interbred Hapsburg royals, the bitter expressions of the court dwarfs, the hideously obese little peasant girl shown off as a court monstrosity, the pious expressions of the true believers and the richly adorned lady, dripping in jewels, who looks just like Aunty Jack — little moustache and all.
You won’t forget the 5-star Brisbane Hilton. First, it’s in an extraordinary building — the only hotel ever designed by controversial Australian architect Harry Seidler. Second, it’s had $37 million lavished on it. And third, it delivers comfort, service and food with finese. The lobby soars up 55 metres to a light well and is reminescent of the interior of a Mayan step pyramid. Gliding up and down the north wall are three tubular see-through lifts — a touch of Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001 — and behind a glass wall is the one Chef’s Hat Vintaged Bar & Grill restaurant. The kitchen is open and allows diners to watch executive chef Dario Fiorino in action as he grills and barbecues meat, game, poultry and fish. The bar next to the reception glows like a collection of giant ice-cubes and is surrounded by cubist red leather lounges. It’s a very cool space. The rooms and suites are shrewdly designed to give maximum space and comfort. The executive floors and lounge are superb. If you can’t stay here, at least treat yourself to dinner.
Elegant simplicity is how Andrew Baturo likes to sum up his restaurant. “Italian eating is family coming together … Mama bringing out the dishes,” he says. I didn’t spot his mama, but the words capture the ambience — relaxed, friendly and fragrant with flavour. The design is edgy: murals of Neopolitan graffiti, rust-aged wrought-iron fixtures, parquet flooring and marble table tops. There’s a terrace and the glass doors fold back so the inside becomes a shaded outside. Its prime South Bank position offers spectacular river views, but it’s the food that rings true. For starters, try the pan-fried sardines with green chilli and herb salsa or crispy whitebait with caper and artichoke cream. For mains, don’t miss out on the Kingaroy suckling pig with spiced peach compote and anchovy sauce (on the side) or the free-range chicken, truffle butter, roasted in the oven. The food is simple and divine … and the desserts are irresistible. This is Italian at its freshest best.
For just $5.20, visitors can explore the Brisbane River on a citycat ferry as its snakes its way through the city and suburbs. If your last journey starts within two hours of buying a ticket, it's just $5.20, no matter if you disembark two and a half hours after buying the ticket. This allows you to go the 17 stops from one end of the route, such as the University of Queensland campus, to the other at Northshore Hamilton, where Cirque du Soleil have set up their circus tent. It’s a great way to get to know the city and very relaxing, too!
As Cirque du Solei sets out to explore the world of insects in Ovo, I’m sitting in their tent wishing I had an enormous can of insecticide. It’s so twee, I’m blushing. Then, without warning, the show explodes into something so compelling, I’m sucked into a vortex of incredulity. The turbo-charged energy and sinew-defying gymnastics are irresistible, so are the choreography, the lighting and kaleidoscope of colour. There’s no story worth following and the humour is aimed at the kids, but the feats of derring-do and brilliantly conceived scenes leave you enthralled … and the kids mesmerised.
There’s French champagne available at the rooftop honesty bar and a view of Brisbane’s illuminated Story Bridge, where the sun sets. Welcome to Spicers Balfour, a nine-room boutique hotel housed in a Queenslander, circa 1901, in the inner-city suburb of New Farm. With so few rooms and such welcoming staff, it almost feels like staying with friends. The rooms aren’t large, but so well designed you seem to have plenty of space. Mine looks over a Japanese-style garden with elegant bamboo and scrubbed pebbles. Inside, there’s a Nespresso machine, fount with filtered water, mini-chandelier, light grey decor with turquoise armchair and queen bed with mauve quilt cover. There’s no bath, but a generous rain shower and fluffy towels. It’s stylish and comfortable. Upstairs, breakfast is served either in the dining room or on the wrap-around verandah, where clipped hedges and lawns, frangipani and silver birch give delightful views over the garden. Bird song and freshly squeezed orange, watermelon and lime juice greet me, followed by a generous plate of smoked salmon omelette with rocket and goats cheese, and an excellent latte. I didn’t see a barista, but then Spicers Balfour is full of pleasant surprises.
The Children’s Art Centre at the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) takes children seriously and rarely fails to enchant them. Exhibitions and workshops that captivate kids are held all year round. Kids: Fly Away Home (until October 2, 2012) is an installation created by Fiona Hall that recreates the world of migratory birds out of wood and paper. Trees, nests and colourful bird models fill a large play space and this wonderful room, which is just like a kids' den, aims to get children thinking about birds and contemporary human migration. Children are invited to create new species of birds with paper "banknotes" and build a home in the form of a nest. Earlier in the year, during the Easton Pearson fashion exhibition, children created wardrobes of paper outfits for their dolls. And to coincide with the Portrait of Spain: Masterpieces from The Prado, drawing classes and workshops are being organised for the young ones.
As you walk into Spring, Brisbane melts away and Barbados emerges from within this imaginatively decorated space. It’s the tropical shutters, the scrubbed French oak floorboards, the palest blue and white paintwork and naive art that conjure up a mirage of Carribbean chic that lifts the spirits before you’ve even had time to pick up the menu. Kym Machin, Queensland’s Good Good Guide Chef of the Year, is in the kitchen. The vegetable tart with parmesan crisp top looks uninspiring, but delights the palate. The exquisitely cooked vegetables are wafer thin and full of flavour; the pastry is perfect. A simple dish in the hands of an inspired chef can transcend its ingredients and Machin’s vegetable tart is just such a delight. But the star of the meal is the wagyu sirloin, hand cut chips with Cafe de Paris butter. It’s tender, of course, but the taste is what distinguishes this as the finest quality meat. The desserts are fascinating — miniature landscapes created in glass bowls. Machin’s take on lemon meringue tart is highly imaginative and exquisite. My only regret is that this CBD restaurant is not open on weekends.
Be transported to France with the food of Thierry Galichet, whose artistry and craft have won over a loyal and discriminating clientele. Classics such as Coquilles St Jacques are served with pea mash; the double baked souffle with sand crab meat and Gruyere cheese will transport you to the Left Bank, as will the roasted quail sitting on beetroot risotto. Polished wooden floors and bar, red banquets and bar stools and gilt mirrors recreate the atmosphere of a traditional French brasserie.
Visit the colourful and bustling farmers market in the park in the appropriately named suburb of New Farm. Among its 120 stalls, you’ll find flowers and the freshest produce, including red claw yabbies, all types of breads, meat, fish and poultry. It’s a feel-good grass roots experience. Held on the second and fourth Saturday of each month, there are plenty of food stalls and entertainment … and just around the corner on the river is The Powerhouse, the city’s edgy arts centre — home to stand-up comedians, theatre, jazz and every type of music and and performance.
This triple-storey hotel, with its wrap-around verandas adorned with ornate white and green wrought-iron, is one of the last remaining family-owned hotels in Brisbane. And it’s a landmark with many a legend and the perfect place to quench your first after the Bridge Climb. It’s where all the workers who built the bridge drank in the late 1930s and early 1940s. In fact, locals will tell you that the hotel is the only reason the carriageway leading off the west side of the bridge isn’t straight. Rather than knock the hotel down, Bradfield built the carriageway around the pub.
Embark on a leisurely one-and-half hour kayak trip along the iconic Brisbane River and then indulge in platters of fresh king prawns and a drink to toast the weekend. As you glide gently down river with the stream lending a hand, take in the glittering shores of South Bank, the Botantic Gardens, Eagle St Pier and Story Bridge.

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