Brisbane had a rough childhood. Queensland’s still youthful capital was born in 1824 as the Moreton Bay Penal Settlement — a supermax prison for the most hardened criminals in Australia. In the Second World War, it braced itself for a Japanese invasion; and from 1968 to 1987, under the autocratic Queensland premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen, vicious police repression of protest and dissent earned the place the nickname Pig City.
Now Brisbane has come of age, announcing a £5.25bn plan to oust Sydney as Australia’s gateway city and to host the 2032 Olympics. And it might just pull it off: it’s closer to the Asian airline hubs and better placed than Sydney for the Great Barrier Reef, the beaches of the Gold and Sunshine Coasts and the Red Centre. Like a young blade coming of age in the family firm, Brisbane is hungry for success; and, unlike Sydney, it has no laurels on which to rest.
The £2bn Queen’s Wharf Development is under way, turning the riverfront into a Singapore-style complex of luxury hotels, shops and restaurants, topped by a casino. Downstream, the old Howard Smith Wharves, under the Story Bridge, have had a £105m refurbishment, with the dilapidated 1930s warehouses converted into a 21st-century party zone. Across the river, South Bank Parklands, with the obligatory big wheel, is a long-established pleasure garden, home to a fabulous urban beach and the city’s enthusiastic arts quarter.
The dining scene is innovative and ambitious, and hotels are breaking out like prickly heat. A dozen luxury properties have opened in the past 18 months, and three more — the Ritz-Carlton, the Rosewood and the Dorsett Brisbane — will be launched in 2022. Brisbane airport’s second runway will open next year, bringing direct flights from Asia, the US and, eventually, the UK; and a new mega-cruise-ship terminal will welcome 1,100 vessels a year by 2025.
Yet chucking billions at a destination doesn’t always attract tourists, as Abu Dhabi has learnt. To entice, a city needs spirit, and Brisbane has plenty, although some spirits are unquiet. Get away from the glass towers and you discover a history of intrigue.
Start at City Hall. Look at the tympanum. On the right, smiling white colonists. On the left, a dead Aboriginal man. As the opening-ceremony programme put it in 1930: “The native life is represented dying out before the approach of white man.” There have long been calls for the pediment to be pulled down, but it should stay, because it tells a truth that shouldn’t be forgotten.
Inside, the Museum of Brisbane offers graphic stories of felonies, floods and female emancipation, with an angry dig at the state’s repression of the arts in the dark years of the Bjelke-Petersen administration.
Nearby is the Brisbane Arcade, an elegant Victorian shopping street built by the family of the city’s most notorious killer. In 1848, a cook named William Fyfe was arrested for the murder of a woodcutter, Robert Cox — the victim had been carrying £350 (worth £42,000 today) and Fyfe swung for it. About 17 years later, a once penniless butcher’s boy-turned-property magnate named Patrick Mayne made a deathbed confession to the theft and murder. The Brisbane Arcade, the stained glass in St Stephen’s Cathedral and the University of Queensland campus at St Lucia are among the family’s gifts to the city.
Around the corner, Burnett Lane was once home to the convict barracks and is now a grungy alley full of street art and speakeasies such as the hipster-macabre Death & Taxes (cocktails from £10; 36 Burnett Lane). It’s reassuring that a street that once housed tattooed desperadoes still makes them welcome. Sadly, the gothic character of the Central Business District isn’t matched by its shiny corporate hotels: the W, the Westin and the Sofitel dominate the skyline.
A more fashionable choice is the glitzy Emporium, across the river in South Bank Parklands. From the digital art installations to the 21st-floor pool and the huge views of the Hong Kong-like skyline, it’s a hotel built for Instagram. Shame it’s let down by clueless service and a rooftop bar that can’t decide if it’s a five-star cocktail joint or a tourist attraction. A sign stating “No rapid intoxication drinks after 12am” — implying that before midnight is fine — sums up the property’s personality.
The Fantauzzo, on the Howard Smith Wharves, under the Story Bridge, is another new opening. Highs are its black-tiled pool, rooftop bar and proximity to the Wharves’ banging nightlife. Lows are the sycophantic celebration of the eponymous celebrity artist and his actress wife, and its proximity to the Wharves’ banging nightlife.
Far better is Fortitude Valley, north of the bridge. This is Brisbane’s Brooklyn, a once scruffy neighbourhood of corner boozers and low-rent nightclubs that is fast becoming the city’s most fashionable quarter, even if most of its kitchens close by 9pm.
Australia commits to fads in the same wholehearted way it throws itself into sports, and Fortitude Valley would beat a Shoreditch XI by nine wickets. Head down Winn Lane and you’ll find what the district website predictably describes as “a vibrant, creative community of local and independent artisans”.
Cross Ann Street to Bakery Lane and you’ll come to Joy: 10 seats at a counter and dishes it takes longer to name than to eat. The chawanmushi, corn, smoked cream, tarragon and quinoa plate is one such mouthful.
At the City Winery, they cook locally sourced, home-hung cuts over an ironbark fire. And make their own wine. Obviously.
Newest of the new is Beaux Rumble, where Alan Wise — back in Oz after a Michelin-star-winning stint in the US — is focusing on plant-based and seafood dishes.
Right next door is the Calile, where you should stay. It’s another new opening, but one that works, albeit in a Miami Beach way. Service is slick, the city views are sparkling and the bar staff wear tight pink blazers, presumably for the amusement of guests.
And go now, because Brisbane will be as overcrowded as Wandsworth nick when word of its resurgence gets out.
Source: The Times (UK)