How Brisbane became a cool city

Lockdown has ended and it will soon be hot and wet at the resorts of Far North Queensland. The best of them might be booked out anyway, as travellers from Sydney and Melbourne finally take winter holidays postponed due to COVID. 

But there’s another Queensland resort option you might not have considered. Probably because you’ll be staying in the heart of Australia’s third-largest city.  As I check in to my hotel, dubbed Brisbane’s first “urban resort”, I think back to the years I spent in this city two decades ago. Then, Brisbane was a place you left every weekend for the Gold and Sunshine coasts. Why stay? There was nothing to do – it was as deserted as any hick country town.

Geez, what’s happened? Now big chunks of inner Brisbane have turned into Beverly Hills. My hotel, The Calile, is in Fortitude Valley’s James Street precinct. I used to get my car fixed here, now the streets are full of design showrooms, high-end fashion boutiques and hipster bars. Even the trees seem to ooze a Calvin Klein kind of restrained style, and no one wears chambray button-up shirts and cheap blue jeans any more. 

On The Calile’s pool deck, guests lie in palm-shaded cabanas as waiters fuss over them, serving cocktails and Greek-flavoured snacks from Hellenika, the hotel’s signature restaurant. Above, house guests look down on the pool as they sit on the balconies of pink-hued rooms that make me think of Palm Springs. I’d go for a swim, if only I’d spent the last four weeks locked in a gym, living off protein shakes and sugar-free Gatorade, as most of my fellow guests appear to have done.

Outside, past laneways of boutiques and bars, I dine at SK Steak & Oyster, an eatery that wouldn’t be out of place in New York. The service is slick. For years, people sarcastically called Brisbane “Brisvegas”, a reference to how little there was to do; these days, it might be another, cooler American city. The last five years have seen an estimated $2 billion invested in the city’s central business district. This includes five-star hotels and new entertainment precincts such as the $110 million Howard Smith Wharves project, a collection of bars, restaurants and cafes overlooking the Brisbane River.

But don’t limit yourself to the city. Early one morning I take a helicopter with Go Fish Australia to the world’s second-largest sand island, North Stradbroke, to fish off the beach with an Indigenous guide, who then cooks my catch in an underground oven. It’s barely 15 minutes away, so I’m back in time for lunch pool-side at Hellenika.

The next day, after being collected from a wharf just around the corner, I take a 14-kilometre boat trip with River To Bay to Moreton Bay. There are more than 350 islands in the bay – including North Stradbroke – and I spend the day travelling between them, snorkelling at sunken wrecks and swimming with dolphins and turtles (I’ve never seen so many). 

These islands are often overlooked in the rush to big-name resort islands. But here there are fewer crowds – and no irukandji in summer, which you’ll have to watch out for further north. There are other boat cruises too, from fancy yachts to ferries full of locals who live on islands with names that sound made-up, such as Coochiemudlo.

An under-appreciated bay with hundreds of sub-tropical islands in it, located near a city resort reminiscent of Beverly Hills, Palm Springs … someone in the Calile’s lobby bar even suggested Miami in the 1950s. Maybe the next Queensland resort you stay at doesn’t have to be quite so far north? 

This article appears in Sunday Life magazine within the Sun-Herald and the Sunday Age on sale November 21. To read more from Sunday Life, visit The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

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