Denise Cullen reveals the Queensland capital’s best holiday secrets
KEEN to be seen as more than a gateway to the Gold and Sunshine coasts, Brisbane increasingly bills itself as a good-time getaway. But once you’ve ridden the City Cats, climbed the Story Bridge and lolled about on the beach at South Bank, what is there left to do? Plenty, claim insiders, who say the best attractions are among the city’s biggest secrets. Queensland Police Museum: The 16ha Roma Street Parkland attracts all the attention hereabouts but across the road, on the ground floor of the Queensland Police Headquarters, is an underrated museum full of quirky true crime tales and information about policing in the Sunshine State. Among the more colourful exhibits are a china skull-shaped bong confiscated in a drug raid and a stuffed dog hauled into court as the silent witness to a murder.
Unfortunately, a wax voodoo doll handed into police when witchcraft was still illegal in the state has deteriorated to such an extent that it has been removed from display.
A simulated murder scene also allows members of the CSI generation to pit their knowledge of blood spatter patterns, shoe impressions and other aspects of forensic science against the professionals. www.police.qld.gov.au/ aboutUs/facilities/museum.htm. Bushranger Bikes: The Queensland capital’s ubiquitous ferries are promoted as the ultimate way to traverse the city. But, for an even more exhilarating sense of sun on your face and wind in your hair, I highly recommend joining a Bushranger Bikes tour. Winding along abundant bike paths, back alleys, boardwalks and bridges, these tours explore the city in all its guises, from the sophisticated central business district to trendy West End artists’ digs.
Cycling is the passion of personable owner Jon Newrick and, with a background in emergency services, he knows all the city’s off-the-map lookouts, cafes and seasonal curiosities. (On my tour, we pull over to check on the progress of a couple of nesting curlews.) Other companies drop bikes and maps at hotels, but Bushranger Bikes takes you by the handlebars for a superlative saddle-up. Tours are set for April 19, May 31, June 15 and July 9. www.bushrangerbikes.com.au. The Gunshop Cafe: If you need convincing that this cafe was a gun shop until firearm laws were tightened more than a decade ago, look for the bullet holes in the polished wooden floor. With cosy indoor, street and courtyard seating, the Gunshop Cafe is widely regarded as one of Brisbane’s best breakfast joints. Chef Jason Coolen is classically trained but can’t resist adding his own subtle twists to dishes. If you like eggs benedict, for instance, you’ll love his vodka-cured salmon with spinach, poached eggs and hollandaise on rye sourdough.
The same sense of innovation applies to the ever-changing lunch and dinner menus. Celebrities, including the boys from local band Wolfmother, hang out here, but it’s not a place for autographs. Just drink your coffee and be cool. www.thegunshopcafe.com. XXXX Ale House Tour: It’s not so much a secret as a case of something that’s so blindingly obvious, and so central to the Queensland psyche (despite the present ownership), that it’s often overlooked. The flashing neon sign on the enormous 120-yearold brick brewery looms over Milton Road like a giant expletive deleted.
Tours of the relatively new Ale House explore the history of this parochial brew and the evolution of the grinning and winking Mr Fourex character before walking visitors through yeasty-smelling operational areas that include filling and packaging lines. The tour concludes with the opportunity to sample different brews, including the original XXX beer, which is available nowhere else. Among the more improbable souvenirs for sale is a $50 inflatable stubby that is taller than the average drinker. www.xxxx.com.au. Emporium Hotel: A flamboyant, flushed-red foyer framed by steel and chrome and smiles. Elaborate, hand- blown chandeliers. Animal prints. Geometrics. Boudoirs decorated in deep chocolate. Endless, endless mirrors. It could be a luxurious harem or highclass bordello: stepping into the Emporium Hotel in Fortitude Valley is a deliciously disorienting experience. And that’s before the early morning rooftop swim, during which we look up to spot a lazy flock of hot-air balloons drifting across the sky.
The bar, with its creative cocktail menu and walls of wine, adds to the sense of unreality and eclecticism. There’s no in-house restaurant but this 106-suite boutique hotel is situated amid a sophisticated shopping and dining district, ensuring no desire goes unsated. www.emporiumhotel.com.au. Brisbane Jazz Club: Hunkered amid shadows cast by the plush Kangaroo Point apartments, and within walking distance of the orange lights of the Story Bridge, this is the only jazz club in Australia with its own premises.
A gently sloping floor leading towards the Brisbane River gives the eerily buoyant feeling of being aboard a cruise ship and is testament to the club’s former incarnation as a boatshed. Different styles of live jazz feature every weekend, from 1960s-inspired quintets to 20-piece orchestras and younger, more experimental styles that raise the roof.
Established musicians and upcoming talent from the nearby Queensland Conservatorium feature on the program and the vibe is mellow and relaxed. www.brisbanejazzclub.com.au. QUT Art Museum: The Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art stand ostentatiously across the river, but this lower-profile museum also has a significant amount to offer. Established in 1945, the Queensland University of Technology art collection is one of the largest in the state, with strengths including Queensland art and other Australian paintings, prints and multimedia works. A busy program of public talks and demonstrations aims to increase accessibility. Make a day of it by bringing a picnic to enjoy in the City Botanic Gardens just opposite (guided walks of the gardens depart twice daily). Those planning holidays well ahead may wish to note that Old Government House, next door, is undergoing extensive renovations and will reopen in early 2009 with greater access and self-guided tours via podcasting. www.artmuseum.qut.com. Merthyr Bowls Club: With its immaculate greens, expansive wooden deck and absolute river frontage beside the multimillion-dollar mansions of New Farm, there is no hint the Merthyr Bowls Club was on the brink of closure a decade ago.
But as necessity is the mother of invention, the club’s struggle for survival in the face of severe financial strain led to the much-imitated innovation of barefoot bowls and introduced a game derisively dubbed old men’s marbles’’ to the younger generation. (A gilt-edged framed photograph of the Queen above the entrance door is one of the few remaining nods to nostalgia.) Bowling and barbecue packages, starting from $15 a person for rib fillet, salad, bowls and coaching, are popular, but book well ahead as there is a waiting list. www.merthyrbowlsclub.com.au. Riverbend Books and Teahouse: There are few more beguiling spots to spend a morning than on the covered open-air deck of this Bulimba bookshop cum teahouse. Surrounded by thick tufts of bamboo and with ceiling fans circling slowly, it’s easy to pretend you’re somewhere else — a remote spot in Southeast Asia, perhaps — so disconnect the laptop and turn off the mobile phone for an intoxicating sense of escape.
Healthy cafe-style meals feature on the breakfast-to-bedtime menu; lunch options include freshly rolled sushi or Vietnamese rice paper rolls stuffed with chicken, vegetables and herbs. Staff make fabulous frappes, too. Crowned the Australian independent bookshop of the year in 2006 and 2007, the attached bookshop offers a large but carefully selected range of titles, with a comprehensive art and architecture section. www.riverbendbooks.com.au. Riverlife Adventure Centre: Kayaking on the Brisbane River is the only way to explore the city’s most distinctive geographic feature when the sky has darkened to deep indigo.
The night I go out with Riverlife Adventure Centre there is not a breath of wind and the river has a peaceful, meditative quality. That is until one of my fellow paddlers panics in the wash of a passing ferry, tips herself into the silty brown shallows near a stand of mangroves and screams.
The glittering lights of landmark buildings such as elegant Customs House seem close enough to touch, while passing underneath the Story Bridge, the thunk-thunk of traffic sounds hitting the joists is like a heartbeat. This is a tidal river and we’ve timed it so the journey back upstream is a lot easier on the biceps. Climbing out, I can still taste salt on my tongue. www.riverlife.com.au.
A river runs through it: See the city by day or night on a kayaking trip along the Brisbane River or from the lively Brisbane Jazz Club at Kangaroo Point