Brisbane and beyond: 7 ways to experience this underrated city
It's worth sticking around for a few days in the gateway to Australia's Gold Coast, says Jemma Crew
BRISBANE, the urban crown of Queensland, should need little introduction. But bafflingly, this up-and-coming city, one of Australia's fastest growing, has – until now – been somewhat overshadowed by its showier rivals.
Simmering with opportunity and sunny skies, Brissie balances a laid-back, outdoorsy vibe with the excitement of a global city. This is a place described as 'beautiful one day, perfect the next', where the surrounding shoreline is dubbed the Sunshine Coast, and it's T-shirt weather pretty much all year round.
Locals enjoy a gloriously al-fresco lifestyle, with a boardwalk that loops the water, jet-skiing commuters and a man-made beach for those craving an urban dip.
But this relaxed city is by no means sleepy. Multiple high-end hotels have opened in the last six months, an explosive craft beer scene is evolving, and the riverside, derelict Howard Smith Wharves is currently being transformed with a multi-million-dollar refurbishment.
Here are seven more of the best experiences in Brisbane and beyond...
1. Drink some criminally good beer
Under the curves of Story Bridge (which lights up at night), Felons Brewing Company is the first development of Howard Smith Wharves to open, and also somewhere you can drink a beer on the water's edge.
The name of the bar pays homage to the first settlers to discover the Brisbane river – four seafaring felons who were said to be terrible adventurers, but somehow found a cracking spot.
But it's also a forward-thinking joint. The brewers are experimenting with more adventurous flavours, says general manager Ash Cranston, aware that the Aussie climate demands beers that are "sessionable" rather than knock-you-out strong.
All beers are vegetarian and vegan, and an anaerobic composter fondly referred to as Chloe, breaks down waste into 400 kilos of fertiliser each week.
A 425ml schooner of their best Australian Pale Ale costs $12 AUD (£7). Visit felonsbrewingco.com.au
2. Escape in a hot air balloon
Heading out at 4am may not sound like your ideal holiday experience, but the brutal early start is undoubtedly worth it. Rising higher than a 10-storey building, these balloons carry up to 24 people and take off in the midst of the Scenic Rim's hinterland, less than an hour's drive from the city.
Within minutes, neck-tickling blasts of hot air lift you a thousand metres above the ground, to drift wherever the wind is blowing. Peace is easily found floating in the clear blue sky so early in the day, gazing over the fields, forests and mountainous outlines that stretch into the horizon.
The perfect end to this wind-blowing voyage is a Champagne breakfast at O'Reilly's Vineyards, a gorgeous spot in the Canungra Valley, which breaks up the return journey.
A half hour flight, champagne breakfast and return city transfer is $329 AUD (£183) per adult, $250 AUD (£139) per child. Visit hotair.com.au
3. Make some furry friends
Despite the name, Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary has much more to offer than Australia's cutest national icon. Docile and dozing in the sun, you can get within selfie range of kangaroos, but make sure you don't touch the joeys.
Take the Koala Express – a 40-minute boat – from the heart of Brisbane, for a waterside view of the suburbs; just be prepared for the steps up from the jetty. Otherwise it's a 20-minute drive south-west.
$34.20 AUD (£19) for an adult, $19.80 AUD (£11) for a child. Visit koala.net
4. Go Greek and visit James Street
Nestled in the heart of Fortitude Valley, new urban resort The Calile Hotel is the epitome of understated chic. An abundance of neutrals jazzed up with rose gold and marble accents gives this hotel a clean, crisp feel, while Instagram moments abound at its cabana-strewn poolside.
The hotel's new restaurant, Hellenika – the sister venture of Simon Gloftis's renowned Gold Coast eatery – boasts an excellent aubergine moussaka. A banquet platter for your poolside table is the best way to experience the variety and depth of this beautiful Mediterranean cuisine.
If you're not too full, meander along the upmarket James Street and browse its cluster of boutiques.
Banquets start at $38 AUD (£21) per person for lunch and $68 AUD (£38) per person for dinner. Visit hellenika.com.au.
5. Stroll along the south bank
Get to know Brisbane's cultural heart and history with a BlackCard tour.
"We want people to know that you can come to any capital city and meet real Aboriginal people sharing our culture," says tours manager Yarraka Bayles, after we're treated to a didgeridoo performance.
As you wander the south bank of Meanjin – the Aboriginal name for the city – you get the chance to explore the Brisbane Convention & Exhibition Centre. Its Plaza Gallery – one of the most significant collections of Central Desert Art – is a hidden gem, where you can sit in the chairs David Cameron and Barack Obama used during the G20 summit.
Finish off by watching your Aboriginal guides perform a song while sitting 'round the only legal fire pit in Queensland.
A three-hour walking tour is $85 AUD (£48) per person. Visit theblackcard.com.au/tours
6. Picnic in a park
Indulge in a spread with a difference with the Vintage Picnic Company. It's no exaggeration to describe their offering as a banquet, with full cutlery and glassware, bouquets, candles and lace decorating a low table, and a colourful array of cushions and rugs to settle down on.
Menu cards detail the exquisite content of each of the wicker hampers; melt in your mouth mini quiches, creative dips, fruit and rich cheeses provided by caterers Pantry 360.
Either collect your picnic and head off to wherever takes your fancy, or arrange for it to be set up in one of the city's sprawling parks. Check out New Farm Park on Sundays and grab a spot near the bandstand to enjoy your fare with a backdrop of live music.
A picnic for eight-to-10 people, with full set up and food, is $60-80 AUD (£33.50-44.50) per person. Visit vintagepicnics.com.au
7. Discover Moreton Island
Tangalooma, a resort on Moreton Island, whose name means many fishes in Aboriginal, is just 75 minutes by catamaran from the city. The former whaling station became a resort in the 1960s, and is described as a mini Fraser island, only closer to Brisbane and without the dingoes.
A helicopter ride will give you an incredible look at the wrecks – a cluster of 15 out-of-service ships scuttled by the Queensland Government decades ago, to give smaller vessels a safe anchorage spot. Or, take a snorkelling tour for a closer look at the coral, which has started forming inside the hulls.
But it's not known as 'dolphin island' for nothing, and one of the most popular attractions is the opportunity to stand knee-deep in the water and hand feed two families that swim to the shore each evening.
Return day trips by boat start from $89 AUD (£50) per person. Rooms start from $159 AUD (£159) per night. Visit tangalooma.com