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What to Do In and Around Brisbane, the Jewel of Australia’s East Coast

Rainbow-coloured sands, Melanesian art installations and cabbage pancakes await in Queensland.

Sunshine Beach

Catching a break at Sunshine Beach, a surfers’ paradise near Noosa Heads, an hour from Brisbane.

"Look out for the truck on the right!” shouts Steve Hargraves, a local guide who’s showing me around the southern beaches of Australia’s Sunshine Coast. I’ve never had to watch for car traffic on a stretch of sand before, but I soon see why: Rainbow Beach, located about an three hours north of Brisbane, is hugely popular with fans of sand driving. Sure enough, a couple of four-wheel-drive vehicles come barrelling past us at top speed – the limit here is 80 kilometres an hour – the thrum of their engines mixing menacingly with the roar of the waves. Hargraves, who has gone barefoot all morning, points toward the cliffs towering majestically above the ocean. “We’ve catalogued almost 70 different colours of sand on Rainbow Beach. It’s the result of some 600,000 years of erosion,” he explains. A single glance reveals a kaleidoscope of hues: ochre, blood orange, yellow, green, even pink. I gather up a few sandy fistfuls and add a bit of water to create a coloured paste; then I press my hands into the surface to form prints. After rinsing my fingers, now stained as though I’ve been working with gouache, I take off my sunglasses to admire the results. “This is the traditional palette of the native people who used to inhabit the area,” says Hargraves while photographing our “artwork” as the sea slowly washes it away. A wide beach separates us from rolling breakers that are the stuff of surfers’ dreams; the midday sun reflects off the huge lagoons on the other side of the bay; the cliffs are somehow magically transformed into crayons. Can someone explain to me why we practically have the place to ourselves?

Noosa National Park; Surf & Sand Safaris

Left to Right: The sands of time at Noosa National Park; Surf & Sand Safaris rolls with it.

I asked myself the same question a few days ago when I landed in Brisbane (Brissy to locals). Even at rush hour, my driver zipped easily through the new tunnel that passes under the heart of the city. But that’s about to change. To see why, you just need to stroll along South Bank, a huge waterfront park built on the site of the 1988 World Expo. On the other side of the Brisbane River, which wends its way through the city’s different neighbourhoods like a game of Snakes and Ladders, the skyline is shifting: A forest of skyscrapers is rising up under construction cranes, literally expanding its horizons. It’s no wonder that more and more visitors are deciding to spend time here. Once merely a gateway to the beaches of the Sunshine Coast (to the north) and the Gold Coast (to the south), the city is finally moving out of the shadow of its more illustrious siblings to become a destination in its own right.


The surfers at 40 Mile Beach, north of Brisbane, make a swell crowd.

What’s nice is that these changes are taking place at a casual, laid-back pace. On the artificial beach where you can cool off in the middle of the city, two parents chasing their son with a tube of sunscreen take the time to greet me with a warm “G’day.” Farther along at the Epicurious Garden, volunteers grow passion fruit, thyme and a dozen other herbs. Near a stall where residents and visitors alike can pick up free produce several times a week, I relax in the shade of a palm tree while nibbling on a shoot of stevia. The stem is sweet and crisp – a refreshing antidote to the sun that has been shining relentlessly since my arrival, as my red nose and farmer’s tan attest.

Sourced Grocer; Felix for Goodness

Left to Right: In the neighbourhood of Teneriffe, Sourced Grocer’s patio is the place to keep a shaded eye on the action; Felix for Goodness is a café located in Burnett Lane, the oldest alleyway in the business district and named after Brisbane’s first surveyor.

“People have always thought of Brissy as a small town. Today it’s like an adolescent learning to deal with a growth spurt,” says Jerome Batten with a smile. Bronzed, with chestnut hair gathered into a man bun, he looks like an amiable beach bum. The 33-year-old chef ushers me into Sourced Grocer, his café-resto-delicatessen located in a former warehouse in the residential neighbourhood of Teneriffe, in the city centre. Outside, a waiter in black skinny jeans, white T-shirt and New Balance running shoes is taking orders from a small group seated by a large window. Near the entrance, a couple is politely arguing over whether to get a bouquet of white lilies or huge sunflowers. “Our culinary culture is just starting to become more refined,” says Batten, who is contributing in his own way with two additional establishments. There’s Maker, a tiny cocktail bar tucked away in an alley in the entertainment district, where a savvy bartender introduced me to a hearty Australian absinthe called Moulin Rooz, and there’s also Gauge, which got the nod from chef René Redzepi when he was scouting out a temporary location for Noma in Australia. As for me, I’m just reminding myself to breathe between bites of cabbage pancake. Topped with poached eggs, it comes to the table with a serving of broccoli and goat cheese that almost makes me bleat in approval. Meanwhile, I keep my eye on a young man coming out of a former cannery building that’s been converted into lofts; he crosses the street and heads for the restaurant, waving as he passes a cook who is bringing a green smoothie to a woman glued to her laptop. A kind of new-generation community centre, Sourced Grocer works as an observation post; the customers seated on the patio are like a modern neighbourhood watch brigade.

Cabbage pancake at Sourced Grocer; Queensland coastline

Left to Right: The cabbage pancake at Sourced Grocer could convert even committed carnivores into vegetarians; the Queensland coastline will get you hooked.

If Finding Nemo and Avatar had a child together, it would probably look something like this. I am deep inside a multimedia installation created for APT8, the eighth edition of a triennial of contemporary art devoted to Asia-Pacific artists that will soon wrap up at the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA). Projected onto a circular screen, a piece called They Look at You features a fish that slowly swims around the spectators in what resembles a surreal, flooded forest of banyan trees as soothing aquatic sounds spill from loudspeakers. Suddenly, dancers appear onscreen, and the soundtrack turns frenzied in a kind of tribute to the ancestral traditions of the Melanesian islands.

Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art

The Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art offers visitors a new world view.

“We are rooted in the world around us,” says Maud Page, the associate director of collections and exhibitions, as we squint our way back into daylight. Born in France but having lived here since childhood, she shifts easily between a French accent and an Aussie twang as she speaks to colleagues in English. “Our museum likes to focus on Asia, unlike some others in Australia that more often celebrate American or European art,” she adds. I follow her around the maze of galleries, constructed in 2006, to huge bay windows that offer views of the majestic Kurilpa Bridge, a white structure echoing a series of sailboat masts that allows cyclists and pedestrians to cross the river to downtown. Outside the building, I sit for a moment in front of The World Turns, an enormous sculpture of an elephant standing on its head by New Zealand artist Michael Parekowhai, before making my way to the concrete esplanade of the Queensland Art Gallery next door. With its brutalist lines and indoor-outdoor fountains, this museum, devoted to less recent art, stands in sharp contrast to GoMA’s glass and steel silhouette. But despite their age difference – think impeccably dressed cougar with sporty boyfriend – the two buildings blend gracefully into a coherent complex where both tourists and business people come to sip cold drinks and use the free Wi-Fi.

Riverwalk Floating Walkway; chef Jerome Batten

Left to Right: The Riverwalk Floating Walkway, launched in 2014, extends from downtown to the New Farm area along the Brisbane River; with three addresses, chef Jerome Batten is stirring up the city’s culinary culture.

Comfortably seated on the deck of a CityCat – the ferry service that lets you travel all over Brisbane on Batman-worthy catamarans – I lazily observe the sound-and-light show playing over another sticky day in a city heavy with heat. (The locals call CityCat public transport; I say four-dollar cruise.) The humid breeze is more invigorating than a double vodka tonic; the river sparkles under skyscraper lights that gradually flick on as the sun sets; and the Story Bridge, a steel structure directly inspired by the Jacques-Cartier Bridge in Montreal, looks like it will surely crush our boat as we glide beneath it.

Noosa Main Beach

At Noosa Main Beach, even the smallest surfers know how to make waves.

I make my way back to Spicers Balfour, the little hotel where I settled in a few days ago. The property is made up of two historic buildings, located on a quiet street in the New Farm district, east of the town centre. They are not adjacent, so to get from the main pavilion to the restored apartment building that houses my spacious suite, you have to walk along the street past a couple of modest family homes. The houses are so close by, I can easily call out to my neighbour to change the channel (I know next to nothing about cricket). The surrounding houses on stilts – with their sloped tin roofs, huge windows completely open to let in the gentle evening breeze – are known as Queenslanders, typical of this region. Stubborn and proud, they are turned toward us, ready to greet visitors yet sturdily rooted in the world around them.

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