Brisbane: Gateway to Queensland


POSTED: Saturday, May 02, 2009

Brisbane is not as well known as Australia's other metropolises, Sydney and Melbourne, but this jumping-off point to subtropical Queensland should be on tourists' must-see list. Unfortunately, a March 11 oil spill put Brisbane in the headlines just as it was about to become more accessible to Yanks: On April 8, Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Australia airline launched its second trans-Pacific route to Los Angeles, adding about 1,000 seats weekly with three direct, non-stop L.A.-Brisbane flights (which Qantas has offered since 2004, as does American). Virgin Australia's 13-hour flights will nearly cut in half the time of L.A.-Brisbane jaunts. (My almost 24-hour Cathay Pacific flights required Hong Kong connections.)





        For more information see ourbrisbane.com, a Web site initiated by Brisbane's City Council.

» Welcome to Brisbane Tour: www.welcometobrisbanetour.com.au; .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


» Australia Zoo: australiazoo.com.au.


» Virgin Australia: (800) 444-0260; vaustralia.com.


» Qantas: (800) 227-4500; qantas.com.au/US.


» Cathay Pacific: (800) 233-233-3742; cathaypacific.com.




So what is Down Under's third largest city like? Built along the bending Brisbane River, which can be traversed aboard “;CityFerries”; and “;CityCats,”; “;Brissy”;—as Aussies affectionately call it—is a picturesque and historic urban center. Dermot Martschinke's highly informative, custom-made “;Welcome to Brisbane Tour”; intends, he says, “;to give visitors the lay of the land.”; The local lad's 14-seat mini-bus scours the North Bank's bustling downtown streets named after British monarchs, as Dermot regales visitors with Australia's penal colony lore and tales behind 19th-century buildings nestled amid sleek modern high-rises. Westerners settled in Brisbane around the same time they did in Hawaii. Dermot, a history buff, points out Queensland's second-oldest building, the Commissariat Store, built by convicts in 1829 out of tuff, a tan volcanic stone. The nearby sandstone-faced, Italian Renaissance-style Treasury Building, which occupies a city block, took 40 years to complete and is now a casino. Brissy's oldest structure, the hilltop Tower Mill at Wickham Park, was built in 1828; convicts worked 14 hours daily grinding grain there on a treadmill.

Brisbane is also steeped in military history. ANZAC Square includes an 18-column Shrine of Remembrance; its eternal flame commemorates World War I Aussie veterans. Across the square is a 1966 bronze statue of Maj. Gen. William Glasgow, who fought at Gallipoli and stood up to the Brits. The knowledgeable Dermot points out U.S. Gen. Douglas MacArthur's South West Pacific headquarters in what was the AMP Building (now MacArthur Central). Although Imperial Japan's attack on Darwin is vividly depicted in Baz Luhrmann's movie “;Australia,”; Dermot says that 1942's “;Battle of Brisbane”; was fought between Yankee and Aussie soldiers—over women, in short supply during World War II's influx of servicemen.

Dermot's tour also reveals Brissy's scenic splendor. Passengers disembark at South Bank Parklands, strolling to a subtropical urban oasis of man-made beaches and palms bounded by the river, a dramatic backdrop forming Brisbane's glass-and-steel skyline. The dissonance between Southbank Lagoon and Beach and the looming metropolitan architecture suggests the contrasts of Central Park framed by Manhattan skyscrapers, or of a Rene Magritte painting. Onshore an award-winning busker builds elaborate sand castles for coins. A promenade along a steel column pathway where ibises perch and a profusion of bougainvillea creates a purplish canopy winds toward a Nepalese temple, with intricately carved doors depicting Buddhas and sensuous nudes. On a boardwalk through a rain forest walk, eagle-eyed ramblers can spy water dragon lizards. Nearby, the Wheel of Brisbane, a new Ferris wheel, offers rides and views for the price of a ticket (unlike the rest of South Bank Parklands, which is gratis).

Passengers also disembark at the Mount Coot-tha Mountain Lookout for exquisite panoramic views of the subtropical city and environs from on high. The tour ends at Kangaroo Point Cliffs, where Brisbanites rappel 25 meters down the perpendicular volcanic rock that's floodlit at night. From Scouts Lookout atop the cliffs, the destinations on Dermot's comprehensive urban excursion are visible from afar, as is the riverbank City Botanic Gardens.

As Queensland's capital, Brisbane is the gateway to Australia's “;Sunshine State;”; its summer coincides with our winter, making access to this subtropical state especially enticing for those from colder climes, including Americans, who account for about 10 percent of Brisbane's tourists. Recent wildfires and heat waves occurred in Victoria state, far from Brisbane, which was somewhat rainy and comfortable during my two-week January visit.

Glorious beaches are within driving distance of Brissy. Moreton Bay, a favorite of Dermot's, was a victim of the eco-disaster caused by the ship Pacific Adventurer's massive March oil spill. I caught the waves at the Gold Coast's Surfers Paradise, a long, lovely beach ideal for body surfing and seemingly unharmed by the spill. Swimmers there are confined to relatively narrow swathes of flag-designated beach patrolled by lifeguards. Jellyfish appeared during my second visit, and late in the day, as the sun waned, Waikiki-like high-rises cast shadows on the shore.

I preferred riding endless waves at Byron Bay, south of Brissy at the continent's easternmost point on the exquisite Sunshine Coast, which—like the Gold Coast to the north—does not appear to have been directly affected by the spill. Byron Bay is a touristy beach town—sans skyscrapers—that sports boutiques, surfboard shops and a gelato stand, where my three scoops melted down my leg before I reached the beach, causing hungry seagulls to circle above me.

The Crocodile Hunter's Australia Zoo is about a 90-minute drive north of Brissy in a splendid area with a not-to-be-missed Tourist Drive of gorgeous mountainous, coastal and countryside scenery. The zoo mostly features animals endemic to Australia. It's a full-day, good-fun jaunt on the wild side. Upon entering, a snake-entwined teenage female zookeeper invited us to stroke her pet, while leashed wombats promenaded about. Children can literally pet and feed koala bears, kangaroos and Asian elephants—but crikey! watch out for those crocs! We saw zookeepers enter a large watery pen to gingerly hand-feed a crocodile with snapping jaws, as the humans were coached by a supervisor wisely standing outside the fence, ordering: “;Show him the white bucket.”;

A white flag of surrender might have been more like it, but the death-defying croc feeding went off without incident and was quite thrilling. As was the main show at the Crocoseum, where tropical macaws and parrots (some seemingly escaping from their handlers) swooped across the stadium, stage and pond. Atop a Crocoseum platform a zookeeper fed Graham, the one-ton croc Steve Irwin captured in 1988 at Townsville, northern Queensland, that bit the Crocodile Hunter. The extravaganza's star used his massive tail to stand upright and snatch meat with his jagged jaws from the dauntless zookeeper's hands.

At a large grassy fenced enclosure humans can feed and pet female red kangaroos. One young woman may have gotten too palsy-walsy with a 'roo, who rose on her hind legs and started pushing the girl away with her paws. Considering the untimely death of the seemingly invincible 44-year-old Irwin—stabbed by a stingray's barb at the Great Barrier Reef—risk is indeed incurred during close interspecies encounters.

The Great Barrier Reef is located off Queensland's northeastern coast; Brisbane is the entry point for those lucky enough to visit the “;Lucky Country.”;


Ed Rampell is co-author of “;Made in Paradise,”; “;Hollywood's Films of Hawaii and the South Seas”; and “;Pearl Harbor in the Movies.”; The former Hawaii resident lives in Los Angeles.