[ SUNDAY TRAVEL ]
CHARLENE ANNE RICO / SPECIAL TO THE STAR-BULLETIN
A Hawaii transplant feels at home in the multi-cultural city of Brisbane.
Brisbane is really
easy to like
A transplant from Hawaii with
not much scratch quickly finds
her way around a terrific city
If someone had told me on my 21st birthday that in less then two years I would be married and on my way to moving to Australia, I probably would have laughed, told the person he or she was crazy and then bought them a drink.
But there I was, 22 years old, married to an Australian tattoo artist and packing up my few belongings to follow my husband to his motherland. I'd never been overseas before.
We arrived in Sydney in the wee hours of the morning. The first few days of living in Sydney were a blur as we scrambled to gather our boxes, suitcases and one very large Rottweiler named Kai for the drive up to Brisbane, Queensland, 11 hours north.
It was a drive to remember as we packed our car -- a classic Holden panel van -- to the brim. Although it was winter in Hawaii, it was summer in Australia, and driving in a car with no air conditioning was interesting, to say the least. We were caught in a freak storm in which one of our windshield wipers flew into oncoming traffic, the dog threw up on our bedding and we lost a few pounds to excessive sweating. Then we arrived in gorgeous downtown Brisbane -- a maze of roads that remind me of Hilo's one-way street nightmare, only on a much larger scale -- only to discover we were lost.
After asking a few of the locals for directions, we finally made it to our destination. We were staying with another tattooist and her husband, a body piercer.
Despite all of our careful planning, it was clear that we were broke. I mean, dirt poor. On top of that, Kai and our hosts' dog did not get along. Their dog went straight for Kai's throat. So, it seemed we would need to find a place of our own and fast!
But life doesn't always go the way you plan. I was having a difficult time finding a job, and my husband, A.J., wasn't getting as much work as he would have liked, as he was now the new kid on the block.
However, I couldn't stand being locked in the house all day, so I set my sights on the city, sure that I could find heaps of things to do on the cheap, as in every city I've ever encountered.
My first discovery was the Queensland Art Gallery. The first time I entered this building, my heart was in my throat because it's so beautiful -- breathtaking, actually.
The entrance opens into the gallery's gift shop, which is a hidden treasure in itself, but save that for the end. Past the gift shop, the ceilings open up, reaching toward the sky as if it's never going to end. To your right an escalator descends upon a huge pond with color-changing fountains and silver orbs -- a work of art that reflects your image back to you.
The Art Gallery is massive, with corridors and exhibits that offer hours of entertainment. It's a beautiful place for escaping the hustle and bustle of the city, and its most attractive feature is its price: free!
Adjacent to the art gallery is the Queensland Museum. While it's not as physically impressive as the art gallery, the museum is home to rotating exhibitions, from dinosaurs to Harley-Davidsons. It's geared toward interactive, blockbuster exhibition, for the young or young at heart.
Among the standing exhibitions is one on native insects, which is certain to scare nonresidents -- the moths here can grow as a big as rats! Scary, but cool, as long as you don't find one in your home.
The museum requests donations on the honor system, and I was more then happy to scrounge up some change after seeing those moths.
CHARLENE ANNE RICO / SPECIAL TO THE STAR-BULLETIN
"The Valley" is minutes from downtown Brisbane and packed with dining and nightlife options.
Across the street is the Queensland Performing Arts Centre, which welcomes international performances, whether cabaret troupes from Broadway or Italian theater groups. Tickets can be pricey but are worth it.
A short walk past all of this culture is South Bank, a wonder in itself as it is an entirely man-made beach just across the river from the city. There are two separate areas to swim: one for the kids with a rock bottom that stays shallow, and one with a sandy bottom for more experienced swimmers. The water is chlorinated but refreshing on a hot day, which is virtually every day during Brisbane summers. There are also more then a dozen restaurants lining its shores, offering a variety of cuisines.
On Friday nights and Sundays, South Bank turns into an open market with vendors selling everything from boomerangs to sarongs.
But South Bank is so much more then a beach. Its parklands stretch for 42 acres, boasting a variety of native plants and a bougainvillea-covered arbor that weaves its way through the parkland. It makes for a romantic setting. And the best part? Once again, it's absolutely free. I'm really starting to like this city.
A SHORT WALK across the bridge brings you not only the best view of Brisbane River, but directly into the heart of the city. Passing the Treasury Casino where gambling and general debauchery take place (not today, thank you), Queen Street Mall is probably the best place to shop (or window-shop) in Brisbane. I can't tell you how many afternoons I've spent on the mall, people-watching or just coveting fashion hanging in the windows of the endless line of shops.
There are nearly 100 restaurants in the area surrounding Queen Street Mall, but my favorite by far is AJ Vietnamese Restaurant. It's a hole in the wall that's not even listed in the phone book, but the food is incredible. And the price isn't too bad, either, with plates starting at $6.50. AJ offers the traditional beef soup ph—, as well as more creative dishes like Chicken Hainam Rice, my favorite. It's consistently good and the staff is always friendly.
A few months after our arrival in Brisbane, we made our first trip into "The Valley," a place I'd heard a lot about for its night life. Fortitude Valley is just minutes from downtown Brisbane, but it might as well be another city altogether. Not only is the Valley jam-packed with bars and open-air dining lining Brunswick Street Mall, there are a myriad of dance clubs to choose from, including Family, probably Brisbane's most famous club, with more than three floors of music and dancing.
My favorite place in the Valley, however, is a small pizza joint right across from the Empire Hotel on Brunswick Street. There are no words to describe the joy that comes from biting into a slice of pizza from New York Slice. People have been known to drive into the Valley just for this pizza, and I'm not afraid to say I'm one of those people who craves the Margarita -- a cheese, tomato and basil pizza with chili sprinkles on top. At $5 a slice, it's worth the price.
While I have yet to explore Brisbane's other treasures, like its botanical gardens on the edge of the city or the award-winning restaurants along the banks of the Brisbane River, it is a city that leaves little for want. With Australia's renowned Gold Coast to the South and its Sunshine Coast to the North, both just an hour's drive away, what more could you ask for in a city? And while I may not be a world traveler or refined critic, I know what I like, and this is my kind of town.
Charlene Anne Rico is a former Star-Bulletin intern.
Here are other adventures you can tackle during your visit to the continent down under
Adventures by land, sea and air are available in all corners of the Australian continent:
» Cycle tour of Brisbane: A guided three-hour bike tour of Historical Brisbane and the Recreational Riverside uses off-road bicycle pathways that follow the riverbank around Brisbane's city highlights, which include the 150-year-old Botanic Gardens, Parliament House, Old Government House, Commissariat Penal Colony Museum, Queensland Cultural Centre, South Bank, Maritime Museum, Cliffs Sculpture Walk, Navy Stores Historical Discovery Centre, Kangaroo Point, Story Bridge and the Riverside Centre. The tour starts at Edward Street gate, City Botanic Gardens. Children's-size motocross-style bicycles available for children between 8 and 12. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
» Ultimate Australia package: Offered by the Australian Travel Commission, is tailored for the 50-plus traveler market. Combining the best of Sydney, Melbourne, Ayers Rock, Adelaide and Kangaroo Island, and Cairns' Rainforest and the Great Barrier Reef, the 19-day package includes all accommodations, 28 meals, local guide service, and all international and domestic air on Qantas for travel in 2004. Starts at $3,690. For information, visit www.australia.com or call 877-217-5115.
» Flying high over South Australia: See all the colors and beauty of the Flinders Ranges and Outback from the air with Chinta Tours. Take in the Flinders Range's deep red gorges, the Nullarbor's Bunda Cliffs, beautiful deserts, wheat and sheep farms, salt ponds and the coast. Working in partnership with Amity Aviation, this new air-tour company offers flights to destinations that include Coober Pedy, Ceduna, and Flinders Island off the west coast of the Eyre Peninsula. Visit www.chinta.com.au.
» Exploring Queensland and the Northern Territory: Coral Princess Cruises offer 11-night luxury catamaran expeditions from Darwin to Cairns in October, starting at $4,995. Guests can explore the Tiwi Islands, Nhulunbuy, Arnhem Land and Cobourg Peninsula. Accommodation for 48 guests. Visit www.coralprincess.com.au.
» North Star Cruises: Offers a new 14-night cruise in November between Cairns and Darwin aboard its luxurious True North vessel. Complete with an on-board Bell 407 Helicopter, guests can tour new territory, enjoy scenic flights over waterfalls, rivers and gorges and fish some of the most remote places with heli-fishing. The vessel provides accommodation for 28 guests. Visit www.northstarcruises.com.au.
» Tasmanian "devils": Follow the trail of colonial villains in Tasmania. Turn your attention to unsolved colonial crimes along Tasmania's Heritage Highway by playing the game of Skulduggery. Available at local stores. Visitors to the Heritage Highway (connecting Launceston and Hobart) follow the fictitious character of Constable John James and find clues to solve true-life crimes in the towns of Longford, Oatlands and Ross. Along the way, participants interact with communities as well as gain insight into the island's colorful past. The game costs $14.95. Visit www.heritagehighway.com.au/skulduggery.
» Walk the Kangaroo Dreaming Trail (Yonga Koondarm Biddi), Western Australia: Located 20-minutes by car from Perth, Discover the Swan Valley's local aboriginal history and land. With an Aboriginal guide, view sites dating back 40,000 years, taste a real bush tucker lunch, see how traditional tools and weapons are made, and enjoy a cultural performance featuring traditional dance and didgeridoo playing. After morning tea, try boomerang throwing or browse the Mallinup Aboriginal Art Gallery. Call 011-61-8-9296-0242 or e-mail email@example.com.
» Walking tour of the Bondi coast, New South Wales: Find out who won the Bikini Wars, where mermaids reclined and why Bondi was called "The Playground of the Pacific." Covering history from the days of Aboriginal occupation to the trendy Bondi of the 21st century, the easy hour-long walking tour will shed light on the history of Australia's most famous beach. Tours depart Mondays, Tuesdays and Fridays at 11 a.m. and on Mondays, Tuesdays and Fridays at 2 p.m. Cost starts at $10.20. Go to www.psyclone.com.au/walkthisway.
» Be a penguin researcher for a day: Victoria's popular Phillip Island Nature Park offers visitors a chance to tag along with the island's researchers and participate in one of the longest-running Australian seabird studies. Depending on conditions, activities include assisting in weighing and measuring Little penguins (no handling of animals is allowed). At the end of the day, enjoy the Penguin Parade's best seats in the exclusive commentary box, while measuring the penguins dawdling in from the surf. Cost is $750 per person and includes overnight B&B accommodation, all meals, safety equipment and transport. All profits directly benefit Phillip Island's Little Penguins and other wild flora and fauna. Visit www.penguins.org.au or call 011-61-3-5951-2800.
» Whale-watching season: The South Australian Whale Centre will host the grand kickoff of the area's whale-watching season on June 6. Located an hour south of Adelaide in the picturesque Victor Harbour, the center will host art shows, music and presentations by marine experts. Southern Right Whales migrate to the area's warmer coast and put on a spectacular display between June and October. Visit www.fleurieupeninsula.com.
» Dive with Minke Whales in Queensland: Each June and July, Undersea Explorer offers one of the world's best in-water encounters with dwarf minke whales. Six-day expeditions along the Ribbon Reefs on the Great Barrier Reef include diving and snorkeling with the inquisitive whales. Guests are actually part of a research team assisting identification of the whales, and scientists are on hand to educate about these beautiful marine mammals. Prices start at $1,840. Visit www.undersea.com.au.
SOURCE: AUSTRALIAN TOURIST COMMISSION