Queensland: Toowoomba tourism bounces back

Known widely as the Garden City for its 150 public gardens and parks, Toowoomba's buildings and gardens have been restored and visitors are returning after the flood of January 2011.

Toowoomba's art deco Empire Theatre. Photo /Tourism Queensland
Toowoomba's art deco Empire Theatre. Photo /Tourism Queensland

It's hard to think of the Darling Downs city of Toowoomba in Queensland's south-east without remembering the deadly and devastating flood of 10 January 2011.

On that day a wall of water rushed through the city's CBD, taking life and property with it.

Nearly two years on, however, there is little evidence of that terrible day - apart from a modest memorial and some flowers fixed to a post near a creek which carried the torrent.

There's much to enjoy in a city which pays homage in its buildings to a rich cultural, spiritual, legal, educational and agricultural history, starting in the 1840s. Grand CBD buildings, like the old sandstone Courthouse which is now a private home, and the splendid art deco Empire Theatre, are typical.

The original theatre was opened in 1911 as a silent movie house but in 1932 a fire all but destroyed it. Although rebuilt the next year, the theatre later fell into neglect.

The city was divided over whether or not to scrap the building. But the preservationists won out and the Empire was restored in the 1990s and re-opened. It is now the largest regional theatre in Australia.

(Do take a self-guided walking tour of the CBD to see the Empire Theatre, old Courthouse and other splendid early 20th century buildings.)

In the residential streets, lined with camphor laurel and Norfolk pine trees, are fabulous homes from the same era, some reborn for other uses, like restaurants, art galleries and antique shops. By contrast, elsewhere you'll find humble workers' cottages.

The heritage-listed railway station is a good place for a high tea. In the elegant ambience of a yesteryear railway refreshment room you'll be served on the old refreshment room crockery.

Art is big on the Darling Downs and there are plenty of galleries to explore. One of the first to open was the Tosari Gallery in Margaret Street, Toowoomba. Director Rosie O'Sullivan is a passionate supporter of local talent. The gallery also features excellent indigenous art from around Australia.

Truck driver Jim Deignan has a small studio hidden away in Tin Mine Road, Crows Nest. The grandson of a bullock driver and son of a bushman, Jim grew up in mulga country with red dirt on his boots. Working in watercolour and oils he captures the spirit of a simple country life in his landscapes.

While you are in Crows Nest visit the Community Arts and Crafts Centre where a collective of local artists, working in a variety of mediums, show their work.

One of the more interesting art forms is in the Crows Nest home of Elissa Bellert. She creates sculptures out of low-status objects - kitchen utensils, steamers, hub caps, old cogs and saucepan lids. Her electrician father would bring home odd objects from his work and they sparked a creative urge in Elissa.

Speaking of kitchen utensils, in Toowoomba's Station Street, Sharyn Donaldson, the wife of a local doctor, has created a wonderful cooking school and retail kitchenware outlet called Sauce. She has transformed a 101-year-old produce store which once supplied a local brewery. It's now just a year old but is already very popular for cooking classes.

"We will continue to build Sauce as a centre for excellence in hospitality,'' Donaldson says.

"We are also passionate about working with local food producers and joining forces with them to create menus which are interesting, delicious and achievable for the home cook.''

Our visit coincides with an Italian cheese demonstration. We learn how to make mascarpone and mozzarella cheeses. Later we could attend a workshop on making and serving Spanish tapas. (The serving of tapas with drinks is designed to promote the appetite - and conversation, we're told.)

Speaking of gourmet food, we drop in on Alex Weston at Veraison, a modern Australian restaurant and one of Toowoomba's finest - certainly one of its most popular. It has earned chef's hats from both the Australian and Queensland good food guides. With a seasonally changing menu that will more often than not include organic, locally produced ingredients, the food here is innovative and evolves often enough to keep locals interested - very interested, indeed, with most nights seeing a full restaurant of happy diners.

We are treated to a degustation special, a four-course fine-dining package with matching wines. We start with a beetroot soup flavoured with figs. Very tasty. Our entree is Banyard Farm Quail followed by tender Grass Fed Rib Fillet and finished with a dessert of Duck Egg Creme Brulee.

We continue our visit at the Cobb & Co Museum, one of the biggest and best tributes anywhere in Australia to the iconic coach service which for 70 years from 1854 criss-crossed Australia carrying passengers, mail and parcels. This museum is truly visitor-friendly - open the lid of a luggage box and Tommy the coach driver talks to you. And `Don't touch' signs are scarce.

Our guide shows us some of the 50 or so horse-drawn vehicles on display, giving us a detailed rundown on the carriages. Do you know where the expression `box seat' comes from? It was the prized, padded seat next to the driver. And the phrase `pulling your leg'? Well, on suburban coach services passengers inside had to signal the driver when they wanted the next stop by pulling a rope attached to the driver's leg.

We finish our visit to the museum in the Have A Go workshop where I work on some leathercrafting. I could also have spent time weaving. At other times resident artisans conduct workshops in blacksmithing, silversmithing, sculpture, glass art and leatherplaiting.

Picnic Point Lookout sits 710 metres above sea level and gives a panoramic view toward the coast. It's a good place for lunch and Kenny and Catherine Kristensen are fine hosts. Their Caesar salad is one of the best. Wattle and violets are the floral emblems of Toowoomba and Kenny introduced a wattle and violet ice cream sundae for visitors to this year's Carnival of Flowers. It is topped with wattleseed and caramel sauce. Very popular during the festival, Kenny has saved a taste for us.

IF YOU GO

GETTING THERE:

Toowoomba is Australia's largest inland regional city with a population of 128,600. It is about 90 minutes by road (130kms) from Brisbane.

PLAYING THERE:

The Cobb & Co Museum is in Lindsay Street and is open daily. Family entry (two adults and four children) is $32; cobbandco.qm.qld.gov.au.

The Sauce Kitchen in Station Street; thesaucekitchen.com.au.

Veraison is at 205 Margaret Street, Toowoomba. A four-course meal, with wines, start at under $60.

City tours by coach are being developed. More information at stonestreetcoaches.com.au.

More information from the Southern Queensland Country Tourism at toowoombaholidays.com.au.

- AAP

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