Brisbane: Riverside revelry lights up chic city

By John Landrigan

About 2000kg of explosives were set off during the Brisbane Festival. Photo / Supplied
About 2000kg of explosives were set off during the Brisbane Festival. Photo / Supplied

The garments were sophisticated and timeless, playful, sleek and sexy. Despite myself, I enjoyed viewing a stunning array of haute couture dresses by Italian designer Valentino Garavani; the designs spanning nearly five decades to his final collection in 2008.

The display, in the Brisbane Gallery of Modern Art, embodied the glamour, beauty and ambition of an age when garments were hand-crafted to perfection and worn with flair.

I couldn't help wondering what happened to having fun with clothes, creating an interesting building instead of just maximising the rentable space, or wining and dining to titillate the palate rather than for sustenance.

That is until I took in the rest of Brisbane.

Like Valentino's hand-painted dresses, flowing gowns and sleek lines, Brisbane has fast become a haughty place of culture for millions of tourists.

City developers have embraced style in the beautiful arched bridges across the Brisbane river, a myriad of pedestrian and bike-friendly boulevards lined with sculptures and the gardened malls surrounded by modern and historic architecture.

Valentino dressed high society women and actresses and celebrities such as Audrey Hepburn, Jacqueline Kennedy, Nicole Kidman, Julia Roberts and Elizabeth Taylor. Brisbane, however, offers a more accessible style for all to enjoy.

I resisted the urge to take in the many neighbouring theme parks and beaches to remain within the city limits.

In three days and two nights on a preset itinerary and I just scratched the surface of bars, restaurants, cafes, boutique hotels, chic shopping precincts, river cruises and adventure activities on offer.

Not only did the Brisbane Broncos season end at Suncorp Stadium - the mood remained upbeat - but the three-week extravaganza that is the Brisbane Festival had sparked off. As many as 500,000 people lined the Brisbane river for the famous Riverfire, which saw the city transformed into a 5km tinder box.

The skies were filled with 100 different special effects encompassing 2000kg of explosives and 16,000kg of fireworks.

To cap it off, Australia's F-111 strike jets burned a trail of fuel as they traced the river three times. Although 500,000 people turned out for the fun, the city's pubic transport and array of one-way roads functioned admirably.

Decadence has been embraced in Brisbane and tourists are flocking to swanky new precincts such as Fortitude Valley, says hotelier Murray Rowbotham.

The Emporium Hotel, where Rowbotham works, sits amid high-end restaurants and has just won Australia's Best Boutique Hotel award.

As much as we like to deride the Aussies for fun, you can't fault them for their hospitality.

Rowbotham, who was brought up on a New South Wales farm, loves Brisbane.

"Why do people flock to Brisbane? Lifestyle," he says. "It's not a rat race like Sydney but it still has all the opportunities. You can live 18km from the city centre and be in acreage."

But there aren't enough hotel rooms for all the people wanting to come to the city, he says. You have to book in advance.

Annita Crawford, 20, moved to Brisbane from Taranaki two years ago and was just about to drive 45 minutes to the Gold Coast for a surf when we met.

"Compared to other cities, Brisbane is so laidback and friendly," she says. "You go up to ask someone for directions and you have a great conversation.

"We have friends come over every weekend from New Zealand. Everyone comes and they want to stay."

According to Tourism Queensland, 80,000 Kiwis visit Brisbane every year. Many are so taken by it that they remain.

It's testament to the number of tourists who flock here every year that my rickshaw guide, Luke Page, has lost his Australian twang.

"I've had to talk more slowly and deliberately. I now get mistaken for a South African or a Kiwi," he laughs.

Brisbane was once a penal colony. Convicts cleared the land and felled the trees. The work, so our friendly river guide told us, was reserved for the "worst description of men".

But the river has moved on from industrial haulage to pleasure trips and glitzy riverside real estate. Huge art deco towers could be easily mistaken for Valentino's early work.

I kayaked the river and could also have rockclimbed, rollerbladed, cycled or sunned myself in balmy heat on a purpose-built beach.

I strolled past tables on the Goodwill Bridge during a Father's Day breakfast put on by the city and through the botanical gardens.

Brisbane is is built on pride in getting things right. This is evident in the Brisbane festival that has fast become one of Australia's largest arts and cultural celebrations. You can enjoy the ballet, theatre, bands, buskers and the arts over three fun-packed weeks.

I'm sure Valentino would be proud to have his work on display in this modern mecca of style and sophistication.

CHECKLIST

Further information: The Valentino retrospective at the Brisbane Gallery of Modern Art runs until November 14. See qag.qld.gov.au.

The Brisbane Festival ends on September 22. See brisbanefestival.com.au.

For more about visiting Queensland see queenslandholidays.com.

John Landrigan visited Brisbane as guest of Tourism Queensland.

- NZ Herald

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