It's the gateway to holiday heaven, but Brisbane has its own charms, writes Olivia Fairhurst.
With the Sunshine Coast and Gold Coast at arms' reach, Brisbane is often overlooked when it comes to holidaying. But I spent four days exploring the city and found it delivers ample choices for visitors.
Think: high-rise buildings providing dinners overlooking the river, leisurely bike rides, garden walks, manmade beaches, island retreats, hot air balloon rides and Italian architecture. Why travel halfway around the world when Brisbane is right in our backyard?
As we sit down to lunch, the Story Bridge takes pride and place as our view. The river flows beneath, carrying kayakers and the CityHopper, a free inner-city ferry service. Yeah, you got that right, free.
Dining at the Alchemy Restaurant, my choice is the Gold Coast King Prawns with garlic and pernod butter followed by an irresistible risotto. The service is impeccable. A first taste of the food and hospitality Brisbane has to offer.
Next, an afternoon with Hop On Brewery Tours and who better to guide it than a Portland, Oregon expat?
She's also a self-confessed history nerd, and promises this brewery tour isn't just going to be about tasting beer.
We start at Newstead Brewery, in an original 1940s steel warehouse with beamed ceilings. There's a warm yeasty smell in the air — unusual, yet comforting — like a mulled wine at a winter German market.
We're handed a taster to sip on as the brewer gives us a personal tour, running through the different procedures. And as we sit down, six more tastings of beers with varying smoky, sweet and sour notes are placed in front of us. The tour guide gives endless knowledge on the production, culture and history behind each and every beer.
But it's a famous Brisbane story behind The Mayne Thing golden lager's branding — a butcher's meat cleaver — that catches my attention. Our guide tells us that in 1848, a sawyer was robbed and murdered. The following year Brisbane man Patrick Mayne bought a butcher's store with what he claimed was funds from his small wage as a labourer. Others believed it actually came from the money Mayne stole when he committed the murder.
Either way, this was the beginning of his business ventures and he became one of the wealthiest men in Brisbane. It's said on his death bed in 1865, Mayne also confessed to the murder of a priest. His widow believed insanity ran in the family and banned their five children from having children.
The family's inheritance funded the site of the University of Queensland and the estate's income is still contributing to the medical school there.
And I thought it was just a delicious beer with a cool label.
If you love Italian food or a meal with a view, the riverside Persone restaurant will blow you away. From its second-floor location you can see the city lights reflecting on to the water and Brisbane's version of the London Eye, setting the perfect dining atmosphere. There's glamorous modernised 60s decor, with plush teal velvet seating.
We sit in front of the floor-to-ceiling window and I order the arancini balls — the crispy-coated fontina cheese-infused rice spheres drizzled in a ragu sauce certainly do not disappoint.
Raviolo d'agnello with spring lamb and a butter sage sauce is new to me, but the butter and sage brings out the flavour of the exquisite lamb and pasta. Baby carrots glazed with honey, goats yoghurt and hazelnuts have the perfect amount of sweetness and crunch.
The mains sit at around $30, offering fine dining at a reasonable price. It would be the perfect restaurant to end the holiday on a high, and is certainly the nicest Italian food I've tasted outside Italy.
The following morning, with the sun blazing, we hire bikes and take a relaxed ride through Fortitude Valley to the river's edge.
The high-rise buildings peep through the gaps in the Story Bridge. Purple jacaranda trees line the shoreline and a view reminiscent of the New York skyline, there is an air of relaxation.
We reach the Botanic Gardens where the greenery leads us across a bridge to the manmade beaches in Southbank. Resort vibes carry us to our final destination, Goma, the Queensland Art Gallery's Gallery of Modern Art.
We're here for our personal tour of the 9th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art, which runs until April 28.
A work in black calligraphy stands before us, constructed by contemporary Chinese artist Qui Zhijie, reaching to the ceiling.
The map is marked with the locations of world issues. "Tongue in cheek, but serious topics," says the curator.
The remainder of the tour leaves me in admiration. And with the work of more than 200 artists, this Triennial marks itself as a free activity for visitors of all walks of life and cultures.
If you're pushed for time, Walk Brisbane's tours embody the history and the culture of the city.
Our choice of the day is the Laneways Cafe Tour.
The first cafe we enter opens up into a Balinese-themed garden, a tranquil abode in the middle of the city. We're greeted with a tasting platter of three coffee styles, one which tastes more like iced tea and suits Brisbane's warm weather.
Down an alleyway lined with rubbish bins, Bean may at first appear a little dodgy, but on turning the corner it's like Dr Who entering the Tardis — the cafe's entrance is an authentic British telephone box.
The other side reveals steps down to a popular getaway with a homely feel.
Adorned with lamps, bookshelves and English styled decor and furniture, the room is filled with everyone from young groups socialising to middle-aged men working on their laptops. A comfortable place to enjoy a cuppa.
After a whirlwind four days, Brisbane has managed to push its way into my heart. And if all the new and innovative openings are anything to go by, it's going to get only better.
from Auckland to Brisbane, plus a two-night stay, twin share, are priced from $599.