Queensland’s capital, Brisbane, benefits from the backwardness of which it has traditionally been accused – lacking, as it does, the precocious exuberance of Sydney or the self-conscious chic of Melbourne, Brisbane combines a vibrant urban scene with the laid-back ambience of a country town. Boasting a superb year-round climate of warm days and cooler nights, and surrounded by natural attractions, the city is bisected by the winding Brisbane River, which can be explored by paddle steamer or the high-speed CityCat ferries. Al fresco dining options exist all along the riverfront, but the South Bank is the centre of Brisbane’s entertainment, leisure and cultural life, hosting weekend markets, parklands, an outdoor pool and summertime open air cinema as well as a performing arts centre, art gallery, museum and music conservatorium.
Brisbane city centre’s modern architecture, including the Treasury Casino, contrasts with heritage sandstone buildings, but it is the inner suburbs that provide much of the city’s vitality. Like many previously seedy neighbourhoods, Fortitude Valley is now Brisbane’s hip enclave, where much of the best shopping, dining and nightlife is to be found, as well as a large Chinatown district, crammed with Asian eateries, Chinese grocers and herbalists. West End’s multicultural influences have created another vibrant suburb, full of vintage clothing, books and fine food. Kangaroo Point, with its sheer sandstone cliffs, is a favourite destination for climbers and hosts cockroach races each Australia Day (26 January), while Park Road in Milton offers luxury goods on which to squander your wealth. The historic suburb of Paddington features traditional ‘Queenslanders’, wooden bungalows constructed on stilts to allow for the circulation of air and beat the heat of the tropics, although the tropicana feel is very much there in the fruit bowl of colours in which they are painted.
The Gold Coast is Queensland’s party central, a 22-mile strip of golden surf beaches laid out seductively in front of high-rise developments, fast-food chains and heaving nightspots. For the most part, the area certainly lacks the unspoilt beauty of many of the state’s major attractions, but it’s a great place to lose your head for a few days. The glitzy jewel in the crown of the Gold Coast is the unbelievably tacky yet fabulously fun Surfers Paradise, a tiny town totally given over to hedonism of the sun, sand, surf and smashed kind. Surfers’ friendly vibe is nowhere better epitomised than in the presence of the ubiquitous Meter Maids – bikini-clad babes who feed the parking meters with coins to prevent drivers getting booked.
The area also features a slew of theme parks, each boasting various attractions and heart-stopping rides, as well as a casino and countless places to shop. The hyperactivity of the Gold Coast reaches fever pitch each October, with the Australian leg of the IndyCar racing series, but at any time of year the lush Gold Coast hinterlands, about 30 miles inland, provide respite from the ceaseless buzz with walking tracks taking in mountains, waterfalls and forests.
Fraser Island is a World Heritage listed 70-mile long sandbar, the biggest in the world. Despite its popularity with tourists, it is beautiful and untamed, an island paradise of 4WDing, walking tracks, fishing, camping and swimming. Avoiding the water around the island is probably wise, as it is full of sharks and lethal currents, but the island itself features over 200 lakes, some of which are of exceptional clarity. In addition, there is abundant marine and wildlife to be observed, plus a huge variety of flora, coloured sand cliffs, massive, slowly-shifting dunes, and rainforest rising straight out of the sand. The jump-off point to the island, Hervey Bay, is a destination in its own right as it is the rest stop and playground of whales en route from Antarctica between July and October. A number of whale watching cruises run out of the Bay, just about guaranteeing sightings of these magnificent and often playful creatures. An annual festival, the none-too-imaginatively-named Hervey Bay Whale Festival, celebrates the return journey of the migrating whales every August, although the sighting season peaks in September.
Great Barrier Reef
Words fall so far short of capturing the actual sensation of being on the Great Barrier Reef that the temptation to trail off into strings of superlatives is overwhelming. Magnificent, incomparable, one of the natural wonders of the world…. while the Reef can be adequately experienced from a glass-bottomed boat or by snorkelling, nothing really compares to completely immersing yourself in that majestic underwater world on a scuba dive. Fortunately, dive centres for learners and qualified divers alike abound all along the reef, and fierce competition keeps prices fairly low. The warm, tropical waters often render a wetsuit unnecessary and visibility is consistently high. Drifting about with nothing but the sound of your own deep, relaxed breathing to be heard, impossibly coloured fish flick between vibrant corals, sea turtles spin and glide in a silent dance, massive pouty-lipped Maori Wrasse regard you sideways and anemones billow sensuously. Night dives see divers encountering reef sharks and crustaceans, or switching off their torches to experience the total liberation and disorientation of waving their hands about and seeing shooting stars of phosphorescence trailing before their eyes. The Reef is, quite simply, unbelievable – both strange and beautiful, dreamscape and world-within-the-world, creating sensations of complete calm and utter exhilaration simultaneously.
Known primarily for its rainforest, reef and coastline, Queensland also contains a massive stretch of Australia’s harsh outback. Mount Isa is an oasis, a thriving desert town whose mining fortunes have been built on huge deposits of silver, copper, lead and zinc. One mile beneath the surface, the extensive, tunnelled mine system can be explored on a tour; alternatively, the John Middlin Mining Museum offers a simulated subterranean experience. The Royal Flying Doctor Service has a base here, which should be visited for an insight into this innovation that is so vital in Australia’s remote inner regions, while Riversleigh Fossil Centre offers a glimpse into an unimaginably distant past. August sees activity in Mount Isa really kick off, with the Mount Isa Rotary Rodeo and Festival – Australia’s biggest rodeo, a 2 day extravaganza of bucking broncos, country music, thrills and spills.
The second-largest tract of virgin rainforest in the world, after the Amazon, is to be found at Daintree/Cape Tribulation, but the area is unique in that the steep and jungle-choked mountains come right down to meet the Reef, separated only by endless stretches of white sandy beach. Fragile eco-systems and astounding biodiversity – wildlife is prolific, while previously unknown plants and insects are still being discovered here – exist under the dense forest canopy, through which the sunlight filters down onto tree-ferns, palms, strangler figs and thick vines snaking their way up trees. The rainforest can be experienced on horse riding treks and walks, but a different perspective can be had from above the canopy via elevated boardwalks and luxury eco-lodge accommodation on stilts. Boat trips on the green Daintree River offer crocodile spotting by night or birdwatching by day, and safe, croc-free swimming can be enjoyed at a number of swimming holes and creeks. This pristine wilderness is a tropical Eden, which was World Heritage-listed in 1988 and provides the visitor both with magnificent surroundings and a humbling glimpse of the vital links between species on our planet.
For that real getting-away-from-it-all feeling, the secluded grandeur of Hinchinbrook Island is the ultimate siren song. Separated from the mainland only by a narrow channel, the Island somehow creates the illusion of utter, blissful isolation. The craggy silhouette of Mt Bowen, the summit of which can be reached in a day or so – looms over the island’s varied terrain, all of which is protected as a national park. A 20-mile long hike, the Thorsborne Trail, takes in all of the island’s diversity, including mangrove-fringed shores, dense tropical forest, freshwater swimming holes, sheer granite mountains, gloriously golden beaches and sheltered coves. Lumbering sea turtles feeding on marine flora at Turtle Bay and prolific birdlife can also be observed, but the island’s main appeal is its sense of separateness from the rest of the world, a pristine wilderness where accommodation options range from primitive campgrounds to deluxe treehouses.
Article By Sarah Rodrigues