Australia's Once Ugly Duckling

Australia's Once Ugly Duckling photo

Brisbane was once known as the ugly duckling of Australia's capital cities, but today as the capital of Queensland, it has grown up as one of the island continent's most attractive cities — one you may want to include on your next Australian itinerary.

While Brisbane has been important to business travelers and serves as the jumping-off point for tropical Queensland and Great Barrier Reef attractions, the city has come into its own in recent years.

Many visitors liken Brisbane to a large American southern or midwestern city. Residents tend to be middle class, living in Colonial homes built off the ground with corrugated tin roofs, verandahs and colored glass casement windows for keep them cool. Queenslanders also tend to be conservative.

But changes have come to Brisbane. Downtown, numerous shiny glass and concrete high-rises have appeared, giving the city a progressive look. King George Square in city center is a spacious mall of fountains lighted at night, of palms and pigeons, of classical-style City Hall with its 1930 Gothic-style clock tower. Around the square, modern structures blend with the Gothic revival red-and-white brick Albert Street Methodist Church from 1889 and a bronze statue of George V.

Brisbane River, running wide and deep, remains the city's main feature. Crossed by four bridges, it allows ocean-going sailing vessels and cargo ships access to the city docks. Depending on when you visit, you may have the opportunity to witness one of several regattas held throughout the year.

The climate here ranges from mild to hot. In January temperatures reach the high 80s, in July they get as low as the high 40s. Summer rains usually fall daily about 5 pm and last for a half hour. African tulips, oleanders, jacarandas and other flowering trees bloom from September to November.

In 1823 John Oxley, surveyor general of New South Wales, landed at the future site of Brisbane and named the river after Sir Thomas Brisbane, then governor of the territory. The following year he established a convict settlement "for the worst class of offenders," and named it after the river. But the penal settlement closed in 1839, and three years later Brisbane opened for free settlement.

The city lies 20 miles upriver from Moreton Bay on the east. To the west lie the Taylor mountains. Brisbane lies in a hilly area with 935-foot Mt. Coot-tha the highest point in the city. From its summit, you'll get a good view of the city. It's also the location of an 88-acre botanical garden and a planetarium.

Because of its hilly terrain, you'll find several other places for overviews of the city, including Bartley's Hill, Mt. Gravatt, the clock tower of City Hall, the AMP building, and the SGIO building, which has a rooftop restaurant, so you can lookout over the twinkling lights of Brisbane as you eat dinner.

History is much a part of Brisbane life. The founders named downtown streets, such as Mary, Edward and Adelaide, after British monarchs, and older architecture includes Renaissance, Edwardian and Victorian buildings. Among ,the more attractive are the old National Hotel on Queen Street and the People's Palace Hotel on Ann Street, both with balconies trimmed with intricate white ironwork.

Other downtown historic buildings include the Edwardian-styled Land Administration Building between George and William streets, Parliament House, a fine example of French Renaissance architecture on the corner of George and Alice streets, and the Treasury Building in Italian Renaissance style near Victoria Bridge. An eternal flame burns at the classical-styled Shrine of Remembrance at Anzac Square.

In the northern suburb of Norman Park, Early Street Historical Village has a collection of colonial buildings furnished with 19th-century artifacts.

Other city attractions are the grassy Botanic Gardens along the river, Queens Gardens near the Public Library, Newstead Park, containing Brisbane's most historic residence, and the University of Queensland in the suburb of St. Lucia. Sir Charles Kingsford-Smith's three-engine plane, Southern Cross, which made the first trans-Pacific crossing in 1928, resides at the domestic airport in Eagle Farm. The Queensland Museum, at the corner of Gregory Terrace and Bowen Bridge Road, looks like a red-and-white brick Victorian castle.

Eight miles from downtown on the river is Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary. One of the largest of its kind, the sanctuary holds koalas, kangaroos, emus, dingoes, a platypus, and numerous birds, all in natural surroundings. Other places to see Australian wildlife include Oasis Gardens and Bunya Park.

So before you head out to the Great Barrier Reef, be sure to explore Brisbane. You'll be glad you did.