How Brisbane stopped being a redneck wonderland

Last updated 05:15 25/06/2014
Brisbane
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CHANGING LANDSCAPE: Brisbane's popular 'beach', part of the South Bank redevelopment.

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Twenty-eight years ago I landed in Brisbane on my first visit to Australia from the UK.

Being from the British burn-till-you-tan tribe I loved the intense summer sunshine and the outdoor lifestyle. But I hated Brisbane's provincial-town feel and pervading redneck mentality.

Back then, Brisbane was a city built in the image of Queensland's premier, strident conservative Joh Bielke-Peterson. Peterson's chief urban planning scheme lay in tearing down heritage buildings and replacing them with eyesores.

The staging of World Expo in 1988 was, however, the kick in the short pants it needed, spurring the redevelopment of the South Bank of the Brisbane River and sowing the seeds of a better-rounded city.

Shortly after, the advent of pavement dining brought new life to previously dingy inner city areas like Fortitude Valley, the city's Chinatown, and West End, and the Brisbane riverside began opening up.  

Eagle Street pier, with its waterside eateries, sprang up beside the CBD, and across the river on Southbank, the colossal, if defiantly ugly, Performing Arts Centre, Queensland Museum and Gallery of Modern Art transformed Brisbane into a city with a cultural heart.

Yet, by now a proud resident of Sydney I, like many Sydneysiders and not a few Melburnians (even as thousands streamed north for "the climate"), continued to cringe at Brissie's lack of sophistication.  

Visiting throughout the next two decades, I barely acknowledged its increasingly multicultural population, the improvement in its restaurants and nightlife or the way the Brisbane river was becoming a fulcrum for locals and visitors alike.

By the end of the 2000s, friends living there were espousing its virtues with more conviction.  

At weekends, when not taking the ferry to gorgeous Stradbroke Island, they'd be out cycling along riverside bike paths and dining al fresco in Brisbane's cluster of central villages.

Then came the floods of January 2011.  Built on a series of sinuous bends on the river, central Brisbane was inundated and state premier Anna Bligh shed tears on television.

Exactly two years later, floods threated Brisbane again, but this time there was less carnage.  

Visiting shortly after to check out several lavish riverside eateries, including the new Pony bar and restaurant replacing a McDonald's at Eagle Street Pier, I noted how far the city had come since the 1980s.

Returning recently to stay at the Gambaro, Brisbane's first newly built hotel for seven years, on Caxton Street, in Petrie Terrace, I'm struck again by a modern city that 's become a viable alternative to our overcrowded southern capitals.

For a start it takes just fifteen minutes and two sets of lights to reach the hotel using the new Airport Link tunnelled motorway, another improvement in Brisbane's infrastructure, opened in 2012.

Then, on arrival, I am bowled over by the fresh-faced greeting from the Gambaro staff.  

Young General Manager Murray Rowbotham, lately of the excellent Emporium Hotel in Fortitude Valley, is chief among the greeters.  

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Rowbotham has worked his way through the hospitality ranks, having begun as a concierge, and brings vitality and vision to this newest of Brisbane boutique hotels.  

But all the staff compare favourably with those in a la mode properties in Sydney or Melbourne.

The luxury, four-floor Gambaro stands at the core of what was once an earthy inner-west precinct full of strip joints.  It builds on one family's association with Brisbane going back sixty years, generations of Gambaros growing up sleeping in cots behind the deep-fryer in a fish and chop, opposite the hotel, and, later, amid the bustle of the city's best-known seafood restaurant.

The Gambaro manages to be both futuristic, with all the latest technology including intelligent lighting and interactive televisions, and old-style homely, with warm furnishings and decor.

Dining across the road at the Gambaro's Blackhide Steakhouse, there's knowledgeable, urbane service from a French maître d' and Spanish waiting staff, and I'm genuinely astonished when two of the famiglia, brothers John and Frank, arrive to greet every diner.

Later I have drinks at the New York-style Chelsea bar in the Barracks, a former city jail, on Caxton Street, and see a band at Lefties, once the Velvet Cigar gentlemen's club.  This is Bohemian Brisbane to add to the multicultural, artistic, gourmet and refined Brisbane I've encountered previously.

By the end of my stay at the Gambaro, which some say reflects Brisbane's rise from humble roots to hipster destination, I feel like the Queensland capital has finally shrugged off its redneck tendencies.  

That it has lost its awkwardness and faux-confidence to become an accomplished and distinctive grown-up, no longer in thrall to its showier siblings.

In November, the staging of the G20 summit will confer international recognition on BrizVegas.  

But whether it has become Australia's third substantive metropolis simply to be returned to the dark old days by another aggressively right-wing premier remains to be seen.

The writer was a guest of the Gambaro Hotel and Tourism Queensland.

- FFX Aus

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