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Brisbane, Queensland's rapidly growing capital city, caught the world's attention during World Expo 88, commemorating Australia's bicentennial. Since then, the city's South Bank cultural attractions, creative use of its riverfront and proximity to some of Australia's best beaches have drawn an ever-increasing number of visitors and new residents. The Gold Coast and Surfers Paradise are just an hour away, and the Sunshine Coast is two hours to the north. However, the extreme south end of the Great Barrier Reef begins 230 miles north of the city, so it's not an option for a day out.
Brisbane, located some 600 miles north of Sydney, has a semitropical climate. Sitting astride the navigable Brisbane River and facing the island-studded Moreton Bay, the fast-growing city (2.1 million people in the greater metropolitan region) provides a fine one-day port of call for ships sailing between Australia and Southeast Asia or the South Pacific islands.
No other city quite makes such good use of its river as a travel artery, and visitors will find the CityCat ferries and other local boat services an ideal way to reach the most popular museums, botanical gardens, wildlife parks, historic neighborhoods, lively shopping precincts and riverfront plazas with their variety of restaurants and cafes. Within the city limits, both riverbanks have footpaths that stretch for many miles.
For those who would like to spend an independent day in the city center, nearly everything is within walking distance, and conveniently placed bridges and small cross-river launches link both sides.
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Other Australia & New Zealand Cruise Ports:
Adelaide • Auckland • Brisbane • Cairns • Christchurch • Darwin • Dunedin • Hobart • Melbourne • Napier • Noumea • Perth (Fremantle) • Sydney (Australia) • Tauranga • Wellington • Whitsundays
Aboriginal arts and crafts are unique souvenirs to bring home in the form of paintings, sculptures and decorative accessories. In addition, items like trays, coasters, mugs and tea towels that display Australia's unique animals -- kangaroos, wallabies, koalas, wombats, cassowary birds and emus -- are very popular buys.
The language is English with an Australian accent. The locals pronounce the city "Briz-bun" or simply say "Brizzie." When ordering food (or tucker), a Sammie is a sandwich, and mystery bags are sausages. To go swimming, you wear a cossie or cozzie.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The local currency is the Australian dollar. The largest coin denominations are the tiny, gold-color two-dollar pieces and the larger, gold-color one-dollar pieces. (We know that seems backward, so pay extra attention when counting your change.) Check oanada.com or xe.com for the latest exchange rates. Also, you should know that Australia no longer uses pennies, so all prices are rounded to the nearest five-cent increment. ATM's are located in main shopping areas, such as the Queen Street Mall and the Myer Centre.
Where You're Docked
Cruise ships dock at two different riverfront locations, depending on the heights of their funnels or signal masts. Ships that can clear the Gateway Motorway Bridge, downriver from the city center, dock at the Brisbane Cruise Terminal, Portside Wharf. Those that are too lofty tie up farther downstream at a freight terminal.
Portside Wharf includes an attractive local shopping center, several bars and restaurants, conference facilities and a cruise ship viewing deck. The freight terminal berth is bleak and unattractive.
From Portside Wharf: Cruise lines will likely offer shuttle bus transportation to the city center. In addition, those that dock at Portside have the option of using the CityCat, a Brisbane city-operated fast ferry that leaves on a regular schedule every 13 minutes (more frequent at peak hours) from Bretts Wharf -- a 10-minute walk from the ship. Transit time to the city center is 30 to 45 minutes, depending on your destination, and the fares that you pay onboard are the same as they are for the local transit bus.
Sightseeing from the ferry's forward or aft deck is a delight, and the route passes commercial, residential and cultural districts, and travels through the city as far upstream as the University of Queensland at St. Lucia. A complete roundtrip takes about two hours and 20 minutes, and the service is heavily used by visitors and local residents. A single ticket lasts two hours and includes transfers to buses. An all-day ticket is also available, cheaper after rush hours and on weekends.
From the Freight Terminal: There is no public transportation. The options are taxis, cruise line shuttles or excursion transportation.
On Foot: City center streets are named after female British royalty (Adelaide, Elizabeth, Mary and the like) in the east-west direction and after males (Albert, Edward, George) in the north-south direction. A heritage walking tour guide takes you past some three dozen notable structures, including the old customs house, former port office, naval offices, immigration depot (when the ships dock next to the city center), Parliament House and the Queensland Club.
Watch Out For
The Australian sun is very powerful, and it's essential to liberally apply sun block on beach days and when spending a lot of time outdoors. Wear a hat, too.
Brisbane City Hall (King George Square), built in 1930, was once the city's tallest building. Now, when you take the elevator up 300 feet into the clock tower (which strikes loudly on the hour), you have views of even taller buildings, the river and several parks. On the ground floor, the Museum of Brisbane uses photos and maps to show how the city developed, exhibits paintings of Brisbane through history and screens videos of local citizens talking about their lives. Admission to the museum and clock tower is free.
Newstead House, the city's oldest surviving house, dating back to 1846, is set in a park overlooking the Brisbane River. During World War II, the U.S. Army occupied the house, and Brisbane saw one million U.S. troops pass through the city during the Pacific War. There is a modest admission charge. Take Bus 300 or 302. (Newstead Park, Breakfast Creek Road, Newstead. Open Tuesday to Friday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Sunday 2 to 5 p.m.)
RiverWalk extends for 13 miles along the Brisbane River's north bank -- from the University of Queensland at St. Lucia downriver to Tenerife and well beyond the city center. Walk one way, and take the CityCat in the other direction from any of a dozen landings. The best walking sections skirt the restaurants and cafes in the city center, passing into the botanical gardens and onto wooden walkways through a mangrove swamp, where the adjacent urban skyline disappears from sight and mind. A shorter walk extends a few miles along the South Bank, opposite the city center.
The South Bank, across the Brisbane River, took on its present attractive look during World Expo 88. The area includes riverside walks, shops, parklands, a sandy beach and pool, weekend markets and the Queensland Cultural Centre. There is a sense of complete freedom to be able to walk in and out of these museums at will and without turnstile barriers and security checks. In the Cultural Centre, the Queensland Art Gallery is a spacious, light-filled, water-dappled repository of European masters, Australian artists and Aboriginal art. The Queensland Gallery of Modern Art, next door, exhibits contemporary art by Australians, Aborigines, Asians and South Pacific islanders. Two cinemas show regular film programs. The Queensland Museum exhibits natural history, artifacts from World Wars I and II, a hanging aircraft, a beautiful Orient Line ship model and dinosaur exhibits for kids. The State Library often has free exhibits, the most recent dedicated to the major flooding that struck the city in January 2011. Admission is free to all three museums, except to the Queensland Museum's Sciencentre and traveling exhibits. You can cross to the South Bank by ferry or via several bridges, two built exclusively for pedestrians and cyclists.
Queen Street, a pedestrian mall stretching several blocks, and the Myer Centre are the main shopping venues, with fast food courts among the shops and covered outdoor restaurants in the mall passage. Often, outdoor concerts and musical events take place there, and the locale teems with all ages during late shopping hours on Friday and Saturday.
Been There, Done That
Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary, located along the Brisbane River at Fig Tree Pocket, is a 20-minute taxi ride or 30 minutes by hourly bus 430 from the city center. However, the most enjoyable way to arrive is by boat; try a scenic 90-minute sail with Mirimar Cruises (with commentary), a two-hour stay at the sanctuary and a relaxing 90-minute return. Most people come to see the koalas, and more than 100 are on view. You can cuddle one while having your picture taken (for a fee), and dozens queue up for the opportunity. Lone Pine also houses many only-in-Australia creatures. You can buy food to feed the kangaroos and wallabies, and you can observe emus, wombats, bats, skinks, baby crocodiles, black-headed pythons and turtles. Scheduled events include sheepdog and bird-of-prey shows, the latter featuring hawk owls and giant sea eagles swooping over the heads of seated visitors. (Open daily 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.)
Brisbane Botanic Gardens Mount Coot-tha, Toowong, is just four miles from the city via Bus 471. The 128-acre garden is set below Mount Coot-tha, with many rainforest plants that are seen nowhere else. Also featured are the Tropical Dome, a cactus house, an elaborate Japanese garden, a lake and walking trails. One trail climbs to the top of Mount Coot-tha for a view of Brisbane and Moreton Bay beyond. Admission is free, as are the one-hour guided tours. (Open daily 8 a.m. to 5 or 5:30 p.m., in winter and summer respectively.)
With Brisbane's location on the Queensland Coast, seafood is abundant and fresh. Favorite choices are wild barramundi (reef fish), clams, mussels, mud crabs and Moreton Bay bugs (crustaceans with a strong flavor). Favorite dishes, direct from the Outback, include farm-raised kangaroo and, of course, steak. Queensland is farm country, so expect plenty of fresh vegetables and fruit. With the recent influx of immigrants from around the world, many ethnic cuisines -- especially Italian, Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese and Indonesian -- are now available in Brisbane.
Australian wines are varied and excellent; they range from inexpensive to some of the best in the world. When looking at Australian menus, entrees or small plates means first courses or appetizers, and main courses or big plates are just that.
In Brisbane, a good destination for lunch is Riverside, a CityCat stop adjacent to the city center. It has numerous restaurants on tiered levels, most of which face the Brisbane River. Some have outdoor cafe seating. In Australia, the price of food includes the tax, and at informal restaurants and cafes, gratuities are not expected. In the better restaurants, 10 percent is generous.
The Coffee Club, opposite the Eagle Street Pier, is an inexpensive choice for light meals. You order your battered fish and seasoned chips, lemon pepper calamari and chicken, or filet burger with a salad garnish at a counter, and it will be delivered to your table, which will likely be overlooking the river. It's open all day. (Shop 10, Waterfront Place, 1 Eagle St.)
Watt Restaurant & Bar is located at the Brisbane Powerhouse. This popular location, directly on the Brisbane River, used to house the power plant that ran Brisbane's trams. It's now a multi-use arts center and restaurant complex. Watt is on the ground floor facing the river with both indoor and outdoor seating. Small plates feature braised duck spring rolls with plum sauce and smoked kingfish, fried capers, egg and lemon oil, while large plates offer confit of duck leg, bean cassoulet, Toulouse sausage, Cone Bay barramundi, and bean and snow peas stir fry in a ginger and soy butter sauce. Take the CityCat to New Farm Park and walk five minutes downstream along the riverside to the restaurant. (119 Lamington Street, New Farm. 07 3358 5464. Lunch is offered daily from noon to 3 p.m. Dinner is served from 5:30 p.m. daily, except Sundays.)
The Summit, located at the Mt. Coot-tha Lookout (see above) in Toowong, is a contemporary Australian restaurant, housed in a rambling bungalow with modern additions and outstanding views of Brisbane and Moreton Bay. Try seared deep-sea scallops, grilled saltwater barramundi, grilled Queensland Hereford beef or Moreton Bay bugs. Take bus 471 from the city center. (073769 9922. Lunch is available from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., extended to 4 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. Dinner is served daily from 5:30 p.m. Try Sunday breakfast from 8 a.m. to 10:30 a.m.)
Staying in Touch
Internet cafes are available along Adelaide Street in the city center and the South Bank Visitor Information Centre at Stanley Street Plaza, South Bank Parklands.
Best for First-Timers: Leisurely Brisbane is a standard half-day coach tour that drives past the main city sights, such as the Parliament Building, city botanical gardens, City Hall and South Bank Cultural Center. It then heads up Mt. Coot-tha for a view of the city, Moreton Bay and the surrounding countryside, and offers a chance to stroll though the lush, subtropical botanic gardens.
Best for Sun-Worshippers: Beach bums should head to the Gold Coast and Surfers Paradise, where after a 90-minute drive each way, they can enjoy four hours at the outstanding beach. They can also shop and dine at numerous restaurants of all types and prices. A drive through Brisbane with some sightseeing is also included.
Best for Families: For a glimpse of crocodiles and other wildlife, head to the 70-acre Australia Zoo, an animal conservancy founded by late TV crocodile hunter Steve Irwin. The seven-hour tour includes a crocodile show and a didgeridoo performance by an Aboriginal. Visitors can pay extra to cuddle a koala, feed a kangaroo or Asian elephant and have a photo taken with a koala or a giant python. During the three-hour visit, there is ample time to purchase lunch before driving into the hinterland for a visit to Montville, a Victorian village of restored houses and arts and craft shops.
For More Information
On the Web: Brisbane Visitor Information Center
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Australia & New Zealand Forum
--by Theodore W. Scull, Cruise Critic Contributor