A New Yorker's love letter to her home town of Brisbane

A New Yorker's love letter to her home town of Brisbane

The Brisbane River is dotted with zippy CityCat ferries, markets, museums and bustling restaurants and bars on this perfect sunshiney day – a stark contrast to grey New York City, from where I’ve just flown.

It’s a spectacular view from my perch on the 21st floor of the new Emporium Hotel South Bank, where a couple right out of the latest J.Crew catalogue – kaftan, summer sandals, sunnies and blue-and-white striped boardies - are sipping cocktails poolside. Inside the restaurant, the bartender presses a button and voila, the mirrored retractable roof slides open to show off a bright blue sky.

Brisbane, the capital of the Sunshine State, appears to be all grown up.

It has been 20 years since I left Brisbane for Sydney. And New York is now my home for two decades.

When I started in Sydney as a journalist with Australian Associated Press, and later The Australian, there was a cringe factor when admitting you were from Brisbane. “Oh, right.” “Sorry about that.” As if you’d finally reached the Best City in the World and better not to mention poor old Brisbane.

Fast forward, and Brisbane has caught up with Sydney and Melbourne on the hotel and restaurant front, as more locals and visitors discover its appeal. What Brisbane has always had, and still does, in spite of its less-vocal critics, is a genuinely warm, friendly and relaxed style that visitors don’t forget. When you come to Brisbane, you connect with the locals.

The staff who go out of their way to welcome me from New York with a flat white – no charge since I’m not having the full breakfast buffet but clearly need a real Australian coffee (or two) after my long-haul trip - are a welcome change. You know international visitors are going to love that. And the locals like to chat. About what to see and do, where to eat, the weather, politics, you name it. No one in Sydney seems to do much of that.

Sydney and Melbourne are sensational cities, but lately every time I’m in either locale, it feels they are a little less welcoming, and a lot more international. As though there is always a race to the next trend.

Bris – I admit, I don’t love “BrisVegas”: why associate with a glitzy, gambling mecca of the US? - stands proud, tall and less anxiously concerned with what others think about it.

Brisbane has a lot to be proud of, and inbound tourism numbers back that. Holiday visitor arrivals from the US to Brisbane increased 22.5 per cent 2017 to 2018. By comparison, holiday arrivals to Australia grew by 5.5 per cent in the same period. Brisbane is the fastest-growing capital city in Australia for holiday arrivals from the US, in terms of percentage.

Brisbane still has the laid-back feeling of a much smaller city, with the Sunshine Coast, Gold Coast and a slew of islands to choose from for weekend getaways when the city "gets too much".

Locals will complain about traffic and driving ability but these aren’t unique problems for Australian cities and Brisbane traffic seems to me to be not as bad as New York. Plus, the drivers are a lot nicer here.

Brisbane’s transformation has made the city itself a destination and not just a stopover on the way to the reef and rainforest in north Queensland. You don’t need to leave this city to relax.

It is hard to believe it has been 30 years since Expo 88 – Canada and the US looked so good to me back then. The entire world looked better than Brisbane. Now I live in New York, where I worked as a journalist for The Financial Times, and have written for The New York Times. Brisbane is one of the cities I always love returning to and I am sad to leave each time.

It is interesting to ponder where Brisbane is headed and where it will go by 2025, with major projects including the $5.4 billion Cross River Rail project and Brisbane airport's $1.3 billion new parallel runway.

New developments including the Emporium, which overlooks the old Expo site, Howard Smith Wharves, the W Brisbane Hotel, Ovolo hotel and Calile Hotel (Vogue describes the Calile as achingly chic, and among the best new hotels in Australia, hey!) are paving the way for an even more dynamic city.

On a recent visit, I jumped on a free red ferry and headed to the new Howard Smith Wharves for a delicious beer from the on-site brewery, to sit in the sun and take in the Brisbane River.

It’s pretty clear this is the new Brisbane, a bustling hub of vibrant dining and drinking venues, along with culture worth travelling for. The Queensland Art Gallery and the Gallery of Modern Art are world class.

The new Brisbane is self-assured, fun, breezy and bright as it undergoes major redevelopment. Full steam ahead.

Julie Earle-Levine is a Brisbane-bred New York-based media consultant, strategist and writer