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All posts for the month December, 2016

Celebrating the Holiday Season with some of Brisbane's local wildlife

Celebrating the Holiday Season with some of Brisbane’s local wildlife

Who knew Brisbane was such a cool city? Our fifth stop in Queensland was this huge state’s capital, the biggest city in Queensland and the third biggest city in Australia. To the extent I had any concept of Brisbane before coming here, it was just another spot in Australia’s vast almost-nothingness. Imagine my surprise to find a bustling, lively, cultured city of 2.3 million people. In 2015, in fact, the travel guidebook Rough Guides named Brisbane one of the ten most beautiful cities in the world, citing reasons such as “its winning combination of high-rise modern architecture, lush green spaces and the enormous Brisbane River that snakes its way through the centre.” I’m not sure I’d agree with top ten in the world, but it is surely a beautiful city.

Brisbane was first settled by Europeans in 1825, when Sydney – itself a penal colony – needed a subsidiary colony for repeat offenders. In other words, the really bad apples. The number of prisoners quickly grew to over 1,000 men who were subject to harsh punishments; while officially the number of lashes was limited to a maximum of 50, Captain Logan regularly applied sentences of up to 150 lashes. Harsh.

An elevated walkway near the modern art museum took us up to treetop level amongst the flame trees

An elevated walkway near the modern art museum took us up to treetop level amongst the flame trees

Today Brisbane is a lively city defined by the meandering Brisbane River which, through its winding turns, creates a myriad of cute little neighborhoods with different styles and personalities. Needless to say, over four days we only scratched the surface of what Brisbane has to offer.

And just what does it have to offer? Besides just walking along the river, itself a lovely way to spend time, the two highlights for me were the city’s Botanical Garden and Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA). Oh yeah, and a great (and cheap) Greek restaurant.

I was surprised after we'd left Brisbane how few photos we had of the city's beauty. This shot from the Botanical Gardens will have to suffice.

I was surprised after we’d left Brisbane how few photos we had of the city’s beauty. This shot from the Botanical Gardens will have to suffice.

The Botanical Garden is a real gem, 50 acres of green space listed in Queensland’s Heritage Register as having a continuous horticultural history since 1828, without any significant loss of land area or change in use over that time. It has been Queensland’s primary public park since the 1840s and thus has some impressively old trees and such. Of course you have to thank the prisoners for the old beauty; they’re the ones who planted the original garden, though perhaps not entirely voluntarily. So long as you don’t obsess too much over the number of lashes that presumably went into the park’s origin, it is a world-class place to wander and then sit and read.

The city's Christmas tree next to the old City Hall in King George Square

The city’s Christmas tree next to the old City Hall in King George Square

Then there’s GOMA, the modern art museum, a new addition to the city’s culture having been opened just 10 years ago. Notwithstanding its youth, it is a damned impressive place. It was a great mixture of focus on indigenous art as well as some pieces from further afield. On top of that we found the descriptions of the various pieces really helpful. And the museum had a remarkable focus on engaging children and encouraging their participation.

Finally, there was the Greek restaurant. We’ve been surprised at how comparatively expensive restaurants have been in both New Zealand and Australia. Imagine our delight, then, to find this great Greek taverna in a hip, buzzy neighborhood with rock bottom prices. And, to make it just about perfect, they don’t sell alcohol there at all, presumably because of some zoning limitations. There is, though, a liquor store a block away and for a $2.00 corkage they’ll let you buy your wine and bring it into the restaurant. Thus a meal there was literally half the cost of what we’d spend pretty much anywhere else for similar quality. That’s a memory worth keeping!

Here are some of our favorites from GOMA. This snake is by a Chinese artist, based in Paris since 1989 (presumably a refugee from the Tiananmen Square massacre), representing resilience, energy, wisdom, and temptation.

Here are some of our favorites from GOMA. This snake is by a Chinese artist, based in Paris since 1989 (presumably a refugee from the Tiananmen Square massacre), representing resilience, energy, wisdom, and temptation.

Tobias Putrid is a Slovenian artist who built this arch - explicitly modeled on the Gateway Arch of St. Louis - of precisely sized cardboard boxes. The point was to demonstrate the paradox of an arch's solidity and permanence when it's made of cardboard.

Tobias Putrid is a Slovenian artist who built this arch – explicitly modeled on the Gateway Arch of St. Louis – of precisely sized cardboard boxes. The point was to demonstrate the paradox of an arch’s solidity and permanence when it’s made of cardboard.

GOMA included an emphasis on indigenous art, including this pearlshell pendant made by Aubrey Tigan, a Western Australian tribal elder

GOMA included an emphasis on indigenous art, including this pearlshell pendant made by Aubrey Tigan, a Western Australian tribal elder

Throughout the museum there were space for children to engage. Here they're building Lego stuff, while in another part an installation was a couple of slides that had long lines of children waiting for their chance to experience art first hand.

Throughout the museum there were space for children to engage. Here they’re building Lego stuff, while in another part an installation was a couple of slides that had long lines of children waiting for their chance to experience art first hand.

Imagine my surprise to learn that one of the major banks in Brisbane is St. George Bank. For once I could use my name on a restaurant reservation and people would immediately recognize it.

Imagine my surprise to learn that one of the major banks in Brisbane is St. George Bank. For once I could use my name on a restaurant reservation and people would immediately recognize it.

Not exactly great art here, but this BYO wine at our favorite Greek taverna represents a couple great, budget-friendly meals!

Not exactly great art here, but this BYO wine at our favorite Greek taverna represents a couple great, budget-friendly meals!

Piers, Mark, Charlotte, and Jim on the beach that puts the paradise into Surfers Paradise

Piers, Mark, Charlotte, and Jim on the beach that puts the paradise into Surfers Paradise

As we continue a series of four-night stays around Queensland we wanted to see what Australia’s Gold Coast, a land of endless white sand beaches midway down Australia’s east coast, was like. What better place to sample it than a town of about 24,000 called Surfers Paradise? We might have been given pause by the fact that neither of us surf or particularly want to learn to do so, but it’s one of the great tourist draws of the region so figured we’d give it a try.

Turns out we’re a little old for Surfers Paradise. Now, we were warned; Lonely Planet refers to a “wild and trashy party zone,” so you kind of know what you’re getting into. Still, the beach was supposed to be fabulous so we wanted to give it a try.

A flame tree and a bit of skyline as evening moves into Surfers Paradise

A flame tree and a bit of skyline as evening moves into Surfers Paradise

The good news is that the beach really was fabulous. The problem, for me at least, was that I was measurably under the weather most of the time we were there and never so much as stepped onto the beach until our last day. On top of that, a region know for almost constant sunshine was experiencing an unusual stretch of cloudy, unpleasant weather for our first couple days. And for Mark a fabulous beach requires more than just sand and surf; it should have chairs and umbrellas and hopefully nice little beach caf├ęs. Surfers Paradise has the sand and surf down pat, but no beach infrastructure beyond that. My guess is that it’s a government regulation thing; no commercial enterprises on the beach, which can make sense. Makes it a lot less attractive for some of us, though.

Beyond that, a place that caters to a younger, partying crowd can be spare in the “good food” category. One day we enjoyed lunch at a cute little Persian restaurant, and a couple nights we sat at a restaurant and bar called El Patio de Cuba enjoying the company of the Korean bartender. But if there is a genuinely good restaurant in Surfers Paradise, we didn’t find it.

OK, one good meal at Shiraz. I'm not sure I'd ever eaten in a Persian restaurant before, but it was a pretty typically good middle eastern restaurant. Halal, though, so no wine...

OK, one good meal at Shiraz. I’m not sure I’d ever eaten in a Persian restaurant before, but it was a pretty typically good middle eastern restaurant. Halal, though, so no wine…

The most fun we had was an afternoon with Charlotte & Piers, a beautiful and fabulous couple we met in Fiji. He’s British while she’s originally from France, though they “live” in England these days. I say “live” since, like us, they are nomads for now, traveling around the world. To their dismay they will have to go back to England to work in a few months but for now they’re traveling. After we met them in Fiji they came to Australia, rented an RV, and so far have driven from Perth up along the west coast and around the perimeter of Australia, meeting up with us for an afternoon on the east coast. They describe the remote beaches of western Australia as some of the most spectacular they’ve ever seen. And it turns out – not surprisingly – they don’t think any more highly of our President-elect than we do.

And thus we come to an end of Surfers Paradise. Next stop the bustling city of Brisbane.

The view from our room. The beach and water, as you can see, are beautiful. Tis a shame, though, that I didn't really get to enjoy it.

The view from our room. The beach and water, as you can see, are beautiful. Tis a shame, though, that I didn’t really get to enjoy it.

Fortunately Mark has a long arm to get this selfie of Piers, Charlotte, him, and me

Fortunately Mark has a long arm to get this selfie of Piers, Charlotte, him, and me

I love this picture of Charlotte in the doorway of the RV they're driving around Australia in. She's French and, to be honest, one of the most beautiful women you'll ever meet. The picture of her living in a camper was just too perfect.

I love this picture of Charlotte in the doorway of the RV they’re driving around Australia in. She’s French and, to be honest, one of the most beautiful women you’ll ever meet. The picture of her living in a camper was just too perfect.

Mark with our friendly Korean bartender and the restaurant's manager

Mark with our friendly Korean bartender and the restaurant’s manager

We stayed in a hip hotel called QT, where the elevators were decorated with slightly bigger-than-life but remarkably realistic pictures. She scared me every time the elevator doors opened, thinking she needed to come out.

We stayed in a hip hotel called QT, where the elevators were decorated with slightly bigger-than-life but remarkably realistic pictures. She scared me every time the elevator doors opened, thinking she needed to come out.

And a final picture of purple spring flowers on some tree. How can you not like that?

And a final picture of purple spring flowers on some tree. How can you not like that?

The eponymous palms of Palm Cove along the Coral Sea shore

The eponymous palms of Palm Cove along the Coral Sea shore

We’re spending a couple weeks here in Queensland (yeah, cue the jokes: the two of us moving from Queenstown to Queensland..) and one of the things you learn is just how big this state is. As in BIG. Bigger than Alaska, by far the biggest state in the U.S. In fact, according to a list on Wikipedia, Queensland is the sixth-biggest national subdivision in the world, behind such behemoths as Greenland and a couple of what we would call Russian provinces. So there’s plenty to explore here.

Our next stop was Palm Cove, a little tourist-centered beach community a little south of Mossman (and thus just a little north of Cairns). What’s most obvious about Palm Cove is the beautiful Coral Sea, seemingly a paradise with the white sand beach, blue water, and swaying palm trees. What’s less obvious about Palm Cove is that you’ll likely die if you go in the water.

No shortage of warnings that dipping a single toe in the water could lead to a horrible death

No shortage of warnings that dipping a single toe in the water could lead to a horrible death

OK, maybe that’s a little overstated, but perhaps not much. Crocodiles infest the water near shore but, according to at least one local we talked with, they’re pretty unusual. The real problem this time of year is the infestation of poisonous jellyfish. As the temperatures rise, both air and sea, the jellyfish move in and their sting is potentially fatal. You only go in the water with full wetsuits which means, in practice, that no one goes in this time of year. Lots of biking and walking and jogging along the trails, but for those of us who don’t want to die too soon, no swimming.

Is it really a beach if you can’t go in the water?

What do you do if you’re in a beach town but can’t enjoy the beach beyond looking at it? Well, the hotels have nice pools, and you can still read and walk around.

A segment of the cableway traveling above the rainforest

A segment of the cableway traveling above the rainforest

And we did this cool day trip, the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway. What’s a skyrail? Well, it’s a cableway spanning nearly five miles up and over the wet tropics rainforest with a couple stops along the way for short little walks. The town of Kuranda, a tourist destination since the early 20th century as a somewhat cooler alternative to Cairns’s summer heat, is at the end. There you can shop, have a beautiful walk through the rainforest and then along the Barron River, and have a decent lunch before getting on a scenic slow train back down to the coast. Thus “skyrail.” We were distinctly skeptical, knowing there was a chance it would be cheesy-touristy but it turned out to be a lot of fun.

Those are seriously bad restaurant ratings. Thank God TripAdvisor saved us from the looming lunch disaster.

Those are seriously bad restaurant ratings. Thank God TripAdvisor saved us from the looming lunch disaster.

Of course, the “decent lunch” part of that is premised on finding the right place. We walked around a bit and saw one place that looked good: decent menu, nice setting, reasonable prices. We were going to just stop in but decided to check it out on TripAdvisor first. Good thing. We’ve never seen a place trashed so consistently with Terrible ratings vastly outpacing any other categories. The reviews included words and phrases like “disgusting,” “vile,” “worst food ever,” “ridiculously overpriced,” and, my favorite, “seriously horrible.” We found someplace else to eat.

We’re in Queensland for another week or so before heading to Sydney for Christmas. Meanwhile, some more pictures from Palm Cove and the skyrail.

Mark as we prepare to set off on the Kuranda Scenic Railway. Originally built to service the mining industry in the area, for decades now it is primarily a tourist attraction. I loved the old-school feel of it, particularly the open windows!

Mark as we prepare to set off on the Kuranda Scenic Railway. Originally built to service the mining industry in the area, for decades now it is primarily a tourist attraction. I loved the old-school feel of it, particularly the open windows!

Yeah, open windows!

Yeah, open windows!

Part of the train ride was a pretty steep drop over sharp curves from the highlands but as we moved down you could get nice views of the train and countryside

Part of the train ride was a pretty steep drop over sharp curves from the highlands but as we moved down you could get nice views of the train and countryside

Barron Falls, from a viewpoint during one of the little stops on the cableway

Barron Falls, from a viewpoint during one of the little stops on the cableway

Our Barron Falls selfie

Our Barron Falls selfie

The walks at stops along the cableway aren't too rustic or challenging

The walks at stops along the cableway aren’t too rustic or challenging

Palms, sand, and the Coral Sea

Palms, sand, and the Coral Sea

And what blog post from Queensland in the spring would be complete without pictures of flame trees?

And what blogpost from Queensland in the spring would be complete without pictures of flame trees?