Memories of a disaster may still flood back, but the place to be in Brisbane is still riverside, writes Daniel Scott.
A floating restaurant, complete with tables and chairs, adrift on the Brisbane River. A tugboat struggling to steer a 300-tonne, 150-metre chunk of concrete walkway, wrenched from the riverbank, from crashing into the supports of the Gateway Bridge.
These are two images of Brisbane's 2011 floods. Two years later, on the Australia Day weekend, it seemed like a bad case of deja vu as the city prepared for more devastation following tropical cyclone Oswald.
It's a Friday evening two weeks later and I am kayaking in the middle of Brisbane on its now-serene waterway on a Riverlife Paddle and Prawns tour. On the river, a gentle chop is caused by passing ferries; a distant clamour wafts from the city at play on its banks. The only hint of the recent floods, which reached half the height of those in 2011, is the occasional thud of debris against our kayak.
When I first visited Brisbane, in 1986, I didn't like it much. Still in the grip of Queensland premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen (who reigned from 1968-87), it seemed a big hick town. Yet with my oldest friends settled there, I kept visiting. World Expo 88 brought big improvements, including the development of the South Bank cultural precinct. Then, over the next two decades, I witnessed Brisbane evolve as if in time lapse, one inner-city area after another developing its own flavour.
In 2013, it has emerged as a sophisticated city that I barely recognise from my first visit. At the core of that shift is what has happened along the Brisbane River. The waterway has become as fundamental to Brisbane as the Seine is to Paris, with swaths of land along its banks once occupied by industrial warehouses reclaimed for entertainment in the form of restaurants, bars and major cultural institutions such as the Queensland Art Gallery and the Gallery of Modern Art.
Nowhere is Brisbane's transformation clearer than in its riverside dining scene. While Melbourne and Sydney squabble about which has the superior cuisine, Queensland's capital is emerging from their culinary shadows. Top chefs such as Matt Moran and Brad Jolly have arrived, creating fine-dining waterside experiences at Aria and Alchemy respectively, and the city has embraced an indoor-outdoor style reflecting Brisbane's relaxed lifestyle.
There are signs that this dining ethos is making not just a national mark, but also a global one. Leading Britain-based style magazine Wallpaper, for what it's worth, recently acknowledged Stokehouse Q, opened in 2011, as one of the five-best new restaurants in the world in its annual design awards. Located at River Quay, a new fine-dining enclave near South Bank, the low-slung, pavilion-style building at the water's edge is certainly striking. Inside, a timber wall flows through the whole space, mimicking the riverbend, and the open-air layout exploits vistas of the city skyline. But Stokehouse is not just style with no substance.
Chef Tony Kelly's team handles quality local produce with dexterity. Dishes such as fresh lobster tagliatelle with saffron cream are right on the mark and backed by canny wine recommendations, including a Slovenian pinot gris, from the sommelier.
During the day, South Bank is busy with tourists and families crowding Brisbane's artificial beach and weekend markets. In the evening it comes alive with a different vibe. Joggers pound riverside paths, fruit bats glide overhead, and diners and culture vultures arrive from Brisbane's suburbs. Nothing quite prepares me, though, for the Bacchus cocktail bar. At the Rydges Hotel, this is one Brisbane venue where I feel out of place in shorts and polo shirt. It's not just the glitz of the Miami-style poolside setting; it's also the profusion of lithe Brisbanites, shoe-horned into suits and cocktail dresses, who adorn it.
On the opposite riverbank, on the second floor of the Eagle Street dining precinct adjacent to the city centre and triumphantly replacing a McDonald's, is the new Pony bar and restaurant.
Created by Brisbane-born chef Damian Heads, it is another chic space centred on a coal pit in an open-plan kitchen.
Pony has unobstructed views of the Story Bridge from its wraparound verandah, an innovative cocktail list and a menu to savour, including prosciutto-wrapped Moreton Bay bugs and seven-hour coal-pit-roasted lamb. Downstairs at Eagle Street Pier, Brisbane is fortunate to still have two venues, Jellyfish restaurant and Matt Moran's newly opened Riverbar.
In the 2011 floods, Jellyfish sustained $1 million damage and, along with the adjacent Riverbar, prepared for the worst this January.
Riverbar has already regained its boathouse-style cool, with beach umbrellas and deckchairs lending it an outdoorsy Brisbane feel and share plates such as beer-battered flathead fillets fitting the atmosphere well.
With all that fodder for the palate, it's reassuring that the Brisbane River also encourages more active pursuits. Rowers are out at dawn and cyclists, some using bikes from the city's new share scheme, commute to work on riverside paths.
"Cycling on the riverbank is the essence of the city," says Brisbane "Greeter" Blair Allsopp on our morning bike tour.
"Ten minutes ago we were in a major urban centre, now we're out here with the breeze and the trees."
Allsopp, a Canadian who has lived in Brisbane since 1999, is one of 72 local volunteers offering free tours of their city. He's an unstoppable source of anecdotes and history, particularly about Brisbane during World War II.
It is not until I do the Story Bridge climb, however, that I fully comprehend the city's layout and the circuitous course of the Brisbane River running through it, which has bamboozled me since my first visit.
From a steel girder 80 metres up, all becomes clear: from the sharp bend defining Kangaroo Point beneath us to the compact central business district opposite and, then looking east towards the coast, the river winding past New Farm and out into Moreton Bay.
While the city's major watery artery has displayed its devastating power in recent years, the city has recovered and the river is proving itself increasingly vital to the beating heart of modern Brisbane.
Daniel Scott was a guest of Brisbane Marketing.
Getting there Virgin Australia fly to Brisbane from Sydney and Melbourne from $109 one-way (ex Sydney), $107 (ex Melbourne). See virginaustralia.com.
Stamford Plaza Hotel, Brisbane's prestige riverside pub, bed and breakfast from $245 (superior room) a night. Corner Edward and Margaret streets. Phone (07) 3221 1999. See stamford.com.au/spb.
Rydges South Bank is close to the cultural precinct. From $189 a night. 9 Glenelg Street, South Bank. Phone (07) 3364 0800; see rydges.com/southbank.
Eating and drinking there
Bacchus Bar, cnr Grey and Glenelg streets, South Bank. Phone (07) 3364 0843; see bacchussouthbank.com.au.
Jellyfish restaurant, Boardwalk level, 123 Eagle Street. Phone (07) 3220 2202. See jellyfishrestaurant.com.au.
Pony Dining, Upper level, 18-45 Eagle Street. Phone (07) 3181 3400; see ponydining.com.au/pony_brisbane.htm.
Riverbar and Kitchen, Promenade level, 71 Eagle Street. Phone (07) 3211 9020, see riverbarandkitchen.com.au.
Stokehouse Q restaurant, Sidon Street, South Bank. Phone (07) 3020 0600; see stokehousebrisbane.com.au.
Riverlife's Friday night "Paddle and Prawns" adventure costs $79. Phone (07) 3891 5766; see riverlife.com.au.
Story Bridge climbs cost from $99, depart 170 Main Street, Kangaroo Point. Phone 1300 254 627; see storybridge adventureclimb.com.au.