From disgrace to de luxe

Craig Tansley discovers Brisbane's first international hotel is once again looking its best - albeit with a bar full of ghosts.

It's hard to picture them here now - in a fancy new lobby with open-plan check-in pods and an ultra-modern colour scheme of tropical blues and greens - but if you linger long enough you might still see the ghosts of Queensland's corrupt past lurking within Pullman Brisbane King George Square Hotel. While the place looks brand-new today - the recipient of a

$7 million facelift completed in May - the Pullman Brisbane was an integral part of the blackest period in Australian politics.

For it was here in Brisbane's first international hotel that some of the most sordid characters of the 1970s and early '80s met to hand over thousands of dollars in return for police and government protection. Notorious figures such as gaming king Jack Rooklyn would meet in the hotel bar with disgraced former police commissioner Terence Lewis and his bagman, Jack Herbert, to hand over envelopes of money - often as much as $25,000 at a time - to ensure guaranteed police protection of brothels, SP bookmakers and illegal casinos.

The Fitzgerald Inquiry revealed Lewis received $700,000 in dirty money - much of it was passed over right there in the old bar beside the lobby. Lewis served more than 10 years in jail for his crimes and lost his knighthood; the inquiry also deposed Queensland premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen, caused two by-elections and led to the jailing of three former Bjelke-Petersen ministers.

But then the Pullman Brisbane was always the place to be seen (or not to be seen) in Brisbane. Opened in 1971 as the Crest International, it brought international accommodation to Queensland's capital for the first time. While it charged just $12.50 a night for up to three people, the Crest proved Brisbane could no longer be considered just a big country town. Since then the hotel has housed everyone from the British royal family to world leaders to international sporting teams, and has organised some of Brisbane's biggest parties. While it's changed owners numerous times since, it's the Pullman Brisbane's latest revival that's put the hotel back on the map. Accor purchased the hotel last year and immediately set to work modernising its guest rooms, lobby, restaurants, bars and business facilities. Today the hotel looks high-tech and modern, but there's something still unmistakably Queensland about just being here.

Perhaps it's the blue and green hues of the colour scheme, or the plentiful servings of Queensland sunshine that come splashing through generous floor-to-ceiling windows in the guest rooms. You could never fault the location. Located smack-bang in the heart of Brisbane's CBD, the views from my room are of sprawling city parks with red and yellow flowers in bloom, and aerial angles of some of Brisbane's best heritage buildings, such as City Hall just across the street (you'll also get great views of City Hall from the Pullman Brisbane's refurbished restaurant, Bistro Allure, with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the building).

I spent my university years in Brisbane in the mid-'90s and remember only too well a city whose residents fled every weekend (I, too, joined the masses to the Gold and Sunshine coasts). But just metres from the hotel, King George Square seems these days to be a bustling, vibrant weekend destination with al fresco cafes and restaurants. Brisbane's best shopping is just another hundred metres away in Queen Street Mall. Gone, it seems, is the sense of post-apocalyptic-type despair I used to feel any time I ventured into the city on a Saturday or Sunday 15 years ago.

I manage to spend most of my day, however, in the hotel itself, dwelling in its heated swimming pool and sauna (Brisbane gets chilly in winter, believe it or not), and eating breakfast and lunch in Bistro Allure, with its energetic open-plan kitchen where chefs run ragged preparing my meals, or on the al fresco terrace of the hotel's KG Bar, home to arguably Brisbane's best cocktail concoctions and live entertainment.

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Despite my best efforts, I can't find an overlooked envelope or brown paper bag containing $100 notes that the former Sir Terence might've dropped, but there's still a lot of Brisbane's previous 42 years that permeates this building.

Expo 88 opened the way for the construction of numerous five-star international hotels as Brisbane established itself as a world-class city, leaving the Pullman Brisbane (in its former condition) languishing.

But with the multimillion-dollar makeover and the move by Accor to incorporate the hotel into its esteemed Pullman stable, the Pullman Brisbane is set to re-establish itself as the only hotel at which anyone should be seen staying (minus the bagmen and corrupt politicians).

The writer was a guest of Pullman Brisbane King George and Tourism Queensland.

TRIP NOTES

WHERE

The Pullman Brisbane King George Square is located on the corner of Ann and Roma streets in Brisbane's CBD.

GETTING THERE

Fly to Brisbane with Qantas Virgin Australia or Jetstar from $69 one way. You can take the Airtrain airport train that has regular departures to Roma Street Station, which is a 300-metre walk from the Pullman Brisbane. See qantas.com.au, virginaustralia.com.au, jetstar.com.au, airtrain.com.au.

HOW MUCH

Deluxe rooms start at $215 a night with spa suites starting at $385 a night. See pullmanbrisbanekgs.com.au or phone 07 3229 9111

TOP MARKS

You'll love the Pullman's gigantic bathrooms in the hotel's spa suites. With three places to eat inside, you won't necessarily have to leave the hotel to eat.

BLACK MARKS

You're in Brisbane city, so although the hotel uses reinforced glass you'll hear the odd sound of traffic.

MORE INFORMATION

visitbrisbane.com.au

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