Australian tropical city gets its own New York laneway

There's a sluggish air in Townsville as another day breaks as blue as a tropical sea. The atmosphere is thick with humidity, and heat seems to bounce between buildings.

But in one lane in the city centre, a fine shower of rain is falling. Shaded between city buildings, with a mist of water spraying over patrons from a wall, the temperature in City Lane is as cool as the experience.

Opened in the middle of last year, City Lane is 50 metres of urban chic in a parched north Queensland city. Lined with cafes and a sprawl of tables, it's a concept inspired by New York and reminiscent of Melbourne lanes. It's also just one feature of a city that's been anything but sluggish in recent years.

So long in Cairns' shadow, Townsville has stepped out into its own hot light with a string of new developments. The old tourist faithfuls remain – Castle Hill, the world's largest living reef aquarium at ReefHQ – but alongside them now are new coastal parklands, a burgeoning dining and drinking scene, Australia's first "glampacker resort" and the likes of City Lane.

Turning off central Flinders Street into City Lane is like stepping from a typical country-town main street into a moment of metropolis cool. Three cafes – Courtyard, Shaw & Co and Donna Bionda – fill its space, with menus ranging from Italian to American-style diner (burgers, fried chicken, soda pops) to meatballs and share-boards of cheese or cured meats.

Each cafe has its own seating, but order food at one and you can sit in any of them. A planned extension will see two new venues slotted into the lane, including an interactive bar with pour-your-own beer taps.

A few steps from City Lane, there's already a beer experience worth the journey. On the most prominent intersection in town, the former post office building now delivers pints instead of post.

The Townsville Brewing Co has transformed the landmark building into a working microbrewery. Eight beers are brewed on site, including a seasonal beer that changes every couple of months.

The spacious bar has the polished feel of an old-time bank, appropriate to the building's administrative history, and on Friday nights it's the go-to bar for many of the city's after-work drinkers. You can run through the range of beers with a paddle containing all eight brews, stretching from the easy-drinking Townsville Bitter Light to the Mexican-style Bandido and the Guinness-like Flanagan's Irish Stout.

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With my head suitably lightened, it's a short journey along the ocean-side Strand to Townsville's newest public outdoor space, the Jezzine Barracks. Much of the former army barracks was in ruins after the Army Reserve moved out in 2006, but a $40 million makeover saw the coastal site open last year as one of the city's prime recreation spots.

Its high point is topped by the anti-aircraft guns of Kissing Point Fort, where plaques and the footpath itself tell the story of the World War II bombing of Townsville. From the point, a new coastal boardwalk heads north, all but hanging over the shore, with views across the sea to Magnetic Island.

Thirty-two public art works are spread throughout the 15-hectare park, and lines of old barracks house an art gallery. In a nod to its own history, Jezzine also contains the Army Museum North Queensland.

Back in town, quality Townsville dining experiences aren't just crammed into City Lane. The centre of the city's dining focus is Palmer Street. At one end, country music star Adam Brand personally oversees the Italian experience at Brandy's, while newcomer Seasoned plays its name to the very end.

Rooms in this contemporary restaurant are reflections of the seasons, from the vibrant, peacock-covered "spring" room to the warm "summer" room peering into the open kitchen. The "autumn" room is designed around a bar, where 16 inventive cocktails are prepared and matched to the entree, main and dessert menus.

Townsville cool reaches its apex at Rambutan, a backpacker hostel that defies categorisation. Claimed as the first glampacker resort in Australia, it's spread over three levels, but all the action is on the rooftop, where 58 rooms are framed around a central pool and a wonderful open bar/restaurant.

Private rooms are far more hotel than hostel (though the Saturday night noise from the bar can become very hostel) and there's an eclectic mix of designs across the resort, from Moroccan to nautical. 

The restaurant, where recycled windows from old Queenslander homes hang from the ceiling and a couple of swings serve as bar stools, has become a favourite even among locals.

The American-inspired menu ranges from Po' boy sandwiches and taco kits to a 16-hour slow-cooked brisket from Rambutan's own purpose-built smokehouse. Take a few steps from your table to peer over the building edge and the view is of this city that's now both hot and cool.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

townsvillenorthqueensland.com.au

GETTING THERE

Virgin Australia and Qantas fly to Townsville from Sydney and Melbourne.

STAYING THERE

King rooms at Rambutan  from $119 a night, with two-room (king bed and two bunk beds) deluxe rooms starting at $209, see rambutantownsville.com.au.

The writer was a guest of  Tourism and Events Queensland and Townsville Enterprise.

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