Wednesday, 12 March 2008

Viva BrisVegas 1: The Artificial Beach

En route to Brisbane on my current travel writing trip, the recorded safety announcement aboard my flight included the line "Can you reach the seat in front of you?".

What a question. I'm on a Boeing 737-400; not only can I reach the seat in front of me, but my knees are in an intimate relationship with it and may soon be required to do the decent thing and buy it an engagement ring.

Who the hell can't reach the seat in front of them? (ah, business class passengers, of course)

But you have to admit, when you glance out the departure lounge window and realise you've drawn the 737 short straw, that this plane is a marvellous thing. Imagine - an entirely functional, extremely accurate replica of a real aeroplane, exactly 70% of its size in every respect.

You have to marvel (and I did) at the precision. Perhaps it belonged to an advanced but now extinct Lilliputian race from prehistory that left it behind when they vanished.

But oh well, what can you do. And Brisbane, Australia (hence to be known as BrisVegas in deference to popular usage) has turned out to be rather good, once you get the hang of it. There's not much street signage and the public transport is notably user-unfriendly, but the thing I've enjoyed most is the thing I thought would be most tacky: the artificial beach just off the Brisbane River in South Bank.

You heard me right: it's a large artificial lagoon full of sparkling clean water lapping up to a stretch of imported sand on which sits a real live surf lifesaver, atop a red tower. Palm trees at neat intervals offer some shade, and if you swim to the deep side you can prop yourself up on the concrete rim and look over the river and the central city.

All of which, strangely, turned out to be rather delightful. I'd spent the morning researching Boundary Street in West End, a former dirt poor working class suburb which is now home to some very cool cafes (I tried out The Gunshop and Espressohead), then walked across to South Bank.

Now I was bobbing in the pool, no, lagoon, and taking it all in. People were sunbathing, the lifesaver was invigilating, and a couple of twentysomething guys were mucking around with a football in a way that was likely to injure someone before too long (why are these guys always present at a beach?). I swam toward the deep edge, encountering a bit of pebbly surface which had lost its sand covering along the way, then scraped my knee unexpectedly as the depth suddenly diminished near the wall.

Then I leaned on it and took in the view. It really is impressive: the blue water of the lagoon contrasts with the brown water of the river just beyond, and a row of mangroves sits at the far side beneath a busy major road. Then the city's glass and steel skyscrapers loom up over it all. It's a striking feature of BrisVegas, the way the tall buildings come right down to the water's edge in places.

Brisbane's reputation for being a city of glitz is not without basis, but that's redeemed by its citizens' relaxed, slightly self-deprecatory good nature about things like the lagoon; locals later shared my smile when talking about it, knowing it was a bit silly but liking it all the same. My first impression is that Brisbane has a lot in common visually with Sydney, but is more laid back and doesn't take itself quite so seriously. Which is all to the good.

Tim Richards travelled with the assistance of Tourism Queensland and local hotels.