Brisbane - bah humbug

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December 27th 2015
Published: January 29th 2016
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When we had started to plan our trip, all those months ago, the only initial constraints we'd had were the Round The World flights which got us from some countries to the next for a fixed price. What we did and where we went between the dates of those flights was pretty much up to us. We knew we were going to be in Australia during their summer school holidays so things would be pretty well booked because of that, but the dates I was really concerned about were Christmas and New Year's Day. So, Steve's route up to those dates had to be written in pencil, if not quite ink, and I was adamant I wanted a booked venue to rest my head in on those dates before we set off. There's being flexible and then there's sleeping in the manger when there's no room at the inn and I didn't fancy a night of that, thank you. Steve eventually booked hotels for both of those dates, and chose locations that would be big enough to provide a bit of atmosphere and plenty of options of what to do and where to eat. The Hotel Jen in Brisbane was to be our home for Christmas. Champion.

Unusually, our Greyhound bus arrived late in Surfers Paradise but only by 15 minutes; that would be considered on time at home. The bus was quite busy but the journey was relatively short through the Gold Coast area and we arrived in Brisbane on time at 2.30 pm. The hotel was almost a part of the Transit Centre for both buses and trains and a two minute walk, including 30 seconds going the long way round, had us at the reception desk checking in. The hotel had Christmas trees in the foyer; only four of them and they were relatively small but it was the first time we had seen any corporate acknowledgement of the event! We got another high room (Room 1314) which gave us a good view over the city.

After a quick freshen up we wandered out to have a late lunch and a recce of our close surroundings and to have a look at some fireworks which were scheduled to take place at 8 pm. We wandered through the city centre and were impressed with the modern street art, which was dotted all around. We were told that all applications for new builds had to set aside a proportion of money for public art (not necessarily street art but always accessible) after a successful prototype when the plans for the proposed new library (?I think) kept getting knocked back until it promised to include some public art access. It was such a successful initiative that it has been adopted as standard. Some was really avant-garde and wouldn't have been allowed in our country on health and safety reasons. A 'mob' of metalwork kangaroos occupied one part of a street, all hard corners and snakelike tails just ripe for tripping over. Instead, everyone enjoyed them and took pleasure in sharing the same seat as one of them to read the paper or eat their lunch. Children even sat on them, piggy-back style, and no-one worried about injuries at all.

We strolled down to the Brisbane river for the fireworks. We waited and waited and waited, wondering why no-one else seemed interested only to discover that the information we had read was wrong and there were to be no sparkly lights that night. Oh well. The area was very busy as many of the cultural venues (the museums, the 'eye', the convention centre, etc) are riverside. The locale was well used as there is only one small man-made beach in the city, and the planners have ensured that the boardwalks extend along the river for quite some miles so that pedestrians and cyclists can use them safely and enjoy the water. I'm not sure that pedestrians and cyclists using the same paths is a match made in heaven but I suppose it's safer for the cyclists than having to mix with traffic, though I'm not sure what the pedestrians get out of the arrangement, apart from the increased potential of a stress induced heart attack. We soon learned to walk on the left of the paths but were often startled by cyclists creeping up on us in stealth mode from behind. Very few had bells and the most common alert we heard was 'Behind you' shouted at maximum volume. At least it wasn't 'Get out of the #%*¿~ way'! We walked back along the riverside, underneath all the many bridges which span the river. The River Brisbane runs right through and, as a necessary consequence, Brisbane is a city of bridges. Some were quite ancient whilst others are only a few years old. One was underlit and looked stunning from beneath. There were numerous emergency panic buttons along the route, and I wasn't sure what that signified - a need or a deterrant? Whichever, we felt perfectly safe and the mixed demographic of the other users of the walk seemed to signify weren't alone in that. Back at the hotel, the temperature dropped during our first night and I had to put extra blankets on the bed. In Australia. In their summer.

On Christmas Eve we caught a city tour red bus, at a bus stop just outside the Police Station. We were somewhat taken aback when two office types walked past, both armed with guns in hip holsters. We decided they must be plain clothes detectives and that the guns were probably tazers but it came as something of a surprise - goodwill to all men and all that. The day started grey and chilly but we managed the bus ride in sunshine, just. The driver was very good and told us that he would be working on Christmas Day too, which reassured me that choosing to stay in a big city for Christmas was a good plan. He pointed out some brush turkeys at one of the photo stops (seen them, done that, got the war wounds to prove it) and some water dragons, which we hadn't seen before. The tour was very informative, taking us into the suburbs of Brisbane as well as the city centre and we learned a lot about the place. The city centre has a lot of high rise buildings and much of it is quite new as it has suffered terribly from flooding over the years. The original bridge linking the two sides of the river was washed away in the 1800s and the most recent flooding in the 2000s caused millions of pounds worth of property damage, meaning a lot of it had to be rebuilt from scratch. The older surviving buildings are two storey at most and some of them date back to the 1800s. In the suburbs many of the older properties have survived. They are very fond of their trees in Brisbane and the bus had to travel on the crest of the road on occasion to prevent damaging them. Some trees even have strategically placed reflectors on them so that lorries and other large vehicles can see what to avoid. One tree in the park adjacent to our hotel was festooned with red Chinese lanterns but I gather that it was bedecked all year round, not just at Christmas. Despite all the trees there were very few birds in the city, only the ubiquitous ibis which seem to get by anywhere. I gather that some people view them as a pest!

The weather was quickly deteriorating so we had a quick bite to eat in the rapidly closing city centre. I was quite relaxed about it, thinking even those who worked in the service industry wanted the Christmas party to start early. By the time we had finished our meal the heavens had opened and we had to make our way back in the pouring rain. It was only a short distance to the hotel but we were drenched. We had planned to call in to the pub across the road, and it seemed a good time was being had by all in there, but we were so cold and wet we called it a day, promising ourselves that we'd go in there the following day, for Christmas.

Christmas Day broke with a sunny morning. I got a bit homesick, for the first time since starting our travels, and sent everyone a 'Happy Christmas, I'm missing you all' e-mail. Of course, due to the time difference, no-one was awake to respond apart from one stay-up die hard who e-mailed straight back - thank you! We had decided to take a ferry ride down the river and, although the city centre itself was quiet, it was quite busy down there and we had a lovely trip in the bright sunshine on the upper deck of the ferry. It was definitely tee shirt and shorts weather, with the temperatures in the high 70°s. We ogled the lovely properties, some with their own private pontoons and boats, as we sailed under the bridges and waved to other sailors on the river, including those travelling by paddleboat!

We looked forward to joining those people we saw in the riverside restaurants enjoying their Christmas dinners. Think again! It seemed that the vast majority of restaurants had closed completely for Christmas Day. The few that were open had been fully booked for months. The pubs, including the one opposite our hotel, were all closed, as were the bottle shops. Becoming increasingly desperate, we began to search for a KFC or a MacDonalds which were all .... closed. We headed back towards the hotel and the nearby Transit Centre. Surely something there would be open - a city the size of Brisbane couldn't abandon its bus and rail passengers to starvation, could it? Oh yes it could! Every outlet in the Transit Centre was closed, even though buses and trains were running. It was getting late now, 3 pm at least, and we returned to the hotel as our last resort and guess what? The bar and restaurant were shut! There was no food to be had there, not even room service as the chef had gone home because, you know, Christmas! And this was in a country which seemed to only pay lip service to the event.

We spoke to the Concierge who could only shrug his shoulders and sympathise. He had married an English woman and had lived above a pub in Fulham for a couple of years so could understand our bafflement. He thought Australia was a bit backwards when it came to Christmas (his words) and a bit draconian in relation to its liquor laws. He said hotels could only serve alcohol with food at Christmas and, as there was no food to be had, there was also no alcohol to be had either. In the end, our Christmas dinner came courtesy of a 'Pie Face' outlet which, the owner told us somewhat sadly, never closed. I hummed Christmas carols, tunelessly, as we finally tucked into a pie and sausage roll each, with a leftover bottle of beer and a bar of chocolate for dessert between us, in our hotel room. Not quite the Christmas dinner I was expecting! My earlier e-mail to fast asleep friends and family had resulted in replies from now wide awake Europe and they lifted my spirits no end.

We'd had such an exciting Christmas Day (not!) that we decided to have a steady start to Boxing Day. I had discovered that it is perfectly possible to trim one's fringe with a pair of very small nail scissors (it may not be straight but it will be shorter) but not being in one place long enough to organise a hair appointment to deal with the roots issue was proving to be a problem. I decided to have a go myself. Now, my hair has been many different colours and I always trust my wonderful hairdresser to get it right. I pay little attention to the process, just relaxing into the gossip, the head massage and the general pampering that my regular hair appointment brings. So, I guessed at an off-the-shelf colour (light ash blond) and locked myself in the bathroom armed with rubber gloves and a toothbrush. Steve said he wasn't sure what I would be getting up to in there but thought it best not to ask. I started to carefully apply the obnoxious smelling mixture, thinking the toothbrush application might introduce a streaked, highlight effect but, when that looked to be proving less than effective, I just smeared it on and set the clock, thinking I should perhaps have paid more attention to what goes on at the hairdresser's. At one point my hair took on a red hue (no problem, it's been red before and I've even had a purple streak that my friends and I called rhubarb given that it coincided with the visit to the Wakefield Rhubarb Festival). The hair colour instructions said that the final colour may not be how it looked on wet hair but when it began to look a bit green I panicked and rinsed it off hurriedly, getting it all over the hotel's bathroom fittings and wonderful, fluffy, white towels. I frantically stuck a 'do not disturb' sign on the door and began a manic clean up of the bathroom, washing the once-white towels in the bath with shampoo which was the only thing I had to hand. And the hair? Well, the roots looked darker than ever and the rest of the hair, whilst being nowhere near light ash blond, at least wasn't green. Also, it was long enough for a ponytail/scrunchie/messy bun, all styles which hide a multitude of sins!

After I felt I'd got rid of enough of the incriminating evidence from the chambermaid's eyes, we took a wander down town. And hey - shops, open shops, shops doing sales and shops selling food and drink. Woohoo! At Steve's suggestion (I know, amazing or what?!) I bought some clothing in the sales but only after agreeing to throw away some of my existing clothing because, weight. Australia does wonderful food malls, with all types of cuisine available, to suit all tastes - Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Thai - they have it covered. I rushed to one outlet that did roast dinners, determined to have my Christmas meal, even if it was a day too late. Sadly, I got there just as they were closing and the roast meats, roast potatoes, traditional vegetables and gravy (oh, gravy) had all been put away. I could have cried but consoled myself with fish and chips which were nearly as good. We looked like seasoned alcoholics as we decided to stock up on bottles of beer mid-afternoon, in case the bottle shops closed early again (they did, wise move).

After deciding the chambermaid would have been in and out of the room by now, and hoping it would be a temporary Christmas relief person who wouldn't know the colour of the bathroom fittings on a normal day and therefore wouldn't be too concerned by odd streaks on the mirror and tiles, we returned to the hotel to prep and pack to leave the following day. The concierge had warned that Monday might also be a difficult day in terms of food and drink, it being a day in lieu of Boxing Day. Hah, I thought, I won't get caught out again so I returned to the always open Pie Face shop and bought lots of things to eat, just in case. There's no fooling me.

All in all, Brisbane was a nice city to visit but I think we saw it at the wrong time. That wasn't Brisbane's fault, more to do with the daft rules and regs around licencing laws and commercial opening hours, at least when compared to our own. Of course, we were not entirely blameless - perhaps we should have been better prepared and anticipated the situation. Everything else seemed to operate normally though. The buses and trains ran as normal on Christmas and Boxing Day - they were empty but they ran as normal - and even the street cleaning continued as though it were business as usual with the binmen doing their rounds as 1.00 am on Christmas/Boxing Day. You wouldn't get that at home!

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