Down-to-earth, friendly Brisbane

BRISBANE is rather like the Glasgow of Australia. There are classier cities to visit Down Under -- cosmopolitan Sydney or stately Melbourne. But for sheer ethnic diversity and working-class appeal, Australia's third largest city has much to offer. Central Brisbane abounds with alfresco caf'es, arcades, and travel agencies, since the city is the gateway to tropical northern Queensland and the Great Barrier Reef.

Modern miracles in glass and steel overshadow the delicate Italianate buildings. You can see the contrasts in the skyline for a very modest fee by simply hopping a ferry across the Brisbane River.

Shopping along the Queen Street mall is good, but if you're looking for gifts that capture the ruggedness of the outback, check out the R.W. Williams Western Wear shop. You can be the first on your block back home to own a Claiborne ``Stockman's Coat'' (a long split-back raincoat favored by southern Australia sheep drovers), a shearer's shirt, or a broad Snowy River wide-brimmed hat.

The neighborhoods that surround central Brisbane are its heart and soul. It is here that I find the city most fascinating from a people-watching, shop-hopping, and bench-sitting perspective.

Brisbaners make few efforts to cover up the darker side of the neighborhoods. Their private battles against poverty, unstable families and communities, aboriginal homelessness, alcoholism, and ethnic tensions are all confronted on neighborhood turf. But there is a genuine friendliness among the people, which makes me feel at home.

Even the houses are entertaining: Most are built on stilts for maximum airflow, with mazes of rooms and intricate wooden lattices to let in air, keep out sun, and retain privacy. The tin roofs make a musical sound when it rains.

There is a gritty appeal to areas such as the West End. Fish markets vie for space beside ``fruit and veggies'' stores and a Vietnamese grocery. A Lebanese and an Indian restaurant send out pungent garlic and curry invitations. Barefoot children weave in and out of the crosswalks or tease each other on bicycles. In early evening, when the sidewalk is still warm from the subtropical sun, the people empty their houses to sit on porches and gossip. It's the time when Brisbaners settle down to do what they like best: relax with family and friends.

As much as I would have preferred to let accommodations for our stay in northern Queensland happen spontaneously, the hour my friend and I spent with a travel agent booking a room and a Barrier Reef cruise contributed much to our peace of mind. The agents are professional and usually have firsthand knowledge of any area you might choose to visit.

Within Brisbane, the Botanical Gardens offer a refuge from city life. Bike trails wind through the park, and footpaths lead to shaded grottoes. Although the Queensland Cultural Centre is not downtown, a quick bus ride will take you there to the art gallery or the performing arts complex. The gallery is the only one I've ever visited where a step backward while admiring a painting could mean wet feet. The interior is styled like a courtyard, where various pools are sunken into the floor with fountains in the middle.

As for a place to stay downtown, the choices are adequate, if not overwhelming. There are several first-class hotels, many moderately priced ones, and a very reasonably priced youth hostel.

Bus service in Brisbane is quite good and extends outward from the center into most of the city. But part of the fun of getting into Brisbane, as natives will tell you, is getting out of Brisbane. For this, you will need to rent a car, something travel agents can help you with.

Within a half-hour's drive, most Brisbaners can reach dozens of beaches and islands. The city, which sprawls along the Brisbane River about 12 miles from the coast, is made up of various communities separated by rolling hills, which contribute to a small-town feeling.

Brisbaners are fully aware of the values of their coastline, and rarely miss an opportunity for a trip to the seaside.

Each beach has its own characteristics. Some are rugged, frequented mostly by eager surfers; some are idyllic, with tufts of wind-swept gray-green grass; and some are mostly sand, just right for swimming or digging your toes into as you lie in the sun.

There is a remarkable diversity of terrain away from the beaches. A 30-minute ride inland will take you to sweeping lowlands of waving grasses, pockets of shaded rain forests, and, higher up, hills covered with blazing purple jacaranda and twisting gum trees set against a cobalt sky. Here you can hike and ride horseback, and at night stargaze with an unexcelled view of the Southern Cross and other constellations in this colorful continent.

Practical information

Brisbane is one of Australia's major cities holding its own Expo '88 from April 30 to Oct. 30, as part of the yearlong celebration of Australia's 200th anniversary. For a free Aussie Holiday Book, which covers all of Australia, lists special events, and includes a visa application form, call the Australian Tourist Commission, 800-445-4400.

Australia is often considered to be a winter destination for US tourists, since temperatures are the opposite of those in the Northern Hemisphere. Many airlines provide special discount packages to overseas visitors wishing to fly to Australia off season as well as in season.

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