TONIGHT, THE AUSTRALIAN state of Queensland is the center of the universe, at least when it comes to the frenetic full-contact sport of rugby league. Here in Brisbane, it’s the annual State of Origin game, a championship decider (the Super Bowl of the sport), played in a three-game series between lifelong rivals — the Aussie states of Queensland and New South Wales. Around 50,000 people have assembled here to watch the footie match, the stadium awash in maroon, Queensland’s color, with pops of bright New South Wales blue. Helmetless players are smashing into each other and fans are chugging local XXXX beers; there aren’t long play breaks like there are in American football, so the action is relentless and head-spinning. Fans are screaming. By the end, when the hometown team pulls off a victory, it seems like the whole city is on a high.
As thrilling as the game is, I will come to find after a week spent in Queensland that there’s a lot of excitement around these parts and it isn’t just for rugby: the northeastern state of Australia is flush with energy of all kinds these days. It’s a place that's becoming increasingly recognized around the world for its bountiful ecological and cultural treasures, from wild rugby league games to tranquil rainforest retreats. With the bohemian beaches of the Gold Coast and Noosa Heads, the rugged terrain of the tropical north and its fabled Great Barrier Reef, and Brisbane’s metropolitan cool, Queensland is its own kind of idiosyncratic adventure, a state worth taking careful time to traverse now that it’s finally opened up again after Australia’s strict lockdowns.
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Queensland’s urban heart, Brisbane, the third largest city in Australia, has historically been overshadowed by the larger and more famous Sydney and Melbourne. But, as those locales become increasingly expensive and crowded, Brisbane, with its sunny weather, laid-back lifestyle, and quaint neighborhoods, has become an attractive alternative (in the same way that, say, Austin and Phoenix are respites for weary, priced-out New Yorkers and Californians). Throughout, restaurants are packed, bakeries have lines out the door, and hotel pools are bumping.
Now, there’s a nonstop new flight by United Airlines — direct from San Francisco to Brisbane — debuting in October to make a trip from the States even easier. The Brisbane boom, as some have called it, has seen the city’s population grow at a faster rate than Sydney and Melbourne. Everywhere you look along the coast of the river that snakes through the city, glistening high-rises are being built at a rapid rate.
The epicenter of style in this new Brisbane is undoubtedly the walkable neighborhood of Fortitude Valley and, in particular, a long stretch of James Street that’s dotted with great restaurants (like sAme sAme, which serves up beautifully imagined and wildly spicy Thai food), art galleries, cafes, and boutiques from buzzy Australian fashion brands like Dion Lee and Zimmermann. At the heart of the action is The Calile Hotel, a swanky but low-key spot that provides a kind of indoor-outdoor lifestyle experience, with a popular pool by which to order spritzes and plates of fruit, and airy hotel hallways that are open to the outside. The whole property is Instagrammable, bathed in soft pink and beige light, and its restaurants are top-notch: the Greek bistro by the pool, Hellenika, is superb (get the grilled kefalograviera cheese), and the cafe in the lobby does exceptional versions of classic breakfast foods like shakshuka.
Beyond Brisbane, the state is a topographical playground of rainforests, white-sand beaches, mountains, and of course, the Great Barrier Reef, one of the prized natural wonders of the world, for which Queensland serves as the primary gateway. First up, right outside Brisbane city limits is the beautiful and unbothered outdoors we all hope for when we visit Australia. The Scenic Rim, about an hour’s drive from town center, is an earthy, rugged Arcadia of rolling brown hills (best seen by way of a drive along Green Hills Road) and wild forests with ancient trees. On long treks winding along the curving mountain roads of Lamington National Park, there’s a chance to spot the rare, pretty-faced wallaby hopping about. There is a dainty vineyard nestled in lavender fields, called Kooroomba, as well as more stylishly rugged experiences like a stay at Wander at The Overflow 1895. This collection of secluded minimalist cabins on the banks of Lake Wyaralong supplies you with hearty, fresh provisions, a wood-burning oven, and resounding peace and quiet.
The real star of the show in the state of Queensland, though, is farther north, where two World Heritage sites intersect: the largest continuous rainforest on the continent, estimated to be 180 million years old, and the Great Barrier Reef. To get there, you fly into balmy Cairns, then drive up the coast through tall palms and sugarcane farms. It feels mythic to be here — people will share legends about the infamous and deadly saltwater crocodiles that haunt the mangroves like reptilian Cerberus on the River Styx. From Port Douglas, you can catch a boat to the reef for snorkeling or scuba diving. This, of course, is an absolute must, as much for the storied fish and 400 species of coral you expect to see as for the surprises you don’t anticipate — by luck, some minke whales were migrating where my boat was anchored, and one graceful giant swam right under my fins, so close I could almost touch him, curiously circling me twice in a slow, elegant way.
Back on land, at the rainforest’s heart, sits landmark property Silky Oaks Lodge, a luxury paradise on top of the Mossman River, a reason in and of itself to go to Queensland (Kim Kardashian reportedly flew into Australia to spend a few days with ex Pete Davidson there this summer, and I spotted actor Orlando Bloom by the bar one random evening). It is a remarkable place, a property of hidden treehouses nestled in the deep heart of the tropics, reopened in early 2022 after a $20 million renovation. The vast central dining area is a breezy open canopy over the river, with the rush of the water serving as the soundtrack to every breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
On a barefoot late-afternoon walk, Walkabout Cultural Adventures’ Juan Walker, an Aboriginal tour guide from the local Kuku Yalanji people, showed me how to prepare a meal of mud crab along this Edenic riverbank. He stuck his hand in the water for just a moment and pulled out a healthy bounty of cockles, mussels, and snails (he calls them Aboriginal escargot), and cooked them right there using a small portable wok on the forest floor. You can also swim in the billabongs (no crocs here — the water is a little too cold), as well as hike through wild canopies of vines and old trees all around the property.
It is, quite simply, a quiet joy to be at Silky Oaks. Electric-blue butterflies flit about, and the hotel’s specialty gin cocktails — including a tangy, fruity pink one called Earth and Sea — are bubbly, colorful, and delicious. The cabins at Silky are luxuriously but organically outfitted, with hammocks and outdoor stone bathtubs on the balcony, all surrounded by endless greenery. Walking between the treehouses across small bridges over lush little valleys, with rainforest trees shading almost every square inch, and colorful brush turkeys running on and off the path — it’s like inhabiting an enduring twilight, a magic hour you will never want to leave behind.
It’s not everywhere that you can experience the head rush of a cool, hectic city, the underwater Shangri-La of the greatest ocean reef in the world, and the healing powers of rainforest relaxation in one 48-hour period; but that’s what a trip to Queensland can offer. It’s a wonderful whiplash, a chance to behold a cross section of Australia, and, if you’re lucky, a footie match so invigorating that you’ll be rooting for Queensland no matter where you come from.
A trip from the U.S. to Australia can feel daunting, but the country’s flagship carrier Qantas makes getting to Queensland a cinch, with comfy direct flights (and cozy pajamas for lucky business-class passengers) from Los Angeles right to Brisbane.
Alex Frank Writer
Alex Frank is a contributing editor at Departures. Based in Manhattan, Frank previously worked at Vogue.com as deputy culture editor. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, GQ, Pitchfork, New York Magazine, Fantastic Man, and the Village Voice.
Derek Henderson Photographer
Derek Henderson works across the genres of fashion, architecture, landscape, and portraiture. Having lived and worked in London, Los Angeles, and New York, he is now a figurehead of the photography community in Australia and New Zealand. Henderson’s work has been featured in publications such as T: The New York Times Style Magazine, American Vogue, British Vogue, Vogue Australia, and WSJ Magazine. His advertising clients include Aesop, Jurlique, Karen Walker, and Wrangler.