From hatted restaurants to world-class art centres, Townsville has come a long way.
I'm very surprised by how much I enjoy my two visits to Townsville, which I'd previously thought of as a vaguely threatening garrison town menaced by a looming granite hill. While it was once a cold place with a warm climate, today the friendly, cosmopolitan, foodie, arty city is the most popular regional destination for internal migration in Australia: that is, Aussies from everywhere else move to Townsville for the lifestyle.
Townsville is a Coral Sea port, about 1350 kilometres north of Brisbane and 350 kilometres south of Cairns. It is prettier than I remember, and in parts it seems unnaturally clean. But the biggest revelation is the food: Townsville has three chef's-hatted restaurants, including the creek-side A Touch of Salt, where - for the first time in my life - I eat all the way through a degustation menu. It begins with goat's cheese and ricotta gnocchi, and moves via duck-and-ginger dumplings to coral trout then Geraldton wax panna cotta. Every dish is a joy, and menu listings are enlivened by words such as "sunflower verjus" and "smashed cucumbers and sunrise lime", which would never have been seen in Townsville a couple of decades ago.
A Touch of Salt is upriver from the SeaLink Ferry Terminal and the ferry to Magnetic Island (a worthwhile daytrip). Close to the ferry is the Ville-Resort Casino, which has a lovely pool, a lively bar and the well-regarded Miss Songs restaurant but remains, at base, a casino, with all the disguised desperation such places absorb and emanate.
At the other end of the dining spectrum to A Touch of Salt, Townsville boasts its own local delicacy (or whatever the opposite of delicacy might be): crumbed steak and chips, available throughout the city. But, sadly, I can't tell you what this tastes like, as we all only live once.
However, I am able to report on another central restaurant, Wild Rice Laos and Thai Cuisine. It seems unlikely there should be an excellent and authentic Laotian restaurant in Townsville - even some of our capital cities can't muster up an example - but the popular Wild Rice is wonderful. Try the fragrant Luang Prabang spiced chicken sausages, washed down with a cold Beerlao.
One of the grandest places to drink in town is the Townsville Brewing Co, housed in an imposing Victorian-era building. It serves a good range of house-brewed beers - try the excellent Tropical Coast Pale Ale - and well-priced bar food (with the classy Restaurant 1889 tucked to one side, too). Opposite the pub is the Perc Tucker Regional Gallery, which hosts touring exhibitions but focuses on the work of North Queensland artists.
The Museum of Tropical Queensland has a fascinating permanent exhibition about the HMS Pandora, a Royal Navy warship that was sent to capture the mutineers of HMS Bounty but ended up wrecked on the Great Barrier Reef on its journey back to England. There is also a lot of stuff designed to keep children busy (and, therefore, keep parents happy).
Towards the west of town, flatland gives way to towering hills. Many locals walk or run up Castle Hill which is, apparently, just a few metres short of being a mountain: visitors less accustomed to the heat might choose to drive. The views from the lookout are revelatory.
But most of Townsville's jewels are embedded in the Strand, a 2.2-kilometre esplanade that stretches from the ferry port to the Strand Rockpool. Locals gather here at the end of the day to watch the sun set over the Coral Sea, from picnic rugs, park benches and tables inside and outside hotels and restaurants. The Seaview Hotel is a big art deco Strand pub with - brilliantly - a tropical fish tank behind the sports bar. Juliette's Gelateria on the Strand is a popular place for families to watch the colours change with a sorbet or an ice cream. Two nearby enclosed areas protect swimmers in the stinger season (November to May). The outdoor tables look out to Ocean Siren, an overwater sculpture that belongs to the Museum of Underwater Art - most of which rests 70 kilometres offshore by John Brewer Reef. Ocean Siren, modelled on a young local Indigenous woman, is appropriately hypnotic as she changes colour to reflect temperature data from a weather station on Davies Reef, about 100 kilometres to the north-east.
Townsville's birdlife is another unanticipated pleasure. On the grass near Juliette's, I notice a red-tailed black cockatoo pecking at beach almonds before it takes to the sky, showing off its striking tail feathers to great effect. I don't know what's wrong with me: I feel like I'm becoming a bird-watcher as I grow old.
Rockpool Pavilion is a much-loved restaurant overlooking the Coral Sea Memorial Pool. Unfortunately - but typically - I drop in for lunch on a Wednesday, when the pool is drained for its weekly clean. But the grilled barramundi and chips is fresh and honest, and there's a kids' playground nearby and a gin distillery next door.
The Rockpool sits just outside the gates of Jezzine Barracks, home to the interesting Army Museum North Queensland. I'm a sucker for military museums, but it's rare to find any kind of regional museum in such beautiful surrounds. The Army has moved to the south-western edge of the city, leaving the barracks and its grounds to the city. There's a great boardwalk around Kissing Point and an art trail whose highlights include Presence, by Indigenous artists Tracey Johnson and Donna Maree Robinson - a bank of mounted portholes looking out to the spirits of troopers in the waves.
But this isn't Disneyland. Townsville still has an edge. There's something about the way some men carry themselves in the street that will be familiar to anyone who has ever lived in a garrison town.
But could I imagine myself moving here?
Yes, I could. And I would never have thought that, say, 20 years ago.
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The Rambutan Townsville, a resort-pub (if there is such a thing), is in the centre of town. The rooftop swimming pool is for the use of guests only, but the adjacent bar is popular with both locals and travellers. Comfortable, stylish and soundproofed queen rooms (with a free woodfired pizza!) start at $149 per night. Recommended. See rambutantownsville.com.au
Cheaper and much closer to Jezzine Barracks and Kissing Point is the very traditional Shoredrive Motel, with its backyard pool and under-window parking: if you've stayed at any motel in Australia, you'll believe you've been here before - until you visit the amazing attached Shorehouse kitchen and bar. See shorehousetownsville.com.au
The writer was a guest of Townsville Enterprise.
Pictures: Megan Mackinnon; Townsville Enterprise