The first thing I noticed about Brisbane was that the chemists (pharmacists, or a drug store clerk where I came from) were gorgeous. In my experience, I only knew pharmacists to be the ever-so-patient person standing behind the counter watching me do an unrecognizable ballet dance to the tune of “I’ve got to pee, I don’t want to pee, oh boy do I hate bladder infections.”I never looked twice at a pharmacist back home in California. Maybe that was because my eyes were only half open from wincing in pain, or clouded over from that itchy, sneezy, stuffy head, get me to bed feeling. Either way, the truthful reason I never looked at a pharmacist before was because they were ugly. Or unimpressionable, to be politically correct. Picture a man (sorry, I noticed the women pharmacists even less) who is old and wiry, fat and bald, skinny and pock marked, or any of those combinations thrown into a white lab coat and you’ve got yourself an American pharmacist.

Taringa Pharmacy
The Taringa pharmacy

So when I went to the Taringa pharmacy unshowered and coughing up a lung, I was shocked to see two beautifully tanned blondes behind the counter. I straightened up a bit, and tried my best not to look as awful as I felt.It was no use, drool started to slip out of my mouth and I realized I’d been staring with an open mouth. I hope they thought it was my cold.

Needless to say, in the coming weeks I perked up every time I passed a Chemist shop. Sure enough, the Taringa shop was no fluke. Most all of the chemists seemed to be clean cut, just-out-of-uni, handsome counter clerks in sharp white coats. Suddenly I no longer thought of them as lab coats, they were u-n-i-f-o-r-m-s.

Unfortunately, Brisbane women also looked good in this “uniform”. While at the local shopping center, my friend decided to go in for a free eye exam. And let me tell you, so would’ve half the men out in the mall if they’d seen who was face to face with him and staring into his eyes. Since when are optometrists stunningly attractive? I had always thought they more or less looked like pharmacists. Not in Brisbane. No time for jealous insecurities, I had to stop off and get some face cream, or nail polish, or chap stick, or kleenex…or what else can you buy from a chemist when you’re not sick?

It didn’t take me long to figure out that these Brisbane babes weren’t relegated to the medical field. While shopping for a birthday present at a bookstore in the Indooroopilly Shoppingtown, I was caught off guard by the cashier. As I placed my book on the counter, I looked up into a smiling face and beautiful eyes. How could I not smile back?

“Are you a student?” he asked. I couldn’t respond, I was lost in his chestnut curls.

“Are you a student?” he asked me again, bringing me back to earth. “You get a discount if you are,” he added smiling.

Oh a discount, that’s why he was asking. I giggled. I wasn’t sure how to respond. I had graduated from university eight years ago, but I really wanted the discount.

He took my hesitancy as a cue to explain why he thought I was a student.

“Well, you look like a student so I just thought I’d ask,” he said.

“I do?” I replied, laughing some more.

“Your face,” he said, and lifted his hand up to his face and made the hand sign for beautiful. “You look so young,” he added, still smiling.

I must’ve blushed because the other cashier standing behind him rolled his eyes with an “Oh brother,” kind of look. Luckily I was the only one in line so we weren’t holding anyone up.

I had heard that when a woman was traveling alone it was often a good idea to wear a wedding ring, even if you weren’t married. I looked down at my left hand and was glad that I hadn’t followed that advice just yet. I knew I wouldn’t need one in Australia, but later when I moved on to Asia and would truly be on my own, who knows? I had a hunch there might be a fun article coming down the road titled, “The Very Loose Wedding Ring.”

“No, I’m not a student,” I said with a bit of regret in my voice, “but thanks for thinking so,” I added and handed over my money for the full amount.

As I walked out of the store, I turned back and he was looking after me. Chemists, bookstore boys, I needed to start shopping more, I thought.

Brisbane City Hall
Brisbane City Hall

In all seriousness, Brisbane itself is beautiful, and highly underrated. While Sydney is everybody’s darling, the homecoming queen, or Miss Bikini atop a parade float – Brisbane is the daughter who doesn’t even realize she’s pretty. The undiscovered gem.Before I came to Brissy, I got the impression that most travellers only considered this a refuelling stop on the “Sydney to Cairns and back” route. The guidebooks didn’t ooze with compliments and the only thing that really grabbed my interest was that they noted Brisbane as having an up and coming music scene.

When I got here I found that even the most current copy of Lonely Planet Australia had errors in nearly every thing I looked up, from phone numbers to bars and clubs that had closed down. Changed prices were annoying, but something I would’ve expected.

A few months have passed, and I now realize this was the best thing that could have happened for me. Instead of relying on other people’s suggestions, I’ve found treasure after treasure both through my own wanderings and from getting to know the locals.


The true Beauty of Brisbane I’ve found to be in the simplicities of everyday life. With the sunrise comes the chatter of Rainbow Lorikeets right outside your window. Step outdoors and you’ll find them playing in the tree branches or having a feed on fallen mangoes. An afternoon walk will have you strolling past renovated Queenslanders with their sprawling grace, wrap around verandahs, lace moulding, and gardens of tropical flowers spilling over the front yard fence. Pass through the suburbs outside of the city at sunset and you’re sure to hear laughter and engaged conversation coming from a dinner party out on the porch. In summertime, this usually means a barbecue.But one of the things that I’ve come to love about being here in Australia is that when families get together, the traditional roast dinner is still served. In the States, it’s a rare family that sits down together for dinner on a regular basis. Or in my experience, after the children have grown, getting together for a dinner with whole family usually means going out to a restaurant. Maybe this is why I’m so impressed by Australians cooking a traditional meal on any given night, everyone can come over and catch up. (Warning: I’m partially generalizing, but I’ve witnessed it numerous times in several different homes and heard even more Australians talking about it)

My admiration is only deepened by the fact that a tradition like a family roast meal is not lost while the same people are embracing growth and the wide variety of international cuisine that have peppered their neighborhoods. After World War II, immigrants from Asia, Europe and beyond came to Australia and soon after restaurants sprang up, mirroring the migration. Today there is no set neighborhood to go to if you have a hankering for Thai, Indian, Mediterranean, Japanese, Italian, or Chinese. A sampling of each can be found in Toowong, Paddington, West End, New Farm, Balmoral and many more neighborhoods I haven’t even explored yet.

It is true, one of the huge benefits to Brisbane is its close proximity to the Gold Coast. 102 kms of coastal shoreline that spreads from Beenleigh to Tweed Heads in New South Wales. And if you’re looking for glitz and glam, you’re sure to get it at Surfer’s Paradise. Even if you’re not particularly interested in Australia’s Hollywood, go see it anyway so that you can truly appreciate your visits to the other beaches.

However, I was first introduced to Peregian Beach, and Noosa on the Sunshine Coast. This stretch of coastline, north of Brisbane is unique in its own way.

View from the porch
View from the back porch

Peregian Beach was the smallest and least known. Something changed inside of me when I got to Peregian. I’m not sure if it was the salt air, or the papaya and feta salad our hosts served us for lunch – or maybe it was the sweeping view of the valley and the Glasshouse Mountains from the back porch where we were staying. Whatever it was, it felt like my blood had thickened. I wasn’t myself. I had become quiet, my body limp. Not in any kind of demeanor that one’s body might take on if they were depressed, lazy or bored. On the contrary. My senses had heightened, the water called, and a voice inside me said, “Stay.” I started to get the feeling that it’d be crazier to not live here, than to leave my family and friends in the States more permanently.Noosa was brilliant. I had heard wonderful things about how the town was making a name for itself with its top end restaurants, but I will always know it as the place where I saw my first koala. We walked through the nearby National Park and saw him kicking back on a branch as if nothing in the world was worth interrupting his nap.

For us, nothing could keep us from the beach. It was late afternoon but there was still enough sun left to be warm. After throwing my towel and things on the sand, I went towards the water with excited trepidation. I thought the water would be cold, like in California. After all, it was the same ocean, right? Wrong. Same but different ocean. The water was surprisingly warm. Perfectly cool without being cold.

It felt wonderful to be in the waves. I braced myself against the breaking whitecaps, and let my body be taken gently up and over the swells. Vertical floating. Then I turned on my back and watched the clouds against the sky.

Blue of QLD skies
Sky blue – Queensland style

Queensland skies are the bluest you’ve ever seen. I know this because every day I look at them and want to take them home with me. But I suppose I believe them to be the bluest ever because one day I commented on them and whoever I was standing next to (I can’t believe I don’t remember who it was), told me, “Queensland skies are the brightest and bluest in all of Australia, you won’t see anything like them anywhere else.” I’m surprised they didn’t say “in the whole Southern Hemisphere,” because that seems to be the measuring stick for everything else. “The biggest river parade in all the Southern Hemisphere,” or “The highest tower in all the Southern Hemisphere,” or even, “the largest miniature train exhibit in all the Southern Hemisphere.”The waves got a little stronger and started to pound on me. My friend told me to dive under them before they broke, but I was afraid. The last time I was really in the surf like this was nearly fifteen years ago. That time, as just a young teenager, the waves took me under time and again, forcing me into the sand. When I could get above water for air, another one was about to hit. My bathing suit was torn half way off each time. As a teenager will do, keeping everyone from seeing my breasts took priority over swimming to shore. I’d get up, pull up my bathing suit and by the time I did another wave was pounding over me.

Some of the fear I had when I was fifteen came back to me in Noosa. The waves were getting too big to jump over. Watching my friend dive under the breakers one after another was enough guidance to give it a go. I quickly found that it was much easier this way even if looking at the looming wave beforehand was still enough to make me hesitate.

Noosa Beach
Noosa Beach

I finally got it, but the waves still thrashed me around. If anyone ashore was watching me get tossed under, get up and get thrown down again, they must’ve shaken their head in disbelief that I didn’t just come in. But I couldn’t. It felt good. It felt better than good, it felt like I had been physically liberated. My body connected with the water and fresh air, my feet with the sand.As if it couldn’t get any better, I was shown how to bodysurf. First I waited for a big wave to approach, then I turned to shore and started to swim. The first few times the wave headed in without me. While I waited for the next one I thought of my dad and his brothers and sister who spent their growing years in Hawaii. They bodysurfed all the time, and if I thought way back into my youth, I could remember his body coming in on a wave as he tried to teach me. But I was young and stubborn, and besides, boogie boards were much cooler.

On the third or fourth time, the wave took me. Like love. Fast and unexpectedly. I was swimming hard to keep up, and then out of nowhere my body was lifted up. I screamed at the moment of take off, swept into unfamiliar flight. It was a squeal of both utter delight, and a total release of control. When I realized the sound had come from me, I laughed. It was funny. I cruised almost all the way in, got up, and went back for more, grinning ear to ear. I had to be careful, that rush of freedom could be addictive.

Being at the beach opened my eyes to a new and different kind of living. Part of me wondered why I had waited two months to get to the ocean, and the other part of me wanted to keep it special. Still a third, and probably the strongest part of me, felt that this didn’t have to be a vacation. I could live here. In Brisbane.

Diamond Rings
Sale on diamonds

It was perfect for me; small town charm, growing city culture, friendly people, stylish architecture, and the surf…only an hour away. Where could I sign up?Unfortunately my visa had a deadline. It was time to start looking at my ring finger again…and the chemists. Surely something could be arranged for me to stay a few years longer. A jewelery store at the Queen Street Mall was having a sale on diamonds. The one I liked was only $1200. Oh wait, there’s one for $479!



About Jennifer L. Leo:
Jennifer Leo is the editor of Sand in My Bra and Other Misadventures and co-editor of A Woman’s Path. She has written for books published by Travelers’ Tales, Lonely Planet, and Globe-Pequot. Her website Written Road, is a resource for travel writers. View Jen’s full list of works, services, and speaking venues at

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