Everyone laughed when we told them we were going to Toowoomba. They told us to expect a haplessly humdrum, far from hip town. Fortunately, they were wrong.
Toowoomba? Where the heck is that? Toowoomba is situated on a top edge of Australia’s Great Dividing Range – a complex of plateaus, uplands, and escarpments – which is the third longest dividing mountain range in the world. With a width between 100 to 190 miles, these mountains stretch more than 2,000 miles from the northeastern tip of Queensland through New South Wales and into Victoria.
Driving west from Brisbane about 90 minutes, just approaching the outskirts of town, you climb a very sharp rise and the Darling Downs highlands emerge. Toowoomba is the commercial center of this plateau. The Darling Downs plateau contains the largest amount of rich black agricultural soil in all Australia, ideal for farming and ranching.
Settled in the 1840’s with a population today of 160,000, Toowoomba is known as the Garden City. With over 150 parks and public gardens, Toowoomba holds the famed Australian Carnival of Flowers in September, and an annual musical Easterfest in Autumn in its largest park, Queen’s Park.
Here’s what we’ve come to find out about Toowoomba during our month long stay:
Toowoomba is Temperate
People complain about the cold winds in winter, but the fact is that Toowoomba has a semi-tropical climate. We were warned the summer would be unbearably hot and dry. We’re here primarily to make sure the homeowners’ prolific vegetable garden didn’t burn to a crisp. Although we’ve had the air conditioning on a couple of times, temperatures have been comfortable. And there have been steady periods of rain, even thunderstorms. Most interesting and definitely easy to bear.
Toowoomba is Trendy
Toowoomba’s traditional downtown facades along Margaret Street are punctuated with renovations and innovations alike. The classic art deco lines of the Strand Cinema building are a great example. How many towns in the USA can boast a downtown theater that’s even open? You’ll see busy stores, multiple restaurant choices and very few empty spaces, along with an impressive condo project that incorporates the gothic facade of a former church.
There’s a growing renaissance in the area around the railway station, making it a fast-growing destination for folks who like history and character with their cafe food and craft beers. Situated between the main Central Business District and more suburban neighborhoods, this area is convenient for foodies and coffee lovers.
“Toowoomba is on the verge of a development boom,” according to a local news radio story from May 2014. Major projects totaling about $11 billion AUD are planned, which have the potential to create 10,000 new jobs.
Toowoomba’s Sunday morning fresh outdoor market is a pleasing array of fresh produce and local business displays. You can buy items from the hardware store’s large layout, visit the fishmonger for the week’s catch, get fresh-baked loaves of bread and stock up on your veggies and fruits. At this market, Aussies present a diverse bunch: Caucasians, Asians, Africans, Indians all mingle, with the music of many languages forming the backdrop.
Toowoomba is Tenacious
Four years ago, a freak weather system with heavy rains caused an enormous flash flood with water levels reaching up to 2 meters in the Central Business District. Eight people were killed. There is very little sign of this catastrophe today, other than some signs pointing out the high water mark, and thanks from businesses which rebuilt.
Toowoomba is Tidy
Toowoomba was voted Australia’s Tidiest Town in 2008. Pride of ownership is on display in our neighborhood, and throughout the city. We like neat and clean places that give off a good impression, don’t you?
Toowoomba is Tasty
We’ve been most impressed with the restaurant scene in Toowoomba. We’ve had a series of superb and sophisticated experiences that, admittedly, were most unexpected on our part. Here are the highlights:
The Tapestry Bar (part of the Fitzy’s family) – newly opened in October with an old world library pub feel and 100+ person function room. We enjoyed the specialty tapas. The second time we visited, the bartender remembered our names and our drinks. As we’re used to being strangers, this little detail was big for us.
Fitzy’s on Church is the main restaurant in the complex. The outdoor seating has a see and be seen atmosphere. Click on any of the gallery photos below to see larger:
We enjoyed a cob loaf (which is a bread bowl with a yummy mixed dip including corn) and bangers on mash. Both were exceptionally good.
Veraison (named for the French term that denotes the ripening of the grape) is a special effort from two couples who are partners: Chef Alex Weston is English, raised in South Africa and, we were astounded to learn, completely self-taught. His wife Karen keeps the front of the house efficient and friendly. Andrew Smith is the sommelier (Mrs. Smith is at home with a newborn). The restaurant features what it calls degustations (a new, and not particularly attractive term to us, but nonetheless). These are multiple course presentations paired with wine. The a la carte menu also has suggested pairings. We enjoyed opening the experience with a carrot honey soup and stout bread with butter. In Australia, your starter is called an entree, which caused us a bit of confusion. After a bit of clarity (improved with alcohol), we began with chicken cranberry terrine with watercress, pickled nectarine and ciabatta, and Hervey Bay scallops with cured salmon combined with squid ink risotto and dill creme fraiche.
Then we moved on to the main courses: Blackbutt venison with parsnip cream, caramelized yogurt and chocolate soil (literally crumbed bittersweet chocolate, amazing) and roasted duck breast with coulit potato, carrots and cherries.
Dessert was dreamy: Dark chocolate mousse, chocolate soil (again) and chocolate olive oil. Pete’s chocoholic fantasy! I made do with the white chocolate pannacotta with berries and fresh honeycomb.
Needless to say, Veraison gives you an experience that any big city would be hard pressed to rival.
For Pete’s birthday just before Christmas, we went to Sofra, the #1 TripAdvisor rated restaurant in Toowoomba. “Sofra” is Turkish for “where angels gather.” The restaurant is proud of its Ottoman heritage cuisine, and adds to its exotic atmosphere with musicians and Middle Eastern folk dancers on Friday and Saturday evenings.
We started things out with cocktails and a dip platter: kiz güzeli – roasted beets, garlic, sour cream, herbs and spices, hummus, babaganush – smoked eggplant, garlic, olive oil, lemon juice and spices, cacik – yogurt, cucumber, garlic and herbs. Our favorites were the kiz güzeli and babaganush.
Then we moved on to a char-grilled Adena Kebab (which is a favorite in the south of Turkey) of minced lamb and red peppers and Kayseri Manti – Turkish steamed dumplings with seasoned beef, yoghurt, tomato concasse sprinkled with sumac. Deliciously exotic and so filling that we passed on dessert. Excellent service with a free drink for the birthday boy, too.
We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the pub food available at many of the hotel bars. Toowoomba has many historical hotel buildings that have now been repurposed into bars and restaurants with event spaces and even gambling. Most of these have hearty, workingman’s food at reasonable prices. Here’s what we had at the very friendly Grand Old Crow Hotel in Crow’s Nest (about 30 miles north of Toowoomba):
Toowoomba is a Tree-hugger’s Dream
We’re in love with Australia’s trees. From the stately queues in Queen’s Park to the forested hillsides in our adopted Mt. Lofty neighborhood to the pinnacle of Picnic Point, Toowoomba’s trees are magnificent.
We spent a recent Sunday morning at Picnic Point, which everyone who laughed about Toowoomba said was a “must-do.” They were right. Set in reserve in 1886, the 160 acre site was entrusted in perpetuity to the municipality of Toowoomba as part of a petition in 1888 that proposed a larger 2000 acre escarpment below the point itself. Through the turn of the century into the 1920s and 1930s, recreation-based improvements, including public lookouts and a directional cairn were made. Picnic Point was listed on the Queensland Heritage Register in 2008.
It’s a marvelous place to wander about. Whether you prefer a more manicured setting, or wish to venture down one of the trails, Picnic Point rewards you with magnificent views, particularly of Tabletop Mountain. Have a look at what we saw:
After our walk, we headed into the Picnic Point Cafe for lunch. Owner Catherine Kristenson was graciously on hand to give us a perspective. Picnic Point’s event center is a traditional place to hold special events, wedding receptions and holiday parties. The design of the restaurant and its views are simply stunning. The food is terrific, and moderately priced.
Toowoomba is Traditional and Tranquil
It’s true, life is relatively quiet in Toowoomba. If you’re looking for a big city, urban experience, this isn’t it. Businesses close early on Saturdays, and altogether on Sundays. Bars and restaurants have fixed serving hours, and kitchens close between 9 and 10pm. Annual events the Garden City is famous for in addition to the Garden Tour are the Christmas Wonderland of lights in Queens Park, and Easterfest, a Christian music festival. These are all family-friendly. As is true with many towns outside urban areas, values are more traditional, yet welcoming.
To be sure, Toowoomba has its detractors. Young people want the bright lights and big city, and they should chase that dream instead of staying put and complaining (something we just can’t understand). And for some people, Toowoomba would just seem too small and provincial despite all the fun things going on. That’s really okay, too. However, if you were born and raised in a smaller city or town (like one of us was), Toowoomba feels like what you wish you could come back to. And that isn’t a bad thing at all.
Tips and Info:
The Greyhound bus is the fastest way to get to Toowoomba from Brisbane if you don’t want to rent a car. The busses are new and sleek, with air conditioning, free wifi, and USB ports at every seat. You can get quite a few things done in the just under two hour trip. There are plenty of accommodations in town, ranging from Best Western to family-owned motels and B&Bs.
Sofra, 164 Margaret Street, Toowoomba 4350 Phone: 07.4638.0044
Picnic Point, 164 Tourist Road, Toowoomba 4350 Phone: 07.4631.5100
Tapestry Bar and Fitzy’s on Church, 153 Margaret Street, Toowoomba 4350 Phone: 07.4631.3700
Veraison, 205 Margaret Street, Toowoomba 4350 Phone: 07.4638.5909
Old Crow Hotel, 32 William Street, Crow’s Nest 4355 Phone: 07.4698.1108