Celeste Mitchell | October 2020
From country roads to street-art-laden laneways, Celeste Mitchell finds the T‑Cross Life makes light work of a family adventure in and around Toowoomba.
If I had an idea of what one of Queensland’s most conservative country towns looks like, this isn’t it. We’ve arrived at The Baker’s Duck just after opening time and already there’s a queue waiting for bee sting croissants, sage and apple sausage rolls and crusty loaves of sourdough. (The wait is absolutely worth it.)
My preconceptions were also quashed when we tried three restaurants before we could get a table for lunch yesterday. And when I found myself standing eye to eye with Little Red Riding Hood, a Romanesque angel, and a brainwashed chimp – 12-foot tall and as long as a city lane - all in one afternoon.
Perched on the crest of the Great Dividing Range, Toowoomba, it turns out, is so much more than its moniker of the ‘Garden City’; home to over 150 public parks and the annual Carnival of Flowers. Although it’s only 90 minutes from Brisbane, this is my first visit to Australia’s second most populous inland city, but I’ve already decided it won’t be my last. With beautifully preserved art deco buildings hinting at its wealthy pastoral past, its heritage is matched by the largest regional gallery of outdoor art in Australia.
This edgier image started with the First Coast Festival five years ago, pairing building owners with revered street artists, and now the buildings change their ‘skin’ every two years or so, according to our guide, Stephanie from Toowoomba Trails. We've joined a Laneways and Street Art Tour as part of this year’s Carnival of Flowers program; just one of the ways the action seeps out from traditional garden hopping. Once the domain of the street carts, tending to the ‘business’ of the city, the laneways are awash with colour; murals that range from traditional graffiti to photorealistic portraits worthy of the Archibald shortlist.
In contrast to the wedding cake facade of the heritage-listed Empire Theatre – visible from our balcony – we’re staying at the brand new Oaks Toowoomba which rises above the main drag of Ruthven Street. And I’m grateful we planned ahead with a dinner reservation in the pumping pub downstairs, The Rock. Carnival time is a busy time and getting a table this weekend feels more Melbourne than regional Queensland.
After Moreton Bay bug rolls and a succulent Stanbroke Signature Angus filet from Grantham – about 25 minutes from paddock to plate – hubby and I find ourselves scrolling through real estate apps by the time our son is snoozing in his portacot.
If the cute Queenslanders hadn’t already snared me by the heartstrings, brunch at Burrow the next morning seals the deal. The converted cottage with a cheerful mural by Toowoomba artist Katie Whyte down its side is a local favourite judging by the wait for a table, and the pork and prawn sesame toast benedict – washed down with Allpress coffee – is almost worth the drive alone.
While my husband supervises the first sleep of the day, tucked up in the back of our T‑Cross, I wander through the Farmers Markets that run every Saturday beneath the windmills next to the Cobb+Co Museum, which traces the region’s horse-drawn transport history. With a bag of fresh limes and some Afghan sweets tucked safely away, I get caught up in the romance of hand-whittled wooden bowls and toys – swings shaped like airplanes, and handcrafted B-doubles I know a certain 14-month-old would go nuts for.
Queens Park and Botanic Gardens are a wonderland for all ages but looks especially gorgeous in spring with head-high blooms waving in the breeze, their heady perfume permeating the scene. Families and couples snap selfies in front of rainbows of poppies and tulips, while the Ferris wheel loops in the background. Locals walk their dogs between the blooms and my son discovers his own wonderland in the recently upgraded Adventure Playground. Toowoomba knows how to do playgrounds.
But we’re not here to simply stick within the lines of the city grid. We stretch the T‑Cross’s legs with a burst of sports mode on the drive out to Bunnyconnellen olive grove and vineyard, just outside Crows Nest. As we cruise along Old Goombungee Road, I’m swept up in the khaki, biscuit and ochre palette of the High Country; tiny purple flowers proliferating by the roadside. Fields of silvery grasses are alive, dancing under a cloudless sky. Windmills and lean-to shacks with rusted roofs punctuate the landscape along with the odd lone gumtree, stretching its naked branches to the heavens.
We buy a fresh baguette and jar of ironbark smoked olives to enjoy with our picnic under one of the giant Moreton Bay figs then wander through the veggie patch and meet the chickens.
There’s time for a pit-stop in Pechey on the way back to town for a tasting at the new Pechey Distillery. The collection of cottages and old cream sheds has been in the same family since the 1860s but chemical engineer-turned distiller – and youngest of the Pechey clan – Ben, is responsible for the new chapter.
“I was a beer drinker until I built a distillery in the backyard,” his dad, John, says jovially as he talks us through the nuances of their spirits. The homestead gin is the pick of the bunch, with hits of lemon and anise myrtle, pepper leaf and roasted wattle leaf, grapefruit and cumquat. The floral, slightly pink Spring Vodka gets its colour from organic Hampton blueberries, grown just up the road.
With Apple Carplay in the T‑Cross steering us back to Toowoomba, and the little one dozing in his car seat again, I fall a little more in love with these country roads. I look over at my husband and say, “same time next year?”
*The writer was a guest of Oaks Toowoomba.