On the Culture Front: 10 Days in Queensland, Australia

One of the highlights of Orpheus Island is getting there. The half-hour helicopter ride from the beach town of Townsville soars over countless tiny islands surrounding the Great Barrier Reef and massive swaths of water that gives the impression that the world is as vast and endless as portrayed in an old-timey exploration novel.

Baby sharks and barramundi fish (as long as they are narrow) swim in shallow waters that surround the private island that holds just twenty guests in villas that equally emphasize privacy and luxury but not the fussy kind -- a private chef prepares three proper meals that vary in formality. Breakfast is a la carte while lunch is served as four separate dishes (they called it tapas but the portions are generous). In the three days I was there, dishes ranged from grilled prawns with gnocchi to paella and gazpacho. Dinner is a more formal affair but can still be enjoyed in the island dress code of shorts and flip-flops -- everything is optional.

At Orpheus, time evaporates into an orb of flexibility. When I missed the 5pm sunset cruise departure, a staff member drove me out on a smaller boat to meet the rest of the group, who dubbed me "James Bond" for my rather dramatic entrance at sunrise.

The general manager, Ranoul, told me when I landed on the island that the most important thing to do on Orpheus is nothing. While I was disappointed to miss a charter to Hinchinbrook Island, the largest national reserve park of its kind, I wouldn't have traded my afternoon hammock naps on the beach for anything. Hearing the waves crash gently into the sand -- and nothing else -- is a pleasure that crystallizes the importance of dropping out every once in awhile.

Back on the mainland, natural and man-made wonders abound in Queensland, Australia. When I told friends I was going to take my first trip to Australia, they immediately inquired, "Melbourne, Sydney?" -- as if the continent could be reduced to those two cities. One of my favorite things about traveling is discovering a place that you couldn't previously place a picture of in your mind.

One of those places is Noosa. Located in the sunshine coast just outside of Brisbane, Noosa is the Hamptons of Australia. That is if the Hamptons wasn't a clusterfuck sliver of land. The seaside town is utterly walkable -- the national park was just a short stroll down the beach from my hotel -- and lined with fine restaurants. It was my first stop after a long plane ride and a beach stroll proved an elixir for my time zone disorientation. A heaping bowl of seafood pasta at Bistro C also helped. When it arrived, I questioned if I had mistakenly been given the "pot for two." I had not. Portion size in Australia, I learned, is akin to the heartland here in the states.

Outside of the normal food offerings, I was lucky my visit coincided with the Noosa Food and Wine Festival. Of particular note was an immersive sea-to-table lunch that began with visits to the Mooloolaba wharf to scope out newly arrived prawns and spanner crabs from nearby Fraser Island. Paired with way too much wine, the event was a decadent expression of the benefits of sustainable fishing. Fraser Island itself is well worth a visit. This remote landmass feels like it was plucked out of a prehistoric time. Dingos run wild and swimming can be had in secluded spots where the loudest sound is the lapping of the water against the wind. The weather proved too chilly for a dip, but I was happy just sitting on the beach and letting the sand sink in between my toes. Rainforests snake through the place and provide tranquil nature walks. Mine turned into a bit of a hike when I came across a tree that had fallen across the path, but the precarious detour up and around the fallen trunk was a welcome excitement.

I couldn't believe how many people tried to discourage me from going to Brisbane, particularly Melbourne and Sydney expats in New York. I was intrigued with everything I had heard though and couldn't imagine not liking it. The remnants of its industrial history instantly reminded me of Berlin even though the meticulously constructed manmade beach would never be found on the river Spree. A boat cruise up the city's eponymous river provided glimpses of the Powerhouse, named for its former use and now a vibrant performing arts center run by Kris Stewart, a former New Yorker who founded the New York Musical Theatre Festival and was a producer of "Title of Show," one of the most inventive musicals of the last decade. The space, with towering original brick walls, a bustling bar overlooking the river, and an abundance of art gallery space that bleeds into the theater's lobby, makes quite the impression but the beatbox performer I saw left me desiring more substance. Brisbane-born Tom Thum is unquestionably and freakishly talented in his ability to replicate a wide range of instruments and have them coalesce in his mouth with heavy syncopation, but I couldn't help but feel that I was at the circus instead of the theater.

Earlier in the day, I checked out the city's budding craft beer scene at the Brisbane Brewing Company which has a resort-meets-industrial-chic vibe and a mean fish and chips with locally caught barramundi. Like the Brits, their IPAs veer towards the delicate side but the amusingly named "Walker Texas Ranger," an "American IPA" had a nice hoppy bite.

One of the things I was most excited to see was an exhibit of David Lynch's art at GOMA (Gallery of Modern Art), which sits impressively on the Brisbane River with towering walls of glass. Titled "Between Two Worlds," the show featured a large swath of the visual art Lynch has quietly been creating between films for decades. The paintings (an a particularly immersive human scale diorama) walk an uneasy line between macabre and whimsy, with light illuminating dark and vice versa. I would call it a dystopia if it didn't look like so much fun.