Visit Canberra in its centenary year

By Sandy Savos

I had a date with Australia’s greatest political orator, Robert Gordon Menzies, in Canberra … in 1961. I was 11 and it was my first school excursion outside Sydney.  I even had Mum buy a new school uniform for me.

Everyone in the group was excited. It was our first time in a plane (TAA) and leaving our parents for exciting, unknown adventures. Our principal deemed it important that as we grew older, making the transition from primary to high school, we began to understand the grown-up view of life, and that included politics.

We learnt that a site was chosen in 1908 as a compromise between Sydney and Melbourne in their rivalry to become the Australian capital, that it was called Canberra officially in March 1913 and that it was opened for political business in May 1927.

The coach for our one-day excursion in Canberra took us to many attractions including the Australian War Memorial, the Australian Academy of Science and Parliament House (the original white building, now a museum).

I remember climbing the stairs in that white building and sitting in a seat in the public gallery overlooking the House of Representatives arena. Menzies (1894-1978) was speaking. Articulate, commanding voice. Traditional black suit. Larger than life. I was transfixed (even at 11).

We were not there for long, maybe 15-20 minutes, but that white building and the man of the moment left an indelible impression on my mind. I wanted to become a politician or journalist when I graduated from high school in 1969; perhaps my 1961 excursion to Canberra had been a factor.

My next visit to Canberra was in 1970 (winter) when I was host to three Swedish women who were friends of a work colleague of mine. They were on holidays and wanted to see the capital and my friend ”volunteered” me as the tour host. How could I refuse?

We spent a weekend in a rented home near Lake Burley Griffin (named after the architect who designed the capital). One of the Swedes, Ingrid, could not sleep that Sunday morning and woke me at 5am to take her to the lake which reminded her of home. It was a beautiful scenario at the edge: darkness, complete stillness, the moon’s reflection, and freezing.

The mood was not that memorable when Ingrid commented on seeing the war memorial in the afternoon: ”Why do Australians glorify war?” My heart skipped several beats.

”Where do you get that notion, Ingrid? Because we have this war memorial? We do not glorify war. We honour the men and women who have lost their lives, who were injured, who served their country in its time of need. We honour the living and the dead,” I said. I am not sure if Ingrid was convinced.

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I went back to Canberra several times in the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s. Forward to September 2013 and Canberra was on the nostalgic agenda again as my wife, Kathleen, and I visited the capital in its centenary year.

Our main target was the Floriade, the annual flower festival that attracts thousands of people in a month-long celebration at Commonwealth Park, overlooking Lake Burley Griffin. A beautiful day to see beautiful flowers.

We drove from Sydney to Canberra in three-and-a-half hours comfortably, with several rest stops to break the monotony of some long stretches of road. Word of caution: non-service station rest areas can have long waiting lines to the toilet; sort of like the queues waiting to rush the doors on the first day of a department store’s mad sale week. Expect a 10-minute delay on weekends.

Our first stop – and a must for ANY first-time visitor – was the Canberra and Region Visitors Centre, 330 Northbourne Avenue, Dickson. Pick up invaluable maps, guides, pamphlets, magazines and first-hand information. Our customer service representative was a bubbly, smiling Michelle who told us how to get to our hotel (Diamant), a 30-minute leisurely stroll away from the Floriade in Commonwealth Park, overlooking Lake Burley Griffin. She gave us a complimentary copy of the Canberra Times, weekend edition. A nice touch.

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The heritage-listed Diamant Canberra Hotel is fascinating Aussie history at your fingertips. It was not hard to become enchanted with this art-inspired, 80-room, boutique hotel, literally in the heart of the capital. Known originally as the Hotel Acton, it was one of the first hotels in Canberra, specifically built for VIPs at the official opening of parliament house in May 1927.

Although the hotel’s two wings are historic, the main foyer, the Library Bar and the award-winning Bicicletta Restaurant are modern and pleasing to the eye; an excellent combination of the past and present.

My compliments to receptionist, Melissa; bar tender Stu, and restaurant manager Adrian, who made our overnight stay perfect. An absolute credit to the hotel. Melissa’s smile and pose made you feel welcome, Stu’s knowledge of beverages was inspirational and, my goodness, does he know how to make a Long Island Iced Tea (I had two), and the restaurant’s prompt service and (plentiful) food was first-class.

Our premier room, with a king-size bed, and one of the best hotel bathrooms I have ever seen, was proportioned generously; plenty of space, with a Bang & Olufsen TV (hell yeah), Wi-Fi, writing desk, a well-stocked mini-bar and lounge. The decor was subtle with a beautiful mixture of eye-pleasing colours. The images, the sensations invoked in one’s mind were … total comfort.

Then, there were the corridors in the wings. Soft colours, dimmed lightning; almost total silence as if being in a public library. History was here. I could feel it. Some of Australia’s greatest personalities had slept in these rooms, walked these corridors. Legends such as the outback artist Albert Namatjira.

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Floriade (Latin for designing flowers) was beckoning, and it was a simple step of leaving the hotel, turning the corner, go on an overhead bridge and stroll through Commonwealth Park to visit one of Canberra’s greatest annual events, which attracted 442,000 people last year.

An absolute glorious procession of colour hit the eyes, and we had not arrived at Floriade yet. The colour belonged to the multicultural costumes of families along the lake’s banks. We saw men, women and children from the Middle East, China, Japan, India and African nations. It was like the United Nations headquarters had moved from New York to Canberra, and the diplomats and their families were enjoying the sunny day.

The overwhelming colours were in abundance when we visited every attraction that Floriade had; we were among hundreds of people admiring and photographing a dazzling array of flowers. A  keen gardener, Kathleen, could not believe the incredible variety (161, in fact); there were several varieties she had never seen.

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I applaud the dedicated team behind Floriade; every worker would have had serious green thumbs to plant and nurture 1.6 million plants (600,000 annuals and 460,00 bulbs) in 899 square metres of garden beds. Australia’s largest continuous garden?

We stayed about four hours and made every minute count but I had an important date … the Last Post ceremony in the late afternoon at the Australian War Memorial. This is such a moving moment that I would dare anyone not to shed a tear. Visitors laid wreaths and floral tributes beside the Pool of Reflection.

The war memorial (Anzac Parade, Campbell) is one of the great museums of the world, opened in 1941, during World War II, and born from one’s man desire – Australia’s official World War I historian, Charles Bean, a witness to the bloodshed in France during 1916.

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We visited the Old Bus Depot Markets (Wentworth Avenue, Kingston) on Sunday, and the whole time spent in that industrial building (1944) was a wonderful experience. Our Sydney friends had spoken highly of the markets … and they did not disappoint.

Only one word accurately describes the markets: QUALITY. There is no rubbish here, not allowed. I have been to most of the major markets in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, and while they may be larger than the Canberra markets, they do not match it for quality. Management must be congratulated for such a stringent quality-control policy, reflected in the motto: Simply no better way to spend your Sunday in Canberra.

Arts and crafts, collectables, distinguished fashion, every-day clothing, contemporary art, photography, fresh food (eat in or takeaway), farmers’ produce, gourmet pantries, home and outdoor decor, plants … a microscopic vision of the vibrant Canberra community under one roof. We took home sourdough bread, olives, plants and a beautiful, framed display of individual, cut-out butterflies on a background of musical notes. Among the food stands were Vietnamese, Mexican, Ethiopian, Spanish, Turkish and (I’m not kidding) hot, mulled wine.

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One of the most beautiful places in the capital is Canberra Glassworks, conveniently next door to the markets. You will be blown away (pardon the pun) by the sheer artistic brilliance at the glassworks, part of the Kingston Powerhouse, the oldest permanent building (1913-1915) in Canberra. The various exhibitions, the artists blowing their glass and the shop selling some wonderful creations combine to make this a must on the places to see. I bought a tulip-shaped, miniature beige vase ($149) by Jenni Kemarre Martiniello for Kathleen. Note: Glassworks open Wednesday to Sunday.

An ”old friend” from the past came into view when we were leaving the Diamant Hotel: the familiar dome of the Australian Academy of Science, a Canberra landmark built in 1959 – two years before I arrived on a school excursion.

The academy was one of the places we visited and the ”alien spaceship” dome fascinated me … as did the preserved animal embryos in liquid-filled jars. I would not be surprised if that was the start of my fascination with horror films.

Useful websites, phone numbers

Canberra and Region Visitors Centre: www.visitcanberra.com.au; 1300 554 114

Diamant Canberra Hotel: www.8hotels.com/canberra-hotel/diamant-hotel; (02) 6175 2222

Floriade: www.floriadeaustralia.com

Australian War Memorial: awm.gov.au; (02) 6243 4211

Old Bus Depot Markets: www.obdm.com.au; (02) 6295 3331

Canberra Glassworks: www.canberraglassworks.com; (02) 6260 7005