Crushing on Canberra: A Short Break in the Nation’s Capital

On the last leg of a cycle of the west loop of Lake Burley Griffith, we land, startlingly, on a beach. Ducks paddle at the shoreline and Canberra’s iconic Telstra Tower rises in the distance. It’s an incongruous image of the nation’s capital on what has been a spectacular romantic weekend away.

Walter Burley Griffith’s 1913 vision of a city of the future, the bridge between Sydney and Melbourne, has always had a hands-off prettiness and austere vibe. Not any more. A renaissance in dining and design has revitalised the city into an exciting and happening romantic getaway.

Mount Ainslie lookout
Mount Ainslie lookout – Photo: Belinda Luksic

We get our first inkling of this at the glamorous art deco themed Hotel Kurrajong in Barton, where we check-in after a stunning sunset stop at Mount Ainslie Lookout, the city and Parliament House splashed in fuchsia and gold beneath electric backlit clouds.

The former home of Prime Minister Ben Chifley (room 205 for 11 years) and originally built to house public servants, it’s undergone a sensitive redesign and is a striking example of the work of Canberra architect, John Smith Murdoch, who designed Old Parliament House and the Hyatt Hotel Canberra.

Hotel Kurrajong Chifleys Bar and Grill dessert
Hotel Kurrajong Chifleys Bar and Grill dessert – Photo by: Belinda Luksic

Our compact and comfortable Terrace King Bed room, a sophisticated décor of teal and pewter with peacock artwork on the walls, opens onto a shared courtyard and features a flatscreen TV, Vittoria coffee pod machine and Zambelli products in the bathroom. Sadly, there’s no bath; we learn later not all rooms are equal and it’s something you need to specify when booking.

That aside, the rest of our stay is gorgeous; including dinner at the hotel’s aptly namedChifley’s Bar & Grill. Helmed by well-known Canberra chef, Saju Rajappan, the steakhouse menu, including a Grainge eye fillet and my 400-gram Murray Valley aged rib eye on the bone, is exceptional.

Hotel Kurrajong classic room
Hotel Kurrajong classic room

Saturday, feeling energised despite a late night in Civic at secret whiskey speakeasy, Molly’s Bar, part of the city’s exciting new late night scene, we grab bikes from Damn Fine Bike Hire in Acton and set out to explore the central loop of the lake.

It’s a stunning day, clear and fresh with a crisp, just washed look. Our ride around the lake, past the National Carillon bell tower, where a bride prepares to walk the isthmus to her waiting groom, and onto the National Gallery sculpture garden, is easy and loads of fun.

Mocan and Green Grout
Mocan and Green Grout – Photo by: Belinda Luksic

Back in Acton, we cycle the short distance from our bike hire to New Acton, home of the much lauded multi-use Nishi Building and its super-hip tenant, Hotel Hotel. A quick gander at its stunning interior and interactive dining spaces, we pop back outside to Močan and Green Grout, a retro-chic hole-in-the-wall café with an ethical menu for lunch at the tiny open kitchen counter – kale Caesar salad with box gum grazing bacon and a divine slow-cooked pork shoulder roll with wombok salad and ginger mayo.

Swapping bikes for the car, we hit the road mid-afternoon in search of vineyards. The Canberra District Wine Region is Australia’s fastest growing wine region and there are more than 30 cellar doors all within a 30-minute drive of the city.

Clonakilla vines
Clonakilla vines – Photo by: Belinda Luksic

Murrumbateman in our sights, we turn the car north and head towards Yass and the Southern Highlands for a drop of cold-climate Shiraz in what is the region’s biggest and oldest winery district, the vines here first planted in the early 1970s.

We have a hit list of four but only make it to two – Clonakilla’s modern new cellar door and the matchless Helm Wines, the tasting room located in what was once the local school hall and former meeting place of the anti-booze Temperance League. Winemaker Ken Helm hosts an entertaining tasting and we leave, sometime later, with a couple of bottles still laughing at his tales of wine and the region.

Aubergine Canberra
Image courtesy of Aubergine

The SMH two-hatted Aubergine is our pick for an evening of romantic fine dining. Located in a small shopping strip in Griffith, a short 10-minute cab ride from the hotel, the unassuming restaurant is superb value with a 4-course tasting menu for $95 that kicks off with an intriguing amuse bouche of stuffed wafer-thin vegetable crackers (beetroot and smoked potato) sprinkled in tangy raspberry salt. The wine pairing – eclectic and unusual – for an additional $45 is sublime.

Over several hours, we dive into an ever-impressive and exquisite composite of flavours and textures – an eye fillet tartare with purple sea urchin, saltgrass fed lamb rump with black garlic, blue trevalla with salty smoked eel, and, the highlight, a dessert ovoid of glossy capsicum sorbet atop a scattering of chocolate ganache shards, dried strawberries, shiso and hibiscus.

Local Press Cafe breakfast
Local Press Cafe breakfast – Photo by: Belinda Luksic

Sunday and a final cycle of Canberra takes us to Kingston’s trendy café-dense foreshore, the skyline a tangle of cranes and half-finished residential developments, for breakfast at hipster wholefood eatery, Local Press Café. It’s fantastic. Cold-pressed juices, seasonal coffee blends, kombucha drinks and a menu full of dense health-giving greens, bacon, smoked trout, salmon and goats cheese.

The Bus Depot Sunday markets and Canberra Glassworks are here too and we have a quick poke about in both before hopping back on our bikes to finish our circuit of the Lake’s west loop.

Jerrabomberra Wetlands
Jerrabomberra Wetlands – Photo by: Belinda Luksic

And so it is we find ourselves unexpectedly in the marshy Jerrabomberra Wetlands, a bird-watchers’ paradise and the Canberra I imagine Burley Griffith sought to tame. Stopping for a moment at one of the bird hides, we wait quietly to catch a glimpse of some of the many species of birds that call the wetlands home, pleasantly surprised yet again by another side of Canberra we’d never expected to see.

The writer was a guest of Hotel Kurrajong.

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