I’m embarrassed to admit that of the many places in the world that I have been to, our nation’s capital had not been one of them. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to go, I just had never got around to it. There was a plan, about three years ago, to have a rendezvous there with a Sydney friend to take in some fabulous international touring exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, but we couldn’t line up our schedules, so it fell to the wayside.
To right this wrong, I recently road-tripped there from Melbourne with two goals in mind: see something fabulous at the National Portrait Gallery, and eat at Chairman and Yip.
We set off from Melbourne bright and early for the six-and-a-half-hour drive, making a beeline for the Hume Freeway, from which we did not divert until Yass, 45 minutes from our destination. We whizzed past Glenrowan, site of the infamous Last Stand of the Kelly Gang, then Gundagai (no winding track or old-fashioned shack in sight), and stopped for a moment at the dog on the tucker box, traversing state and territory borders like they were going out of fashion. It was a marvelously, unseasonably warm April afternoon when we arrived at our super-cool hotel in Canberra. It’s so cool, they named it twice.
Opening its doors for business in 2014, Hotel Hotel breaks out of the boxy lines of your standard hotel, especially the kind you would expect to find in a city of transience like Canberra. According to this article, more than 50 architects, designers and artists collaborated to create the unique project-within-a-project, housed in the Nishi building in the New Acton precinct. Surrounded by restaurants, bars, cafes, art spaces, and home to a cinema on the ground floor, there is plenty to keep you occupied without having to go anywhere.
If you do want to go somewhere, the city centre is a 15 minute walk away; or the hotel has bicycles for its guests to borrow for exploring further afield. There’s a story with the bikes too. Designed by a couple of Canberra chaps, the Goodspeed bikes are perfect for treadling around Canberra’s flatness.
The room was comfortable but noisy – the hotel being wedged between Edinburgh Ave and Parkes Way – and had good amenities including thoughtfully selected minibar goodies. One gripe: why is the lighting in hotel bathrooms ALWAYS designed by someone with an apparent disregard for the idea that guests might like to actually be able to see what they are doing in the mirror? Shaving, applying makeup, these kinds of things need good lighting, and I could figuratively count on one hand the hotels I’ve stayed in that have good lighting in the bathroom. Why is this so?
The hotel also manages apartments – some in the Nishi building, and more in the East and South buildings in the same New Acton precinct. Next time I’d look at booking one of the apartments in the Nishi building instead of the hotel itself – they share all of the same amenities as the hotel, but just don’t have access to room service.
After getting organised at the hotel we took a stroll in the warm autumn sunshine into the city to take a look around. Being a relatively new and purpose-built city, Canberra is, as you would expect, very orderly. It’s also very neat and tidy, which is a good look for our pollies and the international leaders who travel here to meet with them. There doesn’t seem to be any shortage of hot new restaurants and bars to choose from, which must be a relief for all the public servants getting around with their ID tag swinging from a lanyard around their neck, needing somewhere to go to add some colour to their day. I’m not saying that being a public servant must be boring, it’s just that it kind of looks that way …
On the lookout for somewhere to wet our whistle, Akiba caught our eye. This is definitely a very happening place on the Canberra eating and drinking scene right now. We had no way of knowing when we pulled our seats up to the bar and ordered a couple of imported Asahi drafts and snacks from the Asian-inspired menu, that by the time we were were ready to refresh our glasses the place would be packed with a line out the door of hopeful diners. Tripadvisors love it, and while the dishes that we had were ok, I don’t think I’d be waiting in line for them.
The next morning we breakfasted at the hotel (it has a seriously good breakfast menu) and then after a quick briefing about our bicycles from the concierge, we fastened our helmets and off we peddled for our self-guided tour. Cruising around the shores of Lake Burley Griffin, which was glinting away in the sunshine like a postcard cliché, our first stop was the Australian War Memorial. This is an enormous place where you could quite easily spend most of a day. We were there for two hours and only made our through WW1, WW2, and Afghanistan. The exhibits are very well curated and do a great job of bringing to life the stories of the involvement and contribution of the Australian men and women who have served for their country.
From the front steps of the memorial, looking back down across the lake you can draw a straight line to Capital Hill, Parliament House perched atop it with its giant flag waving at you. And this was our next destination as we jumped back on our trusty two-wheeled steeds, and sailed down Anzac Parade, past the various monuments, statues and other memorials commemorating various people and events that have warranted such a thing.
After a quick ride across the Parliament House forecourt, it was an easy downhill run to the gallery precinct. We didn’t have anything particular to stop and see there, and I was getting hangry, so we continued on back across the lake to New Acton for a late lunch at Močan & Green Grout. From the very exciting and difficult-to-choose-from menu, I finally settled on smashed eggs, smoked trout, nettle, sorrel, Parmesan. Hint: this is served on toast, although the menu doesn’t let on. I wish I had known so I could have asked for gluten-free BEFORE it arrived at the table. (Water off a duck’s back at this smart eatery. They just whisked it away and brought me a new one without an eyelid being batted.) They’re into sustainability at this cafe, serving fair-trade coffee, locally sourced produce, eggs from a free-range farm, sustainably caught seafood, and bacon from woodland-grazed pigs.
After returning our bikes it was time for a glass of wine in the ultra-cool hotel lobby, to congratulate ourselves on a good day’s cycling, and to decide where to go for dinner. I had wanted to go to Chairman and Yip, but received the disappointing news from our concierge when he phoned the night before to make a reservation for us, that the restaurant was fully booked. Who’d have thought! It sure didn’t occur to me that 24 hours wouldn’t be enough notice for a Thursday night reservation. But there you are.
We didn’t have to look far for plenty of choices and decided to start things off with a drink at A.Baker, which looked more stylish on the website than it did in the flesh, before heading next door to Parlour Wine Room for dinner. Here you can choose to eat from either the bar or dining menu, which is a bit more burger-casual at lunchtime. After a late lunch we were feeling a bit more like grazing, so opted to order a handful of things from the bar menu. Our selection of gorgeous Sydney Rock oysters, charcuterie, zucchini flowers, heirloom tomato salad, calamari, and prawns, followed by some cheese really hit the spot.
After breakfast the next morning, again at the hotel (it really is a very good menu), we checked out and did the rounds of a few local wineries around Bungendore and Murrumbateman. Helm Wines was a standout, and we were lucky enough to have a great chat with Ken Helm – a lovely man – while we looked at his wines.
I fulfilled neither of my goals while visiting Canberra, but I’ve signed up for the National Portrait Gallery’s e-news so I can be in the know when an exciting exhibition comes to town, and if 24 hours is still too short notice to get a table at Chairman and Yip 20 years after first opening, I don’t think it’s going anywhere. Maybe next time.