Canberra: There’s Something To It!

A great place to start the day: drinking coffee outside the ambassador’s house.

Regular readers of this blog know of the National Lampoon Vacation-esque lodging we sometimes find ourselves in — establishments such as the Blackball Hilton (dorm-style rooms with recycled hospital beds) and the Abel Tasman Barn (two toilets to share with fifty other backpackers). More recently, we became aficionados of flimsy cabins at campervan parks. We now feel as though we’ve scored some fancy digs if we stay in a place that has carpeting made for indoor use only.

Imagine how we felt, therefore, upon arriving at the place we were invited to stay in Canberra: the United States Embassy! (Cue the banjo music as the Smiths, with beach sand still in their hair, drive through the security gates in their bird-poop-covered, packed-to-the-roof dented rental…)

The new U.S. Ambassador to Australia, Jeff Bleich, and his wife, Becky, are our friends and neighbors from Piedmont, and their daughter has been close with Colly since preschool. We couldn’t wait to reconnect with familiar faces, and Colly was virtually bursting with pent-up preteen desire to socialize with an old friend.

Nonetheless, we admittedly felt a wee bit intimidated when a uniformed butler opened the door and led us into the grand entranceway of the three-story Colonial-style brick mansion, where marble busts of Ben Franklin and George Washington keep watch. But then Becky came down the red-carpeted stairway and immediately put us at ease, and we soon felt at home — or at least, as though we could relax and thoroughly appreciate the family’s company and their surroundings. While I’ve never met other ambassadors, I’d wager a bet that the warmest and most down-to-earth one lives at the U.S. Embassy in Canberra.

The Telstar Tower on Black Mountain, seen from a lakeside trail.

And what about Canberra? Rather than disclose details of our time at the Embassy, I’m here to set the record straighter (in my own small way at least) about Australia’s often-mocked capital, which many wrongly believe has the pulse of a koala. The city struck me as analogous to Sacramento, our state capital that outsiders dis for being home to legislators and bureaucrats and say that its best quality is its relationship to other places (“halfway between San Francisco and Tahoe!”).  Similarly, many assume that the only people who’d want to live in Canberra are public servants, and they mention that at least you can easily get to Sydney or Melbourne from there. In his 2000 book Down Under, Bill Bryson joked that its civic slogan could be, “Canberra: Gateway to Everywhere Else!” or, “Canberra: There’s Nothing to It!” or even, “Canberra: Why Wait for Death?”

But just as I very much like Sacramento as a leafy, livable place that hums with political movers and shakers, so too did I find Canberra delightfully green, livable and politically intriguing.

We got our first view of the city and its surrounding foothills from atop the Telstar Tower on Black Mountain, which looks like a Christmas tree topper stuck on a hill. It’s worth a visit to get a better sense of how the master-planned city was laid out nearly a century ago, after Sydney and Melbourne reached a compromise to put the capital between them (170 miles south of Sydney and 410 miles from Melbourne) and then held an international competition to choose a designer.

Viewing Canberra from the top of the tower with the Bleich family.

The meandering, irregular border of sprawling Lake Burley Griffin, named after the Chicago architect who won the design contest, contrasts nicely with the perfect geometry of streets around Parliament and the city center, which are laid out in symmetrical circles connected by streets like spokes on wheels. Not surprisingly, Morgan and I loved the lake and the marathon-length trails surrounding it!

Morgan along the shores of Lake Burley Griffin. We both liked how it’s just a short run to get back to nature in this city.

We also toured the Australian War Memorial and its museum with the Bleiches, and I was glad to see the kids genuinely impressed by the beauty of the stained-glass dome and by the sobering number of fallen soldiers’ names.

The girls view part of the War Memorial.

Kyle on the steps of the War Memorial, with the Parliament Building way in the background.

Canberra certainly has plenty of museums, monuments and government buildings worth visiting — Bryson’s line, “there’s nothing to it!” is funny yet off-base — but I want to recommend two less-obvious places to visit. First, for grown-ups, is the Mount Majura Vineyard, where we sampled some of the most complex and tasty wines I’ve had this side of the equator. What impressed me is that this relatively small winery could get so many varietals and blends so right; of the four whites and four reds I tried, none was a dud.  I also liked how it’s less than 15 minutes from the city center yet feels utterly pastoral.

At the Mount Majura winery with Jeff and Becky Bleich.

Second, for kids and grownups alike, is Questacon – The National Science and Technology Center.

Kyle gets ready to experience the free-fall exhibit at Questacon, which drops kids down a vertical slide to help them understand the feeling and science of zero gravity.

Few science and tech museums rival San Francisco’s Exploratorium, but I’d say this one does. Simply put, it was great — we had a blast and learned a lot.

I’m truly grateful to (and inspired by) our hosts in Canberra who helped us wrap up our Australian leg on a sky-high note. As recent blog posts detailed, we had a not-entirely-satisfying time on Phillip Island and along the coast. (During one low point, I gloomily contemplated my own alternative slogans for Australia, such as, “Down Under: Overpriced and Overrated!”)

Between the time we were cracking up along the coast and arriving in Canberra, we had much more fun than expected in an unassuming coastal village called Batemans Bay. We stayed at arguably the best camper park in New South Wales (Batemans Bay Big 4); discovered a, like, totally awesome surf school and spent two days surfing (Broulee Surf School); and were thrilled by the lions, tigers and red pandas at a fantastic out-of-the-way zoo (Mogo Zoo). Canberra capped off what turned out to be my favorite week in this country, and now I’d encourage anyone who heads to Sydney to visit the capital too.

I meant this post to be about Canberra but can’t help tacking on these surf pics from Broulee Beach. S’later!

Morgan catches a wave.

I feel like an old dog trying to learn a new trick.

Colly makes it look easy ...

... and so does Kyle!

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