Canberra: Why Australia’s capital needs to be noticed

Canberra: Why Australia’s capital needs to be noticed

The nation’s capital is seen as dull, gray and best ignored -- here’s why that’s all kinds of wrong
Floriade
Gray, you say? The nighttime floral display is spectacular during the annual Floriade show.

For anyone who thinks that Canberra isn’t a travel destination, that it’s just for politicians and bureaucrats, think again. Australia’s capital has everything from the iconic symbols of a nation’s heart to the downright quirky and a few secret gems.

Any visit of less than three days wouldn’t even scratch the surface. Try these day-trip selections for proof there’s more to Oz than Sydney, Melbourne and the beach.

National Portrait Gallery

The NPG immortalizes the faces of famous Australians in a collection covering everything from history to politics and sport, but it’s the music and arts section that grabs my attention.

There’s the portrait of Deborah Mailman, the first Aboriginal woman to win an AFI Best Actress Award, an oil painting by Evert Ploeg that draws you in.

Other faces include a painting of Barry Humphries by Clifton Pugh, John Elliott’s photograph of Slim Dusty and David Rosetzky’s video portrait of actress Cate Blanchett, exploring aspects of her work and personality.

www.portrait.gov.au

Australian Institute of Sport

“Interactive” is the key word for the first part of the 90-minute public tour at the Australian Institute of Sport.

Measure your flexibility, jumping height and reflexes against the buzzer. Try virtual cycling, rowing or skiing as the figure on the screen in front leans as you lean or turns as you turn.

Less energetic? Check out the changing display of sporting memorabilia, from Evonne Goolagong-Cawley’s Wimbledon glassware to Sir Donald Bradman’s batting gloves.

Then the athlete-guide takes visitors around the facilities, from the arena to swimming pool and more, explaining how the Institute helps train Australia’s budding sportspeople.

www.ausport.gov.au/ais

Cockington Green

Cockington GreenCockington Green Gardens, where some of the world's classic buildings are displayed in miniature

There’s one notable tourist attraction with an international flavor, where you can see Karlstejn Castle in the Czech Republic, a Norwegian Stave Church, the prehistoric rocks of Stonehenge in England and India’s Red Fort.

Oh, but you can’t go inside any of them, as these are miniature buildings on a scale of 1/18 - 1/100, sponsored by High Commissions and Embassies in Canberra.

Where am I? At Cockington Green, a family-owned and -operated attraction created by Doug and Brenda Sarah, which opened in 1979 with village scenes from England, and which has grown ever since. 

www.cockingtongreen.com.au

Parliament House

Some things in Canberra, like those at Cockington Green above, may appear small but the importance of others seems magnified beyond reasonable proportion.

Consider the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition, whose verbal jousting in the House of Representatives chamber can be observed from the gallery by visitors -- check the website for sitting days and tour details.

One of the most striking things to see is the Parliament House Art Collection, comprising paintings of Prime Ministers from Edmund Barton through a succession of figures like Menzies, Curtin and Fraser.

Other uniquely Australian highlights are the Great Hall tapestry, based on Arthur Boyd’s painting of eucalypt forests in the Shoalhaven River valley, and the forecourt mosaic designed by indigenous artist Michael Nelson Jagamara.

www.aph.gov.au

National Museum of Australia

Phar Lap's heart.The preserved heart of wonder horse Phar Lap.

At the National Museum, there’s a 1950s pink caravan and an FJ Holden car, the interactive Eternity exhibition, where visitors examine the lives of ordinary and extraordinary Australians, and the Landmarks and Australian Journeys galleries, all of which evoke pride and nostalgia.

But it’s in the Sport area that some among us may see greatness.

For cricket fans there’s the Swan Richards collection of gear from some of the Aussie stars, like Bill O'Reilly's blue blazer, Wally Grout's gloves and Greg Chappell's baggy green cap.

Horse racing is represented too, with Peter Pan’s 1934 Melbourne Cup trophy and the legendary Phar Lap’s heart, unusually large at 6.35 kilos, both on display.

www.nma.gov.au

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Questacon: The National Science and Technology Centre

Too many questions and not enough answers? Like “Why is the sky blue?” Q Lab at Questacon aims to have visitors (from pre-teen to adult) find their own answers. To help, there are microscopes, slow-motion film footage and live scientific demonstrations.

In the Awesome Earth exhibit see lightning strike, experience a tornado in action and feel an earthquake rumble, all without the risks of real life. It’s more exciting than any textbook.

There are also shows by the center’s theater troupe, known as The Excited Particles, about dinosaurs, tsunamis, explosions and balloons, where volunteers get the chance to participate.

www.questacon.edu.au

National Zoo and Aquarium

Don’t you hate pointing out a creature in the undergrowth at a zoo, only to have your companion ask, “Where?”

Well there’s no pointing in Canberra, as the 11-year-old Sumatran tiger paces back and forth at the fence. Berani is his name, which is Indonesian for “brave.”

As the big boy stands 2.5 meters tall grasping the fence I wonder how “berani” I’d feel without that security between us. He’s on his best behavior as we each offer him a morsel of beef.

Then Shelley, our guide on this ZooVenture tour, picks up the bucket to go. A child’s tantrum could describe Berani’s changed demeanor once he realizes there’s no more, growling and shaking the mesh fencing.

www.nationalzoo.com.au

Australian War Memorial

Australian War MemorialUp close and personal with the railing at eye level. One of the World War I dioramas at the Australian War Memorial.

Kneeling gives the best perspective. Here the art form of the diorama takes on a life of its own, giving some sense of what it was like in the trenches, facing the bayonets or riding in cavalry charges.

The Australian War Memorial’s First World War exhibit features various dioramas created in the 1920s that portray significant battles.

And Australia remembers those fallen, not only at the Tomb of the Unknown Australian Soldier, but also at the close of every day when the crowd stands in silence and either a bugler or piper strides to a spot beyond the Pool of Reflection and its Eternal Flame, at which the stirring sounds of “The Last Post” echo through the annals of history.

www.awm.gov.au

Floriade

FloriadeFloriade's blaze of color lasts just a month, so catch it while you can.

It may last only a month but this one couldn’t be omitted -- it’s Canberra’s premier tourist event, Floriade, which this year runs from September 15 to October 14. The springtime extravaganza of flowers would have left Wordsworth speechless -- going way beyond his “host of golden daffodils.”

With gardens spread over four hectares, ten gardeners start in fall with the equivalent of 3,000 box trailers of quality planting compost and spend seven weeks creating the gardens to a theme.

Come spring, and bulbs are blooming in time for an annual half million visitors. There are carnivals, kids’ activities, pantries, crafts and shows. Check the website for what’s on when.

www.floriadeaustralia.com

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Bruce Holmes is an Australian freelance travel writer and photographer who lives in the Hunter Valley, New South Wales.

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