I am constantly looking for reasons to hit the Aussie road; largely because once you start exploring this country, it’s very hard to stop. Normally I crave something decidedly wild - roaring seas or outback skies are my go to - but on a recent autumnal jaunt to Canberra, I discovered just how glorious a city break can be.
City breaks requires a few key ingredients. You need somewhere fabulous to rest your head, a collection of faultless wineries and restaurants, and a sense that while there are galleries and architectural marvels aplenty, nature remains close. Turns out our Capital - a leisurely drive from the Snowy Mountains and glittering South Coast - offers this in spades.
My Canberra escape began among the vines of Lake George and the Murrumbateman. This region boasts more than 140 cool climate vineyards and 40 cellar doors, and while awards are won and flavours astound (lovers of velvety shiraz take note), the area still feels a little undiscovered.
I started my day at Gallagher Wines, where tastings are paired with cheese and pickles from their on-site fromagerie, before settling in at Clonakilla, one of the area’s oldest and most-revered wineries. Nearby you’ll find The Vintner's Daughter, where Steph Helm works her magic. Her creations are deliciously unique (the rose is a thing of flavourful beauty) and the winery’s name is a nod to her winemaking heritage; she’s the daughter of Ken Helm, one of the Murrumbateman originals. As lovers of pinot noir, Steph and her husband Ben live and dream wine, and you can taste the results. That aforementioned rose is made with purpose (the grapes are picked early to preserve their natural acidity), the shiraz viognier comes with hints of lavender, and the fortified shiraz is the perfect tipple to get you through the cooler months ahead.
Wine imbibed, I turned my attention to the night ahead. Canberra is home to a plethora of artists, chefs and producers - and their work is honoured at Ovolo Nishi, a design-centric hotel that’s equal parts gallery and playground. It’s also very easy on the eye, a soothing mix of timber, art, clay walls, sculptural furnishings, marble and earthy tones. It also houses Monster Kitchen, a restaurant that champions sustainability and vegetarian cuisine, using its team’s culinary prowess to elevate the humble vegetable. This is best exemplified by their spice-packed butternut squash katsu, one of the most photogenic dishes around.
Further afield you’ll find Corella, an art-dotted restaurant and bar that specialises in modern Australian fare and native ingredients. The menu features shared plates (think zucchini flowers with fermented capsicum, and Murray cod made delicious by beurre blanc, avruga and finger lime), and my parting culinary gift (a freckle flavoured with native river mint) had me floating out the door.
Ultimately though, what sets Canberra apart of a city break location is the fact that here, it’s remarkably easy to get a little wild. You can hike through Namadgi National Park (visit in spring to see the wildflowers around Booroomba Rocks), follow the trail along Cooleman Ridge (which is part of the staggering 5,330-kilometre-long Bicentennial National Trail that winds its way through Australia’s east), and to explore Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve with its iconic granite boulders.
However, after a day among the vines and evening of feasting, I opted to tackle the more leisurely Kokoda Track up Mount Ainslie instead.
The eucalyptus-framed Kokoda Track path begins behind the Australian War Memorial and is dotted with plaques describing some of the battles that unfolded in Papua New Guinea during the Second World War. Far from being sombre though, it encourages you to slow down and consider the world around you, and I found myself pausing to appreciate the patterns in tree bark and to watch a butterfly rest on the path before me. It even had me savouring the autumnal air, a mix of citrus and moss that I’ve come to associate with big skies and bushland.
The view from Mount Ainslie - back across Lake Burley Griffin and towards the National Gallery, Carillon, Library, High Court and Parliament House - allows you to fully appreciate Marion Mahony Griffin’s geometric city design. Canberra was always meant to celebrate the natural world. Surrounded by bushland, this is a place that makes you want to venture out - to cycle around lakes, clamber up mountains, seek pockets of wilderness and find solace in all things green.
Australia may be a country of vast horizons, but there’s a lot to be said for taking the time to make a small pocket of it feel like your own, and that is reason enough to get reacquainted with the country’s capital.
Words by Liz Schaffer